Jan 142022
 
Carla Thomas

Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.

I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.

In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.

This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:

1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)

2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)

For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.

My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.

Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).

As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).

I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s on you (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.

As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops

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Dec 042020
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

She's Gone covers

“She’s Gone” by Daryl Hall & John Oates was born old school. Even though the sign over the door of what was primarily known as “Soul” has long been replaced with the marginally more modern and wider sonic net of “R & B,” “She’s Gone” remains proud, righteous and straight up SOUL to its core. It’s an unabashed, beauteous love letter to the glorious Motown sounds that preceded it a decade before its creation, all harmony, hook, and heartache. It is forever immune from descriptive modernization.

John Oates’s explanation of the song’s genesis in his fine, funny 2017 memoir Change of Seasons was surprisingly comic, given the song’s theme of loss. It’s based on a very brief fling he’d had with a woman he’d encountered on an arctic night in an NYC diner at 3 a.m., who was wearing a pink tutu and cowboy boots (like you do). They dated for a few weeks until she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared, exerting the ultimate romantic gesture of cruelty by standing him up on New Year’s Eve. He says when he realized “she was going to be a no-show on that night of nights,” he thought, “If she’s not coming tonight… then she’s gone.” With that, a chorus was born. John shared the story and his melodic snippet with Daryl the next day, who then sat down at his black Wurtlizer and fleshed out the legendary intro and verses… and voila, “Everybody’s high on consolation,” forever and ever amen.

John knew the song was special. After they’d recorded it, he made this unbelievably prescient observation in his journal:

3/2/73, She’s Gone–I’m putting it down in writing. This is the one. I believe in this one.

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May 102019
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Sara Smile

The timeless tracks of Hall and Oates are often go-to karaoke fodder for non-professionals. They also serve as prime cover material for more seasoned performers. If we asked ten people to name their favorite Hall and Oates song, it is not inconceivable that we would receive ten different answers; throughout their career, they have tallied quite the number of hit songs. But there was a time before their string of gold records. Beyond the oft-covered “I Can’t Go for That” and “Rich Girl” stands “Sara Smile,” Hall and Oates’ first Top 10 hit. It took the duo almost ten years to get into the groove, but this song gave them the momentum they needed.
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Oct 092018
 
oates weir

History has been kind to the legacies of perceived second-bananas John Oates and Bob Weir. In a recent comedy special, Chris Rock noted how Oates deserves just as much credit as Daryl Hall for their long running partnership. “I don’t know what Oates does,” Rock quipped. “But Hall never had a hit record without him.” Similarly, Weir was always perceived to be second to Jerry Garcia during the lifespan of the the Grateful Dead. But in the two decades since Jerry’s death he has played an essential role in keeping the spirit of the band alive.

Oates and Weir recently teamed up during an Oates solo performance at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California. It was an encore of their previous pairing at the venue in 2015. Weir blends in so well with Oates’ band that one hopes they make a habit out of this.

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Mar 152018
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.

Rich Girl covers

In 1960, Victor and Everett Walker opened the first Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette, IL. By the end of the decade, Victor retired, having sold his restaurant and the 15 KFC franchises he owned. At age 50, he was fixed for life – as were his three sons. One of them, Victor Jr., dated a woman named Sara Allen for a while in college. She broke up with Victor Jr. (but remained friends) and began going out with Daryl Hall, who would write “Sara Smile” about her and write many other songs with her.

Hall knew the young Vic and later referred to him as a “burnout.” “He came to our apartment, and he was acting sort of strange,” Hall said in an interview. “I said, ‘This guy is out of his mind, but he doesn’t have to worry about it because his father’s gonna bail him out of any problems he gets in.'” That thought led to a song. “But you can’t write, ‘You’re a rich boy’ in a song,” Hall said, “so I changed it to a girl.” Continue reading »

Feb 082018
 
john oates stack o lee

The subtitle for John Oates’ new solo album Arkansas should have been: No Synthesizer, No Hall – No Problem. The album of acoustic-driven Americana and folk rock is more like a Steve Earle record than anything put out by the dynamic duo of Hall & Oates in the 1980s. And that’s just fine. Oates sounds like he’s having a blast on the collection of originals and folk standards. One of the more intriguing cuts is his cover of “Stack O Lee” commonly known as “Stagger Lee.”

The “Stagger Lee” myth runs deep through the heart of American popular music. The folk tune, sometimes called “Staggolee” or “Stack-a-Lee,” has been around in one form or another since the 1890s. The main thrust of the lyrics is a fight in which “Stagger” Lee Shelton killed Billy Lyons in a bar in St. Louis. By one count, more than 400 different renditions of the song have been recorded by blues singers, folkies, pop singers, punk bands and jam bands alike. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer Lloyd Price scored a number one hit in early 1959 with his take on the song. Continue reading »