“Rockin’ Red Wing”: New Spin on an Old Tune

I first learned of the song “Red Wing” from Asleep at the Wheel‘s 1993 tribute album to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys that features two original members of the Texas Playboys, Eldon Shamblin and Johnny Gimble.  I somewhat assumed Bob Wills had written the tune, but no – Kerry Mills & Thurland Chattaway put it to paper in 1907, Mills having adapted the music from an 1848 Robert Schumann piece, “The Happy Farmer Returning from Work“.

In 1959 Sammy Masters updated the song not only with a “new” rock beat but also a more contemporary storyline and thus, “Rockin’ Red Wing” was born:

This song was originally released in 1959 on fledgling label, Warner Brothers, but going nowhere – according to 45Cat – until reissued in 1960 on Lode, at which point the song found its footing and climbed the pop charts to #64.

Rockin Red Wing - Sammy Masters 45

Original lyrics:

There once was an Indian maid,
A shy little prairie maid,
Who sang a lay, a love song gay,
As on the plain she’d while away the day;

She loved a warrior bold,
This shy little maid of old,
But brave and gay, he rode one day
To battle far away.

Updated lyrics:

There once lived an Indian maid
A teenage Indian maid
Who heard one day her radio play
And the rock an’ roller stole her heart away

And now every single night
All around the campfire bright
All the braves they yearn just to take their turn
And dance with their heart’s delight

Oh yeah, let’s rock, rock tonight with Rockin’ Red Wing
While the tom tom’s wailin’, her feet are sailin’
Oh yeah, let’s rock, rock tonight with Rockin’ Red Wing
A little Indian maiden loves to rock and roll

Time Machine:  Three Years in Reverse

Several years prior Sammy Masters teamed up with guitar legend, Jimmy Bryant, on two songs, “Pink Cadillac” and “Whop-T-Bop” – both released on 4-Star in 1956.

“Big Blue Diamonds”: Early 70s Resurgence

I first encountered the song, “Big Blue Diamonds,” as covered by Little Willie John in 1962, from a Starday-King cassette entitled Country Tunes Done R&B.Country Tunes Done R&B.jpg

“Big Blue Diamonds” was penned by Earl “Kit” Carson and first issued on a 1950 King 78 sung by Red Perkins. Tex Ritter also put out a version that very same year.  Jimmy Dean covered it in the mid-50s, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs in the mid-60s.

And then in the early 70s, a relative flurry of versions:  Arthur Prysock and Gene Summer both put out singles in 1971, while Mel Street and Ernest Tubb released honky tonk versions the following year.  1972 also saw the release of Jacky Ward‘s country top 40 hit version on the Target label – check out the naff piano, pedal steel & vibraslap opening:

“Big Blue Diamond”     Jacky Ward     1972


Jerry Lee Lewis would also record the song in 1973 on his Southern Roots album.


“The Three Song”: Pop Fugue

I put a copy of “The Three Song” on a mix once and recall having a difficult time initially verifying the song title.  I remember counting the bands on the vinyl record at least twice to make sure that track #3 on the Smothers Brothers’ 1965 album, Mom Always Did Like You Best, was really, truly called “The Three Song,” since there didn’t seem to be anything “three” about the song, lyrically.  Today I decided once and for all I would find out just why Mason Williams so named “The Three Song.”

The David Bianculli bio on The Smothers Brothers offers this bit of background behind the genesis of the song:   “This was a song that came to me in a dream,” Williams recalls,  “It was so powerful, I got up and wrote it down.”  The book also mentions the “delicate” performance on The Smothers Brothers Variety Hour, along with Israeli singer, Esther Ofarim, of this intricate number written by Mason Williams, “who was getting the chance to work more of his compositions in the show.”  Prior to this performance the three singers (Tom, Dick & Esther) comically explain the concept behind the song – a fugue of sorts – wherein the first voice sings its own lyric & melody, the second voice then sings its own independent lyric & melody, and the third and final voice being a combination of the first two voices.

Wanting confirmation of this fugue concept, I did another search and found a scholarly piece published in 1991 by Princeton University Press – Jazz Text:  Voice and Improvisation in Poetry, Jazz & Song by Charles O. Hartman – which contained this interesting bit:

“From time to time a poem or song makes the multiplicity of voice explicit. John Ashbery’s ‘Litany’ (printed in two [separate] columns ‘meant to be read as si­multaneous but independent monologues’) is a recent example.  Thirty years ago W. D. Snodgrass’s ‘After Experience Taught Me  …’  enacted a fiercer confrontation.

“Among songs, an obscure example is Mason Williams’s “Three Song” (once recorded by the Smothers Brothers).  In each of the three stanzas, a voice sings an apparently self-contained set of lines; a second voice sings a second set; then the two combine their verses into longer melodic and verbal lines.  The gain in completeness is satisfying; even more, the tricky skill is impressive.”

Mason Williams Ear Show

“Hicktown”: Place from Which No One Escapes

Hicktown” appears to be the B-side of an updated “Sixteen Tons” single released on Capitol in 1965.  Tennessee Ernie Ford sings of a down-on-its-luck place that holds its destitute and demoralized residents captive, unable to leave.  Sounds terrifying, actually:

“Hicktown”     Tennessee Ernie Ford     1965

Hicktown 45

“Little Nut Tree”: Rocksteady Revamped as Reggae

In 1968 The Melodians recorded two versions of the same song – “Little Nut Tree.”

What a difference a year can make.

The first version – recorded with underappreciated and pioneering producer, Sonia Pottinger, after the group had enjoyed a succession of hits on Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label – is definitely on the rocksteady side of the reggae divide:

Little Nut Tree I – The Melodians

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Little Nut Tree” by The Melodians.]

Later that year The Melodians headed to Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label for a “one-off” session that resulted in a new arrangement of “Little Nut Tree” in the ‘herky jerky’ style of reggae that was being popularized then by such groups as The Ethiopians:

Little Nut Tree II – The Melodians

Little Nut Tree - The Melodians

“Love a Go Go”: Stevie Answers Smokey?

I recently picked up a copy of Stevie Wonder’s 1966 album, Uptight, and was intrigued     to discover that Motown chose one of the stronger tracks – “Love a Go Go” – to lead off the album while at the same time electing to hold back the song from single release.  Curiously, a total of five songs from this “breakthrough” album for Stevie Wonder were issued on 45s, and none of them included “Love a Go Go”:

Could the song title be a playful riposte to Smokey Robinson’s big hit of the previous year, “Going to a Go Go”?

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

The Lime were a band of young rockers from Ohio who apparently were also surprised Stevie Wonder never released this song as a single – so they did it themselves.  Their 45, which originally came out on the Westwood label, was later picked up nationally by Chess and made it to #1 in – of all places – Lubbock, Texas and Sharon, Pennsylvania. Click here to learn the rest of the story from The Lime’s Steven Sanders.

Love a Go Go - The Lime

“Springfield Guitar Social”: Who’s Who of Guitar Wizardry

If you’re pressed for time but curious to know more about the stringed instrument masters who inspired and laid the groundwork for the the classic rock generation to come, here is a two-and-a-half minute Cliff Notes guide that demonstrates Thumbs Carllile‘s uncanny ability to play in the style of such guitarists as Grady Martin, Jimmy Bryant, Les Paul, George Barnes, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Speedy West*Billy Byrd – and himself:

[* Joe Goldmark challenges the veracity of the claim with regard to Speedy West]

This musical roll call of fleet-fingered axe-pickers was recorded in 1958 and released on Starday in 7-inch as well as 12-inch form.

At No Extra Cost

If you’ve never seen Thumbs Carllile play, then you’re really in for a treat.  As it turns out, Stanley Jordan wasn’t the first person to approach playing the guitar like a piano.  Check out this exhilarating version of “Li’l Liza Jane” from Bill Wemberly & His Country Rhythm Boys, featuring the dual guitar wizardry of Thumbs Carllile and Curly Chalker from Red Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee” TV show.

“Hello Yellow Bug”: First-Rate Tot Pop

The Johnny Mann Singers channel their inner child to optimal effect in “Hello Yellow Bug” from 1968’s Love is Blue album on the Liberty label.  Somewhat surprisingly, this song did not enjoy single release:

Hello Yellow Bug – Johnny Mann Singers

Is it possible that The Johnny Mann Singers were taking a page from young upstarts, The Free Design, whose debut album had been released the previous year?

Johnny Mann

“Dr. Robert”: Cover Version Hall of Fame?

It is the mark of a true artist when he or she can take someone else’s song and transform it into something else entirely, to the point of making the new version almost unrecognizable.  Stevie Wonder’s 1973 version of “We Can Work It Out,” for example, begins with a funky clavinet riff whose boldness and originality immediately sets it apart from The Beatles’ 1965 single.  An even better example of taking someone’s else tune and completely making it their own is Earth, Wind & Fire’s stellar arrangement of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” – a radio highlight of the summer of 1978.

Speaking of The Fab Four, those of you who lived outside Cincinnati during the 1980s have been sadly deprived of a Beatles cover version so original and inspired that it instantly merited inclusion in an exalted, exclusive group — a Cover Version Hall of Fame, if you will — once it was broadcast on public television in 1980 as part of a local talent series called Rock Around the Block.  Fortunately, some kind soul has made this amazing musical moment by Cincinnati’s finest – The Raisins – available to the rest of the world so that your life will now be complete:

Interesting to note that guitarist Rob Fetters would reprise his classic ‘Dr. Robert’ riff for “Mattress,” the kick-off track to 1995’s Awkwardsville album by psychodots, a group whose personnel include former Raisins, Bob Nyswonger and Chris Arduser (click here to view the promotional video).

I would love to know from others:  are there any rearrangements whose uniqueness and freshness of perspective would qualify for inclusion in this presumptive Cover Version Hall of Fame?

Lee Hazlewood: Lesser-Known Legend of Surf & Twang Guitar

Even if only for his pioneering production work with one of my guitar heroes, Duane Eddy (e.g., using a gigantic grain tank as an echo chamber), let it be known that Lee Hazlewood, while himself not a hotshot guitarist, co-wrote some of Eddy’s best tunes (including half of his excellent 1965 album, Duane-a-Go-Go), as well as penned a fair number of surf classics for other artists:  “Baja“; “Movin’” and “Batman” for The Astronauts, plus all of Al Casey‘s best instrumentals – “Surfs You Right“; “The Hearse“; “Surfin’ Hootenanny“; and “Guitars, Guitars, Guitars.”

HazlewoodIs Hazlewood’s 1961 instrumental – five years before Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme” – the first musical tribute to the Caped Crusader?  Still trying to determine that the guitarist is using a 6-string bass (or baritone guitar) to carry out the melody line.

“Batman”     Lee Hazlewood     1961