Saturday, July 14, 2012

Elvis Covers, Part I: Love Me Tender

Beth Nielsen Chapman: Love Me Tender


Like so many of The King's greatest hits, Love Me Tender is a many-covered thing, a gem in the collections of crooners Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet, an R&B charter in the hands of Percy Sledge, a slight and subtle soundtrack whisper in the sultry tones of Norah Jones, a piano bar swan song from the waning days of Scatman John. (Not all covers are so successful, of course; though Willie Nelson's more recent live versions of the song are as heartfelt and poignant as you might imagine, his studio version, recorded for 1985 frat-boy film Porky's Revenge, oozes with orchestral smarm.)

Which is to say: I've heard this song done soaringly, and with broken wisdom; with disdain, and with tenderness. So have you, I warrant. But sometimes, simplest is best. And so as we approach the end of our thematic journey, we turn to one of our favorite lullaby collections for this Beth Nielsen Chapman gem, soothing as a mother's arms. So are great love songs transformed, in service to our parental dreams.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Elvis Covers Part 1 : Kissin' Cousins

The Saints : Kissin' Cousins


Bob Geldorf said "Rock music in the seventies was changed by three bands - The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and The Saints".

Blasting out of Australia with loud guitars and a snarling vocalist named Chris Bailey, The Saints learned their chops by playing sped up raucous versions of tunes by Connie Francis, Del Shannon and Ike and Tina Turner.  In September of 1976, they put out a self-pressed single, "(I'm) Stranded",  before either the Pistols or The Clash. A reviewer from Sounds called the tune the "single of this and every week" and they promptly landed a three record deal with EMI.

Elvis fans from back in the day when they called themselves Kid Galahad and The Eternals, the lads decided to record one of the King's cheesiest tunes for their debut album."Kissin' Cousins",  a celebration of incest made somehow more palatable by the line "She's a distant cousin/But she's not too distant with me", gets the full punk treatment. The Saints had a long career and were inducted in the Australian versions of its Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: Heartbreak Hotel

Doc Watson: Heartbreak Hotel


We speak so much and so well of Arthel "Doc" Watson's ethnomusical prowess with the fiddle tunes of hill and holler, it's easy to forget he fed his early ear on radio, and got his start as a barroom player in a country and western swing band.

But Watson never forgot his other roots. Although a number of his earliest recordings mine Appalachia almost exclusively, his overall body of work - over fifty LPs in all - is peppered with here-and-there coverage of contemporary songs, their tunes and tenor popping through the surface of tradition like errant wildflowers in a field of wheat.

Docabilly, his late career tribute to his early influences, is an extreme case, and quite produced in places, as it should be - Doc's trip down memory lane is paved with smooth studio versions that lean heavily on brushed drums, bluegrass pickin' and slippery slide guitars even as their settings veer from true-blue blues to high-concept country. At its worst, this gives Docabilly a bit of a "novelty album" feel, and it's tempting to argue from a purist's perspective that Doc fails to give this song the gravity it deserves, given its narrative origin in the true tale of a man who jumped out of a hotel window. But there's something tender about the way the aging cowboy baritone takes on these mid-century rock and country hits from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, and The King himself - he loves these tunes, and you can hear it.

Elvis Covers Part 1 : All Shook Up

Suzi Quatro : All Shook Up


In 1973 Suzi Quatro was one of America's most successful exports to the UK. Her debut album is full of heavy glam beats and thick as molasses guitar chords but its biggest attraction is the wailing voice of the young woman in a leather cat suit. Quatro arrived at her concerts on the back of a motorcycle, played the bass, sang about sex and eventually made the unforgettable announcement that she wasn't wearing any underwear under that catsuit.
Among the cuts on the debut album is the single "Can The Can", which went #1 in the UK, Japan and Australia, a UK#3 single called "48 Crash" and "All Shook Up" , the Elvis Presley tune that topped the charts for eight weeks in 1957. The album made less than a dent in the US but, impressed by her version of "All Shook Up",  Elvis himself invited Quatro to Graceland. She declined.

Elvis Covers Part I: Blue Suede Shoes

Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes

[purchase (CD only; individual tracks available on iTunes)]

Here's a cover of a cover: Carl Perkins redoing "Blue Suede Shoes," which was an Elvis Presley cover of an Carl Perkins.

"Blue Suede Shoes" was the opening track on Elvis's 1956 RCA debut record, which, despite its reputation as the record that launched commercial rock and roll, is actually mostly a collection of cover songs. Legend has it that Elvis never intended to release "Blue Suede Shoes" as a single. But, things don't always turn out the way they're planned.

As Carl Perkins could attest. Sun Record founder Sam Phillips was convinced Perkins was going to be as big as Elvis. Though Perkins wasn't as photogenic (he was already balding at age 23), he could sing the same type of blues-infused rockabilly as Presley, and could write and play lead guitar too.

"Blue Suede Shoes" is Perkins masterwork. Inspired by a conversation with his buddy Johnny Cash about the fancy footwear U.S. soldiers in Germany wore when they went into town, "Blue Suede Shoes" was released as a single by Sun on the first day of 1956. With Elvis sold to RCA, Sun was in need of a big hit and Perkins provided it. The song soared to the top of the country charts, and became a pop and R&B hit too, ultimately selling a million records.

In March 1956, with his career in rapid ascent, Perkins was summoned to New York to appear on the influential Ed Sullivan and Perry Como TV shows. En route, the fellow driving Perkins and his brother Jay (who was in Perkins' band) to New York fell asleep at the wheel. The brothers were seriously injured. (Jay eventually died from his injuries.) Carl spent months convalescing. Legend has it that a reluctant Elvis allowed "Blue Suede Shoes" to be released as a single to help out Perkins financially. Elvis's take did not fare as well as Perkins original, reaching only number 20 on the charts. But, due to Perkins's prolonged absence and Evlis's performance of the song on TV and in the movie GI Blues, "Blue Suede Shoes" became an Elvis song.

By the time Perkins was back on his feet, his career momentum was lost. Despite accolades from Elvis and the Beatles, Perkins never came close to matching the success of "Blue Suede Shoes." Perhaps in an attempt to reclaim his best-known song, Perkins re-recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" dozens of times. This take is produced by Dave Edmunds from the soundtrack to Porky's Revenge -- perhaps the greatest soundtrack to a rotten movie ever.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: (You’re the) Devil in Disguise

Freddy Fender: (You’re the) Devil in Disguise


Freddy Fender: No Seas Cruel (Don’t Be Cruel)


Do any of you speak Spanish? I studied the language in high school, but I must’ve goofed off a little too much in that class. If you do speak it well, check out the 24 songs sung in Spanish on Freddy Fender’s album “Canciones de Mi Barrio.” Fender was born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Tx. on June 4, 1937. In 1959, he took “Freddy Fender” as his rockabilly stage name. “Fender” came from the brand of his electric guitar, and “Freddy” just sounded good for a first name.

Recorded between 1959-64 for a small Texas label (Ideal), 24 of his earliest Tejano rock recordings are compiled on this album. Subtitled “The Roots of Tejano Rock,” the Arhoolie label reissued “Canciones de Mi Barrio” in 1993. It unfortunately doesn’t include his version (recorded in 1957) of “No Seas Cruel” (a Spanish version of “Don’t Be Cruel”), but that song is available on two other recent reissues on Master Classics Records.

Freddy Fender was obviously influenced greatly by Elvis, and his versions of “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” and "No Seas Cruel" are unique. I’ve always enjoyed his strong, clear voice. Freddy Fender did a lot to connect and bring rock ‘n roll, country, pop and Tex-Mex to Hispanic audiences. And I might’ve even learned more Spanish if my high school teacher had used his music in class.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: Hard-Headed Woman

Wanda Jackson: Hard-Headed Woman

 King of Rock 'n' Roll, eh?  Well, I guess we get the King we deserve.  As a society we surge purposefully toward the middle of the road, never truly comfortable with the truly sexy or dangerous, preferring instead the chintzy allure of the ersatz.  Don't get me wrong: Elvis was really something for a while, but John Lennon's estimation of his date of death, or at least the death of his relevance was pretty-well on the money.  It's telling that the first image that comes to mind when his name comes up is that of the tragic, jump-suited fat man, not the lithe, prowling young rebel who made our grandmothers come over all unnecessary.  It's more telling still that the booming trade in Elvis impersonators home in on that era - it's a lazy shorthand, of course, but one that drunk people will understand while they're committing to something regrettable with someone they barely know in a chintzy chapel somewhere in Reno tonight.

It could have been so different, of course.  Rock 'n' Roll is, in its purest form, a spicy gumbo of sex, rebellion and attitude, and as such far more primal and important than we probably deserve.  But if we did deserve it, our King may well have been a Queen.  Wanda Jackson had - hell, still has - the looks, the sass and the howl, and unlike Mr Presley, she never let the army or Colonel Tom Parker knock the attitude out of her.  Elvis cover?  No.  This is way more than that.  If the seldom-achieved point of a cover version is to surpass the original then Ms Jackson delivers where few others have managed.  She's the original, you see.    

Monday, July 9, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: Suspicious Minds & Always on My Mind

Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter: Suspicious Minds


Me First and the Gimme Gimmes: [Always] On My Mind

[purchase (CD only)]

Why didn't Elvis record more Mark James tunes? Some of the most successful songs from the latter half of the King's career came from Gray's pen -- "Suspicious Minds," "Always on My Mind," "Raised on Rock" and "Moody Blue" (the title track from the last album Elvis recorded before he died). Born Francis Zambon, James was childhood friends with singer B.J. Thomas, who scored a big hit with James's "Hooked on a Feeling." James became a staff writer for Chips Moman, who brought him to Elvis's attention during the recording of The Memphis Records, which Moman produced.

Here are covers of James's two best-known Presley tracks. Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter's take on "Suspicious Minds" sticks pretty close to Elvis's original. It was originally released in 1969, in a bid to establish Waylon and Jessi as a groovier version of Johnny and June. The song made a bigger splash when it was re-released in 1976, as part of The Outlaws compilation, which became the first country record to go platinum.

The obvious cover of "Always on My Mind" is Willie Nelson's take, which is one of the biggest records of the 1980s, and one of the few redos of an Elvis Presley song that outsold the original. After a couple of weeks of posting obvious choices, I'll go with a lesser known and more adventurous version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The tongue-in-cheek punk supergroup specializes in breakneck covers of ballads and pop standards. (Their version of "I Am a Rock" is brilliant.) "On My Mind" (for some reason, the word "Always" has been dropped) is from Me First and the Gimme Gimmes Ruin Jonny's Bar Mitzvah, recorded at a 2004 bar mitzvah party.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: Viva Las Vegas

Dead Kennedys: Viva Las Vegas

In 1980, I was a college student and disc jockey at WPRB. Punk and new wave music were still pretty new, and we got an album called Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, by a band called Dead Kennedys. Even a liberal Democrat like me found that amusing—a band willing to make fun of sainted American politicians. As a college student, what is more attractive than a band willing to thumb its nose at convention and say fuck you to the establishment? It was almost embarrassing to mention the name on the air, but in some ways it was liberating.

I loved the Dead Kennedys first because of their name. But there was much more to enjoy. The music was fast, loud and intense, but still melodic and even catchy. The vocalist had a crazy voice and called himself “Jello Biafra,” again making light of a sacred cow, the horrific famine that ravaged Biafra during its failed attempt to secede from Nigeria. Then there were the songs—“Holiday in Cambodia”. “Kill the Poor”. “Let’s Lynch the Landlord”. “Chemical Warfare”. “California Über Alles”. Clearly a band that was willing to be controversial but with their tongue firmly in their cheeks.

And as if to prove that they weren’t taking themselves all that seriously, a cover of “Viva Las Vegas”. The Grascals’ version of this song posted by Joe Ross magnifies the country aspects of the Elvis version. The DK’s version enhances and glorifies the rockabilly and rock and roll aspects of the original, but which, as Allmusic notes, was probably designed to be “ironic and campy”.

This version is not the studio version, but a great live version that I first heard on a compilation I received as part of my subscription to Mojo Magazine, but is originally from a live album called Live at the Deaf Club, recorded in 1979, but not officially released until 2004.

Elvis Covers Part I: Can't Help Falling In Love

Eels: Can't Help Falling In Love


Nell Robinson: Can't Help Falling In Love


It's not just that the Elvis songbook is so deeply embedded in our culture, though it is. It's that the songs he made famous echo through the canon of American music like a grace note, their strand woven into our very psyche. Great performers like E. A. Presley influence generations, their nuance and narrative lingering in us as individuals and collectively; it is because of this, in no small part, that I am a coverblogger.

Case in point: like many children of that infamous hairspray era the 80's, my introduction to this song was through the pouty pop of Canadian crooner Corey Hart, whose Top 40 hit was but a b-side footnote to the nocturnal eyewear of his biggest; later that year, I would revel in the upbeat celtic mood of Lick The Tins as they took the song to the streets in John Hughes vehicle Some Kind Of Wonderful, which premiered in my own little town.

Since then, of course, I've collected dozens upon dozens of covers of Elvis' nth most popular Greatest Hit, from the regaaepop version UB40 released in the early nineties to several sparse and stunning versions done in the last few years. Many are excellent, especially those which have taught me to recognize the strength under the syrup: as tender and brokenly self-effacing as Mark E of the Eels plays it in concert, as sweet and gentle as Nell Robinson's old-timey lullaby. Also worth digging up, for comparison's sake: Ingrid Michaelson's swoony piano cover, Howe Gelb's shattered, breathy bassgrowl, an utterly dreadful thing from Bono, and a gift for hardcore folk fans: Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, with a story of the first time they played this song together.

Elvis Covers Part I: Viva Las Vegas

The Grascals: Viva Las Vegas


After a couple listens to The Grascals’ debut CD back in 2005, I was convinced that the album would be among my top ten favorites for that year. Besides offering great music, I heard a cohesive and collaborative band built around six talented friends who shared common goals. At that time, you couldn’t find much better musicians with both expert bluegrass and country sensibilities than The Grascals’ Terry Eldredge (lead vocals, guitar), Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle), David Talbot (banjo, vocals), Jamie Johnson (guitar, vocals), Danny Roberts (mandolin) and Terry Smith (bass). Dolly Parton invited The Grascals to open all concerts on her Hello, I'm Dolly tour in the fall of 2004, as well as to join other musicians backing up Dolly each evening.

Well, it wasn’t long before many folks were noticing the band. The Grascals won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Emerging Artist Award in 2005. Then, they went on to win the IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year Awards for both 2006 and 2007! Others agree that the entertaining group is made up of discriminating, well-rounded and resourceful performers with plenty of showmanship. You may not be that into bluegrass or country, but you’ll find The Grascals to be enjoyable. Since 2005, Mattingly and Talbot have left the band, and their replacements are every bit as good if not better -- fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjo-player Kristin Scott Benson.

Whether playing traditional or contemporary material, The Grascals simply have good taste when it comes to arrangements and musicianship. Their eclectic material appeals to many tastes. And these high rollers aren't afraid to gamble a little or take a few risks. “Viva Las Vegas” closed their debut album and included special guest vocalist Dolly Parton and some of Bob Mater’s drumming. While I’ve never caught them live in concert, I understand that guitarist Jamie Johnson even does Elvis Presley impersonations. Like the song “Viva Las Vegas” states, I think they “shoot a seven with every shot.”

Elvis Covers Part I: Money Honey

Ry Cooder: Money Honey

For what it's worth, I was brought up equating the subject of our postings this week (The King) with his gyrations: Elvis the Pelvis. As someone who claims Ry Cooder as a great influence, I learned this week how little I really know (one of the ongoing personal benefits I am reaping by joining SMM). I'll take comfort in the quote attributed to Socrates that "wisdom is knowing how little we know."

Money Honey was written by Jesse Stone back in '53 when he was working with/for Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. The song has been covered by Eddie Cochran, The Jackson 5, The Coasters and Clyde McPhatter (with the Drifters). There's a Bob Dylan version, too, apparently recorded in 1994. Lady Gaga also does a tune of the same name, but it isn't this song. And then there's this version:

Ry has covered other Elvis hits: Little Sister (on Bop Til You Drop -1979), All Shook Up (Get Rhythm -1987), and Blue Suede Shoes (The Slide Area -1982). On his 1971 second album, Into the Purple Valley, he covered Money Honey, a song Elvis did back in 1955. (It's also included on a Cooder "best of" CD called Why Don't You Try Me ..")

The Elvis version is classic late-50s: the guitar is elemental electric (kinda raw); the production is sparse, but the King is in the house with a great song. I confess I never collected Elvis, but I happen to have a copy of the Drifters' version which isn't too far off the mark of the Elvis version. I would like to think that Cooder was partially inspired by the Elvis version and certainly thank him for bringing it to life for me.