Quizzes, board games and lists have all migrated from pub to social media while the virus suffocates conventional interaction. It’s a lesser experience but if the topic is rich enough it can occupy those quarantined hours in which we stare out of windows. So, here’s a game we can all play – can you name three records that you think are better than the original versions? Here are mine: SUMMER BREEZE (J Seals/D Crofts) Original: Seals & Crofts, recorded 1972 Cover: The Isley Brothers, recorded 1973
James Eugene (Jim) Seals and George Darrell (Dash) Crofts were a free-wheeling Texan duo who followed the folk-rock trail back and forth to Los Angeles in the 1960s. Jim had started as early as 1959, touring in Eddie Cochran’s band. On one of their early trips to LA, Jim and Dash joined an ever-changing band called The Champs, which included a young Glen Campbell. By 1969, LA was their base and a deal enabled them to complete an album entitled Summer Breeze – the eponymous single was to prove fateful. The Isley Brothers had started out in the same year as Seals. Three teenagers, Rudolph, O’Kelly and Ronald, took a bus east from Cincinnati to New York, attempting to join the Afro-American club circuit with their gospel-trained voices. Within a year, they created an album, decorating it with church music and standards. But it was their own composition that got them noticed – Shout, a raucous stomper, crept into the charts. The Isleys duly formed their own label, T-Neck, and recorded an album which featured Dionne Warwick on backing vocals, and a young guitarist calling himself Jimmy James, for whom O’Kelly, after hearing his virtuoso playing, had bought a white Stratocaster. And so, for nearly two years Jimi Hendrix toured and recorded with the band. The LP In The Beginning features Ronald’s soaring vocals, and Hendrix’s rippling guitar on some excellent songs, notably a blues, Have You Ever Been Disappointed, and the tortured ballad The Last Girl. As Jimi left for England, the Isley Brothers headed to what seemed their destiny at Motown. Within a month they had converted an unused Holland-Dozier-Holland composition into a famous hit – This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You). But the brothers never really settled in the Motown system – they were their own men, and still had their own label. After quitting in 1969 and reviving T-Neck, they defiantly titled their new album It’s Our Thing, with the single It’s Your Thing hitting No1 and winning an R&B Emmy. The recruitment of younger members of the family, guitarist Ernie, bassist Marvin and their cousin Chris Jasper, a fine keyboard player, helped the band to create a richer, funkier sound. The new six-man line-up gave a natural title to their 1973 album, 3+3, the sleeve photo showing two generations, each dressed extravagantly, emitting power and confidence.
Summer Breeze, as performed by Seals & Crofts, is about the relief of a working man coming home for dinner with his wife on a balmy evening. The famous dah-dee-dum, dah-dee-dum intro was played by Crofts on a mandolin (my second least favourite instrument) with Seals on acoustic guitar. The harmonies are pretty good, a bit shrill at times, and the tempo is strangely fast and aggressive for such a gentle song. But this didn’t stop it charting at No6 on Billboard. In contrast, the Isleys’ version is luscious and atmospheric, celebrating high summer with almost hypnotic effect. They even make the song’s naffest line – ‘blowing through the jasmine in my mind’ – sound credible such are Ronald’s peerless vocals. The other thrilling elements are Chris Jasper’s lyrical piano and the rousing licks on Ernie’s new guitar – like former band member Hendrix, he had bought himself a Strat and a fuzz-box. Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil expertly produced at night, while working on Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions album during the day. The single charted all over the world – No16 in the UK – and enjoyed huge airtime. If you like it, there’s a 10-minute jazz-tinged, Marvin Gaye-hued version on the pared-down studio album Wild In Woodstock, unreleased but available in the ‘expensive-but-worth-it’ 22-disc box set of the Brothers’ T-Neck work. As for Seals & Crofts, they had a few lesser hits, but endless royalties flowed from the Isleys’ cover, enabling them to retire and promote their Baha’i faith. But they graciously sent a telegram to lead vocalist Ronald. It read simply: ‘Well, guess the song is all yours now.’
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN (Graham Nash) Original: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970 Cover: Richie Havens, 1971
When former Hollies leader Graham Nash left Britain and joined up with Stephen Stills (ex-Buffalo Springfield) and David Crosby (ex-Byrds) in America in the late 1960s, they were hailed as probably the next supergroup after Cream. Nash had enjoyed seven years of success with 15 top-10 hits, many of which he co-wrote with band members. Atlantic Records signed them up and their first album was highly successful. Neil Young added to the band’s lustre when joining the following year and the second album, Déjà Vu, went platinum, selling over eight million copies, with four singles from it reaching the charts. The Nash-penned Teach Your Children rose to No16 and became a staple of the band’s performances on the festival circuit in the USA. Teach Your Children reads as a two-way conversation on what parents expect of their children, and vice versa. Not unlike Cat Stevens’ Father And Son, which Richie Havens also covered, putting the title in the plural, on the same album, 1971’s The Great Blind Degree. Indeed, Havens fearlessly covered dozens of other artists – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Who, Van Morrison. He also wrote a huge number of his own songs and revived lost gems to establish a portfolio that embraced romance, civil protest, ecological concerns and Black American history. Born in Brooklyn, Havens sang hymns in church and acapella songs on street corners before finding his artistic home in Greenwich Village where he wrote poetry and acted on stage and film. Over six feet tall and with the frame of a boxer, Havens had a cavernous voice, sometimes gruff but mostly as warm as a Sunday night bath.
Both CSN&Y and Havens played at Woodstock in August 1969, where Havens emerged as the hero. Scheduled to go on fifth, he was pushed up to open the festival as many acts were caught in the vast human traffic heading for Max Yasgur’s Farm. Havens sang for nearly three hours, rousing the fans with one of his most fearsome songs, Freedom, which echoed around the packed fields. Prospects seemed worse when I went to see him at the Crystal Palace Bowl in June 1972 with a lake between fans and a curtain of all-day rain. Out of the mist came Havens’ voice, most movingly on Van Morrison’s lush ballad, Tupelo Honey. And so, to Teach Your Children – it’s a fine song, with poignant lyrics and CSN&Y are brilliant at harmonising. But it starts with a pedal steel guitar (my least favourite instrument) and the rhythm seems too jaunty for the weight of the message. Havens is backed by his own supergroup – Paul Williams on electric guitar, Emile Latimer on congas and percussion, Eric Oxendine on bass. And they lay down a wonderful swirl of expectation before that big, dark voice comes in; the tempo is right down; Havens is treating it almost like a hymn, reading the intricacies of the song. And he hits the most emotional moment perfectly:
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
Just look at them and sigh
And know they love you
Just know they love you Havens sang at President Clinton’s 1993 Inauguration ceremony, a fitting honour for America’s best troubadour since Dylan. He died in 2013 and his ashes were scattered from the air over the Woodstock site.
UP ON THE ROOF (Gerry Goffin/Carole King) Original: The Drifters, 1963 Cover: Lauro Nyro, 1970
Pete Frame, the creator and designer of Rock Family Trees, must have run out of paper when it came to linking those who sang and played in one of the first Afro-American cross-over groups – by the time they came to record this memorable hit single, The Drifters were on their third leader singer, Clyde McPhatter and Ben E King having departed. Upwards of 60 singers and musicians had appeared on their discs. The first formation had started in 1954 at Atlantic Records. Songs such Save The Last Dance For Me and When My Little Girl Is Smiling all hit the charts on both sides of the pond. But Up On The Roof made its biggest impact in the US domestic market, No5 in the pop charts, No4 on the R&B lists. Perhaps this was because it was such a New York-centric song – Goffin and King worked in the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, which housed dozens of songwriters, producers, studios and record companies. The lyric also embodied the feel of New York, with the roof offering relief from the heat and ‘all that rat-race noise down on the street’.
Rudy Lewis, now the lead singer, gave the song his best tenor sheen, while the backing vocals, jogging rhythm and combination of strings, xylophone and piano (Carole King) gave a fair impression of a city in constant motion. Rolling Stone Magazine listed Up On The Roof at 114 in their All-Time List of Greatest Songs.
The puzzle is why do I think Laura Nyro’s version is better? It did nothing here and tip-toed in at No92 on Billboard. But when I heard it, on her glorious 1970 Christmas And The Beads of Sweat album, it just felt as authentic as it could be – here was a young, Jewish-Italian New Yorker, with a voice that could range from a whisper to a soulful scream. Nyro turns the song into an act of contemplation, helped by producers Felix Cavaliere (ex-Young Rascals) and Arif Mardin, soon to hook up with The Bee Gees. There are bells, strings, Nyro on piano, Muscle Shoals riffs and Nyro’s inimitable soul-jazz voice. It’s much gentler than The Drifters’ rendition, helping to create a sense of city heat and domestic weariness – ‘when I get home feeling tired and beat’. And as the song slows to its climax Nyro produces her famous three-octave climb, up into the New York sky. Nyro wrote many songs that became hits for other acts – The Fifth Dimension, Barbra Streisand, Blood Sweat & Tears and Three Dog Night – but her own work went under-appreciated. She retired early and died at just 50. Please try Gonna Take A Miracle, her album with Labelle of 1960s soul covers. For her fans that unique voice lives on.