Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two Rooms (16 years later)

Flash back with me if you will to January, 1992. Most of us were still a few years away from using e-mail and I still hadn't even invested in a home computer. So when I wrote notes to myself, I literally had to WRITE notes.

On January 26, 1992, I moved into my studio on East 29th Street and there I resided....for 16 1/2 years. Last month, as I packed up to move into my Upper West Side 1-bedroom (or TWO ROOMS), I found a torn calendar page from January, 13, 1992, perhaps one of the first items to have been moved into my previous residence.

One of the more popular albums of late 1991/early 1992 was a compilation entitled "Two Rooms," featuring various artists covering songs written by the team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Elton and Bernie had a unique dynamic. Elton would write the music in one room, Bernie the lyrics in the other and only then would they meet and finish the product.

The track list for the original album can be found here:

I must have been a little bored at work on January 13, because I had decided it might be fun to compose a hypothetical list of additional songs from Elton John's catalogue matching artists whom I felt would do justice to the tunes.
I shall note that not all of these songs were written with Bernie Taupin and "Mama Can't Buy You Love" was a Bell/James composition. Nevertheless, this is a wild look into the mind (and ear) of my past. In my cases, I think I nailed it, though I'm really not sure what I was thinking for Don Henley and "Bennie & The Jets." Not a horrendous choice, but fairly nonsensical.

Here are the contents of that January 13, 1992 calendar sheet:

Take Me To The Pilot---Billy Joel

Healing Hands---Jeffrey Osbourne with The Pointer Sisters

Someone Saved My Life Tonight---Poison

Candle In The Wind---Marc Cohn

Island Girl---Maxi Priest

Don't Go Breaking My Heart---Kenny Loggins and Carly Simon

All The Young Girls Love Alice---U2

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters---Stevie Nicks

I'm Still Standing---Luther Vandross

I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues---Robert Cray

Bennie & The Jets---Don Henley

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Best of The Beatles

Got a chance to meet a Rock Legend last month. Playing two blocks from my apartment was Pete Best whom I'd long referred to as the unluckiest man in the world. Fired by The Beatles right before they hit it big, if anyone had a reason to be bitter it would be him. Instead, he decided to find the best musicians in Liverpool and put together the best darn Beatles cover band out there. Playing the Hamburg sets of 1961-1962 when he was the drumer of The Fab Five/Four (Stu Sutcliffe died in the midst of the period), his band proved to be one of the most fun live acts I've ever seen. After the show, I got a picture with him and I'll post a link if the shot comes out. And....I'll try to get my next post up in a timely manner. I'm working on a list of the best cover songs of all time...get psyched!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

30 Years Ago...(Part 2) or 13 Years Ago (Part 1)

Labor Day 1993 was rather boring. I don't remember what my initial plans were, except that they fell through and I spent the better part of the day listening to the newly-formatted PLJ countdown the Top 300 songs of the 1970's. Once we hit the Top 100, there were few surprises and most were tunes that still received regular airplay on the radio. But the highlight of the day came on the intro to song #78 (I think). "I understand this is Joe Nolan's favorite song. Going back to The Bicentennial Summer of 76, here's The Starland Vocal Band with Afternoon Delight..."

It may have very well been the first time in 16 years that I had heard the song in its entirety (a piece of it was featured in a 1991 episode of "Get a Life"; It was also Chris Elliot's character's favorite song). It was also one of the favorite song's of my best friend from college whom I first met 20 years ago this week. In today's day and age it may seem weird to have not heard one of your favorite songs in 15 years, but this was not only before the Internet but also before many "one-hit/two-hit wonder" songs were released on CD and out of print vinyls were often very hard to come by.

Afternoon Delight was the only hit by The Starland Vocal Band and it topped the charts for two weeks (the weeks ending July 10 & July 17, 1976). The band, which won the 1976 Best New Artist Grammy, was led by Bill Danoff and also consisted of his wife Taffy and another couple that would later marry, John Carroll and Margot Chapman. Bill and Taffy had co-written "Take Me Home, Country Roads" with John Denver and had sung backing vocals on the 1971 hit.

Memorial Day, 1976 and I'm with my family riding back from Jamestown to our home in Portsmouth, Virginia. In those days, the only ways to pass time in the car were listening to the radio and low-tech games. I was playing a bingo game of sorts where I marked off sights as I passed them (a barn, a windmill, etc.) until at some point I dozed off (you can see how much fun the game must have been). When I woke up, the radio was playing "Afternoon Delight." It was my first time hearing the song, and yes, as a six year old, I did really think they were singing about ice cream.

I'm not sure how many times I heard the song during the Summer of '76. Aside from the memories of the Bicentennial (rainy day in Williamsburg, clear night with fireworks in Virginia Beach), the lingering image of the summer was when my parents told me on my birthday that we were moving (yet again). This time to Philadelphia. The first weeks in the new town were tough, but one of the initial memories I have of living in Philly was going to buy new back-to-school "Jaws" sneakers at Buster Brown. Waiting to pull into the parking lot at 47th and City Line, there was Afternoon Delight on the radio like an old friend that had followed me along from Virginia.

Largely on the strength of Afternoon Delight, The Starland Vocal Band received their own variety show on CBS in The Summer of 1977. The cast included a couple of young comics named Jeff Altman and David Letterman (I'm pretty sure I remember Dave in an amusing skit where he played a mailman). Ironically, the show flipped from from Sunday Night to Friday Night in August of 77, to make way for "A Year at the Top" co-starring Dave's future bandleader, Paul Shaffer.

Afternoon Delight has experienced a second life over the past decade, appearing on numerous soundtracks. Most notably, over the closing credits of "Good Will Hunting." If ever they make my life story into a film, we'll have to add room for it there as well.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

30 years ago....(Part 1)

I'd been planning an entry commemorating the 30th anniversary of May 31, 1976 for awhile and unfortunately have had no time to put it together. On Memorial Day, 1976, my family was living in Portsmouth, Virginia and we spent the holiday visiting historic Jamestown. On the way back home, I woke up from a nap in the backseat to the sounds of a tune that would leave an impression on me forever. The song: "Afternoon Delight," by The Starland Vocal Band. (more to come, I promise)!!!!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

One Less Bell to Answer; One Less Mag to Read

If my calculations are correct, I was an Entertainment Weekly subscriber for 604 weeks (dating back to the July 1, 1994, which I believe had The Lion King on the cover and reported that Tiffani-Amber Theissen was joining Beverly Hills 90210). The magazine was a good read in the pre-Internet era, but in recent years I'd found it to be nothing more than a regurgitation of weekly entertainment news that had already broke on the Web.

In August of 1995, I received one of the most exciting phone calls of my life. Entertainment Weekly said there was an "80% chance," they were going to print my letter to the editor in the next issue. I was responding to an article about the casting of actors in believable (or non-believable) ethnic roles and it highlighted the issues surrounding the then-current film, "Unstrung Heroes." Since the original people chosen for the lead roles weren't "believable" as Jews, the parts ultimately went to Andie MacDowell and Jonathan Turturro (neither of whom are Jewish). Since this was 1995 and I was still using snail-mail, I don't have a copy of the letter I sent but it was something along the lines of:

Dear EW,

I have some news for you. Members of the Jewish faith come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and upbringings and most of us bear little resemblance to Woody Allen. If artistic credibility is the key, then maybe we should consider casting actual Jews such as William Shatner, Nell Carter, Michael Landon and Alicia Silverstone in these roles instead of non-Jewish actors who just happen to fit Hollywood's stereotype of how we should look, act and talk.

Best Regards,

Efrem L. Epstein

As exciting as it was to receive the call in late August, it only led to disappointment in early September when the letter ended up getting cut from the issue. I never again came close to getting a letter printed in the magazine, though I did try on several other occasions. For the first time ever, here are the letters I e-mailed to EW (usually complaining about their pop music coverage), which never received any more than an autobot response from the magazine.

Letter #1

This was in response to a special issue about the 100 Greatest Moments in Rock. I thought Casey Kasem's first broadcast was far more important than some of their other inclusions:

Subject: How about Casey?
From: "Efrem Epstein" <>
Date: 5/31/1999 11:13 AMMay 31, 1999

Letters to the Editor
Entertainment Weekly
1675 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

Dear Editors,

For those of us raised in the 70's and the 80's pop music began and ended with the American Top 40 countdown. We often spent hours guessing, analyzing and obsessing over 13-notch jumps and long-distance dedications. Maybe Casey Kasem's first AT40 broadcast in 1971 didn't change the world, but surely it had a greater impact on the American music scene than Ginger leaving the Spice Girls or Michael Jackson's hair catching fire.


Efrem L. Epstein

Letter #2:

In reviewing the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the mag made a snarky comment about the inclusion of John Farnham in the ceremony who in their mind was inappropriate since they had never heard of him. For an average Joe to be unfamiliar with John Farnham is understandable, for a writer at a premier entertainment magazine to be unwilling to spend five seconds researching his background on the Internet was inexcusable.

Subject: Olympics Coverage
From: "Efrem Epstein" <>
Date: 9/23/2000 9:08 PM

I've always admired EW for its knowledgeable staff, which is why I was absolutely shocked that in your coverage of the Olympics' opening ceremonies you seemed clueless as to the credentials of Australian singer John Farnham(quote from magazine: "Who? He must be the Down Under Neil Diamond"). In 1982, John replaced Glenn Shorrock in The Little River Band (surely you remember them) and ended up singing lead on three of the bands 13 Top 40 hits including "The Other Guy" which hit #11 right here in the good old U.S. of A.

Best Regards and keep up the otherwise great work,

Efrem L. Epstein

Letter #3

New York, the headquarters for EW, is the largest market in the country and it lacks a country music station which is the largest format in the country. Over the years, EW has been unable (or perhaps unwilling) to recognize the popularity of the genre. I called them out on it back in 2001.

Subject: EW picking on Country
From: "Efrem Epstein" <>
Date: 4/10/2001 9:22 PM

Dear EW,

I "loved" your commentary on the TV listing for the George Strait concert (if there's one thing more gripping than women's soccer, it's country music). Question: Has anyone on the EW staff recently been to a country concert? If you actually had, you might have realized what millions of us already know: no other musical genre is currently producing more exciting live shows or better pop songs. Is it any wonder that the very short list of musicians who can still sell out a stadium would include the likes of Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, George Strait and The Dixie Chicks? Oh, and did I forget to mention that Garth Brooks is now second only to The Beatles in terms of total career albums sold worldwide?

Best Regards,

Efrem L. Epstein


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Return to Paradise

(Writer's Note: I realize that it's February already, but for what it's worth I started this post in December).

December usually brings on a mood of nostalgia. One often gets a strong urge not just to look back at the past several months, but the past several years as well. When I first started "Life is a Soundtrack," one feature I was hoping to make a regular occurence was a retro-album review, where I give a fresh listen to a record/tape/CD that had once been among my favorites, but in recent years had been relegated to a dust magnet.

Styx's "Paradise Theater" was released in 1981, a year before my I started my obsession with pop music. "Paradise Theatre" was a concept-album (like it's follow-up, "Kilroy was Here"), celebrating Chicago's legendary Paradise Theater which had closed in 1958 and tied in as a pseudo-allegory to changes in America in the 1970's. "Paradise Theater" was one of the albums that defined the early-80's, especially with it's cutting-edge logo embossed into the vinyl. I knew the hits, but I don't think I had ever listened to the entire record from start to finish until June 1, 1986 when my buddy Brian Hollander (who as 'The Bison' would DJ evenings on Classic Rock Z-93 in Atlanta during the mid-90's), lent me his walkman on a trip to Great Adventure. Wow! Not only were all the tunes great, but they all flowed so nicely one into another. The songs that I had previously known from the album, made so much more sense in context. I haven't listened to the tape much in recent years (I taped over Brian's vinyl-to-tape copy, with a CD-to-tape copy in the middle of my Freshman year of college....courtesy of Funby, of course), but I think the time is ripe to go back to paradise. If you've familiar with the album, this is going to be fun. If you're not, fasten your seat-belt and get ready to be introduced to one of the greatest pop-rock concept albums of all time!

AD 1928

Gotta love that quick piano chord that begins the record and seems to come up out of nowhere. The producer really knew what he (or she) was doing. Dennis DeYoung's falsetto is simply amazing on the melodic refrain that will appear a couple of more times later in the album. I'm normally not that big a fan of singing through a synthesizer, but the background vocals make it work on this cut (just as they will later on "The Best of Times"). Styx takes its name from a river in Greek Mythology and whenever I hear this cut I picture myself on a small boat in the Mediterranean, serene as can be. There's little hint that we're about to kick into overdrive until Dennis goes high on "Here at the Pa-RA----

Rockin' The Pardise

---DIIIIIIIISE. It's never been entirely clear to me where "AD 1928" ends and "Rockin' the Paradise" begins, but the last syllable of paradise seems as logical a starting point as any. This is one of those songs that makes you want to get up and go. I've always gotten into the "Watcha doing, Watcha doing" background chants on this one. This track rocks!!!

Too Much Time On My Hands

This was one of the two major hits from the album, peaking at #9. I remember back in 1982, Tommy Shaw was a guest-DJ one night on the then newly-launched WAPP (103.5). He closed the show by playing this track and explaining how it was the last song written for the album and how the tune just came to him and then the next dayhe walked into the studio and directed each of the other members what he needed them to do to make the song work (Writer's note: Sorry for the run-on sentence). Tommy's account helps to explain why "Too Much" seems like the one track that's out of place on the album. The song has its good points, specifically the "Too much time" whispers over the ticking clocks at the end. I had never really noticed those cool claps in the chorus, until one day in camp when a bunch of people were singing the song and clapping along in time. The hi-tech intros and outros sound great on the recording but weak outside the studio, which is probably why "Too Much" always fell flat when it was played live.

Nothing Ever Goes As Planned

This one kind of grows on you. Didn't think much of it at first, but it fits well within the sequence of the record. It's kind of cool, how the tune stirs up a bunch of sounds (70's pop, jazz, Motown) but delivers a smooth end-product. If nothing else, it serves as a nice bridge between "Too Much Time on My Hands" and "The Best of Times."

The Best Of Times

The big hit from the album, peaking at #3. Probably one of the best power ballads of all time! If you were a teenager in the early-1980's, this was one of your songs. Romantic and haunting, "The Best of Times" still sounds as fresh as ever.

Lonely People

Never quite understood why they decided to kick of Side 2 with the weakest song on the album. The thunderstorm at the beginning is actually the only real cool part of the tune. Not a bad song, just way below par for the rest of the record.

She Cares

This is a great no-frills pop song. The type that sounded great on rock stations in the early-80's and on country stations today. Most people who have never heard "Paradise Theater" have never heard "She Cares," and boy are they missing out. A few years back, Tommy Shaw was a guest on Scott and Todd's morning show on WPLJ and someone called in and asked if he'd play a few bars of "She Cares." It was great to know that I wasn't the only one who took a liking to this one.


Hands-down the best song on the album and by far the most progressive as well. Eerie and dark yet melodic and sweet, "Snowblind" captures a bundle of contradictory emotions by having the lead vocals split between James Young with his ghoulish delivery and Tommy Shaw belting out what amounts to a musical S.O.S. Dennis DeYoung's backing vocals on the chorus seal the mood of desperation on "Snowblind." If songs were movies, "Snowblind" would be a contender for Best Picture.

Half-Penny, Two-Penny

JEG claims to be a big fan of my blog so he's going to love this one. I've always thought the opening line of "Half Penny" was "Half-Penny, Two-Penny, go through the rounds." Well I recently learned that it's actually "Half-Penny, Two Penny, GOLD KRUGERRAND!" I know the average Styx fan would probably say that "Miss America" had the band's best riff, but I'm partial to the one on "Half-Penny." Once again, James Young's deep vocals set the stage on the verses, giving way to the more melodic harmonies on the chorus. The song finishes with an instrumental which flows right into....

AD 1958

Musically the album ends in virtually the same manner as it began, except instead of hope and anticipation, we're left with a sense of bittersweet longing. The album is over, the theater has closed, the times have changed and all we have are the memories. At least I think that's the message they were trying to convey.

State Street Sadie

So as to not leave us on a down note, the record adds on about 20 seconds of ragtime music, taking us back to where we began in 1928.

What a Kick-A** record! It will probably still sound just as good 25 years from now. One thing that occurred to me during this last listen is how much parts the record remind me of the Rent Soundtrack. That started me thinking how Styx would be the perfect band to have their music adapted for a musical. Not like that Beach Boys disaster from last year or "Mama Mia" which only sold because millions of ABBA fans have been waiting since 1980 to see their favorite band reunite. This could be a GOOD show and I already have a plot outline in mind. Interested? Give me a call. I'll be willing to serve as techical consultant for a cut of the profits.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Mr. Mississippi

Writers Note: I dedicate this post to the wonderful residents of Biloxi, Mississippi whose spirit continues to inspire me.

Ask anyone to name a singer from Mississippi and it's a safe bet they'll respond with "Elvis Aaron Presley." Maybe 1 in 20 will name B.B. King, but Mr. King is sure to trail THE King by a large margin. But, I've always been partial to the great singer/songwriter from Meridian, Mississippi who once set the record for most consecutive weeks on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. I'm talking about Paul Davis and, to me, he is Mr. Mississippi.

From 1974-1982, Paul scored eight Top-40 hits and two Top-10s. I guess that's not a lot compared to the 114 Top-40 hits scored by the man from Tupelo, but let's give Paul his due: he actually WROTE most of his records. The timeless "I Go Crazy" spent a then-record 40 weeks on the charts from 1977-78 (give yourself two points if you know that "Tainted Love" was the song that broke the record when it logged 43 weeks on the charts in 1982), ultimately peaking at #7 and almost single-handedly defining the late 70's mellow-rock sound. The influence of "I Go Crazy" can be heard in many other tunes from that era, most noticeably on Styx's 1979 hit "Babe," the only #1 hit of the lengendary band's career.

As one who's obsession with pop music imploded during 1982, I relate heavily with Paul's two Top-20 hits from that year: "Cool Night" and "'65 Love Affair." The former is surely one of the most sentimental ballads of all time. The first time I ever listened to Casey count down the entire Top 10 was on Sunday, February 7 1982 (two points if you know that it was Garth Brooks' 20th Birthday) and I turned on the radio as "Cool Night" was being played at its peak position of #11. '65 Love Affair, which became Paul's biggest hit peaking at #6, was one of the most infectious records of the year and its Lindy/East Coast Swing beat still gets me pumping everytime I put it on.

Paul's songs sounded great no matter who was singing them. In the mid-80's, Dan Seals (one half of 70's hit pop-duo England Dan and John Ford Coley and brother to Jim Seals, one half of 70's hit pop-duo Seals & Crofts), resuscitated his career on the country charts. Two of his biggest (and best) hits from that era were written by Paul Davis: "Bop" (a song about dancing, though everyone thought it was about sex) and "Meet Me in Montana" (a gem of a romantic duet with Marie Osmond, one half of 70's hit pop-duo....oh you know who).

Paul's life story may never make it to the big-screen (especially since I don't think he had any drug, alcohol, violence or gambling issues) and you may never see his face on a postage stamp. But one day I hope to have kids and I plan on using music to help them understand history and what life for me was like growing up. Paul Davis has earned a prime place on the soundtrack of my life, I hope he earns a place on theirs.