Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Cornucopia of Gee-Lights

A thread that meanders through my blog posts is the frequent discovery that the artists who recorded my 45s, seemingly complete unknowns, turn out to have made something of themselves after all. They just didn’t do so on the cuts Uncle Tom found in the closeout bin.

This past Wednesday, the Roomates (sic) showed how broad their legacy was, well beyond the 45 I have owned since 1963. I have known for several years that today’s trio, the Pixies Three, actually nicked the Top 40. It was not their version of “Gee” that got them into Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 book, though.

Of all the artists who have recorded “Gee,” only the first artists, the Crows, took it into the Top 40 (#2 R&B, #14 pop, in 1954). Perhaps that initial success caused so many other artists to take a shot with it. Then, of course, several poor showings seem to have consigned the tune to obscurity.

The road the Pixies Three took to “Gee” is not laden with twists and turns; it shows a textbook case of how things can go well for a musical act . . . sort of. The Pixies: lead singer Midge Bollinger, with Debby Swisher and Kaye McCool, were discovered at a Philadelphia talent night while they were still in high school in Hanover, Pennsylvania. John Madara and Dave White of Mercury Records (there’s my favorite label again) did the signing honors, and after renaming them the Pixies Three, started rehearsing them with a young piano player named Leon Huff.

The Pixies Three, then, are the intersection of the Girl Group Sound and the Sound of Philadelphia. Huff joined forces with Kenny Gamble to write and produce the O’Jays’ recordings, as well as “TSOP” and numerous other cuts on Philadelphia International Records. They wrote “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money,” for example.

After the month of practice, the girls recorded “Birthday Party” (Mercury 72130), and it spent one week at the bottom of the Top 40. Their next single, which entered the Hot 100 on December 14, 1963, became problematic for DJs, who split airplay between the two sides of the 45. “442 Glenwood Avenue” reached #56, and “Cold Cold Winter” peaked at #79. Even so, the single as a whole sold more copies than “Birthday Party.”

After that single, Midge Bollinger left the group, and Bonnie Long took her place. By early 1964, the girls were hot enough to be appearing with the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five. They recorded a full album, Party with the Pixies Three. Produced by Madara & White, the album featured orchestration by Leroy Lovett. Lovett (born 1919) had produced some sides for Billie Holiday, among others. The LP included some Madara/White compositions, but the only single released from it was “Gee.”

The album displayed the guitar work of Trade Martin, who had a Top 40 single of his own, “That Stranger Used to Be My Girl,” in 1962. Martin worked on many Phil Spector and Jeff Barry sessions. Vincent Bell played some guitar parts as well; his 1970 “Airport Love Theme” instrumental flew to #31. The piano you will hear on the Pixies Three sides comes from the aforementioned Leon Huff.

The band is tight, and the truth is that the 1964 Long/Swisher/McCool lineup is as solid as any of the other Girl Groups. This is not a “why were the Ronettes more popular than the Pixies Three?” statement. The girls simply were a whole lot more pleasing to the ear than, say, Cathy Jean. They deserved success.

I said on Wednesday that the Roomates (sic) version of “Gee” got more caithiseach airplay. I did enjoy the girls’ version, but after the guys’ more sedate version set the standard for the song, I found the girls’ version a bit frantic when it showed up a year later.

The girls’ intro also has a jazzy chord structure that is absent from the guys’ version. caithiseach didn’t know jazz from zzaj in 1964, so that particular acquired taste would have whizzed right past my ears then. It’s sounding pretty good these days.

The Pixies Three did get “Gee” (Mercury 72250) onto the charts. It entered the Hot 100 on April 18, 1964 and peaked at #87 on Billboard. Cashbox gave it more credit; “Gee” peaked at #79 there. Coming right at the time of the British Invasion, it’s fair to say that the groups with which the girls appeared around that time pretty well shut them out of the charts.

A significant aspect of this 45 in caithiseach’s world was that, since I already had a “Gee” I liked, I was wont to play the flip of this single, “After the Party,” as much as “Gee.” The song fit snugly into the party theme of the LP from which it came, and its sedate afterglow sound suited the voices of the vocal trio very well. A Madara/White composition, it was not filler designed to make the producers another buck.

The songs show surprising vocal maturity from three girls who were not put together by the likes of Simon Cowell or Sean Combs. They just happened to go to high school together in Hanover, Pennsylvania. I didn’t mention their ages before; at the time of “Gee,” these three ranged from 15 to 17 years old.

“After the Party” inadvertently helped my research in an unexpected way. At the end of the song, three young men say goodnight to Bonnie, Debby and Kaye, which confirms that Midge was not around for this recording. The girls reply, “Good night, John-Boy,” or something like that.

The girls recorded a few more singles, then they graduated and split up. Can you imagine going to school in 1965 with three girls who had played the same stage as the Stones?

And that should end the story of the Pixies Three. But their classmates remembered them, and they were asked to reunite for their 25th class reunion in 1991. Bonnie, Debby and Kaye obliged, and they started performing again. In 1997, Midge showed up, and eventually she took a vacant spot in 2000 when Debby left the group. They will still perform for you! Check out more of their history, their merchandise and their booking info at the Pixies Three website, which supplied much of my historical information.

That does end my version of the story of the Pixies Three and “Gee.” But I said there were a bunch of “Gees” out there. I may as well let you hear them, eh?

In addition to the two Pixies Three sides, you get to hear the #2 R&B hit by the Crows, “Gee” (Rama 5). I’ll also include “Gee” by June Hutton with the Pied Pipers, which did not chart. But wait, there’s more: if you click now, you can also hear “Gee” by Jan & Dean (Dore 576), a Herb Alpert production and a #81 smash in late 1960.

All this, and if you stop by this evening, a free dash of snow on May 2. No joke.

On Wednesday and Saturday I’ll feature the two sides of another participant in the early 1960s sci-fi music craze. I’m thinking you haven’t heard that 45. See you then!

Pixies Three, Gee

Pixies Three, After the Party

Crows, Gee

June Hutton, Gee

Jan & Dean, Gee

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