Friday, January 4, 2008

Mexico!

(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"

3 comments:

Julie Hibbard said...

First off, YOU are too young to remember The Diamonds! But thank you for this great lesson in their treasures!
I love this post!

Wow! You put me on your blog list?
I am honored! Yikes! I better start taking it a little more seriously! :)

Joanne said...

Sean, this is very interesting, as you stated...interesting ditty there on the Diamonds

stackja1945 said...

Again I have not heard of The Diamonds, “Land of Beauty” but remember the The Diamonds Little Darlin'. A look at my email address mentions my birth year. Am I that old? Only seems yesterday.
I still like Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales.” So we disagree.