365 Day Song Challenge: Day 39 – “Africa”

Day 39. A song that you wish you could sing really well

“Africa” – Toto

There are simply a boatload of songs I wish I could sing really well. As this singing discussion progresses (here and here), it should now be clear that singing in high registers is not where my voice works, so just about anything that goes high (read: most rock music) could potentially end up on this list.

I spent time going through the choices. Certainly, “Mama” and “Driving The Last Spike” by Genesis would be in my top ten, but I’m still trying to spare you from a Genesis overload too early. (I’m sure those will appear somewhere in the 365 songs this year, because those songs are in lots of my top ten lists.)

I’m also trying to keep it to male vocals. For example, “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson would probably be a in the mix if I wasn’t limiting the choices to males.

Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” was the leading candidate for a while. And then I considered “Do Ya” by ELO until I realized that the only part of that I can’t really sing is the high-end background vocals of the chorus. I could sing lead on that one. So it, too, got bumped.

Finally, I thought, “What song would require me to put my balls into a vice just so I could hit more than one or two of the lead singer’s notes?” Hmm… Maybe!?… No. What about… Got it!


(Actually, up until “Juke Box Hero” the above is accurate. But when “Juke Box Hero” still didn’t feel quite right, I just sorted my iTunes playlist by descending number of plays and made a call on each song until I hit “Do Ya” and then, a little further along, “Africa.” But that doesn’t sound nearly as good, does it? While I could have gone further down the list to see if there were better candidates, I did actually think that “Africa” fit the bill quite well, and that I probably wouldn’t find anything that would be better. Which is why I decided I could stop there. I wasn’t just cheesing out.)

“Africa” has been one of my favorite songs for years. It was on that first “real” mix tape my brother made at my behest back in 1983 (along with “Back In Black“). It’s sad, but even then I couldn’t hit those high notes (“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do”), and that was before my voice changed. And my pre-puberty voice was pretty high.

So yeah, I do wish I could sing this one really well. I think it has a great vibe, right from the opening drum beats. It has that mellow feel through the verses, and then, the chorus just sort of busts out. I like it.

It does, however, contain one of the cheesiest lines in rock history:

I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

Like Olympus? Really? Nothing like throwing in a completely incongruous reference (and image) in there. But I guess I can forgive it since I like the rest of the song so much.

So there you have it. This post wraps up the singing-related challenges trilogy. For which I am grateful.

Now I’m going to rise like Olympus out of my chair and get a snack. Because, y’know, it’s right.

365 Day Song Challenge: Day 38 – “Learning To Fly”

Day 38. A song that you sing really well

“Learning To Fly” – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

As you may have gathered, I like music. And not just listening, but playing and writing as well. I’ve gotten away from the playing and writing part over the years, but once I start making my millions from this blog, I’ll get back to it.

I took organ lessons as a kid and was pretty good. Somewhere along the line in college I bought a guitar (which was described by someone as “the best of the cheesiest”) and taught myself the basics. My friend Kris did the same thing, and somewhere along the line we started writing songs. I got myself a 4-track recorder, and we recorded a whole bunch of things over breaks and summers for a couple of years.

In addition, I like to sing, but the result have been mixed. In yesterday’s post I alluded to the fact that you’ve got to know your range. Few people have a huge one. I’ve never had a voice lesson, so I couldn’t tell you what my range is. From what little I know about voice types, I’d guess I’m a baritone. But it’s just that, a guess.

So anyway, when we were hanging out, Kris and I listened to a lot of music in addition to playing and recording. Tom Petty is among my favorite artists, with or without The Heartbreakers. And we listened to a lot of his/their stuff.

One day we got it into our head that we wanted to record a rendition of “Learning To Fly.” Now, I once heard that “Learning To Fly” was recorded with 16 acoustic guitar tracks to get just the right sound. Note that I didn’t say “16 tracks.” I said 16 acoustic guitar tracks. That’s to say nothing of the electric guitar and other instruments layered on there. When Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame) produces something, he doesn’t screw around. So to think we were going to get any kind of similar sound with my Tasco 4-track (replete with intermittent buzz) was sheer lunacy. But we tried, anyway.

I went to lay down the vocals, and the first time I did, I decided to do my best Tom Petty impersonation. Kris and Pete were across the room, and apparently my vocals (they couldn’t hear the backing tracks) were hilarious (especially the “but I ain’t got wings” part). So hilarious, in fact, that I had to stop recording because they were laughing so hard you could hear it. (Upon playback, it was pretty amusing.)

Once they picked themselves off the floor and settled down, I had another go, this time just in my regular voice. And when we listened back, I thought I did well. It was pretty respectable. That’s my litmus test: respectable. I figure if people will listen to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, I’m doing pretty good with “respectable.” Granted, they’re all amazing songwriters and that’s how they can get away with bad singing, but I’m going to ignore that part for the purposes of my thesis. We’ll get along just fine if you do, too.

Now, I’m aware that the challenge for today was “A song that you sing really well,” but I’ve never had someone walk up to me and say “you sang that really well!” so I’ve made a judgement call. (Regular readers will not be surprised to read that I think I still have that tape somewhere, but the recorder is long gone, so there’s really no way for me to play it back and reassess.)

At the end of the day, chances are I will never be a professional singer. This saddens me a bit because I always though that it would be cool to perform publicly. And maybe I will at some point, but it would more likely be as an instrumentalist rather than as a singer. There are people who can do a much better job than I can with much less effort.

However, if you’d like to prove me wrong, I’d be happy to take your money. I’m available for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. Contact my manager for rates.

365 Day Song Challenge: Day 37 – “The Heart Of Rock & Roll”

Day 37. An essential karaoke song.

“The Heart Of Rock & Roll” – Huey Lewis & The News

Huey-Lewis--The-News-The-Heart-Of-Rock-347561First, let me say I was hesitant to do another Huey Lewis & The News song.  But the reasons will become clear soon enough.

I also have to ‘fess up and tell you I haven’t done karaoke in 22 years. And since then I’ve only been once or twice. So my take on what’s essential as a karaoke song is a little bit dated.

If I was going to go for a really essential karaoke song that needed no story to go along with it, I’d probably go with “Don’t Stop Believin'” because, from what I hear, it gets a lot of plays.  However, having neither performed that song, nor seen anyone else perform it personally, all I’d have to go on is a “Family Guy” episode.

As I mentioned, it was a very long time ago that I did karaoke. My first attempt was Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” I’ve said before in this blog that I’m not a great singer, but I thought I did a decent job. I wasn’t prepared for how tough it is to keep the “Saturday! Saturday! Saturday, Saturday!” part at the end going without my voice giving out, but overall, it was respectable. Respectable enough for the karaoke people to ask me to do another song.

That second song was The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and I think I did an even better job on that one. It was a little more in my range, which I admit is limited.

So, having done what I considered to be a pretty good job that first night, we went back a couple of weeks later. I didn’t want to do the same song or songs again, so I spent some time on my selection. I saw “Band On The Run” and ran through it in my head and kind of sang it quietly. “I can do this,” I thought.

Not so much.

I neglected to take into account that the song is really broken into three parts. The first two parts, the ones I’d run though in my head, are not too bad vocally. But on stage, I hit the third part (“Well, the rain exploded with a mighty crash/As we fell into the sun”) and I immediately know I was in trouble. “Fell into the sun” was about the top of my vocal range, and I suddenly remembered it was going to go even higher. Things unraveled quickly from there and I was pretty embarrassed by the end (because unlike most people who do karaoke, I actually cared about being on key, which was probably my mistake). It was only later that I learned they can change the key for you. Who knew?

Anyway, I needed redemption. So I went for another song. This time “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” which, in all honesty, I’m pretty sure I can sing.

What happened next ended my karaoke career.

I get up on stage and the song starts. I start singing, and something is just… not… right… Did you know that as well as being able to change the key, they can also play a vocal track that is not yours? They can. And they did. What was coming out of my mouth was not what was being sent out over the speakers. Now, I can’t say for sure whether it was on purpose, or whether they clicked a button by accident, or what. What I can say is it was pretty mortifying to be at karaoke and for them not to let you do karaoke.

All I wanted to do was a respectable job, and after the disaster that was “Band On The Run” to not actually get to sing “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” in my mind meant they thought I sucked worse than anyone they’d ever heard. In retrospect, I hope it was an accident, because I know I heard the same guy absolutely murder “House Of The Rising Sun” on multiple nights, and they let him keep doing it.  If I was worse than that guy, I really didn’t have any business being on the stage.

One way or the other, the experience kinda took the fun out of it for me; like I said, I’ve never sung karaoke again.

I will also mention that Woody and I wrote and recorded a bunch of songs shortly after this karaoke experience. My singing wasn’t great on the few songs where I did lead vocals on that “album,” either. Looking back, I was always trying to go too high. Over the years, I’ve learned more about the range I can operate in, although my singing in public has been rather limited since then.

Maybe what I need to do is overcome my hesitation and just sing again. Maybe redo “The Heart Of Rock & Roll.” Or, give “Band On The Run” another go. I’ll just have them drop it an octave and a half…

365 Day Song Challenge: Day 36 – “I’ve Been Trying”

Day 36. Your least favorite cover song.

“I’ve Been Trying” – Phil Collins

PhilLoveSongsAs I’ve said before, there are a lot of cover songs out there. Trying to narrow the field down to your least favorite is kind of like trying to find the one grain of rice on your plate that is the most undercooked. So when thinking of a candidate for today’s post, what I finally decided was that I needed to find a cover I couldn’t stand from an artist that I normally like. I didn’t have to go too far. Phil Collins has done a lot of really good cover songs. Right out of the chute, his debut solo album Face Value included two covers (“Behind The Lines,” which was the first known recorded Genesis cover, and a cover of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”). The follow-up album, 1982’s Hello! I Must Be Going included perhaps his best-known cover, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Heck, his last album (to date) Going Back, was a whole album of Motown covers. But, time out. Let’s take a step back. For the sake of completeness.. or maybe parallel construction.. or (the most likely) padding my post…


For those that don’t know, Phil Collins happens to be the same Phil Collins who is/was in Genesis. Or for those that know Genesis only by the “Land Of Confusion” video, the guy to the left. Alright, you probably know who Phil Collins is. I told you it was padding. Go with it.

<rant>To be clear, Genesis is a band all on its own. Don’t let me catch you pulling that “Phil Collins and Genesis” crap that the DJs like to do. What Genesis does is, in general, noticeably different from what Phil does solo (except for “Hold On My Heart”). To insinuate that Genesis was somehow Phil’s backup band does them a huge disservice. And I will beat you mercilessly if you try it.</rant> Back to the covers. Given Phil’s history with covers, you’d think he’d know what he was doing. But, even the best of artists have low points, and the subject of today’s post is, in my opinion, in the bottom five of Phil’s career output. Some background: In 1993, Phil did an album called Both Sides on which he played all the instruments. I’ll be honest: it was uneven. Shortly thereafter A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield appeared, and Phil Collins had a song on it: “I’ve Been Trying.” So, being a lunatic completist who needs everything any member of Genesis ever did… er… collector, I bought it. Turns out it was another example of Phil playing all the instruments. And it was worse than anything on Both Sides by far. Now, I’m not intimately familiar with Curtis Mayfield’s output. I don’t know the original of this song, and Phil’s version did nothing to make me want to track it down. But I hope it’s better than the plodding, boring, monotonous thing that is Phil’s cover.  It’s got to be. No song good enough to actually inspire someone to cover it can be that bad. Unless some crazy person has covered Rick Astley. Or Color Me Badd. Or Michael Bolton. But I digress. Phil must like the song, because it showed up later on his Love Songs compilation. Granted, it’s a two-disc set, so maybe he felt he needed some padding, too. I can respect that. But it’s more likely that he’s got a soft spot for the recording. God knows why. Like I said everybody has their low points. Everybody makes bad decisions. Phil had been married and divorced three times, so that may tell you something about some of his decisions. He did manage to redeem himself a little bit afterward. He did a cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” that I think is better than Bob Dylan’s original (because, y’know, Phil can actually sing) and a cover of “Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End” for George Martin’s Beatles tribute that was perhaps on par with the original. Oh yeah, and “True Colours” on his Hits album. And… wow, he’s done a lot of covers when you think about it. So I guess I can forgive him for the occasional misstep when it comes to his covers. If I have to. You still can’t make me like the song. So, out of curiosity, what is your least favorite cover?

365 Day Song Challenge: Day 35 – “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”

Day 35. Your favorite cover song.

“I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”
Mike + The Mechanics

There are a lot of cover songs out there. (Um, duh! Could you be more obvious?) And there are a lot of them that I like. (Okay, I guess you could.)

So when thinking of a candidate for today’s post, one of my personal criterion was that I like the cover better than the original. So, as I tend to do, I started going through my iTunes list to help me whittle down the field.

I was originally thinking “Shout” by Otis Day and the Knights (from Animal House). It’s a classic, but I think I’m going to keep that one in my pocket for a little while longer.


Then I came to this song. For those that don’t know, “Mike” of Mike + The Mechanics happens to be Mike Rutherford of Genesis. Or for those that know Genesis only by the “Land Of Confusion” video, the guy to the left. And yes, Mike + The Mechanics released more albums than just the one with “All I Need Is A Miracle” and the one with “The Living Years” on it. (Which is called Living Years, but did you even know that? Educate yourselves people!)

So, to be clear, when this album (Beggar on a Beach of Gold) was released in 1995, I had never heard Stevie Wonder’s original version. Thus, the Mike + The Mechanics version was my introduction to the song, and my theory is that the version of any song you that you first hear (and like) is most often the version that becomes your favorite. And that is the case here.

This is another one of those songs (this version, anyway) that you’ve probably never heard before. And that’s because, even though Atlantic Records ostensibly released it in the United States they decided to promote it… well… not at all. As a result I’ve heard “Over My Shoulder” and “Another Cup Of Coffee” (both good songs from the album) on the loudspeaker at the grocery store way more often than I’ve ever heard them on the radio.

And that is why I’ve given you the link to a YouTube video (which is not a video, but the song with various images in a slide show format) here. It is not my video. Please don’t shoot the messenger. But, you’ll at least get to hear the song.

Now, Eddie Murphy says Stevie Wonder is a musical genius, and actually, I agree with him, so don’t start sending me death threats about this. (I’d have to try to separate them from the others that I get, and, honestly, I don’t have time right now for death threat categorization.) But the way Paul Carrack sings this song gives it some punch (especially the part at 2:30, I love that part) that the Stevie Wonder version just doesn’t have. Plus I don’t like the change in style at the end of the original.

Don’t get me wrong, Stevie’s version is good, but I think Mike and crew have one up on him in this case. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

So, out of curiosity, what is your favorite cover? (And/or did you know Mike + The Mechanics’ second album was called Living Years? Be honest!)