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Happy Birthday, Manfred Mann -- Five Crucial Albums

To paraphrase the title of one of his early albums, there are several faces of Manfred Mann. Although he gave his name to one of the British Invasion's more popular combos, it was in fact an alias. Born Manfred Lubowitz to a wealthy South African family on October 21, 1940, he left home at a relatively early age to pursue his musical ambitions in the U.K.

For show-biz purposes, he originally tagged himself Manfred Manne (a reference to noted bandleader Shelly Manne), but in keeping with the kitschy, catchy norms of early '60s swinging London, he rechristened himself Manfred Mann. With friend, drummer, and collaborator Mike Hugg in tow, he was eventually persuaded to lend his handle to a five-piece pop group that became one of Britain's best. Early on, the band dabbled in the jazz and R&B that Manfred first favored, but eventually they changed course to cash in on the adoration of all things English. Although early hits like the ultra-catchy "Doo Wah Diddy" and "Pretty Flamingo" found appeal with the teenyboppers, the band gradually broadened its parameters and became one of the outstanding early interpreters of Bob Dylan's pop catalog, bringing "Mighty Quinn," an unreleased track culled from Dylan and the Band's so-called Basement Tapes, to the top of the charts.

Ironically, none of the Manfreds really fit the image readily associated with teen appeal. At least two members, including Manfred himself, wore glasses, another was balding, and most looked more like bookish nerds than real rock stars. Still, when the band dissolved at the end of the '60s, each of Mann's men found further success -- some solo, others in the company of bands like John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and a semi-successful offshoot called McGuiness Flint. 

For Manfred himself, it spelled the beginning of a new phase, which he dubbed Chapter III. Though short-lived, it allowed him to vet his more avant-garde ideas and join the ranks of artists like ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce (who had also served a brief tenure in the Manfreds), Colosseum, If, and others who were turning their sights toward jazz and early forms of fusion. 

In 1971, Manfred unveiled his most successful outing with the introduction of Manfred Mann's Earth Band. Although his name was still attached to the group, the possessive pronouncement ensured that it would be seen as a collaboration that went beyond the early Mann brand. The band would have several hits throughout the '70s -- most notably, an early interpretation of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" that brought them to the top of the American charts. Despite various shifts in personnel, the Earth Band continues to soldier on to this day. With synthesizers and ample instrumental excursions invested in the mix, they found an agreeable compromise between prog and more accessible, listener-friendly fare. In addition, Mann occasionally ventured out on his own, dabbling in world music, instrumental soundscapes, and other odder excursions under the banner of Manfred Mann's Plain Music.

Here, then, are five albums crucial to each phase of Manfred's career: 

The Five Faces of Manfred Mann

Clearly intentioned to appease its rabid teenaged following, this album provided an able introduction to the band and its obvious hit potential through vapid songs like "Sha-La-La" and "Come Tomorrow."

More impressive, however, is the fact that they opted to include a classic Herbie Hancock instrumental, "Watermelon Man," and a song lifted from a traditional folk songbook, "John Hardy." 

Mighty Quinn

With the title trumpeting one of the group's most successful songs, the album took on an artier feel that flirted with psychedelia and, thanks to Hugg's dominant role, a more literary stance as well.

Considering its content, it's very possible that Ray Davies might have given a nod of approval. 

Chapter Three

Mann and Hugg jettison the pop songs and the rest of the band as well, opting instead for a radically different approach that was sophisticated, stylish, and yet somewhat obtuse, featuring jazz soloists and brass. A bit too brainy to seduce the masses, Chapter Three dissolved after only two ill-received efforts. 

Manfred Mann's Earth Band

An excellent introduction to Manfred's most durable outfit, it didn't mark the major breakthrough that would come later on. Still, excellent interpretations of Dylan's "Please Mrs. Henry" (another Basement Tapes reject) and Randy Newman's "Living Without You" showed Mann was still at his best when reworking and redefining the songs of others. It also boasted an early concert staple in the instrumental "Sloth." 

Solar Fire

Although it didn't boast a hit per se, its celestial concept did show a marked advance in confidence and creativity. A celestial suite of sorts, it also contained yet another in a long line of Dylan covers, this time the relatively obscure "Father of Day, Father of Night." All in all, a fine example of the Earth Band's synth style at its best.

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Lee Zimmerman