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

No comments: