Reviews by - Lindsay Planer

We're covering half a century of legendary pop and rock this week, with recent catalogue evaluations from Tony Bennett, Electric Light Orchestra and the renaissance of blue-eyed soul stirrer Johnny "Secret Agent Man" Rivers.

Tony Bennett -- (RPM/Columbia/Legacy)
I Left My Heart In San Francisco
Perfectly Frank
MTV Unplugged
Greatest Hits of the '50s
Greatest Hits of the '60s

Even though Tony Bennett recently celebrated his 80th birthday, his influence remains ageless. To mark the occasion, Sony/Legacy has teamed up with Bennett's own RPM Records label for several new entries in their ongoing Tony Bennett Master Series. This round hosts a bevy of Grammy-award winning long players. The title song for I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962) garnered the artist the "Best Solo Vocal Performance" trophy. Plus, the tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes on Perfectly Frank (1992) became a recipient of the "Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance" honor. This newly reworked edition of MTV Unplugged (1994) sports a pair of never-before-released bonus tracks in the form of "(Just A) Little Street Where Old Friends Meet" and "Where Do The Bells Ring For Me". Bennett's appearance definitely helped him to infiltrate a decidedly more youth-driven market and the recording ultimately scored him multiple Grammies for "Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance" and "Album Of The Year".

The '50s and '60s compilations are fairly self-explanatory and both are worthy collections containing 16 of Bennett's best from the decade in question. For instance, Greatest Hits Of The '50s (2006) boasts the favourites "Firefly" and "Ca, C'est L'amour," as well as  "Cold, Cold Heart," "Blue Velvet," "Just In Time" and "The Party's Over." Greatest Hits Of The '60s includes his Top 40 singles "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life," "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" and "If I Ruled The World." Not to mention the pop standards "The Best Is Yet To Come," "This Is All I Ask," and covers of Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life" and The Beatles' "Something".

Electric Light Orchestra -- (Epic/Legacy)
On The Third Day
Face The Music
A New World Record

With ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne at the helm of the band's catalogue restoration, you can bet this trio of highly-anticipated titles comes completely decked out for the occasion. Each is packed with plenty of unreleased material and a thoroughly modern re-digitation that is certainly befitting Lynne and Co.'s mélange of classical and rock.    

On The Third Day (1973) provided ELO with the bluesy "Showdown" and gritty rocker "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" -- both of which became 'deep cut' FM radio staples. The early attempts at "Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle" called "Auntie," "Dreaming of 4000" called "Mambo," "Everyone's Born To Die" and the never-before-available "Interludes" are all newly-appointed extras.

Face The Music (1975) produced the international Top Ten "Evil Woman" and the equally brilliant "Strange Magic". Both continued to redefine Lynne as a consummate pop composer. The bonuses will be manna for enthusiasts already familiar with the music as there is an early version of "Fire On High," a stripped down configuration of "Evil Woman" and the instrumental backing for "Waterfall". Plus, for the sake of completeness, the single edit of "Strange Magic" that lopped off a minute and some change from the LP.

A New World Record (1976) was undoubtedly a pun on the Summer Olympiad, back when the games still had the cache to capture hearts, minds and spirits. And the entire planet seemed to love "Telephone Line," "Rockaria!," "Livin' Thing" and "Do Ya". The latter, incidentally, can currently be heard on "Monster.com" TV adverts and all the above became solid ELO songbook entries. Among the supplementary sides are alternates for "Telephone Line," "Tightrope," "Above The Clouds" and "So Fine".

Johnny Rivers -- (Shout! Factory/Collector's Choice/Soul City)
Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology
The Memphis Sun Recordings
Last Train to Memphis
Back at the Whisky
Reinvention Highway

After languishing for decades on every serious pop music fans' 'most wanted on CD' list, Johnny Rivers has teamed up with Shout! Factory to reissue his sizable back catalogue. The first batch includes the Secret Agent Man (2006) compilation and four formerly hard-to-find solo albums from Rivers' own Soul City imprint.

The artist handpicked each of the 36 cuts for this two-disc collection. It is likewise the only place to find all 17 of his Top 40 tunes -- from his 1964 cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" to the 1977 ballad "Swayin' To The Music (Slow Dancin')" and everything in between. Indeed "Maybelline," "Mountain Of Love," "Midnight Special," "Seventh Son," "Secret Agent Man," "Poor Side Of Town," "Baby I Need Your Lovin'," "Tracks Of My Tears," "Summer Rain" and  "Rockin' Pneumonia -- Boogie Woogie Flu" are just a sampling of the tremendous hit-making power that Rivers possessed throughout the '60s and '70s. There are also a handful of deep album sides -- such as the remake of Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" and the overhaul of Curtis Mayfield's "Curious Mind (Um, Um, Um, Um)". Want more? Good, 'cause he serves up newly-recorded covers of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" and a return to Chuck Berry for the lesser-known "Let It Rock".

After a hiatus during the 1980s, Rivers returned for a series of critically acclaimed projects. For The Memphis Sun Sessions (1991) he was once again firing on all cylinders as he recreated the sonic excitement that reverberated through the hallowed halls of Sun Records Studios. Among those songs to have been made famous in the venerable venue are "Mystery Train," "Boppin' The Blues," "Big River" as well as a few of his own, in particular an exceptional "Poor Side Of Town."

He returned with a bluesy tribute to the city on Last Train To Memphis (1998). There are many excellent originals -- notably "Joker In The Wind" and the opener "Down At The House of Blues". However, the prize goes to his take of "Blue Suede Shoes," which joins the rest of the record in being dedicated to the recently departed Carl Perkins.

Back At The Whisky (2001) returns Rivers to the scene of his earliest success. While the Whisky may have dropped its Au-Go-Go, the energetic vibe is still the same. Standouts are many -- namely the workouts of "Memphis," "Secret Agent Man," and Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home".

As the name suggests, Reinvention Highway (2004) has a few fresh interpretations of Rivers' finest and most memorable work. "Midnight Special" and "Going Back To Big Sur" stand out as do the takes of Van Morrison's "Songwriter" and the Beatles' "I'll Be Back".

Lindsay Planer is a freelance journalist and technical producer at WBT AM/FM in Charlotte, NC. He is a regular contributor to All Music Guide, CrutchfieldAdvisor.com and Gaston Gazette. Comments and questions can be sent to <asthediscspins@earthlink.net>.


Search Now:
In Association with Amazon.com