Al's home studio circa 1998, Somerville, MA
Now, I’m not talkin’ about earBUDS that are really bad for your ear canals and can cause hearing damage; I’m talkin’ about a comparatively inexpensive, dependable set of the recording studio diehards — SONY Studio Monitor headPHONES MDR-7506s. Now that’s the way to listen to your iPod, computer, movies on your computer, etc. It’s great sound and pretty comfortable as well and if you don’t overamp the volume, they're much safer than those earduds. Okay — the preacher has stepped down and the former college professor now stands in his place once again.
I am queer for stereo mixes on headphones, especially songs that were recorded before stereo mixes and then gone back to and mixed in stereo. The reason I am perverted in their favor is that they are incredibly educational to someone such as myself (who produces and engineers recordings) who could not exist without a strong knowledge of the oldies listed here today. I can learn so much more by listening to these stereo mixes than one-dimensional, one-track monaural ones. I am not putting down mono — I am just preferring stereo myself for various reasons. So here are ten amazing tracks that are not often heard in... uhhh... educational stereo!
Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.
We apologize to our readers/listeners who are trying to enjoy the playlists via mobile devices like iPhones/iPads and are finding that they can't; these are, unfortunately, circumstances beyond our control. At present, Grooveshark is not compatible with those operating systems, and in order to stream the playlist, you will need to use a PC or Mac.
1. "Chapel of Love" — Dixie Cups (2:43)
A Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich-Phil Spector ditty, released as the debut single for Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner’s new Red Bird label in 1964, is amazingly simplistic — but perfectly rendered. This is REALLY enjoyable in stereo with the horns more audible. It was produced by New Orleans protégé Joe Jones.
The Dixie Cups with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Guess which ones they are.
2. "Pretty Ballerina" — The Left Banke (2:33)
Harry Lokofsky was the top string contractor in the New York City recording scene from the mid-'50s to the late '60s. His son Michael, a teenager in the mid-'60s, felt the influence of all those violins and re-invented himself by using Brown as his surname, then writing songs and forming a band to perform them. His choices of Steve Martin (not the famous one!) as lead singer and the-now-Brown as keyboardist and composer started a new genre commonly known as “baroque pop.” On this, their first hit, the string arrangement is by John Abbott while Harry Lokofsy’s instrumental crew played the string and reed parts. It was produced by Harry L. with Steve and Bill Jerome, brothers who owned a busy Manhattan studio at the time. This stereo version makes each part of the orchestrations audible and the subsequent blend is quite nice.
3. "The Bells" — The Originals (2:31)
As could be expected, Motown back-up singer Marvin Gaye slowly worked his way through the ranks, singing on other people’s sessions, co-writing songs, and even after he had a few hit singles as an artist, he REALLY had to fight to be able to sit in the producer’s chair. Berry Gordy relented and let Gaye produce a new group Berry had signed to Motown subsidiary label Soul Records. Their first single, “Baby, I’m For Real,” was an R&B smash and allowed Marvin a second chance in the producer chair. This song was written by Gaye and the boss’s sister Anna (who became Gaye’s wife—love or politics—or both?) and went to #12 on the Billboard singles charts and in the top ten on the R&B charts in 1970. It paved the way for Marvin to finally produce himself the next year, culminating in the classic platinum album What’s Goin' On with the Originals helping out on back-up vocals. Turnabout is fair play even with Berry Gordy.
4. "La Belles" (my spelling) — Laura Nyro/LaBelle (2:58)
Yes, it’s the same song as above but Laura and LaBelle took it to another place; albeit with sparse instrumental backing complemented by amazing background vocals by the legendary Patti Labelle, Sara Dash and Nona Hendryx. This spurred Laura on to one of her best recorded vocals, although it's clear how much she was influenced by the original Originals lead vocalist. Patti steps out herself every now and then. This is in my top ten of Laura’s studio vocal performances. If you’ve never heard this before go out and get Laura’s album It’s Gonna Take a Miracle — the whole album is R&B covers by Laura and LaBelle produced by Gamble & Huff. Freakin’ TIMELESS (and in breathtaking stereo)!!
LaBelle (l-r, Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash), and Laura Nyro
5. "Long Train Runnin'" — The Doobie Brothers (2:34)
This originated as a Doobie jam. No lyrics at first — just all those guitar figures, etc. Their producer Ted Templeman heard it and nagged Tom Johnston, their singer at the time, to write lyrics to it. Tom didn’t initially see anything miraculous about it but he complied and wrote a lyric. Templeman recorded the finished song on The Captain and Me album in 1973. It went top ten to #8 in Billboard and made a lotta friends for the band all over the world. It’s so well performed and produced I never get tired of hearing it. It’s a guitar orgy with headphones on and the harmony parts are really strong. A harmonica solo by their pal Norton Buffalo is the finishing touch.This is a short edit. Go get the real one if ya don’t have it. Then you’ll have a really long train runnin’...
6. "Ruby Baby" — Dion Dimucci (2:09)
It all started in 1956 when Leiber and Stoller wrote this and recorded it with the R&B group The Drifters. It was a medium R&B hit. But when Dion split with The Belmonts and went solo on Columbia Records, his updated arrangement and great reading went to #2 in Billboard, immediately establishing him as a strong solo artist. For those who pay attention, Dion’s follow-up was ANOTHER Drifters Leiber-Stoller track called "Drip Drop" and I think it's even better than "Ruby Baby" but it didn’t do very well, so what do I know? Besides, I’ve already played it in a previous column. Donald Fagen did a great cover of "Ruby" on his solo album The Nightfly in 1982. It was the dawn of CDs and it was the first CD I ever bought. But just remember, Dion roooolsz!
7. "Oh Me, Oh My (I'm a Fool for Ya, Baby)" — Lulu (2:40)
This was a comparatively overlooked record. It did get as high as #18 in Cashbox back in 1969, but very few people I know have ever heard it. Jerry Wexler cut it with Lulu in Muscle Shoals, and then he cut it with Aretha (!) but I actually like this version better! A mate of Lulu’s growing up in Glasgow, Jim Doris, wrote it and two other songs she recorded as well. The stereo mix is really hypnotic, and as I said before, her vocal is really top notch. (I’ve been an unabashed Lulu fan since she cut one of my early songs “Tell Me Like It Is” when I was about 22. I’m pretty sure it was in a previous column as well.)
8. "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" — Looking Glass (2:48)
One of the great sing-alongs from the '70s, I just read a strange story attached to this song. I don’t know if it’s true or not, however. Elliot Lurie, the lead singer, is credited with writing the song, but they said he didn’t. He bought it outright from a frustrated songwriter named Steve something (never famous) and because Lurie bought all the rights, he put his name on it. Steve could’ve made a pretty penny from that song but I guess he was financially strapped at the time. It is a great record and Elliott certainly sang it quite well. When I speak at various schools, I am always asked for advice from aspiring musicians and songwriters. My advice? “First thing you should do is go to plumbing school. If things don't work out in the music business, you can always earn a good living with that training. No matter WHAT the financial situation is in the world, sinks and toilets will ALWAYS get clogged!” This is a great record and sounds quite amazing in stereo with headphones on and incidentally, my plumber works much more often than I do.
9. "Bernadette" — The Four Tops (2:59)
Levi Stubbs Jr had to be one of the greatest singers of all time. I think the lyrics to this song are right up there with Willie Shakespeare: After searching for the kind of love that we possess / Some go on searching their whole life through / And never find the love I found in you... Sooo, to hear that voice singing those words is almost too much for me. Then you throw in James Jamerson playing amazing bass parts throughout and then you think, “Is there anything not right here?” And the answer is “NO!” This is one of the most perfect three minutes in the history of music altogether. In stereo it is the ultimate. Oh and by the way ... I really like this track.
10. "A Change Is Gonna Come" — Sam Cooke (3:13)
Back in the '50s, Sam Cooke was the lead singer of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. He was young and truly a gifted, original singer and songwriter. When it seemed The Soul Stirrers were at the peak of their popularity, Sam defected to the R&B world to try a non-gospel song he had written. Beyond R&B , this record crossed all color barriers and was number one in both categories in 1957. Sam never looked back. His songwriting improved with every new song he wrote. This is considered the zenith of his lyric-writing and the heart and soul he puts into the vocal will remain untouched. Artists like Otis Redding and Bobby Womack always mention the debt they owe him vocally. This is one of those tracks that has both black and white elements but they are fused flawlessly, hoping that black and white people could do the same. A classic for all time in fabulous stereo (that's two sides working together) showcasing one man who left us waaay too soon.