Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Notes from the weird side of rock and roll

A compendium of the unusual, and sometimes downright bizarre, from the world of rock and roll:

'Gimme Shelter’ cost the life of her unborn child: 
Four months pregnant when she added her piercing vocals to “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones, singer Merry Clayton blames the stress of the recording session for her subsequent miscarriage.

Clayton says she was contacted late one night in 1969 by producer Jack Nitzsche, asking if Clayton would sing on a track being recorded by the Stones. She arrived at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood minutes later, still in pajamas with her hair in rollers. After laying down the “it’s just a shot away” vocal line, she called her husband to let him know what was going on.

“I called Curtis: ‘These boys want me to sing about rape and murder.’ I wanted them to hear me, talking real loud to my husband on the phone,” she said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. “But we got the gist – that it was part of the song and not something just flying out of the sky. I was tired, it was cold and my voice cracked. We listened back, and they said: ‘Oh that’s bloody fabulous. Can you do it again?’”

Clayton suffered a miscarriage the day after the recording session. She blames the loss on the strain to her body reaching to hit the vocal peaks and by pushing open the heavy studio doors. “We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that,” she told the newspaper. “You had all this success with ‘Gimme Shelter’ and you had the heartbreak with this song.” While Clayon said it took a long time before she could listen to the song because she related it to losing her child, she covered the tune for her 1970 studio album, titled Gimme Shelter. “It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.”

The miscarriage wasn’t the only tragedy in Clayton’s life. In 2014, doctors amputated both legs below the knee following a horrendous automobile crash. A week after leaving the hospital, she recorded vocals for Coldplay’s 2015 album A Head Full Of Dreams. 

She took her own breath away: Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was on hand to witness singer Shirley Bassey collapse after straining to hold a high note to a James Bond theme song.

Before gaining international fame in The Yardbirds and Zeppelin, Page was a sought-after session guitarist in Great Britain. Among the classic recordings to feature his fret work was “Goldfinger” from the 1964 James Bond film. He was in the instrumental version of the song, taped at Abbey Road Studio One in London.

He recalled the fainting spell in an interview with GQ magazine: “There was a big James Bond session in EMI Studio Number One, where I was playing guitar in the orchestra for John Barry. The full orchestra sounded absolutely amazing, but then Shirley Bassey arrived. This was ‘Goldfinger.’ She arrived with a friend, was very quiet and then was asked to come out and sing. And it took her just one take. And at the end of the tape, she collapsed on the floor. At the end of the song she just held this one note, and she basically ran out of breath and collapsed.”

He added, “You know how dramatic she is usually, what with all the stuff she does with her hands, but this was even more dramatic – and I was in the front row of the musicians, so I really had a good view of all of this.” 

The mouth takes on Hendrix and Led Zeppelin: Michael Winslow, known as The Man of 10,000 Sound Effects who gained fame by appearing in all seven of the Police Academy movies, is also a one-man cover band who has mimicked two of rock’s most iconic performers -- Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

In nearly spot-on renditions, Winslow has recreated Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Hendrix' “Purple Haze." And he takes on the vocals, lead guitar and drums using nothing but his mouth.

Winslow performed the Zep tune on a Norway TV show, accompanied by a musician on acoustic guitar. The Hendrix cover was performed solo during a stand up comedy routine. Catch the Hendrix tribute here.

The precursor to the Walkman and the iPod: 
Well before recorded music became extremely portable and personal with the Walkman cassette player and later Apple’s revolutionary iPod, there was a failed experiment with small, flexible records you could stick in your back pocket.

Known as a Hip Pocket Record or Pocket Disc, the flexible vinyl discs were 45 rpm records smaller than 4 inches in diameter that were marketed as being virtually indestructible. Accompanied by a portable mini-record player, you could take your favorite songs on the go. Aimed at the burgeoning young teen market of the 1960s, it was a concept ahead of its time. The pocket records did not find widespread acceptance, and it was not until the 1980s and the advent of Sony’s Walkman cassette player that music truly became portable.

The one-sided Hip Pocket Records contained two Top 40 tracks and cost 69 cents at Woolworth. They were marketed as more durable than regular 45s, but the discs typically deteriorated following only a dozen or so plays. The rival Pocket Disc series offered a cheaper alternative and were sold through vending machines around the country. Pocket Disc also struck a deal with Apple Records to get a number of Beatles hits pressed to their miniature discs.

On a side note, Chrysler tried to incorporate record players into the dashboards of their automobiles in the mid 1950s. Chrysler’s automobile record player took special seven-inch discs that revolved at 16 2/3 rpm. It was not a great success.

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