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


Stephanie said...


I've been reading your blog since the beginning, and have devoured every word.


Today, my hat would be off to you (had I been wearing one) since your bonus post is now my favorite post! (Sorry, Jack!)

You are made of awesome, and your blog is made of win!

...The things I learn on the internets...

whiteray said...

What a wondrous, wandering post! The Curt Boettcher stuff rings huge bells here because of his connection with my friend Bobby Jameson and his album, "Color Him In." The world is one long chain, I sometimes think. (A JFK assassination tale, perhaps apocryphal: Lenny Bruce went on stage the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, and his first words were, "Man, poor Vaughn Meader!")

Yah Shure said...

Holy whiplash, Batman! A terrific post, from Washington Square to Curt Boettcher, "Mac Arthur Park" and that #@!& cardboard-gouging zipper cover. I'm exhausted, and g rateful for such marvelous revelations. I feel like an LP being played at 45 RPM, which is exactly how "Washington Square" was mastered from vinyl on the first CD I'd bought that included it. The second one came from the original tape.

Tamás said...

As far as I know, Joe Muranyi on clarinet was part of the Village Stompers when they recorded Washington Square. At least that's what Joe told me years ago. He left the Stompers for the Louis Armstrong All Stars in 1967 but you can look him up in New York and ask him about details if you are interested. He is 82 but active and practices every day. Tamas Ittzes, Bohem ragtime Jazz Band (Hungary)