Night Owl Songs – 1968-90

7. Night Owl – (1968) Howard Tate (doo wop)
8. Night Owl – (1969) Wilson Pickett (soul/R&B)
9. Night Owl – (1972) James Taylor (folk rock)
10. Night Owl – (1979) Gerry Rafferty (folk rock)
11. (The) Night Owl – (1981) Little River Band (folk rock)
12. Night Owls – (1990) Vaya Con Dios (pop)

7. Night Owl – (1968) Howard Tate

In this Night Owl composition, the singer can’t find his woman again. But he shares his troubles with the “wise night owl” and pleads for “Help.”

Howard Tate croons the lyrics in a jumping, funk style, punctuating his lines with shimmering falsetto trills. He gets solid backup from a rhythm section of guitar, electric bass, vibes, organ, piano and drums; and a horn section — trumpets, saxes and a trombone — that stabs and wails in counterpoint riffs and chords, James Brown style.

The song’s authorship is credited to his producer Jerry Rogovoy, who also wrote “Time is on My Side,” made popular by the Rolling Stones. Rogovny also co-wrote “Piece of my Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin.

Log Cabin Music Critic Rob O’Connor has said the fact “that Howard Tate isn’t a household name is a true crime. Tate is on par with the greatest soul singers, from Marvin Gaye to James Brown.”

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8. Night Owl – (1969) Wilson Pickett

Don Covey’s lyrics to this Night Owl effort start from the same premise as Tony Allen’s — his lover is a night owl — but Wilson Picket isn’t sending her off on her “merry way.” Not just yet. She had better “get her program right” though. “Night Owl” was the backside of Pickett’s cover of “Hey Joe,” which reached #29 on the R&B charts and #59 on the pop charts in 1969

Electric guitar and Hammond organ play riffs on top of each other, while the horn section wails long sustained chords against Picket’s staccato phrases. Sometimes it’s just Pickett and the drums working together building momentum until the horns, organ and guitar come back full force. You’ll recognize this sound if you’re a Blues Brothers fan. After being mentioned several times in the first Blues Brothers film in 1980, Wilson Pickett appeared in the 1998 Blues Brothers 2000. He performed “634-5789’ with Eddie Floyd and Jonny Lang. “If you need a little lovin’, call on me.”

By the time Wilson Pickett recorded “Night Owl,” he had already enjoyed huge success with “In the Midnight Hour” (1965; #1 R&B, #21 US pop) , “Land of 1,000 Dances” (1965; #1 R&B, #6 US pop) and “Mustang Sally” (1966; #6 R&B, #23 US pop).

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9. Night Owl – (1972) James Taylor

Taylor’s “Night Owl” is the first instance I’ve found of an artist taking ownership of the night owl mantel. He’s not complaining about anyone he knows being a night owl. He himself is a night owl and he’s proud of it. Most folks “like the good day time,” but not Taylor.

Taylor was inspired to write “Night Owl” when he performed at the Nite Owl Café in Greenwich Village. He, like John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, also played there in the mid-1960s.

There are several covers of the song, including by Cleo Lane (1971), his older brother Alex Taylor (1971), Carly Simon — who would soon be married to Taylor for a short time — with backup vocals by Paul and Linda McCartney (1972), Pamela Knowles (1996), and Ile Kaillio (2007).

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10. Night Owl – (1979) Gerry Rafferty

In his lyrics to “Night Owl,” which reached #5 on the UK Billboard chart, Gerry Rafferty evokes the same sense of disconnect and alienation as in his major hit “Baker Street,” released two years earlier in 1977 (#2 US #3 UK).

When night comes he feels alone and looks for solace in the bars and alcohol and “in a space and time” of his own. Losing himself in dreams and shadows he finally regains his sense of life’s flow. We feel the longing in Rafferty’s isolation. But the flow of the music undercuts the alienation of the words and we lose ourselves in the Rafferty’s warm vocal, the swaying rhythm, and Raphael Ravenscroft’s sweet Lyricon solo (he had played the signature sax riff on “Baker Street”).

In a significant way with Rafferty, artists start to bend the concept of the night owl to reflect their very personal struggles and perceptions. The words “night owl” don’t even appear in the lyrics. Rafferty uses night owl to describe a state of mind. Until now artists had used the night owl only as a metaphor in a commentary. The night owl was an external phenomenon. In Rafferty’s song, night owl represents an existential dilemma.

The folk rock rhythm and chords, too, are a departure from the blues tradition that had framed Night Owl songs until now. The underpinnings of the 12-bar blues are gone. The song switches between major and minor chords in the verse, with most of the chorus in two major chords. Rafferty was greatly influenced by his Scottish folk traditions, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as other UK bands of the 70s.

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11. (The) Night Owl – (1981) Little River Band

Remember “Night Owl” by the Dukays? That song upbraids a teenager for being out night-owling all the time. When songwriter Graeham Goble wrote his “Night Owl” for the Australian group Little River Band many years later, he might have been thinking about the further adventures of this kid. Gerry Rafferty’s “Night Owl” might have also come to mind.

Little River Band’s night owl is slightly delusional, but that’s his fate. He finds a bar where he can hang out, show off his dance moves and win the girl. He stays up late and works his craft. He’s determined he’ll score because, well, he’s hot stuff. But he’s not really. And besides, he has a “need to rock and roll.”

The situation in Little River Band’s tune is not that different from Gerry Rafferty’s need to resolve his alienation.

When Michael H. Little reviewed “The Night Owl” in a recent Vinyl District column, he called the song “the idiot love child of the Eagles and REO Speedwagon and worth its weight in chuckles.” Little is right about the lyrics, of course, but I think it was Goble’s intent to make his night owl somewhat pathetic and a bit laughable — and mortal. Note the sexual double entendre in the second line.

“The Night Owls” was on the Billboard US pop chart for 20 weeks in 1981 and reached #6.

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12. Night Owls – (1990) Vaya Con Dios

The Night Owl song written in 1990 by Belgian singer/lyricist/producer Dani Klein and the other two members of her trio, Vaya Con Dios, takes a sociological perspective. The night owls have been sleeping all day but they “come alive at night” “dressed to the nines.”

The men and women hang out in groups where they calculate moves on their next victims. Sexual seduction is one goal, but so is getting high. Women seduce men with sex, men seduce women with drugs. But a good time is had by all. It’s what you do at night. Party time.

The lyrics are playful but cynical. Most importantly, it’s a great dance tune. “Night Owl” is up-tempo jazz rock played with brassy gypsy flair. Of course, there’s the obligatory owl chorus: “Who, who, who, yeah.” In the video, sultry Dani Klein in a tight yellow dress sways and dances and there’s no doubt everybody’s loving it.

Another song on the same album as “Night Owl,” “Nah neh nah,” which reached #7 on the Belgium (Flanders) charts, has a sassy jazz rock gypsy groove similar to “Night Owl.” “Night Owl” peaked in Belgium at #42.

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