Friday, March 28, 2008

No Pain, No Gain

I’ve mentioned before that few of my 45s were double-sided caithiseach hits when I was little. Among the artists I’ve profiled so far, only the Highwaymen single and the Marlin Greene single got equal A/B play in my world. Today’s 45 is a third: I flipped “La Dee Dah (Ha Ha Ha)” by Jerry Jackson and found “You Don’t Wanna Hurt Me” attractive as well.

My modus operandi when I feature both sides of a single on the blog has been to focus on the artist’s history on Wednesday and some other aspect of the 45 on Saturday. I’ve told you what I know about Jerry Jackson, one of the best singers to cross my platter when I was little. And now I get to discuss a couple of his songwriters.

Michael (Mickey) Gentile co-wrote “You Don’t Wanna Hurt Me.” He wrote tunes recorded by Barbara McNair and Marvin Gaye, including “I Wish I Liked You (As Much As I Love You).” He was a frequent collaborator with songwriter Jennie Lee Lambert, who recorded “First Summer of Our Love”/“Hey Mr. Scientist” for the Musicor label in 1961.

Mickey Gentile is credited vaguely with production work for Motown, but short of buying a bunch of CDs just to see the notes, I’m afraid I’m not coming up with much concrete information. There is, however, a Mickey Gentile connection about whom I know a bit more.

Gentile and Lambert co-wrote “Hey Mr. Scientist,” and one singer who covered it was a guy named Jeff Barry. Later, Jeff Barry co-wrote “You Don’t Wanna Hurt Me” with Mickey Gentile.

Now, depending on your depth of musical knowledge, either a billion bells are sounding, or you’re shrugging your shoulders. The rest of this post, and the next two, are for the shoulder-shruggers, but if you think you know Jeff Barry, I can still educate all but one or two of you, and you know who you are.

When I was first playing this Jerry Jackson recording, I couldn’t read the label. I depended on visual memory of each label to know which record I was playing. My parents gave me the name of the artist and the title of the song, and then, from age two on, I pulled the records I wanted to play from the stack almost without error. (I did make two serious mis-associations, but I’ll discuss them in September.)

Three-year-old caithiseach knew the artist and the title of his 45s, but he never asked what the names in parentheses (the songwriters) meant. I figured out their significance as soon as I learned that my uncle’s name was in the parentheses of one 45 I owned, but I left the rest of the little names alone until I could read them myself.

Once I did see that (Barry-Gentile) had written “You Don’t Wanna Hurt Me,” I didn’t connect it with Jeff Barry, who sang next week’s songs. But now, I know this song to be a somewhat early effort from the man who turned out to be the third-most-successful American pop songwriter of the rock era, behind Carole King and Lionel Richie.

Jeff Barry was born April 3, 1938 in Brooklyn. Signed to RCA records in 1958, he had little success as a recording artist for RCA, but he placed some compositions with hitmakers, including “Teenage Sonata” with Sam Cooke (#50, 1960) and “Tell Laura I Love Her” with Ray Peterson (#7, 1960).

While I adored the Jeff Barry songs I’ll feature next week, I also loved a few tunes I didn’t own on 45 but heard on the radio: “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” “Leader of the Pack” and “Chapel of Love.” They, along with “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” by the Beatles (yes, I DO know the real title now) and “Downtown” by Petula Clark, made up the soundtrack of my life between birth and kindergarten.

And, apart from “Downtown” and “She Loves You,” they were all written by Jeff Barry. I just didn’t know it.

Now you know it, too, and so I ask you to give this song a listen. There is so much more to say about Jeff as his 70th birthday approaches that his career, like Gaul, must be divided into three parts. See you Wednesday and Saturday with more details of Jeff’s career.

Jerry Jackson, You Don’t Wanna Hurt Me

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Last Laugh

First, a quick note about last Saturday’s post: I mentioned the Marlin Green website designed by Hideki Watanabe, but the link didn’t transfer to my flash drive, and I was so far from home when I posted I could not fix the matter. So, here is the excellent site devoted to Marlin:

Hideki Watanabe

And now, the new post:

Some songs written for adults were just made to please kids. I don’t even mean songs for kids that have double entendres to attract adults, like that “knick knack paddy whack” thing, which sounds like a double entendre to me. I mean songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “La Dee Dah (Ha Ha Ha),” which are cheery enough and catchy enough to get such cognoscenti as three-year-old caithiseach groovin’.

I won’t discuss the Crystals this year, but the latter song wasn’t a hit, and even now I have trouble believing it flopped. When I was three, it ranked #2 on my playlist, behind next Wednesday’s song. Mind you, there were a couple of hits that got my attention around the time I was three, like “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” by the Beatles. But that’s another example of a chorus designed to hook kids and make them bug their parents to buy the 45.

I played “La Dee Dah” a lot, and when I had the record player turned off, I sang it a lot. And my mom smiled and sang it with me, bless her heart. My Uncle Tom got the record for a nickel, and it was the second-best investment of a nickel he ever made in music, as far as I am concerned.

The artist is Jerry Jackson, who never charted nationally. I know more about him than some of the other No-Hit Wonders, thanks to excellent liner notes in the Bear Family compilation Jerry Jackson: Shrimp Boats A-Comin’ (BCD 15481). If you don’t know the Bear Family way of remastering music, you should explore the matter.

Jerry Jackson’s voice had the fluid ease of Sam Cooke’s when he approached a song, without the vocal mannerisms that helped you spot Sam a mile away. Jerry handled various pop dialects well, from Brook Benton-styled pop to Drifters R&B, to Motown, to ska.

Why couldn’t such a versatile performer click with the music-buying public? He was forced to handle various pop dialects well. No one let him settle into a style long enough to develop an audience. Most of the approaches were false starts, to be sure, especially the ska versions of “Shrimp Boats” and, if you can believe it, the Irving Berlin standard “Always.”

An overview of his career has Jerry recording singles for Kapp Records from April, 1961 to July, 1963. He was allowed to release eight singles, and he recorded two tracks that would have been his ninth. After his dismissal from Kapp, Jerry recorded three singles in two 1964 sessions for Columbia. Why did such a big label sign a singer who had failed eight times before to chart? Jerry Jackson could sing, and everyone wanted him to succeed.

My personal take on his sound would be that he should have continued in the 1961 “La Dee Dah” vein; this song (and its flip) give the sought-after Brook Benton feel to his work, and eventually Jerry might have gone somewhere with it. Jerry even recorded a tune co-written by Clyde Otis, “If I Had Only Known”; Otis wrote “The Stroll” and produced/composed for Brook Benton.

Instead, by October 1962, Bob Crewe was producing him, recording songs Crewe had written with Bob Gaudio of the Royal Teens and the Four Seasons. In fact, the Four Seasons sang on the four Crewe-produced tracks. A later track, “It Hurts Me,” produced by Allen Stanton, made it into Elvis Presley’s repertoire soon thereafter and reached #29 for Elvis. If you compare the two recordings, you can see where Elvis got his stylings for this cut. So close, and yet so far, for Jerry Jackson.

When Columbia dropped him, Jerry, a Connecticut native, did what he probably wanted to do all along and took up gospel music with his relatives in the Jackson Family, based in Tampa, Florida. Given those other Jacksons, from my hometown of Gary, Indiana, it’s difficult to Google Jerry and get meaningful data about his Jackson Family days. He could easily still be working the circuit. If so, I want to hear him.

Today’s single, my #2 hit from Uncle Tom’s five-cent cutouts, was recorded on October 31, 1961. Bob Johnston produced it. Johnston, apart from writing hits like the spectacular “What’s A Matter Baby,” which was credited to his wife, Joy Byers, eventually produced a couple of solid acts for Columbia: Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash . . .

The song’s writers were Larry Kusik and Don Wolf. Kusik penned nearly 300 songs, including “As If I Didn’t Know” for Adam Wade. Wolf wrote half as many songs, but one of them was a set of lyrics for Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.”

My copy of the 45, Kapp K-448, is a white-label DJ copy. I know one other person who owned this record, Joe Katz. Finding that he and his children loved this song as much as I did was an amazing experience. Now I’m giving it to you for a listen, and I hope you dig it as well.

A note about the track: Bear Family did an impeccable job of remastering the Jackson masters, but the stereo rendering has Jerry’s vocals in one channel rather than centered. Since I was used to the mono single, I took the track and doubled the drums, then moved the vocals to the center. It’s still in stereo, but if you want the original Bear Family stereo mix, do them (and Jerry) the favor of buying this really superb 24-track collection.

When you listen to the song, be sure to listen to the whole fadeout. It's a fun song to the very last second.

On Saturday, I’ll reach another post I’ve been looking forward to writing. It’s the B side of “La Dee Dah,” but this time, the songwriter is the key to my experience. See you on the flip side!

Jerry Jackson, La Dee Dah (Ha Ha Ha)

Friday, March 21, 2008

You Just Never Know

Versión en español:

Version en français:

So far this year, I’ve discussed the recording careers of several people who didn’t quite make it: Titus Turner, the Five Whispers, Danny Kellarney, and Buddy Sheppard. This week, I’ve been writing about another talented singer who never hit the Top 40, Marlin Greene. Though his song “General of Broken Hearts” was my preferred side of his single when I was little, I have come to appreciate the B side, “If It Takes a Fool” (Philips 40103, 1963) as a tight little rocker with a message that foreshadows “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” in a much less somber way.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I’ve not found production information for these tracks. I can speculate that Marlin himself may have been the guitarist, for reasons I’ll address in a moment. If he was being considered nothing but a singer in 1963, though, he may have been ushered in to sing against a completed backing track. Bruce Gist wrote this song with David Briggs, who has done some work for television and written the occasional song. Like Gist, he doesn’t seem to have any standards to his credit.

Something about these two sides made Marlin’s record stick with me far longer than most of my pre-Great Meltdown 45s. And for some reason I can’t pin down, about the time I started working regularly as a music journalist, I decided to dig into the career of Marlin Greene. I know one goal was to thank him for cutting a record I could associate so strongly with my mom.

It was 2000 before I got around to doing a serious search for him. First, I came upon a site devoted to Marlin, designed by Hideki Watanabe. There I learned that he had released nine singles between 1957 and 1972, so he was not a One-Cut Wonder, for sure. Two of his singles were on RCA, which shows that he was not completely ignored by the industry. He wrote some of his own material. None of his singles charted nationally.

Marlin earned himself an Elektra recording contract for 1972, and he released an album, Tiptoe Past the Dragon (EKS-75028). The album seemed to have been ignored, but of course I instantly developed a need to own it. However, Elektra didn’t see fit to release it on CD at any point.

Further perusal of Mr. Watanabe’s website showed that Marlin had a parallel career as a recording engineer and a producer, and that’s where I was taken aback.

One song he produced was “When a Man Loves a Woman,” for Percy Sledge. Marlin is the guitarist on that recording.

Everything changed for me then. We’re talking legendary here.

Rick Hall, the owner of Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, gave his overflow work to Quin Ivy, who opened a recording studio nearby for that purpose. Rick Hall turned down an opportunity to record Percy Sledge, and Ivy borrowed Marlin Greene to co-produce “When a Man Loves a Woman” and play guitar. When Ivy took the results to Rick Hall, I wonder if time stood still: Hall immediately recognized what he held in his hands, and he called Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. You know the rest.

From there, Percy Sledge recorded some Ivy-Greene compositions, and Marlin continued to produce the singer. Then he got involved with the Alabama State Troupers, as well as a little outfit called the Allman Joys; he had something to do with producing “Take a Letter, Maria” for R.B. Greaves, and he sang on Sailcat’s “Motorcycle Mama.”

If you know the names Eddie Hinton, Don Nix, Jeannie Greene and Dan Penn, you know people whose work was touched significantly by Marlin Greene. He may have been involved in some work Sonny & Cher did in Alabama, but I’m still digging up details of that possibility. Essentially, Marlin was a large part of the Muscle Shoals Sound.

I found an unopened copy of Tiptoe Past the Dragon, and I bought it. It’s a solid collection of songs that Marlin wrote himself. If you can find it, go for it. I think I’ll put up a short track here, the title cut.

Now that I was so impressed with Marlin’s legacy, I really wanted to drop him a note if I could find him. In addition to all the search results for old references to Marlin Greene the musician, there were search-engine hits for another Marlin Greene, who worked in a completely different field. My search didn’t pan out.

Finally, though, I came across one article that mentioned Marlin Greene the musician and the other Marlin Greene—they were the same guy after all. So I wrote to Marlin Greene. It turned out I had gotten into the same field he had, and we talked about collaborating on a software product.

Eventually, in May, 2006, I was in the same city as Marlin, and we met. If you have never sat down and talked to one of your most admired heroes, I recommend the experience, should you be able to manage it without being a complete idiot in the presence of said icon.

Marlin doesn’t do music any more. But here’s what he did in the 1960s: I spoke with Percy Sledge this past summer, and when I brought up Marlin Greene, the gleam in Mr. Sledge’s eye brought tears to mine. He said Marlin “was my backbone, as far as Percy Sledge was concerned. There would never have been a Percy Sledge without Marlin Greene. . . . Without Marlin, it would never have happened.” Marlin also rescued another hit, “Take Time to Know Her,” which was almost scrapped because of racy lyrics.

And so, Marlin Greene didn’t chart on his own, except as a backing vocalist. But he produced a #1 hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and he brought back a #11 hit, “Take Time to Know Her,” from oblivion.

Don’t forget this fact, as related by Percy Sledge regarding the guitar work on “When a Man Loves a Woman”: “Like everybody else, we thought it was the smoothest, sweetest picking that a guitar player ever put in a ballad, an R&B song. Even that guitar part in ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ doesn’t touch Marlin Greene.”

There’s a legacy-making statement for you.

If you want to learn more about Marlin’s music, a good starting point is the Hideki Watanabe site. There you will see the scans of my 45, credited to “Mr. Sean.” Another site shows those scans, one put together by Terry Gordon to chronicle rockabilly music. Mr. Gordon credits Hideki Watanabe for the scans, since he pulled them from that site, but if you look at the “H” in “Philips,” you will see the telltale handwritten number 88, which guarantees that it’s my 45 on display.

Marlin Greene has been a part of my musical consciousness since I developed one. I’m glad to bring him to yours, if he’s not already there. Thanks for reading. Next time, I’ll bring you a singer who should have been a star, and we’re one track away from another hero of mine. See you Wednesday!

Marlin Greene, If It Takes a Fool

Tiptoe Past the Dragon

If It Takes a Fool label scan

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My Military Experience

My three brothers, whom I have not mentioned before, all became military men. Blond Brother stayed in the Army long enough to retire, but he had to be a peacekeeper in Bosnia and do two year-long tours in Iraq before he reached that point. He retired as a colonel, and I suspect he would have stayed in long enough to become a general were it not for all that sand.

Twin of Blond Brother is still in the Navy, and probably will be for life. Why not? He lives on the ocean and has a sweet niche carved out for himself.

SWAT Team Brother was an MP for most of his time in the Army, and now he is a peacekeeper in Texas. You may have seen him on Court TV.

While the two Army brothers worked their way up the ranks, I kept track of where they stood in the overall scheme of military things by referencing two works of art: Gomer Pyle, USMC and today’s song.

Gomer Pyle helped me remember that rank goes up from private to corporal to sergeant to lieutenant. (This was my take on things, not the precise order of real-world military rank.) And today’s song states that “There’d be a colonel and a major and a captain, too, following me.” Once Blond Brother got to lieutenant, I knew what was in store for him, thanks to one of my favorite 45s, “General of Broken Hearts” by Marlin Greene.

This song is fraught with memories, old and new, so many that the discussion of the other side of the single will be longer than a usual Saturday post so I can fit everything in. As I said last time, I have been looking forward to getting to March 19 so I could write this reminiscence.

I’ll start with how the song first impacted me. Neither side of “General of Broken Hearts” (Philips 40103, 1963) charted. My 45 is a regular copy, not a DJ copy, but it is a cutout: note the hole punched in the label. I liked that label. I don’t know what the logo, with its stars and wavy lines, is meant to indicate, but three-year-old caithiseach appreciated the clean layout and the rainbow stripe across the diameter of the label.

In fact, this experience with Philips carried over into vicarious pride when I learned in the early 1980s that Philips was co-developing the compact disc with Sony. That’s why I buy compact discs these days. Well, maybe it’s the music, but I haven’t forgotten the Philips contribution.

Of course, I liked the song, or the label wouldn’t matter to me. The drumming has a martial cadence to it, as one might expect from a song about an army, and that synched up nicely with an album of military music I owned, probably thanks to my dad’s own time in the Navy.

What the drumming in this song did, by the time I turned five, was make me decide I would like to learn to play the drums. And once I started my lessons with Keith Leach at Sparks Music on Broadway in Gary, Indiana, “General of Broken Hearts” was one of the first songs I tried to learn at home.

My hands were so small that Keith found me slim drumsticks, very elegant ones with nylon tips, to use instead of the clunky thick ones that were standard beginner fare. I took them home with my practice pad and played to the music in the book, then tossed my favorite 45s on the record player and played along.

I remembered just now that, before I started playing the drums, I used to ride a rocking horse I had in time to the music. Depending on the song that was playing, the horse bouncing against the floor could make as much noise as my drumming, so it was pretty much an even trade noise-wise when I started using those sticks.

When I thought I had figured out “General of Broken Hearts,” I asked my mom to come to listen to me play along with the record. By then I had received for Christmas a real stereo with a Garrard automatic changer. I turned on the stereo and sat beside her on my bed. I played the song, and she nodded approvingly.

About three years later, my mother died, and in the chaos leading up to her death, my drum lessons fell by the wayside. But this first foray into public performance, with an audience of one, and one I thought I could count on for a good review at that, flows back into my conscious mind instantly, 40 years later. Marlin Greene’s voice woven into the rolls on the snare drum, matched by my thumps on the rubber practice pad, my mom’s patient smile, her hand tapping the beat on her knee.

If she were still around, this memory might not be so significant to me.

The song was written by Bruce Gist. He has registered a respectable 123 compositions with BMI, but none shows signs of having been a huge hit. There is no production credit listed on the 45, and since no one has seen fit to reissue the Philips sides on CD, I don’t have any liner notes to work from. Thus, one of my favorite 45s, a true Survivor that escaped the fate of being Ground to Dust because I played it mostly on a good turntable, is keeping as many secrets as it reveals.

And yet, I haven’t mentioned the singer, Marlin Greene. I’ll tell you that I love his voice, and I love the album he released in 1972. But there’s so much to say about Marlin that I’m going to hold it back for Saturday. For now, enjoy this tune and this voice, and forgive my decision to split the story into two parts. See you Saturday on the flip side!

Marlin Greene, General of Broken Hearts

General of Broken Hearts label scan

Friday, March 14, 2008

Another One That Almost Got Away

As much as I liked my 45s when I was a kid, I had my favorite side for each disc, and I rarely played the other side. I didn’t base my choice of songs on the label’s suggested A side; I just played what I liked. Without looking, I can’t tell you what was on the other side of “Mama from the Train” or “People Sure Act Funny.”

“Land of Beauty” was one flip side I played frequently, which made “The Stroll” a two-sided smash on the caithiseach record player. Both “The Gypsy Rover” and “Cotton Fields” wound up Ground to Dust, and “Why Wait”/“Patricia” got my attention on both sides, though “Why Wait” was easily the song I played most of everything I owned. Apart from these pairings, I adopted one song per chunk of vinyl as my own and mostly ignored the other.

By the way, if my offhand references to the aforementioned songs don’t ring a bell, either you’re new to the blog or you missed some posts. Check the archives.

I learned a lesson from today’s song. It must have been winter when I pulled “That Background Sound” from the much-reduced collection I still had after the Great Meltdown. I know that because I would have run through a lot of 45s in one day before I would bother playing a song I had ignored for eight or nine years. So I am guessing we were having a snow day. From that point, of course, the newly discovered good song got a lot of airtime. And I took it upon myself to check out the flip side right away, since it could be an undiscovered gem as well.

I was pleased to see that not all 45s had flip sides that were mere filler. I really liked “Now It’s All Over” by Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays. Fred Milano and Angelo D’Aleo, both Belmonts, wrote the tune, and Bernie Lawrence produced it.

Three-year-old caithiseach might have decided not to play this song again, but 12-year-old Seán was fine with it. A slow doo-wop number, “Now It’s All Over” (Sabina 510, 1963) sounded like something Dion might have sung. No real shock there, since the Holidays were actually the Belmonts. I’m not claiming that I picked out the vocal resemblance before I read that the Belmonts recorded as the Holidays, but I am saying they sounded like typical doo-wop artists of their time.

When I learned the lesson that there were still good flip sides to be found, I took time once in awhile to check out the non-played side of 45s, both new and old. In the winter of 1974, I learned that the B side of “Waterloo” by ABBA, a tune called “Watch Out,” was surprisingly different from the hit side. The stylistic range that song showed appealed to my listen-to-everything nature, and I wound up buying the LP Waterloo as a result.

Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays, apart from teaching me not to judge a song by its title, taught me that you always have to check the B side of a 45 for a surprise favorite. When I developed that habit, I made the leap of logic that led me to buy some albums that were not Greatest Hits packages. Even when an album didn’t have ten good songs, it almost always had more than two, and that made me happy. I would have to say that the conscious decision to be a more experimental music listener resulted from pulling “That Background Sound”/“Now It’s All Over” out of the box and checking out both sides.

Thanks, Buddy.

Next week I’ll be talking about one of my true musical heroes. I’ve been waiting for weeks. See you Wednesday!

Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays, Now It’s All Over

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One That Almost Got Away

Whenever three-year-old caithiseach got a stack of new 45s from Uncle Tom, he couldn’t read the titles. Being able to pick them out from the growing pile of vinyl required having someone tell him the name of the song at least once, and sometimes, to caithiseach’s chagrin, twice. Then it was all good.

Once, I made a mistake during this identification process. After I asked my dad the name of today’s song, he told me it was “That Background Sound” by Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays. No problem there. But I asked him how the song went, because I had not played it.

Probably to shut me up, he intoned, “That Background Sound” in a way that made it sound as if the song were part of the British-Invasion guitar-organ-drums combo scene, dragging out “sooouuunnnnnnd” as an unresolved suspended 4th. I thought he knew the song, and I didn’t think much of it from the version he sang, so I put it away and never gave it a listen.

My parents must have thought I was gullible and easily shut up. One day when I was about four years old, my mom and I were shopping for groceries at WiseWay. I asked her who a man in a white coat was. He was arranging produce. She said he was Mr. WiseWay. I said “oh” and accepted that she knew him. About five years ago, I said to myself, “Hey, wait a minute . . . ”

And so, “That Background Sound” languished in the bottom of my box of vinyl. After my dad met my stepmom and we all started listening to the oldies station in the car, I got used to doo-wop and pre-Beatles hits. Finally, one day when I was playing a bunch of my records, I pulled out “That Background Sound” and gave it a chance.

What a shock. It was a doo-wop song, with the chorus comprised of a pastiche of well-known doo-wop motifs, including snippets from “Runaround Sue” and the chorus of “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).” Since I was actually starting to dig the doo-wop I was hearing on the radio, I put this record into heavy rotation.

When a friend bought an early edition of the Whitburn Top 40 Hits book, I was able to check some titles for hit status. “That Background Sound” was not a Top 40 hit, nor was its flip, which I’ll discuss Saturday. I classified Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays among my No-Hit Wonders and just enjoyed the music.

Unlike some research I’ve done for this blog, I did my digging about Buddy Sheppard about the time I became Web-savvy, a date I won’t divulge so as to avoid your ridicule. Eventually I learned a tiny bit about this guy, and much more about his background doo-woppers.

Buddy Sheppard recorded four sides for the Sabina label: “Time to Dream”/“My Love Is Real” (Sabina 506, 1962) and “That Background Sound”/“Now It’s All Over” (Sabina 510, 1963). The first single was released originally as by “Buddy Christie and the Holidays,” then the Christie name was swapped for Sheppard when the single was re-released. Neither single charted.

That’s what I know about Buddy Christie/Sheppard. It strikes me as odd that there is no more information about this lead singer, considering what one can find about the Holidays.

The Holidays are a doo-wop group made up of Angelo D’Aleo, Fred Milano and Frank Lyndon. Even a relatively casual observer of doo-wop music will note that this trio shares the names of the post-1962 Belmonts, Dion’s old cohorts. There’s no coincidence here.

Dion decided he didn’t like the chart weakness of the old standards he and the Belmonts were recording in 1960: “Where Or When” (Hal Kemp, 1937) was a #3 hit, but “When You Wish Upon a Star” peaked at #30, and “In the Still of the Night” (Tommy Dorsey, 1937) was a One-Week Wonder at #38. Dion wanted to rock, and the Belmonts were fond of a mix of jazz and what then passed for oldies. They parted ways late in 1960.

The Belmonts cracked the Top 40 in 1961 with “Tell Me Why” (#18) and in 1962 with “Come On Little Angel” (#28). The latter single was a composition by Ernie Maresca, one the Belmonts recorded after learning a hard lesson by passing on a Maresca tune called “The Wanderer.” Maresca wrote “Runaround Sue,” among other tunes, and he was a co-writer of “That Background Sound.” Apart from D’Aleo, Milano and Maresca, a fourth writer, P. Baron, contributed to the song, but I can’t place this writer at all. He is most likely Pete Barin, a friend of the Belmonts who recorded “So Wrong”/“Broken Heart” on Sabina 504 in 1962 and “Loneliest Guy in the World”/“Look Out for Cindy” on Sabina 512 in 1963.

Apart from their small run of “solo” hits, the Belmonts backed Buddy Sheppard as the Holidays. It intrigues me that they didn’t use their name recognition to try to launch Buddy’s career. I’ll probably get a snotty note from Buddy if I suggest that the whole name of the act could be just a pseudonym for the Belmonts. If Buddy Sheppard writes to tell me he exists, I’ll be sure to let you know. Then I’ll post some Google-worthy info about him.

The Sabina label (first named Surprise and then Sabrina) was the Belmonts’ own enterprise. They were the label’s primary artists, but other artists included the Marathons and Joanne Engel.

The producer for this track was Bernie Lawrence, a music promoter who somehow got behind the studio controls at Sabina for a few releases. He worked partly in tandem with Alan Lorber, who produced “Do You Believe in Magic” for the Lovin’ Spoonful, among many other hits. Lorber doesn’t seem to have been involved with “That Background Sound.”

Now I present to you a 45 that survived the Great Meltdown because my dad made it sound unappealing without ever listening to it. Thanks, Dad. If I had started grooving to this tune in 1963 rather than 1973, it might have sat atop my box of 45s, where the sun would have turned it into a lump of landfill material. So, really, thanks, Dad.

You know, maybe I could find the melted 45s in the landfill . . . nah. See you Saturday on the flip side!

Buddy Sheppard and the Holidays, That Background Sound

Friday, March 7, 2008

My Uncle Tom

On December 28, 1959, “Wishful Thinking” by Wynn Stewart began a 22-week run in the Country Top 40. Wynn Stewart, whom I featured in my Wednesday post, wrote the tune with his sister Beverly. They were talking about another sister, Patty, who was homesick. If you listen at all to country music, you will recognize this tune as a superb precursor to the Bakersfield sound that made Buck Owens and Merle Haggard stars; in fact, Merle used this shuffle sound as late as 1984 in “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room.”

I can appreciate the song now, and I would have appreciated it somewhat in 1963, because the jukebox in the Dwyer Café in Shoals, Indiana was jammed with country music, and I played my share of it when I was visiting my grandparents. Three-year-old caithiseach was a rocker by nature, but he was also open-minded enough to enjoy good songs in any genre. (I have been mocked for refusing to despise any style of music per se, but I don’t care.)

“Wishful Thinking” starts with a confident, clean fiddle, adds a tasteful steel guitar, and turns to a driving shuffle beat. I have always been a sucker for shuffles, and the pace allows the instruments to fill the sonic space without rushing. Wynn Stewart’s lyrics, likewise, combine tasteful phrasing with a melody that is in his wheelhouse; he nails every note he sings.

Why was it, then, that I didn’t play the A side of this single for 35 years? Simply because the B side imprinted itself on me, and there was no time for “Wishful Thinking” when I wanted a Wynn Stewart fix.

The B side, “Uncle Tom Got Caught,” evoked images of my Uncle Tom, the source of most of my 45s, getting into trouble. Since he was about 45 years old, the idea of his getting caught at some mischief struck me as incredibly funny. And now, as I write this essay on Christmas Day, 2007, it’s time I introduced my readers to the man who made this blog possible.

Thomas Joseph Gibbons Jr. was born in Gary, Indiana in 1917. He was the fourth of ten children born to Thomas Sr. and Henrietta Brown Gibbons. Tommy was getting a career started at U.S. Steel when World War II broke out. He spent a good chunk of time in the Pacific Theater. In fact, he became the indispensable aide to a general there (because he could type) and wound up being required longer than most draftees. When he got home, he stayed away from his parents’ house for a couple of weeks while he fattened himself up, for fear that his mother would collapse if she saw him.

He and his wife didn’t have children, and I became a surrogate son to him. He adored his youngest sister, Phyllis, who happened to be my mother, so he drove 75 blocks from work a couple of times a week to visit us. That’s when the records arrived, as well as other tidbits and the occasional spiffy gift, including a monogrammed gold pinky ring. Holy cow. I wore that thing to school. It just now strikes me to wonder what my classmates thought of that when I was in the first grade.

My mom’s health was always a bit fragile after a bout of rheumatic fever when she was a teen, and Uncle Tom was protective of her. He worried that she was taking on too much when she wanted to adopt a set of infant twins, boys whose foster care with my mom he had helped arrange. Something got said, and Uncle Tom stopped coming over.

Uncle Tom arranged for me to attend Goodfellow Camp, a summer camp near Lake Michigan that was run by the Goodfellow Club of U.S. Steel. I attended from 1969 to 1974. I learned to swim there, and I was there when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. He landed after lights out, so we weren’t allowed to see the video feed. I heard his words on the radio.

When my mom died in January, 1970, Uncle Tom let my Aunt Eileen do most of the mop-up work with me. He wasn’t unavailable, just knew when to keep his distance. I saw more of him at his mother’s funeral in 1974. We talked about how things were, and about the future.

My dad remarried, and I lost touch with most of my mother’s family. The next time I saw Uncle Tom was in 1978. I had just gotten off work as a dishwasher at a restaurant near a mall in Merrillville, Indiana, and he and his wife were buying chocolate at the Fannie May store. I was walking over to them, but I froze, because I was covered in muck from work, and I was embarrassed. And that was that.

In 1986, I got a letter from his older sister, Viola. She told me he was at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, starting a PhD program. I called the hospital and got him on the phone. I asked if he knew who was calling. He guessed that it was another nephew, Tom Gibbons. I said no, it’s Seán Dwyer. He repeated my name slowly, seemingly savoring it. I told him I was coming to see him. And I did. I drove eleven hours the next day and went to his room. He, his wife and I visited for a while. He said, among other things, that he was very glad to see I had survived my teen years, after what had gone on from the time I turned nine. They also put me back in touch with Aunt Eileen.

They were living in Florida then, so I didn’t see him after his treatment. He lived about two years, and we stayed in touch by phone. I was able to tell him my wife was going to have a second child, whose name would be Thomas if he turned out to be a boy. He did, but my son Tom was still in the womb when we attended Uncle Tom’s funeral.

I lost a lot of opportunities to have more time with my uncle, and with my mother’s entire family. I’ll take this opportunity to suggest that, if you ever have stepchildren, you help them stay in touch with their biological family. There is no value in being territorial, jealous or afraid of the results of such generosity. My Uncle Tom would never have tried to keep me or turn me against my parents, but some more time with him would have been a big help to me.

And maybe all that makes this an appropriate tune to spin now. Thanks for the 45s, Uncle Tom.

Wynn Stewart, Wishful Thinking

Wishful Thinking label scan

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Uncle Tom Got Vinyl

If you have visited this blog before, you know that the main source for my music collection when I was very young was my Uncle Tom. When he came over to visit, I would look to see if he had brought a stack of 45s. Whenever he did bring a gift, he presented them to me with a grand gesture, and I responded appropriately. Despite this ritual exchange between us, I can remember only one specific reaction from his sister, my mom, and it occurred after he had left for the evening.

I’ll tell you more about Uncle Tom on Saturday, when I have less to say about this week’s artist. I’ll tell you now that, when I spun today’s song for the first time, my mom smirked and said to my dad, “I wonder if Tom saw the title of this one before he bought it.” I’m sure he would have commented if he’d known he had bought “Uncle Tom Got Caught” by Wynn Stewart.

This song became one of my favorites, not only because it mentioned my music source, but because it’s a darn good song. Bouncy, clever lyrics, a subtext I did not understand when I was three, or even five, a vivid story I appreciate as a songwriter. Three-year-old caithiseach responded to the guitar solo, the superb voice, and the refrain: “Uncle Tom Got Caught,” which was supremely amusing in context.

Almost forty years later, I was so used to learning that my artists on 45 were irredeemable no-names that I was surprised, as well as very pleased, to learn that Wynn Stewart was a near-giant of country music. His story begins at the beginning of country music’s huge years, so let’s go back there.

A Missouri native, Winford Stewart was born on June 7, 1934 and was performing on the radio by age 13. His talent was such that, when the family moved to California in 1948, he soon earned a recording contract. He was signed to Capitol by 1956, when his first Top 40 country hit, “The Waltz of the Angels,” climbed to #14. He didn’t have a hit again until he moved to the Challenge label, where he made the Top 40 four times, including the #5 tune “Wishful Thinking” (Challenge 9061; my 45 says 59061). “Uncle Tom Got Caught” is the B side of “Wishful Thinking.” The single came to me as a leftover from a store rather than a label cutout or DJ copy, the usual sources for my collection.

Wynn’s biggest hit was the #1 smash “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” which received a nomination for the Country Music Association Song of the Year for 1967. All told, he hit #1 once, the Top Ten six times, and charted 19 Top 40 country hits. His chart life extended from 1956 to 1979. I could have heard him on the radio; twice in my teen years I made myself listen to country-formatted WMAQ (Chicago) for a few weeks at a time. I got familiar with the hits, and even liked a few, but those listening periods were in 1972 and 1974, and Wynn charted both before and after those periods but not while I was a listener. I would have recognized his name and been stunned to know he had made the big time.

But despite his respectable chart success, people don’t consider him a huge star. Why? As a chief engineer of the Bakersfield Sound, he encouraged and influenced the careers of the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. He wrote Haggard’s first hit, “Sing a Sad Song.” With these two amazing careers overshadowing his, Wynn Stewart could not be considered the most successful proponent of the Bakersfield Sound. In fact, Ralph Mooney, who played steel guitar for Buck, Merle and Wynn, called Wynn “the best singer who ever lived.” Wynn’s website says that Wynn lacked the “whatever it takes” attitude that got Merle and Buck to the top. Sources say that Wynn persisted in pushing Buck’s demo tape at Capitol until the label signed him.

Wynn Stewart wrote some of his own hits, including “Wishful Thinking.” He didn’t write “Uncle Tom Got Caught”; this song was the work of Clifton Crofford, also known as Cliff Crawford. Crawford wrote “Old Rivers,” a hit for Walter Brennan. (“Old Rivers” will become an inadvertent topic of conversation around Halloween. I can’t wait.) He wrote “Bar Room Buddies” for Wynn’s protégé, Merle Haggard, and “A Texas State of Mind” for David Frizzell and Shelly West. Frizzell is the younger brother of Lefty Frizzell, some of whose band members wound up working with Wynn Stewart in Bakersfield. It’s all one big circle out there, folks.

I should point out that "Uncle Tom Got Caught" is closer to rockabilly than to true country. There's not much of a twang to it, and the guitar solo would sound at home on any Top 40 hit of the era.

During his career, Wynn Stewart owned a Las Vegas night club he called Nashville Nevada; he had a Vegas television program of his own then; he owned two record labels, WIN and Pretty World. He was cranking up the latter label in a bid for a mid-1980s comeback when he died suddenly of a heart attack on July 17, 1985, just as he was to resume touring. It’s sad that he didn’t get this last shot at iconic status, and also that he would be only 74 in 2008. We lost Wynn Stewart far too early, and I hope that his voice, described as one of the purest country voices, encourages you to look him up.

You can find his work on Bear Family Records, most notably via a 10-disc box set that includes all 279 of his recorded tracks:

Buy the Wynn Stewart box set

That set costs 173 euros, and if I’m not mistaken, there are 173 euros to a dollar, so the 10-disc set costs just $1. God bless Germany and Bear Family Records.

But I could be mistaken about the exchange rate, too.

The best source for Wynn Stewart info is a site run by his daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell:

Official Wynn Stewart website

Wynn was inducted into the Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The Nashville version of this honor hasn’t caught up with him yet. It’s time.

A note on the recording: I have two unsatisfactory sources for this great song: my original 45, which is scratchy, and an mp3 I made from a low-resolution RealAudio version. If you grew up with scratchy vinyl, the 45 won’t bother you. If you can’t take the surface noise, you can listen to the RealAudio file, which has a compromised high end but no scratches.

Saturday will see me turn the single over, as it were, but the file is CD quality. See you on the flip side!

Wynn Stewart, Uncle Tom Got Caught 45

Wynn Stewart, Uncle Tom Got Caught low-res recording

Uncle Tom Got Caught label

Saturday, March 1, 2008


I’m a bit late getting the post to you today. I normally put my Saturday posts up Friday night local time, because there’s a big enough contingent in Australia, where it’s already Saturday, that I don’t want to leave that crowd hanging.

But last night I was meditating on the afternoon death of a friend I respect more than anyone else who lives in St. Cloud. We were colleagues at the university where I taught, and now I have taught Spanish to a couple of his sons. His children have been my best and brightest students, and having his son absent all week, since the onset of my friend's final illness early Monday, was a second level of loss. This child performed successful CPR on his father Monday morning, only to lose him on Friday. I cannot imagine how we will all get back to normal before the end of the school year.

So, last night I couldn’t bring myself to make some sound files I needed for this essay, but I have them now, and I apologize that this material has taken so long to arrive. Thanks for your indulgence.

On Wednesday, I wrote about a song I acquired on a 78 rpm record, “Why Wait” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra. Today I want to talk about the A side, “Patricia,” in the context of how I learned that Pérez Prado was more than a one-record obscurity.

“Patricia” in fact, was a #1 song, entering the Top 40 on June 23, 1958, peaking at #1 on July 28, 1958. It was the final #1 Billboard song on both the Jockey and the Top 100 charts; the Hot 100 debuted the following week. “Patricia” hit #1 in just its sixth week in the Top 40, and it stayed in the Top 40 for another 11 weeks, so it’s quite possible that it could have had a longer run at #1 were it not for the chart shakeup.

I played it about half as often as "Why Wait" when I was small. I took this 78, and all of my records that survived the Great Meltdown, to college, because I thought they might get tossed if I left them at home. The spiffy new component turntable I bought at college had no setting for 78s, but I figured out a way to spin the record fast enough to record the songs on the 78 to cassette. There was considerable flutter in the resulting recording, but it served its purpose until I went to the Mexican city of Colima as an exchange student in the summer of 1979.

There, I was visiting an American friend when one of the daughters of my friend’s host family began to hum a song as she swept the patio. The song was “Patricia.” I stood there, stunned, absorbing the coincidence and imagining the possibilities. Over the 14 years I had owned the 78, I had never tried to figure out who Pérez Prado was. He was still huge in Mexico, long after the mambo craze. We made a shopping expedition to a local record store, where I bought four of his LPs, including one that carried “Patricia” and “Why Wait.” I couldn’t play the records until I reached Indiana a month later, but nothing ever sounded sweeter than that record once I got home.

At that point, I began to dig up information about Pérez Prado. I realized that one of his songs, “Qué rico el mambo,” had appeared on an RCA compilation LP I lost in the Great Meltdown. The song was titled “Mambo Jambo” for the American market. I learned then that “Patricia” had been a huge hit. While Pérez Prado had specialized in the mambo, neither “Patricia” nor “Why Wait” was actually part of that genre, but I got a feel for the essence of mambo once I picked up those LPs in Colima.

One 45 I lost and will never find again was titled “Mam-boooo! (A Spooky Mambo).” The song (not by Pérez Prado) was indeed sort of spooky, and it had the growly underpinning of a mambo that was the Pérez Prado trademark. I wish I had it now to compare to other mambos I own.

Dámaso Pérez Prado (1916-1989) was a classically trained Cuban pianist who had an ear for what the public wanted. He singlehandedly created the mambo craze in the United States; other practitioners, including Tito Puente, never cracked the pop charts. Some of them griped that Pérez Prado was a sellout because he used pop and jazz tones in his music, but I think they would have accepted the record sales if they could have connected with their audiences the way the King of the Mambo did.

When I lived in Mexico, so did Pérez Prado, and as the time approached for me to marry the girl who had been humming “Patricia,” I joked that we should try to get him to play at our wedding. I didn’t look into the possibility seriously, but it could have happened, as he was still active in 1984. A cousin of my fiancée, a musician who wanted to give us her professional services as a wedding gift, brought an organ with her and played “Patricia” at the reception. Exactly twenty-six years to the day after that song entered the Billboard Top 40, everyone at the reception reacted to the first notes and filled the dance floor. It would be wonderful if all memories were so sweet.

There are a ton of Pérez Prado bios, including these:

Briefly, I’ll tell you that he left Cuba for Mexico City in 1947, he performed for the first time in the United States in 1951, and by 1955 he had set a Billboard chart record for the rock era when “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” ruled the Best Sellers chart for ten weeks, beginning April 30. No one did that again until Debby Boone logged ten weeks at #1 with “You Light Up My Life.”

He appeared in the 1955 film Underwater!, performing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” Nino Rota used “Patricia” and “Why Wait” for his score to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), but not the original recordings. A number of Pérez Prado tunes appeared in The Motorcycle Diaries. And he was ignored in the film The Mambo Kings.

Just as I wanted to write Fats Domino a note to thank him for the great music, I wanted to do the same for Dámaso Pérez Prado. Late in 1989, I was reading Billboard in the Indiana University library when I came across his obituary. I sat there, unable to think, for several minutes. At that time I was about two months from splitting up with the girl who had hummed “Patricia,” and everything seemed pretty awful. I left the library and cried for the whole twenty-minute walk home. When I got there, I told the girl that Pérez Prado had died, and she said that was what happened to old people.

So, that was an end of an era for me. Since then, I have scoured the earth for the best versions of his recordings. In addition to being scattered over perhaps 50 compilations, his original RCA recordings appear in the most drastically differing stages of mastering and remastering possible. Check out these two transfers of “Mambo No. 5,” first a bad transfer with a remastered version tacked on, and then the remaster followed by the bad version. I’m glad someone has taken the time to remaster some of his recordings, but many still display terrible sonic quality, so that is frustrating to his fans. New compilations even go back to some of the bad transfers. Amazing.

And then there are the re-recordings. In his later years at RCA, he reworked some of his melodies as twists, dengues, and other dance versions. He re-recorded some songs, including “Qué rico el mambo” (“Mambo Jambo”) and “Mambo No. 5” as stylistic clones of “Patricia.” The “Mambo No. 5” re-recording was the base for Lou Bega’s 1999 hit “Mambo No. 5.” (If you see a video with Lou Bega lip-synching to Pérez Prado’s trademark grunt, that is not Lou Bega making that noise.)

After he left RCA, Pérez Prado recorded for Orfeon, and many of those recordings are sparse, somewhat cheesy retakes on his big hits. I have learned not to buy a CD of his work unless I can hear some of the tracks beforehand.

And speaking of the guttural grunt he used to lead his orchestra, “Patricia” is the only song I own, out of more than 200 tracks, that does not include this feature. Even Perry Como did it when he bought into the Mambo Craze with “Papa Loves Mambo.” It’s just a mambo thing, and everyone owes it to the fact that Pérez Prado was playing piano while he led his orchestra and didn’t have his hands free to direct.

The version of “Patricia” you are hearing here is still somewhat rare. After many reissues, someone finally took the original tapes and produced a stereo version. If you don’t own it, you should get it. It’s available on CD, Instrumentals Complete: 90 Original Instrumental Hits. EMI Music Australasia (2001). Maybe RCA has released it somewhere as well, but I don’t have it on RCA yet. Bit of irony there.

And that’s it for Mambo Week. Pérez Prado turned me into a World Music fan maybe twenty years before the term existed, and long before I started doing TV work for the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. There’s plenty of good Latin music out there, but nothing touches my heart the way Pérez Prado and His Orchestra did.

Next week we go to California to revisit the genesis of the Bakersfield Sound via a B side that held special significance for my music collection. See you Wednesday!

Pérez Prado, “Patricia”

Mambo No. 5 bad to good

Mambo No. 5 good to bad