Back Stabbers by the O’Jays (Philadelphia International, 1972)

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I will never understand the last meal request for death row inmates. Seriously, does it matter what you’re gonna eat before you die? Food is one of the few things you get to have as a prisoner. After eating tasteless mush for 10 years, you could throw a guy a stale cracker and, in the words of Eddie Murphy, he’d ask, ” Is that a Ritz?” If you’re doing it to be humane, surely there are other things that an inmate could experience one last time: a good book, a piece of art, a moving photograph, even a round of video games. For me, if I am ever on death row (for a crime I was obviously framed for), I would have one request – a pair of headphones, a record player and the 45 of the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers.

Back Stabbers is the crowning achievement by Gamble & Huff, who as a team with Thom Bell created such a distinctive style of music, they had to create a new genre for it – Philadelphia Soul. From the opening Ellery Queen piano roll to build of the strings and horn hits – Da-da-da. Da-da. Da. – you are placed into a world of deception and paranoia, one where your neighbor might be the one with a long blade clenched tight in his fist, not unlike the world in 1972 where the Watergate scandal was beginning to brew. The music is at once hip and dangerous. You can imagine John Shaft strutting down the street on his way to a capture a bad dude just as you can imagine the criminal getting down to the same beat.

If there is a note out of place, I can’t hear it. They may buried it so far into the mix, it can’t be heard. But considering the audiophile quality of the recording, I highly doubt it. The vocal sparring between Eddie Levert & William Powell is a double blast killshot, like two excited witnesses of a happening trying to outdo each other retelling what they saw. (The third O’Jay, Walter Williams, must have been out brokering deals with the Minute Maid Company.) There’s no way a single like this could be topped.

Yet, their follow-up, Love Train, did just that, hitting #1 in early 1973. How do you go from ‘ a few of your buddies, they sure look shady’ to ‘people all over the world join hands’? Lyrically that was the difference between Gamble & Huff (McFadden & Whitehead co-wrote Back Stabbers, but hell, they also wrote Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now). They took completely different personal and political world views and wrapped them in this beautiful candy shell. They were Philly Soul’s Willy Wonkas.

Me And Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul (Philadelphia International, 1972)

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I love soul music. But Philadelphia soul music transcends love and puts somewhere in the heavens when I hear it. The Spinners, The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, The Delfonics… – Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell knew how to take vocal groups left on the industry scrap heap, play to their vocal strengths and give them tight classy instrumental arrangement to sing over. The early 70s is filled with one classic after another. Unfortunately paranoia and greed killed their momentum when in 1976, the MFSB house band went on strike and signed with Salsoul. PIR carried on, even had some more hits, but it was never the same again. That’s the story of Billy Paul’s career in a nutshell.

Billy Paul was born Paul Wiliams and had been recording since the late 50s, with hardly any commercial success. His first LP release for Gamble & Huff came in 1968 with a live recording called Feeling Good at the Cadillac Club on their Gamble label. Two years later, he’d release Ebony Woman on their Neptune label and followed it with Going East in 1971 on the newly formed Philadelphia International label. They let Billy record standards and soulful covers of popular tunes of the day like Mrs. Robinson and Magic Carpet Ride. But it felt like one misfire after another for poor ol’ Billy. No one knew what to do with that low raspy voice.

Then one day Kenny & Leon were inspired to write a story about a guy who came into a nearby cafe every day and met a girl. They’d play sit, talk, play music on the jukebox. And that was enough for their imaginations to go wild and create the scenario in Me And Mrs Jones. They let Billy hear the demo they recorded and while he was away, he got into character, imagining himself as the lead and belting out of the most passionate and soul wrenching vocals in PIR history. Gamble & Huff would try to use Billy a mouthpiece for more Afro-centric, political songs and would up killing his career in the process.

But as far as ‘cheating’ songs go, this one is the tops. You can stack it up with any old blues or country standard – Billy’s is the best. Shame that it’s become a lost genre. Outside of some misogynistic rap songs, cheating songs died out in the late 70s, about the same time as the Women’s lib movement coalesced. Coincidence? Hey, it takes two to tango.

When this song comes on, it’s like someone has just slipped me into a warm bath. From start to finish it’s one long velvet groove, even when the horns and string hit their climactic strikes just before the chorus when Billy smoothly screams “Me-iyee-iyee Ahh-uhannnd Mrs….Mrs Jo-oh-ohhhnes”. Poor dude. He’s either beggin for some more and missing that it’s gone. This song made a big impression on me as a kid and does til this day. But that doesn’t mean it’s without its faults.

For example, this is supposed to be an illicit passionate affair that are so attracted to each other but have significant others. So they’re torn apart, confused, yearning, heart-broken, whatever. But the lyrics tell a different story.

Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it cool down now

So Billy is telling us that he’s cheating, but since there’s feeling involved, there can’t be a clean break right now. Let’s assume for argument’s sake he’s speaking to us or to a therapist, but probably not his wife.

We meet every day at the same cafe
Six-thirty I know she’ll be there

OK, Billy. It feels like you want to get caught. You meet every day? That’s not gonna cause suspicion? And at 6:30? That’s dinnertime. Unless you’re talking about AM and in that case, who cheats at dawn? Hit the snooze, buddy.

Holding hands, making all kinds of plans
While the jukebox plays our favorite song

Holding hands? Making plans? Unless the plans include 15 minutes alone in the cafe bathroom, this feels like two six-year-old kids on the playground pretending to be adults. Which would then make their favorite song Playground In My Mind.

We gotta be extra careful
That we don’t build our hopes too high
Cause she’s got her own obligations and so do I

Now for the first time it just hit me. What is she telling her man every night? I’m going grocery shopping, be back in 3 hours? None of this is making sense, unless these two are having their own secret affair or they’re just plain dumb.

Well, it’s time for us to be leaving
It hurts so much, it hurts so much inside
Now she’ll go her way and I’ll go mine
Tomorrow we’ll meet the same place, the same time

For more coffee and hand holding…I understand Gamble & Huff wanted to do this classy. But if anyone besides Billy sings this song, they’s be bored to tears. Teddy Pendergrass would just scare you if he sang it. Why do I feel like Billy’s really not cheating with anyone. Maybe he’s just getting together with the guys for a Fantasy Football draft or whatever the equivalent to that would be in 1972.

Fun facts: Billboard, the jokesters that they are, reported that Me & Mrs Jones replaced none other than Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman at #1 in December of 1972. Billy had his only big hit at the ripe old age of 38. Then yuks-a-plenty when in January of 1973, Me & Mrs. Jones was replaced at the top by Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.

Nice To Be With You by Gallery (Sussex, 1972)

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In 1972, during a stagnated economy, America had to choose what was more valuable – a Diamond or Gold? We all know diamonds are forever and are a girl’s best friend. We should remember (but never do) that diamonds aren’t a very rare mineral, but that they’re value only reflects a cornered market by DeBeers company (that and a few armless miners) But I digress….

When it comes to Neil Diamond & Jim Gold, leader of the pop band, Gallery, we can clearly see who the winner is. But in that fateful of 1972. Gold & Diamond duked it out for pop glory, both charting 3 Top 40 hits. While Neil had a number #1 that year with the sleepy Song Sung Blue, Jim and his band clearly had more energy and charisma starting with their Top 5 hit, Nice To Be With You. The track was produced by guitarist Dennis ‘Scorpio’ Coffey and fittingly the 45 went gold.

The reason I bring up the Diamond/Gold comparison is not just because Jim sounds uncannily like Neil. Listen to the song next it comes up on some 70s hits station and I’ll guarantee you, you’ll think it’s Neil before you realize it’s not. Also if you search online for Nice To Be With You, count how many links you get to Neil Diamond. The fact that he covers Sunday & Me on the Nice To Be With You LP really doesn’t help set himself apart either.

The song itself is very simple and catchy, the way a good pop song should be, hitting you right off the bat with the chorus, the way an old Motown song would. And who doesn’t dig the couplet ‘ I got the notion you’re causing commotion in my soul?’ Right on, Jim. And who wouldn’t think it’s nice to hear someone say that they’re gonna please you in every way? Check out how Jim digs this chic.

At night I call your name
Darkness fills my room.
I’m only dreamin’ about the time I’m gonna be with you

Sounds like Jim is having a party of one in his bedroom. Save yourself, Jim. She’s gonna please you in every way

Verse 2 is boring though. Lots of you’re there for me, I’m there for you, blah blah blah. Where did horny Jim and freakazoid girlfriend go? Must be out looking for Mr. Goodbar…

All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople (Columbia, 1972)

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It’s easy to hear this song and think it’s one of David Bowie’s and you would be almost correct. But he wrote and produced it, specifically for one of his favorite UK bands, Mott The Hoople, which was on the verge of splitting. David gave them this song and helped them record a new LP, which also included one of the first covers of the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane. Bowie easily could have recorded it and broke out into the US mainstream with this one, but instead, was a generous bloke.

It would be another 3 years before Bowie would have his first Top 40 hit in the US. That’s right, Mott The Hoople broke through in the US before David Bowie. Of course Bowie was garnering lots of critical praise and his LPs were getting notice. But his singles weren’t getting played until Space Oddity in 1973. Maybe Mott’s success was what David needed to get radio’s attention. It sure didn’t help Mott very much. Though this single climbed to #37, they never had any more chart hits and member Mick Ralphs left the band to form the blander (and obviously more mainstream) Bad Company. That said, All The Young Dudes stands as an all-time Glam rock anthem, a tune that says and Ian Hunter can sing this anywhere and get folks to open their lighters, sway side to side and sing along.

Mott The Hoople obviously had a strong influence of other bands. They’re name-checked by Queen in Now I’m Here (and then leapfrogged them in success) as well as in Reunion’s 1974 Top 10, Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me). The song itself namechecks the Beatles, the Stones and T-Rex.

By the way the band’s name came from Guy Stevens who worked at Island Records and became the group’s manager. He got it from the title of a 1966 book by Willard Manus, from which a Hoople is a ‘square’ or mainstream guy, the ‘man’ if you will. Mott was an ex-hippie who would have probably sang this song when it came on the radio saying the kids are alright, man.

My Ding-A-Ling by Chuck Berry (Chess, 1972)

Ed note: A few weeks ago J.A. Bartlett wrote about this song at Popdose.com as one of the World’s Worst Songs. It inspired me to listen, think and give my opinion as well.

40 years ago Chuck Berry had his only #1 pop hit, when My Ding-A-Ling hit the peak for 2 weeks. I’ve read lots of stories and have been part of many discussions with musicologists who say this song ruined his career and how shameful it is that this is his biggest hit and what he’ll always be known for. I definitely take issue with that. If say name a Chuck Berry song, I bet most people say Johnny B. Goode or Maybelline or Roll Over Beethoven before they mention My Ding-A-Ling. Chuck’s legend wasn’t made or destroyed by that song. It’s just an odd footnote in a rock & roll pioneer’s career.

My Ding-A-Ling had a history before Chuck even recorded his own material. It was written in and recorded in 1952 by Dave Bartholomew, but he also recorded it with a different title, Little Girl Sing Ding-A-Ling. It was also recorded under the title Toy Bell by The Bees and the first recording by Chuck happened in 1968 with the title My Tambourine. 20 years after it was first recorded, Chuck performed and recorded it at the Lanchester Arts Festival in England to an overly enthusiastic crowd and released on side 2 of the London Chuck Berry Sessions. It probably would’ve stayed there were it not for Boston DJ, Jim Connors.

Jim had a reputation for discovering artists and songs, receiving 13 Gold records, such as How Do You Do by Mouth & MacNeal and Wayne Newton’s Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast. (Hold on, folks…put your guns down) and was the inspiration for Harry Chapin’s W*O*L*D. OK, now you see what we’re dealing with here….

According to Jim, he found this song and pushed it hard because Chuck Berry had been a childhood idol of his. I’m sure he wanted some success for Chuck, who had been off the charts and out of the Top 40 since 1964’s You Never Can Tell. Why Jim decided to honor his idol with a childish dick joke is beyond me. This one should have been left right where it was. He could’ve pushed Reelin & Rockin instead, which ended up making the Top late that year after Ding-A-Ling. Stranger still was promoting a song which was a staggering 11 1/2 minute song. I’m ready to pull my hair out after 45 seconds of this. 11 & 1/2 minutes is a death sentence. Still Chuck was having a bit of fun, because that’s the type of humor he has. He probably never dreamed nor had the intention of release this a single and having it be popular.

That being said, he did commit it to wax. Now we all know the lyrics are like a dirty Nursery Rhyme that kids could tee-hee-hee too. I too sang this on a bus with my friends after hearing it on a Dr Demento show when I was 9…nuff said. Chuck had considerably changed the arrangement and lyrics from Bartholomew’s original version. But even the bizarrely enthusiastic almost military screaming call-and-response from a crowd that probably barely knew this song was not the strangest thing about the record. The funniest, perhaps, but not the strangest. Nor was it Chuck’s tonal hum before every verse like his was singing gospel hymns in a St Louis church. It was the 4 minute build up and countless Chuck adlibs between the verses which fascinated me. He sounds partly like a deranged midnight preacher and part Velvet Jones. And he must do his ‘alma mah-tur’. I mean, how in the hell does he consider this his alma mater? Does he even know what that means? I also love ‘here comes that jerk again’. Let your mind wander.

There are some positives that came about from this song’s success. The legendary Chess Records label finally had a number one song in their history. Unfortunately they were folded into another label soon after and disappeared completely by 1975. And while this statistically was Chuck’s biggest, he did hit #2 with Sweet Little Sixteen, eventually racking up 6 Top 10’s between 1955 & 1964. That’s a pretty good tally for a Black artist crossing over back then. Little Richard only managed 4. So it’s not like Chuck didn’t have any success and then all of a sudden broke through with sophomoric novelty hit, or a fourth-grade ditty, as Chuck testifies.

This hit #1 in England and in Canada, but some stations, at they’re wont to do, refused to play this song, even while broadcasting the American Top 40, including recent re-broadcasts. The song is 60 years old and we’re still a bunch of prudes.

Is the silly? Yes. Is the song dumb? Yes. Is it a disgrace to Chuck Berry’s career? I don’t think so. But ask the man himself, who not only likes the song, but finally got some pay from it, after years of getting screwed by the record industry. If you have the stomach or morbid curiosity, listen to the whole album version. It’s beautiful, beautiful…mmmmmmmmm….

Quick aside: two members of the Average White Band play on this track. They would have their own #1, 3 years later with Pick Up The Pieces.

Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat (Elektra, 1972)

If I’m digging for LPs at a thrift store and I come across something that doesn’t look familiar, I always check who played on it or where it was recorded. If I were to stumble across a Sailcat LP and knew nothing about the band, I might pick it up knowing it was recorded in Mussel Shoals, Alabama. Then I would notice that Pete Carr produced it and I would put it back into the boxes before I became so sleepy that I passed out on the floor.

Pete Carr is the musical equivalent to sucking down a bottle of NyQuil and chasing it with a handful of ludes and horse tranquilizers. This is a guy who smoothed Bob Segar out so much, he didn’t realize that he was Xeroxing Bob’s Night Moves LP over & over. The most upbeat thing he did was the opening guitar lick on Barbra’s Streisand’s Woman In Love and you would be snoring 15 seconds in if not for Babs nasal oversinging like a leaf blower in your ear. He teamed up with Lenny LeBlanc and made a 7′ Valium drip for your ears in 1978 called Falling. Pete Carr is actually a very talenetd guitar player and his style is not to bore you. It’s just to lull you to asleep and presumably rob you or steal your girlfriend.

That seems to be his intention with Sailcat’s Motorcycle Mama. Instead of a revved up hard rockin’ reboot of Steppenwolf, we get a bike tune so chill it would make a Hell’s Angel shit his pants hearing Helen Reddy by comparison. I dub it the Lazy Rider.

But it makes sense, because by 1972 when this song hit the Top 15, the hippie lifestyle and motorcycle freedom idolized in Easy Rider had either been co-opted (read: exploited) by The Man or abandoned completely for a suit & tie real job. This guy doesn’t want to tear up the open road, riding into random towns, start fights and bang truck stop waitresses. He wants to take an extended vacation with his old lady to see the sights, maybe even visit the World’s largest Mud Hut or 2nd biggest ball of yarn. Hell he even wants to get a side car for their little baby. Is that even an option on choppers?

This guy isn’t about sticking it to anyone or being an individual. He wants matching jackets and respect from the various townsfolk. And he’s gonna let ‘the squares walk past‘? Dude you are a square! Holy crap, I didn’t realize they had yuppies back in 1972, but this is pretty much their wet dream. This is the guy you pass on the highway on a Goldwing who’s wearing one of those drive-thru microphone headsets to let his crew know how far the next Cracker Barrel is.

This is all done in just over 2 minutes with no rock, no roll, no soul. Just some lawyer blowing aural weed smoke in your face to make you tired. The two minutes come up and you’ve already forgotten about it, until the last line – if the chain don’t break. Wait, what? You got your old lady on the back with your kid in the side car and you haven’t even got this bike inspected. Maybe he’s a punk after all…or a dumb ass yippie.

Hold Your Head Up by Argent (Epic, 1972)

Ah, how many Camaros had this blasting out of their cars on a long summer day? Hold Your Head Up was one of the classic rock songs that was played heavily throughout the 70s, so much so that you could have as strong an association with in 1979 as when it peaked in 1972.

Argent was formed by keyboardist Rod Argent, who had enjoyed success during the British Invasion of the 60s with The Zombies. Their last LP, Odyssey & Oracle, came out in 1968 after the band broke up and moved on to other projects. That was about the time that Rod formed Argent. But in 1969, Time of The Season was released and hit #3 in the late Spring of 1969 and Rod had a decision to make – get the band back together or see what happens with Argent. He chose the second option, pocketed the cash and ventured down the path of progressive rock.

There were 3 songwriters in Argent and 3 different singers in the group. One of the singer/songwriters was guitarist Russ Ballard, who sings on this one. His song, Liar, from Argent’s first LP was covered by Three Dog Night, who has a hit with it in 1971. Ballard has actually written many hits for rock artists throughout the 70s & 80s, but never had one of his own songs become hits with Argent or solo. Even more amazing to me, was that this was Top 5 hits was Argent’s only charting single.

Hold Your Head Up was written by Rod & Chris White, former Zombie cohort and Argent producer. The album version is almost double the length of the 45 and while both are awesome, you get a different feel from each. Many have wondered about the song’s meaning, whether it’s merely a motivational speech or a reminder to be true to yourself. I have always thought it was a nod of thanks to all the Vietnam veterans who were coming home, getting tons of grief, being spat on, anything but a hero’s welcome.

The songs starts with a rolling organ lick, a signal, a call to arms. Then the bass comes in, playing on a single note on the beat, double with the bass drum and a snare hit on the four. It feels like the start of a parade, but not exactly a happy one. This very serious intro gets some guitar added to the mix in very tailored guitar chords. Everything is very nice and neat and orderly. As the vocals come in and it almost sounds like Russ is singing behind you. It’s the perfect soundtrack to marching down the street in front of an audience of everyone who wronged you. You can’t look down or side to side, only head your head straight and high.

And if it’s bad
Don’t let it get you down, you can take it
And if it hurts
Don’t let them see you cry, you can make it

Hold your head up, hold your head up
Hold your head up, hold your head high

And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving
And if they shout
Don’t let them change a thing that you’re doing

That’s it. Those are the lyrics. Simple and to the point. Almost like a sergeant giving direct orders. If this, then that. How many soldiers heard this song on their trip back from Saigon and thought Argent was their only friend?

Actually in these days of a thousand eyes and ears, of serial conformity, of people talking and reveling in others’ misfortunes, we need some Argent around here now.

Let it rip….

Clair by Gilbert O’Sullivan (MAM, 1972)

Gilbert O’Sullivan just wanted to write simple pop songs on his piano. He didn’t have time for image or presentation. Like me for my music, or don’t bother, he said, leave the glitz to those glam rockers. But the problem was that Gilbert broke through in a big way in 1972 with Alone Again (Naturally), a slow, moody ballad about killing himself. Believe it or not folks thought that the song was autobiographical. So Gilbert was in need of something to counteract this sad sack image…


Unless you’re opening up a university with Dr. Dre, I’m not sure about that sweater

Actually Gilbert followed up his maudlin megahit with a spritely, up beat tune about a girl named Clair.

The tune made it up to #2 in late 1972 and people were even more confused about what kind of guy Gil was. I mean, would you want someone to babysit your kid who only just before wanted throw himself off a nearby tower? I need a little more stability in my caretaker’s personality than that.

Now before you start to groan or roll your eyes at where you perceive I’m going with this, I need you to take a deep breath. After all this is only pop music. Before I get the, ‘you have a sick mind, jerk’ and ‘it’s a sweet song. why are you ruining it?’ comments, I want to remind you that I am writing about this song 40 years after it was written. A lot has changed socially. Some for the better as in our acceptance of minorities, enough to elect one to run the country. (Back then, the Dems hopes were pinned on George McGovern or George Wallace) But when it comes to children, we have become incredibly protective of them, some say to much. Others believe our protection borders on paranoia. Whatever you believe, that feeling as well as our habit of treating everything with sarcasm and irony, has blurred everything that was created from someone’s heart, a straight forward sentiment with no hidden agenda or secret motive.

With that in mind, how many folks listen to a song like Clair and not look for a secret meaning in some of the words, which would lead people to think the singer is creepy, at least and a pedophile at best? I played this song for 5 people over 40 and 3 people under 30. 4 of the 5 over 40s thought the song was sweet (the 5th thought it was cheesy at most). All 3 under 30 thought the dude singing it was lame until they realized that Clair was his niece and they thought he was a sicko. I did this to show how much things have changed with people socially in these last 40 years. I wasn’t shocked at all by the people under 30 who thought each line was a double-entendre. They were raised by a society who beat the message over & over, ‘don’t believe what you hear, read between the lines, everyone’s out to get you’. That seems to be the media’s mantra, with every expose, broadcast, special show they do.

Me, I think this song walks the line between cloying and sweet natured. Plus it brings back memories of those simple pop days of the early-70s. From Gilbert’s plaintive whistle intro the song moves into him singing about a girl named Clair which may or may not be his girlfriend. But it’s very plain to see he adores her rather than lust or infatuation. This could be two 6-year-olds singing to each other. She gets to him in a way that he can’t describe. When Gil says to Clair, I don’t care what people say, to me you’re more than a child, it’s such a tender sentiment. Can you read more into that? Yes I guess you could. But Gil and the arrangement really don’t allow you to. He’s letting you know right off the bat with that whistling. The cleverness of the lyrics is that the reality of what’s going on is brought to light in a few lines, with parts like Nothing means more to me than hearing you say, I want to marry you. Will you marry me, Uncle Ray? (Ray is Gil’s real name) How many little girls have melted a dad or uncle’s heart with something like that. This song gets to me, even more so now that I have a daughter. Also for your information, the Clair that Gil wrote about was his producer, Gordon Mills’ daughter.

So all you perverts out there, find another song to pick on. Or, I will for you.

Quick aside: I love the group Jellyfish. They have a song on their 1993 Album, Spilt Milk called Sebrina, Paste and Plato which I always thought was an homage to Clair.

BTW: I love to sing this at karaoke. Here’s a few tips to make the performance a winner. First pick out any lady in the room, point to her and say, This is for you, Clair. Second, just before the end of the song, ask someone close to the stage where in Wisconsin do they live….and then finish the song. You’ll see what I mean.

Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast by Wayne Newton (Chelsea, 1972)

People wonder and ask why Wayne Newton is so famous. I don’t know what to tell them. I have no idea why. But he is famous. He’s had a 50 year career and his name is synonymous with Vegas. It’s almost sacrilege to visit that desert town and not see one of his shows. There’s a street there named after him. He is Mr. Vegas. He’s made many TV & film appearances almost always playing himself or a version there of. Though he’s only had 4 Top 40 hits, he placed one in the 60s, 70s & 80s. Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast was his biggest and only Top 10, reaching #4 in 1972. And it’s hysterical.

Daddy…(Aka The party’s over. Get out of my house.) is custom made for a cheesy over-the-top show spectacle, when you need to take a break from the slot machines sucking down your quarters. (It’s also an inspired move for anyone to perform at karaoke.) The song doesn’t just tug on the heart strings, it yanks on them until Wayne is holding your purple in his sweaty multi-ringed fingers. And at a time when divorces rates were rising, lots of kids could relate to the chorus sung from Wayne’s little girl’s point of view. Only 4 months after this song peaked, Papa Was A Rolling Stone was #1. Happy Father’s Day!

What makes this 7″ slice of cheddar so irresistibly bad is how ludicrous the lyrics are. Let’s break it down:

The love between the two of us was dying
And it got so bad I knew I had to leave

Ok, so Wayne digs in with the Woe Is Me schtick. You see things aren’t working out, so he, being the more mature adult, decides that he has to leave, hinting that he would stay, but mommy wants me gone. Get it little girl? It’s mommy’s fault.

But halfway down that highway when I turned around I saw
My little daughter running after me

Halfway down the highway? How long is this highway? 500 feet? Or is she superhuman? Is she Forrest Gump? And much did you care if you only looked back once you were halfway down the highway? My point being, rather than right a dramatic song, the lyricist are already using exaggerations to build drama, such as…

Crying, daddy, don’t you walk so fast
Daddy, don’t you walk so fast
Daddy, slow down some. ‘Cause you’re makin’ me run
Daddy, don’t you walk so fast

Oh Lord…Unless she’s a cheetah, or Wayne is driving a Pinto, how the hell did she even catch up to him? Slow down some? Daddy could you slow down to a screeching halt and I’ll run like a coked-out Jim Fixx.

Now it broke my heart to tell my little daughter
That her daddy had to run to catch a train

Wait, now Wayne’s on foot or what’s going on here? If you’re already in a car, why do you need to catch a train? Did the first verse actually happen or not? Or is Wayne recounting when he tried to get away for a second time?

She had no way of knowin’ I was leavin’ home for good

Except for the fact you drove off and ran off or whatever you did at a sloth speed…

I turned around and there she was again

That’s getting a little freaky. Now I’m wondering if Wayne should leave. Is your kid Damien or something? Nope, the chorus, brought to you by Kraft…

If only for the sake of my sweet daughter
I just had to turn back home right there and then

Or were you afraid she’d shoot lasers from her eyes?

And try to start a new life with the mother of my child

Aha! I get it. You’re not even married to this chic, so it’s on to a new town, new life…

I couldn’t bear to hear those words again

But you’re guilted into staying. That’s going to be a fun family Christmas.

I dare you to listen to the whole song. And if this song hits home for you, I would stay away from Vegas. And that’s where this song should have stayed.

Without You by Nilsson (RCA, 1972)

In 1972, Nilsson hit the Top of the charts with the single, Without You. Written by Tom Evans & Pete Ham of Badfinger, it stayed at the summit for 4 weeks and won Nilsson a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. It was a breakthrough for both artists and it should have been the beginning of a long career for each. Instead it was the beginning of the end.

In the late 50s Harry Nilsson moved from NY to LA with a 9th grade education and lots of ambition. He got a job working on bank computers at night which left his days free to concentrate on songwriting. By the middle of the decade, fresh-faced Harry had secured a record contract with help from many fortuitous associations, mostly with arranger George Tipton who bankrolled Harry’s first recordings. He was recording solo LPs and having his song songs recorded by the Monkees and Glen Campbell. But his first big breakthrough was in 1969 recording Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, which was eventually used as the theme to the X-rated movie, Midnight Cowboy. He was also asked to write the theme to the new TV Show, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father and the LA group, Three Dog Night took his song, One into the Top 10. Nilsson was now in demand, but it would be a few albums later that he’d bring out the big guns.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Harry Nilsson. We share the same birthday. We were both born in NY. As he was celebrating his 30th birthday, recording sessions for his new album, Nilsson Schmilsson, my family was celebrating the arrival of the first grandchild. Once I auditioned and had a hold on playing Nilsson in a bio-pic about Monty Python’s Graham Chapman which ended up in film limbo. I could grow my hair out as well as a thick beard and look just Harry did on the cover of the LP, bathrobe and all. It was this contrast from the lean shaven, suit wearing, Beatle-ish look to a scruffy hippie rocker that most likely foreshadowed where Harry was heading.

Produced by Richard Perry, Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry’s 7th album, had a little of everything. In less talented hands it was sound like a schizophrenic mish-mash. But with solid production, arrangements and performances, it became Harry’s best and was rewarded as such. Harry has given many great recorded vocal performances (check out A Touch of Schmilsson In the Night for more proof) but I’m not sure anything could ever top Without You.

Harry had been hanging out one night, playing cards with friends, when someone put on Badfinger’s, No Dice LP which featured the original version of the song. Throughout the night the song haunted him and he had to find out who it was. Was it a lost Beatles track? A late night drive to a record store proved that it wasn’t, but it was an Apple Records artist. (An aside: Harry was a Beatles freak and eventually became a fan & compadre of John Lennon as well as one of Ringo Starr’s best friends) Badfinger’s version was a raw, bluesy rocker with minimal arrangement. Nilsson wanted to keep some of that same feeling, but producer Richard Perry talked him into a larger big ballad string arrangement. When Harry hits that last chorus, the seams are about to burst with the strings keeping the song from full on anarchy.

When people try to explain to me what they think good singing is, I tell them to play Nilsson’s Without You and get back to me. With a spare piano intro played by Gary Wright, Harry starts off soft & slow, voice full of regret and disbelief that his girl has left him. He can’t let go and plays the memory of that fateful night over and over in his head. He plaintively explains that he can’t live if living is without you, and then he lets the pain ring out of his achingly beautiful voice, reaching an octave higher and echoing the same sentiment with confusion and desperation. He repeats the opening words, almost having to explain his outburst to whoever he telling this to, most likely his shadow in an empty room. No matter his other talents, Harry’s best gift was his voice and sings a simple story of lost love better than any other pop singer ever has. Even Badfinger probably didn’t realize the depth of their own song.

This song made Harry a star. But rather than build on its success, Harry lost his mind and devolved into an alcoholic lunatic, occasionally recording some good songs, but never coming anywhere close to his performance on Without You. By 1974 his voice was almost gone to due to his drinking, his “lost weekend” with John Lennon and subsequent strain he put on his voice shouting during the recording of his Pussy Cats LP. Badfinger should have been rich, but never collected most of the royalties of this song and its 2 writers, Ham & Evans, both committed suicide.

Nilsson die on January 15th, 1994, the week that Mariah Carey released her awful version of this song. Hopefully Harry never heard her version. I sure wish I never had. If any of you would like to educate the young about singing, play Harry & Mariah’s version of Without You back to back, of how to and not sing a song. That’s an education an aspiring singer should have.