June 18, 2013
So how do you write a hit song? You can find books and blogs that profess to have the secret. There have been songwriting teams called “hit makers,” and it’s safe to say there are certain formulas that increase the chance of a song becoming a hit. In the jazz world some of the most successful recordings have come about through a combination of serendipity and a large dose of irony. One reason I call them “ironic hits” is that the musicians who made them famous were not the writers of the tune, although they were composers themselves. Let’s take a look at three.
Duke Ellington, arguably America’s greatest composer, was a well-established bandleader and hit maker in 1940. Ellington was a member of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and when the organization raised its licensing fees, Duke found he could no longer perform his own compositions during live radio broadcasts. This happened shortly after he had hired composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn brought an arrangement to the band called “Take the A Train.” Jazz lore has it that the title came from the first line of Ellington’s directions that would lead Strayhorn from his Pittsburgh home to Ellington’s apartment in Harlem. Take the A Train. Duke’s son Mercer Ellington, also an arranger, stated that he found Strayhorn’s original draft for the song in the trash. Strayhorn stated that it was too similar to a Fletcher Henderson arrangement, and so had discarded it. Whether or not that is true, it’s fascinating to realize that one of Ellington’s most enduring songs was not his composition at all. Ellington had the good sense to embrace talent when he found it, and he replaced his then current band theme, “Sepia Panorama” with Strayhorn’s first effort. The fact that Duke’s new collaborator was not an ASCAP member solved the licensing issue for a time.
A measure of a hit is not only the impact it first makes, but how long it lasts. “Take the A Train” is now a standard at jam sessions and any swing affair. Like most instrumental hits, lyrics were added later, in this case by vocalist Joya Sherrill, who later became a singer with Ellington. Joya’s lyrics hold up fairly well and are essentially an early Google Map: “You must take the A train/To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem.”
Amongst Ellington’s most ardent admirers was composer and pianist Dave Brubeck. When Brubeck was chosen to be on the cover of Time magazine, he unequivocally stated “it should have been Ellington.” The song “Take Five” has somehow entered the consciousness of the general population and provides another fascinating story of odd circumstances and irony. One of the first things I noticed after being hooked on the song and purchasing the LP was that the composer was the group’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond. As a devourer of liner notes and music trivia, this fact was not lost on me. Brubeck, whose success was tied to his writing, was not credited for what became the band’s biggest hit, and indeed went on to become the largest selling jazz single in history. The story is slightly more complicated. Apparently drummer Joe Morello was often given an extended solo feature at the end of their concerts in the early sixties. Often he would transition into the rarely-played time signature of 5/4, and eventually suggested to Dave that perhaps a song should be written over this groove. Paul Desmond stepped up and said “I’ll write something.” According to an NPR interview, Brubeck stated that Paul came back with two seemingly unrelated saxophone melodies to fit over the 5/4 time signature. Brubeck formed them into an A-A-B-A structure and provided the ear-catching vamp. The irony continues. It is a Brubeck hit without a hint of a piano solo, and features two other members of the group. Desmond thought the song was a throwaway and joked that his royalties would allow him to buy a new electric shaver. He also didn’t like the title “Take Five” suggested by Brubeck. In addition, Columbia Records was not pleased with the album as a whole. In her interview in 2011, Iola Brubeck reminisced about the attitude of the record company:
MR: Were you surprised at the success of “Time Out?”
IB: Of “Time Out?” Well yes. There was no anticipation that it was going to be a hit of any kind. And in fact, it’s an old story now that Dave has often told of having to fight at Columbia to even have it released and Goddard Lieberson liked the concept and he said he thought he could sell it to the people on the west coast maybe, and he took “Take Five” and went out to sales meeting on the west coast, saying this is something new and I think we can really push this, and the sales people saying “no way.” So it really was a result of — God bless ‘em — disc jockeys who were looking for something different to play and saying well this sounds different and then putting it on and then it got a public reaction, and then it started taking off. So it was really the public deciding that this is what they wanted to hear. It broke the mold and that’s always a little challenging to a lot of people who don’t know how to handle it. And of course by this time — it’s notorious in jazz history lore — that terrible review that Downbeat gave “Time Out.” I think it got a star and a half or something.
Thanks to the unique quirkiness of the song and those DJ’s, “Take Five” took its place in music history. The record company put out a 45 RPM single which required some snipping of the drum solo to fit into the three minute format. “Take Five,” has certainly stood the test of time and has since been lyricized by Al Jarreau, “Won’t you stop and take a little time out with me/Just take five, just take five.”
When Billboard released their 1961 Top 100 chart, “Take Five” stood at #95, preceded at #94 by Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” and followed by Elvis Pressley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” at #96. You’ll never see that in this day and age. Imagine a Wynton Marsalis recording on the charts, sandwiched between Justin Bieber and Adele.
I’ve stated numerous times that Cannonball Adderley was my musical hero. Not only was he the quintessential alto saxophonist, but also a savvy bandleader and major contributor to the soul jazz movement. In February of 1967, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet landed at #11 on the Billboard charts with the song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Cannonball wrote the occasional tune, but it was brother Nat who had penned some of the previous successes. In this case the liner notes conveyed that this Gospel-tinged song, steeped in American soul, was written by an Austrian. Pianist Joe Zawinul was born in Vienna and spent ten years as a member of Adderley’s quintet, contributing many compositions to the band’s repertoire, none bigger than “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
Musicians don’t usually know when they have a hit on their hands, but Cannonball’s drummer Roy McCurdy stated in his interview that they thought they had something with potential.
MR: With tunes like “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff, when you read them in rehearsal, did you get a sense that this tune is going to sell a lot of records?
RM: Yeah. You know we were hoping, we were always experimenting. That band was experimenting all the time. And we played straight ahead jazz, we played all kinds of stuff. So when Joe [Zawinul] brought that tune in I think we were rehearsing in Teaneck, New Jersey. We rehearsed in Nat Adderley’s basement out there. When he brought that tune in he says “listen to this,” and he started playing it. And we were just starting to get into the electronics you know, where we were using electric piano. And we had a Wurlitzer that we wanted to use. And he played this tune and we says, “yeah, let’s try it.” We rehearsed it and got it together. We went and tried it and people loved it.
Perhaps the atypical characteristics of “Mercy, Mercy” are what propelled it to that unlikely spot on the charts. The song is unlike a hard-swinging Adderley performance. The slow groove is intimate but not overwhelming. The melody is simple but builds powerfully to its climax. There are no solos by Cannonball on saxophone nor brother Nat on cornet anywhere in the song. The only improvising was provided by Joe Zawinul on the Wurlitzer, and even this solo relies mostly on spare Gospel-flavored fills, as if to say the groove is sufficient. The song clocked in at close to five minutes, but as they did in “Take Five,” the record company needed to edit it for the 45 RPM. The engaging verbal introduction offered by Cannonball (“sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity”) was snipped out for the short version. Listen to the LP version to enjoy Cannonball’s eloquence.
Even the recording of the song had some jazz lore to it. The album is titled “Live at ‘The Club,’” when in reality “the club” was actually a recording studio. Invited guests sat at tables around the band recreating the atmosphere of a live performance. You can hear it and feel it on the record.
“Mercy, Mercy” lives on, although not as “Take Five” or “Take the A Train” did. The song was recorded by various artists in a number of settings, including the Buddy Rich Big Band. Somehow “Mercy” did not lend itself to memorable lyrics. The pop group The Buckinghams put out a cover version almost immediately, singing, “My baby she’s made out of love/Like one of the those bunnies in a Playboy Club.” Years later a set of lyrics that was only slightly better was penned, oddly credited to both Curtis Mayfield and songwriters Gail and Vincent Levy, “My love has turned her back on me/Heartache, why won’t you let me be?” Personally, I’ll stick with the instrumental version.
Joe Zawinul’s hit writing was not a onetime event. He penned memorable follow-ups for the Adderley band with “Walk Tall” and “Country Preacher,” and years later wrote the marvelous ear-catching composition “Birdland” as leader of the band Weather Report.
Regarding hit songs, Fats Waller’s famous phrase applies: “One never knows, do one.”