Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Would Like a Monkey of My Own, Please

I want to preface this post with an invitation to anyone living within a 20-hour drive of Bloomington, Indiana to check out the 15th annual Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, which will feature around 25 acts from more than 20 nations. Check out the artist roster and feed the compulsion to attend. When you hit town, look for the Ryder Magazine of the Arts and read the Festival preview; then, after October 7, download a PDF of the October issue to read interviews I conducted with two of the acts. Now, on to the scheduled post.

Three-year-old caithiseach surely owned more 45s than 98% of the three-year-old population, yet I always thirsted for more. I don’t know if Uncle Tom kept buying me 45s because I wept when he arrived for a visit sans discs, or if I gave him the cold shoulder (and I fervently hope I didn’t), or because of the joy I remember expressing with each fresh batch of singles. I’m thinking this last scenario is the most likely one, because he wasn’t one to be manipulated by ingratitude.

But with all those 45s, I couldn’t help but want some songs that were on the radio as well. I never heard my favorite 1963 song, “Yakety Sax,” on the radio, but having it available on my grandparents’ restaurant jukebox, a mere five hours’ drive away, was enough. On the last day of August, 1963, a new song turned up on the radio, and we weren’t going to Shoals, Indiana anytime soon. I can tell you now that this Top Ten hit would not have made it to the Country-oriented jukebox at the Dwyer Café anyway.

I was digging this tune so much that, for the first time in my life, I requested that my parents purchase it. It predates “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong by six months. We also bought a couple of other 45s in 1963, but I guarantee that they were Mom-inspired purchases.

The honor of being the first Top 40 hit I purchased (with parental money, of course), out of 8,000 I now own, goes to “Mickey’s Monkey” by the Miracles (Tamla 54083).

I found so many things to love about the song. The count-in, the nonsense syllables in the chorus, the sax section and solo (of course), and that guy who was singing, with the girls (Claudette Rogers, Mary Wilson, Martha & the Vandellas, the Marvelettes) echoing his lines. Lots of people agree with me on this one, as it was a phenomenal million-seller with a very long shelf life as a closing number at Miracles shows.

The song is, to my less-than-vast Miracles knowledge, the loudest, most exuberant hit they scored. Known for such gentle work as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and “I Second That Emotion,” the Miracles usually displayed the softer side of Motown, in contrast to the Supremes, for example. Even their 1975 disco smash, “Love Machine,” isn’t as much of a rocker as “Mickey’s Monkey.”

“Mickey’s Monkey” contributed to the dance craze named after that animal. I saw kids doing the Monkey on American Bandstand, even saw neighborhood girls dancing that crazy way, and still I have to admit something silly. I thought the song was about a guy named Mickey who owned a monkey.

Before I delve into my memories of the song, I need to discuss these Miracles. I hesitate to gloss over famous artists at this point, because I now realize that plenty of people don’t know the old stuff from offhand references.

The Miracles were a Detroit-based Motown act, one of the early ones. Led by Bill “Smokey” Robinson, the Miracles recorded the aforementioned hits, as well as the 1970 #1 hit “Tears of a Clown.” They scored 29 Top 40 hits, and Smokey recorded nine Top 40 hits as a solo artist. There are plenty of gems on their compilations, so do some sampling at iTunes or Rhapsody, and buy what you like.

As for the song itself, it was the work of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, a huge writing/production hit factory for Motown and later for their own label, Invictus/Hot Wax. I am reading on Wikipedia that Smokey heard Lamont putting the song together on a piano at Motown, at which point he asked that the Miracles be given a shot at the song. Good idea.

Other Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions include “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Baby Love,” “Back in My Arms Again,” “Come See About Me,” “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Please Mr. Postman” (Brian Holland only), “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me),” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and then we start naming the big hits, but you get the idea, so I won’t bother.

Note that these songs were not recorded solely by Motown acts. Everyone from the Hollies to Steve Winwood (“Roll with It”) to the Doobie Brothers to the Carpenters took a turn at a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition. Clearly, three-year-old caithiseach knew a good song when he heard one, despite having heard so many bad cutout 45 tunes.

I love to list such accomplishments for readers who wouldn’t know a Lamont Dozier from a bulldozer. If you are totally old school and could draw the waveforms of these songs from memory, remember that we are inviting a new batch of fans to the party.

And in 1963, I was the newest of fans. This song was new to everyone, but the Miracles weren’t; it may have amused my elders to have me talk about this great new act with a song about a monkey. As a beautiful gift to my future self, my parents fed my enthusiasm for this song and all music.

Now it is autumn, 2008, and in the last couple of days, the chill has started to settle in. “Mickey’s Monkey” still takes me back to summer, and it brings with it specific memories.

After my dad built our house, with my mom’s help until she was five months pregnant with me, he built a shed at the back of the usable property. With the leftover wood, he constructed a screened-in cube for bug-free summer-evening socializing. To make the walk to the house bug-free, he hung from it a contraption that used a circular fluorescent light to attract mosquitoes, which a fan then sucked into a big plastic bag. Mosquitoes flew in, but they didn’t fly out.

In that backyard porch, I sat with my parents and their friends and, when I timed the ice-cream truck correctly, I ate frozen chocolate-covered bananas. I was thinking I could share one with a monkey, if I had one, like Mickey. I never asked for a monkey, though I got some of those little green turtles that have been banned for being salmonella carriers. I don’t understand the ban, as I didn’t get salmonella from them, except for a few times.

Next to that enclosure stood a young apple tree, which finally produced fruit in 1970 and which died in about a week in 1976 when its roots pried into our septic system. The enclosure was long gone, having been blown over the fence into the creek behind our house around 1965. My dad used the frame to build me a fort on the back side of the fence. He put a bunch of branches on it for a roof and encouraged the honeysuckle that cover the back fence to creep onto the branches. That fort stood for years after I left for college in 1978.

And I cannot extricate from these summer memories our trip to Florida in August, 1964. My grandparents were thinking about buying property down there, and my dad drove them down from Shoals. Five of us in the car, and I remember no hassles. In Georgia, we stopped at a restaurant, and after we ate, I asked the young lady who brought the food if she was the cook. She said she was not, and asked why I wanted to know. I requested that she tell the cook he had prepared one of the best meals of my life. Thus began my informal career as a restaurant critic. (OMG, another blog idea?)

When we reached Florida, I enjoyed Six Gun Territory in Ocala. Then, the atmosphere changed. The barometer dropped, Hurricane Cleo drew near, and the adults decided to get out of the Sunshine State. I was annoyed, as I found bent-over palm trees fascinating. My grandparents wound up staying in Indiana for the rest of their days.

All of that flashes through my brain the instant Smokey yells, “All right, is everybody ready?” I can’t help it. I don’t want to.

I still have trouble remembering that the song is not about a monkey.

For Saturday, I’ll bring you a song I didn’t play because I misunderstood the name of the tune when my cousin Jim read the label to me. See you then!

Miracles, Mickey’s Monkey

Here are the Miracles, really live, singing several full-length hits. Move the video to 5:35, and you’ll see how the crowd reacts to “Mickey’s Monkey.” You’ll also see adorable girls doing that crazy new dance.

And, what the heck? Here’s a video of a gunfight at Six Gun Territory. By the way, you can’t get there from here now.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Post-Cursor to Greatness

Tommy Boyce established himself as a hero to three-year-old caithiseach as soon as his single entered my collection. Apart from “Sweet Little Baby I Care,” I owned only the flip, a self-penned tune called “Have You Had a Change of Heart” (RCA 8126), but Tommy’s songs earned my complete attention. I didn’t play today’s side quite as much, but I consider this single to be one of the strongest two-sided 45s I owned. Since the material hasn’t been released on CD yet (to my knowledge), I am very glad this 45 is a Survivor of the Great Vinyl Meltdown.

I was fortunate enough to have the Quintessential Valuable Commenter, Yah Shure, offer me some data from his Goldmine 45 price guide, which I need to acquire so he doesn’t have to rescue me. According to this impeccable source, Tommy released these singles through 1963:

R-Dell 111.............Betty Jean / I'm Not Sure
Dot 16117.............The Gypsy Song / Give Me The Clue

Wow 345..............Is It True / Little One
RCA Victor 7975....Along Came Linda / You Look So Lonely

RCA Victor 8025....Come Here Joanne / The Way I Used To Do
RCA Victor 8074....I'll Remember Carol / Too Late For Tears

RCA Victor 8126....Have You Had A Change Of Heart / Sweet Little Baby, I Care
RCA Victor 8208....Don't Be Afraid / A Million Things To Say

Only “I’ll Remember Carol” charted, but I would jump at the chance to buy a compilation of these sides. Tommy seems to have released a couple of albums on RCA as well, and I’ll be looking for them.

As was the case with most of Tommy’s other compositions, he had a co-writer on “Have You Had a Change of Heart.” B. Kelly had some hand in its creation, according to the 45 label. And guess who B. is? Betty Jean Kelly, the probable inspiration for Tommy’s first single, and who happened to be Tommy’s sister.

The production and arrangements appealed to three-year-old caithiseach, so I’ll take a moment to mention their source. The sessions were produced by Ray Ellis. He has a solid pedigree, having orchestrated the 1958 Billie Holiday album Lady in Satin, arranged “A Certain Smile” for Johnny Mathis, and written the theme song for the Spider-Man cartoons. He wrote background music for the Archie TV show, which solidifies the link between the Jeff and Tommy RCA singles. All that, and Tommy Boyce, too.

The arrangements on these sides were the work of Jimmie Haskell. Yes, the Jimmie Haskell who arranged Billy Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor LP, played on Tina Turner’s Acid Queen LP, and came up with his own space-age pop LP, Count Down! He arranged Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” and Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” all of which earned him “Best Arranger” Grammys. His spectacular credentials are available at his website.

The top-notch help makes me think RCA was big on Tommy Boyce. While the RCA material didn’t pan out, the A&R people at RCA eventually got to pat themselves on the back for having good judgment, if not the best timing.

Not long after this single didn’t hit the charts, Tommy experienced a watershed moment in his career when he met up with Robert Harshman, a Phoenix native who was already a talented songwriter. One of their first assignments was to pen the theme song for Days of Our Lives, a U.S. daytime drama that has been on the air since 1965. Here is that theme.

The boys, with Robert taking the name Bobby Hart, began to write a string of hits for top artists, including “Come a Little Bit Closer” for Jay and the Americans and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” for Paul Revere and the Raiders.

It may have been a right place, right time thing, but Boyce and Hart, the songwriters, were tapped to create music for a TV pilot that was intended as an American answer to the Beatles: The Monkees. From the theme song to “Last Train to Clarksville,” Boyce and Hart were the creative forces behind the act at its inception. They recorded the tracks, vocals included, then either wiped their vocals or mixed them out when Mickey Dolenz and pals came to sing.

And then, the flap occurred over the fact that the Monkees didn’t play their instruments, and the Monkees wanted to write their own songs, and Boyce and Hart exited in favor of Don Kirshner’s guru, Jeff Barry. Jeff was no slouch, as he brought in a little Neil Diamond composition, “I’m a Believer,” which topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1967, despite Mike Nesmith’s assurances that the song was no hit.

When the Monkees (read: Nesmith) griped about Jeff as they had about Boyce and Hart, the source of the problem became evident. But the legacy of what Boyce and Hart accomplished musically with that foursome will not go away, and time has had a way of creating more respect for the Boyce/Hart productions.

Sometimes it works out that a pair of writers can create their own musical act. For Boyce and Hart, the results were pretty spectacular. They scored three Top 40 hits, including one of the best songs of the decade, “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite.” (The title spelling stems from an identically titled 1963 single by Barry & the Tamerlanes.) This song centers itself in its time frame, calling on all of the musical conventions of the moment: loud brass, chord progressions you could hear anywhere. And yet, the lyrics, especially the B part of the verses, about what friends never do, are some of the wisest and tightest to come to light in 1968, when the song peaked at #8. It’s a spectacular song; the duo sang as if they were brothers, and they obviously had a lot of fun making the record.

From there, they wound up paired with Dolenz and Jones in a Monkees reunion in the mid-1970s, and then things started to calm down. Tommy spent some time in the United Kingdom, then he took up residence in Nashville.

At some point, Tommy suffered a brain aneurysm, which exacerbated some depression issues he faced. Some of his best friends had died, including Elvis Presley and Del Shannon, who took his own life on February 8, 1990. Tommy had the courage to appear on talk shows to discuss his depression, a touchy subject even in the early 1990s. Finally unable to deal with the pain, Tommy shot himself in the head at his home on November 23, 1994.

Tommy’s sister, Betty Jean, dedicated a memorial bench to Tommy at Studio B in Nashville. Sidney Thomas Boyce was born on September 29, 1939. Monday will be the 69th anniversary of his birth.

For Wednesday, I will bring you what may be the first 45 I specifically requested as a gift. It was a big hit, too, for once. Until then, listen to Tommy’s other song, and watch him and Bobby get after “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite.”

Tommy Boyce, Have You Had a Change of Heart

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Another Precursor to Greatness

Over the course of the blog year, I have talked about some singles in my 1960s cache that were poorly received followup singles (“Snow Train” by the Jamies, for example), or enticing tastes of what was to come (“Face from Outer Space” by Jeff Barry, who had just one Top 40 single as a singer but wrote your childhood soundtrack). Here is another look at someone who was going to be someone, and the tale is almost as compelling to me as Jeff’s is.

Apart from a few legacy singles by Elvis (Presley), the early caithiseach collection of 45s didn’t include a lot of RCA singles, because the label’s stable of artists generated a lot of hits and thus few cutouts. That’s my theory, anyway. In a manner similar to my experience with Mercury singles, the RCA 45s that did make their way to me had a special cachet, because they were a lot closer to being hits than many of the other flops I owned.

I’ve said before that three-year-old caithiseach tended to favor uptempo numbers over syrupy slow songs. I really avoided playing songs that included heavy strings and large choruses singing quavery “oohs.” Today’s song is gentle, has a string part, and has a couple of girls singing background vocals, but it is tender rather than sappy, clean rather than overdone with the production. That distinction, as well as the artist’s voice, made a strong caithiseach hit of “Sweet Little Baby I Care” by Tommy Boyce (RCA Victor 8116).

A large percentage of my readership knows who Tommy Boyce is. Don’t feel bad if you’re young enough that his name has escaped your notice; I’ll fill you in shortly. But even if you know his work well, there’s a decent chance you have not heard “Sweet Little Baby I Care.” That’s not because the track lacks merit; it’s because no one has seen fit to issue a Tommy Boyce solo anthology.

That is a shame, because Tommy’s RCA output is, as far as my knowledge of it goes, pretty solid. He recorded at least two albums for RCA, and I don’t know how many singles he released for them; there is so much search-engine chatter for other configurations of his career that I can’t whittle things down to his solo RCA output. But he scored a three-week Hot 100 hit with “I’ll Remember Carol,” which peaked at #80. A few months later, RCA released today’s song, but it didn’t chart nationally. A copy came into my hands shortly after its release. I loved it.

I was mulling over the song’s charm, and I have figured out a couple of things. First, this recording does not sound like any other quiet song of its era. It should have piano triplets or electric guitar licks, and it sounds more like a folk romance song. The strings serve a purpose, rather than being filler, but they don’t overpower the vocals or the rest of the arrangement.

Unlike, for example, Johnny Tillotson’s “Poetry in Motion,” you could drop “Sweet Little Baby I Care” into a 1970 playlist, and no one would bat an eye. Or an ear.

Conclusion: The song was ahead of its time, not behind it. “Sweet Little Baby I Care” was written by Edwin and Alvin Johnson, co-members of a late-1950s vocal group, the Souvenirs. One of their songs, “Castin’ My Spell,” reached #52 in 1959 for the Johnny Otis Show.

By 1963, Tommy Boyce had paid his dues and earned an RCA recording contract, so I wonder if it was a lack of promotion or radio resistance to his work that kept him down. His unpublished book of industry anecdotes might tell the story, so I’m going to look into that. Here is the chain of career events that led to his RCA days:

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1939, Tommy’s break came when a song he said he wrote by himself, “Be My Guest,” made its way to Fats Domino. The de rigeur deal for a new songwriter was to share with a big-name artist, so Fats has partial credit, as does the middleman, John Marascalco. But that 1959 #8 smash was just the beginning, as Tommy went on to co-write “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” with Curtis Lee, who recorded it for the Dunes label, owned by Ray Peterson, with production by Phil Spector.

With Steven Venet, Tommy wrote “Peaches N Cream,” a #36 hit for the Ikettes in 1965, and “Action,” Freddy Cannon’s #13 hit from the same year. The later tune served as the theme to Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is show.

Rather than talk about Phase Two of Tommy’s career with Robert Harshman today, I’ll save myself something pretty spectacular to write about for Saturday. I’ll discuss the producer and arranger of both sides then, as well.

The single is scratchy, because caithiseach played this one all the time. In addition to that bit of solo work, here’s a clip of Tommy singing some of his compositions that were covered by others. More to come on Saturday. See you on the flip side!

Tommy Boyce, Sweet Little Baby I Care

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Blue Rubies?

I don’t know how it happened that I acquired so many Mercury singles when I was little. I know my parents bought “Mama from the Train” by Patti Page and “The Stroll” by the Diamonds. I don’t think they went out and bought the handful of non-charting Mercury singles that wound up in my collection. Maybe they went to the Mercury Records Outlet Store, or maybe our milkman from Bowman Dairy, the last dairy in our area to deliver milk in glass bottles, delivered 45s as a sideline, and he specialized in Mercury castoffs.

However it happened, three-year-old caithiseach tended to find the Mercury imprimatur to be a sign that good music sat in the groove of the 45. At some point, most likely, a local distributor ran out of warehouse space and dropped a bunch of Mercury singles at the Big Top where Uncle Tom shopped for me. The difference between the Mercury cutouts and many of the others was that even the Mercury flops sounded good to me.

Considering that today’s artist managed a Hot 100 hit, though not with this single, it surprises me how little information I could find about Jimmy Edwards. Of course, as was the case with another Mercury artist, Michael Allen, these artists with two first names tend to draw lots of search-engine hits, and maybe I narrowed down my searches too much. My chart book helped me out a bit, so I’ll tell you what I know.

Jimmy Edwards (born 1933) was a singer/songwriter with rockabilly leanings. Born Jim Bullington, he recorded his first hit-to-be, “Love Bug Crawl,” in 1957. If you own the version on Wednesday Records, hang on to it, as it seems to be worth about $400. He re-recorded “Love Bug Crawl” (Mercury 71209) after he signed with Mercury, and that version went to #78 in its three weeks on the Billboard Top 100, moving 96-78-100 (tie) beginning 1/20/1958. That’s not the record that came to me from Uncle Tom.

My single was “Golden Ruby Blue” (Mercury 71272), which, according to the amazing database compiled by Terry Gordon, is the B side of “My Honey.” Three-year-old caithiseach cared little for the politics of A sides, especially when neither side was played on the radio, so I never knew that I had latched onto the wrong side of this one.

Both sides of the 45 are uptempo numbers, with “My Honey” following the classic rockabilly pattern, guitar solo included. “Golden Ruby Blue” substitutes a sax solo for the guitar, but that wasn’t my compelling reason for choosing that side to play: the title phrase, repeated frequently in the opening chorus, hooked me.

Mercury 45 labels are very stingy when it comes to production information, and surprisingly forthcoming in other areas. I can tell you that the single was released on March 3, 1958, and that the Anita Kerr Singers accompanied Mr. Bullington, which might strike one as odd for a rockabilly 45. However, Anita Kerr and her singers backed many singers who recorded in Nashville, and the Nashville Sound owes something to them, if not as much as to Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins. Anita Kerr herself produced the LP End of the World for Skeeter Davis, which made Ms. Kerr one of the first women to produce anything recorded in Nashville.

Both sides of the 45 were written by Jimmy Minor and Robert Cloud. Jimmy Minor seems to be the first Country artist signed to United Artists, according to his son, Todd. One of his known recordings, “Reveille,” is still listed as one of the pair’s BMI compositions, but “Golden Ruby Blue” and “My Honey” are no longer part of BMI’s records. Jimmy Minor had enough going for him to earn studio time with the best Nashville Sound musicians, so I hope to come across some of his work someday.

When you listen to the 45, you will hear some surface noise. I was surprised to hear how rough “My Honey” is, considering that I played “Golden Ruby Blue” almost exclusively. The single lived without benefit of a sleeve in my box of records for a really long time, and that probably has a lot to do with the number of clicks and pops on the rarely played side.

That’s pretty much all I have found so far on these artists, so I’ll leave it here for now. Next week, I’ll look at an RCA artist I mentioned in connection with Jeff Barry back in April. They are linked in my mind because they both released obscure singles on RCA. I loved next week’s songs almost as much as Jeff’s tunes, and his story merits a full week of posts. See you Wednesday!

Jimmy Edwards, Golden Ruby Blue

Jimmy Edwards, My Honey

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lost in the Shuffle

Before I get into my post, I want to tell you how much I appreciate the people at Record Research. I contacted them about a book, and they went far out of their way to help me with said item. They didn’t help me in order to make a few extra dollars, because the labor involved in rescuing me was probably more costly than what they got in return. They do amazing work and are amazingly helpful. Keep that in mind. Now, on to the post.

I made an offhand reference earlier this year to a couple of occasions where I fell victim to cases of mistaken musical identity. Once, I thought a song went by one title, when it really had a different name. That’s what happened to today’s song. In the second case, I got the artist wrong. More on that situation in October.

How could I not know the name of a song I played more than one hundred times? First, the song was an instrumental. Second, I couldn’t read when I got the 45. I can remember picking the record off the turntable, taking it to my dad, and asking him the name of the song. The problem was that I held out the single to him in an ambiguous way—edge-on—and he read me the wrong title. It was twenty years before I figured out the error, because the 45 perished even before the Great Vinyl Meltdown, thanks to some mishandling on my part.

My dad told me the song I liked was “White Silver Sands” by Bill Black’s Combo (Hi 2021). I believed that to be the case, so strongly that, when I saw a TV ad for a compilation of instrumental hits that included this title, I ordered it. This was in the early days of CD reissues, so I had no record-store access to this two-disc compilation.

Until the CDs arrived, I thought there were two songs named “White Silver Sands.” One was the Don Rondo/Owen Bradley/Dave Gardner hit from 1957, and the other was the Bill Black hit from 1960. When the package arrived, I ran to my CD player, punched in the proper track, and heard an instrumental version of the Don Rondo hit. What a revelation. What a letdown.

In the time gap between the arrival of these CDs and the arrival of an easy way to look up information about old 45s (i.e. the internet), I spent a lot of time wishing I knew the name of the flip side of Bill Black’s “White Silver Sands.” Eventually, I stopped thinking about it, but once I started looking for replacement 45s, I learned quickly that the song I sought was “The Wheel.” I soon came across a single CD that contained two Bill Black LPs, and “The Wheel” was on it. When that CD showed up, thanks to CDNow, I confirmed that I had found the song I sought.

Bill Black’s Combo was the first band I researched, in the early 1970s. Three of his 45s had worked their way into my collection, and I grew fond enough of them to become curious about his career. I bumped into several of his LPs at Recordland and Camelot Music in Southlake Mall in Merrillville, Indiana, and that interaction led me to find sources where I could learn about his work.

I finally figured out why I liked the Combo so much. First of all, anyone who drops a sax into an arrangement is going to gain my approval. But just as universally, anyone who puts a shuffle beat to a song will win points with me. And I don’t know why yet, so I’ll try to figure it out now.

Do you know what a shuffle is? It’s a song in 4/4 time that is almost overlaid with a rhythm in 6/8 time. Instead of using triplets, though, a shuffle uses “broken triplets”: beat (pause) beat-beat (pause) beat-beat. A shuffle thus sounds (to me) less precise in its 4/4 nature than a straight 4/4, more prone to syncopation even among such rhythm-free singers as Pat Boone. So, to me, a shuffle always sounds more like music than 1950s white pop. A shuffle has emotion. From the start, I could always feel a shuffle more than any other type of rhythm. I don’t mean recognize it; I mean feel it.

If you take that groove (virtually every Bill Black track used that same groove in what was called his “Untouchable Sound”) and add smoky sax by the likes of “Ace” Cannon, you get the definitive caithiseach-pleaser. Bill’s bass and Reggie Young’s rhythm guitar thump in time with each drum note. While the organ on “White Silver Sands” plays with the beat as straight as possible, the sax comes in and tugs on the rhythm, pulling every other sound forward in a tense effort to break out of the constraints of the backbeat. The same thing happens in “The Wheel,” though the lead guitar and the piano cooperate more with the sax than the organ did on “White Silver Sands.” Bill’s trademark sound carried him through eight Top 40 hits from 1959 to 1962.

If you are a Bill Black neophyte, you may well think that I had his 45s because, like so many of the other perpetrators of my early vinyl, he was a failure. Not so. Bill Black is one of the great figures of early rock and roll, and he played on the most successful two-sided single of all time.

Bill Black grew up in Memphis, and he learned to play the upright bass. He had recorded a single at Sun Studio in early 1954, and in July of that year he played bass on a little ditty called “That’s All Right” by an act billed on Sun 209 as Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill. Bill went on to play the upright bass in his crazy slapping way on a number of huge hits through 1958, including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel”/“Hound Dog.” Bill made the transition to electric bass nicely, as an early adopter of the Fender Precision Bass. He debuted that bass on “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957.

When Elvis (Presley) got his start at Sun, Bill and Scotty Moore were important enough to earn a share of the Elvis royalties. Not so when Col. Tom Parker took over at RCA; at last, Bill decided $200 a week didn’t cut it, considering the money Elvis was raking in. Considering that Bill was a huge part of Elvis’s stage show, being the comic type that loosened up the crowd and a participant in some banter routines with the King, I can’t blame him for walking away from it.

Bill went back to his roots, and soon his Combo came into being. Apart from Reggie Young on guitar and Ace Cannon on sax, the personnel tended to shift, but the sound never varied, to the amusement of some and the awe of others. Who dug the Combo best? In early 1964, it was the Beatles, who requested that the Combo open for them on their first tour of the United States. The Combo is probably the strongest direct link between the King and the Beatles.

The longest-lasting connection between the two acts is Bill Black’s Fender bass. Linda McCartney bought it for Paul, and he still owns it.

In one sense, the performance link is not as firm as it seems. Bill had been suffering from severe headaches for a while, and finally the source was discovered to be a brain tumor. He was told that an operation would leave him paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated, and so, one source told me, he opted not to fight the tumor. Another source says that, once he slipped into a coma, an operation was attempted, and he died on the table. Bill was 39 then. Today, September 17, would have been Bill’s 82nd birthday.

Happy birthday, Bill. Here's Bill, playing bass (right), behind the guy I said would not appear musically in this blog. I just painted myself into a corner, didn't I?

For Saturday, I’ll be looking at yet another Mercury single, one that didn’t chart, though its singer managed one Hot 100 hit. See you then!

Bill Black's Combo, The Wheel

Friday, September 12, 2008

Do Me a Fabor

Over the course of this blog year, I have talked about artists who concocted the songs on my 45s, and when the situation warranted it, I have discussed behind-the-scenes figures who got the performers from nowhere to vinyl. Bobby Lee Trammell, the writer and singer of today’s song, “Uh Oh” (Fábor 127), made a respectable number of recordings and earned the admiration of many rockabilly fans. However, my perspective on him reminds me of the time I stayed at a reasonably appointed hotel at Niagara Falls, Ontario: the view beyond the object in the foreground is pretty amazing.

I didn’t know it until I researched this post, but Bobby Lee’s producer, Fabor Robison (1911-1986), informed my early listening, and yours (if you’re old enough to remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention), to a surprising degree. If you don’t already know what you owe this man, here you go.

First of all, I have to tell you that much of the following information comes from BlackCat Rockabilly Europe, a site that seems to be laden with amazing data. The facts I checked pan out, so you can read up on Fabor Robison there with confidence. I provide you with my perspective on the facts as a public service. No, thank you.

We begin with Fabor’s first post-World War II gig, as agent to Johnny Horton. Fabor believed so much in this guy that in 1951 he started a label, Abbott Records, to get Horton on vinyl. Consider for a moment how fortunate any artist, then or now, would be to have such strong backing. Even more remarkable is the fact that, when Fabor couldn’t get decent distribution for the Abbott recordings, he found Horton a better deal with Mercury in 1952. While selling off his right to record Horton would have been worth something to Fabor, the willingness to relinquish control is not common in talent management.

Fabor seems to have had an incredible ear for talent, and his contact with the Louisiana Hayride people in Shreveport allowed him to nurture the career of piano player Floyd Cramer, who constituted the Nashville Sound with Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph (to oversimplify), and who scored three Top Ten hits in 1960-61, including the #2 smash “Last Date.”

In 1953, tiny Abbott Records released “Mexican Joe” by Jim Reeves, and that single was a 9-week Country #1 hit. Later in the year, Mitchell Torok (to be featured here in October) topped the Country chart for 2 weeks with “Caribbean.” Each song spent half a year in the Country Top 40.

Fabor started a namesake label, and the Browns (Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie) provided Fábor Records with two Top Ten Country hits in 1954-55. Others in the Abbott/Fábor/Radio Records stable included Bonnie Guitar (mentioned in January) and Ned Miller, whose 1962-63 hit “From a Jack to a King” reached #6 on Fábor. A Phoenix kid named Robert Luke Harshman (coming to the blog peripherally later this month) would go on to record for A&M as Bobby Hart with Tommy Boyce. Apart from their string of hits, these two were the first Monkees mentors and quite the songwriting duo.

So, you see, Fabor Robison’s legacy is not only all over this blog, it’s all over your listening experiences. If, at first glance, Bobby Lee Trammell on Fábor Records sounded like the sort of obscurity I associate with Davi on Stark Records, I know better now. The Bobby Lee Trammell 45 I own is a two-sided gem, which points to the fact that Fabor was a pretty decent producer, on top of knowing whom to sign to his labels.

Fabor was prone to chucking it all when he became unhappy, and he sold off his holdings a number of times. He always came back, though, and he always worked his way back to the top. Not bad for an Army cook from Arkansas who evidently had what it took to be a musical kingmaker. I’m going to keep digging into his world, and at some point, I’ll bring you what I find.

I don’t want to give short shrift to Bobby Lee today, but his story has been told, and “Uh Oh” speaks for itself. A note about the recording: unlike the digital version of “You Mostest Girl” I posted, “Uh Oh” comes from my 45. I played the song so rarely, and it sat buried for so long, that it has fewer pops than virtually all of my Survivor 45s. There is just a bit of surface noise that shows up rarely. Fabor and Bobby Lee really did a good job recording this song.

Next time, I will confess to a fondness for a certain type of rhythm, and I’ll discuss its most notable purveyor. See you Wednesday!

Bobby Lee Trammell, Uh Oh

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What the Heck Is a Mostest?

Recently I offered you both sides of a 45 I could not recall ever hearing. I’ll do that again in November, with two sides by a different obscure artist. Today I am going to discuss one side of a 45 I remember but almost never played.

It seems that four-year-old caithiseach relegated this 45 to the bottom of the box almost immediately, and I never got over that aversion to it. When I note that Bear Family Records in Germany considers the artist significant enough to have released 25-track and 30-track retrospectives with little overlap, and then included him on 11 rockabilly anthologies, I begin to wonder what that little kid was thinking.

I take into account also that I didn’t know rockabilly when I was little—as much as I liked my music to be high-energy fare, not many of the cutouts Uncle Tom bought me had a lot of twang to them. So I didn’t get familiar with the genre until Don McLean brought Buddy Holly to my attention in his megahit “...” Oops, can I mention the name of his song here? He somehow managed to trademark the song title years after he made all his money by writing a musical biography of Buddy Holly et al. I had better be careful about using the title.

Well, it’s time I gave this artist, so obscure in my musical world, his due. Worldly listeners that you are, you will probably snicker at my early ignorance of, and resistance to, “You Mostest Girl” by Bobby Lee Trammell (Fábor 127).

Bobby Lee Trammell seems to have been a merger of those two other Lees, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He gyrated his hips on stage to such a degree that Elvis began to seem tame. Bobby Lee was motivated to succeed; he talked his way onstage at different times with Carl Perkins and Bobby Bare, and he attracted enough attention to earn a recording contract with Fabor Robison’s label, after first blowing off Sam Phillips because of artistic impatience.

His first single, “Shirley Lee,” sold well enough for ABC Paramount to pick up its distribution, and there is strong evidence that he sold a quarter of a million copies, so slowly, though, that he didn’t chart. Ricky Nelson covered “Shirley Lee,” and Ricky offered to look at more of Bobby Lee’s songs, but the latter didn’t follow up and lost the opportunity.

“You Mostest Girl” was Bobby Lee’s second single, and while Fabor Robison tried to produce it with full orchestration, eventually he pared it down to the tight band you’ll hear here.

Born to musical parents on a cotton farm in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1934, Bobby Lee kept up his rowdiness in spite of lessons he should have learned from it: Ozzie Nelson wouldn’t let him appear on his show; Bobby Lee was banned from performing in California; his antics at the Louisiana Hayride cost him a shot at the Grand Ole Opry; and, in a really senseless move, he fought with Jerry Lee Lewis before a show and busted the Killer’s piano. That earned him a cold shoulder from nearly every promoter in the country, and he was pretty much done.

An attempted 1984 European comeback ended when, in an attempt to live up to his wild reputation, Bobby Lee tried to jump on the piano, slipped, and broke his wrist.

After that, there was nothing to do but return to Arkansas and enter politics. He was elected in 1997 as a Democrat to the Arkansas House of Representatives, where he served until 2002. Unfortunately, he died this past February 20, at the age of 74, in his hometown.

When you listen to the song, you will hear a fairly crisp piece of rockabilly that deserved better than to wind up in the discount bin at the Big Top department store, a few feet south of Gary, Indiana. If you look at the label scan, you will see that this 45 still carries its Big Top price tag, though the price of the record would have dropped to a nickel when Uncle Tom bought it as part of a lot of 20 singles.

I’m pretty sure that, had I known in 1964 what I know now about music, I would have played this record fairly often. I never gave it enough of a chance, and that seems, unfortunately, to fit in with every other aspect of Bobby Lee Trammell’s music career. Godspeed, Bobby Lee.

For Saturday, I’ll bring you the other tune and discuss the producer of the sides, Fabor Robison. See you on the flip side!

Bobby Lee Trammell, You Mostest Girl

You Mostest Girl label scan

Friday, September 5, 2008

Who Is That French Girl?

Vinyl alert: My friends at Boardwalk Books in Duluth, Minnesota are selling off the used vinyl in their store. They are doing so only on weekends, so if you are within driving distance and you want to fill out your collection really fast for very little money, this is your opportunity. This is not an advertisement, just a note to the vinyl collectors out there. They're located on Superior Street near the casino. Now, the post:

Version en français: http://grandefusion.blogspot.com/2008/09/qui-est-cette-chanteuse.html

When vinyl was all there was, something that was lacking to me was a good way to buy imported recordings. At least in my Midwestern world, record stores just didn’t send buyers to the UK or Namibia to get the trendy tunes of the day. I did find a West German guy who had an ad in a music magazine, and he would sell you European records if you sent him the proper form of money order. I can’t even remember what he called the things, but I couldn’t get a bank to create one for me, so ol’ Norbert never got any of my money, and I never got any of his vinyl.

In one particular case, I heard a song I really liked, but there was no way I could have acquired it, even if I had the transaction system down cold. I owe both the song and my inability to buy it to my high-school French teacher, Mrs. Callender.

I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this aspect of my being, but I have an affinity for languages. Thanks to my French, Spanish and German classes at Merrillville High School, the rest of my education didn’t strike me as particularly onerous. I spent half my time learning something I loved, so the rest didn’t bother me.

Mrs. Callender was the only French teacher at the high school, so she taught me for three years. Starting with my sophomore year, on days that she ran out of stuff to do, she sometimes pulled out a tape of French songs she kept at the language lab console. A man said, “Chanson numéro un,” and Song Number One played. No title, no artist. The tape held perhaps ten songs. One of them was “Les Champs-Élysées” by Joe Dassin, which was the class favorite. (I figured out the artist via an internet search years later.) I liked a different song from the tape better, but, as was my way then, I didn’t militate to have it played more often.

During those years, we could buy subscriptions to Salut!, which was a French equivalent to the teen magazine Tiger Beat, or something like that. In its pages, I learned a lot about French musicians. Among them was the singer Claude François, who wrote “Comme d’habitude,” the original song that became “My Way.” He electrocuted himself during my senior year by trying to change a light bulb while he was standing in a bathtub full of water. Our entire French 4 class was in shock when that news reached us.

Other big names were Johnny Hallyday, another crooner, and Sylvie Vartan, a Bulgarian-Hungarian songstress whose parents fled to Paris when she was about eight. I followed the progress of their hits in the charts listed in the magazine, which tended to arrive about two months after its French publication date.

The song I liked so much was a gentle ballad with a sparse instrumental arrangement and an opening that featured what sounded like a large choir. Once, Mrs. Callender speculated that it might be Sylvie who was singing, but after she finally got hold of a Sylvie Vartan tune, we could hear that she was not the singer of “C’est toi que j’aime” (Philips 437079). There was no way I could think of to get more information about the song. I graduated from high school, wandered off to college and all that, and waited for the internet to be invented so I could dig up details on this song.

At last, the late, lamented CDNow provided me with a bit of information when I looked up the title. A singer whom I remembered from her prominent presence in the magazine had recorded a version of the song. Her name? Sheila. Was it the right version? I bought a CD that included the song. It was a live CD, and the song was included as a snippet in a medley. Drat.

I tried again and got a 2-CD greatest hits package. I played the song. And I had it, twenty years after I had last heard it.

All of this means that the song was not part of my collection of childhood 45s, but like some 1970s summer songs that I could not buy because I was at camp, this one would have been a quick purchase, had it been available.

Sheila, known by one name, as a precursor to Prince, was born Annie Chancel in Créteil, a Paris suburb. She began to record at age 17, when her longtime producer, Claude Carrère, discovered her. What followed was a string of hits in the francophone world, many of them previous English-language hits translated by Carrère with no regard for the original lyrics. “All I Have to Do Is Dream” became “Pendant les Vacances” (“During (Summer) Vacation”). “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” became “Vous les Copains” (“You, My Friends”). And “Shaddup You Face” by Joe Dolce morphed into “Et ne le ramène pas” (“Don’t Bring It Back”).

Carrère used the Bible as an inspiration for a number of song titles, including “The Magi,” “Samson and Delilah,” “Adam and Eve,” and “Noah’s Ark” (titles all translated to English for the blog). These songs were not about Biblical themes; the names were given as metaphors for some aspect of French romance.

The lighthearted approach to both lyrics and arrangements was known in the 1960s as “yé-yé,” a French phenomenon that went unnoticed in American pop, thanks perhaps to the Beatles’ omnipresence. Or, perhaps even without the Beatles, the vastly superior quality of American pop would have kept yé-yé off the charts here.

In 1977, Sheila turned to English to broaden her audience. It sort of worked; I heard her version of “Singin’ in the Rain” in Mexico. She recorded “Spacer,” written and produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers (Chic). She was billed as Sheila & B. Devotion for that one. Late in 1981, she reached the US Hot 100 for the only time with “Little Darlin’,” which peaked at #49.

Still active but not so successful, Sheila stands as one of the top female French pop singers of the 1960s and 1970s. That description contains a lot of narrowing down, but it’s not meant to. Charts in the United States tend not to welcome singers who don’t switch to English; if you can quickly name a song truly sung in French, apart from “Dominique,” that hit the U.S. Top 40, then you know your stuff.

Claude Carrère, whose career really took off after he started producing Sheila’s work, also produced Claude François. Carrère has gone on to produce a number of French-language films. His co-writers on “C’est toi que j’aime” were André Salvet (1918-2006), who contributed to a number of Sheila recordings, and Jacques Plante (1920-2003), also a prolific songwriter.

Once I found this song and the Joe Dassin recording, I gave up on trying to remember any of the other songs on Mrs. Callender’s tape. I suppose I could ask her if she kept it, but I would have to go to Indiana to do that, and I’m busy this week. I’ll console myself by posting a Sheila videofest, including her first single, which shows that she had an effortlessly large vocal range as a teen.

Next time, I’ll bring you a legitimate caithiseach cutout 45, sung by a Southern politician who once punched out Jerry Lee Lewis. See you Wednesday!

Sheila, C’est toi que j’aime

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Tale of Two Tuttis

Before I get to the originally scheduled post, I want to ponder for a moment the ways you can sort a large music collection. I mentioned last time that I completed the Top 40 for 1970; I also updated my list of #1 hits and discovered that I own everything that topped the chart in the rock era from Joan Weber’s “Let Me Go Lover” up to, but not including, “The Next Time I Fall” by Peter Cetera and Amy Grant. That’s a good stretch of #1 songs, and I have a good string after that empty spot, but what I want to say is that, if you have a similar collection of #1 hits and haven’t put them together in chronological order on one CD, you should. Mine is now in the car CD player, and I’m up to 1964, where all of a sudden the Beatles sprang into action. This way of looking at the evolution of pop hits is new to me, and it’s a fun way to listen.

And now, back to my childhood vinyl.

In the early days of the blog year, I noted that I had a bunch of Specialty 45s that came to the Big Top department store’s discount bin because their labels were messed up. One was printed as a mirror image, one was smeared with purple ink, and another had a label that was cut and pasted oddly. One of the 45s was by an artist I can’t recall, and I loved the song, which I also cannot remember. Very distressing, that. The other two records were by a guy named Little Richard.

You probably realize that I can’t recall the first Specialty song because the 45 died in the Great Vinyl Meltdown. The two oddball Little Richard discs melted as well. But another one survived: “Lucille” (Specialty 598). I dug the song, with the R&B beat and the horns that fit in with the likes of “Red” Holloway’s single, “Simple Steps.” Little Richard had the shrill voice you all know, but his energetic approach to music stood out in my collection of energetic performances.

One eventual Meltdown Victim was Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” (Specialty 561), which I found to be a pretty catchy tune as well. I learned a bit later that Pat Boone had recorded “Tutti’ Frutti” to compete with the oh-so-scandalous version by the African American artist. Three-year-old caithiseach didn’t own the Boone version, but Little Richard did have competition on my playlist: the original recording of the song by Art Mooney and His Orchestra (MGM 12165).

What? you say. The original version? Consider caithiseach’s evidence. Uncle Tom bought me the Specialty singles, and almost all of the cutouts he bought were obscure chart failures or, like the Hit Records 45s, soundalikes. My Art Mooney version of “Tutti-Frutti” was bought by my mom; she even wrote our last name on the label, perhaps because she took it to a family gathering or something. My parents seem to have been party animals before I came along to settle them down. My mom, of course, would buy an original recording and not a cover. Perish the thought.

As you might expect, Art Mooney’s version was more dignified than the raucous version Little Richard cranked out. What those young upstarts won’t do to distinguish themselves from established acts! Mooney’s vocalist had a bit of the R&B in him, though, and that gave the song a bit of the groove it needed to sound rock caithiseach’s record player.

It didn’t take me until today to figure out which version is the egg and which is the chicken, so settle down. But there was a period of confusion in the 1960s, and since the only information I seemed to ask of adults was the name of a new song in my collection, I gave Art Mooney a lot of credit he didn’t dseserve.

Now, let’s talk about Art Mooney. He started charting hits in 1948 with his only #1 song, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” He tended to remake 1920s hits, but he scored 15 chart hits by the end of 1952. He came back in 1955 to score two #6 hits, “Honey-Babe” and “Nuttin’ for Christmas,” which featured the vocals of six-year-old Barry Gordon (who turned seven during the chart run). Four more Hot 100 hits took Mooney to 1960, then he stopped charting. Mooney died in 1993 at age 80.

Mooney born in Massachusetts but based musically in Detroit, surrounded himself with good people. Neal Hefti arranged some of his records, and the vocalist on his version of “Tutti-Frutti” was a guy named Ocie Smith.

Geez, you say. It’s not enough that there are two “Tutti-Fruttis” and one “Tutti’ Frutti” out there, but I have to talk about a 1956 singer named Ocie Smith when there was a guy with a successful late-1960s career whose name was O.C. Smith.

How about we don’t worry about a duplication of Smiths? It’s the same guy. Ocie was born in 1936, sang “Tutti-Frutti” well enough for Art Mooney to earn a solo contract from MGM, then he sang for Count Basie from 1961 to 1965. Columbia signed him and was about to let him go when he reached the Top 40 in early 1968 with “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp.” In September of that year, he rode to #2 on the back of the uberubiquitous “Little Green Apples,” which had hit the Top 40 in March of 1968 for Roger Miller. Dang me, that’s a lot of duplication. And if you think that every MOR singer who was preparing to don a leisure suit for 1970s performances recorded “Little Green Apples,” or at least sang it on the Ed Sullivan Show, this post is starting to resemble a house of mirrors.

O.C. Smith, as he billed himself on Columbia, reached the Top 40 three times and logged ten Hot 100 hits, the last one coming in 1974. He died the day after Thanksgiving in 2001.

With all of this doubling, I am tempted to post every version of “Tutti-Frutti” in my possession, but I’ll stick to the one you’re least likely to know. I am very sorry about the condition of the record; caithiseach played it a lot and it’s almost Ground to Dust. In the first chorus, there was a pair of skips I could not repair, so I spliced in part of the second chorus, which includes a horn section absent from the first. Thus, the horns pop out of nowhere, which is sort of appropriate for the very odd juxtaposition of sounds covered in this post.

Well, that’s that. I have to toddle off to prepare for school tomorrow (i.e. get at least a bit of sleep). For Saturday, I’ll bring you a song I didn’t hear until I was 15, couldn’t understand until I was 19, and could not own until I was 39. See you then!

Art Mooney and Ocie Smith, Tutti-Frutti