Tuesday, April 29, 2008

D-Day for Gee-Week

Before I settle in, I need to note the very kind mention of my blog on the exceptional music blog run by Any Major Dude with Half a Heart. You can always find a link to him below the polls and the counter. For the few readers who know me and not him, Any Major Dude is a deservedly popular blogger who treats his fans to a wide range of music and brilliant thoughts on the songs. If you’re an Any Major Dude reader who followed his link here, please accept my thanks for checking out this place too.

Now I am settled in.

Every once in awhile, my Uncle Tom brought me a second copy of a 45 he had already found in the discount bin at the Big Top Department store. I don’t remember complaining, as there were always 19 other 45s in the pile he bought for a dollar. But I remember shaking my head and wondering why he didn’t notice that he had bought a duplicate.

Right about now, I’m thinking that the reason could be that it wasn’t his collection to keep track of. He was just my supplier.

On at least one occasion he brought me a second copy of a song, but the artist was different. At the time that my second version of “Gee” showed up, I may not have even known that two artists could record the same song. I also learned then that there was more than one way to record a song. In the case of “Gee,” both boys and girls could record the same song. The boys sang, “I love that girl,” and the girls sang, “I love that boy.” Intriguing.

My first version of “Gee” was by the Roomates (sic) on Philips 40105. It came to me at the same time as my Marlin Greene single, “General of Broken Hearts” (Philips 40103). They were both cutouts, perhaps punched through the label by the same machine operator after a Philips executive said to delete a specific sequence of unproductive records. Three-year-old caithiseach liked this record; it’s doo-wop that starts very slowly and cranks up to a nice peppy tempo. I played it a lot more than the second version I got, which was actually too peppy for my four-year-old tastes. This version is nearly Ground to Dust, whereas the second 45 is pretty clean.

The Roomates (sic) were comprised of Steve Susskind (lead), Bob Minsky (bass) and later additions Felix Álvarez and Jack Carlson (tenors). Note that AMG refers to Carlson by that name, as do other sources; Joel Whitburn calls the group the Roommates (not sic) and calls Jack either Sailson or Salison, depending on the volume.

Just as Marlin Greene had a surprising career apart from his non-starter singles, the Roomates (sic) show up in unexpected places. Susskind and Minsky wrote some of their own songs, but they didn’t get anywhere with them. They managed to catch the ears of music entrepreneurs Gene and Jody Malis, who first farmed them out to Promo Records for a 1960 release, “Making Believe.” The couple then signed them to a label they started, Valmor Records.

The Roomates (sic) deemed the next turn of events a negative one, but it led to their only Top 40 hit. They added backing vocals to a track by another artist to sweeten it, and the results horrified them so that they tried to pay for the recording session so the Malises would wipe their vocals. But it wasn’t their voices that had them worried: they were singing background for 15-year-old Cathy Jean Giordano on a sappy song that had been a #61 hit for Tommy Edwards. Cathy Jean’s voice sounds like a cat left out in a hailstorm at times, but Valmor thought the single would chart. The guys were stuck.

“Please Love Me Forever” (Valmor 007) entered the Hot 100 on February 27, 1961, hit the Top 40 on March 6, and climbed to #12. They took a solo recording, “Glory of Love” (Valmor 008), to #49 almost simultaneously. Maybe nobody wanted to have too many Roomates (sic) around at once. Given their success with Cathy Jean, Susskind and company recorded more sides with her. None was as successful as the record they tried to destroy.

The quartet moved on to Philips and Canadian American after Valmor folded. They had no other chart success, but their recordings, solo and with Cathy Jean, are compiled by Morval (sic) Records on CD 68924. The CD seems to be available still, but I just learned of it, so it won’t be in my collection by posting time to tell you if it came from master tapes or vinyl dubs.

The group’s choice of songs is interesting. Benny Goodman took their hit “Glory of Love” to #1 in 1936. Their 1960 debut, “Making Believe,” had been a hit for Kitty Wells in 1955. Today’s song, “Gee,” dates to about 1953. It once squeaked up to #14, in 1954, but this song is no standard. It somehow still managed to attract the attention of vocal artists in 1960, 1963 and 1964.

The provenance of “Gee” is difficult to pin down. The label of the Philips 45 says it was composed by V. Watkins, D. Norton and W.E. Davis. Saturday’s version confirms that information. Wikipedia says the authors are William Davis (fine) and Viola Watkings (well, okay). BMI calls it an Award-Winning Song and attributes it to William E. Davis and . . . Morris Levy (darn).

Well, Levy co-wrote “My Boy Lollipop,” a 1964 hit for Millie Small, and “Ya Ya,” recorded by Lee Dorsey (#7, 1961), the Steve Miller Band and John Lennon. But did he co-write “Gee?”

I suspect an administrative error on BMI’s part, but I will probably have to find sheet music before I can tell you more.

The recording of “Gee” by the Roomates (sic) is a “Jo-Mal Production,” which would indicate that Jody Malis was responsible for this gem. And it is a gem, more so than the B side, “Answer Me, My Love,” a 1954 hit for Nat “King” Cole, written by Winkler-Sigman-Rauch. If you listen to “Please Love Me Forever,” you can hear a good backing track being mishandled by the young lady. There was a good ear, if a blind eye, in Jody Malis’s production choices.

Now for the “where are they?” segment. Steve Susskind made it into the movies, including Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. He appeared in six episodes of Married with Children as Barney, and he did a surprising amount of other film work between 1982 and 2005, when he died in a car accident. Bob Minsky died of cancer in 2006. The other two singers seem to be around still.

As for the Malis couple, they gave up on music labels after Canadian American shut down, and Jody went to work for Golden Records and Peter Pan. They went on to write a 1977 book called Stan Lee Presents the Mighty Marvel Superheroes Cookbook with Stan Lee and Joe Giella. So, between the Star Trek fans and the Marvel Comics fans, this post should get a lot of non-music traffic, eh?

I started this essay knowing that the Roomates (sic) might be the same guys who sang with Cathy Jean. I knew nothing else. Really. And now, just ten hours later (really), I know what I know. A lot of my info came from Both Sides Now Publications. If you don’t know their website, which includes a superb LP discography, you should check out the link. You could spend years there.

I am offering you both sides of today’s 45, “Gee” and “Answer Me, My Love.” They are from my 45, but I used the new trick Yah Shure taught me to cut the crackles. Even so, you’ll know they sat in my box of 45s from 1963 till the Great Vinyl Meltdown nine years later. It’s too bad I don’t have the group’s compilation yet. “Answer Me” is actually pretty clean, because I hardly played it. The first 15 seconds sound hissy because of something stupid I did when I transferred it, but the rest sounds fine.

I am also giving you as much of “Please Love Me Forever” as I can take before I hit the stop button. You may have a higher tolerance, but you may thank me for the quick cutoff.

Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll have much more “Gee” for you Saturday!

The Roomates (sic), Gee

The Roomates (sic), Answer Me, My Love

Cathy Jean and the Roomates, Please Love Me Forever (snippet)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Camping under the Moon

My Uncle Tom, in addition to buying me close to 300 45s, made it possible for me to attend a summer camp sponsored by his employer, U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. My mom bought today’s 45, but that doesn’t mess up the story.

The Good Fellow Club of U.S. Steel was, as far as I can tell, an outreach of the company. Certainly its summer camp was. Good Fellow Camp sat near Lake Michigan in Porter, Indiana. A log-and-stone lodge sat atop a steep hill, and at least ten, perhaps a dozen, cabins stood in a semicircle where the hill leveled off. Beyond the cabins were woods, as well as the archery range, the rifle range, and the ball fields.

I first attended Good Fellow Camp the summer I turned nine. My mother was in the hospital at the time, but she wrote me a letter that arrived at camp. She said she would be coming home soon. She did, but she was not home long.

One of the features of Good Fellow Camp was Crazy Man Wilson. He had been a janitor at a local high school, but a furnace explosion melted his face, and he went to live in the woods near the camp. On rare occasions he went crazy enough to come after the boys in the cabins. I didn’t know why the cabins didn’t have armed guards, with Crazy Man Wilson lurking nearby, but I think I get it now.

My first night at camp, July 20, we learned that the Eagle had landed. The TV was showing the footage six hours later when Neil Armstrong descended to the moon. However, there was just one TV at camp, and Armstrong stepped onto the moon at 9:56, after Lights Out. We had to make do with the radio. I was so geeked about the moon walk that I even had eaten Space Food Sticks when I stayed at my grandmother’s house for a couple of weeks in early 1969. Imagine how I felt, then, to miss the video. I still haven’t seen it, now that I think about it.

I don’t know if my counselor, Mike Nickovich, was supposed to have the radio on, but he did. Thanks, Mike. I heard Neil Armstrong’s words live, at least.

In addition to Crazy Man Wilson and the frustration of missing the lunar landing, another early issue with camp was the pool. I was terrified of water at the time (more on that coming in the August 16 post), and I spent the week hanging to the wall in the shallow end. No one tried to force my head under, and no one mocked me, but being a Beginner carried a stigma, especially after Brian puked up his lunch in the shallow end early that week. He had eaten a hot dog, or maybe three. Caddyshack had nothing on us when it came to scurrying away from floating objects.

That first night at camp, one song from my “distant” past ran through my head: “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)” by Allan Sherman (Warner Brothers 5378). My copy of the single was Ground to Dust long before I attended Good Fellow Camp, so my recollection of the song involved a lot of static, but it took its place in my ear and didn’t go away except in the liveliest moments of camp.

As the first classical record I listened to frequently (Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, performed by Lou Busch and His Orchestra, served as the backdrop), HMHF somehow didn’t register as a serious piece of music. I got the comedy pretty early on, and I laughed along with the audience. I wavered between thinking the people were laughing a lot and deducing that it was a laugh track. It turns out that it is indeed a live recording.

Allan Sherman (1924-1973), born Allan Copelon in Chicago, worked in television. He created the game show I’ve Got a Secret. Later, his neighbor, Harpo Marx, brought him to parties so he could show off his music parodies. It paid off with a Warner Brothers contract, and Sherman was the Next Big Thing for a good stretch. Even so, he hit the Top 40 just twice: HMHF debuted on August 10, 1963 and spent three weeks at #2. “Crazy Downtown” spent the week ending May 8, 1965 at #40 and then sank. A Christmas hit, a re-recording of HMHF and another tune round out his Hot 100 chart life.

An early binge eater in the style of John Candy, Sherman wound up diabetic before dying of emphysema when he was just 48.

Lou Busch (1910-1979) turned Sherman’s words into songs. Busch, who also recorded as Joe “Fingers” Carr, hit the Top 40 with “11th Hour Melody” and “Portuguese Washerwomen” in 1956. As conductor/arranger for Capitol and then Warner Brothers Records, Busch contributed to a number of careers besides Sherman’s. Busch died in a car accident on September 19, 1979.

As I lay in my cot that Sunday night, in the new sleeping bag Uncle Tom had bought for my week at camp, I could not help thinking that having a psychopath loose a few feet away, missing the moon landing and being forced to swim put me in the same category as the poor kid about whom Allan Sherman had sung. Unlike that kid, I didn’t write home to beg for release from this torture. I lost some sleep over Crazy Man Wilson, but I didn’t tell anyone I was scared of him.

Just like that kid, though, I learned eventually that there was a bright side to being at Good Fellow Camp. I met another Seán from another town who was my camp friend for the six years I attended. I learned that sassafras trees have three different shapes of leaves. I had my first water-balloon fight there. I broke my nose there. I experienced my first bonfire there. I comforted a kid from my neighborhood who became homesick there.

But did I learn to swim there? I know at least a couple of you are wondering about that, so I’ll tell you on August 16, when I revisit Good Fellow Camp.

Next time, I’ll tell you about a song I own by two different artists, a song that was recorded by a number of others as well, a song that never made the Top 40 in any incarnation. The question will be, why did so many people record it, when it didn’t appeal to the public? See you Wednesday!

Allan Sherman, Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sax at the Restaurant

Today I get another opportunity to correct something I wrote. On Sunday, when I delivered my bonus post on “Washington Square,” I deduced that David Shire’s contribution to the composition was the lyric. Not so. Bobb Goldsteinn wrote the supremely visual folk lyrics himself, after his publisher, Duke Niles, told him that either Bobb would write lyrics for the suddenly successful tune, or Duke would find someone who would write them. So, after two years of sitting on the song, Duke was in a hurry. David Shire’s contribution to the song is far more tenuous than co-writing credits would indicate. If you missed that bonus post, scroll down below this one.

And now, today’s post:

There comes a moment in every audiophile’s life when he or she realizes that music is the absolute essence of artistic expression. I probably was figuring that out before I turned three, thanks to my passion for my parents’ vinyl, followed closely by Uncle Tom’s gifts of five-cent 45s. But as much as I loved some of my 45s, my first musical out-of-body experience came when I was at my grandparents’ restaurant, the Dwyer Café in Shoals, Indiana.

Sometime around my third birthday in May, 1963, we packed up the Oldsmobile and drove to Shoals. Later on we made a couple of trips by passenger train on the Monon Line, but I know this trip was by car, because it’s the trip on which my dad locked me in the trunk. It was also more than a year before we drove with my grandparents into Hurricane Cleo.

When we got to Shoals, we went straight to the restaurant and, as usual, something was playing on the jukebox. Though it would not take me long to score a nickel for my own play, I know I didn’t randomly punch up “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph (Monument 804). The song had hit the Hot 100 on February 23, 1963, and reached #35 in its three-week Top 40 life, beginning March 30. It was mostly a has-been when I first heard it.

The song didn’t climb high enough to make Chicago pop radio, and it was essentially a country song, but it didn’t make the country Top 40 at all. What happened when someone did play “Yakety Sax” on the jukebox was that I sat mesmerized for the entire two minutes of the song. My parents were used to that behavior from me, but at the moment they didn’t know I had experienced a couple of epiphanies at once.

I learned then that a stunning amount of joy could be crammed into two minutes of music. I learned also that the saxophone was an instrument of incomparable beauty. I announced shortly thereafter that “Yakety Sax” was my favorite song. I hadn’t said such a thing before.

Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, produced the hit version. Foster produced many Roy Orbison hits, and he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” with Kris Kristofferson. As for the Nashville Sound musicians who played on the tune, I can guarantee that Floyd Cramer is on piano, but I don’t have confirmation of any others.

It’s almost unfair that I include “Yakety Sax” in this blog, because I didn’t own the 45 until I was a teen. But it was available to me for a nickel at a time on the jukebox, and I didn’t need to have a copy at home. I had it memorized and could recall it any time I wanted.

Homer Louis Randolph was born in Paducah, Kentucky on June 3, 1927. He learned to play a number of instruments but settled on the saxophone as a teen. When he got out of the U.S. Army in 1946, he started playing professionally. Chet Atkins hired him to do RCA studio work for the likes of Perry Como. Boots first recorded “Yakety Sax” on RCA 7395 in 1959, but his re-recording for Monument in 1963 was the hit. He wrote it with James “Spider” Rich (1923-2003), who wrote other material for Chet Atkins in the 1950s and 1960s.

Around 1961 Boots moved to Nashville at the request of the primary session men, including piano player Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins. Boots was the first sax player on Elvis tunes, and he appeared on the soundtracks to eight Elvis films. He played sax on a couple of 1964 hits: “Oh, Pretty Woman” for Roy Orbison and “Java” for Al Hirt. His musical relationship with Brenda Lee included “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “I Want to Be Wanted” and “I’m Sorry.” For a bit of variety, he played the sax part on REO Speedwagon’s version of “Little Queenie.”

Boots charted three other Hot 100 hits, but that was the extent of his solo chart success. It’s clear, though, that his legacy among 1960s session players as an architect of the Nashville Sound is secure. You can see him as part of the band on Hee Haw reruns as well.

Active into his late 70s, Boots Randolph died on July 2, 2007 at age 80. Some 44 years after his big hit reworked my musical consciousness, the man who is responsible for the disproportionate amount of sax music in my collection was gone. I never got to see him play, but I did get to thank him for the song, and that will have to do.

At the Lake County Fair, in Crown Point, Indiana later in 1963, a band was playing in one of the barns. They would play any song for a dollar or so. My parents and I sat on hay bales to listen, and during one lull, I asked my dad to see if they knew “Yakety Sax.” They knew it, so they played it for me. And I asked for it again. And they played it, for another dollar. After the fourth straight play, my mom told me they were tired of playing “Yakety Sax,” so we would be going. I couldn’t see well enough to detect any looks of aggravation from the band, but they probably were glad to see three-year-old caithiseach leave the building.

I suppose that event was my revenge on my dad for locking me in the trunk of the Oldsmobile. As we were packing for the trip, I asked if I could sit in the trunk while he packed it. He let me do that. When he stepped away from the car, I pulled the trunk lid down till there was just a crack of sunlight. He came back and closed the trunk, and the sudden darkness made me scream. He opened the trunk immediately, but I have been able to tell people for 45 years that my dad locked me in the trunk of the family car. Or, to those using a British vocabulary, the boot of the car. That dovetails nicely.

Thanks, Boots, for the song, and thanks to all of you for reading. Even if you know the song well, listen to it again for the fist time. Note that you can hear the drummer (Buddy Harman?) pick up his drumsticks.

Next time, I’ll tell you about a Ground to Dust tune that I recalled several years later when I went off to summer camp for the first time. See you Saturday!

Boots Randolph, Yakety Sax

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bonus Post: Back to Washington Square!

Note: The Friday post about Big 6 Records that you expected to see is right below this special Sunday post.

On February 15, I wrote about “Washington Square” by the Village Stompers. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the song, and that I heard it only at my grandparents’ house in Shoals, Indiana. I gave you some background on the song and its composer, Bobb Goldsteinn. Here is the link to that post: Washington Square.

Well, Bobb Goldsteinn wrote to me on Thursday. I almost made a double post for Friday, but I decided to add an extra post this week so I wouldn’t overload you on any particular day. Mr. Goldsteinn was kind enough to allow me to share the information with you, but I’m going light on actual quotes because he has a very juicy (in the historical sense) book in the works.

First of all, I would have looked very clever if I had noticed that Bobb Goldsteinn, writer of one of the iconic instrumentals of my childhood, wrote two excellent songs with another caithiseach icon, Jeff Barry. Those two songs are “Falling from Paradise,” recorded by “Bobby Brown,” and “Tell It to the Wind,” which was recorded by the GoldeBriars. More on them in a moment. I have also found a composition, “Unhappy Birthday,” credited to this pair by Warner Chappell Music, but a search on the BMI site says Jeff Barry’s co-writer on “Unhappy Birthday” is Bobby Goldsboro.

Mr. Goldsteinn was kind enough to say that the “blog entry on my song is wonderful, and most of your facts are accurate as I know them. Your few errors do little to change the important truths, and that's great.”

I certainly don’t want to change important truths, and I don’t have much interest in proliferating errors, either. We’re going to revisit the subject with help from this primary source, rather than the secondary sources that misled me a bit in the first place. If that makes me a solid secondary source, that suits me fine.

Bobb Goldsteinn, known then as Bobby Goldstein, held a staff songwriting position with Leiber-Stoller for a year, during which he collaborated with Jeff Barry on the two tunes I listed. Though he wrote “Washington Square” while he was in high school, he didn’t turn the tune in to Jerry Leiber because he had learned to be wary of what happened to songs created under contract.

“Washington Square” blends three musical genres: the folk intro, a taste of jazz after a key change, and the Dixieland climax. The Dixieland part was conceived by Joe Sherman, the producer, and Duke Niles, who published the song through Rayven Music, to kowtow to the Rule of Threes. While Bobb Goldsteinn had the first two aspects of the arrangement in mind when he brought the song to be recorded, Sherman and Niles seem to have claimed the whole concept for themselves.

The chart timing of “Washington Square” may have kept it from reaching #1. It climbed to #2 for the week ending November 23, 1963, but after the assassination of President Kennedy, “Dominique” by the Singing Nun shot from #9 to #2 for the week of November 30. The national consciousness was clearly seeking comfort, and it seems to have found it in a religious song by a Catholic nun. Another musical casualty of the murder was the career of Vaughn Meader, whose comedy LP The First Family sold 7.5 million copies before the assassination and about two copies afterwards.

There seems to be some mislaid credit for the recording of “Washington Square.” Joe Sherman used leading studio musicians for the recording, but they did not receive credit. Mr. Goldsteinn recalls two: Bucky Pizzarelli and Doc Goldberg. The group listed in the Whitburn books and mentioned in my February post were assembled by Duke Niles for a tour. Mr. Goldsteinn wanted to call the act the Saints of Bleecker Street, but Village Stompers prevailed. At least part of the touring group had worked as Frank Hubbell and the Hubcaps, and as the Village Stompers they recorded eight albums for Epic. In my original post I said they had recorded “a pair of albums.” That irks me, because I lost control of a fact I knew. Sorry about that.

As successful as “Washington Square” was in the United States, Mr. Goldsteinn is very fond of the people of Japan, who kept the song and its album at #1 for six months, setting a sales record that stood until Michael Jackson’s Thriller surpassed it. When you realize that the Beatles were on their way, and they never overtook “Washington Square” in Japan, you have to take a moment to let that sink in.

In February I read, but did not mention, that there are lyrics to “Washington Square.” Bobb Goldsteinn wrote them after his publisher, seeing how the song was climbing the charts, said that either Bobb or someone else would write a set of lyrics. The Ames brothers recorded the song (Epic 9630) in 1963, but it was after Ed left his brothers to pursue a Broadway career and do such silly things as toss a tomahawk at Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. One problem that arose with the Ames version of the song was that the people at Columbia thought the final verse of the song, which was the climax of the message—just as the Dixieland arrangement was the climax of the instrumental—was “too Communistic.” And so, the Ames Brothers didn’t record the payoff verse, the 45 tanked, and the Ames Brothers were essentially finished. The song lyric didn’t gain any traction, either, thanks to the censorship.

I love it when the people associated with the songs I profile have back stories and connections to other projects. In my February post, I alluded to a few of Mr. Goldsteinn’s other accomplishments, but I didn’t go into them deeply. He shared more details, and they are fascinating, so I’m passing them on.

I said in February that he designed the zipper cover for the Rolling Stones LP Sticky Fingers. It turns out that, while the image wound up there, it was intended as the album cover for a different Warhol project.

Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys included (in the main version) a title song composed by Bobb Goldsteinn. Bobby Bloom (later to do significant work with Jeff Barry) sang lead, and Sissy Spacek sang backup. Mr. Goldsteinn describes the tune as a “sound sandwich.” (A song that shares both stylistic and temporal proximity is “MacArthur Park.”) The dance beat of “Lonesome Cowboys” was several years ahead of its time; the Donna Summer version of “MacArthur Park” would be a good example of a tune that played off this template.

Another credit associated with the song is the horn arrangement, which came from the mind of one Meco Menardo. The Pennsylvania-born Domenico Menardo went on to have a couple of hits of his own as Meco, including that Star Wars thingy.

I had read that Craig Braun, who designed the tongue/lips logo for the Rolling Stones, had translated Bobb Goldsteinn’s zippered-jeans idea to the Sticky Fingers cover, complete with working zipper. Mr. Goldsteinn designed the image without a real zipper, knowing what the metal would do to cardboard. Whoever translated it (and it seems not to be Craig Braun) created that record-store nightmare. As for Craig Braun, he won a Grammy for designing the Tommy package for the Who. He has appeared as an actor on ER, Law and Order and The Practice. Look him up; you’ll recognize him.

It’s important also to note Mr. Goldsteinn’s link to the GoldeBriars, the California Sound (“Sunshine Pop”) act he co-produced shortly after leaving “Washington Square” behind. If you don’t know this Minneapolis folk act, you can see the GoldeBriars website and read their history, excellently set down by Arthur Wood in the Folkwax Ezine: Part 1 and Part 2. You can also purchase the ebook memoir of the GoldeBriars by singer Dotti Holmberg, with an introduction by the co-producer of their second and (unreleased) third albums, Bobb Goldsteinn.

Arthur Wood points out that the GoldeBriars put together the sound of a male lead with two female harmony parts before they met John Phillips. If you listen to the 1963 recording at the end of this post, you’ll see the shape the California Sound was taking three years before the first hits for the Mamas & the Papas.

Mr. Goldsteinn knows where that sound had its genesis: in the mind of GoldeBriar singer Curt Boettcher. As Mr. Goldsteinn writes in the introduction to Dotti Holmberg’s book, “As sublime as was Curt’s sense of musical composition, even his loveliest songs dimmed before the radiance of his greatest gift: The ability to arrange music for the pop voice in a way that had never before been heard out of heaven on earth. It is the sound of angels playing around in the air. It is the sound of “Cherish.”

Curt Boettcher’s spectacular production and arrangement work with the Association was complemented by his work for Tommy Roe, who called him “a genius with harmonies.” As if that weren’t enough, Brian Wilson told Bobb Goldsteinn in 1996 that he worshipped Curt’s arrangements for the human voice. Curt Boettcher, who now has a larger following than when he was a star, died in 1987 at age 43.

It’s worth mentioning as well that David Shire, who owns some of the writing credit for “Washington Square” in a peripheral way, has scored a number of films, including The Conversation, directed by his brother-in-law Francis Ford Coppola. Other credits include scores for All the President’s Men and 2010. He was married from 1970 to 1978 to Talia Shire, whose maiden name is Coppola. She played Yo, Adrian! in the Rocky films, which have a Philadelphia connection. There’s a Washington Square in Philadelphia, but the one referred to in the song is the Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

And that proves you can go a long way from “Washington Square,” but you always come right back to it.

Bobb Goldsteinn said the following, which sums up my reasons for putting this blog together:

“Thanks for the great job. I know history is written by the winners, but I think those winners have a responsibility to—at least—try to tell the truth.”

I found the lyrics to the song online, but I don’t know which source is original. I changed a couple of words to match up with the Ames Brothers’ recording, but I don’t know if the Brothers followed the sheet music. The final, unrecorded verse is in italics. More commentary and sound links after the lyrics:

Bobb Goldsteinn and David Shire

From Cape Cod Light to the Mississip, to San Francisco Bay,
They're talking about this famous place, down Greenwich Village way.
They hootenanny all the time with folks from everywhere,
Come Sunday morning, rain or shine, right in Washington Square.

And so I got my banjo out, just sittin', catchin' dust,
And painted right across the case "Greenwich Village or Bust."
My folks were sad to see me go, but I got no meanin' there.
So I said "Goodbye, Kansas, Mo, and hello, Washington Square!"

Near Tennessee, I met a guy who played 12-string guitar.
He also had a mighty voice, not to mention a car.
Each time he hit those bluegrass chords, you sure smelled mountain air.
I said, "Don't waste it on the wind. Come on to Washington Square."

In New Orleans, we saw a gal a-walkin' with no shoes,
And from her throat there comes a growl. She sure was singin' the blues.
She sang for all humanity, this gal with the raven hair.
I said, "It's for the world to hear. C'mon to Washington Square."

We cannonballed into New York on good old US 1,
Till up ahead we saw the arch, a-gleamin' bright in the sun.
As far as all the eye could see, ten thousand folks were there,
And singin' in sweet harmony right in Washington Square.

So how's about a freedom song, or the old Rock Island Line?
Or how's about the Dust-Bowl crop, or men who work in a mine?
The songs and legends of our land is gold we all can share,
So come and join us folks who stand and sing in Washington Square.

Excellent stuff. And now I want to mention a point I made in my February post. I said I always associated “Washington Square” with Depression-era music. It turns out that the final verse mentions Depression issues. I have to wonder how it happened that I felt that connection.

Thanks for joining me on this odyssey into the hidden story of “Washington Square” and Bobb Goldsteinn. I loved going there, and I hope you enjoyed the ride. My thanks to Bobb Goldsteinn for sharing the information and trusting me to paraphrase accurately. I would have been glad to post his letter verbatim for the sake of accuracy.

A note about the music. I am including samples of the two Barry-Goldsteinn compositions, but I can’t bring myself to post “Tell It to the Wind” when it’s so readily available. I did include the Amazon link for a cheap mp3. The Ames Brothers version is not easily found; I got it from a Japanese site, and now you can hear what they did with it.

Snippet of “Tell It to the Wind”

Buy “Tell It to the Wind” at Amazon mp3 for 99 cents

Snippet of “Falling from Paradise” by Bobby Brown (not that Bobby Brown)

Ames Brothers, Washington Square

Friday, April 18, 2008

Telephone Time Tunnel

I had a bit of good blogging fortune this week. After I posted about “Hello Trouble” on Wednesday, I got a comment from someone who grew up in Shoals, Indiana. Eventually I learned that her father had serviced jukeboxes in Shoals for Sherfick’s, undoubtedly the owner of the jukebox in the Dwyer Café. This gentleman also worked for National Gypsum in Shoals, where my grandfather had the contract to provide security services. So, they knew each other from National and from the café. Since the man serviced jukeboxes from 1960 to 1963, he could very well have been the guy who gave me the 45 featured Wednesday and today. I don’t think the world can get much smaller than that, but this year of blogging is starting to churn up a lot of pleasant surprises, so we’ll see.

That paragraph was a news flash, and here’s another: you may note fewer loud thumps in this recording; that is because a regular reader, Yah Shure, gave me a couple of tips on click/pop reduction that doesn’t involve ruining the presence of the sound. The sound isn’t perfect, but most of the really bad thumps are gone. Believe me, if I could find another (cleaner) copy of this record, and several others, I would share them with you.

Now I’ll give you the original post I wrote a month ago. I have talked myself out on the Big 6 story (until someone comes up with new data for me), but the song brings other thoughts to mind.

Today’s song, “Can’t Hang Up the Phone” by an anonymous Nashville vocalist (perhaps the guy who sang “Hello Trouble’ on Wednesday), talks about how desperate the protagonist is to get his girl on the phone. He’s going to “keep on sayin’ that I love you to the dialin’ tone.” To the mind of current telephone users, the lyrics sound ridiculous. I am here to help you understand this guy’s logic.

Now, in 2008, people who have only a cell phone will not hear a dial tone very often. On a land line, I can punch in the number before I pick up the handset, so I don’t hear any dial tone there, either.

Even those who use a land line often know that, after twenty seconds (I just checked) of listening to the dial tone, you hear the recording “If you’d like to make a call . . . ,” followed shortly by the terrible screech that is supposed to wake you up if you fell asleep because of the sonorous A 440 tone that was massaging your eardrum. So nowadays this guy in the song couldn’t possibly say “I love you” more than a dozen times before the phone started giving it right back to him.

Ah, but it was not always so. When I went off to college in 1978, our phones at school, rotary dial and all, had a magical feature: you could dial part of a number and let the phone sit. It would not ring, and it would not cut you off. When I told a friend I liked Mary Ann Di*****, he dialed her number, all but the last digit, and told me to do that one myself. I sat there for ten minutes, sweating, wondering how stupid I was going to sound. I finally dialed the last digit, and her phone was busy. I didn’t let them put me through that again.
So the guy in the song had the same type of mechanical phone setup we did at Indiana University. It was indeed primitive, though not compared to the nearby Smithville Telephone Company, whose wires sometimes had been strung along pasture fence posts and were prone to being torn loose by cows who rubbed against them.

But our phone book did have a listing for Fone Company—see Indiana Bell Telephone Company. Same thing for “Phone Company.” I am not kidding you.

And so, first Stonewall Jackson, then the anonymous singer of my version of the song, sits waiting for the girl who just dumped him to need to call her mom for a recipe or something. And at that point, she will hear his voice, realize that she was wrong to let such a persistent suitor go, and fall back in love with him.

Um, nowadays we call that stalking, I think. Don’t try it at home.

But it’s a really good song. I had to do funky things with the sound file to get it to work; there was a fatal skip in the intro, so I spliced in part of the intro to the second verse to keep the song together. And where he says “caused my heart to break,” you will be able to tell that I had to deal with another skip. Sorry about that. If one of you has a better transfer than mine, let me know.

And that, folks, is what I can say about Big 6 Records. I was hoping I’d have space to tell the story about my grandfather and the hellgrammite he gave me to hold, but it will have to wait. I’ll be back Wednesday with another tune from the Dwyer Café jukebox—one you know. See you then!

Big 6, Can’t Hang Up the Phone

Label scan

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Story of a Jukebox

My dad’s parents lived in Shoals, a town of perhaps a thousand people that ran on gypsum mining and farming. On Main Street in Shoals there was a little restaurant called the Dwyer Café, and my grandparents owned it. When we drove down (five hours by car once I-65 opened), I loved to hang out there. I cleaned tables, washed dishes, peeled potatoes, and generally prepared myself for a career in the food-service industry. You could ask if that was a good idea, but I promise you I have never asked anyone if they wanted fries with that. Whatever “that” is.

The other thing I did at the Dwyer Café was stare at the jukebox. Three-year-old caithiseach couldn’t get enough of this particular device. When someone ordered a song, a semicircular metal hook grabbed the correct 45, laid it on the platter, and the tonearm came over and began to play the record. My record player was manual, so seeing the mechanics of an automatic player up close never bored me. The tonearm also held a small brush to shoo dust away from the groove. I found that very elegant, and I asked for a brush for my first good turntable.

I played two songs on that jukebox a lot. One I will discuss next week, but the other one is legendary in my music collection. Uncle Tom didn’t get me this record; I got it myself. The song is called “Hello Trouble,” and it appeared on the Big 6 label. I will approach the story from the beginning, so you can see what I learned about the song as time went on.

The record was created to maximize jukebox record slots: it had three songs on each side, with very fine grooves. I had some EPs at home, so it didn’t surprise me to find a 45 with six hits on it. Something I never figured out, and still don’t understand, is how the tonearm could find the right spot to start the second and third songs. It was like magic; if you ordered “World of Forgotten People,” the needle dropped in exactly the right spot, just after “Hello Trouble.” And if you played “Hello Trouble,” you didn’t get the other two songs for free. If you know how this machine from the early 1960s worked, do tell.

I knew the jukebox man sometimes opened up the window and swapped out records. I learned to my horror one day that he was taking “Hello Trouble” away. My distress must have been evident, because he gave me the 45. As many times as I had played that song in Shoals, I could now play it a hundred times more often in Merrillville. The tragedy of losing the recording forever was averted, and I added a prized tune to the box of 45s when I got home.

From 1963 until 1979, I played “Hello Trouble” often. The 45 didn’t get Ground to Dust, because I had better needles then, but it got crackly, as you’ll soon see. The 45 went to college with me, and when I got a good turntable and an excellent tape deck, I decided to tape the song so I could retire the 45.

That was a bit of a challenge. The lighter tonearm skipped on the record. As I was determined to get this song recorded, my roommate Ray and I doodled with the anti-skate setting. I figured out that by moving that knob at the right instant, I could get past the skip in the guitar pickup notes, and then by turning it fully to the other side, I’d slip through the second skip in the groove. I got my recording.

Then I thought it might make sense to look for the song on LP. Since the artist was not listed on the 45, we had to guess at who the singer might be. Ray suggested Buck Owens, and at the local record store we learned that Buck had indeed recorded the song. I was hesitant to buy the LP without being sure, so I held off to await further data.

From 1979 to the early 1990s, I listened to my tape of “Hello Trouble” and didn’t buy Buck’s version. But when his box set came out, I couldn’t resist. Instead of being unable to pull the trigger on a $5 vinyl purchase, I dropped $30 on Buck’s box. I ran home and dropped the laser on “Hello Trouble.” And I’ll be darned if it wasn’t the wrong version. Way wrong, not even similar to the one I had loved for thirty years.

You see, Buck had his way of doing songs. I have made a medley of Buck Owens intros from the early days of his Bakersfield Sound, and you’ll see that it’s not much of a stretch to go from these recordings to a cookie-cutter-Buck version of “Hello Trouble.” But it’s not the way the song should have been done. Considering that I have heard the song covered later by the Desert Rose Band and others in the Buck Owens style, rather than in the original manner, I am a bit miffed still at Buck. He changed the chords in the chorus, for crying out loud. And since he let Wynn Stewart give him his break in music without giving back much, Buck and I are going to have a little chat in about sixty years.

So, having eliminated Buck from the running for singer of “Hello Trouble,” I bothered to do some research. I learned that the song’s writer, Orville Couch (1935-2002), had taken the song to #5 on the country charts, with the run beginning on 11/24/1962 and lasting 21 weeks. His version, Vee Jay 470, was not available on CD. So that search stalled.

But I went to Nashville to check out the scene in 1996, and in a store full of 45s I found “Hello Trouble” by Orville Couch. The store had turntables, so I dropped the needle on it, and . . . it wasn’t my version. It was far closer than Buck’s, but I suddenly knew what was going on. I owned six soundalikes of early-1963 country hits. The actual hits are:

Orville Couch, “Hello Trouble” #5 11/24/1962
Unknown, “World of Forgotten People” Not a Top 40 hit
Kitty Wells, “We Missed You” #7 11/3/1962
Stonewall Jackson, “Can’t Hang Up the Phone” #11 1/26/1963
Unknown, “Safely in Love Again” Not a Top 40 hit
Porter Wagoner, “I’ve Enjoyed As Much of This As I Can Stand” #7 12/8/1962

All of my versions are soundalikes. Since 1996, I have been looking for a cleaner copy of this 45, but I can’t even get anyone to confirm that Big 6 Records existed. What I can say about the song is that, of the three concurrent versions of “Hello Trouble,” my Big 6 cut is the smoothest and most listenable. It’s the version I learned to love, it’s true, but the harmonica in the Couch version is far too sappy, and Buck took the song to Bakersfield and never gave it back.

One thought comes to mind. When Billboard calculated jukebox plays for chart purposes, Couch et al. would not be getting credit for the plays of Big 6 45s. That makes me think these songs could have climbed a bit higher on the chart were it not for this soundalike record. The same might hold true for songs that got the Hit Records treatment. At least the songwriters got their royalties. I think.

Speaking of them, Orville Couch posted 100 compositions with BMI, but none seems to rival the success of “Hello Trouble.” His co-writer, Eddie McDuff, shared credit on numerous Couch-McDuff composition. McDuff also wrote two tunes with Dorothy Barnett Couch, who I figure to be Orville’s wife. There’s not much more available on these guys.

And that’s “Hello Trouble” for you. Be sure to listen to all of the sounds, so you can see the complete picture. When I was three, I especially liked the line about letting Trouble “rest your shoes.” It was several years before I figured out that Trouble was a girl. I figured that out all at once, and I suspect this should be my theme song.

Saturday I’ll have another song from the B side, with commentary on the technology of the time. See you on the flip side!

Big 6, Hello Trouble

Orville Couch, Hello Trouble

Buck Owens intro medley

Buck Owens, Hello Trouble

Big 6 Hello Trouble label scan

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Dad

One has to remark on the weather when a foot of snow falls on April 11. So, wow.

I thought about holding today’s track for Father’s Day, but April 14 is my father’s birthday, so I decided to schedule this post now. It’s a good followup to Wednesday’s post, which featured a song from an LP my dad contributed to my collection.

I am going to talk about a two-sided single, which usually means two posts. But the second side isn’t going to impress many, so I’ll include its story here.

Today, and next week, I’ll talk about the phenomenon of soundalike records. Nowadays we find karaoke versions of hits on iTunes, as well as re-recordings by the Original Artist, and if one is not careful, 99 cents goes down the tubes for a piece of crap.

It seems a lot more legitimate to me that a label would dedicate itself to releasing covers of hit songs in versions that imitate the original carefully but clearly state that the artist is not the one who took the song onto the charts. That was the role of Hit Records in the 1960s, and thanks to the social innovations of bargain bins, nickels and generous uncles, I owned three or four Hit Records releases.

Today’s songs were on Hit 48, and the songs on that 45 were “My Dad” by Woody Martin and “Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry)” by Connie Landers. The chart versions of these songs were, respectively, by Paul Petersen (#6, 1962-63) and Marion Worth (Country chart #14, 1963). Worth’s version of “Shake Me” is considered a Christmas hit by Joel Whitburn, yet it charted in February. This song charted again on 1/14/1978 as Cristy Lane’s second country hit, reaching #16.

“My Dad” was written by the 1960s juggernaut of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “Shake Me I Rattle” is the work of Charles Naylor and Hal Hackady. These two collaborated on numerous songs I don’t recognize, and Hackady wrote about 200 more songs than Naylor without turning in anything momentous.

Neither Petersen nor Worth matters to this post, because I didn’t hear their versions when I was a kid. I knew these songs only from my 45 cover versions. And those, I have to admit, both wound up Ground to Dust. In fact, the Connie Landers song was so ill-treated by three-year-old caithiseach that it developed several fatal skips. There was no way for me to recover it once I became an audio tech freak, so I bought another copy of the 45 online. I doubt very much that the Hit Records catalog will wind up on CD.

That is perhaps a sad fact, because Hit Records has an enormous cult following. This Nashville label, founded by Bill Beasley, seems to have been based on the premise that kids would buy knockoffs of hit songs at a bargain price (39 cents) just to have a version of the record when the chart hit was too expensive for them. It worked for a long time, so Beasley was right.

What makes the label a cult phenomenon is a combination of the quirkiness of some of the “sound-alikes” and the surprising roster of invisible musicians who participated in the recordings. You can find more details at these sites:

The Hit Records Project

Hit Records of Nashville

But I’ll give you some idea here. The Hit Records Christmas releases, for example, included Bobby Russell on vocals, Boots Randolph on xylophone (he played vibraphone as well as sax, so it’s evidently not a typo), and arrangements by Bill Justis. Bobby Russell went on to have a couple of minor hits of his own, but he scored big by writing “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow” for Bobby Goldsboro, “Little Green Apples” for O.C. Smith, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” for Vicki Lawrence. He also scored big by marrying Vicki Lawrence.

Beasley’s acts rarely appeared under their own names. He used the names of friends and business associates for artist pseudonyms, and he got playful from time to time. “She’s Just My Style,” originally recorded by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, was released on Hit 234 as by Jason Allen and the Gigolos. “Sounds of Silence” was credited to Sammy & Theodore. (If you don’t get the wordplay there, let me know.) And then some names, such as Alpha Zoe, seem to be pseudonyms but are the artist’s real name.

A notable industry figure who worked for Hit is Buzz Carson, who in the mainstream recording industry was brought in to record “Look for a Star” for Liberty Records under the name “Garry Miles.” Why? The original hit, from the film Circus of Horrors, was sung by a British vocalist, Garry Mills, and released on Imperial Records. The Garry Miles version was a bigger hit in the United States, partly because it caused confusion among consumers. In fact, the Joel Whitburn Top 40 book has the weeks of Top 40 entry reversed for the two recordings. That’s how confusing this ploy was. And that’s the sort of trick at which I would balk.

But Hit didn’t try to scam kids by using similar names. Hit tried to satisfy kids by providing reasonable sonic alternatives at an affordable price. And three-year-old caithiseach found today’s two recordings very satisfying.

First of all, I was a sucker for sentimentality back then. [Editor’s note: The premise of this blog indicates only a slight lessening in said sentimentality.] Both songs have heavy doses of that trait. Woody Martin’s “My Dad” is a close clone of the Paul Petersen version, and it is a song sung in praise of a father. Though I have no idea who Woody Martin really is, he is pretty good for a singer who was paid by the hour, or perhaps by the song. And for most of my life, I have had strong feelings of pride for my own father.

My dad was raised on a farm during the Great Depression. When he finished high school in Shoals, Indiana, he expected to be drafted into a two-year Army stint to help with the Korean War, so he chose to enlist in the Navy for four years and thus see the world.

He did see the world: he was assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain, and it traveled east from Florida through the Mediterranean Sea, and via the Suez Canal as far as Hong Kong. Then, because the carrier was too big to negotiate the Panama Canal, it did the trip in reverse. It stopped in nearly every country along the way; my dad had a sack full of coins of the various realms he visited: Ceylon, Portugal, Hong Kong, Japan, France. (He didn’t visit them in that order.)

At one point, a plane crash-landed on the deck of the carrier, and my dad rescued the pilot. He received a commendation for his efforts. He left the Navy and started working at U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. When I was little, I would hear him close the door to go off to work, and I would get up to watch him leave, exhaust trailing down the street behind his Pontiac. He was trained as an electrician, though, and eventually he shifted to that line of work, which he performed until he retired.

He told great stories, as did his father, as well as his grandfather. This story I am telling seems to stem from a genetic trait that these men gave me, and which I have passed on to my younger son.

My dad was not one to share his feelings without cause, but he wept openly before me when my mother died unexpectedly when I was nine. That gave him a lot of credibility with me during the dark years that followed her death.

What he did for me was allow me to be me. It didn’t bother him that I wanted to study languages and write for a living. He encouraged me to follow those interests. Because I loved baseball, he hit fly balls for me to catch, even though I couldn’t see for crap and once caught a fly ball with my elbow. He played Frisbee with me on many afternoons during my teen years, and we would talk. We both got good at throwing a Frisbee with both hands.

And now he lives in Indiana, and I live fourteen hours away in Minnesota, and there are days that I want to chuck it all and go live in the shed in his back yard so I can be there if he needs me.

Sentimentality. “Shake Me I Rattle” is laden with it. Connie Landers, who died at age 60 in 2005, aspired to a “real” singing career, and on the side she recorded a number of tunes for Hit Records while she was in college. This song, about a little girl who is looking through a store window at a doll she can’t afford, reminds me of the boys who drool over the toy display at the opening of the film A Christmas Story. The protagonist of this song, who wanted a similar doll when she was a child, buys it for the little girl.

As maudlin and dramatic as the song is, the concept of helping someone who yearns for something has always appealed to me. I have gotten my share of sweet surprises along the way, and I wish I had been more alert over the years to provide help to those who could use it. Combine those ideas with the memory of playing the song as my parents listened, and you know why I bothered to replace the damaged 45.

Monday is my dad’s birthday. Happy birthday, Dad.

I don’t think he knows I’m writing this blog. I suppose it’s time I tell him.

This post owes a lot to the thirty years of research Paul Urbahns has done on Hit Records. It’s a fascinating story, and you should check out the links I mentioned above.

Next week I will look at two songs from a sound-alike 45 apparently not associated with Hit Records. You’ll love them. See you Wednesday!

Woody Martin, My Dad

Connie Landers, Shake Me I Rattle

My Dad label scan

Shake Me I Rattle label scan

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My Inner Drummer

Today’s cut comes from an LP purchased by one of my parents, presumably my dad. The vinyl transfer you will hear represents one of the most unlikely upgrades to my record collection I ever accomplished, and the track itself affected my musical path greatly.

When Hi-Fi, Living Stereo and all other such marketing terms came onto the average consumer’s radar in the late 1950s, bachelors across America bought music equipment that would allow them to set a realistic stereo mood for their dates when young ladies came by for a martini or three. And then, of course, there had to be music to play on the hi-fi, soon to be known as the stereo.

What we now call exotica, comprised of tropical rhythms and such random sounds as the calls of tropical birds, was sophisticated music exuded by the likes of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. The more justifiably Latin music of Pérez Prado and His Orchestra came into our homes in Living Stereo on at least one album, Prez (1957). The LPs I appropriated from my parents when I turned three were in stereo, but there was no way to know that; my record player was mono, with one built-in speaker.

The LP that contained today’s track was not a music LP. It collected a bunch of sound effects, all presented in stereophonic hi-fi. Recorded for the Rondo-lette label, Stereo Sounds included these scintillating tracks: Trains, Jets, Ships, Traps and Sea Sounds.

The writer of the cover notes had quite a task to turn this disc into a hot seller, and boy, did he execute it:

“Because of the great separation of sound as shown in stereo recording, it is necessary to make records of sound effects. Normally, one does not think of these records for the home, but how else is one to show off the wonderful stereophonic set except by having the train come into the room from one side, whistling its approach, pass through the room and go out the other side.

“With the modern age, the jets have come into being and the whine of the jet is something with which we must become familiar. To have a jet enter the room from one side and leave through the other is an experience.

“One cannot but become nostalgic when hearing the ship’s horn as there is nothing as inviting as the ocean trip. You will feel the movement of the ship as it leaves the pier and you are on the trip.

“Another new device that came into being with high fidelity and stereophonic sound is the trap drummer. In this record you will hear every kind of trap sound. It sure will show off your stereo set.

“Last but not least, we have the sounds of the sea which, too, is an experience in stereo.”

I am speechless. If I could write like that, well . . . dang. I didn’t change or delete a word, should you be hoping I did.

Three-year-old caithiseach occasionally enjoyed hearing the train rattle into the speaker from nowhere, but one can do only so much with such sounds. The interesting thing about the train is that the recording is more or less in real time; there is some serious dead air between trains. That got old pretty fast. Listening to jets roar and ships honk didn’t cut it, and the ocean? Yawn.

But Traps, now, that caught my ear. This track, replete with the most varied percussive sounds I have ever heard, became a personal favorite. My LP eventually would show anyone, at a glance, which track I liked the best. While the rest of the LP maintained its weak luster with random scratches from sitting in my box of 45s without an album cover, the Traps track was Ground to Dust. (See the scan for proof.)

When it became possible to transfer my vinyl to digital files, I transferred Traps. The sound was muddy in spots from constant play with bad needles, but I could hear everything, and I wouldn’t have to play the LP any more. I put the LP away in a safe spot, as it was the only 12-inch disc to survive the Great Meltdown and the ensuing nomadic existence.

One day in April 2004, I was listening to Traps and decided to see if there was any chance the LP was available online. Yeah, sure.

But it was! A record vendor in Japan had a copy in near-mint condition. He even had the cover, which I had not seen since mine fell apart when I was 4 or 5. I jumped on the opportunity and paid $20 for the LP and another $20 or so for shipping.

Once I saw the cover, I remembered it. A motorboat off what I assume is a European coast—that makes you want to buy a record of sound effects. I don’t know how many copies Rondo-lette sold of album SA-46, but I think a photo of a trap drummer going at it would have gotten them some more sales. By the way, if you recognize the coast in the cover scan, let me know. I looked up a bunch of cities and couldn’t find a match.

I was able to transfer this pristine recording of Traps, which I offer you today. I heard nuances I could not get from the Ground to Dust LP, which, of course, I kept. I think you’ll be impressed with the quality of the recording, considering that it is 50 years old and is a vinyl transfer. Good for them.

The other point I wanted to make about this track is the influence it had on me musically. When I was four, my parents got me a little electric organ for Christmas. You had to turn it on, wait impatiently for it to warm up, and then you could play it. When the Charlie Brown Christmas special debuted, I really liked the song at the end. My mom caught me after Christmas, playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” from memory. She asked me if I wanted to take music lessons. I did indeed. What did I want to learn to play?

I think she hoped I would say “the piano.” I said “the drums.” She went with it, to the great amusement of her siblings, and I began to study drums when I turned five.

The drum lessons got shot to hell when she became ill a couple of years later, but it was Traps that got me interested in what percussion could do, rather than what I could do with a keyboard. It was another 27 years before I took any piano lessons. I wish I had started sooner, but the results might well have been the same. I’m quite a hack on the piano, unlike my talented friend whiteray.

So, here’s a truly obscure track by unknown performers. Despite the preponderance of percussion, it is a melodic track, so give it a chance to get going. Enjoy their artistry, which I can pretty much guarantee is new to you. If you’re here for music you’ve never heard before, this is the quintessence of your quest.

On Saturday, I’ll look at a couple of Hit songs. See you then!

Rondo-lette, Traps (recording)

LP cover scan

Traps label scan

Friday, April 4, 2008

Lonely Lips Lead to Lyrical Longevity

On Wednesday, I began to chronicle the achievements of songwriter and producer Jeff Barry. Today, we’re still pinned to his recording career, via the B side of “Face from Outer Space,” “Lonely Lips” (RCA 47-7797). As with the A side, the song was co-written by Ben Raleigh and produced by Hugo & Luigi.

If you didn’t read the first part of this mini-bio on Wednesday, we’ll wait for you while you scroll down . . . ah, got it?

So, three-year-old caithiseach received this 45 for a nickel that he didn’t even have to spend, and the result was hours of sonic bliss. Let’s see, at five minutes per two-sided play, times 5000 plays, that would be 25,000 minutes of music, divided by 60, equals 416 hours I spent enjoying these two songs alone. And now that I have a CD of mp3s of about 200 recordings that Jeff Barry either wrote, sang or produced, I could pretty much stop listening to anyone else and still have a decent music collection.

But I won’t do that. Right now, I’m digging around to get as many songs from the 1890s and 2007 as I can. So the collection keeps growing.

“Lonely Lips” has a great piano part, nice guitar work, three key changes in the choruses, and everything else three-year-old caithiseach enjoyed. It would not be until 1970 that I noticed that Jeff Barry was writing many of the other songs I liked, but in the meantime, I was digging a lot of his work without knowing it.

After he produced Neil Diamond’s Bang recordings (you can hear Jeff and Ellie singing on “Solitary Man,” among others), Jeff was asked to take over production for the Monkees. This story will be told in more detail elsewhere, but the basics are that Jeff went to meet the Monkees, and he took a Neil Diamond demo with him. Three Monkees liked it, and one balked at it. They recorded it anyway, and “I’m a Believer,” with Jeff’s signature organ riff, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in early 1967. So much for that Monkee’s judgment.

A bit later, a kid named Andy Kim wandered into Jeff’s office after taking the train down from Montreal. We’ll look at Andy’s singles in May, as well as some of his writing/production collaborations with Jeff.

Jeff then created his own label, Steed, on which he released several Top 40 hits we’ll also see, in August. After that, he was hired to produce a talented pianist named Peter Allen for A&M, and Jeff told Peter about a lyric he had in his head: “Maybe I hang around here a little more than I should.” Peter started doodling on the piano, they wrote the lyrics and recorded a demo. Artie Wayne says he took it to Olivia, who wanted to record it despite some label execs’ misgivings. The Allen piano part was so perfect they didn’t re-record it. And that’s how we got “I Honestly Love You.” The result was the Grammy for Song of the Year for 1974. Add to that the 1969 RIAA Record of the Year for “Sugar, Sugar,” and you would have to say Jeff has created a superb writing legacy, even if you don’t consider that his overall sales put him in third place all-time.

A mutual friend knew how much I admired Jeff’s work, and when I mentioned wanting an address where I could write to thank him for his art, I got something better: a phone call from Jeff. The next time I was in California, Jeff and I met in May, 2006. I have learned a lot about his career, and from the people with whom he has collaborated, I’ve learned that he is also an exceptionally kind, generous human being. It can be a huge disappointment if you learn that your idol is not so nice behind the scenes, but I have the good fortune to know this talented man and the comfort of knowing he is loved within the music world.

And that’s that for now. Check out “Lonely Lips,” and prepare for a sonic spectacle you have NEVER heard before on Wednesday!

Jeff Barry, Lonely Lips

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sci-Fi Invades caithiseach’s Life!

I might have saved this song for the last post of 2008, the way Casey Kasem used to count ’em down to Number One, but tomorrow is the singer’s 70th birthday, so today is the proper time to write about my lifelong relationship with the music of Jeff Barry.

Early on in my Uncle Tom’s provision of 45s, he gave me a couple of RCA singles that I enjoyed. All four sides got a lot of play from the beginning. I’ll talk about one of the records in September, but today I’m bringing you “The Face from Outer Space” by Jeff Barry (RCA 47-7797).

A surprising number of my 45s were not recent cutouts when Uncle Tom bought them for me. My Danny Kellarney 45 came from 1957, for example. I don’t know what path these records took from their label’s warehouse to the Big Top department store, where my uncle bought them, but some of them sat somewhere for up to six years, unbought and unplayed.

My copy of “Face from Outer Space,” which survived the Great Meltdown and somehow avoided being Ground to Dust despite thousands of plays, came at the same time as the other RCA single. That makes me think an RCA warehouse got a spring cleaning in 1963, and a couple of 45s from 1960 or so went into a truck for distribution at a very low price. Even with gas prices hovering around thirty cents a gallon, how could anyone make money off the sale of a 45 for a nickel? I’m glad RCA didn’t just recycle the vinyl, of course.

I always liked the concept of space travel, of aliens, of science fiction. My first concrete sci-fi experience was “The Face from Outer Space.” Though Jeff now says he doesn’t know what he was thinking when he wrote that song, three-year-old caithiseach loved it. No 45 I owned topped these two sides for plays or long-term appeal, up to the very end of the 45 era.

When Jeff was signed to his songwriting and recording contract, he was paired with a songwriting legend, Ben Raleigh. Raleigh (1913-1997) wrote such disparate works as “Midnight Mary” with Artie Wayne for Joey Powers, “She’s a Fool” with Mark Barkan for Lesley Gore, and “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” with David Mook for . . . Scooby Doo. Raleigh died in a terrible accident in his kitchen at the age of 83; he was cooking, and his robe caught fire.

While Jeff’s first chart hit was “Teenage Sonata,” which Sam Cooke took to #50 in 1960, Jeff and Ben Raleigh both got credit for Jeff’s first Top 40 hit, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Jeff originally had the song’s protagonist die after being gored by a bull, and it was Ben Raleigh who said a car wreck would be more universal. The idea worked, as Ray Peterson’s version of the song reached #7 in 1960 in the United States, and Ricky Valance’s version spent three weeks at #1 in the United Kingdom.

“The Face from Outer Space” exists in a demo version that tells a longer story, and I’m sure the released version was cut down for radio. The RCA production/songwriting team of cousins Hugo (Peretti) & Luigi (Creatore) were in charge of this recording. Hugo & Luigi produced Perry Como, Sam Cooke, some guy named Elvis, “I Will Follow Him” for Little Peggy March, and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for the Tokens.

Jeff’s writing career took off more than his singing career (and don’t let the vocals on this week’s songs fool you; he has a very versatile voice). He met up with a young songwriter named Ellie Greenwich, and they started writing with a guy named Phil Spector. The result was “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Baby I Love You” and “Be My Baby,” among others.

Then Jeff and Ellie were off to work with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Red Bird Records. Jeff and Ellie took a tune they had given to Phil Spector, “Chapel of Love,” and helped Leiber and Stoller turn it into the classic Dixie Cups version. Jeff’s production of “Iko Iko” for the Dixie Cups was stunningly ahead of its time, yet it managed to reach #20 in 1965.

In 1964, the year of the British Invasion, guess whose compositions still managed to chart six weeks at #1 via three different artists? Jeff and Ellie’s. Apart from the Beatles and the Supremes, no one else topped the Hot 100 more than once that year. “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” did it for them.

As part of their writing gig at 1650 Broadway (where many big names worked, near the Brill Building), Ellie brought to Jeff a young singer/songwriter named Neil Diamond. Jeff and Ellie produced the recordings Diamond made for Bang records. Jeff was also involved in the Van Morrison sessions for Bang, which were produced by the label’s owner, Bert Berns. When you listen to “Brown Eyed Girl,” at the end you hear another voice come in with the sha-la-la part. That’s because Bert Berns realized they needed one more “sha-la-la” after Van Morrison had already flown back to Ireland. So Jeff Barry put some grit in his voice and sang it.

There is a lot more to tell you about Jeff Barry’s accomplishments, as is fitting for the third most successful American pop songwriter of the pop era (behind Carole King and Lionel Richie). So I’ll give you more on Saturday, and in May, and in August. And there are tidbits I could give you here, but won’t, because they belong in a book rather than in a blog.

So, enjoy the two versions of “Face from Outer Space,” and be sure to wish Jeff Barry a happy birthday tomorrow. Look for the other tune on Saturday. See you on the flip side!

Jeff Barry, Face from Outer Space

Jeff Barry, Face from Outer Space demo