Monthly Archives: January 2016

Whales and Meisterbrau

Franklyn MacCormack hosted the “All Night Showcase” on Chicago’s WBBM and WGN radio stations between 1959 and 1971. This was back when the now-defunct Northwest Airlines was known as Northwest Orient. (“Northwest Orient *gong* Airlines”) He played “mood music:” the soft, sultry tunes Rock Hudson would have played while gently but relentlessly pursuing Doris Day in Pillow Talk. MacCormack also read poetry on the air, told stories and extolled the virtues of the show’s sponsor, Meisterbrau beer, in his comforting baritone.

You’re probably wondering why a rebellious teenager steeped in Jimi Hendrix and Led Zep would be familiar with the old fart’s genre, but my musical tastes had always been fairly broad. And that’s not the point of this tale.

I’d gotten my driver’s license in September 1970 and, after a few month of driving around town with a parental co-pilot, I was allowed to take the car by myself. There was no published list of rules for me to follow; no advice given before I took off.  I knew there would be hell to pay if I screwed up. Fear can be a great motivator.

One evening in January, 1971, some of my friends and I imagined we were adult enough to explore finer dining than the local burger drive-in offered, and do so without thoroughly embarrassing ourselves in the process.

So we met at The Red Door Inn, a restaurant about 30 miles away. It had subdued lighting, candles on the table and real cloth napkins. Our wallets were a bit light—part-time jobs for teenagers don’t pay that much—but we pretended we were adults out on the town. The highlight of the evening was watching small birthday cakes topped with a single sparkler being delivered to surprised diners, mercifully without having to suffer through a lame, off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Eventually we had our fill. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot and went our separate ways. A light snow started to fall as I pulled out of the parking lot.

This was a few decades before a new Interstate 39 would make the drive back to Route 18 a straight shot, cutting the time in half. For some inexplicable reason known only to God and my young self, I thought that taking the back roads along the hypotenuse of the triangle would get me home much faster. I’d done it on a bicycle with a couple of friends the summer before; how hard could it be in the middle of the winter in the dark? Pretty hard, actually.

The pavement ran out about ten minutes later. I was now on a rural dirt road in the family car, a big-ass Chrysler New Yorker with rear-wheel drive that was not known for stability on slick roads. The snowfall became a little thicker, muffling the sound of the gravel under my tires. The back end started to slide back and forth. I couldn’t see the shoulder anymore and worried about ending up in a ditch. If that happened a quick death would be preferable to the slow end that would inevitably reward my survival.

I slowed to a crawl and stopped sliding. I turned the radio on to WBBM for company. Franklin MacCormack introduced a tune my friends would have derided as more appropriate for an elevator full of old people, but it was preferable to the relative silence of my isolation. My grip on the steering wheel tightened. Will he live or will he die? Details at 10!

MacCormack’s soothing voice followed the song’s end, waxing poetic about nothing of substance. There was a brief moment of silence, then an ethereal sound drifted in, like a faint echo, rising and falling. The songs of humpbacked whales began to fill the darkness, not something one expected driving along barren cornfields in Illinois. One of the most beautiful voices God ever created started to sing:

Farewell to Tarwathie, Adieu Mormond Hill
And the dear land of Crimmond, I bid you farewell
I’m bound off for Greenland and ready to sail
In hopes to find riches, in hunting the whale

The snowfall seemed to soften as the voice swelled. The darkness outside became a comforting blanket, swaddling an infant in Mother’s arms. The gravel road turned to blacktop; the lights of home appeared in the distance. I don’t remember the rest, only that I knew I would be safe.

Fareweel Tae Tarwathie is an early 19th century Scottish whaling song. Farewell to Tarwathie,  is from Judy Collins’ 1970 album Whales and Nightingales.

Great Covers

It’s a new year and I’m not feeling particularly eloquent yet.

Some well-known songwriters penned hits for other singers or groups. Carole King wrote Little Eva’s hit, “The Locomotion;” Carole King, in turn, did Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Other classics have more obscure roots. Blues singer Memphis Minnie wrote “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929; Led Zeppelin reworked it in 1971. The 1990s heralded the rise of tribute bands and albums, often as good as, or even better, than the originals.

So here are some of the most famous, or infamous, covers of tracks we all know.

WoodstockCrosby, Stills, Nash and Young. We all grew up with this song, but Joni Mitchell wrote it after talking with her then-lover, Graham Nash, about those three days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Her version, on Ladies of the Canyon, is rather dreary; CSNY made it rock!

Singin’ the BluesBlack Oak Arkansas. Originally made famous by Marty Robbins and Guy Williams in 1956, this incongruous version is on BOA’s 1971 debut album, between Hot and Nasty and Lord Have Mercy on My Soul. “Jim Dandy” Mangrum’s distinctive voice would make Axl Rose sound like Pavarotti.

GloriaJimi Hendrix.  Written by Van Morrison and a hit for The Shadows of Knight, Gloria has been reworked by many groups, including Patti Sm
ith’s punk version that begins, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” I heard this extended version driving home at 3 a.m.after delivering a baby. The censors weren’t around then….”even though she didn’t like homemade sin, and her breath smelled like wut pussy.”

Are You Experienced?Belly. From Stone Free, the 1993 Hendrix Tribute CD, this version of the title track from Jimi Hendrix’s debut album gets an alternative rock makeover by Tanya Donally. Play this sucka’ LOUD!

With A Little Help From My FriendsJoe Cocker. Cocker took Ringo Starr’s tepid little tune from the (IMHO)  over-rated Sgt. Pepper’s album and injected it with soul. It didn’t hurt to have Jimmy Page on guitar. John Belushi did an epileptic but dead on tribute to Joe Cocker in this unforgettable version on Saturday Night Live

Twist and ShoutThe Beatles. Recorded by the Top Notes in 1961 and the Isley Brothers in 1962, John Lennon goes all-out on this one.

Otis Day and the Knights. Even though DeWayne Jessie lip-synced Lloyd Williams’ vocals for this Animal House classic, he really could sing. His older brother Obediah, a.k.a. “Young Jessie,” sang with The Coasters before moving to jazz. Jessie went on to an almost 40-year career as Otis.

MiserlouDick Dale and the Deltones. An
obscure tune from Egypt or Asia Minor got a surf-rock makeover in 1962 and cinematic notoriety in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Dick Dale was born Richard Anthony Monsour and heard his uncle playing Miserlou on the oud. Who said nothing good ever came out of the Middle East?

Heat WaveLinda Ronstadt. Just the memory of her in that Cub Scout uniform still gives me goosebumps.

Country RoadsToots and the Maytals. Welcome to Jamaica, mon; have a nice day! All the women I knew in high school who were John Denver fans thought this was sacrilege. I thought it was perfect!

Who Do You Love? I’m torn between this one,
George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers’ Sam Adams Beer commercial version, and the six-part live performance by Quicksilver Messenger Service, from the Happy Trails album.

Crimson and CloverJoan Jett and the
. Leather and heavy metal turned this adolescent Shondell’s classic into a heavy-metal lesbian love ballad.

SpoonfulCream.  Written by Willie Dixon and
recorded by Howlin’ Wolf
, Eric Clapton and Co. turned this into a seventeen-minute jam session on the epic Wheels of Fire album.

Viva Las VegasZZ Top. Substitute Texas blues-rock for Elvis Presley’s samba and you get this. Thank ya, thank ya verramuch.

I Got You, BabeBeavis and Butthead. Cher’s voice only got better during the intervening three decades since she and “some dork” sang it in 1965. Why Cher would associate with two animated imbeciles defies all logic but I, for one, am grateful and amused.

Tracks (C) original performers.
Image (c) Can Stock Photo