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


Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog since Day 1, but I'm one of those horrible lurkers. :) This is a great blog for me; I'm too young to remember any of the people you mention, and my early music education was... well... my dad told me that Tom Hanks was a country singer (Hank Williams), Steely Dan was a guy who played the steeldrums and the Beatles were a bunch of guys who needed haircuts.

So. Thank you for the ongoing education. :) I'd never heard his name before this entry, but I'm really looking forward to the rest of Tommy Boyce's story.

Yah Shure said...

To the now-former (yay!) lurker above: Hang on; the T.B. story will definitely be worth the wait!

"Sweet Little Baby I Care" is a nice tune, and I do like it. But I am going to disagree with you, caithiseach; the record would not have held its ground with the competition in 1970. "Sweet Little Baby" next to "War" or even "I Think I Love You"? I don't think so. Even when it was current in 1963, it would have sounded dated alongside "Blowin' In The Wind" or "Wipe Out."

I was surprised to find that, by the short instrumental bridge about two-thirds of the way through, I had the Andy Williams version of the 1957 hit "Butterfly" running through my head, with its Archie Bleyer-does-Mitch Miller rhythmic style.

Oh, god. Did I just sully your blog with Mitch Miller's name? I need a time out.

P.S.: Thanks for posting the vintage Tommy vidclips!

caithiseach said...

Ah, Yah, I see (hear) your point about "Butterfly." But while that rhythm would date Tommy's song, slap it alongside "Honey Come Back" and "For the Love of Him," and maybe I can shift your perspective a smidgen. I think RCA could have sneaked it into a year with such a range of sounds. And yay for lurkers who look forward to the next installment!