“If there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public, but when it comes down to fooling you, now honey that’s quite a different subject.”
I don’t think there is a better opening line of lyrics and verse melody ever crafted in a pop song. It’s the perfect combination of clever introspective word play and a soaring melody that cuts through the air like a skyscraper. It’s sublime and it’s no wonder that it was crafted primarily by Motown titans Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. In the past week, I must have played this song about 30 times on my iPod. This song has become a key part of my late Spring 2015 soundtrack as I walk around the city. The music just animates NYC as I turn corners, climb steps and gaze at crystal blue colored skies with this jam kaleidoscoping through my brain.
It’s ironic how much joy this song gives me despite it’s depressing subject matter. It’s a great breakup song with perfect rhymes. The only complaint I have is the circus like orchestral melody which is supposed to tie in with clown theme. It’s incredibly catchy and suits the song musically but I wish they made it a bit cooler and less commercial. Maybe record it with a Rhodes electric piano or a fuzzed up electric guitar line. That doesn’t matter, this song is fantastic and will probably be replayed thousands of times in the lives of the people who come to love the song. Become one of them by watching the video below.
Two songwriting icons passed away yesterday, and ironically, both were halves of legendary songwriting teams. Nick Ashford, legendary Motown songwriter, who was paired with his wife Valerie Simpson, died at 70 in Manhattan. Jerry Leiber, partnered with Mike Stoller, co-wrote some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits, died at 78 in Los Angeles. Among Ashford’s greatest hits were “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” displaying his mastery of the word “ain’t.” Leiber and Stoller churned out “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand By Me.” Both Ashford and Leiber were beloved geniuses of their craft and produced songs that are etched like concrete in the public’s minds. It’s a sad day, but on the sunny side, the great thing about dying a master songwriter is that your music truly lives on, leaving the perfect memorial. My little memorial comes in the form of Ben E. King’s rendition of “Stand By Me,” and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of “Aint No Mountain High Enough.” Oh, and just a reminder, click here and you can vote for me every day for CBS’s Most Valuable Blogger where I am a finalist! Thanks!
This was the third killer single (I Want You Back, ABC) from the Jackson 5 after they made their killer debut on Motown. It’s a song with a crazy soaring melody and complex vocal arrangement that came from the hit making geniuses “The Corporation,” the Los Angeles wing of Motown’s machine. This performance, from Ed Sullivan, is lip-synced, but who cares, the recorded version is so insanely good that its still thrilling to see the boys go all out performing it. For my money, this is young Michael Jackson’s greatest vocal achievement. It’s the most exciting and challenging lead vocal he ever did, and he absolutely owns it, breathlessly showcasing his unlimited talent and potential. It’s spellbinding to see how relaxed and confident Michael is on that stage. He just exudes cool, even at 11 years old. I really think it’s almost impossible how god-like young Michael was. He is simply one of the greatest child prodigies in music history, and that includes the likes of Mozart. Unreal.
Welcome to part 89 of my legendary youtube countdown. Countdown to what? I have no idea, but lets hope the world finds peace along the way. One way to help this planet on that quest are the musical stylings of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder singing “Ebony and Ivory” from Paul’s 1982 LP Tug of War. By the way, pick up Tug of War if you see it sitting dusty in a record store. It’s one of Paul’s better 80s albums produced by the legendary Beatles George Martin no less. That record also features Paul’s tribute song to John Lennon, “Here Today,” a track I might cover in the future. Anyway, Paul wrote this mega hit “Ebony and Ivory” after hearing an old Spike Milligan phrase, “black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two, to make harmony folks!” Well, the phrase is right, and the song is true. Paul and Stevie performed the song live in studio, which is always a cool yet difficult feat. Ironically, due to scheduling conflicts, they had to film their parts in the music video separately. It’s an amazing feat, considering they are sitting next to each other, but its just camera trickery folks. What IS true is that they both traveled to Bolivia to dance on the world’s largest piano. ; )
Part 85 my soul people, back with more Marvin Gaye like I promised. This time, its a special performance of “Sexual Healing,” sung live at the 1983 Grammys. This was Marvin’s last worldwide smash hit, eventually peaking at #3 on the Billboard 100 after dominating the R&B charts. There is a lot of tragedy and joy to be found in the creation of this record. It’s a reflection of Marvin attempting to embrace a healthier more peaceful life through sobriety, exercise, and uh..sex. Sadly, just as he was in the midst of his triumphant comeback, he was gunned down by his father in one of the more bizarre rock and roll assassinations. It reminds me a lot of John Lennon’s demise after he completed Double Fantasy. It’s really painful to think of the three icons; Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Bob Marley, all dying in the early 80s. They left a tremendous void. Anyway, this song was almost entirely produced by Marvin himself outside of the rhythm guitars. It’s a true masterpiece that touched on elements of doo-wop, snythpop, reggae, funk and gospel. This performance, a lot like the song, is a triumph. Marvin reminds the music elite that he is an absolute God, taking them to school by defining what pop music is and can be. RIP Marvin.
Soul week grooves on with part 84 of my youtube countdown. Today I have Marvin Gaye, the Prince of Soul, singing “The National Anthem” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. For my money, this is the greatest National Anthem ever, slightly better than Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic Woodstock performance. Marvin managed to turn the normally stuffy and militaristic anthem into a smooth soul jam complete with the most seductive beat and vocal delivery ever achieved for the song. There is just too much to love about this video. I love the way he sexualizes the song, driving every woman in the crowd absolutely crazy. I love the way the NBA arena reflects off his large sunglasses. Most of all, I love the way he squeezes all that emotion from his performance to the point where he looks like he is going to cry. The most amazing feat of the song is that Marvin’s version somehow reflects the entire history of cultural cool that America has produced in its history, not just its military glory and political power. It’s almost a personal anthem, reflecting Marvin’s sad yet sexy soul. Whatever it is, its a pure wonder, and an essential listening experience. Enjoy. Oh, PS, expect more Marvin this week.
Happy Tuesday everybody, part 83 of my countdown is all about soul. In fact the rest of the week is soul week here at williesimpson.com. I officially kick things off with Al Green’s soulful classic, “Tired of Being Alone,” from his 1971 LP, Al Green Gets Next to You. This song is like a bridge from classic Motown pop to sophisticated 70s soul. It features that familiar Motown sound with the syncopated brass and steady drumming, but is differentiated with less busy production that allows for Al’s voice to soar seductively in an emptier space. It’s a work of genius. This clip is a priceless rare performance of a young Al singing live in full 70s soul glam. It’s Al in his utter prime which is kind of redundant because he has rarely been out of his prime in his sprawling hall of fame career. Be sure to come back tomorrow for some classic Marvin Gaye.
For part 82 of my youtube countdown, you’re in danger of running “Out of Time” with the Rolling Stones incredible 1966 single. First released on the UK version of Aftermath, the song is a fabulous example of 60s Brit pop, as well as being another song in a string of misogynistic themed lyrical exercises the Stones had going at the time. (For the record, just pointing the misogyny out, not celebrating it.) The first version of the song had a slow experimental garage rock feel, featuring Brian Jones on the marimba, (close to a xylophone.) Version 2 has a more sweeping Beatle-esque arrangement, with thicker background vocals, a faster tempo, and a dramatic string arrangement. Version 2 is my favorite, mainly for the killer Motown vocal chorus where Mick’s voice mixes sloppily (yet sublimely) with the female singers. It’s a hook that makes my knees buckle. I’ve also included the Mick Jagger produced cover version done by obscure British pop singer Chris Farlowe. His backing version is identical to the Stone’s second mix, and Mick is singing backup on that one too. Farlowe’s version went to #1, but I’m including it because this guy is so British looking. He’s like a cross between Austin Powers and Prince Charles. It’s really funny. So, here you go, all three versions of one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs of all time, “Out of Time.”
We’re the Pepsi Generation in part 79 of my youtube countdown. I’ve got Michael, Marlon, Jackie, Randy, Tito, and Jermaine all pitching soft drinks in the height of the 80s soda craze. These 3 awesome videos to take you back in time to a more magical place where if you were drinking a Pepsi and dancing in the Bronx, you might just run into Michael Jackson and his brothers doing the same. Wearing the same clothes as them only increased your chances by the way. The other video features the gang getting ready for one of their Victory tour shows, evidenced by the guy wearing a 350 dollar official Victory Tour jacket. Lastly, I have a clip of Michael’s hair catching fire filming, the event that supposedly led him to consider more and more radical plastic surgery. Pretty freaky stuff. It’s kind of incredible that even though his head is blazing, he keeps dancing until the entire crew tackles him trying to save his life. Crazy!
Continuing onto part 4 of my youtube favorites countdown, I can proudly announce that if you’re reading this, its your lucky day. If you love hidden gems, long lost songs, and pure Detroit Motown Soul, then this is your Valhalla. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 1965 #14 hit, My Girl Has Gone. Most new Miracles fans like myself are well versed with, “The Tracks of my Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” and “Shop Around,” but I found one that NEVER gets any modern radio play, or usage in any new medium, and that is this gorgeous ballad. One of the greatest breakup songs ever, featuring more brilliant lyrics from Smokey and the gang that are both utterly depressing and divinely uplifting from one line to the next. Oh my God, the harmonies that shimmer with vintage perfection, the guitar lines that just drip with heart wrenching longing, and the melody that takes you to heights of musical ecstasy. This is just simply one of my favorite songs, and an example of Motown Magnificence.