Everything Is Beautiful by Ray Stevens (1970, Barnaby)

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Whenever I hear this song, I have this fuzzy memory of singing it during a Church service with the pastor, a tall Paul Williams lookalike leading the way. They were Lutherans and it was the 70s, so why not invite some ‘rock’ into tho worship. Then again I’m wondering if I’m making it up. Maybe I did sing this in Sunday school. Or maybe I just think I did, because this song just lends itself to that vibe. Then again maybe it was sang through the decade by the idealists, who remembered that time when the song represented hope and a simple message of togetherness, knocking those cynical Canadians, The Guess Who out of the top sport with their caustic American Woman.

To me, it’s more of a testament to the people who bought into this song and the singer who released. For, the earnest Everything Is Beautiful was recorded by novelty singer, Ray Stevens. If you want me to put this in context on how this strange this is, imagine ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic singing Wind Beneath My Wings, from the movie, Beaches [that song really did need an accordion solo]. You wouldn’t get 15 seconds into it before you laughed it off. And it’s not as if Ray made a permanent change in type of tunes he started performing. He wrote and sang The Streak, just 4 years later and boogity-boogity’d his way to #1 again.

Now Ray is not a great singer, but a good one and he puts his all into Everything Is Beautiful. But how did the public take the guy, who recorded Gitarzan just the year before, seriously and not absolutely vomit and throw tomatoes when the record starts off with a children’s chorus of Jesus Loves the Little Children? Are you kidding me? Bravo folks. I don’t know how you kept a straight face. Ray even won a Grammy for Best Pop song, Male. I’m not dissing Ray, but in a year that saw great popular songs from Mark Lindsey (Arizona) and Edwin Starr (War) even Tom Jones (Without Love(There Is Nothing)), let alone John Lennon’s Instant Karma, how does Ray even stand a chance? Was Bobby Sherman too radical? Just more proof that the Grammys are a joke.

Although I will say for Ray, getting in some lyrics about loving the long hairs and people of color was a bold move, even in 1970. So the fact that this was universally accepted was a coup for him. I just wonder if the joke was on us. Not that last part, but the whole Hippie, everything’s great, love each other sentiment. I wonder if Ray thought to himself, I’m going to write the best novelty song of all by playing it so serious, no one knows I’m kidding. Kind of like a gospel Andy Kaufman, if you will. I’ll think about that the next time I hear this song get to its 3rd key change and Ray vamps on beau-ti-fu-ooo-ulll and wonder if he was snickering inside.

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Go Back by Crabby Appleton (Elektra, 1970)

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The name Crabby Appleton might not ring any bells, but he was the arch-nemesis to Tom Terrific in the obscure late 50s cartoon of the same name, which aired during Captain Kangaroo.. That’s also the name that L.A. band, Stonehenge changed to and had their only Top 40 hit in 1970. Go Back ended up peaking at #36 in July of 1970. It’s a great slice of power pop before the genre was even named, enough muscle for the FM crowd and catchy as hell for the AM tuners. That this song stalled so low and the band had no further Hot 100 hits is a mystery to me. Lead singer and main songwriter Michael Fennelly has a great pop voice suited for radio and their first album had lots of other potential singles such as The Other Side and Lucy.

I first this track on the Super Hits of the 70s collection that Rhino put out in late 1990 and immediately dug into it. At the time when it was charting there was nothing else that sounded like it on the radio, but there were so many good pop, rock & soul songs at the time, they probably just got lost in the shuffle.

This is a performance from Whats Happenin’ (not the one with Raj, Rerun & Dwayne). Hang with John Byner and those groovy chicks to hear these guys rock out on the beach…

Vehicle by The Ides Of March (Warner Bros, 1970)

This is not Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Ides Of March – the Chicago horn band who ended up being a one-hit wonder, definitely was the biggest beneficiary of BST’s success. But the band had been around at least 3 years before Al Kooper ever got his group off the ground. It just so happened that their 2nd LP tore the roof out with three big #2 singles in 1969. So everyone was looking for the next big band rock sound.

Columbia Records was rediscovering their signing of the Chicago Transit Authority. Canada was being turned on by Lighthouse. And Warner Brothers looked to their newest label add-on, The Ides Of March. They had written songs over the years and released singles but never a full length LP. Jim Peterik, the group’s lead singer and gutiarist, (who later started the 80s group, Survivor) had a song phrase and title he was kicking around for years. After being used by a girl whom he really dug, he told her that he felt like he was her vehicle, getting taken along for a ride. Using the phrase I’m your vehicle, baby, he tossed out some quick lyrics one night as a joke, never realizing that anyone might take them seriously or find them creepy (which we’ll get to).

The song is muscular powerhouse right from the opening double trumpet & sax horn lick to ending punch. It’s like a semi that busts through a metal gate and keeps churning down the highway. Funny to think that the recorded take had the first 14 seconds accidentally erased. Luckily they had still take 1 and it was good enough to splice in. Pay attention next time you’re listening and see if you can hear the edit. Peterik had to sing the vocals a few times even though he felt he nailed it on number one. The producer would laugh at the playback and say, “Nice David Clayton-Thomas impression. This one, do in your own voice.” He would look puzzled insisting he was, then record it again as And When I Die was ringing in his ears. It’s no wonder people mistake this for BST, but to Peterik’s credit, many horn rock band’s lead singer consciously or not channeled David’s bluesy growl.

But no amount of horns and testosterone could cover up the fact that the lead singer sounded like Chester the Molester.

Hey, well I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan
Oh won’t you hop inside my car?
I got pictures, got candy, I am a lovable man
I’d like to take you to the nearest star.

OK, it sounds like social commentary. Maybe he’s even using the friendly stranger persona to pretend he’s Nixon.

I’m your vehicle baby
I’ll take you anywhere you wanna go
I’m your vehicle, woman
By now I’m sure you know
That I love ya. Need ya
I want to, got to have you child
Great God in heaven, you know I love you

OK, so we know he’s lusting after a woman. And we know she’s a child. Maybe it’s Superfly.

Well if you want to be a movie star
I got the ticket to Hollywood
Well if you want to stay just like you are
You know I think you really should

So after all that braggadocio and craving, he gives up. Isn’t the whole point to talk her into submission rather than give her an exit strategy?

In 1970, I bet many didn’t really pay attention to these lyrics. But when you think in retrospect about how hitchhiking in the 70s wasn’t as safe and became more deadly, and that there was an increase in teenage runaways and child abductions, the song begins to sound more like a warning to the next generation to beware. Things are about to change and no is as safe as they thought they were.

Jim co-wrote Eye Of The Tiger in 1982, wherein he could finally afford to live in a gated community.

The Rapper by the Jaggerz (Kama Sutra, 1970)

Looking at the title of this post, you’d think we were talking about a song from the G-funk era of the mid-90s. But alas this Pittsburgh band was talking about a different kind of rapper. And they added a Z at the end of their name, not because they were from the streets (maybe they were, who knows) but because they wanted to separate themselves from the band, The Jaggers. (And in the future, Mick & Bianca)

The Jaggerz were indeed a one-hit wonder hitting #2 in March of 1970, kept out of the #1 spot by Bridge Over Troubled Water. That would’ve been a tough one to knock out. Only a group like the Beatles could and they did with Let It Be. But I digress. The Jaggerz may have only one hit but their leader, Donnie Iris, would go on to several Top 40 hits in the 80s. Nevertheless this out of nowhere track was one of the best of the year and they sold over a million copies of this 45 to boot.

The song was about a sleazy dude who loves to ‘rap’ to the girls which back then just meant talking. But a ‘rapper’ as described by the Jaggerz is a guy who loves to hang out in bars (or a bus, or a grocery store?) hitting on chics trying to get them to sleep with them. Imagine Larry Dallas at the Regal Beagle – that’s a rapper. (How did he get any chics?)

And while I think the song is cool, the lyrics are incredibly dated. For example, he wants someone to sock it to. If you watched Laugh In, you could dig it. Someone reading those words now thinks he wants a chic he could beat up. Then there’s also the cheesy line he utters, come up to my place for some coffee or tea or me. I need a shower just writing that. What I don’t get is that the singer is talking about this rapper with disdain until the last line where he pins it on the girl.

He’s got you where he wants you, girl you gotta face reality.

What the hell does that mean? Now it’s her fault that she might get raped by this sleazebag? Oh wait, maybe he’s trying to signal the girl like, ‘Hey he’s trying to screw you. Wake up. Get out of there. Pour the hot coffee in his face and run’. Maybe the band saves her after all and that’s what all the applause was at the end.

Turn up that fuzz guitar, soul clap along with the chorus and give that rapper a cowbell…

Tighter, Tighter by Alive and Kicking (Roulette, 1970)

After having a huge 1969, Tommy James left the Shondells at the end of the year to start his solo career and do more production projects. He wrote a song with his new songwriter, Bob King, called Tighter, Tighter. He knew it was a killer tune and decided to record it for his first solo LP. But he just couldn’t get the song to sound like what he heard in his head. Tommy remembered this band from Brooklyn called Alive & Kicking that he’d seen play a few times. He even thought about asking them to record the original version of Crystal Blue Persuasion, but kept it for himself and the Shondells – smart man. Maybe, he thought, this band could do something with Tighter, Tighter..

Alive & Kicking was fronted by Pepe Cardona & Sandy Toder, so Tommy decided to rewrite the song as a duet, a give & take between girl & boy. He had the band record vocals over his initial recording, add some keyboards & guitar and for the final ingredient, some horns. If you thought that was Herb Alpert on the trumpet lick, you’d be wrong but it’s not your fault. Herb was hot, so it didn’t hurt to trick listeners with that Tijuana-sounding hook.

The song hit the Top 10, reaching #7 in August of 1970. And it had that groove that bridged pop from the 60s to the 70s, that drum beat – boom-boom-bap, bap-bap-boom-bap, bap, boom-boom…. – that evoked visions of go-go dancers, jerking their bodies flailing their day-glo arms with a serene look on their face . That Tommy James…he’s far out…

Roulette Records, the label that Tommy recorded on from the start with the Shondells into the mid-70s and who he had Alive & Kicking sign with as well, is known as a money laundering operation as well as a front for the Mob, or so says Tommy. He figures they withheld tens of millions of dollars from him over his career. Once the label was sold & split and owned by Rhino Records in the late 80s, he finally started seeing royalty checks. He also admits that the Roulette family gave him a lot of creative control. So, hey, that’s one for us..yeah Mob!

Fun fact: the original keyboardist for Alive & Kicking was Bruce Sudano, future Brooklyn Dreams member and duet partner of Donna Summer (on Heaven Knows and life).

Listen to this in your headphones, so you can dig the stereo vocals. Is it my imagination or is the organ a little out of tune?

Cracklin’ Rosie by Neil Diamond (Uni, 1970)

The debate of how relevant Neil Diamond is continues to this day. Some say he’s a brilliant singer songwriter, cut from the Brill Building cloth of great songsmiths. Some say he’s schlock as evidenced in his late 70s/early 80s hits, from the Jazz Singer era as well as his beaded shirts. Some say he’s ripe for parody because he takes himself too seriously [Watch Will Ferrell’s hysterical VH1 Storytellers skit from SNL as proof]. Some say he’s so square, he’s hip and a whole new generation has found Sweet Caroline has a great song to scream together in a group, whether at a baseball game or a wedding reception (personally witnessed both, multiple times). The truth of the matter is they are all right. Neil is many things to many people. But that first transition from a moody folk rocker to a dramatic pop singer happened when Cracklin Rosie hit number #1 in 1970. [Neil is one of a handful of songwriters to have #1 songs in the 60s, 70s & 80s – I’m A Believer by the Monkees in 1967 & Red Red Wine by UB40 in 1988]

Cracklin’ Rosie, in my opinion, is one of Neil’s funniest songs. He starts off so innocent telling Cracklin Rosie to get on board while a trombone plays the opening lick then does his best Elvis impersonation during the bridge before building up to a dramatic climax- Play it now! Play it now! The song sounds so dirty and you can make a case that Rosie is a hooker that he gets it on with at the back of the tour bus. The play it now bit could be his Who’s-Your-Daddy? moment with his store bought woman for all we know. All we know is that Neil goes low and sneers that he loves his rosie child.

I hate to disappoint you but Rosie’s not a prostitute. The truth is funnier & sadder. Rosie is a bottle of sparkling mateus, most likely of the Paul Masson varietal, the kind that Miles from Sideways says tastes like the back of an L.A. school bus. It seems that Neil was inspired to write song after hanging with an Indian tribe in Canada. Now that’s funny. Imagine approaching a teepee on a reservation in the middle of nowhere on a cold Saskatchewan prairie at night and hearing guitar strums and a group of people yelling, So Good, So Good, So Good…you know what I’m taking about. Anyway I digress. It seems that in this tribe if you don’t have dates at night, you make out with a bottle of wine, hence a poor man’s lady.

So to recap, as the 60s turned to the 70s and people made conscious of the plight of the American Indian and as the American Indian Movement had gathered more mainstream awareness, Neil Diamond was playing up their stereotypes as alcoholics. Way to go, Neil. Your AIM medal is in the mail.

Montego Bay by Bobby Bloom (L&R, 1970)

Bobby Bloom was a struggling songwriter in the early 60s. He was trying his hand at everything, including doing some sound engineer work for Shuggie Otis and performing in the doo-wop group, The Imaginations. His path would soon get clearer when he met songwriter, Jeff Barry, who wrote hits with his former wife Ellie Greenwich, such as The Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron, Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups, and Leader of The Pack by the Shangra-La’s, just to name a few. [And he wrote the theme to The Jeffersons, so he’s down in my book.]

Bobby had the fortune to get hooked up with Tommy James & the Shondells in 1968 and co-write the #3 hit, Mony Mony [which Billy Idol would take to #1 in 1987]. This got the attention of Jeff Barry, who had just started producing music for the Saturday morning cartoon, The Archie Show, when he met Bobby. Soon after a ‘group’ called the Archies was formed and hit #1 with Sugar Sugar in 1969 and Bobby & Jeff collaborated on a follow-up single called Sunshine. They started to write some additional songs that Bobby would demo at his friend’s recording studio. Somehow the tracks got out and a little record label called L&R decided to put out the single, Montego Bay, to see what would happen. It ended up being a Top 10 record in the US & the UK.

Bobby’s voice was unique in that he was very deep, round and full of soul, and many were surprised he was white. And Montego‘s mix of pop and calyspo along with the pleasurable images of laying on the beach during the day, drinking silver rum and driving your MG to all night party did more for Jamaican tourism than anything their consulate had dreamed up. Hell, it worked on my parents, although they chose the safer Barbados retreat instead. Still, the island images this song conjures up without explicitly mentioning them, make this a 3 minute trip to paradise.

There’s also a few specific details in the song that you may miss, cause you’re too busy doing the limbo. Like the fact the he has to adjust to the right side, meaning he has to sit on the right side of the car, because everyone drives on the right. Or the subtle reference to those jumbo Jamaican joints, saying you ain’t been til you’ve been high in Montego Bay. How did he get that one by the censors? This was considered almost bubblegum when it came out.

This ended up being the only hit for Bobby as a solo performer. 4 years later, he died from a gunshot wound. It’s hard to know what exactly happened. Stories of it being self-inflicted because he was depressed, an accident because he was cleaning his gun or murder, because he was breaking up a fight have clouded the truth. And I’m not sure what that is.

But I will say this. When you hear Bobby break into Oh What A Beautiful Morning at the end of the song and he gets to the line Everything’s going my way, tell me that you don’t get chills.

My Sweet Lord By George Harrison (Apple, 1970)

Let’s get this out of the way: George Harrison was not sued by Phil Spector to get back at the Beatles. Phil Spector didn’t even own the song. It was a publishing company called Bright Tunes Music Corp. They filed suit against Harrissongs Music Ltd claiming that My Sweet Lord was a direct ripoff of the Chiffons’ hit, He’s So Fine. Play them back to back and they have a solid case. But the when the case was heard in 1976, the judge conceded that while the tunes sounded similar, he didn’t believe George stole the tune, which to the day he died, George also emphasized, also stating that he didn’t realize the similarity until after the song was released. In fact he wrote it for Billy Preston, who was an Apple artist at the time. Listen to his version, which was released first – can’t really hear the Chiffons in there, can you? [A synopsis of the court case and its muddy details is broken down here.]

Unfortunately the ugly lawsuit has tainted the history of what is a simple and honest gospel song. It’s timing was perfect as Jesus rock was finally becoming mainstream and this song rode the wave as well encouraged another swell. And what would Sunday school in the 70s be without it?

On the aptly named triple LP, All things Must Pass, there was George long hair and beard, finally breaking free from the Beatles, creating his own identity. But even though he was the first one out of the gate with a #1 hit, he had to spend most of the 70s fighting with lawyers. He’d write another #1 (Give Me Love, Give Me Life) a few years later, but was haunted by this tune for the rest of his life. Even when George finally did get to see his Lord in 2001, I still think the settlement was yet to be fully settled.

It takes so long….my Lord.

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head by B.J. Thomas (Scepter, 1970)

This was the first song to hit #1 in the 70s and the first of 2 for Billy Joe Thomas. Written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David, it was written & recorded for the film, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. Once you hear that opening ukulele lick, you immediately can visualize Paul Newman riding around on his bicycle. (What do you mean you haven’t seen this film? Put down your Twilight DVD and go out and rent it now!) In addition to spending the first month of 1970 on top, it also won an OScar for Best Song, a marked improvement over past winners, Born Free & If I Could Talk To the Animals.

B.J.’s mix of easy-going vocals with a hint of gruff soul made him the perfect singer for this song. And yet, he wasn’t the first choice. Supposedly Burt approached novelty singer Ray Stevens about singing it. Why? I don’t know. (Ray would have his first #1 later in the year with the ultra-serious, Everything Is Beautiful) It definitely wouldn’t have worked. And this is with Burt spending countless hours on set and watching dailies of the bike-riding scene writing music that would fit. And he thinks the guy who sang Ahab the Arab should sing Raindrops..?

Timing + Luck (+ Talent) = Success

The song, recorded and release at the end of 1969, sounds appropriately like a 60s tune. Even the fact that Bacharach & David were scoring a Western was kind of funny, given their pedigree of jazzy cocktail pop. But when it works, it works. And that’s why the singer matters. Lucky for BJ (Really? Couldn’t stick with Billy Joe?) that he recorded for the same label as Bach & David’s muse, Dionne Warwick or he might not have been given the chance.

By the way if you watch that scene and notice that the vocals sound different than on the 45, that’s because BJ recorded those while dealing with laryngitis, adding naturally a Western rasp to his vocals. When his throat was finally he recorded the version heard on the radio, which was a little smoother.

I’ve always dug this tune, especially the bridge. I just love the way it falls in to the song, even the 2nd time when Herb Alpert does his patented trumpet solo. And of course there’s the jazzy ‘slight return’ at the end. Betcha Jimmy Webb was jealous of its effective simplicity. Even the squares may have liked this one, I’m sure a line like ‘because I’m free. Nothing’s worryin’ me.‘ touched a nerve with everyone living through a turbulent time.

Ride Captain Ride by Blues Image (Atco, 1970)

Every time I hear this song, I get faked out, thinking the band is going to sell me some Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat (whatever the hell that means). But Blues Image wasn’t even from Frisco; they were from Florida. And the boat that pulled into the bay with 73 sailors seemed to be based on nothing but the number of Fender Rhodes keys and lots of weed. Guess it made sense that this Rhodes-led tune made it into the Top 10 in 1970, since San Fran and ‘trips’ were still current topics with young folk. Everyone else dug it because it seemed like a real story. Or maybe it was the uniqueness of a rock song with an electric piano as the main instrument. Or because it was a stone gas, baby!

The lyrics are as vague as cruise liner brochure and give no clue to what they were talking about (which is perfect for misinterpretation). What ship was this? Why were they pulling into the San Fran harbor? What trip were they promising? It almost sounds like the pitch the natives of Africa heard before they were tossed onto slave ships. I’m not getting on anything until you tell me where we’re heading. But that’s me. And why was the narrator scoffing at those watching the raindrops fall? Were they heeding bad weather approaching? Or were they just preoccupied with a B.J. Thomas show they were watching?

Whatever it was, the mystery ship was here and then gone by the end of 1970. Lead singer Mike Pinera joined Iron Butterfly and the band’s 3rd LP disappeared into a world that others must have missed. But Ride Captain Ride remains a nice little artifact from a time where bands were caught between the socially charged political rock of the 60s and the soft rock pop of the early 70s.