Nothing Alone Can Stop Me
From couch-surfer dropping EP’s on Soundcloud to one of the hottest pop acts in the world, Halsey summits Spotify with ease, leaving behind her troubled past for a promising (and chart topping) future. Joe and Toby dive into the life and music of Halsey and her rise to the top. This includes a look back at another prominent female vocalists from the 1960’s and the sample from her not-so-well known song that inspired Halsey’s 2018 hit track “Alone.”
What we geek out over in this episode: Power duo Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. and The 5th Dimension, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (1969), roller skating, R&B singer Jaheim “Could It Be” (2001), Terror Squad “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me” (2004), rapper/producer Black Milk “Shut It Down” (2007), and chipmunk soul.
Bonus Material: Iconic singer/songwriter Laura Nyro who penned several songs for The 5th Dimension, leaving a trail of hits that would impact the musical landscape of the 1960’s and beyond.
Nothing Alone Can Stop Me
Joe: Hello and Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the collision of original and sampled tracks and the artists who made them. I’m your host, Joe Watson, and I’m here with my co-host, Toby Brazwell. What’s up Toby?
Toby: Not much man! Season’s greetings my friend!
Joe: Back atcha buddy! Together on this show, we listen to the legendary tracks and the timeless — but sometimes not-so-well-known — songs they sampled from. Toby, what are we listening to today?
Toby: This is a track called “Alone” from the artist known as Halsey. It’s the third single from her second album entitled Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. That album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 200, making her the first female artist to open 2017 at the top of the charts. This single was released in March 2018 and peaked at number 66 on the Billboard charts. But before we get too far into that, let’s hop in the Delorean and go back in time to where this sample came from.
🔊“Nothing Can Stop Me”
Joe: This track is called “Nothing Can Stop Me” by husband and wife duo Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr, from their album I Hope we Get to Love in Time released in 1976. McCoo and Davis were both former members of a VERY successful group called The Fifth Dimension.
Toby: These guys are easily one of my favorite couples! They have been married for over 40 years. That’s hard enough as is, but to do so while being successful in the music industry is incredible.
Joe: You ain’t lyin. Let’s dive into a little bit of their history and connect some musical dots. Marilyn McCoo was in a group called the Hi-Fi’s in the early 60’s, and toured with the legendary Ray Charles. Billy Davis Jr. then joined the group in 1965, they changed their name, and then signed to the newly formed label of the Secret Agent Man himself - Johnny Rivers.
🔊“Secret Agent Man”
Toby: Johnny probably had to go underground after he got on Elvis’s bad side. Apparently he stole Elvis’s arrangement of the Chuck Berry tune Memphis Tennessee and released it himself, which went on to sell over 1M copies. You don’t steal from the king, or in this case, two kings of rock n roll!
Joe: That is true, but somehow he got away with it. And he managed to craft an impressive career as both an artist and producer. It’s pretty common for artists to produce other artists today, but sometimes I’m surprised how much that happened back in the day, too.
Toby: For sure. We talked about The Animal’s bassist Chas Chandler signing and managing Jimi Hendrix in a previous episode, and this is yet another example of a popular artist shifting to a producer role. In this case, for The Fifth Dimension.
Joe: Their first top ten hit came in 1967 with the song “Up, Up and Away,” which went on to win 6 Grammies in 1968.
Toby: Not bad for a song about hot air balloons or Clark Kent’s flight patterns.
🔊“Up, Up and Away”
Toby: Their biggest hit came in 1969, and there’s an interesting story behind it that starts with a forgotten wallet…
Joe: In El Segundo…?
Toby: no… I didn’t say anything like that… I suggest you get a Q tip for some better hearing.
Joe: My apologies, please continue on your quest to relay information.
Toby: So Billy Davis Jr. is in a cab and forgets his wallet. The man who picks it up just so happens to be involved in the broadway show Hair and invites Billy Davis Jr. and the rest of the group to see the show. After the show they insisted that they record two of the songs that were featured in the play, “Aquarius” and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”
Joe: This was definitely one of their biggest hits, and by some metrics the biggest hit for the entire year of 1969. Toby, neither you or I are an Aquarius, but we both could stand for a little of the sun shining in.
Toby: Would certainly be a welcome change from the grey that’s hanging around in these parts. Let’s listen to “Aquarius”/“Let the Sunshine In” from the 5th Dimension. This is bound to put us all in a good mood.
Toby: So that song earned them a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1970 and sits at #66 on Billboards Greatest songs of all time.
Joe: And it is used in epic fashion at the end of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Steve Carrell and Seth Rogan do a masterful job.
Toby: Speaking of masterful, The Fifth Dimension were clearly masters of the charts in 1969. They released another song in September, a cover of the Laura Nyro song “Wedding Bell Blues”. This was actually the third Laura Nyro song they covered, and the previous two were hits as well. Let’s listen to Wedding Blues.
🔊“Wedding Bell Blues”
Joe: Now let’s fast forward to 1975 when Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo decided to part from the group and go off on their own. Even with all the success they had, I’m sure there had to be a lot of pressure.
Toby: Yeah that’s crazy- I mean you have a history of winning, but any time you start doing something different anything can happen.
Joe: No worries here, they enjoyed even more accolades, including a gold single for the track “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” from their debut album entitled I Hope We Get To Love In Time. They also earned a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Toby: That had to be a pretty good feeling after going out on your own.
Joe: Absolutely. There’s actually a quote from Billy Davis Jr about that. He says, “Well, you know, that was a beautiful thing for us—it did a lot for our self-esteem—because when we le the group, we left with nothing, and we were wondering, ‘What’s gonna happen to us?’ All we knew is that we were gonna go out there and try to make it in the business the best we could and follow our dreams, you know?”
Toby: Annnnd this just reiterates why this is one of my favorite married couples in music. Let’s take a listen to the number 1 hit “You Don’t Have To Be A Star”.
🔊“You Don’t Have to Be a Star”
Joe: Here’s another track that Marilyn McCoo was the first to record, let’s take a listen.
🔊“Saving All My Love for You”
Toby: Of course, Whitney Houston then turned that song into a top ten smash in 1985, It was actually the first of seven consecutive number one singles for Whitney. That’s a record that still stands. Joe, can you name those seven?
Joe: No sir, but I can tell you that I was a sweaty-palmed punk roller skating with a certain grade-school crush at the time. Let me see if I can name a couple, though. “The Greatest Love of All”? “How Will I Know”?
Toby: You got it, here are the other four… “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” “So Emotional,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”
Joe: That’s quite a run, and Whitney is certainly one of the few artists that can match Marilyn McCoo for sheer talent and range. We haven’t even mentioned yet that she was the host of Solid Gold for a few years.
Toby: The diversity of her career wows me! How much talent do you have to do all she did and do it well! As much as I can appreciate her talent, I want to world to know that one of those songs ruined talent shows for me…. (improv)
Joe: So let’s get back to the featured track we started the show with. Let’s take a listen to “Nothing Can Stop Me” from Billy Davis Jr and Marrilyn McCoo.
🔊“Nothing Can Stop Me”
Joe:This song has been sampled a number of times. First, let’s listen to a guy that has sold over 5M records and received 3 Grammy nominations. This is Jaheim with the 2001 track, “Could it Be”.
🔊“Could It Be”
Toby: That was R&B singer Jaheim on a track called “Could it Be” off his 2001 debut release Ghetto Love. Three interesting fact about him — his grandmother was actually a backup singer for the Drifters, he won the Apollo 3 times, and he was signed by iconic Hip hop group Naughty by Nature.
Joe: Who else used this sample Tobe?
Toby: Similar to Biggie’s Junior Mafia, or the Native Tongues, Fat Joe grouped a bunch of MCs together called the Terror Squad. This group included MCs Fat Joe, Big Pun, Cuban Link, and others. They released an album called True Story in 2004 and it featured a song called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me” produced by DJ Khaled. Let’s take a listen to that.
🔊“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me”
Joe: In 2007, MC and producer Black Milk also sampled “Nothing Can Stop Me” for his track “Shut it Down” from his album Popular Demand. I love the way that he chops up and uses this sample. Let’s give that a listen.
🔊“Shut It Down”
Joe: The way he sped up that also sample reminds me of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Toby: Yeah there’s a term for that called Chipmunk Soul which was made popular by several producers including Kanye West. Well we are certainly not ready to shut this episode down. Let’s kick it into high gear and talk about our next featured track, “Alone” by Halsey.
Toby: This is Halsey on her track called “Alone” featuring Big Sean and Stefflon Don. This was released in March of 2018 as the third single off of her album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. The song is certified Gold, and even hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart.
Joe: Let’s talk about Halsey. Her real name is Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, which is a beautiful name, and I’m probably late to this party, but I realized Halsey is an anagram of Ashley. She was born on September 29, 1994. The only reason I mention this is because Marrilyn McCoo’s birthday is September 30th, 1943. Different years obviously, but I thought it was interesting that their birthdays were so close to each other.
Toby: You know what else is interesting…. My birthday is on 9/30 as well!
Joe: Yes it is my friend. And I wanted to make sure we got this important information out on the airwaves so that our loyal listeners can forward appropriate gifts. It’s not too late people! You know what else is cool? One of my other good friends shares your and Marilyn McCoo’s birthday. I find things like that kinda fascinating. So shout out to my buddy and your birthday twin, Jeff in Michigan.
Toby: Well Halsey was born in New Jersey and seems to have moved around a lot as a kid and because of that she tended to present a version of herself where people did not have to get to know her so well. Which makes sense… why put in the effort when you will just have to move again.
Joe: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty common feeling amongst kids that grew up moving a lot…. growing up she was taught to play violin, viola, cello and eventually moved to acoustic guitar in her mid teens. She has talked about the chaotic environment she grew up in and has been very open about her financial hardships, bipolar disorder and mental health challenges.
Toby: She’s stated that music has served to be therapeutic for her and you can really tell just by listening to her lyrics. Her story is amazing because she was discovered by putting up one of her songs on Soundcloud. Fans loved it and so did the record labels. They contacted her and asked to have a meeting with her and her manager. So at the time she didn’t have a manager and she didn’t have a home. She was living out of a duffel bag. The rest is history so to speak.
Joe: Let’s take a listen to one of the songs that helped her make that history. This 2016 track is called “Closer” by the Chainsmokers and features Halsey.
Toby: Halsey helped co write that song and apparently I wasn’t the only one that liked it because it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop/duo Group performance in 2017. Can you guess what track won?
Joe: Are we gonna play a game of stump the chump here? You’re gonna stress me out…
Toby: Exactly… The group 21 Pilots won the Grammy for their track “Stressed Out” in 2017. Not bad Joe!
Joe: Halsey’s second album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, was released in June of 2017 and this could be considered a concept album as it was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She even reads that plays prologue for the intro of the album. The first single released was a track called “Now or Never”. Let’s take a listen.
🔊“Now or Never”
Toby: So when this song came out there were a lot of music journalists that thought that this song was too similar to Rihanna’s song “Needed Me” and actually It’s funny- I understand the comparison but I think people are taking it too far. I’m pretty sure that hurt her on the charts because this song only reached 59 on the Billboard. Only 59 on the Billboard charts…. I wish I had a song that was number 95 on the chart. Now or Never was actually followed by her 2nd single entitled “Bad at Love.” Let’s take a listen to this track.
🔊“Bad at Love”
Joe: She might think she’s bad at love but she’s definitely not bad at making music. This track hit number 5 on the Billboard charts. I also read that her father would listen to The Notorious B.I.G., Slick Rick, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and 2Pac, and her mother listened to The Cure, Alanis Morissette, and Nirvana.
Toby: I can totally see it, especially with how deep and personal her lyrics. You can just tell with her cadence approach to songs. I knew she could rhyme or in the very least had an a inity to hip hop in the way she approaches her verses.
Joe: Well it’s safe to say that she likes hip hop because her boyfriend, rapper G Eazy, is definitely in the hip hop game. They have been dating for over a year now and actually did a song together called “Him and I.” It’s like a 2017, Bonnie and Clyde type of song. Let’s listen to it…
🔊“Him and I”
Toby: G-Eazy actually is the subject of a few of Halsey’s songs. Tis the price you pay for being involved with an artist.
Joe: OK, let’s dig into to our featured track, “Alone”, and see how Halsey uses samples from “Nothing Can Stop Me” to create the vibe for this song. I like how she samples the build into the chorus for the intro. It’s almost like it’s playing softly on a radio in the distance somewhere. Let’s listen first to that part of “Nothing Can Stop Me”, followed by the kind of phased, ethereal vibe Halsey gives it in “Alone”.
🔊“Nothing” and “Alone” Intro
Toby: It certainly starts off with a laid back feel, but then “Alone” picks up the tempo and kicks into a higher gear.
Joe: I love how she takes that triplet horn part and that staccato piano lick from “Nothing Can Stop Me”, speeds ‘em up and uses them as the foundation for “Alone”. It’s like she took the best tension-building moments from the original song and laced them throughout the entire track. Let’s listen.
Toby: The thing I really appreciate about this track is how she can really describe how she feels. She says that she has a lot of people that want to hang with her, and regardless she’s still alone and no one really knows her. I’m sure we’ve all felt something close to this in our lives. I love the lyrics, but I have to say that the beat really captured my attention. Especially with the addition of featured artists on the remix!
Joe: Totally agree. That driving kick drum and the big hooky chorus. It’s good stuff. Alright, let’s give some props to the other people that are on that remix of “Alone.” First, we have Stefflon Don. She is probably best known for her 2017 single “Hurtin’ Me” featuring French Montana, which peaked at number 7 on the UK Singles Chart.
Toby: Stefflon Don also appears on the remix of the MC Fioti song “Bum Bum Tam Tam.”
🔊“Bum Bum Tam Tam”
Joe: I love how this song samples Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute.”
🔊“Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute”
Joe: I also love the video for this track, and I’m not alone as it has 1 billion views as of November 2018.
Toby: Did you say billion… with a B?
Joe: Yep! It is the most-viewed Brazilian music video and the first to hit 1 billion views. It also has and 7.8 million likes, making it the 31st most-liked YouTube video of all time. You got guess as to which video is number one?
Toby: Does it have a sultry Spanish vibe?
Toby: Does it feature a popular young artist from another country?
Toby: I’ll take “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan for the win!
Joe: Good guess! But, no. That would be “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and featuring Daddy Yankee.
Toby: Well, I’m not even sure we can play the most popular song by the other artist featured on Halesy’s “Alone”, Big Sean.
Joe: C’mon Toby, now I don’t @#\(% with you, so don’t &^%\) with me.
Toby: Exactly. Let’s just say that track was certified quadruple platinum and that album, Dark Sky Paradise, debuted at #1 when it was released in February of 2015. But I think it’s time to get back to Halsey!
Joe: Great idea. I found one more cool connection for you from her most recent single — one that is all over the airwaves at the moment — a song called “Without Me.” There’s a tiny little nod to Justin Timberlake on this track. Have a listen:
Toby: That’s from JT’s 2002 track “Cry Me a River.”
🔊“Cry Me a River”
Joe: Sure is. Which is kind of interesting, thematically, as both tracks are about being treated poorly in relationships.
Toby: And there’s not a lot of mystery as to who Justin was talking about. It’s pretty obvious if you’ve seen the video.
Joe: I think you may be referring to a fellow Mickey Mouse Club alum, and I’m not talking about Keri Russell.
Joe: Alright Tobe, it’s time to dive into this episodes bonus material. Let’s take a deeper look at the career of the iconic songwriter Larua Nyro. She penned several songs that were hits for The Fifth Dimension, as well as Blood Sweat and Tears, Three Dog Night, and Barbra Streisand.
Toby: It’s amazing how many artists like this fly somewhat under the radar. I wouldn’t say she’s a household name, but she clearly had an enormous impact on the music landscape.
Joe: No doubt. Let’s take a listen to one of her first songs, “And When I Die.” She actually wrote and recorded this when she was only 17.
🔊“When I Die” - Laura Nyro
Joe: She then sold the song to Peter Paul and Mary for $5,000, and they recorded it for their 6th studio album. Let’s listen to their version.
🔊“When I Die” - Peter Paul and Mary
Joe: But the song really became a hit in 1969 when it was recorded by Blood Sweat and Tears on their self-titled second album. Let’s give that a spin.
🔊“When I Die” - Blood Sweat and Tears
Joe: This version hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Guess what was #1 around the same time?
Toby: That would be another Laura Nyro penned song, “Wedding Bell Blues,” recorded by The Fifth Dimension, which we listened to ealrier. Let’s hear Laura’s original 1967 version, which she wrote when she was only 18.
🔊“Wedding Bell Blues” - Laura Nyro
Joe: As we know, this was not the only Laura Nyro penned hit for the The Fifth Dimension. In 1968, they went platinum with their version of “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Let’s take a listen:
🔊Stoned Soul Picnic
Joe: The 5th Dimension also had hits with covers of Laura Nyro’s “Sweet Blindness,” “Save the Country,” and “Blowing Away.” She was certainly instrumental in the success of their career.
Toby: Laura had yet another hit in 1969. Her seminal album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession had been released the year before, and Three Dog Night took the track “Eli’s Comin’” and turned it into a top ten hit in 1969. Let’s take a listen:
🔊“Eli’s Comin’” - Three Dog Night
And here’s Laura’s original version:
🔊“Eli’s Comin’” - Laura Nyro
Joe: So I was listening to that album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, and there’s another track called “Emmie.” Towards the end of the song, I was like, “Hey, that sounds familiar!”
Toby: Is that some Neil Diamond?
Joe: Yes! She must have heard his 1966 song “Cherry Cherry” and paid it a little tribute. Take a listen:
Toby: That’s pretty cool. Let’s give a listen to one more Laura Nyro song that another artist turned into a hit. In this case, Barbra Streisand. This is a song called “Stoney End,” first written and recorded by Nyro for her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, in 1967.
🔊“Stoney End” - Laura Nyro
Joe: Barbra put this song in the top ten in early 1971 with her cover. Let’s hear that:
🔊“Stoney End” - Barbra Streisand
Toby: There’s a lot more to her story and a ton of rich history here, including how legendary entertainment executive David Geffen became her manager. They co-founded a publishing company that they sold to CBS for $4.5 million in 1969.
Joe: Wow! All those songs on the top of the charts, becoming an instant millionaire. 1969 was a good year!
Toby: Without a doubt. Laura packed a lot into her too short a time with us. Sadly, she succumbed to cancer at the age of 49. But her legacy lives on, and she was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
Joe: That is way too young, but thankfully we still have all this rich music to enjoy. Well Toby, it’s time to wrap up the show, but let’s end on a lighter note. What do we have on tap for our next episode?
Toby: I think we’ll throw on some Timbalands and cruise around New Orleans, maybe feed the meters. But I’m going to need someone to ride with. Are you that somebody?
Joe: People say my friend, people say. Thank you for listening to Riffs on Riffs. We’re going to take you out with a personal favorite off of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. Actually, I believe it’s only on the deluxe version of the album. Regardless, Toby and I both love this track and we know you will too. This is Halsey with “Heaven in Hiding.” We’ll catch you next time. Until then, this is Joe Watson. Toby: And I’m Toby Brazwell. Joe: Thank you for listening to Riffs on Riffs.
🔊“Heaven in Hiding”