Wednesday, August 31, 2005

History Lesson: Pickin' Flowers Up on Choctaw Ridge

August 31, 1976: A judge finds that George Harrison unconsciously plagiarized the Chiffons' song "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." Money Harrison earned from the song was assigned to the estate of songwriter Ronnie Mack. While the suit was in court, Harrison was recording the album Thirty Three and 1/3. "This Song," the first hit from the album, contains the line, "This song ain't black or white and as far as I know/Don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so . . . ."

August 31, 1969:
Bob Dylan, backed by the Band, appears at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK. (Thirty-six years later, Dylan is about to become a hot pop-culture property once again, with a PBS documentary, two new CDs, and two books, including a self-penned memoir, due in the next month.)

August 31, 1955: In what must have been the first incident of its kind, a London man is fined three pounds for telling his neighbors, "I will drive you mad," and then playing Bill Haley's recording of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" at full volume for 2 1/2 hours. All of us lived near at least one of his heirs in the dorm, I'm sure.

Birthday Today: Van Morrison is 60. I bought "Domino" on a 45 in 1971, but didn't rediscover Morrison until one afternoon over 30 years later, on the North Shore of Lake Superior, where my wife and I were seeking refuge in the wake of September 11. The stereo in a little antique store was playing a CD so good that I had to ask the proprietor what it was. It turned out to be Van's 1999 release Back on Top, which was the first of many Van albums I have acquired in the intervening years. I find myself listening more often to his later albums than to the early classics--there's something about the mileage he's put on that lends a depth to his work that I find missing in some of the earlier stuff. But you still have to own His Band and the Street Choir and Moondance, of course.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1984: "Ghostbusters"/Ray Parker Jr.
Speaking of plagiarism suits, Huey Lewis and the News sued Parker over this song, claiming it had been lifted from "I Want a New Drug." Oddly enough, Lewis and the News had turned down an invitation to write a song for the movie Ghostbusters.

1972: "Brandy"/Looking Glass.
This is a perfect 70s radio record--there's nothing you could do to improve it unless you made it last longer. Looking Glass made two perfect radio records, actually, although substantially fewer people remember the second one. In the fall of 1973, Looking Glass would take "Jimmy Loves Mary Ann" to Number 33--and why it got only that far is a mystery to me.

1970: "War"/Edwin Starr. The lyrics are angry, but no more than the music. The whole band sounds pissed, and Starr most of all. Time for a remake.

1967: "Ode to Billie Joe"/Bobbie Gentry.
Perhaps the greatest mystery any songwriter ever concocted. In 1976, Robby Benson starred in a movie (directed by Max Baer, fresh off playing Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) that tried to solve the song's mysteries, including why Billie Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge--but nobody remembers the answers. That's neither Robby's nor Jethro's fault. The unanswered questions will always be more compelling.

1952: "Half as Much"/Rosemary Clooney.
In the 1950s, R&B records were routinely covered by white artists, who sanded off the rough edges and made them more acceptable to white audiences. The same thing happened to legendary country singer Hank Williams, whose rural honk was far more than mainstream radio stations and record buyers were willing to handle. Clooney's "Half as Much" was the second Williams cover to reach Number One--Tony Bennett had done it with "Cold Cold Heart" in November 1951. (And yes, she was related to George Clooney. He was her nephew. She died in 2002.)


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