Friday, January 11, 2008

Cheshire Cats

(Versión en español:

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)


Julie Hibbard said...

Could hardly wait to drop the needle on the MP3 of the glad I did!
This is the best song yet! LOVE it!
It's funny...maybe it's the vivid way you set up the reader to hear the song, but I was picturing YOU and your folks, and your record player--even the surroundings--when I was listening. I saw you pick up the needle and start the song over again...
You really are an amazing writer, Sean. You're able to convey and have others experience YOUR memories while listening to the song. Thanks for sharing that! I am really enjoying this...
Well done.

Girasole said...

I like some music simply because of the setting in which I hear it. Experiencing new songs through the curious and lively mind of three year old caithiseach, makes each one of these, irresistible.
I admire your depth of knowledge in providing the background information imbedded within your stories. Thanks for inviting us into your world of music!

stackja1945 said...

My experience of such music was mostly Fats and Lloyd Price never heard of Titus Turner. Of course heard of Ike and Tina. You are now part of a all new experience.