Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 38
In this, the second installment of AM Gold: 1971, we tackle one of music’s greatest mysteries. Just how many people are in Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds? It’s certainly a question that greater minds than ours have pondered before…
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#6: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Mr. Bojangles” – #9 U.S.
Dw. Dunphy - HIS DOG UP AND DIED!
HE UP AND DIED!!
HAVE YOU NO HEART?!!
Jack Feerick - In theory, dressing up this tune with old-timey instruments like mandolin and accordion should help create some appropriate atmosphere, but in practice not so much. It’s an oddly-structured beast, this song; it takes its sweet time getting to that chorus, and with no regular rhyme scheme to hang onto, it feels even longer. (It irritates that it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to rhyme or not.)
And there’s something irreducibly dicey about the lyric of the young rowdy and the elderly, destitute — and presumably African-American — man; it’s a maudlin lyric anyway, and it can easily come off patronizing. The NGDB doesn’t elevate the material, sadly — that “I drinks a bit” lands with a clang — and overall it’s graceless and hammy compared to Jerry Jeff Walker’s understated original, to say something of Nina Simone’s version.
Jon Cummings - I never had paid much attention to this lyric, and I wish I hadn’t done so this time. I guess I hadn’t noticed the depressing storyline because Jeff Hanna’s vocal is far too upbeat and irony-free, and at the young age when I first heard it I probably dismissed it as a piece of countrified fluff that didn’t interest me. Now, it’s easy to appreciate what Walker was going for in writing the song (which details an actual experience) — the wistful story of an old, alcoholic street performer who finds himself behind bars, with a touch of racial commentary tossed into the mix (why was an innocuous character like Mr. Bojangles in jail, anyway?). And there’s the Pagliacci-esque universality of a performer who’s willing to sublimate his own suffering (the dog up and died!) in order to make others happy with a bit of soft shoe. But you don’t get any of that from Hanna’s vocal — what you get is, “Maybe if I just sing this straight, and we put some fiddles and mandolins on there, we can get an old-timey folk-rock hit out of this.” And after that worked, commercially speaking at least, the NGDB decided to gather a bunch of country-pop stars and update the Carter Family catalog, which became the artistic triumph that I’d argue “Mr. Bojangles” was not.
Feerick - Jerry Jeff Walker says the song is a true story, and as it happens the actual “Mr. Bojangles” was a white man. (From Wikipedia: “Walker said while in jail for public intoxication in 1965, he met a homeless white man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police. He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about all manner of things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, and Mr. Bojangles obliged with a tap dance.”)
The truth of the event, of course, means nothing; I would argue that the Bojangles of the song is meant to be a black man — although I’m sure that Walker would deny that, in the best tradition of having one’s cake and eating it.
Dunphy - Jon, in Rick Santorum’s America, you ARE Mr. Bojangles. Don’t even get me started about that jack-ass (again).
The song “Mr. Bojangles” is in itself a children’s song. It wasn’t meant to be, and it sounds bizarre to classify it as such, but that hurdy-gurdy pace and the singalong chorus are meant for little kids. I should know. I would have been a year-and-a-half old at that time and would have been singing along with my sister “Mister Bo-jangles!” in complete ignorance of any deeper meanings or dogs up-and-dyin’.
David Lifton - One of my friends who I learned a lot of guitar from as a teenager used to play this song a lot. I don’t have a ton to say about the lyrics, but I think watching my friend play this so often is one of the reasons why I’ve always loved descending bass lines and II chords.
#7: Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs” – #3 U.S.; originally released as the B-side to “Hello Melinda Goodbye” in 1970. Re-released as an A-side in ’71.
Dunphy - It must have been a hit. Tesla covered it, so that must be some kind of clinching proof that it was a hit, but it just sounds like a great, big, airy nothing. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?
Brian Boone – A good song with a good message: Move along, hippies.
Feerick - Goofy, but I can’t help but like it. Which I suspect is by design; Mr. Electrical goes out of his way to make the Youth and the counterculture utterly nonthreatening. He isn’t just interested in complaining. And he’s not dismissing the older generation that dismisses him out of hand. Every time you expect the song to go for the easy poke against hypocrisy, against bigotry, against organized religion, the narrator instead elects to kill ‘em with kindness. He wants to get along, wants to change your mind. He genuinely is a fine upstanding young man, long hair or no, and he’s even a better Christian than you; after all, scripture says that a humble, thankful heart is the greatest gift we can give back to God. It’s utterly disarming, and kind of delightful.
Also, I like the way the intro kind of headfakes towards “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Cummings - Jack just put the words “Electrical” and “Youth” in the same sentence … which makes some sense, because “Signs” is about as much an Up With People interpretation of the counterculture as Debbie Gibson’s classic(?) was a white-bread signifier for the self-centered and disorganized “youth” of the Reagan/Bush years. (Not that I’m suggesting any of my thirtysomething Popdose colleagues were anything but Electric in their Youth…)
Chris Holmes - Yes, but was there ever a “Signs”-inspired cologne or perfume? And if so, would it just smell like B.O.?
Jeff Giles - Patchouli.
Dunphy - A heady mixture of Mel Gibson sanctimony, pre-divorce and M. Night Shyamalan desperation, post-Sixth Sense and it all culminates into a scent not unlike your uncle’s couch (the one with the cigarette burns).
Lifton - Even during those years when I flirted with ultra-left politics (i.e. college, which coincided with Tesla’s cover), this song struck me as incredibly naive. What gives you the right to put up a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and a fence? It’s his fucking house, you idiot! And you deserve to be shot if you’re going.
#8: Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, “Don’t Pull Your Love” – #4 U.S.
Dunphy - I’ve discussed on several occasions the hubba-bubba voice of the early 1970s, which is sort of a mix between Elvis and B.J. Thomas, and I’ve attributed it to H, JF & R frequently. It is most prevalent on “Falling In Love Again” when they (he?) sings (sang? Sung?) “Baybah, babe ahm fawin’ in luv, I’m fawin’ in luv agin…” It might not be something you’ve noticed until it is pointed out to you…oops.
Anyway, for the fourteen year old in us all the title of this song is hilarious, but the actual track is bland and typical of the times, right down to the variety show horn section backing it all up. About the only thing missing here is the fifty-year-old female backup vocals. This is the stuff that Branson, MO dreams are made of.
Feerick - So could somebody answer the question raised by Mystery Science Theater 3000? Was this group a trio? A quartet? A duo? One guy named Hamilton Joe Frankenreynolds? Any relation to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich?
The brass section does most of the heavy lifting on this, and turns it into hyper-pop — but buried deep inside is a country number trying to get out. I’d bet you a shiny nickel that the songwriter’s demo of this had a lot less bang and lot more twang. Call it a hunch.
Also, that title sounds filthy. It would certainly have a different connotation if sung by a woman, at least.
Cummings - Dw is precisely right about this song, in everything except his negative attitude toward it. Yes, it’s halfway between Elvis and B.J., and yes, the horns pop-ify it — but I love it love it love it. It’s delightful, between that “big white bird” and the way the dude sings “Doesn’t that mean…anythang?” Plus, in 2012 I can turn the title into all sorts of mean-spirited Rick Santorum jokes … from “Maybe he’d have turned out different if his parents hadn’t kept telling him, ‘Don’t pull your love,” to “Maybe the Santorums mightn’t have so damn many kids if militant Catholics had any choice besides Mrs. Santorum begging Rick to pull his love out.”
Lifton - Another in the ever-growing list of “AM Gold Songs That Start With The Chorus Because The Verse Is Unmemorable.” But thanks for the vintage MST3K reference, Jack. I could never hear this one the same way again after that bit.
#9: The Jackson 5, “Never Can Say Goodbye” – #2 U.S., #33 U.K.
Feerick - The J5’s strategy of putting grown-up love songs in the mouths of babes can be super-cute, and even moving; but this time around it’s actually a little weird and creepy, simply because the emotions being expressed are so alien to the experience of a kid like Michael. (Of course, in retrospect the great tragedy of his life was precisely that most normal human experiences remained alien to Michael, but that’s hardly his fault.)
Cummings - I’m with Jack on this one. After four #1s (even “I’ll Be There”) and a #2 (“Mama’s Pearl”) on which Michael’s youth was charmingly exploited (or at least easily ignored), “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the first J5 single that was too big for his britches. The track is gorgeous, though — brilliantly arranged and produced by the Corporation, and far better (IMHO) than Gloria Gaynor’s discofied version three years later. You gotta hand it to Clifton Davis for writing a song that works so well in a variety of (soul/disco/hi-NRG) genres. And now you’ll just have to thank me for not taking this opportunity to reprint the paper I wrote for my senior-year “Rhetoric of Popular Music” class at Northwestern, in which I discussed the implications of the AIDS pandemic while comparing the Communards’ versions of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” to their disco-era antecedents. Actually, maybe I should reprint it, because Rick Santorum might read it and throw up — partly because of the paper’s empathy toward the gays, and partly because it was exactly this sort of ridiculous paper-writing opportunity that made me so glad I went to COLLEGE, MOTHERFUCKER!
Lifton - Jon can keep the Communards’ version and his senior paper. I’ll take Isaac Hayes‘ cover any day.
By the way, did I ever mention that the last paper I aced before I bailed on college compared Born To Run and A Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man? Think about it: “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead” is pretty much the same thing as “it’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win!”
Dunphy - This is one of those cases where not really listening to the lyrics helps. Not that the lyrics are bad; just not appropriate. On the surface it is another gorgeous-sounding Motown confection capitalizing on the newfound audience tolerance of an expanded J5 palette. They no long had to stick strictly to the bubblegum dance pop of “ABC” or “I Want You Back,” so this is very much a bid to drift farther from that (as “I’ll Be There” did so successfully). The fact that the song has endured as it has means the audience wasn’t reading too much into the lyrics either, but Lifton is dead-on with his opinion that this had to be done by a full-grown loverman type to really achieve its goals. That was done by Isaac Hayes to great effect (off the Black Moses album? I can’t remember…)
The song was written by Clifton Davis, who most will remember as the Reverend on the Sherman Hemsley sitcom Amen. The song probably would have been a hit had Davis done it himself, but this was a case where Motown knew they struck the vein of gold and were going to mine the J5 for all they were worth. At least they weren’t singing “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right.”
Mike Heyliger – I still have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that “Never Can Say Goodbye” was written by Reverend Gregory from “Amen,” but I guess that’s a consequence of being an Eighties kid. In terms of the lyric being given an appropriate reading by a thirteen year-old, that honestly never occurred to me. I’ll say this much: no other kid would’ve done a job half as good.
Isaac Hayes’ version is pretty freaking rad, though. I could fill up an 80 minute mix CD just with awesome Isaac Hayes covers. “walk On By,” “If Loving You Is Wrong” and “Baby I’m A Want You” immediately come to mind.
Dunphy - I love that version of “Walk On By,” especially that low, jangly, grungy guitar. Hayes was a great songwriter and it always bugged me that he never wrote as good for himself as he did for Sam & Dave (leading me to believe that David Porter had a LOT more influence than he got credit for), but his covers were revolutionary. While they were long, they never felt long, always seemed like they had a clear emotional arc to follow, and his raps pre-song were often brilliant bits of prose (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” for example…)
Lifton - I remember when the Dead Presidents soundtrack came out with the unedited, 11-minute version of “The Look Of Love.” Whenever we’d play it in the store where I worked, I always wanted to ask customers, “Was it good for you?” when it ended.
#10: The Temptations, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” – #1 U.S., #8 U.K.; the group’s third #1 U.S. single.
Feerick - Simply divine. I adore the Temps anyway — the way they could move from blazing psychedelic soul to a lighter-than-air ballad like this—and this hits on all cylinders. The arrangement has touches so subtle they’re almost subliminal — marimba! harp! — and the strings, alternately woozy and pillowy, make it all sound as insubstantial as, well, a daydream. Ten out of ten.
Cummings - Another absolutely brilliant Motown composition and arrangement, this time by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It’s interesting that “Just My Imagination” was written practically under protest, after the last in Whitfield/Strong’s string of psychedelic singles for the Temps had flopped. Eddie Kendricks later noted that fans had gone batshit over the disappearance of the band’s trademark soul sound, and Whitfield finally relented and wrote one more classic ballad … which Kendricks nailed, right before he bailed on the group. But criminy, what a song this is!
Lifton - More holiness. Damn, I’m looking at the timeline and seeing that we’re getting near the moment when Berry left Detroit for good and closed the end of an era. And now I am sad.
Dunphy - There is something so un-1971 about this song, and I mean that as a compliment, for while I readily attest to my appreciation of the 1970s funk sound, “Just My Imagination” is one of those moments when the intent of a song and the execution of that song so perfectly intertwine. I’ve heard many versions, some for better and some for worse, but never better than this by a long shot. You can speculate on a few reasons why things turned as they did; the first would be the assumption that the song was a holdover from the 1960s Whitfield/Strong vaults that they pulled out and dusted off. It’s possible. You can also speculate that, with all the turmoil and tumult of the era, and the fact that we still couldn’t get the hell out of Vietnam, and the American Dream was looking more and more like a bad trip, Whitfield and Strong just wanted to break away from it all for a few perfect minutes.
You actually find the business model of classic Motown in modern pop music, where writing/production teams are the true stars and the singer is just the clay they shape. Only a handful of years ago, everyone wanted Timbaland to produce them because they wound up with a song that sounded like Timbaland. T-Pain gives you a song that sounds like T-Pain. Max Martin sounds like Max Martin no matter who sings — technically, that is the Motown way. Emotionally, it couldn’t be farther apart. The Motown teams knew their artists strengths and wrote to them, and the strength of the Tempts was undeniably that multi-level harmony structure, and every element of that structure had the stuff to carry the song on their own. All worked in conjunction to make the song, and it is all in service to the song, not the producer, the writer, and not entirely to the performer either.
So you can guess that I’m kind of in love with this track. It wouldn’t be long before The Tempts were experimenting with psychedelic soul and their more socially conscious material, as all of Motown was then. I love that stuff too, and I will stand on solid ground in my belief that “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” was a high water mark in the funk style, but “Just My Imagination” is the song that seems less like it was made than it was born.