Cover Girls: “Tainted Love”

gloria“Tainted Love” may be one of the 1980s’ most indelible songs, but it began its life two decades earlier. Originally recorded and released in 1964 by soul singer Gloria Jones, the song was a flop, failing even to scrape into the lower rungs of the pop charts. Gloria, a veteran performer who began recording as a teenager in a gospel group that also featured Billy Preston, was also an accomplished pianist. She earned a degree in classical music, and after her recording career as a soul singer went nowhere, she joined the casts of several musicals, including Hair. She was eventually hired by Motown Records as a songwriter, and wrote several hit songs, including Gladys Knight’s “If I Was Your Woman”.

While touring in England with the cast of Hair in 1969, she met Marc Bolan. The lead singer of the band T. Rex, Bolan was known for hit songs like “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” and “20th Century Boy”. Gloria joined the band as a backup singer, and began a relationship with Bolan. They would go on to have a son together. In 1977, Gloria and Bolan were driving home from a club when Gloria lost control of the car, crashing into a tree. Bolan was killed instantly. Gloria, suffering a broken jaw and arm, was informed of his death the day after his funeral. Devastated, she and her son moved back to Los Angeles. She recorded a few more albums before retiring from music. She had no idea that her biggest success was still to come.

In the Northern Soul scene of the 1970s, British fans revived soul hits and obscurities in dance clubs across northern England. One of the songs that received maximum airplay was a forgotten record called “Tainted Love.” This and other songs Gloria recorded became so popular on the British scene that she became known as the “Queen of Northern Soul”. Soul fans Marc Almond and David Ball formed the duo Soft Cell. After their own first single flopped, they were given one more chance by their label, and they chose to record a reworked version of “Tainted Love”, one of their favorite Northern Soul numbers. It reached the top of the charts in England, and the top 10 in the U.S. It was their one and only hit, and they owed it all to the soulful sound of Gloria Jones.

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Good Influences: She & Him

shehimAs She & Him, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have delighted fans with a Christmas album and two volumes of pure pop bliss. As they gear up for the release of Volume 3, let’s explore some of the influences that have impacted their vintage-inspired work.

As the primary songwriter for She & Him, Zooey Deschanel has proven herself adept at several different styles. One of her specialties is the classic country ballad, with a pop twist. In the 60’s and 70’s, Linda Ronstadt typified this country-by-way-of-Southern-California sound. One of the biggest stars of the era, Linda began as a Laurel Canyon folkie, and made the transition to what would now be called alt country before going pop. She & Him songs like “Change is Hard”, “Take It Back”, and “I’m Gonna Make It Better” bear her influence. She is seen here performing her hit “Long Long Time” on the Johnny Cash Show in 1969.

Zooey has made no secret of her love for another Southern California band, the Beach Boys. Known for their genius leader and songwriter, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ lush harmonies made them one of the biggest bands of all time. She & Him utilized some of their vocal techniques on songs like “Sentimental Heart”, “If You Can’t Sleep”, and “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here”, and followed the template of the Beach Boys’ Christmas album closely when making their own holiday record. They’ve also been known to cover Beach Boys songs “I Can Hear Music” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

The girl group sound, exemplified by Phil Spector-produced groups like The Ronettes, has also made its mark on the music of She & Him. Lead singer Ronnie Bennett sang passionately over exuberant strings and pounding drums, much like the She & Him songs “Thieves”, “Sweet Darlin'”, and “I Was Made For You”.

A British Invasion band, The Zombies scored hits with songs like “Time of The Season” and “She’s Not There”. Their innovative sound, driven by keyboards and airy harmonies, crops up in the She & Him songs “Don’t Look Back” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today.” Pop music at its purest and finest, they have more fans today than they did in the 60’s, with new audiences discovering their underrated, melodic gems.

A lynchpin of Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the late 1960s, the Neil Young and Stephen Stills-led Buffalo Springfield scored a top ten hit with “For What It’s Worth”. Fusing rock with country and folk long before The Eagles, the band broke up after just eighteen months but remains legendary. In particular, their distinctive guitar sound (coming from the highly skilled Young and Stills) has been a prime She & Him influence, and their Laurel Canyon breeziness impacted songs like “This is Not a Test” and “Sing”.

Video Stars: Jenny Lewis

jennyWith her girlish, shadow-tinged vocals, conversational lyrics, and stellar sense of style, Jenny Lewis has become an indie rock icon. Though she’s only been a recording artist for 15 years, Jenny’s career has been incredibly diverse; she has performed as a solo artist, as well as with Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, and Jenny and Johnny, covering a wide range of music genres along the way. An actor as a child, she was featured in “The Wizard”, “Troop Beverly Hills” and “Pleasantville”, and guested on shows like “The Golden Girls“. She eventually left that profession after becoming increasingly more interested in music, and discovered a burgeoning talent for writing songs. Jenny’s acting experience later translated into her music videos, while her insider’s knowledge of Hollywood cropped up in her songwriting.

Jenny formed the band Rilo Kiley in 1998, with her then-boyfriend, Blake Sennett. He was also a former child actor, appearing in “Salute Your Shorts” and “Boy Meets World”. The band released their first album that year, as well as their first video, for “The Frug”. The video showcases Jenny’s  natural charisma, as well as the band’s quirky late 90’s indie style.

Rilo Kiley had released two more albums when Jenny was asked to be part of The Postal Service’s album Give Up, a project spearheaded by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Jenny contributed backing vocals on several songs, and appeared with Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello in the futuristic video for “We Will Become Silhouettes”. She also toured with the Postal Service in 2003, and participated in their 2013 reunion shows.

Jenny returned to Rilo Kiley in time for their fourth album, 2004’s More Adventurous. This album brought the band their biggest success, and Jenny was featured prominently with more lead vocals and personal songs. The video for “Portions for Foxes” features louder guitars and a tougher Jenny:

Two years later, Jenny released her first solo album, a collaboration with the Watson Twins entitled Rabbit Fur Coat. On it, Jenny showcased her songwriting in a new way, with folk and country-tinged ballads performed with a soulful flair. She was open about her influences, which included Laura Nyro, Emmylou Harris, and various Laurel Canyon legends. The video for “Rise Up With Fists!” featured a set inspired by Hee Haw, and costumes from the Loretta Lynn school of country:

Jenny returned to the Rilo Kiley fold one more time, for their last album: Under the Blacklight. “Silver Lining”, with a guitar line lifted from George Harrison, proved to be perfect fodder for a video. Jenny plays a bride who is uncertain about her groom and her future, showcasing her acting skills:

With the breakup of Rilo Kiley, Jenny was free to return to her solo career. In 2008 she released Acid Tongue, which expanded on her previous record. This time she branched out, with heavier songs balancing out the folk and country. The video for “See Fernando” is a retro spy caper, allowing Jenny to be her most playful:

In 2010, Jenny teamed up with her current boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, to form the duo Jenny and Johnny. They released I’m Having Fun Now, an album heavily influenced by late 80s/early 90s indie rock. The video for “Big Wave” allows the couple to play off each other on the streets of Hollywood:

Sweet Inspiration: Carly Simon and Cat Stevens

carlycatCat Stevens, a star in his native England, was preparing for his first American shows at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when he met an up-and-coming performer named Carly Simon. Chatting after his first gig, comparing notes on songwriting and the music business, the two hit it off. They were an on-again/off-again item for seven months. The story of their relationship appears in the songs they wrote for each other.

carlyCarly, the daughter of the wealthy family behind half of Simon & Schuster Publishing, had been performing with her sister Lucy as The Simon Sisters. Recently solo, she had just released her first album and had a top ten hit with “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be”. The press was calling her “the first feminist pop star”, and Carly was eager to follow up with a second album. After meeting Cat Stevens that night in L.A., the pair made plans for a date. Sitting in her hotel room, Carly began strumming her guitar, nervously awaiting Cat’s arrival. By the time he knocked on the door, she had the beginnings of her next hit song, “Anticipation”. The lyrics expressed hope for the future of their relationship, tempered with a dash of realism. It would eventually climb the charts to the top five.

Carly’s new album would contain a second song written about Cat, the loving “Legend in Your Own Time”. It told the story of Cat’s rise to fame, through the eyes of someone who adored him:

catAfter the end of the relationship in 1971, Cat Stevens released his groundbreaking album Catch Bull at Four. Though the album is known today for its inventive and early use of synthesizers, “Sweet Scarlet” was a simple ballad, written about Carly. While her songs about the relationship were more enigmatic, Cat was very direct. He described her curly hair, her shawl (seen in the photo above), and her feathered hat, as well as their breakup: “All those dreams are gone, but the song carries on.”

In 1976, Cat nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu. After this close call, he left pop stardom behind and became a devout Muslim, changing his name to Yusuf. He recorded a comeback album in 2006, and continues to perform under his new name. Carly would go on to marry James Taylor, and became one of the biggest celebrities of the 1970s. Her hits included songs like “Nobody Does It Better”, “You’re So Vain”, and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain”. She continues to record with great success. Carly and Yusuf remain friends.

Toni Basil’s Secret Past

toni2The daughter of an orchestra conductor and an acrobatic comedienne, Toni Basil (born Antonia Basilotta) grew up dancing and leading cheers in Philadelphia. In 1964, at age 21, she landed a job choreographing dances on the hit show “Shindig”. She choreographed several movies and other television shows, and when casting directors began to notice her striking looks, she also won a few small acting parts. By 1966, Toni was a real triple threat; she recorded a single for inclusion on a movie soundtrack. The song, “Breakaway”, failed to chart, but later became a dance floor classic in England’s Northern Soul scene.

After this foray into music, Toni went back to choreography. She worked with The Monkees, appearing as Davy Jones’ dancing partner in their movie, HEAD:

toniThe next year, Toni co-starred in Easy Rider, playing one of the prostitutes picked up by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their way to Mardi Gras. She also appeared with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. As a choreographer, she co-directed Talking Heads videos with David Byrne, worked with David Bowie on his elaborately staged tours, appeared as a dancer on Saturday Night Live, and choreographed films like American Graffiti. Known in the dance world for her truly innovative style, she was a member of The Lockers, a revolutionary street dance group that merged modern and classical styles.


Then, in 1980, Toni directed and starred in a series of music video shorts. One of the videos, “Mickey”, caught fire two years later when MTV began airing it. It was a cover of “Kitty” by Racey, a band from England. Toni changed a few lyrics, and added the cheerleader chant to the song, inspired by her days as a high school cheerleader. The cheer concept shaped the video. One of the major icons of the early video age, “Mickey” made Toni a huge pop star at age 39.

After “Mickey”, Toni had one more hit, “Over My Head”, in 1983. She continued to work as a choreographer, on movies like That Thing You Do!, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Legally Blonde. For all her talent, she continues to be known for “Mickey”, despite her vast contributions to the worlds of dance and film.

Cover Girls: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”

brenda2In 1963, Detroit was the place every burgeoning singer wanted to be. After all, the city was home to Motown Records, billed as “Hitsville, USA”. For Californian Brenda Holloway, being signed by Motown was top priority, and she was determined to make it happen. She managed to get an invite to a party attended by Berry Gordy, the CEO of Motown, and when she met him she reportedly issued an ultimatum: “Either I be your woman, or I sing.” Highly impressed by her vocal abilities, as well as her good looks, Gordy signed Brenda to Motown. She recorded a string of songs for the label, including hits like “Every Little Bit Hurts”, and “When I’m Gone”.

brendaBut Motown had an established way of doing things, and Brenda did not comply; in fact, she relished the chance to break the mold. While other Motown artists like The Supremes and The Temptations went through “charm school” to improve their grooming and manners, Brenda did not attend. She was accused of dressing too much like Tina Turner for Motown’s comfort, who did not like any references to rival artists. She was labeled a “troublemaker”, despite her wonderful performances as one of The Beatles’ opening acts on their 1965 U.S. tour. All the while, Brenda had been writing songs, begging Motown to release one of them as a single. In 1967 they complied, and released “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” The song scraped into the top 40, and shortly thereafter Brenda stormed out of a recording session with Smokey Robinson. Her career with Motown was over, although she continued to record and perform. She sang backup for Joe Cocker, then became a preacher.

In 1969, the band Blood, Sweat & Tears was looking for a new sound. Their founder, Al Kooper, had left the band the previous year, and they had just added a new lead singer. The group sifted through songs they had enjoyed on the radio, and decided to record a cover of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”. The song eventually topped out at #2 on the pop charts, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. Brenda Holloway had to sue Berry Gordy in order to get her due royalties from the successful cover version of her own song. 

The Mynabirds: “What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood”

mynabirdsEvery album ever released, every song, are links in an endless chain. Influences, inspirations— they are always present, sometimes in ways that are delightfully obvious (Amy Winehouse), and sometimes in ways that are less evident (Grimes). Before releasing their album Generals in 2012, The Mynabirds offered up a very different record: 2010’s What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, which wears its influences on its vintage sleeves.

Although recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, the album sounds as though it was made in the south; specifically, it could have been recorded in a cavernous Baptist church basement in Memphis (and that’s a very good thing). Equal parts Cat Power and Dusty in Memphis, there’s a timeless quality to the songs, and Laura Burhenn’s voice has a hazy sweetness that conjures images of honeysuckle blossoms in the summertime.

Covering a handful of genres, from the gentle country of “Good Heart” to the Velvet Underground strum of “Ways of Looking”, the album is not easily categorized. The driving force of “Let the Record Go” is balanced by the contemplative title track and “Give It Time”, while “L.A. Rain” has a soulful strut:

 

mynabirdscoverSome of the songs are so classic that they seem to have existed for years, although each song was written by Laura Burhenn. “Right Place” is a tear-inducing ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Emmylou Harris album, with lovely lyrics and an affecting performance. “Numbers Don’t Lie” draws from the girl group well, with its lighthearted backing vocals and whimsical music video:

 

mynabirds2After the release of What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, The Mynabirds changed direction. Their second album would radically reinterpret their sound, with prominent percussion and political lyrics, and they would increase their fan base exponentially. But recordings are forever, and fans of the first album can return to the tiny world of that imaginary church basement time and again, wondering who the next link in the chain will be.