>The finest Christmas song ever released: The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” originally recorded in 1970, with a new vocal in 1978 and posthumous remix in 1992. Can’t beat the original.
>An historic evening for meese Wednesday at B.B. King Club in Times Square, where Rick Derringer performed live before a sold-out crowd of more than 500. After spending much of the past year working with Liz D. on her memoir, a good deal of which covers the 22 years she was married to Rick, I never had occasion to meet the man. This evening connected the dots between so many stories and meeting the legendary guitarist face to face.
Ironically, it all came together in six hasty hours. Sitting on the steps of a brownstone in Fort Greene, BK, having lunch during Census training yesterday, I flipped through the Village Voice, and about choked when I saw that Rick Derringer was performing that night. A call to Liz D., who called Rick, and there we were, on the list, in the front row, beside renowned concert booking agent Dave Hart, who works with Ringo Starr, and has promoted the likes of Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Tears For Fears, Green Day and Alanis Morissette.
Following a set by guitarist Pat Travers, Derringer walked onstage, as Liz, 10 feet away, hollered out his name. “Rick! Rick!” I realized that after living with the woman for two decades, he’d realize this wasn’t some fan squealing from the pit. He immediately looked down and offered a nod. I told her, “My god, you’re 16 again!”
Admittedly, my knowledge of Rick D’s catalog is limited. Remember, I came into music by way of the Carpenters and Partridge Family. “Hang On Sloopy,” his No. 1 1965 hit with The McCoys, was a rush—but hearing “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” was an unexpected fireworks-inducing thrill, as he ripped through the famous riffs, his guitar smoking and squealing, amid old-school pealing and piercing. After Rick sang and played the song, he launched into a two-minute solo that about made my ears bleed (with gratitude). I stormed to my feet, hands in the air. And I felt 16 again. Goddamn galvanizing.Above: Pat Travers. Below: Rick Derringer.Post-show. Love this pic. Still friends after all these years. This one’s got to be in the book, I’m thinking.PHOTOS: THE SMOKING NUN
>As a 10-year-old, I had two favorite acts: The Partridge Family and The Carpenters. I loved the easy, breezy sing-along melodies of David Cassidy—not to mention my first dreamy celebrity crush—but even as a kid, there was something about Karen Carpenter’s aching, soulful, pitch-perfect voice that I related to, which forever changed the way I heard music—and female vocalists, in particular. The first album I owned: “A Song for You.” Without Karen, I’m certain there would be no Celine Dion in my life.
Karen Carpenter would have been 60 on March 2. She died at 32 on Feb. 4, 1983—a day I clearly recall. I was in my dorm room as a college junior, listening to the radio, as the announcement was made that she had succumbed to her long battle with anorexia. I was stunned and upset: I opened my dorm door, to let the outside in, and shared the news with anyone that passed by.
It would be years before Carpenter gained any semblance of “cool.” At that point, The Carpenters were the ultimate “soft rock” has-beens… Nobody my age gave it much of a second thought.
I received an essay this morning from music writer and Carpenters’ aficionado Jon Konjoyan. I share some of his words: Today we remember Karen for her remarkable gift to the music world, and for her influence on so many contemporary artists, from Madonna and Chrissie Hynde to Sonic Youth and Gwen Stefani. Interest in the Carpenters continues to grow. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the duo’s signing to A&M, and a commemorative CD release, “40/40,” hit No. 1 in Japan.
If you grew up in the ’70’s, Carpenters music was part of the soundtrack of your life. For the 1973 liner notes of “The Singles” hits collection, Digby Diehl wrote: “Although the Carpenters have been recording for only four years, it is already difficult to remember a sunny afternoon at the beach without them.” It was true. In that pre-YouTube, MySpace and iTunes era, when radio was virtually the only place to hear new music, their hits played non-stop from 1970 through 1977. In 1981, they returned to the Top 40 one last time.
Because Karen’s voice was ubiquitous, many took it for granted. But she received well-deserved accolades from peers. Paul McCartney called it “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” A&M Records’ top brass Herb Alpert, who signed the duo, believed Karen sang from her “dark side”: “It doesn’t come from that bubbly, ‘up’ side of their personality. It comes from their undercurrent of reality.”
Pop music historian Paul Grein said: “If you made a checklist of the qualities of a great singer, Karen had them all: tremendous presence, natural, conversational ease, and impeccable intonation and control. But a checklist couldn’t begin to capture the emotion she put into everything she sang. Karen had a remarkable facility for peeling away the outer layers of a song and getting to its core. And once she located a song’s essential truth, she would relate it as if she were singing just to you.”
>Paul Grein, one of my journalist heroes from the 1980s at Billboard, now writes the weekly Chart Watch column for Yahoo! He reports the gratifying news that the Carpenters—my beloved favorite first group—scores a No. 1 album in Japan this week, with “40/40.”
He writes: “Carpenters’ ’40/40 The Best Selection,’ a 40-track collection marking the duo’s 40th anniversary, jumps to #1 this week in Japan. Karen and Richard are the seventh American act to top Nielsen/SoundScan’s Japanese chart in the past five years. They follow Bon Jovi (Have A Nice Day and Lost Highway), Britney Spears (Greatest Hits), Destiny’s Child (#1’s), Linkin Park (Minutes To Midnight), Backstreet Boys (Unbreakable) and Madonna (Hard Candy). In the same period, two other international artists have risen to #1 in Japan: England’s Oasis (Don’t Believe The Truth) and Canada’s Avril Lavigne (The Best Damn Thing). Japan is the world’s #2 music market, behind only the U.S.
Among the duo’s countless hits on my own yearly chart, their biggest is “Top of the World,” which ranked No. 1 in 1972, followed by “There’s A Kind Of Hush,” No. 4 in 1976, along with countless others. (Thanks Jon Konjoyan for the tip.)
>May 2, 1981… Sheena Easton leaps to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. For all the passionate connections I felt with artists through my early years—The Partridge Family, Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John and disco—something inexplicable happened the first time I heard “Morning Train” in March 1981, sitting in a friend’s dorm room as a freshman in college, literally writing down the week’hits from “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.” It was an instant connection, an adoration for the song and artist, and a real sense of ownership in her success.
The next day, the 45 was mine. Ah, those precious times when you could own your favorite song and appreciate it not only aurally but as a tactile experience. Anyone else old enough to remember the smell of opening a vinyl album? Heavenly. I bought Billboard magazine on the newsstand, not yet knowing that it was carried in the student union every week… and I hung that precious poster-size Hot 100 on my dorm wall for a year. (see pic, no mustache snickering, please).
It’s around this time that I founded my own weekly countdown, the TTT (Taylor Top Ten, then Twenty, then Thirty, then the simplified Taylor Top Tunes once I reached Forty). This went on through the mid-1990s, every week, without exception, producing my own annual top 100 that to this day, I conveniently utilize to catalog my iTunes by year. That year, “Morning Train” tied for the No. 1 of 1981 with Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” No. 2 was “For Your Eyes Only” by Sheena, No. 3 “Modern Girl” by Sheena. Guess who had my No. 1 album of the year? I remember watching the Grammys in February 1982, and when Sheena won Best New Artist, I quietly cried. No, really. What’s perhaps more ridiculous, all of my friends watching the telecast with me got it. They understood that Sheena and I were forever intertwined. (Click at left to see my No. 1s through the first half of 1981.)
Of course, since, the Sheena ranks have held hands with other pop divas—Celine Dion, Tina Arena, Delta Goodrem and a host of others that have charged my passion. And yet when it comes to reminiscing about the best times of my early adult youth, Sheena remains tops. So when I arrived at Billboard in the fall of 1995, it happened that Sheena was starring on “Broadway” in “Grease.” My co-worker and now dear friend Alex and I made it our holy grail to get backstage to meet her… for the first time. I’ll never forget standing there as she entered the room, glancing down at my khakis and realizing that you could actually see my legs trembling through my britches. I was terrified… and fulfilling a life’s dream. Afterward, Sheena agreed to an interview for Billboard on “a pop star thriving after the hits stop.” We went to dinner at Motown Cafe and I asked her questions with so much minutia that she realized I wasn’t the average reporter who had glanced over the Billboard charts.
Years later, Sheena has become a friend, or at least a precious acquaintance. Alex, our fellow Sheena buddy Evelien (and pal Andy, when his wife allows him a night away from the kids) and I have seen her 15-20 times whenever she grazes New York (hell, we’ve traveled to Vegas any number of times, too) and she always, always indulges us with dinner, time and wonderfully bawdy conversation. For Sheena’s rep as the girl next door in her 1980’s heyday, we were delighted to find that she is a broad—in the best sense—and some of the conversations we’ve had are not the kind of things I’d tell my mammer about… So as I sit here and close up shop at Billboard, I’m obviously flooded with such magic memories. What times I’ve had.
I suspect that when I’m in the nursing home being spoon fed mashed carrots, I’ll ask the nurse to pop “The Lover In Me” or “Telefone” in my brain chip. And even though I won’t recall my own name, somehow I’ll quietly gum the words aloud. What a sweet thought, eh?(Click on chart, cool cats, to see the whole Hot 100.)