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


yah shure said...

I can certainly see where Jeff would say that he didn't know what he was thinking when he wrote "The Face." Yet this was exactly the kind of record that roped many youg-uns into the world of pop music. For me, songs like "The Purple People Eater,""The Mummy" and the later "Martian Hop" definitely ramped up the fun quotient (and helped to offset the effects of the too-scary "The Day The Earth Stood Still.")

The voice of "the face" sounded exactly like Barney of 'The Simpsons.' I'll never be able to watch that show again without thinking of "the face!"

Kudos for the sensationalistic post title!

stackja1945 said...

Toe me it is "The Purple People Eater" again.