Friday, April 1, 2011

Gentle to your senses

When he’s not chasing hooligans off his lawn, my friend and blogging compadre Bill Crider keeps an eye on the comings and goings of celebrities—with an emphasis on goings, since when I hear of some individual going on to their greater reward it’s usually because I read it at his blog first. Such was the case a few hours ago when I learned that country music singer-songwriter Mel McDaniel has played his last Grand Ole Opry at the age of 68 after a long bout with cancer. It had not been a smooth road for Mel for the past fifteen years from a medical standpoint; he suffered a near fatal fall into an orchestra pit in 1996 while performing a concert in Lafayette, LA and in June 2009 he experienced a heart attack that necessitated him being put into a medically induced coma.

When I started DJing in country radio back in 1979, Mel McDaniel had only been making inroads on the music charts for three years, beginning with his first record to appear on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles, Have a Dream on Me. But he soon became a presence in the country Top Forty with hits like Soul of a Honky Tonk Woman, Bordertown Woman, Love Lies, Play Her Back to Yesterday, Lovin’ Starts Where Friendship Ends and the song that I used for the title of this post. His biggest hit record up to that time was a tender ballad entitled God Made Love, which just missed the Top 10 by a whisker (it peaked at #11).

In 1981, Mel released an album entitled I’m Countryfied, and if anyone in the music industry thought that his earlier successes on the charts were simply flashes-in-the-pan Countryfied was, if you’ll pardon the pun, an entirely different tune. The album contained two hits that landed in the Top 40: the title track (peaking at #23) and a song that, while it only scraped the Top 40 would go on to become one of McDaniel’s most-requested songs—Hello Daddy, Good Morning Darling. (The album also included Goodbye Marie, which would return Bobby Goldsboro to the country music charts that same year after a long dry spell and If I Keep Going On Crazy, which country crooner Leon Everette took to #11 in 1981 as well.) But there were two additional tunes on Countryfied released as singles and that were both penned by master country tunesmith Bob McDill; one of them is my favorite of McDaniel’s hits, Right in the Palm of Your Hand, and the other Louisiana Saturday Night—which would become Mel’s biggest chart success at that point in his career when it peaked at #7. Louisiana was originally recorded by the Gentle Giant himself, Don Williams (Don was, at one time, the best friend a McDill song ever had…with classics like Amanda, Good Ole Boys Like Me and If Hollywood Don’t Need You just for starters) and would later be covered by artists such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Alabama. But in the winter of 1981, my friend Rob Ely (a fellow DJ at our little 1000 watter in Ravenswood, WV) and I kept cheering Mel’s version of Louisiana on every week, hoping it would become the first Top Ten of his career.

It wasn’t long before McDaniel continued his hit streak on the country charts with hits like Preaching Up a Storm, Take Me to the Country (#10), I Wish I Was in Nashville, Old Man River (I’ve Come to Talk Again) and Big Ole Brew (#4)…the last one written by Russell Smith of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, who recorded it with his group on their 1980 album How the Hell Do You Spell Rythum? I didn’t know this at the time, and because of this I couldn’t figure out how Bill Murray sang a few bars of the song (the scene where he’s carrying the pizza and dry cleaning back to his apartment) on Stripes (1981) when Mel’s version didn’t chart until a year later. (As you can see, I eventually worked it through.) Mel would return to the Top Ten in 1984 with my other favorite of his hits, the sublime I Call It Love, and then a year later scored his first and only #1 hit, Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On. The success of that smash propelled the album it was on, Let it Roll, into the Top Ten of the Country Albums charts—the title track, a cover of the old Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roller (Let it Roll [Let it Rock]), also became a Top Ten single.

Mel McDaniel would return to the top twenty with a few more songs in the mid 80s, notably Stand Up (#5) and Stand on It…but his chart activity sort of tapered off afterward—his last record to make any noise was Real Good Feel Good Song, which was a #9 hit in 1988. By that time he had been invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry (inducted in 1986) and in 2006 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (Mel’s hometown was Checotah and he grew up in Okmulgee) along with Leon Russell. McDaniel was always true to his Okie roots, even dubbing his backup band Oklahoma Wind.

I mentioned earlier that Right in the Palm of Your Hand was my favorite Mel McDaniel song—it peaked at #10 the same year as his smash Louisiana Saturday Night but for years afterward hearing it on a country music station was a nigh impossible task. Fortunately the song was a favorite of Newnan, GA’s own Alan Jackson, who recorded a decent cover of it on his album Under the Influence and introduced it to a brand new country music audience in 1999. But Mel’s is still the best—and I’d like to give it one last spin in memory of a great country music artist who will most definitely be missed here at Rancho Yesteryear.



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1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

Nice tribute, Ivan.