Friday song of the day: The most well-known version of today’s song was recorded in a prison.
The writer of yesterday’s song, Sixteen Tons, also wrote another classic country song for the same album. Merle Travis released Folk Songs of the Hills in 1947, and in addition to Sixteen Tons, it included another song he wrote about coal mining, Dark as a Dungeon. Like the other song, Travis included a spoken word section in Dark as a Dungeon.
The Merle Travis original was not a hit, but since Tennessee Ernie Ford had a big hit with Sixteen Tons in 1955, he covered Dark as a Dungeon the next year. His second Merle Travis cover was not a big hit, though.
Johnny Cash released a cover in 1964. It was the B-side of a single, so naturally it did not chart. Still, he kept it in his repertoire and performed it at his landmark 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, and it appeared on the At Folsom Prison album. After a few comments from the inmates during the performance, Cash responded, laughing, “I just wanted to tell you that this show is being recorded for an album released on Columbia Records, so you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that.” The comment was censored a bit on the album. For some odd reason, while the 1964 Johnny Cash single used the correct title Dark as a Dungeon, the song was credited as Dark as the Dungeon on the At Folsom Prison album. Since the Johnny Cash version, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp.
Saturday song of the day: The girls in the group that first recorded today’s song were all 15, 16, or 17 years old.
The girl group The Shangri-Las was formed by four girls who were all still high school students. When signed to Red Bird Records in 1964, sisters Mary and Elizabeth Weiss were 15 and 17 respectively, and twin sisters Marguerite and Mary Ann Ganser were 16. A producer at Red Bird, George “Shadow” Morton, wrote a song for the girls entitled Remember (Walking in the Sand), about a love gone wrong. First the girls recorded a seven-minute demo version of the song, and later re-recorded it in a shorter take that was released as a single. A teenage piano player named Billy Joel was among the musicians who provided backing music for the song, but his contribution may or may not have been included on the finished record.
Remember (Walking in the Sand) was released in August 1964. It was the Shangri-Las’ first single on Red Bird and their first nationwide hit (they had two previous singles on different labels that were only local hits). It eventually climbed to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and established The Shangri-Las as a popular girl group. The next month they released a follow-up single that did even better, the classic Leader of the Pack, which was a #1 hit
The song returned to the charts in 1979, when Aerosmith recorded a harder-rocking version for their sixth studio album, Night in the Ruts. Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las provided [uncredited] backing vocals for the cover. The Aerosmith version of Remember (Walking in the Sand) was released as a single in December 1979, and while it was not one of the band’s big hits, it did place at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Sunday song of the day: Today’s song was credited to a band, but it was essentially a solo record.
Hip-hop and soul duo Outkast released their fifth studio album in 2003. Unlike their previous albums where they performed as a group, the double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was actually two solo albums, with each member of the duo providing one of the albums. Antwan Patton, known by his stage name Big Boi, contributed Speakerboxx, while Andre Benjamin, known as Andre 3000, recorded The Love Below.
Two singles were released simultaneously from the album, Big Boi’s The Way You Move, and Andre 3000’s Hey Ya! Both were credited to Outkast, however, instead of being identified as solo projects.
Hey Ya! was a song about how difficult it was to keep a relationship going. Andre had begun writing the song in 1999 and it was supposed to appear on Outkast’s fourth album, 2000’s Stankonia, but ultimately it was set aside from that project. When Andre decided to record it for The Love Below, he performed all the male voices on the song, with multiple overdubs used. Most lines required 30 or 40 takes. He also played all the instruments, with the exception of bass. Female voices were performed by Rabeka Tuinei.
Hey Ya! was very successful, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and also placing at the top of the charts in numerous other countries. In the United States it sold over a million copies for Platinum certification. Its run at the top spot on the Hot 100 lasted nine weeks, and it was replaced at #1 by The Way You Move, the other Outkast single. This was only the sixth time that a record replaced another single by the same artist at the top of the chart.
Monday song of the day: The success of today’s song caused RCA Records to release the Elvis Presley original as a single.
Songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote a song for Elvis Presley about a man who doubted his girlfriend’s fidelity. Elvis recorded the song Suspicion in March 1962 and it was released on his Potluck album in June 1962. It was just an album cut and not a single, so the song didn’t attract a lot of attention at the time.
In May 1962, a singer named Terry Stafford was recording some demos, and one of the songs that Stafford decided to record was Suspicion. He had apparently heard an early copy of the Elvis album before it was released and liked the song. Stafford’s voice was similar to Presley’s, so it was a good fit for him. Afterwards, his manager shopped the record around to several record labels and radio stations in the Los Angeles area. Eventually one of the disc jockeys took the demo to a new record label that had its headquarters next door to his radio station.
Crusader Records president John Fisher liked the song and decided to sign Stafford. Instead of re-recording the song, Fisher instead remastered the existing demo and released that. Terry Stafford’s Suspicion was released in February 1964 and was only the second record put out by Crusader. It first hit in San Bernardino, then expanded into the larger Los Angeles market, and eventually became a nationwide hit, rising to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. During the record’s rise up the charts, The Beatles held all five of the top positions on the Hot 100 for the week of April 4th, 1964, with Stafford’s record at #6. The next week when Suspicion finally reached its highest position on the chart, it displaced one of the Beatles’ records to break their hold on the top 5 slots.
With Suspicion beginning to be a hit for Stafford, RCA records decided to release the Elvis Presley original as a single. It was released as the B-side of Kiss Me Quick on April 16th, 1964, and thus was not a hit in itself. Kiss Me Quick eventually rose to #34 on the Hot 100, and while the Suspicion B-side did get some radio airplay, it failed to crack the Hot 100.
In Europe, however, the Elvis version of Suspicion was the A-side of a single, backed with It Hurts Me. There the Terry Stafford record had not yet hit, so the two versions of Suspicion were in direct competition. In Europe, the Elvis record was preferred, reaching the top 10 in several European countries while Terry Stafford’s cover did not do nearly as well.
Tuesday song of the day: Today’s song originated when following a painful breakup, the songwriter thought it might be easier to recover if she pretended that her former boyfriend was dead.
Donita Sparks of the all-female rock group L7 [an earlier L7 record, Shove, was song of the day for August 31st, 2014, here: Shove – L7 ] was in her apartment trying to write songs for what would become the band’s third album, Bricks are Heavy, when a phrase sprang into her head. She was going through a painful breakup, and the phrase had to do with making recovery easier. As she explained, “I was heartbroken in my bedroom and found myself singing, ‘I just pretend that you’re dead’ – not in a mean or ugly way, more because I wanted the dude to vanish from my mind.” She soon changed the intent of the song, though. L7 had a policy of not doing love songs, so she changed the focus from pretending a lover was dead to avoiding pretending that she herself was dead. Thus, the song became a feminist anthem about not being passive – “pretend that we’re dead” – but instead to assert yourself.
Pretend We’re Dead was released as a single in April 1992 and became L7’s best-known song. It was not a mainstream hit and did not make the overall Billboard Hot 100, but it did receive considerable airplay on alternative rock stations. It stayed on the Modern Rock charts for 20 weeks, eventually climbing as high as #8. It also charted in the UK, reaching #21 on the singles chart.
Wednesday song of the day: Today’s song is a humorous look at an early American war.
Johnny Horton was a country singer who was popular in the 1950s. Later in his career he had hits with historical songs, that told a story about some aspect of history. These included Sink the Bismarck about a World War II naval battle, North to Alaska about the Alaskan gold rush, and Johnny Reb about the Civil War. The first and biggest of his historical hits was The Battle of New Orleans, about a battle fought by Andrew Jackson at the end of the War of 1812.
The song was written by country/folk songwriter Jimmy Driftwood and is a bit of a tall tale, telling the story in a fanciful way. At one point in the song, the soldiers even use an alligator as a cannon. Driftwood was a school principal and often wrote historical songs for use in classes to help make history interesting for students. He based the music for his song on an old traditional instrumental tune called Eighth of January, which is the date that the Battle of New Orleans began in 1814. The earliest known recording of Eighth of January (sometime titled The 8th of January) was by the Arkansas Barefoot Boys in 1928.
Jimmy Driftwood recorded his original version of The Battle of New Orleans in October 1957, and it was released in May 1958. His record had more verses than the later hit and told a more complete story of the battle. It was not a hit, but it did draw the attention of Johnny Horton, who recorded a simplified and slicker version.
The Johnny Horton cover was released as a single in April 1959, and quickly became a hit. It not only topped the country chart, but was also a huge crossover hit, also placing at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Battle of New Orleans ended up being the top selling single for 1959 and winning a Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance.
Johnny Horton continued making hits into 1960, but was killed in a car accident in November of that year at the age of 35.
Thursday song of the day: Today’s song had been performed by the artist for over 20 years before it was recorded and released as a single.
Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, performed in blues clubs throughout the south in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1950s he was signed to Chess Records. Leonard Chess suggested he relocate to Chicago, and he soon fit into the blues scene there.
He had written a song called Smokestack Lightning in the 1930s and had been performing it for years in one form or another. Smokestack Lightning was inspired by bits of earlier songs, such as Big Road Blues by Tommy Johnson, Moon Going Down by Charley Patton, and Stop and Listen Blues by the Mississippi Sheiks. The title refers to sparks that came from the smokestacks of coal-fired trains.
Howlin’ Wolf recorded a version with considerably different lyrics in 1951 as Crying at Daybreak as the B-side of the Passing By Blues single. It wasn’t until January 1956 that he recorded the definitive version under the title Smokestack Lightning, however. It was a moderate hit, placing at #8 on the Billboard R&B chart. Its influence far exceeded its position on the charts at the time, and it has been covered by numerous other artists, including The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Grateful Dead, George Thorogood, and Soundgarden. It has since been acclaimed as an important precursor to rock & roll, being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, and selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording registry.
Friday song of the day: Today’s song is basically a list.
OK, I screwed up. Yesterday’s song was Smokestack Lightning by Howling Wolf, which reminded me of the song Fire Woman by The Cult, which prominently features the phrase “smokestack lightning” in its lyrics. So, I had planned to make Fire Woman today’s song to tie the theme together. Unfortunately, I had already used Fire Woman back in May. Oops. Instead of repeating it, I am making a last-minute change to another “fire” song. One that sucks.
Since it is late and I have only a little while to do this before midnight, I’ll just say that We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel made a song out of the simple premise of listing historical and cultural references in pretty much chronological order. The references range from 1949 (which is when Billy Joel was born) until 1989, when the song was released. As I said, I think the song is flat-out bad. Still, audiences had a different opinion since it was a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy.