In 1940 jazz icon Billie Holiday recorded her most popular and well-known song, God Bless The Child, which she had written with frequent collaborating composer Arthur Herzog Jr. The song was inspired by a clash she had with her mother. When she was a child, Billie's mother was in and out of her life, and she was mostly in the care other other family members. By the time she was a teenager, young Billie had a career singing in Harlem nightclubs. In 1940, now 25, she was in desperate need of money and asked her mother to help her with a loan. Over previous years she had given her mother thousands of dollars to help with her mother's restaurant. Then, after having been fired from touring with Count Basiie's crew, she found herself struggling financially. Despite her popularity, as she had just introduced her dark hit Strange Fruit, she needed some cash. Billie's mother refused to help her, and as the story goes, her mother exclaimed "God bless the child that got his own." The song began to form after the upsetting argument. At the beginning of the song, Billie seems to be responding directly to the bible (Matthew 25-29) when she says: "Them whose got shall get, them whose not shall lose. So the bible says, but it still is new." In 1976, God Bless The Child was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame award.
In 1969, inventive avant-garde vocalist Leon Thomas released his debut album on the Flying Dutchman label - Spirits Known and Unknown. The album showcases Thomas' distinctive and unique scat-yodel, which had gained a lot of attention earlier in 1969 when he appeared on Pharoah Saunder' renowned Karma album - particularly on the the song The Creator Has a Master Plan. Thomas composed the lyrics for the song, and a version of the song was also included on the Spirits Known and Unknown album. The album also introduced a vocal adaption of the 1965 Horance Silver instrumental Song For My Father, with lyrics written by singer/songwriter Ellen May Shashoyan (who didn't record the song herself until 1989). Over the following few years Thomas appeared on a 1970 Louis Armstrong album, and he released a half dozen critically acclaimed solo albums. Despite all the attention and success, he remained a somewhat underground vocalist. In 1973 Thomas joined the Santana band, and for 2 years he toured with the group and he recorded on their Welcome album as well as their epic 3-disc live album Lotus. In 1999, Thomas died of heart failure at 61 just after performing a show in Harlem. At the time he was living in the Bronx, where he had a five year old son - his namesake Amos Leon Thomas III. Like his father, young Amos dropped his first name and went by Leon. His father, "the man", would never see his success in music and television. When he was 10-years old, young Leon made his Broadway debut as Simba in The Lion King, and in 2006 he provided his voice for the popular children's show The Backyardigans. And from 2010 to 2013 he played Andre, a main character on the trendy Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious. Since then, Leon Thomas III has enjoyed major success as a singer and songwriter, writing hit songs for Drake, Rick Ross, Ariana Grande, Toni Braxton and many others.
Pata Pata was the signature song of South African pop singer Miriam Makeba. She hit number 12 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1967 with the Xhosa-language international hit song. The song and it's name (which means Touch Touch) were inspired by a style of dance popular in Johannesburg. A couple years before her massive international hit she became the first African to win a Grammy Award, which she won alongside Harry Belefonte for their 1965 album An Evening With Belefonte/Makeba. Makeba is considered to be one of the first African musicians to achieve worldwide popularity, and she was well-known as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. She was born in Johannesburg, and was singing professionally there by the early 1950's when she around 20 years old. In 1956 she had a solo hit single in South Africa with Angel Eyes - the song was also released in English and became the first South African song to chart on the US Billboard Hot 100. In 1959 she briefly appeared in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, which led to concert engagements in London and New York City. In 1960 she moved to New York, and she recorded her first two solo albums there that year. Later that year when she tried to return to South Africa for her mother's funeral the government refused her entry. Makeba had originally recorded Pata Pata in the 1950's with her girl group The Skylarks, but her most popular and well-known version of the song was released in the United States on her 1967 studio album of the same name. The following year, in 1968, exiled Makeba married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panthers Party, which brought on a backlash in the United States. Before long, when she was traveling outside of the US, her visa was revoked, causing her and Carmichael to settle down in Guinea. In her remarkable life she had numerous marriages, including to famous South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In 2008, just after performing Pata Pata in Italy, the 76-year old anti-apartheid and civil rights icon collapsed on stage and died after an apparent heart attack.
In 1969 Jamaican singer and musician Jimmy Cliff wrote and recorded Many River To Cross. The 21-year old musician's song told the story of his struggles to find success as a singer after moving to the UK. Cliff began writing songs when he was in primary school, and by the time he was fourteen he had his first hit single in Jamaica, and he had adopted the stage name Jimmy Cliff. He moved to the UK as a teenager, and he expected it would be easier for him to "make it." He wrote this song out of frustration. In the song, when exclaims "wandering I am lost, as I travel along the White Cliffs of Dover" he is referring to the many times he traveled to the mainland and back across the Strait of Dover (between England and France) chasing gigs in France and Germany. At the time, he felt his dreams were fading away. He had written the song while working on his second album for Island Records. The song was included on that album, which was originally released as Jimmy Cliff. The album was later retitled Wonderful World, Beautiful People, taking it's name from the album's single that scored a US release. Meanwhile, less-noticed Many Rivers To Cross made it into the movie and soundtrack of the 1972 film The Harder They Come - a film starring Jimmy Cliff, portraying a character based on notorious real-life Jamaican criminal Rhyging. The influential movie is credited with bringing worldwide attention to reggae music, and sparking a breakthrough for reggae music in the United States. Although the movie is in English, the heavy "Patois" accent in the film required subtitles for the films release in the US. It was the first time an English-language film was released with English subtitles.
In 1967 Comme d'habitude, the original version of My Way, was written by French composer Jacques Revaux and lyricist Claude Francois. The original French version of the song was about a relationship falling out of love, and it was inspired by Francois' recent breakup with French teenage pop sensation France Gall. The 4-year relationship had started after Francois' wife left him, and the relationship ended the year he finally divorced his wife. Francois had been a popular singer know for his French reworks of American songs. Moving foreward, he re-invented his stage show to feature a bevy of female dancers, and after reworking a previously scraped song he had a chart topping hit with Comme d'habitude - which translates to "As Usual." In 1968 Paul Anka re-worked the song with new English lyrics for Frank Sinatra, and on December 30, 1968 Sinatra recorded the song that would become his signature song. Sinatra later confessed he loathed Anka's rework song and it's lyric's message. Just before Anka's re-work, David Bowie had re-worked the song into English first - only to have it rejected. Throughout his fabled life, Claude Francois continued having relationships with well-known singers and models, at one point having 2 children with model Isabelle Foret - hiding news of the second so he wouldn't ruin his image as being a "free man." In 1971, the exhausted ladies man was forced to take a brief break after he collapsed on stage. He later started a record label and modeling agency, and acquired a celebrity magazine. After a couple of bizarre brushes with death, he tragically died in 1978 after he accidentally electrocuted himself while taking a bath. And in the years that followed, apparent offspring surfaced. The 2012 biographical film about him was appropriately titled My Way. And that defining song - it was apparently a favorite of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was known to blast My Way in his cell while he was on trial for crimes against humanity in 2002. The first line of the song goes - "And now, the end is near, and so I face my final curtain." Interestingly, in 2017, just after his inauguration, Donald Trump requested the song for his awkward and somewhat bizarre first dance as newly elected president of the United States.
Gil Scot-Heron's poetic masterpiece Winter In America was not originally included on his 1974 album titled Winter in America. That monumental album was recorded by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jones in tiny D&B Sound Studios in Silver Spring, Maryland for Strata East Records - their only release on the small independent jazz label. The album included the grim dancfloor classic The Bottle, which would be the only single from the album. The Winter in America album had been released with a very limited pressing, and quickly became hard to find and rare. When the album was re-issued on CD 30 years later, a live version of the song Winter in America recorded in 1982 was included on the album. The song Winter in America was first introduced on the duo's following studio album in 1975 - The First Minute of A New Day. The former album's Winter in America title was actually conceived before the song - it had been intended as a metaphor for the urban sociological theme of the 1974 album. Originally the plan was to title that album Supernatural Corner, and the fantastic cover art had been commissioned for an album titled as such. Supernatural Corner had referred to a seemingly haunted house Gil and Brian had shared in Washington DC's Logan Circle. Although they kept the commissioned cover art for the Winter in America album, the original title and title song were both scrapped.
The Blackbyrds is a jazz-funk band formed in Washington DC in 1973. The group and it's name were inspired by trumpeter Donald Byrd, the teacher of the group of Howard University students that started the band. They released seven albums between 1973 and 1980, and had several hit songs including 1974's Grammy-nominated Walking In Rhythm. In 1975 they released their third studio album City Life, which included the song Rock Creek Park. The song was a tribute to expansive nature oasis that stretches across Washington DC, which was a popular spot amongst the band members. On the song, the female vocalist that chants "Do It" is Merry Clayton, who was not a Howard University student. She was a vocalist best known for singing on the Rolling Stones 1969 recording of Gimmee Shelter, singing duet with Mick Jagger. Then, in 1972 Clayton was the original Acid Queen in the first production of The Who's Tommy in London, and in 1974 she sang backup vocals on Lynard Skynard's hit song Sweet Home Alabama. She had started her career in 1962 singing a duet with Bobby Darrin on Who Can I Count On - when she was 14 years old. Her additional singing and acting credits are immense and impressive. In 2013 she was prominently featured in the documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom - an Oscar-winning film about the contributions of lesser-known backup singers.
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