Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Holy Vinyl, Batman!

When I set up the song sequence for this blogging year last October, I had no idea there was another Batman movie in the works. Well, there’s always another Batman film on the way, but I had no specific understanding that one would be breaking box-office records at the time I scheduled my week of posts on the mid-1960s TV phenomenon. I could have changed the schedule, but I spent hours in October getting it just right, and I don’t want to mess it up. So . . .

When five-year-old caithiseach toddled off to Our Little Saints Kindergarten in September of 1965, there was a huge change in store for him, apart from the beginning of an education that has not really ever stopped:

Batman hit the small screen.

Before that time, I had received hand-me-down comic books, probably from my cousin Bob, and so I was well-versed in what Archie and Richie Rich looked like, even if I still had to ask for help in figuring out what was scrawled in the word balloons. But somehow I was prevented from leafing through comics featuring Batman, so he was a mystery to me. Then came the TV show.

Batman was the first, but unfortunately not the last, TV show to capture my complete attention. I never missed an episode. That perfect record was not hard to accomplish, because I didn’t go anywhere in the evenings, but there you have it—I never forgot to watch Batman. That show was the first, and unfortunately the last, family institution that centered around my TV tastes. On Sundays, my mom’s friend Kathryn came over to watch Gunsmoke and Lawrence Welk with my parents, which was a colossal downer, but on Batman night, whichever night that was, Uncle Tom came over, and I sat down about a foot in front of the Zenith console and soaked up the delights of everyone’s favorite TV crime-fighter.

During the fight scenes, which didn’t strike my parents as too violent for me to watch, each physical blow came with a cartoon representation of that punch: Biff! Pow! Crash! At first, I didn’t know those words, so Uncle Tom came to my aid and read the screen to me. Soon enough, I learned to read the words, but I didn’t let on, because it was fun to have Uncle Tom read them.
I think there was Batman merchandise available, and I’m sure I wanted any that existed. If I got any of it, I didn’t get much. What I did get, of course, was the vinyl. Twice.

Today I’ll talk about my second copy of the song, because it was the Neal Hefti original theme to the TV series (RCA Victor 8755). More specifics on the song in a moment, but I want to relate this record to my kindergarten experience.

Our school seems to have been a private enterprise. There was no public kindergarten in Merrillville, Indiana when I turned five, but if there had been, my mom would have sent me to Our Little Saints anyway. The people who ran it leased the basement of the Turkey Creek Pharmacy, so it looked as if we had school in an oversized family basement, with exposed rafters, cinderblock walls and a cement floor for décor.

I learned a lot there. I learned that nuthatches walk upside-down on the trunks of trees in search of food. I learned a lot about the Native Americans of Indiana. I ate my first pomegranate in that class. And one day, I tuned out Mrs. Ballinger completely, because I was reliving the Batman episode of the previous evening. It had been an amazing one, with this guy named the Joker as the villain of the week, concocting a diabolical scheme to mess up things in Gotham City, only to be foiled by Batman and Robin.

Suddenly, I realized that Mrs. Ballinger probably had not seen the episode, so she would know nothing at all about the Joker. There she was, going wah-wah-wah like Charlie Brown’s teacher, talking about something that was not nearly as interesting as Batman, and so I cut to the chase.

I raised my hand, she stopped talking and called on me, and I said, “The Joker has green hair.”

I appreciate the stunned look on her face more now that I have spent some years teaching. At the time, I found it a bit confusing, then it dawned on me, ever so slowly, that I had committed a faux pas. She didn’t really want the Joker to become part of that particular lesson. Oh, well.

She and my mom had a far-too-boisterous chuckle over that one.

Despite that event, once I got the 45 of the Batman theme, she let me bring it in for nap time. As had been the case when I brought in the bouncy “Why Wait” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra, the kids sat up and clapped along instead of sleeping. I didn’t get asked to bring in a third song that year. With twenty kids and 40 weeks of school, I don’t think there was a conspiracy to silence me.

The original theme to the TV show, “Batman Theme” by Neal Hefti, was only a minor hit, reaching #35 in a 4-week Top 40 run that began on 3/5/1966. It was a big caithiseach hit, though, in the two incarnations that wound up in my collection. More on the second version Saturday.

Uncle Tom didn’t get this 45 for me. His specialty was bulk cutouts, and this song was my third specific purchase of a 45. My parents took me to downtown Gary, and I bought it at a record store there. It took me two tries to get the Neal Hefti version, but I worked it all out eventually.

I will discuss the song and its composer more on Saturday. For now, put a couple of cookies on a napkin, get a glass of milk, darken the room, and listen to Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme.” If you get an urge to sit up and clap your hands instead of taking your fifteen-minute nap, go for it. See you Saturday!

Neal Hefti, Batman Theme

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Lot of Ulnar Nerve

The Tony Wilde single that made it into three-year-old caithiseach’s collection of cast-off 45s included some decent musical efforts, as well as some real dogs. Opinions on this blog have ranged from a lot of head-shaking over “Quiet!” by the Baby Dolls to very favorable reviews of the Marlin Greene tunes.

Today, I offer you the A side of Gardena 101, “Funny Bone” by Tony Wilde. Gardena released just 39 singles from 1960 to 1963, and the label didn’t even serve as a stepping stone for any of its artists, with the exception being Paul Revere and the Raiders, who gave Gardena its sole Top 40 hit with “Like, Long Hair.”

And yet, the producer of “Funny Bone” is probably a somewhat distinguished TV score composer, Jack Marshall. The writer of “Funny Bone,” Lou Duhig, was connected well enough to co-write a number of songs with Hal Blair (1915-2001), who made a substantial career for himself as a writer of country songs. Blair’s credits include Elvis (Presley) movies and “My Lips Are Sealed,” a #8 Country hit in 1956 for Jim Reeves. Duhig himself became a frequent song-supplier for the Castells, though his compositions showed up as three B sides on their singles.

With an accomplished songwriter and a solid producer on the job, there’s a far greater chance that a recording will have some staying power. “Funny Bone,” which is a far more mournful song than the name suggests, has an understated stark commentary that could have given it a decent chart run if an established label had picked it up. I’m glad I managed to recover the 45, thanks to online vinyl vendors.

No further Tony Wilde revelations have surfaced, so that’s it for today. Enjoy the song.

Last October, when I studied the feasibility of writing a year-long blog about my old 45s, I sketched out a track order and decided it was a task worth doing. I have stuck to the original song order, and I am going to do so next week, even though my songs for July 30 and August 2 coincide with a huge movie phenomenon. I’ll see you Wednesday!

Tony Wilde, Funny Bone

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Wilde Tyme

For the past couple of weeks, I have talked about 45s whose artists had names that made searching for information on them a laborious process. In the cases of Michael Allen and the Baby Dolls, I couldn’t find much pertinent information amid the white noise of other Michael Allens and Baby Dollses.

But at least those 45s were Survivors—records that made it through the Great Meltdown and have lived for the past 36 years in a box that I have carefully kept out of the sun. Not so with today’s song, which was both a Victim of the Great Meltdown and extremely difficult to locate because of the artist’s name.

At first glance, the name Tony Wilde would seem to be easier to work with than Michael Allen for search purposes. Not as easy as Márta Sebestyén, of course, or Tarig Abubakar, but easier than Michael Allen.

I learned, though, that around the time I started searching online for today’s 45, that a Tony Wilde was involved with auto racing. Now there’s one who races a Kawasaki, one who competes in 10K races, and a young actor. I had a song title, but it was a common enough phrase that I still had to do a lot of sifting. Then, finally, I remembered the label for which Tony Wilde had recorded, and I found what I was after.

“Whisper to Me” (Gardena 101) was the side three-year-old caithiseach played more often on this 45, though its designation as 101-2 makes it seem to be the intended B side. The gentle vocals and backing track kept the song from becoming one of my favorites, but it was memorable enough for me to recall it easily when I started looking for replacement 45s several years ago.

My memory of the label itself helped me figure out what to search for online. I remembered a white label with the figures from a deck of cards—hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades—arranged so as to hold the letters of the label’s name, Gardena Records. There is also a logo of a hand holding a royal flush. I turns out that Gardena, California had legalized card gambling at a time when such things were rarely legal, so by the time the label came into being in 1960, cards were Gardena’s main claim to fame.

Tony Wilde enjoyed considerable success on Gardena. He was around from the start, since the first Gardena single was numbered 100 and Tony logged number 101. He also released #107, “John Henry”/“There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” in 1960. After that . . . well, his singles didn’t sell, so we’re done considering his success.

Gardena as a whole was just slightly more successful. The label logged a #38 One-Week Wonder, “Like, Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders (Gardena 116). If Paul Revere Dick hadn’t driven down from Portland, Oregon to blanket the L.A.-area labels with his demo, it’s hard to say if Gardena would have found a hit artist at any point. The label released 39 singles through 1963, and that was that.

“Whisper to Me” was written by Rusty Nail. Rusty Nail has 54 titles under his belt on the BMI site, including “Whisper to Me.” Often, these old songs aren’t showing up with active registrations, so I was pleased to find that Mr. Nail has been keeping his registrations up to date, though it’s no longer linked to Class Publishing or any other publisher. There’s a business opportunity for you. Rusty Nail seems to specialize in songs about wine, bottles, devils, crying, fools, freight trains and whispering. As mournful as most of these topics are, “Whisper to Me” is a love song that doesn’t touch on infidelity, alcoholism or body parts severed on railroad tracks. So it’s all good.

Both sides of this record were arranged and directed (read: produced) by Jack Marshall. There is a good likelihood that the Jack Marshall in question was a guitar player who started producing records for Capitol in the 1950s. He scored some monster flicks beginning in 1958, and then he wound up composing for TV. He’s responsible for one of my favorite themes, for The Munsters. A producing gig with Gardena records in 1960 would fit perfectly into his music trajectory, so I’m fairly confident that I found the right guy. If so, he was born in 1921 and died at age 51 in 1973. He was the father of Frank Marshall, who has produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and a pile of other superb films.

There’s not a lot of information available about Tony Wilde or the people who helped him put this single together. Even so, I decided to split this song from its A side, because the song, while not exceptional, isn’t a complete throwaway. I do hope you enjoy it, and Saturday I’ll bring you a more amusing tune by Mr. Wilde. See you on the flip side!

Tony Wilde, Whisper to Me

Friday, July 18, 2008

Songs for Babies by Baby Dolls

In April, my friend whiteray blogged about a remarkably bad single from 1966, ‘Bay-Hay Bee Doll” by the Swingers. I downloaded that recording, and now I use it to keep birds from sitting on my balcony. Since today’s song is the flip side of a 45 by the Baby Dolls, you could start to deduce that associating your act with the term “baby doll” is a bad idea. The A side of my 45, “Quiet!,” earned the lowest ratings (so far) of any song I’ve put in my twice-weekly poll. The flip, “Hey, Baby!” (Warner Brothers 5086) may rival its performance, though I don’t want to prejudice anyone.

You may decide after listening to the song that it was eventually responsible for the AOL-Time-Warner merger. I, however, am not sure that the record doesn’t have some redeeming features. For example, the title includes a comma, as it should, given the direct address of Baby.

And on a more serious note, the girls who sang “Quiet!” and “Hey, Baby!” have voices far superior to that of hit singer Cathy Jean, and they take the time to harmonize well on “Quiet!” before the songs breaks down in chaos. The Baby Dolls could have been a decent Girl Group, given decent material. A search shows other singles that may have been sung by them, but they’re not on the WB. Since there could be a multitude of Baby Dolls out there, I won’t assume it’s the same act. I may buy a couple of the 45s to see what I find. I’ll let you know.

So, “Hey, Baby!” is a far more cranked-up song than “Quiet!” is, even at its most cacophonous. Whoever played the sax did a solid job on the solo. There’s not a lot of substance to the lyrics, as you’d expect from a Hemric-Kay composition, but there’s an overall sonic solidity that redeems the effort a bit.

And that would be the end of the Baby Dolls saga, were it not for an event that took place during my college years, while this song was playing. A bit of background:

People came by my dorm room to listen to music. For example, when Journey’s “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’” was a hit, Katie, Belinda and April used to sit on the bed of my roommate, Ray, and bounce in time to the “na-na” part. I got an idea to loop the “na-na” part, and I created a cassette with three extra minutes of “na-na.” I played it once when the girls were over. Ray and I smirked at each other as the bouncing got more feeble and the girls looked at each other in confusion. That was fun.

Once in awhile, I would set aside the J. Geils Band or ABBA LPs and dig out my box of 45s. While Ray got a kick out of watching me spin my 78 of “Why Wait” by Pérez Prado manually to get it up to speed, we had favorite 45s as well. “Hey, Baby!” wasn’t a favorite, but I tossed it on the turntable one afternoon and settled back on my bed to listen to it with the gang and eat cookies.

These weren’t just any cookies. They were iced oatmeal raisin cookies, and I think Keebler made them. I had enjoyed these cookies when I was a kid, and I found them again at the Kroger near my dorm. I was on perhaps my fourth cookie when the song was playing. A couple of people were listening to the music, and someone, I think it was Ray, started warbling along with the Baby Dolls. We started laughing. I had a whole raisin in my mouth, and when I inhaled to laugh, it disappeared.

I thought it had gone down my windpipe, and I waited for the raisin to block my airway. We all knew how to do what my former roommate Cameron had called the Himalaya Treatment, so I figured we would get it back out. But I never choked.

So I looked around my bed, then under it, then all around the room. The searching party never found a raisin anywhere. Did I swallow it? Is it still in my lung? I don’t know. I read once about a person who inhaled a bit of a Christmas tree and had it removed decades later because it was causing problems, so I don’t think it’s impossible that I am carrying it around. For that reason, whenever I weigh myself, I deduct .45 gram from the total, since the raisin isn’t really my fault, is it?

Ah, those iced oatmeal raisin cookies. They don’t seem to exist any more. I have found crunchy iced oatmeal cookies, notably those by Archway, and I have found softer oatmeal raisin cookies, but not iced ones like these Keebler cookies. If you know the cookies I mean, and you know of a source, please tell me where I can find them.

Every time I play “Hey, Baby!” I get hungry for those cookies. That’s why I don’t play the song very often; they lead to a food craving I can’t fulfill. Or is that why I don’t play the song a lot? You be the judge.

Next week, I’ll bring you a victim of the Great Meltdown, a single I sought for three years before I found a copy. In the meantime, play “Hey, Baby!” over and over this weekend. It’s a guaranteed good time. See you Wednesday!

Baby Dolls, Hey, Baby!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Viler Shade of Pink

I am still waiting for someone to identify my Mystery 45, the instrumental tracks that lost their label before I learned to read. As of today, I am hoping as well that someone knows how in the world this week’s songs got released on a major label.

As in the case of Michael Allen last week, this artist has an all-too-common name, the Baby Dolls. And their song, “Quiet!” is a common word, in case you haven’t noticed. When I narrow down the search, all I find are a handful of copies of the single for sale, no bios, no history at all.

This 45 has a number of quirks that set it apart from all others I own. It is the only 45 I have where both song titles end with an exclamation point! It is most likely the only 45 I own where both sides clock in at under two minutes. And it is the only label to sport a particularly hideous shade of flat pink.

What I do know is that this project (Warner Brothers 5086) owes a lot to Robert Hemric and George James Kay, because they wrote both songs. Someone named Mullins joined them on “Quiet!” But while the title of Saturday’s song is listed on the ASCAP site, “Quiet!” isn’t, and neither song is cross-referenced to the composers’ names. So they don’t seem to have distinguished themselves as lasting songwriters.

The premise of “Quiet!” is that some teenage girls are gathered together for a pajama party, and they are discussing in whispers the . . . positive features of a certain young man. They get louder as they go, until finally they break into a giddy cacophony that predates the screams of the fans at Beatles’ concerts. And then, Dad yells, “Quiet!” So they get quiet, only to do it all over again. And again.

The song seems to be a 1961 release, so it has to include such teen words as “ginchy,” and Dad is referred to as “square.” I suppose there is a very period-piece charm to the setup of the tune, but it reminds me of a concentrated dose of the American International “Beach Party” flicks. I guess getting it over with in two minutes beats 100 minutes of cinematic bikini splendor.

The song does sound as if it could have fit into the pajama party in Pajama Party, but—hey, wait: a lot of the songs for the “Beach Party” films were written by Guy Hemric. How many Hemrics are there who write songs for giggly teenage girls to sing?

I can’t pin it down. But based on his 321 titles listed with BMI, many co-written with Jerry Styner and featuring energetic teens, the association between Hemric and Hemric is strong. Of course, this pair also wrote “Psychedelic Rape,” which was then published by Mike Curb, that bastion of musical morals. Sigh.

It probably suits the situation that the label is a film subsidiary. “Quiet!” was recorded in Vitaphonic High Fidelity, which, one assumes, only film studios can provide to music-hungry teens. Well, good for them.

But the label, using the WB logo that I always loved when I was watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, is the most gag-inspiring shade of Pepto-Bismol® pink I could ever imagine. All of my other WB labels were red, with blue, green and red arrows pointing out of the hole. Maybe the label used this pink to indicate that it was a single for girls. But only the type of girl who was likely to be named Muffy or Buffy and not be ashamed of it.

I saw that pink in one other place: my cousin Lois’s toy collection.

Lois didn’t have a “toy collection” by the time I knew her; she was at least ten when I was born. But among the toys she still had was a decent-sized Corvette replica made of plastic. It was that color pink. And it looked a lot like this one:

I know you’re suspicious, so I’ll admit it. I played with Lois’s pink Barbie Corvette. I didn’t know Barbie was its owner. I never saw Barbie associated with the car. But yes, I did play with Barbie’s pink Corvette. When I was three years old.

My, it’s getting late, so I guess it’s time to listen to the song. See you Saturday on the flip side!

Baby Dolls, Quiet!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sounds Like Teens Hear It

No Elvis (Presley). I promised that in January. I have all of his hits, because I have nearly 80% of the Top 40 hits from 1955 to last Saturday. I even have some Elvis 45s that came into the family before I did. But this is a blog that sticks to the obscure, unless there’s a compelling reason to feature a hit. My E.P. EPs (four-song seven-inchers) didn’t make a big impression on three-year-old caithiseach. I was more into the King of the Mambo than the King.

I do, however, have an opportunity to discuss the Voice of Elvis (Presley), thanks to today’s artist.

My Uncle Tom brought me a 45 with a gaudy label one day. As accustomed as I was to black labels (RCA, Mercury, Chess, Scope, Diamond . . . ), this pink-green-yellow-orange monstrosity actually hurt my eyes. The label was Gone, and the song was “Girl of My Best Friend” by Ral Donner & the Starfires (Gone 5102).

The bigger shock came when I gave the record a test run. I turned to my mom and asked, “Why is Elvis on a colored record?” I knew Elvis was on the records with the white dog on a black background. Even then, I understood label affiliation. It’s possible that the first letters I learned after S-E-A-N were R-C (with A being part of my repertoire, of course).

So I knew something was wrong when Elvis was playing on this Technicolor nightmare 45. But Mom had an answer. “Little caithiseach, that’s not Elvis. It’s Ral Donner.”

Ral Donner. Ral? Ral didn’t sound like a name to me, and Gone didn’t look like a serious label to me, and Ral sang like . . . Elvis. Three strikes, you’re relegated to the bottom of the box, and thus you become a Survivor rather than a victim of the Great Meltdown of 1972. How does karma work again?

OK. Ral Donner could not help the fact that his voice sounded like Elvis’s. If you like Elvis’s voice, you probably like Ral’s, unless you resent the encroachment on Elvis’s turf. And plenty of people probably thought Ral was at least as attractive as Elvis. So, since Ral Donner was indeed a talented singer who worked hard, he deserved the success he achieved, and perhaps more. The question I’ll discuss shortly is: Would there have been a Ral Donner without Elvis?

Ralph Donner was born in 1943 in the Chicago suburbs. He began singing at a very early age, and once he caught the rock-and-roll bug, he started up the ladder. Between TV and live appearances, Ral was doing pretty well for himself. Just after “Girl of My Best Friend” entered the Top 40 on May 1, 1961, he sang it on American Bandstand. He followed up with “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It),” which reached #4 late in the summer of 1961. He reached the Top 40 twice more, which makes for a respectable career. It seems to be well-documented that Ral Donner might have had more hits if he had not complained about nonpayment of royalties and been shut out of opportunities to switch labels.

Ral kicked around, recording short-term for a number of labels, until 1980 or so. He did a double album of Elvis covers that was released in 1980, and he received the opportunity to be the voice of Elvis in the 1981 film This Is Elvis.

Ral started complaining of illness in 1977, but he was ignored by his doctors until August 1980, when he began to cough up blood. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he outlived the original estimate but died on April 6, 1984.

Now, back to my question, which is not about Ral Donner, but rather trends in music. Ral was not the first, or last, singer to sound like someone else. The wave of popularity for a certain type of voice starts either with fans or the labels who push the artist. I pin the phenomenon on the labels.

Ed Rambeau’s experience backs me up. When he went to Philadelphia to record “Skin Divin’,” someone from Swan asked, “What are we going to do with a white Johnny Mathis?” There wasn’t a pattern for such a creature, so they might well have passed on him. Music people seem to spend more time looking for the Next “____________” than developing the Next Original Act.

When something distinctive like Elvis’s Voice comes along, every label understandably wants to compete. One way is to distract from Elvis by pushing someone equally dynamic, but the easier and safer bet is to find a soundalike. And so, had Ral Donner come around three years before Elvis, would he have been big, or would someone unearth his recordings years later and call him a precursor to the King?

Casual music listeners are able to buy only what labels produce and market, and only what makes it to the radio will become familiar enough to warrant an investment in the product. Maybe I give listeners too much credit, but with the music industry being turned upside down by grass-roots support for MySpace musicians, the potential for greater variety in available music is enormous. Even so, as soon as one of the MySpace successes makes it big, labels still jump in with similar-sounding artists.

At certain points in history, voices with particular qualities have controlled the airwaves. I think that one singer gains an audience, and the marketers dig up other singers who sound like that one. Then, the listening audience gets comfortable with the nature of that voice, and it becomes the voice of a generation. It doesn’t even matter whose voice it is, as long as it sounds like the voice in every song on the radio that year. Here are some vocal trends that have arisen over the years:

People copied more about Elvis than his hair and his wiggle. While no one was as dead-on vocally as Ral Donner or Greg Tortell of Dread Zeppelin, when listeners started assuming that Elvis made “Blue Suede Shoes” famous, the mistake stemmed in part from Carl Perkins’s Elvis-like delivery.

A bit later, Buddy Holly spawned soundalikes, including Bobby Vee, who idolized Buddy and used the “Holly Hiccup” in “Rubber Ball” in 1960, and Tommy Roe, who took the Holly sound to #1 in 1962 with the “Peggy Sue” clone “Sheila.”

At some point, the Patti Page/Anita Bryant style gave way to Connie Francis/Annette/Shelley Fabares. Then, when Paul and John and Brian were reteaching boys how to sing, Grace Slick and Aretha Franklin did the same for girls.

Down the road a ways, the mellow male voice returned, with Manilow being an example, but soon enough it was the 1980s, and the Fixx and Madness led to Depeche Mode, all with similar vocal sounds—unlike the Britsh artists of the 1960s, who tried to sound American, these guys flaunted their British speech patterns. On the rock front, Grand Funk Railroad sounds very 1970s, and Poison/Metallica/Def Leppard/Warrant sound very 1980s. If we time-swapped the vocalists but left the songs intact, would those bands get signed?

Is it coincidence that all of the Seattle grunge acts have Kurt Cobain vocals? Did 1950s guys who sounded like them just not sing, or did the Elvis fans ignore them?

Shortly after Pat Benatar came along, boom, we had Rindy Ross of Quarterflash. Compare Concrete Blonde and 4 Non Blondes to Heart. I remember a time in the early 1990s when Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, Lisa Germano and Joan Jones (of Sun-60) all popped onto the scene, all sounding somewhat alike. Now we have Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. If you’re a female singer in 2008, sing soft and skip the vibrato.

Check out Nickelback, Lifehouse, Coldplay and Daughtry. If you’re a guy with gravel in your voice, you get signed. I can picture a lot of label people going to shows with a mandate to find a Chad Kroeger. No one is looking for a rock band whose singer sounds like Randy Bachman. However, if a Bachman soundalike comes up with a great song that shoots up the charts, his voice will be back in style. Then, of course, what dominates the airwaves becomes the comfort zone of a generation of teens.

In this age of easily heard snippets of new artists’ work, the opportunity will arise for a broader range of vocal styles to be popular at the same time. I don’t see teens surfing for Chad Kroeger soundalikes, to the exclusion of all other types of singers, in the way labels have always sought to copy the Current Big Thing. I suppose I’ll know in five years if it was the labels or the kids who drove the careers of Ral Donner, Tommy Roe and Rindy Ross. Stay tuned.

“Girl of My Best Friend” has a solid pedigree. One of its writers, Beverly Ross, is responsible for “Judy’s Turn to Cry” (with Edna Lewis) and “Lollipop” (with Julius Dixon). Ms. Ross recorded a Top 40 version of “Lollipop” as the Ruby half of Ronald & Ruby. She also worked with Jeff Barry during his formative years. Her co-writer on “Girl,” Sam Bobrick, didn’t get as far as a songwriter, but he wrote episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart and Saved by the Bell.

Whether or not Ral Donner was successful by association, he was a talented guy who probably could have made his way without sounding like anyone else. In one sense, not sounding like Elvis might have boosted Ral’s career, since some listeners, like three-year-old caithiseach, saw no need for two Elvises.

I’ll spend next week discussing one of the weirdest and ugliest 45s I owned. If you like to stare at train wrecks, this major-label fiasco will be right up your alley. See you Wednesday!

Ral Donner, Girl of My Best Friend

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

He Could have Picked a More Distinctive Name

Michael Allen. If you know someone named Michael Allen, raise your hand.

I thought so.

If one is trying to do research on a singer named Michael Allen, the common nature of the name will make life difficult. For starters, there are singers named Michael Allen Something, as in first name Michael, middle name Allen. And there are several plain old Michael Allens, not that they (or I) consider them plain or old.

But, by golly, when I search for Michael Allen and add “A Boy with a Dream” (Mercury 72036) to the mix, I get results I can count on.

Four of them.

What I know for sure is that the program director at 910 AM KDEO in San Diego thought enough of “A Boy with a Dream” to include it in the “9-10 Wax to Watch” twice: at #3 on October 12, 1962, and at #1 on October 19. That doesn’t mean KDEO played the song; this was the equivalent of “Bubbling Under” the KDEO Top 40. It never bubbled over.

But that means the Michael Allen 45 I got from Uncle Tom was a whole lot more successful than a number of the 45s he gave me.

The Airheads Radio Survey Archive (ARSA) lists under the name Michael Allen twelve singles, running from 1962 to 1976. If ARSA did their research well, this same Michael Allen kept plugging away for a considerable amount of time. He never reached the Billboard or Cash Box charts.

There is an album called Michael Allen Sings, and some of the ARSA titles are on the album, whose track listing appears, with sound clips, on the All Music Guide. The voice sounds similar enough at times that I could believe it’s the same Michael Allen, but I won’t stake anything at all on it.

The single came into my collection just after Mercury deleted it, and by adding yet another Mercury 45 to my collection, Uncle Tom further fostered a major confusion in three-year-old caithiseach, who had to tell the singles apart by visual memory. (I’ll talk about the big confusion in October.)

I found both sides of the 45 likeable enough, so it was a minor two-sided caithiseach hit, “He Don’t Need You Like I Do” being the flip. Frankly, I had so many good 45s that, by the time I got through the big hits each day, I’d had enough music and opted to do something else, like climb the elm trees in the front yard. Michael Allen simply got crowded out of airtime. Thus, his record avoided being Ground to Dust, and somehow it survived the Great Meltdown as well.

Michael Allen seems to have earned a legitimate shot from Mercury. Whereas the label sometimes picked up recordings that showed regional promise on smaller labels, Allen’s record was produced by a rising star in the Mercury ranks, Shelby Singleton. Singleton’s trademark was to add a twang to a pop recording, as he did with Brook Benton’s take on “The Boll Weevil Song.” Singleton went on to buy Sun Records from Sam Phillips.

The Merry Melody Singers, who backed countless Mercury artists from Brook Benton to Ray Stevens to Patti Page, were called in to work on this recording, so again, it seems that Mercury held high hopes for Michael Allen.

Ramsey Kearney wrote “A Boy with a Dream.” He registered 111 compositions with ASCAP, but he seems to have recorded most of them himself. There is one twist to his music career that I absolutely have to mention.

Ramsey Kearney worked for, and perhaps owned, a business called Nashco Records. What Nashco did was put ads in the back of magazines, offering people the opportunity to send in their poetry to see if Nashco could find a melody to go with the lyrics. Typically, the music publisher in question would praise the lyrics, get the poet to cough up cash to have the song recorded, and that was that.

A prankster named John Trubee sent some really awful lyrics to Nashco in the mid-1970s. The label took $79.95 from Trubee to produce one single-sided 45, with the music written by Will Gentry. Ramsey Kearney sang the song on the 45 sent to Trubee. Eventually, Trubee made more copies of the song, and it has become a cult classic: “Peace & Love (Blind Man’s Penis).” Or maybe it’s the other way around. You must listen to "A Boy with a Dream," the Kearney composition, and “Peace & Love,” the Kearney recording. I don’t think it’s possible to hit both ends of the musical spectrum in one career, but here it is.

You will be amazed by John Trubee’s song, and you should do what I did and buy it at iTunes. Please. He’s a serious musician, and he deserves your support. You should also rent this 2003 film, which tells Trubee’s tale: Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story.

After that experience, the source of “He Don’t Need You Like I Do” is somewhat anticlimactic. It was written by Bob Perper, composer of 99 BMI titles, none of which stand out to me.

And so, the dead-end story of Michael Allen and his near-miss 45 ends here. If you know anything about Michael Allen, the one who sang “A Boy with a Dream” and the oh-so-ungrammatical “He Don’t Need You Like I Do,” let me in on the secret. I’ll update this post and praise you effusively therein.

This post owes a lot to If you ever wondered who answers those ads for “Song Lyrics Needed,” this site has your answer, in abundance. Spend an afternoon there.

I said in January that Elvis (Presley) would not figure in this blog. That’s true, but Saturday, you’ll think he does. See you then!

Michael Allen, A Boy with a Dream

Michael Allen, He Don’t Need You Like I Do

Ramsey Kearney, Blind Man’s Penis (Peace & Love)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dancing with the Stars

My collection of 45s didn’t grow much between 1967 and 1973. Uncle Tom stopped buying me 45s, and I started accepting that the radio was a good source of tunes. During this stretch of time, I had to love a song beyond measure before I would buy the single.

A couple of times, I was kept from buying 45s I wanted because I was summering at Good Fellow Camp in Porter, Indiana. That’s the camp that prevented me from seeing Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, but it’s also the camp that gave me very much-needed opportunities to explore life outside of my home.

What happened in these two cases was that, by the time I got home, a song I had enjoyed at camp had sold out and was not being restocked at Zayre, which was about the only place I could find 45s in the pre-mall days. When I was eleven, a single that was not in stock at Zayre was a single I would never find. In the case of today’s song, it meant I would never hear the song again.

The two weeks I spent at Good Fellow Camp in June, 1971 turned out to be a huge turning point in my world. It was my third year of camping, and I was far enough past the death of my mother to exert my personality a bit. Even so, the two expressions of who I was capable of being still surprise me by their daring. I took more risks that first week of camp than I tended to take in a year. I throw myself out there much more often now, but when I was eleven I had no perspective on the value of leaving my comfort zone.

One of my risks involved music, but the other one led to it, so I have to talk first about learning to swim.

After my first swimming lesson at age seven ended in disaster (lake plus boat plus short kid equals wake flattens kid), I didn’t take another stab at a deep pool until I was nine, at camp. There, the instructor was gentle, and all of us Beginners appreciated that but rarely tried to progress. I know I didn’t, especially after an ultra-pale kid named Brian splattered his hot dog from lunch all over the shallow end. He made this barking sound, then . . . never mind.

When I was ten, I fought the pool to a draw. I could hang onto the side and kick, as long as my head did not go under the surface.

When I went to camp in 1971, I had a new stepmother-to-be, and she was not kind about my fear of deep water. Never mind that I was a tree-climber after her heart, and that I loved to play baseball; I caught real hell for not being a swimmer.

You would think I would feed off the motivation of wanting to stick it in her face when I came home a swimmer, but I found her tactic demoralizing. When I came home not just floating but actually swimming after two weeks away, I had a different emotion to thank: I had fallen in love with my swimming instructor.

You know how that goes: you have a preteen crush on someone, and you see the person sometime later, and you are horrified at your poor taste. But I assure you, Beverly, the Good Fellow Camp swimming instructor that year, was a keeper. I was no dummy—she was six years older than I was, and there was no way she would want to have an eleven-year-old boyfriend. I kept my thoughts to myself, but it probably clued her in that I made constant eye contact with her when we were in the pool.

She had long blond hair, and she was wearing a bikini 90% of the time when I interacted with her. At first, she cupped water in her hands and had me blow bubbles in the water. Once, I kissed her hand. I don’t know if she caught on.

For Beverly, I would have done anything. And so, I let her erase my fears of the water, and I floated. Then I kicked. Then I swam.

On Tuesday, the second lesson day, I put my head underwater without panicking for the first time in my life. When I got back to Cabin 6, I was elated. A perky song was playing on my counselor’s radio: WLS was spinning “Do You Know What Time It Is?” by the P-Nut Gallery (Buddah 239). Alby, my counselor, was the first nurturing counselor I’d had; the previous two had been rough-and-tough types who hadn’t clicked too well with me. Alby really showed what a good guy he was this day.

When I stepped through the door and heard the song, I started doing a dance, which involved clapping my hands and stomping my right foot as I spun on my left. A couple of the boys were there as well, and they started clapping with me. I was the only one dancing, though.

As the week wore on, my spirit never wavered, and the guys demanded that I do my dance whenever WLS played “Do You Know what Time It Is?” The song peaked at #62 nationally, but in Chicago, it entered the WLS Top 30 at #21 on May 31, two weeks before it entered the Billboard Hot 100. On June 14 and 21, it ranked #9 and #8. It was in heavy rotation, which should have been a good thing on Thursday night, because that was when the boys called for a dance contest.

That could mean a lot of things in that social circle. Was I annoying them with my dancing? After the first time, I did it only by request. Other boys did the dance when I did. Did they want to show me up? These concerns barely crossed my mind, because we were all having great fun with the song.

After dinner, all the boys of Cabin 6 skipped other activities to attend the contest. Three others participated; they came up with something original and danced to whatever song WLS played. Then it was my turn, presumably to do my dance to “Do You Know What Time It Is?” But the song didn’t come on. Alby let me wait out two songs, but we agreed that I would have to dance to the third song. And the third song was the P-Nut Gallery tune. Thanks, WLS.

The vote made me a winner. Alby spent part of the day Friday making a plaque for me: “Best Dancer, Cabin 6.” We always had a bonfire and awards ceremony on Friday night. I was hoping it would impress Beverly when Alby handed me my award.

As it turned out, after two years without recognition, I got a number of awards: I received four certificates for my Nature studies, and I was named Most Enthusiastic Athlete, which I cinched by winning the running long jump. I didn’t win any Red Cross swimming awards, though, so all I could do was look at Beverly in the firelight while she doled out certificates to far better swimmers.

When she finished, she started talking about how she had never seen anyone progress as fast as one of the Beginners. She found it amazing, in fact, that someone could be afraid to get his face in the water and then finish the week by almost swimming a full lap. I still didn’t get it, until she said my name and called me the Most Improved Swimmer. I saw real pride in her eyes, and she gave me a hug.

So, what did I do at summer camp? I learned to swim, I allowed myself to cut loose and dance in front of people I barely knew, and I dealt maturely with a young lady I absolutely adored.

I stayed a second week and got even better at swimming. When they asked at home how my two weeks had gone, I said that I had learned to swim. Such was the disconnect between camp and home. And the record was off WLS, and it wasn’t available at Zayre, and I never saw Beverly again, and I never heard “Do You Know What Time It Is?” again.

Not, that is, until I was digging through some records in a vinyl shop in Douglas, Michigan. I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was: 28 years later, I bought that single. Instead of having to replay it from memory, I owned the 45. I consider my intention to buy the 45 sufficient cause to include it in this blog about my childhood 45s. Who knows if it would have survived the Great Meltdown?

When I bought the Buddah Box 3-CD collection, one song I was after was “Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road. At the time, I didn’t know that the P-Nut Gallery song was a Buddah release, or I might have been irritated that they included a number of non-charting releases but ignored a song that made the Chicago Top Ten. Now, it annoys me. It’s not a spectacular song, but I really would like to have clean copies of all of my memory songs.

The guy singing this song is Tommy Nolan. The group seems to have been assembled to take advantage of the craze surrounding the return of the Howdy Doody show. The song’s writers and producers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, wrote nearly 80 songs together, including “White Lies, Blue Eyes,” a #28 hit in early 1972 for Bullet. Flax and Lambert did considerable work for Big Tree and Buddah Records.

I find the song to be an interesting hybrid, because it is aimed at kids, but it’s a song about a TV show that the parents of 1971 children had watched. If anyone were going to get the point of the song, it would be the 30-somethings of the early 1970s, not their children, who were just getting a taste of what Howdy Doody had meant to their parents.

I don’t know if I would have paid much attention to the song if I hadn’t stumbled into it while I was buzzing over my good swimming lesson and having Beverly cradling my face in her hands. At that moment, I could have danced to any tune.

Next time, I’ll bring you music by a no-name who actually scraped into the bottom of the charts, and I’ll try to figure out why he stayed there instead of climbing higher. See you Wednesday!

P-Nut Gallery, Do You Know What Time It Is?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Another Song About Gary

Since my stats show that I have a contingent of Canadian readers, and since this post will probably go up late on Canada Day, allow me to wish you all an excellent Canada Day.

Readers who have perused a majority of the posts here can probably figure out three-year-old caithiseach’s musical tastes pretty well. I dug sax, R&B, good guitar work and Fats. Slow, stringy songs that oozed sentimentality left me cold, unless they pushed one of my buttons.

Today’s tune struck me at first as a soggy mess of maudlin sentiments, made worse by Uncle Tom’s accidental purchase of two copies. I played “Since Gary Went in the Navy” by Marcy Joe (Robbee 115) about once a year between 1963 and 1970, because the idea of a teen girl moping over her boyfriend’s departure struck me as silly. After all, my dad had spent four years in the Navy, and he enjoyed it. What a downer to have a girl back home, making him feel guilty for serving his country.

Just about the time of the Great Vinyl Meltdown in 1972, my opinion of this song began to change. I wound up being happy that the Meltdown spared one copy of the 45. The Survivor got more frequent play, because I had a better perspective on the pop system that was in place in 1961, when Robbee released this second Marcy Joe single.

From the time my stepmom introduced me to oldies radio in late 1970, I became conversant with the trends of the era: songs in 6/8 time seemed less disturbing, even if they used a piano playing eighth notes to keep the rhythm; plaintive pleading vocals, whether they came from Paul Anka or one of the girl groups, began to sound less annoying. While this production style made the U.S. record market easy pickings for the Beatles, at least I could understand that Marcy Joe’s song had some redeeming qualities.

Now, when I look back at all of the early-1960s hits sung by solo teen girls, Marcy Joe’s song actually holds up pretty well. Certainly by comparison to Cathy Jean, whom even the Roomates (sic) could not save from sonic doom, this 17-year-old from Pittsburgh managed a couple of solid outings.

Marcy Rae Sockel was pretty serious about a singing career. She began singing lessons when she was 13, under the tutelage of Lennie Martin, who would open Robbee Records in 1960 and close it in 1961. By the time she was ready to finish high school at age 17, she had written a love song for her boyfriend, Howard.

Howard? Apart from Sue Thompson’s “Norman,” I can’t think of many songs devoted to guys that have less sonorous names as their basis. Thank goodness Marcy Joe fudged a bit and called the song “Ronnie” instead of “Howard.” But how did Howard feel about being serenaded with a song that was about him but never mentioned him? He must have gotten over it, because eventually he married Marcy Rae Sockel.

“Ronnie” (Robbee 110) scooted up to #81 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was a pretty good showing for a song on a fledgling (oops, unintentional pun based on Robbee’s bird logo) label. Her follow-up release was “Since Gary Went in the Navy,” which owes its inspiration to a real event involving a real Gary.

Though Elvis (Presley) got all the attention when he began his military service, he was not the only #1 singer to be called away from his obligations to America’s bobby soxers. Gary Troxel of the Fleetwoods found himself in the Navy, and an April 15, 1961 Cash Box ad touted “Tragedy” as coming from the Fleetwoods’ first recording session since Gary went in the Navy. Jay Richards and Sol Hyman (Wilbur) Meshel jumped on the phrase and wrote a song that really isn’t as mushy as three-year-old caithiseach thought it was.

Unfortunately for both Marcy Joe and another singer, Roberta Wynn, their decisions to release competing versions of “Gary” (Marcy Joe’s was released first) meant that they basically cancelled each other out, and neither version charted. That failure enabled a single released in Pittsburgh to reach a Gary, Indiana bargain bin and arrived at my house two years later.

I just had a vision of the cashiers at the Big Top department store: After ringing up my uncle’s stack of 20 45s, they may well have snickered at the crap they were unloading on the old dude, who should have been buying 4 Seasons records, if he wanted to be hip. Uncle Tom, this blog is your vindication, though I should maybe be blogging about Fergie, if I want to be hip.

So, I guess I grew into “Since Gary Went in the Navy.” Its writers put together decent composing careers, with Wilbur Meshel tallying nearly 150 compositions. Meshel’s co-writer of the single’s flip side, “What I Did This Summer,” was Arthur Altman, who co-wrote “I Will Follow Him.”

Apart from having access to solid songwriters, the producers, label owner Lennie Martin and Lou Guarino, did a smooth job of using an expensive-sounding string section judiciously, and they brought in another Robbee act, Lugee and the Lions, to back up Marcy Joe’s vocals. When I was three, it was the high-pitched backing vocals that made the song sound odd to me, but now that I recognize the voice of Lugee Sacco as the future Lou Christie, I’m much more impressed with the arrangement.

Lennie Martin, born Rinaldo Marino in 1916, seemed to be on the verge of making it big, despite owning a small label that dared to record an album by a couple of Pittsburgh Pirates, pitcher Roy Face and catcher Hal Smith. Martin had previously developed the Skyliners for another of his labels, Calico, and guided them to three Top 40 hits. After he folded Robbee (named after his son, Robert), he still had a label called World, though it didn’t provide the breakthrough he hoped for. He died of cancer at age 46 in 1963.

When Marcy Joe left Robbee (and, at some point, lost the “e” on her name), she signed with Swan Records in Philadelphia. In addition to a couple of unsuccessful solo singles, she recorded two duet medleys with my favorite Swan artist, Eddie Rambeau. “Those Golden Oldies” and “Lover’s Medley,” both released in 1963, failed to crack the Hot 100.

Marcy Jo(e)’s Swan recordings were the last of her career. You can find several of them on iTunes. “Since Gary Went in the Navy” has made it to a CD compilation called Pittsburgh’s Greatest Hits, Vol. XII. Unfortunately, the needle-drop used on the CD was so heavily treated to remove clicks that I find it harder to listen to than my 45, which has some pops but still has a high end. The flip side, included here, has a couple of weird wobbles at the beginning, but it’s cleaner overall, because I never listened to more than a minute of the song when I was little.

You, however, should give Marcy Joe a spin. She represents the hopefulness of a whole generation of young singers, kids who tried to take their talents to the national stage without a lot of parental coddling or slick manipulation by a suit who is better at brainwashing listeners than at developing a quality act. It was a far more simple time, even if the business shenanigans were as devastating and the failures as painful as they are now. I’m thinking that what music needs is fragmented labels and comprehensive radio, not the opposite, as things stand now.

I was not sure I would have much to say about Marcy Joe until I found these two sites:

Marcy Joe

Robbee Records

They are amazing resources. Thanks, guys.

For the Fourth of July, we’ll be going back to summer camp, caithiseach style. See you then!

Marcy Joe, Since Gary Went in the Navy

Marcy Joe, What I Did This Summer