Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Marc Myers - Anatomy of a Song

Anatomy of a Song
Marc Myers
New York: Grove Press
2016: 323 +xiii pages

Marc Myers is a Wall Street Journal columnist who writes on music and other cultural items as well as is responsible for the award-winning Jazzwax blog. The present book is a compilation of an ongoing column he writes about the stories underlying of the iconic songs of rhythm and blues, country, pop, reggae and more which he tells through the recollections of songwriters, recording engineers and the artists themselves. This is reflected by the subtitle "The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop."

Myers takes from Lloyd Price's 1952 smash "*Lawdy Miss Clawdy*" to REM's "Losing My Religion." most of the material is taken from actual interviews with individuals such as discussing "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" with Price, Dave Bartholomew and Art Rupe of Specialty Records, providing details of how the song came about. I was not aware that the phrase "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" had been used by a black radio announcer, but I was aware that it was used in an earlier Bartholomew recording featuring Tommy Ridgely (a point not mentioned here). I was not aware of how Bartholomew heard Price at the piano and had him audition for Rupe and then  record it with Fats Domino on piano, Earl Palmer on drums and using a head arrangement. When released, Price had the sole writer's credit, and he made an observation how amazing that was at a time record company folks regularlyclaimed partial writer's credit.

 Discussing Little Willie Littlefield's "K.C. Loving," Mike Stoller gives the primary details on the song that was written as "Kansas City", why Ralph Bass retitled it for release, as well as discussing the Wilbert Harrison hit and how the that version had a slight change to the lyrics and they needed to contact producer Bobby Robinson to correct the writer's credits so they would get their royalties. Also Hank Ballard guitarist Billy Davis and James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis described the versions by their leaders. It is interesting that Stoller discusses that after he and Jerry Leiber wrote it, showing the song to Littlefield and giving cues on how he should play it and then it was recorded at a session led by the legendary saxophonist Maxwell Davis. I do note that, in a Blues Unlimited interview decades ago, Littlefield claimed to have written the song, although Leiber and Stoller have rebutted this claim in the past.

 We get the perspective of Ronald Isley on the Isley Brother's hit "Shout," while Katherine "Kat" Anderson Schaffner," one of the singers of The Marvelettes gives insight on the early Motown hot "Please Mr. Postman," Dion Dimucci details his song and hit, "Run Around Sue," and co-songwriter Jeff Barry (with Phil Spector), vocalist Darlene Love, Dixie Cup singers Barbara and Rosa Hawkins, producer Mike Stoller and musician Artie Butler talk about "Chapel of Love." On this latter number I was not aware that Phil Spector had recorded Love singing it and then The Ronettes, but not happy with it. Eventually the Dixie Cups recorded it with Wardell Querzergue arranging it, with Stoller adding touches, and then after a United Artists distribution deal fell through had to start a label to issue it.

In addition to Keith Richards' recollections of "Street Fighting Man," Jimmy Page recalls the making of "Whole Lotta Love" (where he explains it was Robert Plant's use of lyrics from a Muddy Waters trouble that caused them legal trouble as his riff the music was based on was not similar to the Wille Dixon song they were sued for infringing). Then there is Linda Ronstadt recalling the Stoney Poney's hit "Different Drum," Gladys Knight on "Midnight Train To Georgia," Grace Slick on "White Rabbit," Tammy Wynette on "Stand By Your Man," Joni Mitchell on "Carey," Jimmy Cliff on "The Harder They Come," and Smokey Robinson recollects writing "My Girl" for The Temptations.

I did find a very minor error. In discussing The Righteous Brothers "You Lost That Loving Feeling." In his introductory passage, Myers mentions that the Brothers signed to Philles Records. Interviewed for the documentary "The Wrecking Crew" (and included among the bonus features with the DVD and on iTunes), Bill Medley recalls that Phil Spector leased their existing contract. Medley along with the songwriters were interviewed by Myers, while for The Wrecking Crew, he was interviewed along with the studio engineers. The details on the production of this classic recording are similar, but there seems to be a bit more detail in the Wrecking Crew bonus feature (which likely can be accessed on YouTube).

It is fascinating to read the back stories on so many hit, and iconic, songs. Overall this is a fun, very readable volume that would make a wonderful gift to music lovers. The back cover includes a number of short quotes that will give an idea of the tenor of the 45 highly readable pieces.

I purchased my copy. This is now available in paperback.

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