Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Summertime? Summertime?

Now that this blog is developing a history, it’s time to update an open issue: the Mystery 45 has not yet been named. I’ll give it a couple more weeks, then it will be time to shop the recordings around to pop musicologists. Doesn’t someone here want the honor of having solved a 40-year-old mystery? I know you can do it . . .

I’d like to note as well that I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception the Five Whispers tunes earned. Comments both on the blog and via email show both sides to be listenable, and so I’m glad I hunted down a copy of the 45. Thanks for caring about the music. Today’s song is another true obscurity. Here we go.

When the Great Meltdown took two-thirds of my 45s away from me, one of the non-aerodynamic Frisbees I remembered well was by a band I thought I had never heard before. By the time of the Meltdown, though, I was hearing this vocal group a lot on WIND in Chicago, the oldies station my stepmom played in the car.

The group was the Jamies. Ah! Of course. “Summertime, Summertime.” It hit #26 in 1958 and #38 in 1962. Are they a One-Hit Wonder? Is their second foray into the Top 40 a One-Week Wonder? There is an awful lot of music philosophy wrapped up in the chart history of the Jamies.

The history of the discovery of the Jamies is wrapped up in a lot of music philosophy as well. Skip this story if you’ve heard it. If not, it’s a good read.

Tom Jameson and his sister, Serena of Dorchester, Massachusetts, formed a church quartet with Jeannie Roy and Arthur Blair. A Boston DJ, Sherm Feller (1918-1994), heard them sing, and he worked up a ditty with Tom Jameson that they called “Summertime, Summertime.” Some of you will know that Sherm Feller was the Boston Red Sox PA announcer for 26 years. (See http://www.shermfeller.com/.)

The Jamies recorded a demo of “Summertime, Summertime,” and Feller took it to Cadence Records. The label head, Archie Bleyer, played it for his kids, and they liked it enough that he brought the Jamies into the studio. Unimpressed with the results, he threw away the tape in Sherm Feller’s presence. Feller offered to buy it from him, but Bleyer told him to take it. No charge.

Feller took it across the street to Epic, and they snapped it up. Despite a late release in July, this first of all summer songs sold 250,000 copies. If you listen to anything other than a pure hip-hop station, you will run into this tune every year during months with no R in them.

So, how could Archie Bleyer, who signed the Chordettes, the Everly Brothers and who knows how many other harmony-laden acts, decide to pass on a song his kids loved? How did Epic Records give Sherm Feller a $2000 advance without even seeing the singers? It’s quintessential music business: this hit-and-miss approach has ruled the labels, and the airwaves, for decades. Just think what music you might have heard if every decision were the right one. By the same token, think about what songs you would not have been subjected to. After all, there would have been no “Ice, Ice Baby” if the labels didn’t pump out the occasional plagiarized retread.

With the big summer hit under their belt and winter approaching, the industry philosophy said: “Sequel!” And so it was. The Jamies recorded “Snow Train” (written by Feller) and “When the Sun Goes Down” (Feller/Jameson) for Epic 45 5-9299 in 1958. How big was the splash?

The splash was about the same as the difference between jumping into a pool and into a snowbank. No Top 40 activity for “Snow Train.” Not even Hot 100 activity. The 45 reached my collection precisely because it tanked; my copy sat somewhere for five years, and Uncle Tom got it for a nickel in 1963. But three-year-old caithiseach, like Archie Bleyer’s kids (his wife was Janet Ertel of the Chordettes, and his daughter, Jackie, married Phil Everly), found the Jamies’ perky tunes worth a number of spins. I listened to the flip side (wait till Saturday) a lot more often, but I didn’t think “Snow Train” was too bad back then.

Was “Snow Train” really a sequel? Considering that Feller wrote a cascading break of “Summertime, Summertime, Summertime, Summertime” into the song, yes, it was a sequel. Should the kids of America have given it more attention? The lyrics are more repetitive of the theme words and far less saucy than those of “Summertime, Summertime.” I would even venture a guess that the younger Tom Jameson wrote the best bits of the Jamies’ big hit, and Feller couldn’t quite match the tone in “Snow Train.” I may well be wrong about that lyrical dynamic, of course, but I have reasons for my opinion, which I will discuss Saturday.

Give it a listen, and let me know if you would have bought “Snow Train” or even played it when you were a kid. I’m about the only kid who did play it. I even remembered it for 34 years after the Great Meltdown until I could find a replacement copy. See you Saturday on the flip side!

Confirming source for this post: www.onehitwondercentral.com

Jamies, Snow Train

Snow Train label with Epic sleeve

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sotto voce

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

When you are producing an act that has recorded a song called “Midnight Sun,” what should the flip side of the 45 be? If you’re Bob Reisdorff of Dolton Records, you opt for “Moon in the Afternoon” to finish off Dolton 61.

Guitarists Bobby and Larry Black, along with their longtime drummer Jack Greenbach, recorded “Moon in the Afternoon” in 1962. Greenbach co-wrote it with Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino. Larson and Marcellino later co-wrote “I Am Love” for the Jacksons and produced some of their work, including a portion of Michael’s early solo hits.

This perkier B side of the single appealed to three-year-old caithiseach much more than the intended hit side. “Moon in the Afternoon” is, in fact, a song confected to dovetail with two musical forces. First, its name clearly derives from “Midnight Sun.” Whereas the title of “Midnight Sun” has a basis in Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “Moon in the Afternoon” seems to have been written to balance the 45, and the title is an inversion of the astronomic phenomenon of the A side.

That sounds awfully academic, doesn’t it? When I was little, the wordplay of the titles allowed them to stick in my head, and thus the memory survived the Great Meltdown, even if the 45 didn’t. A vinyl dealer took care of the rest for me.

The other thing happening in this song is that Bob Reisdorff and the Black Brothers used twangy guitar and a nearly illegal amount of reverb to make this song sound like a recording by the Ventures, also a Dolton act. The sax part on this song (possibly played by Marcellino) almost disappears under the onslaught of bouncing sound waves. On a little mono phonograph, the cut sounded pretty good, though.

The Five Whispers weren’t done after this single. They returned in 1963 with Dolton 69, “Awake Or Asleep”/“Especially for You” and in 1964 with Dolton 90, “Can’t Face the Crowd”/“Sleep Walker.” The last one sounds as if it had a bit of Santo & Johnny inspiration, but that is pure speculation. If you have these other tracks, I’d love to hear them.

The Dolton discography I used comes from Global Dog Productions, http://www.globaldogproductions.info/. Check it out, and enjoy the song.

I see that there are some regular readers of this blog. I appreciate your interest, and I look forward to posting because of it. Thanks.

This coming Wednesday, as January ends, it will be not quite “Summertime, Summertime,” either for me or for the artists who cut the next 45. See you then!

Five Whispers, Moon in the Afternoon

Moon in the Afternoon label

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

One particularly challenging aspect of blogging on obscure singles will be that some of the songs have no written history. In those cases, I will be able to share only my anecdotes about my relationship with the songs.

Today’s song came close to fitting the no-history category, but I got lucky.

This 45 succumbed to the Great Meltdown, so I never saw it after 1972. It wasn’t a record I played all that often, either. So how did I manage to remember its name? Thanks to clever nomenclature provided by the artists, I managed to cling to the titles of the songs, and an internet search for the 45 eventually landed me a DJ copy.

The slick titles of the two instrumentals on this 45 are “Midnight Sun” and “Moon in the Afternoon.” Even when I was five or six, I had heard of the midnight sun, and I had often seen the moon in the afternoon. I supposed then that the titles had something to do with the music on the record, but now I can picture the band coming up with one quirky title to match an existing one and pairing the tunes on a 45.

Before I did my internet search for those titles, I could remember that the label had a fish logo on it. That memory didn’t help me remember the name of the label or the artist, though. Once I found web hits for the titles, I knew what I was looking for: “Midnight Sun”/“Moon in the Afternoon” by the Five Whispers (Dolton 61).

The label wasn’t as obscure as some I’ll be discussing this year. Dolton Records was the Seattle home to the Fleetwoods, the Ventures, Bonnie Guitar (co-owner of the label) and Vic Dana. Not the most amazing roster ever, but the Fleetwoods accounted for two #1 hits, and the Ventures had a close call at #2. The fish came from Dolton’s original name, Dolphin Records. Another label by that name already existed, so owner Bob Reisdorff (spelled correctly on the 45 and “Reisdorf” on Wikipedia) adjusted the name.

With “Come Softly to Me” and “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods and “Walk—Don’t Run” by the Ventures making Dolton a national phenomenon, it would seem that the label’s other acts would get a lift from the fame. When the label moved to Los Angeles to become part of the Liberty organization, though, a lot of the less successful Seattle acts got dumped. In their place, new Los Angeles acts were signed, including the Five Whispers.

The key members of this instrumental group were two guitar-playing brothers, Bobby and Larry Black (born 1934 and 1936, respectively), who already had a long career under their belt by the time this single was cut. These Arizona-California boys played Western swing in the 1950s, Bobby as a steel guitarist for the likes of Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson and Bob Wills, and Larry on electric guitar as co-founder (with Bobby) of the West Coast All-Stars. They recorded under a number of different band names with drummer Jack Greenbach and opened their own studio. Bobby would eventually play with Commander Cody, Doug Sahm and Barbara Mandrell.

But in 1962, the brothers hooked up with Bob Reisdorff (1922-2002) as producer and recorded “Midnight Sun.” This dreamy guitar tune reminds me of a cross between “Sleep Walk” and an Enzyte commercial. I didn’t listen to it a lot; it was too slow for my five-year-old tastes. How was I to know it was written by legends?

Yes, this song is that “Midnight Sun.” With music by Lionel Hampton and J. Francis Burke and lyrics by the incredibly prolific Johnny Mercer, the song is a jazz standard. The Five Whispers version is a slow rock instrumental, so Mercer is not credited on the title. But when I was five, even a Hampton-Mercer pairing would have meant nothing to me.

What you have before you, then, is an attempt to update a classic tune that never really got its due in its original form. The Five Whispers version didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100, but it charted on Cash Box on October 20, 1962 at #100 and rose to #99 in its second week before disappearing.

Both sides of the 45 seem to have been released on CD in 2005 on Rare Instrumentals, Volume 5 on Canadian CAN-2305, but you can tell from the needle-drop I’m posting that I haven’t come across that CD yet.

Enjoy the tune and picture five-year-old caithiseach wrinkling his nose at the refusal of the band to crank it up and get him moving. I understand more now. Look for the other song Saturday. I’ll catch you on the flip side!

Five Whispers, Midnight Sun

Midnight Sun DJ Copy label

Friday, January 18, 2008

Name That Tune, Part 2! Win Money!

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

I didn’t expect to inject much day-to-day life info into this blog, but I can’t refrain from telling you that, as I post today’s words, the temperature here is -10 Fahrenheit (-23 C), with a wind chill of -32 F (-35 C). Tonight’s actual low temperature will be -19 F (-28 C). And the wind keeps blowing; tonight’s wind chill will be -45 F (-42 C). It’s so bad we’ve reached that rare point where the temperature sounds worse in Fahrenheit than in Celsius. I’m sure the Manitobans who sent the cold this way don’t even notice such toasty temperatures, but I’m staying home tomorrow.

I was hoping this post would be redundant. On Wednesday I posted the story of a 45 that lost its label, and I hoped someone would tell me the name of that song. Then, obviously, that person would either tell me the name of the song I’m discussing now, or I would have enough information to figure it out on my own.

So far, no luck. I’m hoping someone will recognize this song and help me work out the name of the other side. Perhaps these two posts will be akin to putting a message in a bottle and dropping it in the ocean; a reader six months from now may say, “Duh, that’s _____ by _____.” And won’t I feel silly for not remembering that title from 1965, when the label fell off?

I said on Wednesday that the other song appealed to five-year-old caithiseach because it was bouncy and quirky. That same little boy put today’s song on the turntable and rolled his eyes when the grandiose piano started. I don’t remember ever playing the entire song. It was too movie-mushy for me. From an adult perspective, I find the song more tolerable. But then, I have made myself listen to a lot of different types of music and have grown to tolerate just about everything.

In my search for the title, I realized that this song has the feel of the theme from One-Eyed Jacks by Ferrante & Teicher, but their personal manager says this song is not one of their recordings; there’s just one piano playing.

The only data I have on the song would be the matrix number, which is 1008, with these extra characters marked sideways on the runout area: X X 27 R.

Apart from repeating parts of my Wednesday post, all I can say is that I hope someone digs up the title of this recording, so I can stop spending time and energy thinking about it. Of course, at that point I’ll start looking for a CD transfer of the songs. Sheesh.

Good luck! The $50 reward for naming both titles and artists still holds.

Next time, there will be another instrumental, but that one has a title, a surprisingly famous one. See you Wednesday, when the temperature here will still be -13 F.

Mystery 45, song B

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Name That Tune! Win Money!

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

You’re going to think this is a really weird blog post, and it is. It will be a lot of fun to write, too. I’ve posted a condensed version of this story on my website (http://www.sdwyer.net/), but here’s everything I can say about the situation with a 45 I own but can’t name.

If you grew up with CDs, you may think of music labels as silkscreened artwork. You probably have seen a lot of 45s, but most 45s have labels that are stuck on with decent glue. The occasional rinky-dink label would go cheap on the glue in order to stay afloat, it seems, as one of my 45s lost not one but both labels.

“Not a problem,” you say under your breath. “You drop the needle on that 45 and listen to the first few seconds of the song, and you know what song it is. caithiseach is overreacting.”

And I retort that your scenario works fine, unless the label came off when you were five years old and couldn’t read all that well yet.

Aha! Just write down the lyrics and Google them.

Both sides of the 45 are instrumentals.

Aha! Post the songs online and let someone tell you their names.

I did that. My friend Whiteray (http://echoesinthewind.blogspot.com/) used his blog to direct some of the best musical minds of this generation to the songs, which have been posted on my site for a year, waiting to be identified. No one made a successful guess. A good attempt came from JB (The Hits Just Keep on Comin', http://jabartlett.wordpress.com/), who suggested Ferrante & Teicher. After I sifted through as much F&T as I could find, I wrote to them. Their personal manager, Scott W. Smith, answered me: “I can confirm that it is NOT Ferrante & Teicher on side B...nor is it Roger Williams, Peter Nero, Liberace, Carmen Cavallaro.”

And he would know.

How did I get into this predicament? Actually, two of my records lost their labels. The other one is a little Golden Records 78 on yellow vinyl whose label peeled off when I was old enough to write the title on the record. I probably wrote the title on that 78 because of my bitter experience with the previous lost label. But the 45 in question today was my first experience with coming unglued. Even if I asked someone the titles before the label fell off, eventually the names faded from my memory, something I didn’t know could happen. Now I know all about Old Timer’s Disease, but I felt completely in command of my memory when I was five.

So, I had a 45 with, as I recall, a pale-blue label. One side (which I now call A) was a bouncy tune with an odd mix of motifs and instrumentation only a music-store owner could love: accordion, piccolo, kettle drums and, I think, a kitchen sink. Since I liked quirky tunes, this one did get a lot of spins on the turntable. In fact, since I obviously can’t look for the song on CD, you get to hear my original 45 for the first time since I started the blog. Today’s cut is partially Ground to Dust, and it may be a tough listen. Hang in there for me, please.

At some point, the edge of the label started to flap in the breeze as the 45 spun on the record player. Soon half of the label flopped over whenever I picked up the record. Eventually, the label had nearly sloughed off, so I finished the job, sort of like pulling a loose baby tooth, and I saved it. The same thing happened to side B, which you will hear on Saturday.

The labels sat in my box of 45s. I haven’t mentioned how big a box has to be to hold 300 45s and maybe 50 LPs, but it was a heck of a box, and things could get lost in it. My guess is that when I downsized the box after the Great Meltdown, I didn’t gather up the labels. I may have lost them long before then, though, because I would have memorized the titles once I learned to read. I can’t dig deeply enough in my memory to recall the details of the situation.

I am left, then, with the opportunity to reach out to the entire world of music blog-readers in a final attempt to reacquire the names of these recordings. Apart from letting you hear the songs, I can tell you that today’s selection has a matrix number of 1009, with the characters 27 R facing sideways. This 45 is evidently from a minor label, though I perhaps should not say that, in case it’s yet another Mercury single. I’m not trying to mislead anyone.

There is a reward for accurately naming the title AND the artist. I will send the first person to do so $50, once I verify the information. Be the first to name one OR the other and receive $25. It’s that simple. I suspect that anyone who can name the artist can name the title, but we'll see.

If no one comes through for me after this post, I’ll be forced to find some pop musicologist or do something equally not as fun as letting my readers have a go at it. So, good luck, and may your diligence pay off! On Saturday, you get the rest of the story. See you on the flip side!

Mystery 45, song A

Label of Mystery 45

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cheshire Cats

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

In the introductory post to this blog, I described the Great Meltdown, when two-thirds of my 300 45s warped in the sun. I mentioned that I began restocking my collection with the melted songs, either by purchasing replacement 45s or by finding the songs I had lost on CD. Today I am going to discuss the first song I replaced.

I promised in my previous post that I would offer a song that had not been a hit. I don’t know how this song missed the charts, unless it’s because it falls solidly into the rhythm and blues camp, and not enough of that made the Top 40 in 1963.

Titus Turner (1933-1984) was an Atlanta-born songwriter known for several classic tunes, including “Leave My Kitten Alone” and “Sticks and Stones.” He also had the good fortune to resemble Lloyd Price vocally, which allowed him to record at least two answer songs to Price hits: “The Return of Stag-O-Lee” and “We Told You Not to Marry.” The latter tune (Glover 201) cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1959, reaching #83 in its six-week chart life. Turner had mildly better success with a 1961 cut, “Sound-Off” (Jamie 1174), which climbed to #77 but lasted only four weeks.

Three-year-old caithiseach didn’t know any of that. I knew that one of my 45s, one with an odd color combination of royal blue and orange, was a bouncy song with nice brassy punctuation. “People Sure Act Funny (When They Get a Lotta Money)” (Enjoy 1005) got a lot of spins on my turntable before the 45 melted in 1972.

Turner wrote the song in 1963 with James McDougal. McDougal co-wrote “Leave My Kitten Alone” with Turner and Willie John, as well as “Need Your Loving” with the legendary Bobby Robinson, Clarence Lewis and Don Gardner. Gardner’s version with Dee Dee Ford, titled “I Need Your Loving,” peaked at #20 in 1962. But I could take this set of relationships far enough to bump into someone who co-wrote a song with Yanni, so I’ll get back to my story now.

As you will hear, Turner belts his tune with the sort of vigor that most appealed to me. You’ll see as the year goes on that I dug saxes, uptempo thumping bass and clever lyrics, even when I had to ask what the heck the singer meant. “People Sure Act Funny” suited me perfectly.

This song gave me a lot of questions to ask my parents: What is cutting cane? Where is Easy Street? What is hitting the numbers? What is a Cheshire cat? I’m sure my parents were glad the song didn’t have racier lyrics. They would have been glad to explain the Cheshire cat to me, and cutting cane is good honest work. My mom probably would have said that Easy Street was pretty far from Montana Street, where we lived. They might very well have told me they didn’t know what hitting the numbers meant, back in the days when there were no state-run lotteries and Gary, Indiana was a city known for its rackets. They wouldn’t want me asking around for a numbers game when I was three.

I played this record a lot, and I remember that it was nearly Ground to Dust. What happened, of course, was that I found it one day in 1972 looking more like a psychedelic Frisbee than a work of musical art. I was pretty disgusted to lose this 45. The flip side was “My Darkest Hour,” which was fitting when I discovered the Great Meltdown, but I didn’t play that song much, if ever. The A side was so good I didn’t need the B side.

The song intrigued me so much that it stuck in my head from 1972 to 1993. I remembered the Cheshire cat, the cane, the numbers, and I wanted that song back. In 1993 I had not heard of the World Wide Web, and I knew of no means other than reading Goldmine to buy 45s. That was far too much work for a guy who had tried to buy albums from a West German dealer in the mid-1980s and had been held back by an inability to acquire the type of money order he requested.

I got really lucky one day during 1993. I was in Tracks, my Bloomington, Indiana record store of choice, and I was scanning the wall of box sets for The Buddah Box, which was due out soon and would contain a lot of songs I wanted. Before Tracks stocked that box, they brought in The Fire/Fury Records Story. Had The Buddah Box arrived first, I might not be telling this story. But to kill time, presumably for a week until the set I was looking for arrived, I checked out the track listing on the two CDs in the Fire/Fury box.

Track 5 on Disc 2 was “People Sure Act Funny.” I remember clearly the moment I read that title: I was facing the wall full of box sets—Led Zeppelin, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues, Phil Spector—and I realized I would do well to keep my eye on all the Various Artist box sets, because people were starting to draw on the material I had loved as a child. It was a beautiful revelation, an energizing moment. At that point I had about thirty CDs, including some of the Rhino Have a Nice Day discs, but the CD reissues I knew of compiled fairly recent hits. Now I have 1000 CDs, and I own a lot of obscure material that some wise people rescued from oblivion.

I bought that 2-CD set, which came in a long box with a nice booklet that I have stored somewhere. I dropped the needle on the CD (well, sort of) and listened to Titus Turner for the first time in 21 years. You can listen to him now, probably for the first time, and then you can look for the box set. But it won’t be easy. This set has been deleted, and a trimmed one-disc version, which still includes “People Sure Act Funny,” is also out of print. A three-disc set of Fire and Fury material, which includes one Turner cut, “Bow Wow,” looks like a good bet, but you won’t find the song of the day there.

It’s a shame that this set has gone out of print, because it offers a great look at such artists as Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lee Dorsey, King Curtis and a young Gladys Knight. If you get hooked on the Turner song, I recommend that you dig around for this collection or get the expanded version of the Fire/Fury compilation.

Keep your eyes and ears open for next week’s posts, because they will feature a very mysterious 45 and a chance to earn some cash! Consider lending me your opinion of the song via the poll to the right as well, if you don’t mind.

Titus Turner, People Sure Act Funny (When They Get a Lotta Money)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Mercury Rules!

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

Of the 300 singles I owned before the Great Meltdown, I can recall four that boasted the Mercury label. That seems like a small number for such a successful label, but remember that most of my 45s were cutouts. I had a couple of dozen records that screamed “DJ copy—Not For Sale” and several more that had small holes punched through the label, a sure sign that everyone had given up on that release. When your record collection consists of 45s on these labels: Enjoy, Gardenia, Lucky Four and IRC, owning four on one major label does mean something. The only labels that represented a greater portion of my collection were Specialty and Imperial, thanks to Little Richard and Fats.

When I was two (years old, not a conjoined twin), I knew I had two Mercury 45s from my parents. The silver/black logo on the Mercury label appealed to me, and I asked my dad who Mercury was. He gave me a quick explanation of Roman mythology and mentioned that Mercury had appeared on the dime before Roosevelt. Since coins were another interest of mine then, I started hoping I would see a Mercury dime soon. It was several years before one turned up in my dad’s change.

I acquired at least two more Mercury singles via Uncle Tom: a Brook Benton 45 that melted, its title forgotten, and a Ray Stevens single I will feature as Halloween approaches. I discussed one Mercury single, “The Stroll,” last time, and now it’s Patti Page’s turn.

This is my third straight post about a song that got significant airplay, so you’ll be wondering if I really own obscure music, as I claim. This blog is primarily about the stories behind my 45s, and a very few of the stories synch up with Top 40 hits. I can promise you the next 45 will be one you almost certainly have never heard on the radio.

You do all know Patti Page, don’t you? Well, just in case: She was born Clara Ann Fowler in 1927, into a poor Oklahoma family. At age 18, she took the job of singing as Patti Page on a Tulsa radio show sponsored by Page Milk; every previous singer on that show had been called Patti Page. Unlike the others, she took the name with her when she was discovered by Jack Rael. When she recorded “Confess” in 1947, Rael dubbed her voice a second time to save hiring another singer. And since people didn’t figure out that she was singing harmony with herself on her songs, she was sometimes credited as “Vocals by Patti Page, Patti Page and Patti Page.” “Tennessee Waltz” was #1 for 13 weeks in 1950-51. She was the best-selling female artist of the 1950s. She acted a significant role in Elmer Gantry in 1960.

At some point in early 1957, my mother bought “Mama from the Train,” Mercury single 70971. The song was written by Gordon Irving (1915-1996), who also composed “Unforgettable,” twice a hit for Nat “King” Cole. The song, about a woman from the Old Country whose syntax caused her daughter some nostalgic amusement, included the phrase “Throw Mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.”

Well, two-year-old caithiseach heard only “Throw Mama from the train” before he lost it. I wasn’t the only person to hear the sinister double-entendre; the movie Throw Mama from the Train owes its title to this song. But when you’re two, and your mother is sitting right there, and a song you’re playing is talking about throwing Mama from the train, who wouldn’t start bawling?

Maybe you wouldn’t cry, but I did. Every time I played the song, I cried. Why didn’t I stop playing the song? That’s what my mom wanted to know. So, the final time I played it, as I sat on the floor by the record player, weeping at the tragedy of the senseless murder, she leaned over me, hands on her knees, and intoned in a creepy voice, “I’m Mama from the Train.”

Oh, did I get mad at that. Part of it was the humiliation of having my feelings mocked, but part of it was that she scared me nearly to death by raising the specter of her actual demise. Looking back, I think I always felt that she was ephemeral in my life, a visitor who had come to give me life and get me started before going away. And she did go away, when I was nine. After ten months of illness, she ceased to struggle and died on January 10, 1970.

When she came at me with that spooky voice, I frowned and said, “I’m going to throw this record away.”

She smirked and said, “Go ahead.”

I snatched it off the turntable and marched into the kitchen. At the end of the counter we had a small square silver garbage can with a foot pedal. I stepped on the pedal. In my memory I can still see the scraps from dinner, potato peelings lying atop other garbage. I stood there, waiting for her to rescue me from my stubbornness. She didn’t come to tell me I was being silly. My dad didn’t come to tell me I was going to regret it. I dropped the 45 on the pile of garbage. I looked at it. No one came. I took my foot off the pedal, and the lid dropped. And that was that. No one reproached me, but no one told me to get the record back. I think they were done with the bitter sobbing over the fate of poor Mama, lying in a heap on the railroad tracks.

In 1983, I started to think about the song again. I finally went to the record store and sifted through the Patti Page albums until I found one with “Mama from the Train” on it. I took it back to my apartment, steeled myself, and dropped the needle on the vinyl.

It wasn’t the same recording.

The 45 began with no introduction, and this recording started with strings. It wasn’t even in the same key. Exasperated, I drove right back to the record store and looked more closely until I found an LP that guaranteed me the original recording. There was no way I was going to ask the clerk to put that song on for me to check it.

This time, I did have the right version. As a test of my memory, I hummed the first note before I played the song, and I hit it right on. And as soon as Patti Page sang “Throw Mama from the train,” everything came back, and I wept, first for my mom, and then for the willful loss of a 45 that had linked us.

It took me a couple of days to realize that I had not heard the song for twenty years, not since I was two, and yet I remembered how the record should start and the pitch of Patti’s voice. Obviously, the song had entrenched itself in my memory.

“Mama from the Train” hit the charts on October 27, 1956, reached the Top 40 on November 3, 1956 and peaked at #11. As you listen, remember that no one is really throwing Mama from the train. Trust me, it will help you if you keep that in mind.

Patti Page, “Mama from the Train”

Friday, January 4, 2008


(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

Life often provides juxtapositions that would ring false in fiction. One such coincidence from my life has to do with diamonds and dust, and it started with the flip side of a very successful 45.

Among my obscure 45s were a few genuine huge hits. Those records predated my Uncle Tom’s relentless purchases of cutout 45s, twenty for a dollar. As I said last time, “The Gypsy Rover” by the Highwaymen was one 45 that sold well and was Ground to Dust by me on my little record player. Another GTD 45 was “The Stroll” by the Diamonds.

The story of “The Stroll” goes as follows: Philadelphia kids appearing on American Bandstand started doing a new line dance to “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. Dick Clark, always with an eye for the Next Big Thing, had something to do with nudging Clyde Otis and Nancy Lee into writing a song named after the dance. Clyde Otis worked for Mercury Records, the Diamonds’ label, and the collaboration (with Otis as producer) jumped onto the Billboard charts on December 30, 1957, crossing the Top 40 threshold on January 6, 1958 and peaking at #4.

Clyde Otis did A&R work for Mercury, and his biggest contribution to the label’s legacy was his long association with Brook Benton, both as songwriter and producer. Nancy Lee registered 22 other titles with BMI, but no other composition approached the success of “The Stroll.” Nancy was a minor when she co-wrote the song, and her mother had to sign as her guardian. You can see the songwriters’ contract for “The Stroll” here: http://www.thejukejoint.com/strolsonwrit.html

In case you are way too young to have heard of the Diamonds, here’s a bit on them. David Somerville worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto in the early 1950s. Before a TV broadcast he met the Diamonds: Stan Fisher (lead), Ted Kowalski (tenor), Phil Levitt (baritone) and Bill Reed (bass). Somerville liked their sound and became their manager. When Stan Fisher decided before a Christmas performance that he needed to study for a university exam, Somerville took the lead, and the group was a hit. The Fisher-less Diamonds signed with Mercury Records after a brief stint with Coral, and they were on their way to fifteen Top 40 hits.

Shortly after they recorded “The Stroll,” the members started to leave the group, with Somerville departing last in 1961. From everything I can find on the subject, the original four sang “The Stroll” and its B side, “Land of Beauty,” which is the actual subject of this post.

The single, Mercury 71242, came into my possession before I turned three years old. I knew which Mercury 45 (of several I owned) was “The Stroll,” and I dug the sax and the twelve-bar blues. The scan of the 45 shows how much love that song got from me.

As much as I enjoyed “The Stroll,” I started playing the flip once the hit side was Ground to Dust. That song, “Land of Beauty,” was written by George Stone, whose other works include some Hawaiian-themed songs. “Land of Beauty,” however, refers to Mexico, which is described as a “land of beauty where gardenias grow.” It’s a classic example of what I’ll call Mexploitation, the use of idealized or patronizing Mexican themes to sell records. This song is not too bad as such things go, especially compared to such odious works as Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales.”

The orchestra on this side was led by David Carroll, born Nook Schrier in Chicago in 1913. Carroll had a couple of hits on his own, including the #8 hit “Melody of Love” in 1955. He conducted hits for Patti Page and other Mercury artists as well.

“Land of Beauty” mentions crossing the border at Calexico, the California twin city of Mexicali, the capital of Baja California Norte. References to a young caballero, siestas, the Rio Grande, a sombrero, a fiesta, dust and drifting sands intrigued me when I was three and provided me with a positive if clichéd image of this place called Mexico.

And therein lies the seed of the odd juxtaposition in my life. After a couple of years of studying Spanish in high school, I traveled to Mexico to study as an exchange student. (Thank you, AATSP!) On the flight from Chicago to Mexico City in June, 1979, what song played itself over and over in my mind? “Land of Beauty.” I never saw a real Mexican wearing the type of sombrero George Stone mentioned in his song, but I was quite the young caballero, I took plenty of siestas, and I was a hit at fiestas. I wound up traveling to Mexico (always spending most of the trip in my host family’s city, Colima) a dozen times.

But after all that long-gone experience with Mexico, I still have this song. As of 2006 it appears on the Diamonds compilation Rare Gems, Volume One, released on SnailWorx. Be sure to buy this CD of Diamonds rarities to complete your collection. If you need just a few tracks, you can find them on Rhapsody. Enjoy the song!

This post owes a debt to Wikipedia, mostly for confirming things I already knew. Chart info came from the Joel Whitburn books, as it always will.

Next time, I’ll look at another Mercury single my parents owned. See you Wednesday!

The Diamonds, “Land of Beauty” mp3

My label, "Land of Beauty"

My label, "The Stroll"

Newer 45, "Land of Beauty"

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Great Vinyl Meltdown – Welcome! Who Am I?

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

Welcome to the first post of a blog that is designed to explore one year’s worth of music. My name is Seán Dwyer, and I have been writing about music for more than ten years. I never thought I would blog; I can’t even maintain a journal for more than three days.

Recently I discovered music blogs, and I read several each day. These bloggers all do superb research and share interesting facts I can add to my store of knowledge. I learn from them, but I didn’t feel an urge to write on topics they probably covered before I began reading them.

A couple of days ago (I’m writing on October 17, 2007), I awoke with an idea for a music blog. It would let me elaborate on music topics I have discussed on my website (http://www.sdwyer.net/). I liked the idea of keeping the blog’s scope finite by talking only about old vinyl I own.

So, I am going to talk in these pages about my collection of 45 rpm records, songs recorded mostly from 1956 to 1965. Special circumstances allowed me to amass a collection of very obscure 45s, many of which deserved their obscurity. If you are reading this blog, you probably find obscure recordings intriguing, so I look forward to bringing you some new sounds.

I will post twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. The remainder of this first post will serve as background for the blog project and discuss the inaugural single.

When I was two years old, I demanded to hear music so often that I drove my parents crazy. They taught me to use the record player to get me off their backs. I asked the name of each record, committed the label to memory, and could thereafter pull a specific song from the pile and carefully drop the needle on the vinyl. You can listen to my reaction to a Christmas present of new records and a record player here:


My parents’ music collection got me started. They had a bunch of LPs, including The Fabulous Johnny Cash by—well, never mind—and a stereo sound-effects record designed to show off the owner’s new stereophonic sound system. (We didn’t have stereo then.) They had a small pile of 45s, including some Elvis, Patti Page and the Chordettes. Elvis doesn’t matter to this blog, but the other two 45s have stories I’ll tell later despite their status as Top 40 hits.

My mother’s brother, Tom, bought me 45s at the Big Top department store on Broadway, just a few feet south of Gary, Indiana. There he could buy twenty singles for a dollar. I never got tired of receiving the records, and he seemed never to grow tired of buying them.

I wound up with more than 300 45s, most by people you’ve never heard of. I would document all of them here, to keep their obviously sincere artists from oblivion, were it not for the Great Meltdown.

One day around 1972, I was ordered to put my cardboard box of vinyl on the enclosed back porch. The box sat under a window that allowed direct sunlight to hit the records. Virtually all of the LPs and about two hundred of the singles warped beyond repair. I tossed them, never thinking that I could more easily reacquire the songs at some point if I had the names.

Since the mid-1990s I have been finding the melted songs either on 45s or reissued on CD. The tricky thing is that I had to remember titles of 45s I had not seen for more than twenty years. I have remembered maybe fifty of the melted titles, and another hundred are locked deep in my memory. Considering that the Meltdown occurred 35 years ago, I’m not too upset with myself. Over the course of the year, I’ll tell a story or two about how I remembered titles I reacquired.

My 45s fall into three categories. One is “Ground to Dust,” the 45s I played until the groove was no longer a groove. When I post them, I will post listenable versions if they’re available. A second bunch of songs are the Rescued, those I have reacquired since their loss in the Great Meltdown. The third group is the Survivors, songs on 45s that were at the bottom of my box when the Great Meltdown occurred. It’s strange, but many of the Survivors were favorites of mine, and a few were Ground to Dust. You would think all of the best songs would be on top of the pile for easy access, and thus melted, but good 45s must have guardian angels.

Since 1972, all of the Survivors are still with me. They have survived my years in college, life in six different cities, and a couple of pets who might have enjoyed gnawing or scratching the vinyl.

And now, a song. This first tune (of at least 104 to come) fits the Ground to Dust category. The 45 survived the Great Meltdown, but it was pretty crackly even in 1972. Though my Uncle Tom bought most of my 45s, I’m sure my mom bought “The Gypsy Rover”/“Cotton Fields,” because I remember her singing the song when I was little. It was too big a hit for Uncle Tom to have given it to me. The song is not extremely rare, but its story can be kept short, so it suits my needs today.

The Highwaymen, college friends at Wesleyan University, rode the crest of the early 1960s folk craze to #1 with “Michael” in 1961. Based on typical music-industry thinking, they were told to follow up that whistling song with another. “The Gypsy Rover” (United Artists 370) almost made the Top 40, peaking at #42, but DJs stalled it by playing its intended flip, “Cotton Fields,” which did reach #13 in 1962.

Leo Maguire (1903-1985) wrote the song as “The Whistling Gypsy.” He was a singer and Dublin radio broadcaster, one devoted to maintaining the heritage of Irish music. He wrote this song in response to the notion that all Irish ballads end with the death of a lover. The Highwaymen’s version leaves out a couple of verses from the middle of the story, no doubt to keep the song a radio-friendly length. You can find more lyrics here: http://www.mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=2460 and an even longer set of lyrics here: http://ingeb.org/songs/thegypsy.html.

The producer of the recording was Don Costa (1925-1983), a major force in 1960s pop. He arranged vocals for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, produced Paul Anka and Lloyd Price, and became Frank Sinatra’s arranger at Reprise. He got his daughter, Nikka Costa, into the business, and he died when she was ten. She sang with Sinatra, and she still has a substantial music career going.

Thirty years after the single’s release, I started asking the manager of Tracks, my favorite record shop in Bloomington, Indiana, to let me know if a Highwaymen compilation ever made it to CD. After several months, she flagged me down and told me their compilation had just arrived in the store. She said she had never expected it. We played “The Gypsy Rover” on the store’s CD player. Despite the charm of 45s, this remastered stereo version of the song was a far superior listening experience.

The source of “The Gypsy Rover” is “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”: The Best of the Highwaymen. United Artists (EMI) 0777-7-96334-2 5. The copyright date of the CD is 1992. I hope you will enjoy this beautiful song and purchase the CD, which is full of cleanly recorded and historic if somewhat tame folk recordings.

As a side note, I should mention that Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings released two albums (1985 and 1990) under the name “Highwayman.” Confusion ensued, and a lawsuit brought the Highwaymen and Highwayman together on stage on October 1, 1990 in Los Angeles. The performers on “The Gypsy Rover” are Dave Fisher, Steve Butts, Bob Burnett, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott.

A comment on the labels shown is in order. You can see, by looking at my original 45 and the replacement I found a couple of years ago, that the typesetting and the information provided varied as additional pressings were ordered. The name of Leo Maguire is misspelled as well. If you look at both scans, you can see that the surface of my original 45 is gray—a sign that the record was Ground to Dust by a multitude of plays.

Give the song a listen, and let me know what you think of these guys via the poll module. Next time, we leave Ireland for Mexico. See you Saturday!

The Highwaymen, “The Gypsy Rover”
Label-My 45
Label-Newer 45