I Want You…
(Apple does Costello)
I Need You…
(The Heartbreakers do the Beatles)
Baby, I Love You…
(The Ramones do the Ronettes)
The quality of this 30-year-old video leaves something to be desired – looks like someone uploaded the contents of a worn-out VHS tape to YouTube – but the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” remains a classic holiday tune.
Or anti-holiday tune, telling the tale – as it does – of a gang of kids mugging Santa Claus for his cash.
“We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over. Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”
Well… not half as much as “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…”
In December of 1968, The Rolling Stones filmed a televised concert special for the BBC, featuring themselves, the Who, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, and others.”The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” was shot in front of a live audience on a set decorated as a big top, and featured acrobats, clowns and other circus performers appearing between the star musical acts.
It took two days to record the event. Then, it took almost 28 years for the entire film to see the light of day.
Why? Because – the legend goes – the Who’s performance of a single song was so much better than the Stones’ performance of six of their own songs that Mick, Keith et al. were too embarrassed to let the footage see the light of day. The film lived on in legend only for many years (although the Who’s performance was first seen in the 1979 documentary “The Kids Are Alright”) until it was finally released theatrically in the ’90s. A really great DVD version came out a couple of years ago and is worth seeking out.
So did the Who whomiliate the Stones? Judge for yourself. First, here’s the Who doing “A Quick One While He’s Away”, Pete Townshend’s first attempt at a mini-rock-opera, released several years before “Tommy”:
Next, here’s the Stones’ opening number, the then-just-released Jumpin’ Jack Flash. They were introduced… kinda… by John Lennon and their performance in the film was the group’s last featuring Brian Jones, shortly before he was kicked out of the band, and later found dead:
Just for good measure, here’s Lennon, Yoko writhing in a bag by his feet, fronting an amazing ad-hoc supergroup dubbed “The Dirty Mac” – Clapton, Keith Richards and drummer Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience – and performing “Yer Blues”, another then-just-released track off the Beatles’ White Album:
The Doors covered Howlin’ Wolf‘s version of Dixon’s “Back Door Man”. The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead did “Little Red Rooster”. And when Robert Plant wailed “You need coolin’, baby, I’m not foolin’…” on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969, he was ripping off Muddy Waters‘ version of Dixon’s “You Need Love” (Dixon would successfully sue Zep for royalties).
Thousands and thousands of greats, near-greats, and not-too-greats have covered hundreds and hundreds of Dixon songs, such as “Built for Comfort”, “Evil (Going On)”, “The Seventh Son”, “Spoonful”, “I’m Ready”, “My Babe”, “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy”, “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover”, “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, etc., etc., etc. and etc.
Willie Dixon also recorded many classic blues tracks of his own and produced and/or played bass on many others by the Chess Records artists who made his songs famous: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Chuck Berry, Etta James, etc.
“Wang Dang Doodle”, one of Dixon’s most famous compositions, was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in the early ’60s. Wolf apparently hated it. A few years later, Dixon discovered Koko Taylor, a young woman from Tennessee who was working as a cleaning lady by day and singing in Chicago blues clubs at night. She would go on to record the most famous version of the song
Here’s an excerpt from “I Am the Blues”, Dixon’s 1989 autobiography:
…when (Koko Taylor) first came to me, she told me, “I can sing but every time I go to somebody and sing, they tell me they don’t like this growl, that heavy part of my voice”
” That growl you got to your voice will put you over.”
… After I started working with Koko on different songs, I was telling her I wanted to do “Wang Dang Doodle.” The first thing she said, “That ain’t no song for a woman to sing.”
“The hell it ain’t. You’re trying to get over and this is something different.”
Koko Taylor still performs her biggest hit today at the age of 79. Here’s a clip of her singing it on a 1967 European television program, accompanied on harmonica by Little Walter (in one of his only known appearances on film, ever):
Here’s Willie Dixon himself, performing the song at one of the first Montreal Jazz Festivals in the early 1980s:
In 1933, four years before Walt Disney released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, his first full-length animated feature, the Fleischer brothers created an entirely different animated version of Snow White, starring Betty Boop.
Instead of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, the Fleischers’ version featured a song that could never possibly find its way into a Disney film: “St. James Infirmary Blues”, a much-recorded folk/blues classic, first made famous by Louis Armstrong, featuring lyrics that… well… could never possibly find their way into a Disney film, dealing as they do with death, disease, drinking and debauchery. (For an impressively complete account of the history and significance of St. James Infirmary Blues, check out this fascinating blog, almost entirely dedicated to this one song).
The Fleischer cartoon bears no resemblance whatsoever to the more famous feature-length “Snow White”. It’s only about seven minutes long and it’s way more Dali than Disney. You could call it psychedelic, if it hadn’t been made some 35 years before that adjective became popular.
Here’s Cab Calloway’s “performance” of St. James Infirmary Blues from the Fleischers’ Snow White:
You can see the entire film (voted the 19th greatest cartoon of all time in a 1994 poll of animators) here. Two more psychedelic-before-their-time Betty Boop ‘toons featuring Cab Calloway tunes are viewable and downloadable here and here. And another one featuring Louis Armstrong is here. (That last one hasn’t aged as well as the others, featuring as it does Satchmo in the guise of an African cannibal…)