Pre-COVID times, I used to run open mics. Lots of them. Every week in several different venues. Keeping everything running smoothly and keeping all the musicians in the room happy was an artform that I enjoyed. But the one thing that would push me over the edge during stressful moments were singers (and I’ll say it – they were usually women) who wanted to sing a particular song, but they didn’t know anything about it. They just assumed that the musicians would know everything. (How many songs are there in the world?) This left the band to figure out a bunch of things in short order. Sometimes it was successful (due to having seasoned and sportsmanlike musicians on hand), and sometimes it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, I always felt a little sad for everyone because a little prep could have gone a long way.
If you are a singer who would like to work with other musicians and have them play songs you like to sing, here are the seven things you should know about every song.
#1 The Official Title
You might think it’s “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” but it’s not. It’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and someone will bust you for calling it “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”
#2 Who Wrote It
Sometimes it’s not the person you think. For example, a lot of people probably think that Patsy Cline wrote “Crazy,” but guess what! It was Willie Nelson.
#3 Who’s Version You’ve Been Inspired By
Most people know the Talking Heads song “Take Me to the River,” but Al Green wrote it, and a band might play that version if you call the song.
#4 What the Original Key Is
You can go online to musicnotes.com and find out or ask a musician really nicely when they’re not on stage and have a few moments to help you.
#5 Your Key
Maybe you prefer singing it in a different key, so know what that is.
#6 What Groove or Time Signature It Is In
Grooves have names like swing, shuffle, funk, and rock. If you don’t know the name of the groove, you can at least use the time signature like 4/4 or 12/8. Again, if you don’t know, ask a drummer friend.
#7 Tempo in Beats Per Minute
Either check the sheet music on musicnotes.com to see if they’ve included it on the first page or use a bpm app to tap along to the song to find out what it is.
Here’s an example of a chart Ted Ervin and I wrote with all those items right at the top:
Even better if you can get someone to write up a quick scribble chart for your song. I’ll never forget Sam Bradford showing me a chart he still had in his binder that he called, “This chart is ‘I’ve-had-seventeen-beers-and-you-want-me-to-play-Wilson-Pickett’s-In-the-Midnight-Hour?'”