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


former lurker said...

Ohh, Yah Shure was absolutely right - the rest of the story was SO worth the wait. Wow. Colour me amazed. And I'd never heard his name before? I smack myself on the forehead.

By the way, one of the things I particularly enjoy about your posts is that you often mention specific musical elements of a song or of songs of a certain time period (IE "loud brass, chord progressions you could hear anywhere" etc). I rarely know these things or notice them, so it's cool to have them pointed out. I loved your explanation of a shuffle a few posts ago. I'm sure it was nothing new for some of your more knowledgeable readers, but it was a bit of an enlightenment for me. :)

Whoa. Long comment... probably could have just written "Good job" instead.

Good job.

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

I had a couple of friends who casually knew Tommy Boyce, having the opportunity (as I recall) to share a drink with him on a couple of occasions. Apparently, as well as being a talented musician, he was a good guy, too.

Nice piece.