Sonny and Cher

The name Caeser and Cleo sounds like a bad movie that ends with an asp, but it was actually the name that Sonny and Cher used when they first started making records for Reprise.  They recorded several songs for the label, and a decision was made to release their remake of an old song by Mickey and Sylvia (Love Is Strange) in September 1964.  Before the record was actually released, Sonny and Cher signed a new contract with Reprise using their own names and recorded the song Baby, Don’t Go.  Details about the release of the two singles are sketchy, but the releases appear to have been almost simultaneous.  Neither record had any success.

After those multiple failures, Sonny and Cher moved to the Atco label and started recording there, producing their career song I Got You, Babe.  That jumped all the way up to #1 in July 1965.

Sonny and Cher had what can only be described as a unique look at the start, and Sonny’s long hair and unusual clothing no doubt led to confrontations with people who resisted change in the sixties.  As a result, he wrote and recorded a solo protest record, Laugh At Me, that was their next single on the charts.  Sonny’s protest may have been the first song with that theme that made the charts, but the topic was revisited in the future by such diverse acts as the Charlie Daniels Band (Uneasy Rider) and Bob Seeger (Turn the Page).

Atco also released Sonny and Cher’s follow up single, Just You, but that didn’t fare as well as either Sonny’s solo release or their surprise hit: Reprise rereleased Baby, Don’t Go and it hit the charts the same day that Laugh at Me did.   It made it into the top ten, peaking at #8 in September, pretty good results for a record that everybody had ignored.  Reissue of their other songs from the Ceaser and Cleo didn’t fare as well, but they did have a string of chart hits going forward.  No doubt having their own television show off and on from 1971 to 1977 helped a bit, and Cher still continues to produce new records.

Cream’s Breakthrough in the US

There was a brief moment when Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page crossed paths in a group named the Yardbirds.  Clapton tagged Page as a replacement when he left the group in 1965, and Page brought along Beck.  After more than a few lineup changes, there was nobody left but Page, and he changed the group’s name to Led Zepplin.  Clapton played with John Mayall and the Blues Brothers for about a year, and then teamed up with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce to form Cream.

After touring for much of their first year, Cream released their first album in December 1966.  Two singles that came out in 1967 at least hit the charts in the UK, but I Feel Free reaching #116 was the best they could manage in the US.  Their second album (Disraeli Gears) had its release delayed for months so the record company could completely redesign the album cover; it finally reached stores in November 1967.  The first single from the album was Strange Brew, which performed even more poorly than I Feel Free.  The second single from the album was Sunshine of Your Love, which was released in January 1968.  It managed to crack the top 40 in the US, but after 14 weeks on the charts, it never got any higher than #36.

Sunshine of Your Love managed to reenter the singles charts in July, and that time the record pushed all the way to #5.  Several things seem to have had an impact on the second run.

The group’s third album (Wheels of Fire) was released in July 1968 and was a double album set.  The first album was studio recordings, while the second album was the much more exciting live recordings from live performances at the Filmore in the early Spring.  This album garnered a lot more critical acclaim and proved much more popular than their first two albums, easily topping the US album charts.  This exposure no doubt brought more attention to the group’s earlier releases.

A second factor was the actual single.  While the release in January was edited down to a little more than three minutes, the single in the Summer was the full four-minute cut from the album.

Finally, the single’s performance probably got significant help from an appearance on the Smothers Brothers in May where they did a live version of the song that lasted nearly five minutes.  The first thing I noticed in the video is Eric singing lead on parts of the verses (usually Jack sang lead for everything and Eric merely added occasional harmonies).  I found it annoying that when the song reaches the guitar solo in the middle, we are forced to watch Ginger Baker instead of Clapton playing his guitar, but several comments indicate that it was not unusual for guitar players from that time to try and keep their techniques hidden from other guitarists.  Mostly, however, you cannot miss how impressive the three musicians are…and you can’t help but wish that Cream hadn’t burned out and perished as quickly as they did.

The Beatles Fail, Fail Again

When we hear a great new record, we like to think that the artist recording the song just finished up in the studio and the record is so exciting that the artist is an instant, overnight success.

I don’t think that even happens in movies.  Most artists probably struggle for years without any success, and those that do find themselves on the radio probably just got lucky.  There are only a handful of important artists that have a lasting impact on popular music, and the most notable group is undoubtedly the Beatles.  Sure, the group spent years playing in clubs in England and Hamburg and was turned down by almost every record company before they got a recording deal, but everybody remembers how they hit the charts with a seemingly endless stream of hit records at the start of 1964 and overnight success.

Except that’s not how it happened.

While in Hamburg, one or more of the Beatles were used as the backup musicians for Tony Sheridan and were also allowed to record a few songs by themselves.  In June 1961 the song My Bonnie was recorded and eventually released as a single credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.  In April 1962, the record was released in the US but had little to no impact.

The Beatles started recording their own music in 1962 for EMI and had moderate success at first, but in February 1963, they reached number one on the British charts with Please, Please Me and Beatlemania began to take hold.  In England.

Sure, British recordings had already hit number in the US in 1962, but they were both instrumentals (Stranger on the Shore by Mister Acker Bilk and Telstar by the Tornados).  Neither group was able to follow those hits up with anything substantial, and there was a belief at Capitol Records that British groups were not fated to be popular in the US.  So instead of releasing Beatle records in the US, Capitol licensed several of the Beatle recordings to other, smaller record labels.

Vee Jay Records was a Chicago-based company that had found success with the Four Seasons, and they picked up several Beatles records.  Single releases started in February 1963 with Please, Please Me which simple got no traction – the best it did was reach #116 in August.  This was followed by From Me To You in May, which also climbed all the way up to #116.

She Loves You was released on Swan Records in September, but it failed to even reach the Billboard charts at all.  Dick Clark presented the record to the American Bandstand viewers as part of the Rate A Record feature of the show, but the two clueless teenagers gave the unfortunate record a rating of only 71.  The Beatles’ career in the US seemed almost over already.

Fortunately for all of us, disc jockeys succeeded where record labels had failed.  Several stations around the US obtained copies of British singles or their first album and began playing them on the air.  Virtually everywhere they got airplay, the Beatles were increasingly popular with listeners.  Instead of responding to increasing demand for the tunes, Capitol Records actually threatened to sue stations if they did not stop playing records that were not released for US consumers.  In December somebody at Capitol with a clue finally figured out that perhaps British musicians might have a future in the US.  I Want To Hold Your Hand was released on the Captial label the day after Christmas and hit number one on the US charts on January 18, 1964.

Suddenly all the record companies that had rights to anything by the Beatles were rereleasing records, and everything that was released was suddenly selling well.  On April 4, 1964, the top five records in Billboard’s Hot 100 were all by the Beatles, including three failed singles from 1963.

While Drake may have landed seven records in the Top Ten in 2018, they were all from the same album that had just been released; we may see something similar again in the future, but it is very unlikely that multiple failed records from multiple companies will ever dominate the top five the way the Beatles did.

Here the Beatles are performing Please, Please Me live, with some impressive lead guitar by George.

A great deal of  information about the early Beatles career in the US can be found at http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/beatles-in-america-1963-1964/

Free Books!

Who doesn’t like books…even better, who doesn’t like free books?

I’m taking part in a multi-author book giveaway.  We’ve each tossed a number of ebooks into the barrel, and when the giveaway ends all those books will be given away to people who showed an interest in specific books.  There’s no specific focus on book topics, which naturally fits my books perfectly (I’m -still- trying to figure out what genre they fit!)

Just look at the book covers in the promotion, and click on any books that look interesting.  Random lucky people will receive free copies of the books until the supply runs out (different authors dropped different numbers of books into the giveaway, so it’s entirely possible that you’ll win a specific ebook no matter how many people have already clicked on the cover).

Most authors are probably hoping you’ll sign up for their mailing lists, but that’s optional…feel free to take the books and run…but some of us are hoping for reviews instead (again, totally optional).

The giveaway can be reached here.
Good luck!

Alas, Poor Harlan…

Harlan Ellison has died. Harlan was an extremely prolific writer over his lifetime and was active in science fiction fandom in the fifties before evolving into a full-time writer.
 
A glance at any of the stories popping up about Harlan will reveal how widespread his writing truly was: comic books, science fiction, fantasy, television scripts, movie scripts, essays about television, and perhaps a lot more we don’t know about.
 
While he might have been the master of short fiction and essays, Harlan never really produced the science fiction novel we all hoped for. He produced three non-genre novellas in the last fifties, but after that, we simply got the short material that was continually collected into books.
 
Harlan was our guest of honor at Kubla Khan in Nashville in 1977. During his rambling guest of honor speech, his topics included his promise that he had an idea for a novel that would be a national bestseller rather than just a book stuck in the science fiction ghetto. Reading between the lines, it appeared that the novel would be about a man in his thirties who has succeeded and finds that he has run out of momentum in his life – he feels lost and has no idea about what to do next. During the question and answer period, one fearless fan raised his hand and asked Harlan what the novel would be about. Harlan’s answer?
 
“Right, as if I’m going to tell you my idea for a bestselling novel.”
I really wish he had at least left us a note about the unwritten novel.
Harlan received a large number of well-deserved awards for his work, including Hugo awards from science fiction fans, Nebula awards from science fiction and fantasy writers, and Edgar awards for mysteries.  He also wrote two notable scripts for the Outer Limits television series: Demon With A Glass Hand, which won numerous awards, and Soldier, an episode that has striking similarities to Terminator.

The sheer volume of Harlan’s writing no doubt has influenced countless people, but perhaps his biggest impact came as an editor.  At a pivotal moment when traditional Science Fiction was challenged by the New Wave writers who seemed more concerned with literary accomplishments than the hard science stories of the past, Harlan was the editor who created Dangerous Visions.  That 1967 collection of short stories was a line in the sand that serves as a clear delineation of the New Wave through the utilization of storylines and topics that were previously considered off-limits.  Again, Dangerous Visions was a second, larger book that followed in 1972 and pushed the limits of SF stories even further away from the past.  A third volume, Last Dangerous Visions, was announced but never released.  Over 150 stories were possibly accepted for the last multi-volume set; many of the stories were later published elsewhere, and many of the authors have died without seeing either publication or being returned.  At dinner with Harlan at a DragonCon in the nineties, I casually misreferred to the volumes as the Lost Dangerous Visions; Harlan was not amused, but dinner continued (whew!)

If you’re interested in more details about Harlan’s work, you can start on Harlan’s own website.  A brief overview of his bibliography is there, and that page also links back to a lot more details on the other pages of his website.
I’ve had few heroes in my life; Harlan was one of them, and he will be missed.

We Lost A Non-Singing Musical Hero

Rock and Roll simply wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have shenanigans.  While you might take bending guitar strings for effect as normal and no big deal (unless, of course, you actually try to duplicate the effect yourself), there is little doubt that recording techniques and engineering tricks have given us some amazing sounds.

Please do NOT include autotune on any list of “improvements” in sound!

Glenn Snody was an engineer in Nashville who was working on a recording with Marty Robbins when a transformer in the soundboard went bad, resulting in a strange new fuzz tone on a guitar solo.  Marty and his producer liked the strange effect enough to leave the solo in place.  Grady Martin played the unique-sounding guitar solo starting about 1:25 into the record, and that simply has to be Floyd Cramer playing a piano solo at the start of the record.  The final result was a #1 country recording that crossed over to the pop charts and got as far as #3: Don’t Worry.

More details on the recording session and its impact can be found in an NPR article.

After demands from numerous artists who wanted the fuzz tone for their own recordings, Glenn created a box that could be used to create the sound on demand.  Perhaps the most famous single that used that fuzz tone came from the Rolling Stones on Satisfaction.

Glenn died at age 96 near the end of May, but it’s likely his legacy will live on to infinity and beyond.

Warning: Your 401k May Have A Trap!

As a result of over 45 years of working at various and sundry jobs, a few years ago I found myself with multiple sources of retirement funds waiting for me.

One insurance company I worked for in the 70s had been merged with another company which was then engulfed and devoured by another company, and I didn’t hear from them when I turned 65.  It’s not like they couldn’t find me…a simple search in Google and my name and address are very public.  I figured that somewhere along the line their pension plans had merged or been discontinued, but after researching the history of the corporate shenanigans I was able to determine which company had survived.  I made a phone call, talked to a few confused people, and eventually got a contact phone number for the company that the pension had been outsourced to.  That service company sent me a stack of papers that was pretty intimidating, but I did my best to fill them out and return them.  Naturally, they then demanded different forms and copies of all sorts of my identification forms, but eventually, I was set up with a lifetime income and a surprise: since my pension was supposed to start at age 65, they also sent me money for the months all the way back to that birthday.  The amount wasn’t overwhelming (about $150 a month), but every little bit helps.  It was really found money.

That’s pension is not what this is about, but it’s important to contact every company you ever worked for that had any sort of defined benefit that might be vested.

Beginning in 1974 it became possible to set aside funds for retirement using IRAs.  From time to time since then I’ve dropped money into multiple IRAs with different companies, and beginning in 1998 I also opened a Roth IRA.  Particularly now that there are Required Minimum Distributions from IRAs beginning at age 70 it makes a lot of sense to reduce the number of accounts to one (the tax law requires distributions from every…single…non-Roth IRA every year).  I picked one account as the survivor and contacted each of the other IRA custodians to roll their funds into that account. If you go through this step, it is important that you DO NOT have any money sent directly to you since that creates a withdrawal that is probably taxable; instead, you should direct each trustee to transfer funds directly to the survivor IRA.

I only had one Roth IRA, so I didn’t have to mess with that at all.

This left only one account to deal with: the 401k from my last employer (all previous 401k’s were closed out and transferred to IRAs when I left the former employers).  Once again I tried to simply transfer the funds into my surviving IRA, but there was a surprise: not all the funds could be transferred!

Like many other people investing for retirement, I put a portion of my 401k deposits into a fund that was essentially a money market fund (because once upon a time they paid more than a quarter of one percent).  Recently this seems a poor idea, but from January 2004 to December 2008 the total stock market return was a loss of about a half percent, so a 3% return in a money market helped moderate losses.  When I went to transfer my 401k funds to my IRA I was told I could not transfer the money from the pseudo-money market funds.  My choices: take the money out in ten annual payments (while it sat at the current minimal rates) or use the money to purchase a lifetime annuity.

Thanks to the Fed, interest rates have bottomed out in the past few years.  To get a return approaching even 3% or 4% it is necessary to invest in long-term fixed instruments like bonds or mortgages; if those investments have to be sold to allow customers to make withdrawals they may well have to be sold at a loss, so it turns out our 401k plan limited withdrawals from that bucket.

Repeating that: the 401k plan that my employer set up limited the availability of funds.  Leave your job, retire, or simply get tired of the low return on those funds and you cannot take them out except over ten (or more) years.

Taking a lifetime income would at least approach a 6% return on the funds I couldn’t have, so I took that option for the funds I couldn’t get out.  Long-term that may not be a bad idea, but it did force me to start another lifetime income before I really needed it.  All told I now already have a monthly income of $500, so at least I have enough money to pay for (sigh) health care premiums.

There was no mention of the withdrawal restrictions when I set up my 401k, and the human resources department at my former employer was surprised to learn about the restrictions as well.  I suggested that they make all past, present, and future employees aware of the problem; no word on whether they did or not.

If you have any money in a 401k at work you need to check and see if there are withdrawal restrictions on any of the funds you are using.  If there are, do your best to get the funds out of there as quickly as possible.  At the very least, make sure you don’t invest any additional funds into that kind of a vehicle; if you want to reduce your exposure to the stock market simply seek out balanced mutual funds instead of ETFs – but that’s a topic for another day.

Once upon a time in the dark distant past typewriters were manual, not electric.  No monitors, either – you pushed on a key and a metal arm flew up and hit a piece of paper and left ink on it.  If you kept typing, when you got near the end of the line a bell would sound to warn you that you were running out of space.  The Lovin Spoonful experimented with many different sounds on their records, from a jackhammer on Summer In The City to a record which used a typewriter as a rhythm instrument: Money also focuses on the process of saving and investing your money.