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

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