Monday, April 21, 2008

Obscure Originals, Vol. 2

This is the second installment in a series spotlighting songs that are best known by artists who did not record them originally. As in Volume 1, the histories presented herein are not meant to be exhaustive or unbiased.

Song: “Dazed and Confused”
Best known by: Led Zeppelin
Originally recorded by: Jake Holmes
The story: Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” sounds like a work of such striking originality that it’s hard to believe there is actually almost nothing original about it! First of all, Zep didn’t write the song—Jake Holmes did. The American singer/songwriter recorded it in an acid-folk style with Dylanesque lyrics, an eerily minimalistic arrangement, and a vocal that can only be described as frighteningly intense. It was included on his album The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes in 1967; in August of that year, Holmes opened for The Yardbirds in New York City, where Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty found himself spellbound by “Dazed and Confused.” At McCarty’s suggestion, The Yardbirds worked out their own arrangement of the song, complete with one of their classic “rave up” instrumental breaks and heavy riffing courtesy of their lead guitarist at the time, a fellow named Jimmy Page (ahem). As was his wont, lead singer Keith Relf habitually messed around with the lyrics and blew into a harmonica on the break. Page played his guitar with a violin bow. Audiences went crazy. But The Yardbirds were coming apart at the seams, and they finally disintegrated in the summer and fall of 1968. Thus, for all their electrifying live performances of “Dazed,” The Yardbirds never got around to recording a proper studio version; meanwhile, through a long, convoluted series of events, The Yardbirds morphed into Led Zeppelin by the end of 1968. Page knew a hit song when he heard one, so Led Zep took the basic elements of The Yardbirds’ arrangement, rewrote most of Jake Holmes’ lyrics, and cut a thick, screaming rendition sounding as if Satan himself was at the producer’s chair. Released on Zep’s eponymous debut album in 1969, it became one of the all-time classics of hard rock. But, of course, Jake Holmes was screwed because Page and Robert Plant claimed authorship of the song! To this day, ASCAP’s database retains two separate copyrights: one for a “Dazed and Confused” written by Holmes and one for a “Dazed and Confused” now credited solely to Page! In order to learn how ASCAP allowed such things to happen, it looks as though we’d need to consult another Holmes—namely Sherlock. As for Jake Holmes, he found his fame as the composer of commercial jingles: “Raise your hand if you’re Sure,” “Be all that you can be in the Army,” “Gillette, the best a man can get,” and many, many, many more. His version of “Dazed” has become readily available thanks to, but good luck obtaining the Yardbirds’ rendition of it; several live recordings have been released, sometimes legitimately, but Page keeps finding ways to get those releases off the market.

Rare footage of The Yardbirds performing "Dazed And Confused" on French TV in March, 1968:

Song: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
Best known by: Ray Charles
Originally recorded by: Don Gibson
The story: He was popular for decades, but during his late ‘50s/early ‘60s peak, Don Gibson was country music’s ultimate sad sack. His song titles from that era say it all: “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Lonesome Old House,” “Blue, Blue Day,” “Bad, Bad Day,” “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles,” “Sea Of Heartbreak”—okay, he didn’t write that last one, but the point still stands. Under the skillful guidance of the one and only Chet Atkins, Gibson was one of the first country artists to cross over to the pop charts in a big way. In 1958, “Oh, Lonesome Me” became his first major pop hit; in those days, B-sides often became hits, too, and though the tears-in-my-beer balladry of Gibson’s self-penned “I Can’t Stop Loving You” petered out at #81 on Billboard’s pop charts, it was a Top 10 country hit. Ray Charles was not the first to break it out of its pure country shell (Roy Orbison did a delicious Nashville pop rendition in 1960, for example), but Brother Ray’s version was nonetheless revolutionary. A lifelong lover of country music who was trapped in a world that rarely accepted black artists as practitioners of the genre, Brother Ray dared to cut the album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, from which “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the lead single. Musically and chart-wise, the track transcended numerous boundaries, topping Billboard’s pop, R&B, and adult contemporary charts in 1962. Moreover, it began a run of popular country covers that earned Ray Charles the approbation of many in the country music establishment.

[Note: Don Gibson re-recorded many of his ‘50s hits for the Hickory label in later years. Look for compilations released by or licensed from RCA or its parent company, which is currently Sony BMG. Roy Orbison re-recorded “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in a radically different arrangement in 1972; these days, the 1960 version can be found most easily on Roy Orbison Sings Lonely And Blue.]

Song: “Land of 1000 Dances”
Best known by: Wilson Pickett
Originally recorded by: Chris Kenner
The story: Chris “I Like It Like That” Kenner was a fixture on the New Orleans R&B scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. He wrote “Land of 1000 Dances” (and later gave Fats Domino co-writer’s credit so that Domino would cover the song) but the only movement Kenner’s version elicits from this writer is to walk to the nearest bed and lie down. Kenner’s sluggish, monotonous rendition represented the New Orleans sound at its least inspired, but it must have gotten some sales or airplay somewhere, because it actually hit the charts in 1962. Fortunately, it didn’t become enough of a hit to make an indelible impact. The song made its way to the East LA scene, where seemingly countless Chicano bands thrived on obscure R&B. Vocal group Cannibal & The Headhunters worked up a smoldering mid-tempo arrangement; lead singer Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia couldn’t remember the lyrics on stage, so he ad-libbed the na-na’s that we now consider an essential component of the song. Cannibal & co.’s record became a Top 30 hit in 1965, and fellow East Los Angelenos Thee Midniters had a minor hit that same year with their competing version. The song was getting faster and faster, and Wilson Pickett’s supercharged Memphis soul reading cranked up the tempo to the max. It was just what the Billboard charts were looking for: #6 pop, #1 R&B in 1966. Even though Pickett’s version is often regarded as the ultimate, that hasn’t stopped the song from being one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll cover items of all time.

Song: “Do Ya”
Best known by: Electric Light Orchestra
Originally recorded by: The Move
The story: Birmingham, England in the 1960s was overflowing with bands of various stripes. Though The Move never quite caught on in the United States, they had massive success in the UK and “on the continent” during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Roy Wood led The Move, while a young Jeff Lynne led The Idle Race, a Birmingham band with close ties to The Move. Having lost some Move members around the end of the 1960s, Wood invited Lynne to join The Move and Lynne accepted. The early ‘70s Move, led jointly by Wood and Lynne, continued to have hits, but both Wood and Lynne were getting tired of the band and wanted to, er, move into symphonic rock. In 1971, they started Electric Light Orchestra as a side project, but it was soon to become a full-time endeavor. The Move’s final single, “California Man,” came out in 1972 and reached the UK Top 10. However, its throwaway B-side “Do Ya” was plugged as the A-side in the US and picked by many American tipsters to become a hit. In a bizarre twist of fate, the Lynne-composed “Do Ya” became The Move’s only song to make Billboard’s Hot 100—where it peaked at a measly #93. And that was it for The Move. ELO continued on, although Wood left after the group’s first album due to creative differences with Lynne, and in 1976 Lynne elected to dig up “Do Ya” and give it the ELO treatment. Whereas The Move’s version was just loud, crazy guitar rock, ELO’s version had the requisite orchestral and spacey touches. Needless to say, it became a much bigger hit, making #24 on Billboard in 1977.

Song: “Dedicated To The One I Love”
Best known by: The Shirelles; The Mamas & The Papas
Originally recorded by: The “5” Royales
The story: Goodness gracious, this is a strange story. Lowman Pauling of R&B vocal outfit The “5” Royales [sic!] shared the writing credit on this tune with his group’s producer Ralph Bass. The “5” Royales cut a bluesy version of the song, complete with raunchy guitar fills, in 1957. Released at the end of the year on the mighty King label, it went nowhere. The Shirelles sneaked into the lower rungs of the Hot 100 in 1959 with their streamlined rendition, released on the fledgling Scepter label. In late 1960, The Shirelles hit the big time with the now-inescapable “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (the word “still” does not technically appear in the title). Scepter, now on its way to becoming even mightier than King, reissued The Shirelles’ version of “Dedicated” as the follow-up. It reached #3 on the Hot 100 in early 1961, but not without some competition: King had noticed that Scepter was giving The Shirelles’ version another go and re-released The “5” Royales original. The two recordings went up against each other briefly, but The “5” Royales’ version ultimately could reach no higher than #81 on the Hot 100. The song was hardly recognizable in The Mamas & The Papas’ elaborate sunshine pop reading, but America’s favorite hippies took it all the way to #2 in 1967.

[Note: If you’re seeking The “5” Royales’ rendition, you should know that there are at least two variations: the original and an awkward overdubbed version. If you get the track on Volume 10 of Ace Records’ excellent Golden Age of American Rock ‘n’ Roll series, you will get the superior version without the overdubs. Other compilations or albums might contain the overdubbed version instead.]

Song: “Hush”
Best known by: Deep Purple
Originally recorded by: Billy Joe Royal
The story: For a few solid years, Billy Joe Royal was the main voice for fellow Georgian Joe South’s compositions, with South himself producing Royal’s records. Though this relationship initially yielded strong commercial results, Royal’s 1967 single of “Hush” didn’t exactly reach the same heights as “Down In The Boondocks,” stalling out at #52 on the Hot 100. Its appealing country-soul style presaged the sound that brought Elvis back to the top of the charts in 1969, but it was perhaps a bit premature in ’67. Lest you think the song’s catchiness went unnoticed, it spawned numerous international covers which experienced varying degrees of success in their respective countries. One such cover was recorded by British singer Kris Ife, whose frenetic soul-rock reading smacked of the Mod scene and got a lot of spins in the UK dance clubs (hear it on his MySpace page). A new British band by the name of Deep Purple learned of the song from Ife’s version and recast it in a low, menacing key, giving it a heavy rock interpretation with a psychedelic jazz slant. Despite doing little business in the UK, it was an enormous US hit in 1968 (#4 on the Hot 100) and has been one of Deep Purple’s signature songs ever since. Incidentally, it was released in the US on Tetragrammaton, a short-lived label co-owned by Bill Cosby! Joe South himself cut the song with a funky country-rock feel, and his version came out on his Games People Play album in 1969. Naaaaah na na naaah na na naaah na na naaaaah....

Stay tuned for Volume 3. Meanwhile, don’t forget The Originals Project:

Copyright © 2008
S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.