NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, there! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and Spring still doesn’t know whether it’s arrived here in Baltimore.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
I have a truly fine trivia question for ye today.
I’d like you to tell me what these recordings have in common. The songs are:
“Goldfinger,” by Shirley Bassey, “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Sister Golden Hair” by America, “Say Say Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, and the 1997 version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” All of those songs have something in common. What could it be?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
[PENITENTIARY BLUES] in :14
So at the behest of a listener on Instagram, I decided that it would be interesting to cover something a little different musically. I’ve covered pop songs that have crossed over to the Country side, but I don’t think I’ve done a song that pretty much stayed on the Country side of the line. Despite that, it’s a song that most rockers can enjoy because it’s got a fun sense of humor, in the realm of “Take This Job and Shove It”, which I mention because it’s got an interesting connection to today’s tune.
David Allan Coe was born in Akron, Ohio on September 6, 1939. Even as a youngster, he was a rather rebellious troublemaker who spent a lot of his youth in reform schools and correctional facilities. This continued into his young adulthood, where he got in trouble for crimes like auto theft and burglary, and he spent a total of about five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary and Marion Correctional Institution. Now, this is where the story gets a little bit hazy. Coe has said repeatedly that it was while he was in prison that he was inspired to pursue a musical career. That part is almost certainly true, but the part that I’m having trouble substantiating is that the person in the prison who encouraged him was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who was supposedly in the adjacent cell. The problem is, all of my research on this brings up this story, but I can’t find anything from Hawkins’ side that says he was in jail at the same time as Coe. On the other hand, Coe is pretty well known for embellishing his biography with stories that aren’t necessarily true. He’s also said that he was on death row for killing a man in prison, and that he taught Charles Manson how to play the guitar. However, it’s pretty well-documented that Manson learned guitar while in a Washington State prison, so there’s that.
While Coe was in prison, though, he did write some music, and when he was released from prison in 1967, he made his way to Nashville, Tennessee to embark on his new career. Initially, he lived in a red Cadillac hearse, and on many weekends he’d park it in front of the Ryman Auditorium, which is where the Grand Ole Opry is housed. He eventually managed to get a contract with Plantation Records, and released his first album, Penitentiary Blues, in 1969.
[WOULD YOU LAY WITH ME]
Now, for the next few years Coe didn’t have much more than a cult following as a performer, but his songs were popular with other artists, and he wound up being not only one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, he managed to score a new record deal for himself with Columbia Records by the mid-70s. And it was his second Columbia album, titled Once Upon a Rhyme, that put him in the bigger picture as a performer.
Specifically, it was the closing track of the song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” which finally put him on the Country charts in a big way, and I think part of it is the song’s crossover appeal. Because here’s the thing: the song is both a definitive Country song while at the same time gently poking fun at definitive Country songs.
“You Never Even Called Me By My Name” was originally written and recorded by John Prine and Steve Goodman—in fact, this is Goodman you’re listening to, from 1976—and it was basically Goodman’s kiss-off to the Nashville music scene. Despite being a successful writer, he was still considered an outsider, and Coe didn’t hold much esteem for that scene, either, so he seemed like a pretty strong candidate to cover the song.
Now, in both Goodman’s version and Coe’s, there’s a spoken segment that introduces the last verse, but they’re a little bit different because Goodman’s relating it as the guy who wrote the song, while Coe frames it as a conversation he had with Goodman. In both cases it leads to the same basic end verse, but even there, there are a few differences. Let’s come in with Coe’s version first because I think the setup is a little better:
And now let’s listen to Goodman’s version, from that same show at the Capitol Theater in 1976, which I think works really well because of the audience response:
The song spent seventeen weeks on the Billboard Country Singles chart, eventually peaking at Number Eight. And it managed to make it to Number Four on the Canadian Country Charts. And now you know that the Canadian Country Chart is a thing.
Probably the most notable cover of the song comes from 1994, when it was recorded by Doug Supernaw, with cameo appearances from David Allan Coe himself, plus Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Charley Pride, all of whom are name-checked in the second verse of the song. And I have to agree with the review by Entertainment Weekly which called it an interesting track, but it’s also probably in the wrong key for the guest vocalists. At any rate, that recording made it to Number 60 on the Billboard Country Chart, and to Number 68 on the Canadian chart.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what these songs have in common: I’d like you to tell me what these recordings have in common. The songs are:
“Goldfinger,” by Shirley Bassey, “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Sister Golden Hair” by America, “Say Say Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, and the 1997 version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”
Ya give up? Huh? Do ya? The answer is, they were all produced by George Martin. Martin is generally known for producing all of the Beatles’ albums, but he had a career both before and after The Beatles, producing for a bunch of the Merseybeat artists like Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and the aforementioned Gerry and the Pacemakers, but he also did a bunch of comedy albums, including two for Peter Sellers in the 50s. Post-Beatles work would include albums by Kenny Rogers, UFO, Cheap Trick, Elton John, Little River Band, and Celine Dion. A remarkably talented man whom we lost in 2016.
And, that’s a full lid on another edition of How Good It Is. If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to share it with someone, and maybe even leave a rating somewhere.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, when you’ve got Somebody to Love.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.