Can’t say I’m a Garth Brooks fan – never have been, probably never will be. But I like the piano riffs in this one, and that’s good enough for me to trot it out on stage. Some of my most fun gigs have been in rowdy country bars, even though I’m not what you’d call a “country boy”. But I love the idea of a music genre that could turn into an adventure in a split second. I remember Karen jumping between me and a guy with a knife one night. She ended up on the floor and I didn’t…crazy woman. But that’s honky-tonk for ya! I even like to say it. Go ahead, say it out loud – Honky-Tonk – now ain’t that fun? Put this arrangement on your country set list. The Holiday Inn crowd will love it…
“American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” reached the top of the Hot Country Songs list in 1993. It’s sort of a redneck anthem that compares honky-tonk bars to support groups for “blue collar” people. By today’s standards (if there are any), this tune might be considered a bit “edgy” and low on the political correctness scale – especially unfortunate lyrics like “but when your dollar goes to all those standing in a welfare line”. But you can change the lyrics to anything you want, as long as it rhymes. It’s the music we’re talking about here, folks. This song is just plain fun to play – great country boogie beat, walking bass line, that piano, and even a fiddle thrown in for good measure.
The music played in the old West saloons was first referred to as “honky tonk” music. It was usually played on an out-of-tune upright piano stuck in the corner of the bar – so as to be out of the way when the fight started (uh… been there, done that). These days, it’s just a bar that caters to country music fans. I think the “old west” scenario is much more colorful and romantic – where’s Miss Kitty when you need her? The first time “honky-tonk” was used in print was in the Peoria Journal on June 28, 1874. The news story read, “The police spent a busy day today raiding the bagnios and honky tonks”. Okay… but what’s a “bagnio”?
Download Instrumental Sandwich this one between two heavy-duty songs for a nice contrast and to give your dancers a break. It’s a simple arrangement with only piano, bass and drums – the classic hotel lobby trio – and I used a clarinet for the lead vocal.. You, the singer, are going to sell this one with your clever inflections on the lyrics.
“Ain’t Misbehavin” was written by the great Fats Waller with lyricist Andy Razaf. The tune is a classic example of “stride jazz”, a piano technique that is almost ragtime, but much more innovative. The left hand alternates between a single note and a chord, giving the rhythm kind of an “oom-pah” feel while the right hand plays a syncopated melody in and around what the left hand is doing. Quite fun, really, but ya gotta be able to separate your brain into two altogether different factions. In other words, if you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, forget about it.
The lyrics are the heart and soul of this classic. The singer is lonely: “No one to talk with/all by myself”. However, he’s quite “happy on a shelf”. He swears he’s not staying out late or carousing with other women: “I’m through with flirtin’, it’s just you I’m thinkin’ of” (a paragon of virtue is our hero). “I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go/I’m home about eight, just me and my radio” (what a guy). “Ain’t misbehavin’/I’m saving my love for you” is the refrain repeated four times and pretty much wraps up the gist of this little ditty. I believe him.
Oh, by the way, Fats Waller wrote this while in jail on an alimony charge. I don’t think he had much choice but to “behave”. Doesn’t matter – this is a great song that never gets old and can be performed by a male or female – just change the pronouns. Watch Fats perform “Ain’t Misbehavin” on the link below (with a funky little twist in the middle”.
Download Instrumental You can’t help but love Carrie Underwood, whether you’re a fan of country music or not. We all became aware of Ms. Underwood when she won American Idol in 2005 (yes, it was that long ago). Her debut album proved to be the best-selling debut of a solo female artist in country music history. The woman just oozes talent out of every pore of her body – and she’s not bad-looking either. That’s sexist, I know, but that’s a fact, Jack.
The song “Cowboy Casanova” takes her away from her country roots to more of a rock/bawdy vaudeville/jazzy style – I would call it “sassy country” just because I like to put a label on everything. There are growly guitar riffs that actually carry the song along, but little surprises like a fiddle and symphony strings make the arrangement quite unique. The lyrics tell of a woman warning other women about this handsome fella who will entice them into all sorts of lurid situations, but then will move on to another lady without a twinge of conscience: “He looks like a cool drink of water, but he’s candy-coated misery”. Now, looking like a glass of water doesn’t really sound all that attractive or exciting. Seems to me the expression is a long, tall drink of water, indicating our boy was of considerable height (women love that) – however, that’s too many words to fit the music. But, I digress…
What I like best about this tune is the driving drum track. It will get your audience up and dancing and acting all “sassy” before you even sing a note. It’s “country”, for sure, but it will also work in a rock’n’roll venue. Trot this one out for your audience and they’ll love it as much as that tall, cool glass of water – a little ice and scotch wouldn’t hurt either.
Download Instrumental The title of this song never appears in the lyrics – go figure. It’s just a list of dances that were popular at the time – that time being the early 60’s. We seem to be stuck in the 60’s here at the old studio, don’t we? Not a bad place to be. That’s when all the really good music came out. Everything else since then is a just a variation of what we did back then….. some of it good, most of it bad. But that’s just me.
Fats Domino got composer credit for “Land of a Thousand Dances” even though he didn’t write a word of it. A chap named Chris Kenner penned the tune, but offered Fats half credit and royalties if he recorded it. I hate to say it, but Domino’s version sucked – big time. Kenner then recorded it himself with only minor success.
The original arrangement didn’t have the signature chant “Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na” in it. It took a Mexican-American band called “Cannibal and the Headhunters” to make a real hit out of it in 1964. They added the “Na-Nas” and upped the tempo considerably. Bar bands at the time loved the energy and chaos it created at one in the morning when the crowd was either sleepy or drunk. I played it once myself for 30 minutes just to watch people go crazy. Big fun…
Singers, take this one and substitute today’s dances (do they still name dances?) in place of “the Jerk” and “Mashed Potato” or “Funky Alligator”. Hmmmm, now that I think about it, maybe it’s a good idea NOT to name the dances today. I sometimes dance to this one in the shower… yes, I do.
Download Instrumental There are some songs that become iconic for no reason whatsoever. They are usually three chords played over and over again (and again) with a monotonous melody line. Tedious is what it is. But the minute the first two notes are played, everybody knows what it is and hit the dance floor running. “Sweet Home Alabama” is one of those tunes.
Lynyrd Skynyrd , a southern rock band formed in 1965 in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote this piece as a tribute to Alabama and to the studio musicians at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Those musicians were nicknamed “The Swampers” by Leon Russell and are mentioned in the lyrics – “And Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers”. This is the one thing I like about this song. I’m always in favor of giving backup musicians credit where credit is due.
There is also the line “I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”. Neil Young had written a couple of songs that were extremely critical of Alabama and the South in general (Southern Man and Alabama). There was supposedly a nasty feud between Young and the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, but that really wasn’t the case. They were actually all good buddies but the alleged “feud” helped record sales on both sides.
The song isn’t a complete love affair with the state of Alabama, however. George Wallace loved the line “In Birmingham they love the governor”, but he really didn’t listen closely enough, because the lyric that follows is “Boo! Boo! Boo!”. Ronnie Van Zant , lead vocalist for the band, claimed, “We’re not into politics, we don’t have no education, and Wallace don’t know anything about rock and roll”. Probably all true.
Granted, this piece has some interesting history, but that’s where the fascination ends. Musically, it’s a yawn. But, singers, you have to do this one – it’s the law – at least in Alabama. I’ve made my arrangement short and sweet with no frills or unnecessary solos – so you can get it over with quickly and know you’ve done your duty. I’m looking at my set list this weekend and, sure enough – there it is – nestled smugly in the middle of the third set – “Sweet Home Alabama”…… sigh.
Download Instrumental Blue Bayou – Linda Ronstadt style. This song came to mind when I heard a sports announcer (baseball) make a remark after the pitcher threw a fast ball strike and the batter didn’t swing. The announcer proclaimed, “Whoa! That was a Linda Ronstadt!”. Say what? What does a female rock’n’roll star have to do with baseball? I checked it out. What our sportscaster meant was – that fast ball “blew by you”. Think about it…
“Blue Bayou” was written and first recorded by the great Roy Orbison in 1961, but not released until ’63. The song peaked at a fairly respectable #29 on the American charts, but was a huge hit overseas, especially in Italy. I don’t know, maybe they have a lot of bayous in Italy. But in 1977, Linda Ronstadt took it and went crazy. Her version was a hair slower with a cleaner, more pronounced beat (I chose to up the tempo a little – not quite so morose that way). She took it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the Country charts – not to mention #3 on “Easy Listening” (never have figured out precisely what that means). The single went Gold (1 million sold) in 1978, then soon was certified Platinum (2 million sold). Personally, I think the key to her success with “Bayou” is the fact that Don Henley of the Eagles sang backup on the recording. I think he was paid a hundred bucks for his contribution. Ronstadt, you owe him big time!
This one would be a terrific addition to your repertoire. It’s easy to dance to and very recognizable. Surprise your crowd with this classic next Saturday night. Batter Up!
Download InstrumentalHuey Lewis and The News – one terrific bar band made good! This song, “The Heart of Rock & Roll”, is one of their most popular. They have no hidden agendas and don’t delve into any political nonsense. They’re all about straight up rock’n’roll music with no baggage attached. As the song proclaims, “its still that same old back beat rhythm, that really drives ’em wild”.
“Rock and Roll” as a music genre came into its own in the late 40’s to the mid-1950’s. It’s origins were gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz, jump blues and… country music. That’s pretty much everything, isn’t it? In the early days of rock’n’roll, the lead instrument was usually a sax or piano. Sadly, those instruments faded into a backup role when the electric guitar came along. While I love the thrill of a gut-wrenching guitar solo, it’s always nice when a sax makes an appearance, as it does in this song. And then there’s the drums! A rock beat is nothing more than a blues rhythm accented by a backbeat on 2 and 4. And underneath it all, you have the bass holding it all together. So there you have it – your basic rock band – two guitars, bass, and a drum kit. But if a band is smart, they’ll throw in a keyboard or tenor sax just to keep things interesting.
Huey Lewis and The News are still touring – they’re on the road right now even as I type these words. I did read, however, that they had to cancel a few dates because of “medical issues” with Mr. Lewis. Hope he’s all right. We need ya out there rattling our souls, Huey!
Singers without a band – put these backup tracks in your set list. Makes a great opening number!
Wilson Pickett trotted this one out in 1965. “In the Midnight Hour” was his breakout hit to be followed by such classics as “Mustang Sally” and “634-5789” (my personal favorite). He won a gold record for this recording and was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
In this tune, the singer is waiting until midnight to meet his best girl. Why so late, do you suppose? Could be he was hiding something – maybe she was married – maybe he was. A secret rendezvous would certainly be in order if that were the case. Or perhaps she had skinny legs and he didn’t want to be seen with her. That’s sexist, I know, but it was the ’60’s. I always thought that meeting at midnight was something our hero believed would be incredibly romantic and exciting. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But, not to worry – we’re assured that his love “comes tumblin’ down”.
Pickett co-wrote this song with guitarist Steve Cropper. The first recording turned out to be something less than satisfactory. None of the studio musicians liked it, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They worked for days – changing guitar licks, switching out backup singers, adding organ – subtracting organ, more horns-less horns, but it still wasn’t right. Finally, someone suggested changing the rhythm from a snare on every beat (Motown style) to an emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beat – so the teenagers could dance “The Jerk” to it (the current dance craze). Voila! Now everybody was happy. They did, however, keep the snare on every beat during the horn solo, but we’ll forgive them for that.
“Midnight Hour” has been recorded every way imaginable. Although I used Wilson Pickett’s arrangement as a guide for these backing tracks, I always liked the country version by a guy named Razzy Bailey. Give it a listen on the link below – you’ll enjoy it.
Download Instrumental While doing a little research the other day, I ran across the term “blues shouter”. What is that? Someone who yells the blues at the top of their lungs? Well, yes. A blues shouter is a blues singer, usually male, who can sing with a band without benefit of a microphone. Well… the things you learn.
The song “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes At Me” was recorded by Wynonie Harris – one of those notorious “blues shouters” (I wonder if there are country shouters). Mr. Harris didn’t abide soft ballads or love songs. His tunes were usually humorous and upbeat, but more often just plain raunchy. This particular one isn’t too much on the tawdry side, but it’s borderline. It’s about a wayward woman who wants to come back to her main squeeze – yeah, that’s gonna happen. You can change the lyrics a bit to make it a little less offensive. For example, instead of singing “go find the guy who beat you up” can be changed to “go find the guy who set you up” – unless you’re playing a biker bar – then, you’re on your own.
So why perform a song with questionable ethics? Because, musically, it’s fun. The beat is contagious. The horns are obnoxious. And the walking bass carries the whole piece with aplomb. Take the trouble to learn this one and use this arrangement. Your crowd will love it, trust me. It can be played in a blues house, a country club, the local VFW, or that biker bar we were talking about. It’s an all-around good time.
Download Instrumental Sometimes, less is better. This gem only uses strings, bass, electric piano, and one guitar…. definitely not what you expect from a Michael Jackson arrangement. “She’s Out of My Life” is just beautiful in its simplicity, and the emotional impact is devastating. The lyrics speak to memories of lost love and good days gone forever. But yet there’s a hope in between the lines for better things to come. There are a lot of “feelings” going on here, boys and girls.
One of the few cheap thrills I get these days is sitting down and composing a drum track for a new song. I love percussion instruments! So, naturally, I put in a drum track for this tune. However, Karen, my most-trusted advisor and critic, listened to it and said, “You’re supposed to be producing backing tracks that sound close to the original song. Jackson didn’t use any drums and you shouldn’t either. Lose the drum track!” Well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that, so I took out the drums – except for a subtle kick bass and closed high hat in the bridge… but don’t tell Karen.
Whenever Michael Jackson performed “She’s Out of My Life” onstage, he got extremely emotional and would cry at times. The crowd loved it. If it were anyone but Michael, I’d say it was fake, but the man was so fragile I believe his performance was sincere. You can see him do his thing with this terrific piece in the video below.
Oh, by the way… this song is bisexual. A female can sing it by just changing “she” to “he” – or… maybe not. It’s a different world.