Friday, April 3, 2020

Godspeed Bill Withers

Bill Withers, the singer-songwriter who produced such classic songs s "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Just the Two of Us," died March 30 2020 at the age of 81. The cause was heart complications.

Bill Withers was born on July 4 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a small coal mining town. He grew up in nearby Beckley, West Virginia. His father died when he was only 13 years old. Mr. Withers enlisted in the United States Navy when he was 17. He served for nine years as an Aviation Boatswain's Mate. It was while he was serving in the Navy that he became interested in singing and songwriting.

Following his service in the Navy he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. He worked in factories for various companies, among them Douglas Aircraft Corporation,  performing at clubs at night. During this same period he made various demo tapes. One of these demo tapes found its way to Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records. Mr. Avant signed Bill Withers to Sussex Records.

His first album, Just As I Am, was released in 1971. While the first single from the album, "Harlem," failed to chart, the second single, "Ain't No Sunshine," proved to be a hit. It went to no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart. The third single, "Grandma's Hands," also performed well. While it went to only no. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100, it went to no. 18 on the Billboard  R&B chart.

The biggest hit of Bill Withers's career would come from his second album, Still Bill. "Lean on Me" was the first single from the album. It went to no. 1 on  both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts. The second single from the album, "Use Me," also did well. It went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart.

In 1973 the live album Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall was released. It was followed by his final album on Sussex Records, +'Justments. It was also during this period that he wrote and produced the songs "Better You Go Your Way" and "Tenderness is His Way" for the Gladys Knight & the Pips album I Feel a Song.

After Sussex Records folded, Mr. Withers signed with Columbia Records. His first album with Columbia Records, Making Music, was released in 1975. It was followed by the album Naked & Warm. Bill Withers's third album on Columbia Records, Menagerie, produced the minor hit "Lovely Day." "Lovely Day" went to no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart. Menagerie  was followed by the album 'Bout Love in 1979.

Bill Withers's next major hit would be a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., and appeared on Mr. Washington's 1980 album Winelight. "Just the Two of Us" reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 3 on the Billboard singles chart. He also collaborated on "Soul Shadows" with The Crusaders and In the Name of Love" with Ralph MacDonald.  Despite the success of "Just the Two Of Us," Bill Withers would record only one more studio album. Watching You Watching Me was released in 1985. "Oh Yeah," a single from that album, reached no. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Bill Withers elected not to renew his contract with Columbia Records due to disagreements with the label. He then effectively retired from his music career.

Bill Withers was unlike any other music artist of his era. Whether it was because he grew up in a small town or because he started his musical career later than most, his songs were always grounded in reality and addressed the concerns of ordinary adults. "Lean on Me" was about having a sense of community. "Grandma's Hands" was simply about his grandmother. Bill Withers's songs displayed a maturity sometimes lacking in popular music of the Seventies. Of course, what made his music even better was his voice soulful and genuine. It was a voice that could relay both comfort and warmth. Between his talent and maturity as a songwriter and his remarkable voice, Bill Withers remains one of the greatest singers and songwriters in the history of American popular music.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Late Great Adam Schlesinger

Those who know me well know that quite possibly my favourite subgenre of rock music is power pop. Among my favourite latter day power pop bands numbers Fountains of Wayne. From 1996 to 2011 Fountains of Wayne recorded a series of albums filled with hook-laden power pop songs written by Adam Schesinger and Chris Collingwood. I have been a fan of Fountains of Wayne ever since that first album. Of course, Adam Schlesinger had a career that when well beyond Fountains of Wayne. Prior to Fountains of Wayne he had recorded with indie pop Ivy. He was later part of the supergroup Tinted Windows. Adam Schlesinger wrote the song "That Thing You Do!" for the 1996 movie of the same name, as well as "Pretend to Be Nice" for Josie and the Pussycats and yet other songs for other movies. Sadly, Adam Schlesinger died yesterday, April 1 2020, from complications caused by COVID-19. He was 52 years old.

Adam Schlesinger was born in New York City on October 31 1967. He grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. From when he was a young child he played music and wrote songs. It was also as a young child that he took notice of a lawn ornament shop in Wayne, New Jersey called Fountains of Wayne. He told his mother that Fountains of Wayne would be a great band name. Adam Schlesinger attended Montclair High School. After high school he studied philosophy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was there that he met Chris Collingwood.

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College, Adam Schlesinger moved to New York City. It was there that he answered an ad placed by Andy Chase. Together the two formed Ivy with Dominique Durand. In 1994 Seed Records signed Ivy. Their first single, "Get Enough," was released that same year. Their debut album, Realistic, followed in 1995. Ivy made five more albums: Apartment Life (1997); Long Distance (2000); Guestroom (2002); In the Clear (2005); and All Hours (2011).

It was after Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood reconnected that the two of them formed a band. Chris Collingwood had played with the band The Mercy Buckets. The band went through such names as Woolly Mammoth and Are You My Mother? before settling on Fountains of Wayne. Fountains of Wayne was signed to Atlantic Records and their self-titled, debut album was released in 1996. While the album did not chart, their debut single "Radiation Vibe," met some success, reaching no. 14 on the Billboard alternative chart. Their debut album was followed by the album Utopia Parkway in 1999. Utopia Parkway also did not chart. Their single, "Denise," did respectively well, reaching no. 34 on the Billboard alternative chart. Unfortunately, it would be later in 1999 that Atlantic Records dropped Fountains of Wayne.

Fountains of Wayne would be inactive for a time before the release of their next album, Welcome Interstate Managers on S-Curve Records.  The album produced the hit "Stacy's Mom," which peaked at no. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. Welcome Interstate Managers went to no. 115 on the Billboard album chart. It was followed by Traffic and Weather in 2007, which went to no. 97 on the Billboard album chart. Their final album, Sky Full of Holes, was released in 2011. It charted higher than any of their previous albums, peaking at no. 37 on the Billboard album chart, no. 4 on the Billboard alternative album chart, no. 3 on the Billboard indie chart, and no. 6 on the Billboard rock chart. Unfortunately, tensions between Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood would lead to the band never recording again.

Adam Schlesinger was also a part of the supergroup Tinted Windows. In addition to Adam Schlesinger, Tinted Windows also consisted of singer Taylor Hanson of Hanson and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick. The band recorded one, self-titled album released in 2009.

In addition to his work with Ivy and Fountains of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger also served as a producer for several acts over the years. Over the years he produced such artists as Dan Bryk, They Might Be Giants, America, Bowling for Soup, The Sounds, and The Monkees. Adam Schlesinger served as the producer for synth pop duo Fever High. He produced both their 2015 EP All Work and their 2017 album FHNY.

Adam Schlesinger also wrote songs for motion pictures. He wrote the title song for the movie That Thing You Do! (1996), for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song. He wrote the songs "Pretend to Be Nice" and "Come On" for Josie and the Pussycats. Over the years he provided songs for such movies as There's Something About Mary (1998), Me, Myself & Irene (2001), Insomnia (2002), Robots (2005), and Music and Lyrics (2007).

Mr. Schlesinger worked extensively in television. He wrote theme music for the TV shows The Dana Carvey Show, The Howard Stern Radio Show, My Kind of Town, Too Late with Adam Carolla, Crank Yankers, Kathy, Wedding Band, The Haunted Hathaways. and Supernoobs. He served as executive music producer for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and contributed several songs to the show. He received several Emmy nominations for his work on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and in 2019 he won the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for "Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal" for the show.

Adam Schlesinger also worked in theatre. With David Javerbaum, he co-wrote the songs for the 2007 musical theatre adaptation of the John Waters film Cry-Baby. He wrote the closing song "I Have Faith in You" for David Javerbaum's 2015 play An Act of God. He had been collaborating with Sara Silverman on a musical based on her memoir The Bedwetter and with Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on a musical adaptation of the TV show The Nanny.

Fountains of Wayne has always been one of my favourite latter day power pop bands, and Adam Schlesinger is one of my favourite songwriters. He had a talent for writing catchy, hook-laden pop songs that get stuck in one's head. What is more, the songs were always so good that one didn't mind them replaying in one's mind over and over. Mr. Schlesinger also addressed an audience largely ignored by rock music, those members of the middle class who longed for something more. The subject matter of Fountains of Wayne covered everything from despondent businessmen to adolescent boys fantasising about their friends' mothers. Adam Schlesinger was capable of both humour and pathos in his songs. Often they would be present in the same song.

While Adam Schlesinger was a songwriting genius, he was one who was more than willing to collaborate with others. The songs of Fountains of Wayne were always credited to Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood.  On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend he worked with Rachel Bloom and music supervisor Jack Dolgen. Adam Schlesinger may have had considerable talent, but he was not afraid to share that talent with others.

Adam Schlesinger was never a superstar. It was only as part of Fountains of Wayne that he was a front man and even then he shared that position with Chris Collingwood. Despite this, one could not dismiss Adam Schlesinger as just another composer of hook-laden pop songs. Quite simply, he was a master craftsman, perfectly aware of the emotional impact of a combination of lyrics, the progression of certain chords, and even changes in volume. As a master craftsman of power pop, Adam Schlesinger ranks along such greats as Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Rick Nielsen, John Auer, and Ken Stringfellow. He may never have been a superstar, but he will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

10 Great Performances by Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo
It was 100 years ago today that Toshiro Mifune was born in Japanese occupied Qingdao, Shandong, China, where his parents were working as Methodist missionaries. When he was young he worked in his father's photography shop. At 19 he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. During World War II, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Following the war, Mr. Mifune was accepted for a position as an assistant cameraman at Toho Company, Ltd.

It was in 1947 that a number of Toho's actors left to form a new company called Shintoho. It was then that Toho held a contest to attract new talent to replace the actors who had left. One of Toshiro Mifune's friends submitted his photo and an application for him without him knowing it. He was on 48 applicants who was accepted out of around 4000. He then took a screen test for director Kajirō Yamamoto. Afterwards he was cast in his first feature film, the comedy Shin Baka Jidai (1947).  Ultimately, Toshiro Mifune's career would last for 48 years and would include many classic films. He worked with several of Japan's top directors, most notably Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifuen and Akira Kurosawa would make sixteen films together.

Below are some of Toshiro Mifune's best performances from throughout his career.They are listed in chronological order.

Stray Dog (1949): Stray Dog was the third film that Toshiro Mifune made with Akira Kurosawa. It is a prime example of Japanese noir. In the film Mr. Mifune plays homicide detective Murakami, whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket. He gives a bravura performance as the rookie cop who finds himself amidst the underworld to retrieve his stolen weapon.

Rashomon (1950): Rashomon was the first of Akira Kurosawa's films to receive international attention, and it is with good reason. It is a remarkable film all around, with an excellent script, incredible cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, and solid performances by its actors. In the film Toshiro Mifune plays a character far removed from the stalwart samurai he is known for. The bandit Tajōmaru is boastful, cowardly, dishonest, and dishonourable.

The Samurai TrilogyHiroshi Inagaki directed three films based on the life of famed swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. The films, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), followed Miyamoto through his life from an overly confident young warrior to to a wise and philosophical samurai. Samurai I: Musahshi Miyamoto begins following the battle of Sekigahara, while Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island ends with his famous duel with rival Kojirō Sasaki. Toshiro Mifune does a masterful job of playing Miyamoto, taking him from youthful and inexperienced samurai to a more grounded warrior.

Seven Samurai (1954): Seven Samurai may well be the best known film of both Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune's careers. And it is with good reason. The film regularly ranks in lists of the greatest films of all time, and I personally considered the greatest movie ever made. Seven Samurai was certainly influential, with films still being made that bear its impact. Given Seven Samurai centres on a band of samurai protecting a farming village from bandits, one might expect Toshiro Mifune to play a traditional, brave, and noble samurai. Instead, to a large degree Mr. Mifune played comic relief in Seven Samurai. Kikuchiyo is temperamental, volatile, and often comical. In fact, he is not even truly a samurai, but a farm boy who wanted to be a samurai. That having been said, Kikuchiyo is also brave and resourceful, and he understands the farmer's plights more than the other samurai. Kikuchiyo is one of the most sophisticated roles Toshiro Mifune ever played, a character who provides humour, but can be taken seriously nonetheless.

Throne of Blood (1957): Throne of Blood takes the plot of Macbeth and moves it to feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune then finds himself in the role corresponding to Macbeth, Taketoki Washizu. Toshiro Mifune does an incredible job portraying the samurai general who, following a prophecy from a spirit, is manipulated by his wife into murder and more.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960):  Another one of Akira Kurosawa's film noirs, The Bad Sleep Well also owes a bit to Hamlet. Toshiro Mifune plays Kōichi Nishi, a young man who takes a job with a major corporation in order to bring to justice the man responsible for his father's death. Mr. Mifune does a remarkable job playing the grieving son intent on exposing the corporation's corruption.

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962): Yojimbo is one of Akira Kurosawa's most famous films, and certainly one of his most influential. The film is based largely on Dashiell Hammett's novel The Glass Key, with the action moved to the end of the Edo Period in Japan (1860). The film would prove successful, so that a sequel, Sanjuro, was made. In both films Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin who is reluctant to give his real name (in Yojimbo when asked his name he simply says it is "Kuwabatake Sanjuro"--"mulberry field thirty years old).  In Yojimbo Sanjuro plays two warring clans against each other. In Sanjuro he deals with corrupt officials. In both movies Sanjuro is crafty and not below using means that could be considered dishonourable. Yojimbo would prove to be influential. Arguably, the whole concept of a morally ambiguous hero with no name can traced back to it, though Sergio Leon's  unauthorised remake A Fistful of Dollars.

High and Low (1963): In High and Low Toshiro Mifune plays shoe company executive Kingo Gondo who is in a struggle to maintain control of his company when a friend of his son is kidnapped. Based on the "87th Precinct" novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain, High and Low is very much a police procedural.

Samurai Assassin (1965): Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, Samurai Assassin is a solid jidaigeki set in 1860, the last days of the Edo period. The film was inspired by actual history, namely the Sakuradamon Incident, in which Japanese chief minister Ii Naosuke was assassinated by rōnin. Toshiro Mifune plays Niiro Tsurichiyo, the illegitimate son of a noble who sides with various clans opposing a powerful man in the shogunate.

Hell in the Pacific (1968): Hell on the Pacific centres on an American serviceman (played by Lee Marvin) and a Japanese serviceman (played by Toshiro Mifune) stranded on an island in the Pacific during World War II. Although the two are initially distrustful of each other, they eventually decide to work together and even bond together. Both actors do a remarkable job in their respective roles, a particularly remarkable feat given how little dialogue there is in the film. While many of the roles Toshiro Mifune took outside of Japan failed to display his considerable talent, Hell in the Pacific displays the full range of his considerable skill as an actor.