THE SATURDAY MORNING SONG CHRONICLES
-- Paul B Allen III: March 14, 2020
LA LA PEACE SONG
At the beginning of each new week, I have no idea what the Saturday Morning Song Chronicles will be about. I just kind of keep my eyes and ears open, and let the universe become the muse that guides me.
This week, on the site of a dear friend, I saw a post that she had created. She was talking about a “song that she couldn’t stop dancing to,” and she was kind enough to post a link to that song.
That dear friend is musical artist Larissa Larissa, leader of the exciting Larissa Larissa Band, and owner of that angelic soprano voice you hear singing background vocals when she's on tour with the legendary Chi-Lites featuring Marshall Thompson, who is rightfully called by all in the music industry, "The Godfather of Vocal Groups."
My mouth dropped open the moment I saw Larissa's post, because I have a strong connection with this song. Not that I wrote it or performed on it, but another of my dear friends had.
However, there is more to this story. The version of the song that Larissa posted, I had never heard before and did not know existed.
The name of the song is “La La Peace Song,” by the great O.C. Smith.
I have been called “The Professor” and a “Musical Archeologist” by two of my most beloved readers of the Chronicles, (Thank you, Joey! Thank you, Larissa!), and I so enjoy the fact that they see me in this light (even though I know there is a fair bit of teasing that comes along with my honorary titles).
But I see myself as more of a “Musical Detective.” When I spot a musical mystery, I’m on it. I’m driven to get the answers that will satisfy my own intense natural curiosity, and will allow me to have something exciting and interesting (hopefully), to share with you.
When people ask me what I do for fun, I tell them this is it.
Also, I’m a little bit OCD when it comes to getting answers to questions that are burning in my mind, because, well---they feel like they are literally burning in my mind---so there’s that.
Anyway, when I saw a version of “La La Peace Song” that I didn’t know, I immediately started giving myself the “third degree.” When did O. C. Smith do this song? I thought Al Wilson did it first. Did he? Who had the better version? Why do I know Al’s version but not O.C. Smith’s? What’s the difference between the two, arrangement-wise. What’s the story here anyway?
I set about to find the answers.
First, I found that the song was not written by Al Wilson or by O.C. Smith. It was written by singer/ songwriter/producer Johnny “Hang On In There Baby” Bristol.
And here are some very interesting connections:
Johnny Bristol, the writer of the song, produced both the O.C. Smith version on Columbia (which later became Sony) and the Al Wilson version over at Bell Records.
Later, Bell Records was reorganized and renamed Arista Records by its new chief, Clive Davis, and it became the new music division of Columbia Records.
Both O.C. and Al Wilson were famous before they did “La La Peace Song.” O.C. had a hit called “Little Green Apples,” and another called "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp," which killed in the U.K. but was banned by many radio stations in the USA because of the lyrical content of the song. But I have to tell you, every time I hear "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp" it literally brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Man, what a song! Talk about keeping it real? Please enjoy that video.
And before he sang his version of "La La Peace Song," Al had “Show and Tell.” (Al would also do the song “The Snake” which is listed as the number four most popular song in the history of the Northern Soul Movement.)
So both artists had smash hit songs in America and in the U.K. / Northern Soul Movement as well.
O.C. put out "La La Peace Song" in 1973 but Columbia didn’t like the record, so they didn’t promote it, basically “shelving” it.
In 1974 at Bell Records, they believed that Al could have a hit with that song. They did a “cover” version and released it, and it started moving up the charts.
But, when Columbia saw how well the song was doing for him (Al's version broke the Top 40 and peaked at #30 on the charts), they re-released O.C. Smith’s version. It did not break the Top 40, but peaked at #62. The result was that neither of the versions reached their full potential. It was like they cancelled each other out, which was truly a shame.
It was during this time that I wrote the lyrics for “Always There,” so I was in the Hollywood music scene pretty heavily then. That is when Al and I became friends and I hung out with him in LA. One day, Al literally handed me a copy of his new album the title of which was La La Peace Song, named for the “A-side” single on the album.
So, after my research, and after jogging my memory and freeing it from the cobwebs (I haven't thought of "La La Peace Song" or the circumstances surrounding it in over forty years), a lot of my questions were answered. Here is what I pieced together.
I never heard the O.C. Smith version because it was shelved in 1973. I heard Al’s version in 1974 because Al had given me a copy of the album.
When Columbia quickly re-released the O.C. Smith version, just as Al’s version was gaining traction and on pace to be a huge hit, the records cancelled each other out.
Since O.C.'s version never achieved "hit" (Top 40 status), you would rarely hear it on the radio because they were mainly playing only Top 40 hits. Therefore, the chance of hearing Al's version on the radio was far greater than hearing O.C.'s version.
Which version is better?
Both O.C. and Al were excellent vocalists, so it's a drawn there. But the thing that Larissa Larissa mentioned in her post initially, was that she “couldn’t stop dancing” to the song. This was the O.C. Smith version.
Indeed, the arrangement of that version has a more upbeat tempo, and it has a disco beat that is lightly infused with the flavor of island music. It is engaging, appealing, infectious, and just plain fun. Even if you've got two left feet, this song makes you want to get up and dance. So, I’d have to say that for my money, the O.C. Smith version, which has a superior arrangement and tempo, but never got a fair shake in the beginning, is my favorite version.
Larissa Larissa, you definitely know your stuff!
In closing, I’d like to draw your attention to one thing. This competition between record companies at times hurts the artists and their careers. And this kind of thing (pitting one record against another version of itself) happens way more often than you can believe, and usually has the same results.
Had Columbia believed in the O.C. Smith version, O.C. could have had a hit song even bigger than “Little Green Apples.” ("La La Peace Song" was a "message song," born of its time. It could have easily become an anthem, like “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)" by James Brown, or Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On.") But Columbia didn’t believe in the song or their artist nearly enough.
Columbia's re-release did O.C. no favors, and they actually hurt Al and his career.
Al could have used the hit then. In those days, your first hit records generally just “paid back” what you owned the record company so far as advances and record production. It’s your second or third hit where you as an artist start seeing some real money. Until then, things can be a little dicey.
Al was clearly proud of his new album. As we spoke about "La La Peace Song," he expressed that he had high hopes for the song and the album, and you can plainly see that in the video provided for the song this week.
Al was at a fork in the road as far as his musical career was concerned, and when the big things hoped for with "La La Peace Song" were dashed by Columbia's re-release of the same song, Al suffered another in a series of disappointments, and his career began to spiral downward, with his end ominously looming on the horizon.
There is so much more to music than meets the eye (or ear). Too many times, it's about the “business" of music, rather than the music itself.
LL, thanks for the inspiration. This week's Chronicles lives because of you.
Enjoy these rare videos, and please join me next week for another Saturday Morning Song Chronicles. Let's see which musical mystery the muse will lead us to solve when we are together next.