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Inside Tracks #14: "Nathan Jones," Kathy Wakefield & Leonard Caston, Jr. + Covers by The Supremes, Paul Davis, Nicolette Larson, Bananarama
A 1980s friendship with an actual Nathan Jones inspires this peek into a catchy little tune that's really only had four different...really different!...recorded versions...and, here they are!
As I Live and Breathe: The Titular Subject as Post-Adolescent
Nathan Jones was about 14 years old in 1982, when I was youth minister at a Lutheran church in Burbank, CA (near Randy Rhoads’ home church, First Lutheran/Burbank). Nathan lived nearby, and would drop by my office on weekday afternoons on his way home from school.
We’d end up shooting one of a couple things those days…either hoops or the breeze-his choice- for half-an-hour before he trundled the rest of his way home. I had just moved from Houston in 1980, and settled in nearby N. Hollywood, where I had secured a job at the Music Plus Records in another neighboring suburb, Glendale.
I had just noticed a newly-arrived single from Nicolette Larson, and was suitably gobsmacked to see my young friend’s name smack dab on the label! This isn’t it, but it’ll have to serve in its stead for now:
While Nicolette did record the song, it apparently was only as an album track, although I distinctly remember handing him a “Nathan Jones” single, and none of the other covers of the song match the early-’80s time frame that brought together a post-adolescent with a vinyl slab that featured his name plastered on the record label!
Such is the madcap results of a 40-year-old memory coupled with the liquidation of a record collection 2 decades ago!
Needless to say, the living, breathing Nathan Jones was equally gobsmacked to see his name on the label…especially as the title of the song! I could only imagine his reaction when he went home to, now, hear his name being sung…repeatedly, and with harmonies!
The Song Retains the Name
I can’t claim to have had the original fascination with proper names as song titles. That meddle of honor goes to one Steve Goldberg, who brings Earworms and Song Loops to your inbox (if you subscribe, as I heartily prescribe).
Steve, as it happens, is in the middle of a whole series of cleverly curated, vetted, and little-known songs (and hits) with famous names as the titled subjects of pop songs through the decades! You can find one here:
The Birth Announcement of “Nathan Jones” as Published Work, 1971
After a stint in the Army, Leonard Caston, Jr. sang in the choir and played organ for the Greater Harvest Church in Chicago. In 1960, Caston (also a piano player) joined fellow church member Maurice McAlister in a new lineup of McAlister’s vocal group, the Radiants, who recorded for Chess Records.
Caston became involved in production, songwriting (“Nathan Jones” wasn’t his only collab with Kathy Wakefield), and playing at Chess for many years (it’s his piano you hear on Fontella Bass’s 1965 #1 R&B smash, “Rescue Me”), but he also co-wrote songs for Motown’s Eddie Kendricks (for his post-Temptations solo career) in the early ‘70s.
Singer/dancer/actor, Kathy Wakefield, became a serious songwriter working with Annette Tucker. Their first song together, “Feelin’ Kinda Sunday,” was recorded by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and produced by Don Costa in 1970. Later signing with Motown, she scored a 1971 hit with “Nathan Jones,” for The Supremes, written with Caston, and produced by Frank Wilson, pictured here:
“There was music everywhere in the Motown Building at Sunset and Vine, and I eventually worked with Diana Ross, The Temptations, Kendricks, Michael Jackson, Thelma Houston, Smokey Robinson, and The Four Tops,” Wakefield says on her website.
Speaking of Motown’s L.A. office, Berry Gordy asked producer Wilson to join Marc Gordon and Hal Davis, in 1965, to be the ones to open that West Coast satellite of Detroit’s soul juggernaut.
Bereft of Harmonies: “Nathan Jones” (Tastefully) Undressed by SongFacts
In the tale of this song, the woman’s lover (the title role) left her a long time ago “to ease [his] mind,” and needed “just a little time.” After he hasn’t communicated with her for all that time during the separation, the woman decides to end their relationship because “you’ve been gone too long.”
Unlike the majority of The Supremes’ hits [with Diana Ross, especially], all three members sing the lead vocals [in unison] on this track, rather than one member singing lead while the other two [harmonize], backing her up.
Per DianaRossProject: On April 15, 1971, “Nathan Jones” hit the radio airwaves around the country; it would soon become [The Supremes’] fifth consecutive Top 25 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since the addition of new lead singer, Jean Terrell.
At this point in time, The Supremes (Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong) were still easily the top female group in the world; they’d just been the subject of a Jet cover story the previous February (shown above), and were receiving rave reviews for live club dates.
Flanging: Phase the Facts
For The Supremes’ “Nathan Jones,” producer Frank Wilson relies heavily on the sonic sweeping “swoosh” of phasing, or flanging.
Flanging is described as an “audio effect produced by mixing two identical signals together (personally I’ve done it using two radio station turntables playing two of the same LP), one signal delayed by a small and (usually) gradually changing period (I’d use a finger to slow the speed of one LP), usually smaller than 20 milliseconds.”
In the analog days of this production, Wilson (a singer/songwriter in his own right) would’ve accomplished this sonic effect by using reel-to-reel tapes, like so:
Paul Davis Handles the Gender Dilemma, 1981
Well, he certainly wasn’t going to welcome home a dude “who’s been gone too long,” pal. Cleverly, Davis provides enough context clues to reveal that he’s talking to this tardy clod, and “She loves me now, bruh, and you didn’t want her anyhow,” and, in case Mr. Jones is dim to the point of power outage, Mr. Davis admonishes: “Don’t you go knocking on her door.” Forget about Croce’s “Jim”….you don’t mess around with Paul, Nate!
Far more about the incredible Mr. Davis & his catchy cache of tunes can be found here:
Flanging Moves Into the Digital Age…Forceably
To his credit, Paul Davis eschewed the flanging “toy.” That’s only notable by virtue of the fact that both Nicolette Larson and Bananarama felt obliged, for some reason, to utilize the effect on their respective covers (to tip their lady hats in the direction of Frank Wilson? Maybe. But, it also means a full 75% of our examples, here, are freely flanged, with just one being flagrantly flange-free)! And, as we’re now into the ‘80s, they’re almost assuredly digitally-rendered.
From her fourth album for Warner Bros. Records, All Dressed Up and No Place to Go, her “Nathan Jones” was produced by Andrew Gold, who also provided piano on the track (and, presumably, the flanging effect and some reverb). The two were in a relationship at the time, which ended shortly after the album’s completion.
In a 2005 interview for Randolph Michaels’ book, Flashbacks to Happiness: Eighties Music Revisited, Gold recalled making the album: “She and I had a blast making the record, and we had some great players doing the album with us [namely Jim Horn on sax, Julia Tillman and Maxine Willard as background singers, and Fred Tackett, all on ‘N.J.’]. To me, the album was one of her best, yet it was somehow overlooked by many of her fans.”
Not unfamiliar with “oldie” covers (Steam’s 1969 “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” Shocking Blue’s 1969 “Venus”), Brit songbirds Bananarama tackled “Nathan Jones” in 1988, with the help of their longtime production team of Stock Aitken Waterman (aka SAW), otherwise known on legal documents as Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman.
They all helped push “Nate” up the charts to the tune of #15 in the UK, #16 in Ireland, and #22 in both Belgium and New Zealand. Oddly enough, the song never charted on either the US pop or Dance charts.
“You Packed Your Bags As I Recall...”
Nathan Jones, you’ve been gone too long! After 40 years, the teenaged Burbank lad who shared the same name of a song title, would be about 54 years old now! Unlike most of us who aren’t active industry types, he’s one of a select few who’s had his name proudly emblazoned onto a slab of polyvinyl chloride!
By now, I hope he’s collected all four!
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