Pockets of Bliss: The Top Ten

10 – “Dear Mr. Fantasy” by Traffic (1969) // Funny but that same girlfriend, who introduced me to Billy Idol, also turned me on to Steve Winwood and his 70s band Traffic. I believe I first heard “Dear Mr. Fantasy” on a PolyTel cassette I bought at a local convenience store. I feel like it was called Rock 101 and it had a blackboard cover with the title written in chalk but I also recognize it from Rock Anthems, another PolyTel tape from 1986. Anyways, this atmospheric tune starts out with the drums of Jim Capaldi at the fore; keep listening to what he’s doing with his kick drum. The underrated Capaldi – there was never an iteration of this band without him – puts in a stellar performance throughout. Steve enters with a lazy, spacey vocal and Dave Mason contributes wailing harmonica. Winwood eventually dispenses with the lyrics – there are not many – and goes into a guitar solo that needs to be heralded throughout the world. I wrote in my article on Steve – check it here – that it can be hard to reconcile the engaging pop front man of the 80s with the less visible rocker who can lay down solos like this. I spent many pre-internet years trying to confirm that it was indeed Steve playing guitar on “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. Then I saw Traffic in concert in the 90s. I had previously seen crowd-pleasing Steve perform live and the difference was striking. With Traffic, Capaldi did all the talking and Steve played like nobody’s business. So, yeah, can confirm. A star will always be next to Steve Winwood’s name for this tune alone. “Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune. Something to make us all happy…”

No doubt you also owned a few cassettes like this.

9 – “So Right to Be in Love” by the Royal Guardsmen (1967) // It’s all in the ear of the beholder and you love what you love and that’s OK. I understand about guilty pleasures; heck, that’s our bread and butter here. I’m not going to try to convince you that the Royal Guardsmen are really this great group that needs to be reassessed. I’m here to tell ya, there’s nothing to hear here. Except this delightful little ditty. As a child – and that in itself tells you a lot – I was gifted by some kind soul in my family with Merry Snoopy’s Christmas, a compilation album released in 1978 . It featured the music of the Royal Guardsmen, music that for the most part was devoted to Snoopy’s imaginary air battles with the Red Baron. I understand bubble gum pop. And I certainly understand the appeal of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts strip but the Royal Guardsmen should never have been allowed. Except this delightful little ditty. On this Christmas budget release was “So Right to Be in Love”. And you savvy bubble gum pop, right? The purpose of which was not to edify or instruct but only to delight. Big check mark on that here. “Blue skies, summer’s in the air” Listen to the cute, little chord progression as the singer works through “it’s so right to be holding your hand this way. And the time is just right for me to say…” Playful little organ work and answering girl singers. The B side of a dud single and an album track from a goofball bubble gum combo. It takes all kinds. If you wanna spend a summer’s day with your arms flung out running through a meadow singing a song at the top of your voice – as we all do – this is it. “All that I need is someone to share this world with me. And I couldn’t see sharing you with no one else but me. So listen (listen, baby) to what I got to say (say hey! Say hey!). You know (you know, baby) what makes me feel this way. It’s the touch of your lips pressin’ close to mine. Its a new love, a true love that’s so hard to find. It’s so right to be in love”

Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group

8 – “Angelina” by Herb Alpert (1979) // Music is often so visual to me. Certain music, certain songs sound to me like locations or like they should be listened to in specific places. Oftentimes, the story in a song – the lyrics or melody – will conjure in me scenarios. My favourite album, Herb Alpert’s Rise, yields two of my 16 favourite songs; the title track and now “Angelina”, co-written by the late Gary Brooker of Procul Harum. It’s sunset. One of those bright, blinding, golden sunsets. It’s been a steaming hot day. A young white guy has been out with his Latina love; Angelina. This guy doesn’t have much on the ball in the way of work or prospects but he has plans. And he loves his Angelina. And she loves him. Her brothers? Not so much. Her father? He is quietly menacing. Our boy thinks this man will actually kill him if he gets the chance. But he and Angelina still steal away at every opportunity. Like this evening. It’s a stolen sunset stroll down by the ocean. They watch the boats return from a day on the water and the two lovers plan and dream. One day they will escape… As they hold hands and look into each other’s eyes, “Angelina” plays… Tight. It starts out tight. Crisp guitar licks, snapping hi-hat/snare work and razor-sharp bass playing. And then Herb. What’s so great about Alpert’s playing? Listen to the emotion he brings forth in “Angelina”. A simply rapturous recording.

7 – “Modern Love” by David Bowie (1983) // One of the songs from this list that I fell in love with when it was brand new; there aren’t many. The song was released on Bowie’s Let’s Dance album in the spring of ’83. The third single, “Modern Love”, was issued on September 12, 1983 and I turned 11 a couple of months later. I remember seeing the video and being captivated by the song but also by Bowie himself. He wears a killer yellow suit in the video with the classic look of his bowtie untied and hung around his neck. His bright, yellow hair is piled up, Fifties style. Truth be told, I recall thinking he looked devastatingly handsome and not being sure how I felt about feeling that way. The song itself is Fifties, as well. Bowie has said that Little Richard was the inspiration for songs like this one and it fairly pulses with energy, highlighted by a young Texan Bowie tapped to work on the sessions for the album name of Stevie Ray Vaughan. The drums are also pushed up in the mix by co-producer Nile Rodgers. I’ve mentioned before hearing longing in songs; I actually can detect that here, too, even in these joyous proceedings. As if amongst all the fun, Bowie has something significant to say. He often did. Dave seems to be singing at the top of his range adding impetus to the tune. Throughout everything is that steady backbeat (Omar Hakim on the drums). And horns? Hello! Back-up singing (“Church on time”). Most boxes checked on this engaging rocker, a significant song of my youth. “I catch the paper boy but things don’t really change. I’m standing in the wind but I never wave bye-bye. But I try, I try…”

Official David Bowie

6 – “Rockin’ at Midnight” by the Honeydrippers (1984) // Actually, I recall liking this song when it was initially released, as well. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant had always been a fan of Fifties music and put together an outfit to play the jump blues he loved. He called upon his mates to join him and the one-off group included Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Paul Shaffer and Nile Rodgers, who we talked about in the previous entry. The group’s one EP is stellar and features a string-laden cover of “Sea of Love” that reached #3 on the US Pop charts and was a Number One hit in Canada and on the Adult Contemporary charts in Canada and the US. It also boasts an excellent version of Brother Ray’s “I Got a Woman” and “Young Boy Blues”, a song I love to sing along to; and do so ably. Plant also reworked Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and rechristened it “Rockin’ at Midnight”. This tune boasts a robust horn arrangement and Plant was smart enough to add echo to his vocal. Beck lays down a tidy solo and dig that fat sax solo. But here’s the thing. Everything’s rolling, right? Great tune, fun time, everyone on the floor kicking it old school and you’re in heaven, right? About 3-and-a-half minutes in Rob’s singing “we’re gonna rock”, the horns are blowing, Beck riffs again and you’re waiting for the song to fade to an end. But the tune ain’t done by a long shot. Plant returns for another chorus. Energy to burn here, baby. All you could ask for in six minutes of music; a least two-and-a-half of which we don’t even deserve.

5 – “Pretty World” by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (1969) // It seems my seven favourite songs fall more in the category of pure smiling joy than some of the other more dramatic songs of more emotional import. When it comes to me considering a song a “pocket of bliss”, there are few more qualified than this dreamy gem from the cat from Rio. Let’s talk some straight talk here; Mendes is the smoothest dude there ever was, maybe. Certainly with Brasil ’66 he laid down swank vibes with his blend of mod sounds; bossa nova, lounge music, jazz and some hits of the day thrown in. His work at the keys is exemplary and that is what is at the heart of what’s so great about “Pretty World”. The lilting, chiming little riff he plays on the keyboard to begin the tune and that he returns to throughout is marvellous. The flutes and strings gently insinuate themselves into the mix, drifting idly behind the divine voices of Kern Philipp and Lani Hall (wife of Herb Alpert, who produced this album, Crystal Illusions). Orchestral arranging here is done by Dave Grusin, a guy I have run into many times here at SoulRide. Simply where this song goes and the wings on which it flies are out of this world. Listen to the strings at 1:16 and 2:13; I’m dying. Everything has come together perfectly here; muted trumpet, orchestra, drumming, Sérgio’s right hand, pleasant vocals… It’s another sunny hillside song. Let’s go there. “We’ll hang a little sign that just says ‘Paradise: Population Two’. I know together we can make a pretty world for me and for you. For you. It’s what I long to do, to do. To make a worrrrrld…with you”

Official Sérgio Mendes

4 – “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band (1973) // My top three are the joys of my life. This one is actually a bit more than “just” a joy. It qualifies as astounding. I’ve never really heard anything like it. The Allman Brothers are notable for a few things, I guess, but one of the main things is the superlative and short-lived prowess of Duane Allman. He has often been cited – with Jimi Hendrix – as rock’s all-time greatest guitarist. His skill is the stuff of legend, I get that but let’s hear it for the band’s other guitarist Dickey Betts. From Gregg Allman’s memoir, I gleaned that Dickey could be a combative force within the group and this could make one side with the band’s namesakes – Duane and Gregg – against Dickey and shake your head at him for causing such a ruckus all the time. But it cannot be denied that Betts gave the band their biggest and only real hit, “Ramblin’ Man (#2 US Pop, 1973), the mind-bending “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, the ambitious “Les Brers in A Minor”, “Blue Sky” which features one of my three favourite guitar solos, work actually performed by Betts and Duane and this magnificent number from my second-favourite album of all-time, Brothers and Sisters, “Jessica”. I’m afraid I won’t be able to describe in words how I feel about this song. At least I can extol the virtues of Mr. Chuck Leavell. Chuck is a keyboardist whom the Allmans added to their line-up for the Brothers and Sisters album. His piano work in the rock world has perhaps no equal; Nicky Hopkins, maybe. Chuck continues to be the current touring pianist and music director for the Rolling Stones and he has also played with Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, the Black Crowes, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, George Harrison and others. His work on “Jessica” adds to my assertion that this is music of the purest sort. This is music of the earth and “Jessica” is one of the most exuberant celebrations of life you could ever hope to hear. Leavell and Betts go to another planet on this tune, the composition and arrangement of which is stunning. This song is about energy and – like “Rockin’ at Midnight” – just when you think the song is winding up it carries on to further heights of majesty. Gregg Allman’s Hammond is divine, confirming he may not get the love he deserves. The main riff – though wordless – seems to be shouting affirmations, seems to be declaring victory. Over sadness and woe, over life’s problems. Over death, which the band had recently seen up close. It is simply a series of notes that – when played consecutively – simulate the sound of triumph. The sound of music conquering sorrow. Listen to Dickey’s re-entry at 3:48. And just after the 6-minute mark, you think like they might be ready to wrap but lift-off is achieved when they go back into the main riff, setting up for a stirring finish. Listening to this song can exhaust me. After trying to describe it to you I need to lie down.

Official Allman Brothers Band

From Quincy Jones in 1973 “Sanford and Son Theme (The Streetbeater)”

I might have been only half-serious the day I declared this my third-favourite song of all-time. But then listening to it again I realized yeah, I love this song. Certainly, I first loved it as the theme to Sanford and Son, a show I watched and loved back in the day; so it has that feel-good connection. And the tune itself is outrageous. There are many 5-, 6- and 7-minute songs on this list and their length adds greatly to their appeal. Sometimes, though, a song can charm you in 2 minutes flat. Maybe it’s just a riff, a feel, a groove. I just described “The Streetbeater”, actually. This is a stone funk work-out from Q that features my favourite instruments including the clavinet, a Hammond organ and harmonica and these make their statements consecutively and in unison to wonderful results. The familiar start to this theme from the cherished TV show is marked by that percussive clavinet sound. The keyboard is basically struck, the keys making a high, honking sound almost; a sound designed to rip you out of your seat. Then we hear what sounds to me like one of those massive bass harmonicas that I learned about while reading about Brian Wilson making Pet Sounds. A sax honks the melody before a wailing harmonica steps in. Then dig how the Hammond enters, smearing – the smears! so many fantastic smears! – and popping its way along while the clavinet answers back. While a kid, it killed me that the theme I heard on television was so brief so it was pleasing to find the full “The Streetbeater” version on Q’s 1973 album You Got it Bad Girl. Why does this “goofy” song rate so high? If music for me is all about packing huge thrills in small spaces – pockets of bliss – this gem from the legend Quincy Jones is the textbook example.

From Stevie Wonder in 1972 “Superstition”

I have long been mesmerized by this song – in fact, even just the first 22 seconds. The tight drumming by Stevie himself (and he knows how to snap a hi-hat) sets the table for the greatest of all clavinet performances. You can find scores of videos online dedicated to trying to explain how Stevie played the Hohner Clavinet Model C on “Superstition”. Many begin with “disclaimers” stating that Wonder’s performance cannot be duplicated; only attempts can be made to “deconstruct” what he did. It’s mind-boggling. I continue through my life to confirm Stevie Wonder’s year of birth but it’s always the same every time I check: 1950. Cat was a teenager in the 60s when he was a hit-making machine for Motown and here is 22 laying down a youthful, vibrant, strong soul vocal. And more than that he is controlling the studio environment, writing, arranging, performing and producing. Creating. Also dig the killer horn chart in this song. This tune is groove personified. For your own edification, read up on this tune and the hand Jeff Beck took in its creation (see here).

Stevie playing live in ’73. Watch his hands. No ownership intended.

From Tom Jones in 2002 “Black Betty”

And here we are. It was Friday, March 19th, 2004 and I went back to my hometown with my wife to see Tom Jones in concert. We had recently decided to not go see Rosemary Clooney in concert – only to have her die shortly afterwards. We then vowed that we would go and see everyone we could while they were still with us and we did a pretty good job of it. When I heard that TJ – who was “only” 63 at the time – was performing near us, we knew we had to go. You don’t know us so you can’t understand what it means that we actually paid $125 EACH to see Tom live. But what happened at that show was stunning. I had grown up listening to Elvis Presley live recordings from the 1970s and was often disappointed by the short shrift King gave his early hits; 58-second versions of “Hound Dog”, etc. But that night we heard Tom Jones stand up there and belt songs like “Delilah”, “Help Yourself” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and he invested in them all the gravitas they deserve and by doing so he was claiming their legacies and declaring them great and worthy of respect. Then he sang some of his more recent recordings and I’ll admit I was skeptical. You know how you look at it when a legend from the 60s makes a new album 40 years later. But here again I was awestruck. Dude was deadly serious when he laid down great performances of a song like “We’ve Got Tonight” in a funky new arrangement. This was the start of me learning that at his core Tom Jones has always been a soul singer. And then he sang “Black Betty”. Well, I’ve never been quite the same since. Later, I scored the album these two songs sprang from. Tom made Mr. Jones in 2002 with Wyclef Jean. This record was still dance-hall oriented as this was years before Jones hooked up with Ethan Johns to make a series of class records as TJ reached his 80s. But his record with Wyclef does have a certain style and flair. The arrangement of Ledbelly’s “Black Betty” is something of a pinnacle for me; obviously as here it sits in the Number One slot. Is it about grand perfection? Nah. Here again it’s all about the groove. You’ll notice that my three favourite songs are all about feel. On “Black Betty” – I’ve always known of Ram Jam’s killer version – Wyclef was savvy enough to throw in a cool sample of Ledbelly singing his iconic tune and Jones begins the tune with a shout-out to the folk-blues legend. Tom then sings and grunts and groans with more funk feeling than any other white guy who’s ever stepped up to the mic. Listen for the moments when his vocal is double-tracked; sounds great. Actually, his “second” vocal behind his own lead is filled with ecstatic exclamations. His feel for the lyric and for the setting he’s been provided is bang on. And the setting itself is a start-stop, stuttering, pulsating, back-bone breaking series of punctuations – “funktuations”? – that will have you doing 100 in an 80. Learn the lyrics and sing along; there is no greater musical experience. A white guy who knows and loves the blues, soul and funk. A white guy who sings it with all the investment of the greatest black vocalists. Gifted with a song steeped in history and committed to the groove. That’s bliss to me. “Monday she got me arrested. On Tuesday up in jail. On Wednesday my trial was contested, on Thursday she posted my bail. On Friday we went walkin’, Saturday I was outta my door. On Sunday we was talkin’. Back on Monday she pawned all my clothes. Oh, Black Betty, bam-a-lam. She from Birmingham (bam-a-lam), way down in Alabam’ (bam-a-lam)…”

Official Tom Jones



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