Of all the songs Janis Joplin recorded in her brief, but spectacular career, one of the best-known and most fondly remembered is “Mercedes Benz.”
Few remember now that Janis was also interested in poetry and often attended poetry readings. Her tongue-in-cheek paean to consumerism began as a quick poetry jam between her and songwriter Bob Neuwirth in a bar in Port Chester, NY. They built their short poem around a line written by poet Mike McClure.
About an hour after the poem was completed, she performed it live during her show that night at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, inventing an acapella melody on the spot.
It was promptly forgotten until she had finished recording her second solo album, “Pearl.” With the pressure of the major session work behind her, Joplin stepped to a microphone while the tapes were still rolling and announced she was about to sing “a song of great social and political import.”
She quickly ran through her little “Mercedes Benz” performance. One take. She also recorded a quick birthday message to John Lennon that included her rendition of Roy Rogers’ theme song, “Happy Trails.” Those would be the last two songs she ever recorded.
Only three days later, she would be dead of a drug overdose.
When Columbia released “Pearl” posthumously, producer Paul A. Rothchild decided to include “Mercedes Benz.”
The song quickly caught the fancy of FM deejays. Radio listeners also fell in love with the tune.
Today it has been covered by more than 30 other recording acts.
(And yes, we know the car in the photo is a Porsche! It belonged to Janis. She did not own a Mercedes-Benz.")
Carole King was already one of rock’s most successful songwriters. But no one could have predicted that when she finally started singing her own songs, she would create one of the best selling albums of all-time by a female vocalist, especially when her only previous album had not climbed higher than #84 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Tapestry has sold more than 25 million copies and is considered one of the top 50 albums ever released by a rock artist.
A Look at Some of the Best of the “One-and-Done” Recording Acts
This catchy little pop tune was part of the British Invasion that took over world radio in 1964.
The band was originally called the Sheratons. They were performing at the Mildway Tavern in London when a young songwriting duo approached them. Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley offered the group several tunes. The group jumped at the chance as they were about to audition for record producer Joe Meek.
The group passed the audition and Meek decided to use one of the Howard Blaikley songs, “Have I the Right?” as the group’s first single.
Imagine it you had 9 top 10 records, 17 songs in the Top 40 and founded your own record label where you discovered such acts as the 5th Dimension. Now, imagine all that and you’re still not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Then you must be imagining that you’re Johnny Rivers.
Rivers is a New York boy who was born John Ramistella. While still a kid, his family moved to the Louisiana where Johnny took his last name from the Mississippi River. He struggled for years to get a foothold in the recording business, eventually traveling from Louisiana to L.A.
Nothing happened until Johnny was signed to a year’s contract at the Whiskey A-Go-Go nightclub. Johnny opened for the club’s traveling roster of headliners. Soon, Johnny was packing crowds in on his own. He finally achieved his breakthrough with a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” Legend has it that Johnny stole the arrangement from Elvis Presley after Presley played him a demo of the song that King was planning on releasing. For that time forward, apparently, Rivers was persona non grata around Presley.
Rivers followed up his first hit with many more, most of them covers of rock & soul classics like “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’,” “Maybellene,” and “Midnight Special” interspersed with new tunes like “Poor Side of Town” and “Summer Rain.” He scored one of the biggest hits of his career when he was asked to sing the American theme song to a British spy TV series. When Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan was imported into the U.S., producers decided to rename it Secret Agent. Most Baby Boomers can still sing the lyrics to that theme by heart.
Rivers then became one of the first rock stars to form his own label - Soul City Records. One of the first acts he signed became the labels biggest success - the 5th Dimension. Rivers also gave songwriter Jimmy Webb one of his first breaks by encouraging the 5th Dimension to record Webb's tune "Up, Up & Away."
Rivers had his final 2 hits in the early 70s – a cover of “Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Slow Dancing (Swayin’ to the Music).”
Rivers continued recording into the 1980s, but without much success. He still tours to this day – doing some 50 to 60 shows a year.
As for the reason he’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? You’ll have to ask the selection committee.
Just as most of were embarking on life as full-fledged adults, Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young penned this Hallmark card of song, encapsulating the life of tranquil bliss we all imagined ourselves living once we settled down with our "one true love."
"Our House" was featured on Dejé Vu, the album that saw Neil Young formally join what had been the superstar trio of David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash. It was written by Nash about his relationship with singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. The two were living together in L.A. The couple had stepped out for breakfast. After the meal, Mitchell spotted a vase she liked on Ventura Boulevard. When they arrived back at home,the weather had turned chilly. Nash remarked, "Why do I light the fire and you put some flowers in the vase you just bought."
Struck by his own words, he went over to the piano and an hour later, "Our House" had been composed.
As few, if any of us, ever achieved the idyllic existence promised in the lyrics of the song, it may be comforting to know that Nash and Mitchell didn't either. The couple split up before the year was out.
From his second album and his first real hit single, "Fire & Rain" remains one of James Taylor's most requested and popular tunes.
Written in 1968 but released in 1970, the song is actually all about some personal struggles in Taylor's life. The Susan in the lyrics is Taylor's close friend Susann Schnerr. She committed suicide. The news was initially kept from Taylor by friends who thought it was distract him from his career.
The second verse about his "body aching" refers to Taylor's heroin addiction. And most people have heard that the line about "flying machines in pieces on the ground" is about Taylor's early group the Flying Machine that broke up due to internal dischord.
Taylor has said he was surprised that such a personal song would not only become a hit single but touched so many people. But it's credited with helping fuel a craze for singer-songwriters that would also help propel the careers of artists such as Billy Joel and Taylor's future wife, Carly Simon.
Blonde on Blonde – Bob Dylan
What if you had been able to tell your 13-year old self that Bob Dylan would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Do you think then your English teacher would have let you do your book report on Dylan’s latest album?
Maybe not. But there’s no question that Dylan was on an incredible hot streak in the mid-sixties, one that saw him release 3 albums that cemented his transition from folk to rock and put him in the very forefront of the contemporary music scene.
That trio of albums began with Bringing It All Back Home, continued with Highway 61 Revisited, and reached the pinnacle with the 1966 release of one of the first double albums in rock history, Blonde on Blonde.
In 1965, Michael Brown was a 16-year old classically trained musician who had formed a rock band (like many classically trained young men and women of the day). He also had become infatuated with a young girl. His problem was the young girl was dating the bass player in his band.
So Michael Brown did what many young men facing hopeless romantic prospects did. He wrote a song about her (with help from co-authors Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone). Here’s where Michael and the rest of those lovesick boys part company.
Brown’s band was the Left Banke, the girl was named Renée Fladen and the song he wrote about her was “Walk Away Renée.”
Most of us know the situation in Northern Ireland has been tense for decades. That tension bubbled over into tragedy on January 30, 1972, when a group of unarmed civil rights activist, protesting Britain’s practice of imprisoning suspected Irish radicals without trial.
British troops opened fire on the crowd, killing 13. As you might expect, British investigators bought the soldiers’ claims of “self-defense” and exonerated them.
A little over 10 years later, the Irish rock band U2 wrote a song about it for their album War.
U2’s front man, Bono, claims the song is not meant to be partisan, just a simple plea for peace and calm.
BTW – In 2010, the British government finally accepted responsibility for the massacre, calling it “unjustifiable.”
A singer who landed 16 songs in the Top 40 and 4 in the Top 10… 22 songs in the British Top 40… a songwriter who penned Top 10 hits for 3 other artists… an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… yet he is almost forgotten today.
He is Gene Pitney.
Pitney was born in 1940 in Hartford, Connecticut. By high school he was singing with a local doo-wop group called the Embers. By 1959, he was recording with a young woman named Ginny Arnell under the name Jamie & Jane.
Pitney also started working as a songwriter and actually had his first success there, writing “He’s a Rebel” for Darlene Love & the Blossoms (recording as the Crystals), “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee and “Hello, Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson.
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