Category Archives: 1970s music

#203 – Billie Jean

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#203 – Billie Jean by Michael Jackson

Michael 1One of the best things about living in New York City (and there are many) is never knowing whom you might meet next. Sometime between the months of March and May 1983 I met a very interesting guy in my Gramercy Park neighborhood. Now don’t get excited and think I’m going to drop Michael Jackson’s name, because I can’t. I never met him.

But I was forewarned that his performance of Billie Jean on the television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was going to be earth shattering.

The guy that told me this knew what he was talking about because he had been at the taping. In fact, he played a big role not only behind the scenes but also on camera.

I hung with a tight group of friends in Gramercy Park. I’ve always compared living in NYC to living in a small town. It’s a BIG place made up of small neighborhoods. We’d go Uptown, Downtown, Midtown and to The Boroughs for concerts, dinners, ballgames – whatever. But when it was time to go “home” we’d end up back in our neighborhood. And the main hangout was our own Cheers style bar restaurant, The Honey Tree, on the corner of 3rd Avenue and East 20th Street.

It was the type of place where everybody knew your name. And when someone new walked in and got involved in one of our conversations, arguments or just plain stupidity (“How’s it goin’ Norm?!“) it made the evenings into late nights a lot more interesting. Some of the names that dropped in were Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole, Ed O’Neill and the entire band Journey.

But those are stories I’ve already told or saving for later.

The Jacksons

The Jacksons

Since most of us were in our late-20’s and had the ripe old age of 30 directly in our sights, we were pretty set in our musical tastes. The jukebox at The Honey Tree was filled with classic oldies from the 60’s and 70’s. If you wanted to hear disco or punk, there were other neighborhood hangouts, which is another great thing about NYC.

When you’re looking for something else it can always be found.

So even though you’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Michael Jackson, in 1983 more than a few of us would rather listen to his old songs with The Jackson 5. We really weren’t looking for something else. These were the big Motown hits, I Want You Back, The Love You Save and I’ll Be There. My girlfriend (at the time) and I would be up and dancing whenever one of these songs was placed on the jukebox turntable.

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Of course The Jackson 5 was only one of the many artists that put Motown on the music map forever. Boomers grew up listening to The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the other amazing artists that made up the Detroit sound. And it was a big deal when it was announced the television special celebrating 25 years of the record label would air on May 16th.

Lester Wilson

Lester Wilson

One night during the months mentioned above, a guy walked in and before too long he was in the middle of one of our conversations. Or it might have been stupidity… But that doesn’t matter. He seemed funny and had a lot of personality, so he fit right in. His name was Lester Wilson and when we asked what he did, he said he was a dancer.

We didn’t know any professional dancers, so we started with the questions. He told us he was also a choreographer, had worked on Broadway and in films, and had just finished working on Motown 25. Since I’m working off memory, I can’t remember why he was in NYC at this time – but after checking out his bio online it had to be something good. I’ll also guess he was staying at The Gramercy Hotel which is why he was a regular part of our Cheers crowd for the next few months.

Lester told us about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean performance. I can’t remember the adjectives, but mind-blowing would be a good description. He kept saying we’re not going to believe it when we see it. So on May 16th we watched.

jjkrcyOkay, we all know the legend. Michael reunited with his brothers to sing our favorite Jackson 5 hits. When they finished the brothers left the stage and Michael pulled out the sequined glove, the fedora and moonwalked into music history.

But what was especially cool for us was seeing our new pal Lester dancing center stage during the show’s gala opening number. If you want to check it out, below is a link for the entire show. You only need to watch the first four minutes – he’s the guy in the red sweater with the long hair. The group is also billed as The Lester Wilson Dancers.

Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Since The Classic Rocker is all about memories I can’t simply focus on Motown 25 or Lester when I hear Billie Jean. Whether you like Michael Jackson or not this was his moment – similar to The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He already had a successful solo career, but this put him in the stratosphere of pop music. Elvis was the 50’s, The Beatles were the 60’s and Michael was the 80’s. The other decades have their own musical personas, for example the 70’s went from hippies to heavy metal to punk to disco. The 90’s were grunge, hip-hop and rap. But those periods never had a single artist that overwhelmingly dominated and influenced our popular culture as these three.

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Billie Jean dominated my Classic Rocker mind on the morning of April 26th. At the time I didn’t own a copy, but that’s changed since and now it’s on my digital playlist joining my Motown and Jackson 5 favorites. But because I hadn’t heard it for a long time until that waking moment, it’s on my subliminal music chart.

Temptations and 4 Tops

The Temptations and 4 Tops

Lester Wilson was a very interesting guy. I can’t remember how long he was part of our neighborhood scene, but that’s another thing about living in NYC. People come and go (including me) and when you’re part of it, life is rarely boring.

Since I’ve always been a huge Motown fan I remember going with my girlfriend (at the time) to see The Temptations and The Four Tops on Broadway. It was at least a year later because the show opened with Levi Stubbs (lead singer for The Tops) singing Marvin Gaye’s hit What’s Going On to open the show. Gaye had been murdered by his father on April 1, 1984 and this was soon after. The curtain was closed and just a single spotlight was aimed at the stage. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Stubbs finished, but within moments everyone was on their feet dancing along to one of the best concerts I was ever fortunate enough to attend.

Afterwards we went to our neighborhood Cheers for a nightcap and Lester was at the bar. We raved about the show and I remember saying he should have warned me Levi Stubbs had grown a beard. I wasn’t used to seeing him that way from photos. Yes, that’s a small detail – but one I remember from our conversation, which also helps put all these years in some type of order.

I did an online search for Lester Wilson and learned he was much bigger than he had let on during this time. Not only did he choreograph Motown 25 and Broadway musicals, but also the movies Saturday Night Fever (coached John Travolta), The Wiz, Funny Lady, Sister Act and others. But I’m sad to learn he passed away only ten years after we met in 1993 at the youthful age of 50.

As I mentioned above, you never know whom you might meet next in NYC. I may not have met Michael Jackson, but I had been warned the music scene was on the verge of changing by a guy who had.

Here’s a video of Michael’s performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

To purchase The Essential Michael Jackson with Billie Jean visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing

#208 – Lady Godiva

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#208 – Lady Godiva by Peter and Gordon

Peter and Gordon – For a change of pace, we’ll dwell on the past by starting from a futuristic point of view. Let’s pretend aspiring pop culture historians a few decades from now are given the title of this song as a research assignment. They’re familiar with the story of Lady Godiva, who rode on a horse naked through the streets of Coventry, England to protest high taxes imposed by her husband on his subjects. That legend has been passed down since the 13th Century, so it’s safe to assume they’ll know that much (and now you do too).

Armed with only the title, they’re assigned the task of looking back into the 20th Century to find a pop song with the same name and the artist(s). Of course you already know that much (I gave you the answer above). But where do you think these futuristic researchers might start their search?

With Peter and Gordon? Let’s discuss…

Paul and Peter

Paul and Peter

The British Invasion duo was known mostly for their mid-tempo love songs World Without Love and Woman. And as pointed out in an earlier article by The Classic Rocker, both songs were written by Paul McCartney and given to Peter and Gordon. That’s what can happen when a Beatle is dating your sister and living in a spare bedroom in your parents’ house. In this case, it was Peter’s sister Jane Asher and the Asher mom and dad. It’s also one of the reasons Paul became the richest Beatle. While the others were spending their residuals buying mansions in a rich neighborhood, he was living rent free.

But in the fall of 1966 Peter and Gordon released a different style of song. Lady Godiva showed they had a sense of humor while also adding a little sense of risqué to their reputations.

Seriously – risqué?

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Okay, it’s not like they suddenly became the Hugh Hefner’s of The British Invasion, but this song’s storyline was different. While artists that year were singing about falling in love, making love, getting high and in many songs doing all three, P&G were actually singing about a naked girl riding a horse down a city street, being discovered by a Hollywood director and becoming a star in pornographic films.

Lady Godiva with P&G

P&G (with deejay) and The Lady

It had been a long ride from World Without Love.

But do you think our futuristic pop culture historians could find Peter and Gordon based only on this song title? It might take them a while since the above mentioned teenage angst love songs of their earlier career never came close to referencing “All the cats who dig striptease” and “Certificate X.” Peter and Gordon were more aligned with the smiling, clean-scrubbed, blow-dried hair and “I wanna hold your hand” image of The Beatles rather than the scruffy, dirty and scowling members of The Rolling Stones looking for some satisfaction.

Future pop historians may toss artists of The British Invasion into one lump category, but those of us that lived through it know there were differences. It’s like comparing The Animals to Herman’s Hermits.

Eric Burdon would sing about Lady Godiva. Peter Noone’s mum probably wouldn’t let him.

At this particular time in 1966 pop music was still pretty innocent.

Bob Dylan was talking over a lot of teenager’s heads with songs like Subterranean Homesick Blues and no one in my junior high class knew what the heck John Lennon was singing about in Tomorrow Never Knows. In the fall of 1966 the Beatles were limping off their last-ever tour and The Monkees were bringing innocent pop hits to primetime television. From our futuristic point of view we could say Peter and Gordon were only doing the same. But when it came to their latest single the subject matter felt a bit stronger than Davy Jones looking into a beautiful girl’s eyes and singing I Want To Be Free.

peter-gordon-lady-godivaI’m not exactly sure of this, but I seem to remember Lady Godiva was banned from the radio in certain areas including a bit of protest about the storyline in Coventry, England. I guess the residents needed to protect their reputation and a 13th Century naked lady on a horse was a lot more innocent than a 1960’s naked lady scoring big in Hollywood.

Lady Godiva road onto this Dream Song List the morning of March 26th. It falls into the category of recent memory since I had just heard it. It also falls into one of my favorite genres of pop music – Music Hall Rock. With the jangly banjo, hook-driven verses and Peter and Gordon harmony, the song is a classic example of a popular 60’s trend that past and future pop culture historians should understand.

For other examples of Music Hall Rock check out Daydream by The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks, and Good Day Sunshine by The Beatles. With the roots of these songs influenced by the pop hits of the 1920’s, it’s obvious that sometimes you need to dwell in the past to find futuristic trends.

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And speaking of a futuristic point of view, what might happen to our future pop historians searching for any information about this song simply based on its title? If it were me I’d round up the usual suspects of rock stars with oversexed images – which would eliminate Peter and Gordon. I can envision a research team swarming through a dust covered warehouse (think ending of Raiders of the Lost Arc) and excavating through bins and bins of vinyl records until they reach…

The late 1970’s?

Not Peter and Gordon

Not Peter and Gordon

Yeah, that’s where I’d start my search for a record titled Lady Godiva. And to narrow my research, I’d head straight for the Rod Stewart section and examine the song titles on the back covers of his LPs. He had the reputation for asking, “Da’ya think I’m sexy?” more than Peter and Gordon or any other smiling, clean-scrubbed and blown-dried hair pop stars of the 60’s.

In fact, I can dwell back into teenage angst mode and envision a music video for Rod Stewart’s version of Lady Godiva. Basically, he’d come out in his 70’s spandex and rooster hair while a string of Hugh Hefner worthy blondes recreate the naked ride on horseback. At the end of the song Rod jumps on the back of one of the horses – riding bareback (meaning no saddle – he’s still in spandex) – and rides off into the sunset. Ooh-la-la!

Of course this non-existent music video is nothing more than fun speculation and fantasy, even though it’s probably closer to what was riding through the minds of many teenaged males at the time. Looking back from a futuristic point of view it wouldn’t be a song title or storyline expected from Peter and Gordon. But then again, no one else expected it from them either in 1966.

For a video of Peter and Gordon performing Lady Godiva – featuring McCartney’s ex-girlfriend’s brother on jangly banjo and a bonus introduction by comedy legend Milton Berle – check this out.

 

 

To purchase The Ultimate Peter and Gordon with Lady Godiva visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2016 – North Shore Publishing