James Burton is the quintessential sideman. The virtuoso electric guitarist’s legacy spans more than half a century, and encompasses stints behind many of the most celebrated artists of the rock and roll era, including Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. While Burton spent the vast majority of his career 20 feet from stardom, he stepped out of the shadows long enough to record a 1971 solo album for A&M Records, highlighted by an incendiary performance of Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” that was later plucked from obscurity by filmmaker Michael Mann and featured on the soundtrack of his 2019 auto racing drama Ford v Ferrari.Read More
You can’t help but sing along to “What’s Up?” 4 Non Blondes’ lone chart hit, penned by the band of brunettes’ frontwoman, Linda Perry, catapulted the San Francisco alternative act to short-lived stardom in mid-1993, and despite Perry’s subsequent success as a songwriter, “What’s Up?” continues to define her career as a performer — especially from the moment its anthemic chorus kicks in.Read More
There’s nothing extreme at all about Extreme’s “More Than Words” — which is precisely the point. The funk-metal band ignored the objections of label executives to release the anachronistic acoustic ballad as a single, and its instincts were proven correct when “More Than Words” reached the top of the Billboard pop charts in mid-1991.Read More
“You’re not alone if you think you’ve been hearing a new Alanis Morissette song on the radio,” begins the Los Angeles Times profile from June 1997. “Meredith Brooks’ hit single, ‘Bitch,’ sounds exactly as if it could have been lifted from Morissette’s Grammy-winning 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill.” The Los Angeles Times wasn’t alone, either: virtually every media outlet spotlighting “Bitch” during its ascent up the pop charts addressed its musical and thematic parallels to Jagged Little Pill, one of the defining albums of the decade. The similarities appeared lost on no one but Brooks herself. “All along I was thinking ‘I’m gonna get compared to Sheryl [Crow],’” she confessed to Entertainment Weekly just weeks before “Bitch” peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and cemented the feminist anthem’s fate alongside radio staples like Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” America’s “A Horse with No Name” and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” — i.e., hit songs destined to be forever mistaken for the handiwork of more famous and enduring soundalikes.Read More
“Bad to the Bone” is the b-b-b-b-best thing ever to happen to movie trailers. George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ snarling, stuttering blues-rock anthem failed to reach the Top 40 during its original 1982 release, but the song is now permanently ensconced in America’s collective consciousness thanks to decades of use and abuse in Hollywood features, television shows and commercials.Read More
No song captures and communicates the healing power of popular music more eloquently than “Drift Away.” Dobie Gray’s country-soul reverie celebrates pop’s extraordinary capacity to soothe the mind, body and spirit — to liberate listeners from the stress and strain of their everyday lives, and transport them to a dimension reality cannot reach.
“Drift Away” made Dobie Gray a household name, but his given name isn’t so black and white. Gray’s early life is poorly documented: he was most likely born Lawrence Darrow Brown to a sharecropping family in one of two Texas cities (either Simonton or Brookshire, depending on the source), and was still in his teens when he split for California to pursue an acting career. “I did a few TV things,” he later told Memphis’ Commercial Appeal. “Music started paying the bills and buttering the bread.” Supper club gigs under names including Larry Dennis, Leonard Ainsworth and Larry Curtis brought the singer to the attention of Sonny Bono, then an A&R manager for Specialty Records, who recommended him to independent label Stripe. There he was given the Dobie Gray moniker in honor of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the hit sitcom that aired on CBS television from 1959 to 1963. Gray released his debut single “I Can Hardly Wait” on Stripe in 1960, but didn’t experience his first chart action until he signed to Cordak Records to issue his seventh single, 1962’s “Look at Me,” recorded at Hollywood’s Gold Star Recording Studios and featuring session virtuoso Carol Kaye on six-string Danelectro. “Look at Me” reached number 91 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the follow-up “That’s How You Treat a Cheater” fizzled, a fate that also awaited 1963’s “Be a Man,” cut for the JAF label.
Gray resurfaced on the Charger label for 1964’s “The ‘In’ Crowd,” the first in a string of mid-Sixties singles that later achieved immortality on Britain’s Northern soul dance circuit. “The ‘In’ Crowd,” an ebullient Motown soundalike written by Billy Page and arranged by his brother Gene, reached number 13 on the Hot 100 in February 1965, inspiring jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis to issue a live cover recorded at Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns. The Ramsey Lewis Trio version, released in June 1965, actually fared better in Billboard than Gray’s original, soaring all the way to number five that October. “See You at the Go-Go,” another Billy Page byline, featured Kaye on bass as well as Hal Blaine on drums and timpani, Al De Lory on keyboards and Larry Knechtel on guitars; all four were by now established members of the loose coterie of Los Angeles session players later known as the Wrecking Crew, whose contributions are integral to hundreds of Top 40 hits. “See You at the Go-Go” stalled at number 69, however, and Gray next returned in 1966 with his final Charger release, “Out on the Floor,” which failed to chart in the U.S. but stirred up such a frenzy at landmark Northern soul venues like Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca that it was dubbed the “National Anthem of Northern” by author Nick Hornby in his 2009 novel Juliet, Naked.
Gray landed at Capitol Records for a 1967 reading of Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “River Deep – Mountain High” produced by De Lory and arranged by the maestro Leon Russell. Gray’s rendition went nowhere, and after a second Capitol single, “We the People,” he was on the move again, signing to White Whale for 1969’s “Do You Really Have a Heart.” The follow-up, the Joe South-penned “Rose Garden,” reached number 119 in Billboard; singer Lynn Anderson covered the song the following year, topping the Billboard country charts for five weeks and crossing over to number three on the Hot 100. When musician friends Bobby Goldsboro and Kenny O’Dell invited a dejected Gray to join them in Nashville, he accepted. “I hated Nashville,” Gray told the Commercial Appeal. “It was so hot and dry. I went down and said ‘I don’t like this place.’ So I went back and joined Hair.” Gray remained with the touring cast of the rock musical for more than two years before breaking away with co-star (and future disco diva) Táta Vega to join Pollution, a funk ensemble managed by Max Baer Jr., famed for his role as country bumpkin Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies. Pollution’s self-titled Atlantic Records debut won a Grammy Award for its cover, designed by Gene Brownell and featuring a newly-born chick in a gas mask, but otherwise went unnoticed.
Gray was cutting demos at A&M Studios for Paul Williams (the lyricist renowned for pop standards like “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection”) when he was introduced to Mentor Williams, Paul’s younger brother. Mentor Williams spent the latter part of the 1960s as a staff writer for Almo/Irving Music, A&M’s publishing arm, but by 1970, the year he wrote “Drift Away,” he was itching to move into production. “Drift Away” was first recorded by swamp-rocker John Henry Kurtz for his 1972 ABC Records debut Reunion; Williams then recruited Gray to cut the song, leading to a deal between Williams’ fledgling production company Third Son and Decca Records. “[Mentor] said ‘Let’s go to Nashville,’” Gray recalled. “I said ‘Oh, man, I’ve been there, done that. I don’t like Nashville.’ This time I came back, and the whole thing had changed.”
Williams produced the Drift Away album at Nashville’s Quadrafonic Recording Studios, assembling a who’s-who of session giants including guitarist Reggie Young and bassists Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech, all three best known for their work with Chips Moman’s Memphis-based American Sound Studios, site of landmark dates in support of Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield. Drift Away’s title track commemorates the succor and strength that listeners derive from losing themselves in the music of artists like Presley and Springfield — the very same succor and strength that “Drift Away” itself has dispensed millions of times over since its release in 1973. “Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul/I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away,” Gray famously sings on the song’s indelible chorus: “The lyrics describe exactly the experience of listening to [‘Drift Away’], like a hypnotist speaking in first person,” Grammy-winning songwriter and performer Dan Wilson, formerly of Semisonic, wrote in the wake of Gray’s 2011 passing.
Gray later confessed that he felt immense pressure during the making of “Drift Away,” convinced his career was in the balance, and the weight of his checkered recording history, with its myriad false starts and near misses, lends the song the world-weary gravitas so vital to its timelessness. Gray’s bold, brawny tenor, shaped by a childhood spent singing in his minister grandfather’s Baptist church choir, reveals a vulnerability entirely absent from the Northern soul perennials he recorded what must have seemed to him a lifetime ago: if he sounds like a man at a crossroads, that’s because he was. Gray shares the spotlight with Reggie Young, whose Les Paul is the source of the song’s opening two-bar riff and defining double-stop fills, but don’t sleep on drummer Kenny Malone’s contributions when you’re prying “Drift Away” apart in KORD. “Kenny asked me what kind of sound I wanted on the snare, and I said ‘Something deep and rich to complement Dobie’s voice,’” Williams told MixOnline in 2008. Malone selected a 10-inch field marching drum, keeping the snares loose to give it a tail akin to raindrops splashing on glass. “A lot of the verse is just drum and bass, so the sound of the kit was very important to the track,” Williams added.
Decca executives couldn’t make heads or tails of Drift Away. “The label wasn’t impressed with the blend of country and rock, and had to be coerced into releasing the first single,” Paul Williams later wrote of his brother’s breakout hit for The Hollywood Reporter. “Mentor begged them to trust his judgment. They did, and the world was treated to a rock ‘n’ roll anthem that will be playing when all of us are long gone.” “Drift Away” ultimately rose to number five on Billboard’s Hot 100, selling more than a million copies; Gray and Willams quickly delivered a follow-up, Loving Arms (released on Decca’s parent label MCA), trailed in 1974 by Hey Dixie, featuring Memphis blues guitar great Lonnie Mack. “I did three albums for MCA that were country-esque,” Gray told the Commercial Appeal. “They didn’t know where to place a Black guy in country music, except Charley Pride.”
Gray nevertheless settled in Nashville in 1978 and launched a successful country songwriting career, authoring hits including George Jones’ “Come Home to Me,” Ray Charles’ “Over and Over, Again” and Julio Iglesias’ “If I Ever Needed You.” Gray also recorded jingles for advertisers including Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and McDonald’s, and continued touring the U.S. and abroad, building an enormous fan following in South Africa. “I was told ‘If you don’t go to South Africa, you’re crazy, because you’re as big as Elvis Presley there,’” Gray explained. “Finally, it came time where I needed the bucks. So I went, and sure enough, it was just unbelievable.” Gray was the first artist to perform for interracial South African audiences in the apartheid era, and in 1988 sang for Nelson Mandela on the occasion of the anti-apartheid activist and politician’s 80th birthday.
But “Drift Away” wasn’t done with Dobie Gray just yet. Uncle Kracker — the alias of rap-rock shitkicker and Kid Rock confederate Matt Shafer — inexplicably decided to cover the song for his second Atlantic Records effort, No Stranger to Shame, and asked Gray to contribute vocals. Gray even more inexplicably agreed, and most inexplicable of all, America fucking loved it. Uncle Kracker’s “Drift Away” peaked at number nine on the Hot 100 in 2002, while spending a record-setting 28 non-consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. “[‘Drift Away’] is a song that’s almost impossible to do better than the original, so I just grabbed the guy that did it originally and had him co-sing it,” Shafer said in 2003. “I learned [from him] that you can be an older musician and not be bitter. I meet a lot of older musicians that are bitter about everything. He’s definitely a nice gentleman, and he’s very down to earth.” Gray died in 2011 of complications from cancer surgery; upon his passing, he bequeathed 100 percent of his musical assets and royalties in trust to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Tennessee School for the Blind.
“Drift Away” isn’t just Gray’s signature song, of course; it defines the career of Mentor Williams, too. Williams recorded a solo country album, Feelings, for MCA in 1974, and went on to produce albums for Kim Carnes and John Stewart in addition to serving as The Muppet Movie’s post-production/remix engineer. In 1984, Williams teamed with Troy Seals (who played guitar on Drift Away) to write “When We Make Love,” the second single from Alabama’s Roll On album, which went on to become the hitmaking country group’s 13th consecutive Billboard Hot Country Singles chart topper.
Williams died in 2016 of lung cancer at his home in Taos, N.M. after spending the final years of his life teaching his craft to college students. “I think one of the hardest things for me to learn about songwriting was to really expose my feelings and weaknesses, and to write personal, emotional things. As soon as I started doing that, I realized other people were relating to my songs,” Williams told American Songwriter in 1988. “You can study how to write and spend a lot of time writing, but without this emotional content in a song, it’s just not there. ‘Drift Away’ was a big breakthrough for me. It was a song where it suddenly was okay for me to write about being hurt, and let people know that I had been hurt — and I wasn’t afraid to expose my feelings.”
Drift Away (KORD-0071)
“Jessica” is seven-and-a-half minutes of light and love — what producer Johnny Sandlin called “the happiest song I’ve ever heard.” The instrumental surfaced at an intensely turbulent time for the Allman Brothers Band, which was reeling from the deaths of two founding members and struggling with drug addiction. That didn’t stop guitarist Dickey Betts from composing a paean to bright-eyed innocence, its jaunty melody inspired by (and named after) his infant daughter. “Jessica” may have performed tepidly on on the charts, but constant FM radio airplay (and its role as the opening theme to Britain’s popular motoring show Top Gear) ensured its status as one of the Allmans’ defining compositions — an aural representation of unbridled positivity, hatched in its lingering vacancy.Read More