By Larry Whitler, Jan 3 2017 07:31PM
A few years ago my good friend, partner, and radio co-host Robin MacBlane and I were invited to dinner by the Martone family who had recently purchased the radio station where we worked. We were the morning hosts on talk station WOCA in Ocala, Florida, and did a morning drive program. Our show was eclectic. It was more like a TV variety show than it was like the standard politically driven show of some of the big-time radio hosts in the country.
To translate that, it simply means that we would try to be entertaining as much as possible. Our guests would run the gamut from local event organizers, to nationally known authors, to recording artists from every level of success and non-success, to actors and actresses, and yes, even politicians and political pundits.
The Martones were definitely a show-biz minded family. Both Robin and I were glad of that. We always feared that the station might be bought by someone with a very politically opinionated agenda. That, we felt, would be the end of our radio show. We really couldn’t do a show that was all about politics. It just wasn’t us. After all, we had been Robin And The Giant for so long writing songs and recording programming for children and families. We really were more cut out to be making people laugh, or at least smile, than making them angry at the government.
Anyway, getting back to the dinner invitation, we went to a local restaurant called Charlie Horse. The restaurant was half restaurant and half bar. Half KARAOKE BAR. It turned out that the Martones were very much into Karaoke. They were into it so much that they even had a karaoke business in North Carolina before buying the radio station and moving to Florida.
So, after we ate, we all went over to the karaoke bar portion of the restaurant and ordered drinks. Joe and Dan Martone, two of the new owners, and I all signed up to sing karaoke. Joe’s wife, Patsy, Dan’s wife, Missy, and Robin all opted to not sing and, instead, just watch the men make fools of ourselves.
The Karaoke guy had a huge book filled with song titles to choose from. The way it worked was that we would sign up to sing and write down the code letters and numbers that corresponded to our song choice.
As I flipped through the book I saw lots of names of recording artists I was familiar with. Here’s a sample of my thoughts as I flipped through the pages of that book: “Hmmm. James Taylor-Fire And Rain. Maybe I’ll do that…Um…Van Morrison-Brown Eyed Girl…nah, I might not hit all the notes…Janis Ian-At Seventeen, well, that might work…nah, they’d never like me doing that song.” Well, I finally settled on, “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon.
I went back to the table and sipped my soda while waiting my turn and listening to all the other karaoke singers. I couldn’t help but think about Janis Ian. She is such a great poet. Her songs really are above this karaoke stuff. Janis Ian had such an influence on me when I was a young songwriter that it almost felt blasphemous that her material was even in a karaoke book. I actually wondered what this rather abrasive crowd would think if Janis Ian, herself, were to step up to that microphone and begin singing.
Rewind to 1971. I was 16 years old and I was trying to learn how to be a songwriter. I just bought Janis Ian’s first album simply titled, “Janis Ian,” and I was sitting on my bedroom floor with a small record player listening to “Society’s Child,” “Too Old To Go ‘Way Little Girl,” “Janey’s Blues,” and all the others on that album.
I was listening to Janis Ian’s well crafted lyrics, her beautiful voice, and her haunting and interesting melodies. She sang lines like, “Her mother plays on the golf course every day and her daddy, he sits at home and plays with the maid.” Her words were holding me spellbound. Her choice of notes to sing those words to was hypnotizing. Her voice was seductive. And her acoustic guitar playing on the song titled, “I’ll Give You A Stone If You’ll Throw It” made me crave to become as accomplished as she was.
You know, at that time, it never even occurred to me how young Janis was when she wrote those amazing songs. I looked it up on Wikipedia and they say she was 14 or 15 years old. Wow. That makes it even more incredible.
Anyway, I loved what she was doing and went on to become a huge fan. When the internet first started up I even had a brief e-mail exchange with her while she was traveling somewhere. A true brush with greatness for me.
Rather than simply gushing over a singer and songwriter I came to love I wanted to tell you why I feel that Janis Ian shaped the world.
From what I’ve told you already you can easily see how she shaped my personal world. She motivated me to be a better writer and a more polished performer. She showed me that sticking to songwriting that maintained integrity was better than simply writing for the commercial marketplace.
But think about this. It was 1967. Janis Ian was sixteen years old. SIXTEEN! And she’s writing these beautifully crafted lyrics about interracial relationships, about adolescent sexual curiosity, about teenage pregnancy, about PROSTITUTION. Holy cow.
And the talent didn’t stop with the words. Janis Ian crafted melodies that still hold up today. She chose to weave together words and melodies in ways that should have catapulted her to superstardom overnight.
And it almost did.
Yes, Janis Ian almost launched into the famous-sphere but was stopped short by the attitudes of those who ran the shows. Record executives were afraid of Janis Ian’s honesty. They were afraid of the truth in the messages that cut directly to the soul of the shortcomings of our society. And Janis delivered it all with her delicate yet powerful voice.
Of course Janis Ian did eventually receive the recognition she earned. From the outside looking in it appeared to be an uphill climb but Janis has garnered two Grammy Awards. One of those awards is for her hit song "At Seventeen" and the other is for the audio version of her autobiography titled "Society's Child." According to Wikipedia, Janis Ian has had a total of ten Grammy nominations in eight different categories. Additionally, again according to Wikipedia, her song "Society's Child" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
In its infancy, “Society’s Child” was tossed around like a hot potato. It was, and is still, a great song. Its interracial story made it a hands-off property but a few brave music radio programmers saw the value in young Janis Ian’s song and played it. The young listeners to radio, both black and white, related to the message and that young audience helped place it on the Billboard charts.
Okay, so a song about interracial relationships makes the record charts. But how does THAT shape the world?
Well, it is hard to prove. But do you think that the song “Brother Louie” (by Hot Chocolate and later by The Stories) would have been as well received a few years later without Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” first paving the way? Again, it is hard to prove but I think Janis took the war wounds that led to the acceptance of the topic.
By the way, just my opinion, but “Society’s Child” is so much more eloquently written than “Brother Louie.” I’ll let you form your own opinion. You’ll have to look up the lyrics to both songs to see if you agree or disagree.
Beyond “Society’s Child,” though, Janis Ian herself shaped our world. She showed us how to be honest. Janis had, and still has, such a gentle way of slaying giant devils that could have easily held us back from progressing.
Her songs are powerful. Powerful enough to have affected both the immediate listener and a second generation inspired by Janis’s work who then furthered the ripple by also writing songs or poetry or books that spoke honestly to our less than perfect world helping to make this planet a better place.
Think of any of today’s powerful and influential voices, especially songwriters, be they female or male, and you can probably trace their inspirations back to Janis Ian.
I’ll close this chapter with this. Listen to Janis Ian. Really listen to her. Think of WHEN she wrote some of her early songs. Think of the discriminations she herself must have had to deal with in her lifetime. And think about how she took her own trials and articulated them into the works of art we call songs in order to reach the rest of us and give us all the strength we need to face, what is often, a cruel world.
“Only a truly great songwriter could write 'Marvelous Novelists.' The gentle way you sing this gem of a tune just makes me grin from ear to ear with giddy joy. Brilliant.”
- Sills & Smith, ReverbNation Artist (Mar 23, 2012)