Friday, February 15, 2008

Dixieland Pop Exposure

I’m sure my Uncle Tom didn’t look closely at the 45s he bought for me. He would walk into the Big Top department store near Gary, grab 20 singles from the cutout bin, lay down his dollar and two cents for the tax, and bring the records to me. If he had inspected his choices carefully, he would have noticed that, on a couple of occasions, he brought me two copies of the same 45 in the same batch.

He also would have noticed that he was bringing me an incredibly wide variety of music, the majority of which I appreciated thoroughly. The 45s, often either DJ copies (Not For Sale!) or cutouts (hole through the label), consisted of a healthy dose of R&B, some fun pop, and the occasional “Warsaw Concerto” or “Sabre Dance.”

Thus, Uncle Tom gave me the broadest musical education of any one human being. Others have shown me specific genres in greater depth, but nearly every musical genre I have heard (that existed as of 1966 or so) appeared among the 45s I received from Uncle Tom. When, on a subsequent visit, I would corner him and make him listen to some of the songs he had bought me, he didn’t flinch. I think he got it: I was an open-minded music fiend.

I received a couple of Latin singles, but I didn’t receive any African music on 45; you pretty much had to buy LPs to get genuine ethnic music. Another flavor of music I never acquired via Uncle Tom was Dixieland-style music.

Dixieland comes to mind because I mentioned on Wednesday that I could hear Nat “King” Cole’s “Send for Me” only at my grandparents’ house. Today’s song falls into that category as well. On our visits to Shoals, Indiana, my grandfather often played music for me. I remember a lot of Nat, and a lot of Celtic tunes, and a banjo plucking the melody of “Tom Dooley.” I asked my dad what song that one was, and he had to ask his dad.

My grandfather, who had begun to work in the coal mines of Beckley, West Virginia in 1911, when he was nine years old, had another banjo tune he played for me. I remember this song as the background music for a TV commercial full of black-and-white Depression-era images, so I always associated the song with the Great Depression. Unlike “Tom Dooley,” I didn’t ask the name of this song, and so I never knew what it was.

Finally, random chance gave me the song’s name. In 1996 I bought a Rhino CD called Cocktail Mix Volume 2: Martini Madness. I bought it for another song, one I’ll discuss on February 27. Track 16 of the CD was the song whose name I didn’t know: “Washington Square.” This version was by Dick Hyman & His Orchestra.

It will seem odd to you that I could remain ignorant of the name of such a famous song for so long. Try to keep in mind that, while I had email in 1996, I didn’t have much access yet to this thing they called the World Wide Web, and it was another couple of years before it became an ingrained habit to do an internet search for anything, especially a song I knew from just the melody. Right now I can hold my phone up to a speaker and identify a song, but folks, it’s 2008, and a lot of technology has developed in twelve years.

So, the song was “Washington Square.” And a quick look at my Top 40 Hits book gave me the probable artist: the Village Stompers. Just about the time I was ready to seek the song, Collectables, a favorite label of mine, issued a twofer of Village Stompers LPs from 1963-64. And so I got the song, and a whole lot more Dixieland-style tunes, in pristine transfers, some of the cleanest I’ve ever heard. I never actually owned either the 45 or the LP, so I didn’t lose the song in the Great Meltdown. But I did lose access to the song when trips to Shoals became less frequent, so that counts for a loss of some sort.

The song itself had an interesting genesis. The writer, Bob Goldstein, who now goes by Bobb Goldsteinn, wrote the melody before he entered high school. He came up with the idea of fusing a folk beginning for the song and morphing it into a Dixieland tune. That approach suited the Village Stompers, whom I’ll discuss in a moment. But Mr. Goldsteinn wasn’t a one-hit wonder, unlike the Stompers.

Bobb Goldsteinn worked with Woody Allen and Andy Warhol, and it was Goldsteinn’s idea to synch lights to the sounds emanating from the turntables in disco clubs. So, we owe him for the lights that pound out the beat of Donna Summer’s tunes. And what did he call it? “Multimedia.” He’ll take credit for inventing the term.

Mr. Goldsteinn says he came up with the idea for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album cover, which features an Andy Warhol photograph. Designed by Craig Braun to have a real zipper, the cover impressed fans and annoyed record stores, since it scratched the cover of any album in front of it.

Bobb Goldsteinn produced the albums by the GoldeBriars, a 1960s folk group that included Curt Boettcher, who wound up producing albums for Tommy Roe and the Association and serving as an influence on Brian Wilson.

The Village Stompers recorded a pair of LPs for Epic. The first LP was a #5 smash on the strength of its #2 single, “Washington Square,” Epic 9617. Joe Sherman, co-writer of “Ramblin’ Rose,” produced the recording and sorted out the arrangement of the banjo-to-Dixieland-to-banjo concept. The song hit the Top 40 on October 5, 1963 and spent about three months there.

The Stompers—Dick Brady, Ralph Casale, Don Coates, Frank Hubbell, Mitchell May, Al McManus, Joe Muranyi and Lenny Pogan—hit the Hot 100 twice more, with “From Russia with Love” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” but that was the extent of their chart action.

“Washington Square” was, according to Bobb Goldsteinn, a huge favorite of Japanese listeners. Them, and one three-year-old Irish-American kid.

Village Stompers, Washington Square

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