Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Baby" Week, Part 1

I conceived this blog as a place to bring attention to the oddest and least-selling 45s you might ever hear. Last week, the Bob Keefe songs fit that mission perfectly. I have decided at times to feature very successful singles and artists, though, when the song or the singer played a large part in the musical milieu of my 45-spinning years.

I’m going back to some pretty big hits this week and next. I have a personal connection to each song, but I have also managed to get authoritative back stories for all four tunes, so I’ll share some of that. Parts of the stories deserve to be developed in a larger forum, and I’ll let you know when said forum comes into being.

This story starts for me with a song, but it starts for the singer with a dream and the determination to follow through on his goals. In early 1968, a fifteen-year-old boy caught a train from Montreal to Manhattan with the intention of meeting his songwriting hero. He made his way to 1650 Broadway, and with some persistence he managed to meet his icon.

The boy was Androwis Jovakim. The songwriter was Joel Adelberg. What followed their meeting was the fruitful songwriting/production collaboration that led to a successful solo career for Andy Kim and an RIAA Record of the Year in 1969 for Jeff Barry and Andy Kim.

By the time Andy Kim came into my world, he and Jeff had been working together for a year, and Andy had two Top 40 hits under his belt. His third Top 40 hit and first Top Ten smash was “Baby, I Love You” (Steed 716). The Ronettes’ #2 version was just six years old when he took the song to #9 in the fall of 1969. The decision to have Andy record the song, and the recording process itself, make for interesting reading.

At the time, Jeff Barry’s label, Steed Records, was a busy but not yet hit-laden enterprise. Jeff and Andy had already reached the Top 40 for Don Kirshner with their first Archies hit. Andy was in Jeff’s office, and Jeff stepped out for a moment.

Andy came across the sheet music for “Baby, I Love You,” which was a still-warm girl-group classic. Andy had never heard the song, and he started strumming his guitar to the chords on the sheet. Jeff came back and said, “That’s not how it goes.”

Jeff says that the idea of “cross-dressing” songs intrigues him, and Andy’s approach to “Baby, I Love You” merited consideration. Soon, they found themselves in the studio. They had assembled the usual group for the recording, but, perhaps because everyone knew the Phil Spector production of the song, it wasn’t coming out as Jeff and Andy heard it in their heads.

So they sent everyone home.

With nothing on tape, Jeff and Andy set to work. Jeff isn’t a drummer, so when he laid the drum tracks, it really was “tracks”: he played each drum individually. He played the bass drum by hand, crashed each cymbal on a separate track, everything. Andy played the guitars; Jeff played the keyboards. Once the backing track was in place, the singers could follow the plan. Among them was Ellie Greenwich, Jeff’s frequent songwriting partner and ex-wife. “Baby, I Love You” was one of their collaborations, with additional input from Phil Spector.

Spector collaborated with engineer Larry Levine to create the Wall of Sound that made Spector an icon. I learned a few minutes ago that Levine died on his 80th birthday, May 8. The Ronettes’ version of “Baby, I Love You” was selected for the U.S. Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2006, which is about as high an honor as a recording can receive. Even so, a number of people call Andy Kim’s version of this song the definitive recording. I am reporting, not opining, but I have to admit a great fondness for Andy’s take on the song, thanks to my life circumstances in 1969.

When my mom was hospitalized and I went off to summer camp in July, 1969, Andy was rocketing toward his #9 peak. Thus, “Baby, I Love You” was in heavy rotation on the camp radios during the week of July 20-26. I knew the Ronettes’ recording, but this fresh, noble take on the tune had me swaying on my cot when we were sitting in our cabin, listening to WLS out of Chicago. Every song I associate with camp has a special place in my heart, but few top Andy’s hold on me at the 1969 version of Good Fellow Camp.

I didn’t go into Andy’s biography at the beginning of the post, because his legacy is well-known, and he remains a relevant performer. You will get bits of his history here this week and next. I do think I should direct you to his website and suggest you spend a bit of time seeing what he’s up to these days. Say hi to caithiseach on his forum, if you don’t mind.

Not all performers remember where they got their start, but Andy made it clear to me that he has not rewritten the history of how he got to where he is. He was effusive in his praise of Jeff Barry, and he has pointed out numerous ways in which Jeff made his career possible. Even so, we all know Jeff could not have orchestrated a career for Andy if there had not been a hard-working, talented performer waiting to be developed.

It would be hard for me to write a cold, objective piece about Andy Kim, because he is too close to the center of my musical universe and far too kind-spirited a human being for me to pretend that I could do so. Thus, I won’t even try to sort it out. Andy gave me music I love, especially Saturday’s upcoming 45. “Baby, I Love You,” which is right about now enjoying the 39th anniversary of its release as a single, prepared me for the sonic delight I’ll offer then.

For now, let me say that I’m glad Andy took the train to New York when he was 15, and that I am looking forward to Saturday’s story. See you then!

Andy Kim, Baby, I Love You


stackja1945 said...

"It would be hard for me to write a cold, objective piece about Andy Kim, because he is too close to the center of my musical universe and far too kind-spirited a human being for me to pretend that I could do so."
Most talented people are like Andy Kim. I include you.

Yah Shure said...

A "cold, objective piece?" Who would want to read that? No labcoats and clipboards, please. That's not why I come here. :)

Prior to purchasing each of my new 45s, I'd carefully take them out of their sleeves and inspect them for any visible flaws. Andy's "Baby, I Love You" immediately caught my eye: the grooves at the beginning of the record were far more widely-spaced than those in the rest of the song. What was going on in those grooves that needed more "oomph" than usual?

I found my answer during the record's first playing. The audio processing on the two AM top-40 stations in town had partially masked what I was now really hearing for the first time. My god, you could FEEL the powerful percussion! No wonder more "elbow room" was needed on the record. To me, those stunning opening "drum tracks" that Jeff laid down remain, to this day, one of the true sonic high points in pop music. They rank right up there with the drum break on the Jeff and Ellie/Raindrops' "The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget."

It was about more than just the drums, though. The piano and guitar work was equally irresistable. Unlike Spector's Wall Of Sound treatment, each instrument came through with a sparkling clarity, punctuated with a convincing "BOOM! BOOM!" How on earth could one not be at rapt attention after a fanfare like that??

Definitive version, indeed. The only disappointment is that the record only made it to number nine.

Thank you for another wonderful post! You may now don your labcoat.

stackja1945 said...

Yah Shure said..."Definitive version, indeed. The only disappointment is that the record only made it to number nine."

But you liked it, that is more important.