Tag Archives: Elton John

I was THIS close to being a famous songwriter

22 Aug

royalWhile late-summer cleaning at the Smith Estates, I uncovered a treasure trove of unpublished song lyrics. After you experience a small sampling of this lyrical magic, which I created as a teenager, you’ll wonder why I’m not churning out the hits in Nashville or L.A. If you’re not prepared to be in awe, go find a kitten video.

(No title)

You dragged me away from my job in Buxton, Utah
And we drove through the desert all day
We drove past numerous canyon boxes
In your beat-up Chevrolet

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

You’re headin’ for the butte in the middle of the plain
Which rises to a thunderous roar
To the old graveyard in the middle of the butte
Where the great eagle flies no more

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

This song has many more verses and would have come in at roughly ten minutes as a finished product. It would have been longer had I written the letter G at end of certain words. Instead of a graveyard, the couple arrives in an Indian village where they see a medicine man, children playing, and lots of eagles, though I had just written the great eagle flies no more. Though the song is chock full of geographic and meteorological improbabilities, I most love “numerous canyon boxes.” This may refer to the short-lived Canyon & Sons cardboard box factory that folded in 1983.

And now something completely different:

(No title)

She’s in love with every movie star
All the teenage idols, too.
She follows every big rock singer
And knows everything they do
She sings their songs
And plays their games
And dreams every chance she gets.

Dart

From Comedy Central’s Reno 911

I wish I had finished that one. I’m dying to know what happened to the subject of the song. What games did she play with her idols? I picture
70s rock singers playing a lot of Lawn Darts, so I hope she didn’t get a Lawn Dart through her skull.

With wonderful lyrics like these and others, I had to share my gift. When I was 15 or 16, I got out my 45s and wrote down the record company addresses that were on the labels. Then I typed copies of my best work and mailed them to each company. Since I had no contact names, I sent the packets to the main addresses. I assumed the people in the mailroom would know what to do. This is how I imagine it went down at MCA Records headquarters in Los Angeles:

MCA underling: Hey chief, we just received an unsolicited envelope crammed with awesome lyrics by a fabulous songwriter named Ronnie Smith. He didn’t include a letter of introduction, but that would have been overkill.

MCA CEO: Smith huh? Never heard of him.

Underling: Oh, but you will when you see these beauties. (Thumbs through several pages of lyrics typed on a Royal portable typewriter.) Here’s one with a line about numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: Canyon boxes, huh?

Underling: Numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: By God, that’s brilliant.

Underling: (Holds up a page for the CEO to see.) Look, he doesn’t waste time writing the letter G. And here’s a song called Jimmy Solar. You know, I think Elton would love to put this one to music.

CEO: (Rubs his chin doubtfully) EJ’s committed to Bernie Taupin.

Underling: Taupin’s a two-bit hack compared to this Smith kid.

CEO: Hmm. What if Smith’s too good?

Underling: Whaddya mean, too good?

CEO: Unless he’s a lyric-writing machine who doesn’t care about his craft, he can’t write for all our artists. Sure, Alice Cooper would love the canyon box song. And Lynyrd Skynyrd will want first dibs on any song that mentions Lawn Darts. But what about Olivia Newton-John and the others? No one will buy their records if the lyrics pale in comparison. We could have a mutiny on our hands. And believe me, you don’t want an upset Olivia Newton-John.

Underling: (Shivers in fear) Yeah, I never thought about that. (Pulls out a cigarette lighter and sets the lyrics on fire.) I’ll file these with away with the ones from those kids who call themselves U2.

MCA Records no longer exists. Coincidence?  20150821_203701

In 1975 I took a different approach to instant stardom by entering a national songwriting contest. The grand prize was $3,000 and all the songwriter groupies one could handle. The contest was intended for professionals: singer-songwriters who had access to professional instruments, studios and talent. I had access to my mom, a cheap cassette recorder, and my older brother, who had to do what Mom said. While the professionals were putting their blood, sweat and tears into songs recorded on reel-to-reel tape, I spent fifteen minutes producing mine. Mom played an upright piano while Jeff sang The Unmarried Song. This nuanced number, which no longer exists because no one involved wants it to, was a marriage opposition piece. I don’t know why this subject was on my 16-year-old mind. I don’t remember the lyrics, except my brother often reminds they included, “The answer’s negatory.” Think about that: I entered a song in a nationwide contest that incorporated the word “negatory.”

The reaction from the judges was negatory. Perhaps The Unmarried Song had an unintended benefit, however. The following year, the same contest organizers held a lyric-only competition, which was a relief to anyone with ears. Instead, of sending my “best” song, however, I wrote one just for the competition. It was a country song, which I only listened to because Dad wouldn’t play anything else in his truck. It had to be the weirdest, creepiest song a teenage boy could write. It makes me cringe to share a verse, but here we go:

Little girls were made for lovin’ (again, where’s the G?)
This I’ve always said
Like seeing that you’re clothed
Or seeing that you’re fed.
Bedtime kisses, making wishes
And hoping they’ll come true
The little hugs that make me happy
Are coming straight from you.

I won’t even attempt an explanation.

I should have entered the canyon boxes song. And yet… That creepo creation made the initial cut in the competition. The judges, or perhaps some malfunctioning robot, considered my lyrics better than thousands of other songs. Imagine what the others were like. I won no money, but I received a certificate I framed and hung next to my bed for years until the printing faded.

I quit writing lyrics just as I was on the edge of superstardom. Something shinier must have caught my interest. Here’s the last song I wrote, which I typed in a business class when I was a senior in high school. Although I had never taken anything stronger than St. Joseph Children’s Aspirin, this makes me wonder what was in those pills.

(No title)

She sits in the courtyard
Sucking an apricot
Watching the train go by
They form a large circle
Singing a ballad
They don’t even know why
The tangerine glistens
Its nectar is sweet
And picked in the season of sun
The mellow morning answers
The daybreak song
The birds have gathered in one

Sometimes they feel
They’re not wanted
But only a moment or two
They woke up this evening
In a grandeur of darkness
And had a feeling of mystic blue.

I’ll spare you the second half. The key to a surefire hit is starting with an apricot and quickly switching to a tangerine. Keep the listener guessing what fruit you’ll name next. If you’re really feeling it, mention passion fruit or even a mango. Or find another career.

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Special added complimentary bonus below.      If you’re really adventurous, a double special added complimentary bonus here.

JimmySolar

I’m just talkin’ ’bout Shaft

23 Jan

In olden times, kids could purchase items called “45s” from magical places called “record stores.” On one visit, my brother Jeff bought an Osmonds single while I bought one by the Jackson 5. I still believe I had better taste. But we saw no need to spend all our lawn mowing earnings on records when we could record songs right off the radio. That didn’t last long. It may have had something to do with the quality of our $20 cassette recorder, the cheesy microphone, the poor speaker on the radio, or perhaps the quality in general of AM radio. So, we resorted to the king of all too-good-to-be true mail-order schemes: Columbia House Records. Columbia House offered ten albums or tapes (cassettes or eight-tracks) for the low, low price of two dollars. All you had to do in exchange was buy a certain number of albums of the month at regular price.

Imagine the delight of choosing ten highly-listenable rock and pop albums. Then imagine the disappointment we felt when we could not identify ten albums we wanted to listen to. A “good” album would be any that had least two songs we knew. It seemed as though eighty percent of the albums offered by Columbia House were by Ray Coniff, Ferrante & Teicher, Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and similar tuxedo wearers. Our mom could have found plenty to listen to, but not my brother and me.

breadThe first few tapes we chose were easy. By the time we reached numbers seven, eight, nine … we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. My brain has judiciously prevented me from remembering all ten tapes, but I just re-listened on Spotify to the ones I do remember. Let’s see how our selections held up, or failed to, more than 40 years later. Let’s also see what the “experts” at AllMusic have to say.

Best of Bread by Bread: I know: Soft Rock is the ultimate oxymoron, but I played this tape a lot when I was fourteen. I loved it, especially Mother Freedom, which was as RAWKing as Bread ever got. I didn’t re-listen to the album, however, because I’m a man now, and I have my pride. AllMusic doesn’t have much to say either. Moving on…

Honky Chateau by Elton John: This came out when Elton had yet to start dressing like a Vegas Christmas Tree (on his album covers anyway). MI0000434654You may know the singles Daniel and Rocket Man, but the album is filled with strong cuts. “Mellow,” the first track, is the classic Elton I loved as a kid. (I raised two steers named Elton and John.). AllMusic: “On paper, (Honky Chateau) reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote.” Well done, young Ronnie and Jeff.

albumcovermcleanAmerican Pie by Don McLean: Just like everyone else in the world, we chose this album 99% because of the title anthem, and 1% because Vincent was a decent song, too. AllMusic: “… the album has an overall elegiac quality that makes it sound like a final statement. After all, if the music has died, what else is there to say?” You can say the album cover was pretty decent.

Looking Glass by Looking Glass: This seemed like a dumb buy at the time, but it surprised me how much I liked it 43 years later. Thanks to the hit Brandy remaining in heavy rotation on Oldies stations, the songwriter will never go broke, but there was potential for much more. If you replaced the early 70s piano with a fiddle, this album would fit well with 21st century Americana music. AllMusic: “Their great one-shot hit ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)‘ pegged the group as a smiley, sunshiny AM pop frivolity, and while they surely shone in this regard, Looking Glass started out as a hard-boogying rock & roll band, and elements of that can be heard on their 1972 debut. It’s not enough to make the LP an unearthed hard rock treasure thanks in large part to producer Bob Liftin, who helped turn singer/songwriter Elliot Lurie’s “Brandy” into a seamless, sunny confection and wound up defanging whatever rock & roll bite the group had in the process.” Ouch.

Sammy_Davis_Jr._NowNow by Sammy Davis Jr.: … It’s your serve, AllMusic: “The song ‘Candy Man’ starts the first side off. Yes, this was the biggest-selling record Sammy Davis, Jr. ever had, but thankfully full appreciation of the dismal nature of that fact does not require repeated listening to the song itself. There are tracks enough on this album that are painful to sit through, without enduring this one.”

When we chose this tape, I thought it included Isaac Hayes singing The Theme from Shaft. The tape cover had an inset photo of Sammy together with Isaac. But Hayes did not sing on Sammy’s album. I suspect his attorneys made sure of that. The song is not even called The Theme from Shaft. It’s called John Shaft, which should have been a clear signal to put down the tape and walk away before anyone got hurt. Sammy’s version is sort of the same song as the original, but with a good dose of Vegas Schlock.

Let’s compare: In Hayes’ version, he says or sings 73 words in a song that is well over four minutes. We don’t hear Hayes’ voice until three minutes in, and the last thirty seconds of the song are instrumental. Less is more.

Do you think Sammy Davis, Jr. could wait three minutes into a song to start singing?  Though his song is shorter than the Hayes version, he had a lot of space to fill, and he did it with lyrics that I suspect he ad-libbed at the end.

Hey man, can you dig him?
Always looking so cool.
Together for days in all that leather.
Takin’ care of business, too, baby.

He’s always on the case.
I mean he gets it all together. (grunt)
Yeah, he’s bad, bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad.
Bad bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad. (Repeat.)

Sound engineer: “Sammy, how about we do a second take?”

Sammy: “Nope, I’m good with that one.”

Could Now get worse? Yes, if you choose to put McArthur’s Park on it. I’m not saying I have strong feelings about that song. However, if I could, I would tie it up in a gunny sack and dump it in a pond.

A+Passion+Play-1024x1015Still, Jeff and I paid only a couple of dollars for a lot of music. We did not reach our Columbia House nadir until Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play came in the mail. We had failed to return the card that said we did not want that album of the month. I still cannot describe what this progressive rock opera is about, but it may involve a recently-deceased guy looking back on his life. Or it may be a light-hearted musical about a puppy. I could go either way with it. All I know is, the album cover with a dead ballerina was enough to make me long for Best of Bread. I don’t believe the Scottish flutist Ian Anderson had a 14-year-old rural Missouri boy in mind when he created the record. I listened to thirty seconds of it before using it as a door stop.

Still, it was worth another listen a few days ago. I didn’t love it, but it was pretty good. Still not sure what it’s about, though. The ball is in your court, AllMusic: “… a dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms. The band is at its peak form, sustaining the tension and anticipation of this album-length piece across 45 minutes, although the music runs out of inspiration about five minutes before it actually ends.”

I may listen to A Passion Play again sometime. Not all of it–I’m not that into it–but some of it. And I would also listen to Honky Chateau again. The others? I don’t know. But if my parents run out of things to do, they can dig through the basement and perhaps find those old cassette tapes. Nothing can add zest to a cold night in northern Missouri like Sammy Davis, Jr. talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

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A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.