Friday, October 31, 2008

A Funnier Laugh

Now that October is (essentially) over, so is my look at the music that gave me childhood nightmares. It amuses me to think that the three most unnerving songs I owned, which caused strong reactions among some of you even as adults, were gifts I received from my Uncle Tom when I was three or four years old. Can you imagine how things would be now if you gave your little kid new music without screening it first?

[Four-year-old pops in new CD]:
Okay, lil mama had a swag like mine
even wear her hair down her back like mine
I make her feel right when its wrong like lyin'
Man, she ain never had a love like mine n'
man I ain’t never seen a ass like hers
and that pussy in my mouth had me at a loss fo words

[Mother enters room]: Where did you get that CD?

[Four-year-old turns to mom]: Uncle Tom got it at Big Top.

[Mom nods]: That’s nice, dear.

I don’t think so. But I think I failed to confide in my mom when these songs scared me because I thought she might remove them from my collection. Then, 44 years later, I would have had nothing to write about as Halloween approached.

I did not hesitate to tell my mom of my fondness for today’s song. [I had two songs in mind for this post-Halloween essay; I settled on one because the other, “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” by Peter, Paul & Mary, would have required me to delve into the rumors surrounding the lyrics.] There were several things to like about this 45. It had a nice, colorful Decca label, for one. For another, the singer sounded friendly and down-to-earth. Of course, homey and folksy was what Burl Ives did best.

“Funny Way of Laughin’” (Decca 31371) entered the Hot 100 on April 7, 1962, and it peaked at #10 on the day caithiseach turned two. We heard the song on the radio, and Mom bought it either for herself or for me. I don’t remember asking her to buy it; I don’t know if I knew you could buy records then. I might have thought they just showed up on the doorstep like orphaned infants.

I do remember singing the song when I was two. I probably didn’t carry much of a tune then, and my enunciation would have lacked something. But I wandered around, singing “funny waya laffen” along with ol’ Burl.

The logic of the song wasn’t crystal-clear to me at first. I had seen people laugh till they cried, so Burl’s behavior didn’t strike me as odd. Eventually, I figured out that he was really crying from sadness, despite the brave face he was putting on. That’s silly. When I’m sad, if I cry, I don’t claim I have discovered a new way to laugh. But I still like the song.

“Funny Way of Laughin’” strikes me as an anomaly in the ways of pop music. It’s not uncommon for a singer or group to follow up a hit with a similar-sounding release. That’s often the decision of a label or a producer, either because of a lack of imagination or a lack of respect for the listening public. A classic example of a soundalike followup is “My Sharona” and “Baby Talks Dirty” by the Knack. Even with “Good Girls Don’t” sandwiched between these two releases, it’s obvious that “Baby Talks Dirty” would have been left as album filler in a world where quality mattered more than predictability.

The key there is that “My Sharona” came first (and is a far better song). In the case of “Funny Way,” it is the followup to a similar-sounding song, “A Little Bitty Tear.” Released a mere four months apart, the songs sound as if they were recorded on the same day. The odd thing is that, to me, “A Little Bitty Tear” sounds like the weaker afterthought, the song that had its arrangement modeled on the template of “Funny Way.” But “Tear” hit the airwaves first, peaking at #9, and there was hardly a break for listeners before “Funny Way” slid into its slot in the rotation. Perhaps it peaked only at #10 because the magic was wearing off.

But when I was two, “A Little Bitty Tear” was never on my radar, and it was the April-May hit that caught my ear. With all these years of perspective, I know I was right: “Funny Way of Laughin’” is the superior song.

Burl Ives was born in 1909 in central Illinois. He stuck around there long enough to attend what is now Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, which was still proud of him when I applied for a teaching job there in 1998. He gave up on college in 1929 and decided to try his hand at music. His first recording was rejected. By the early 1930s he was working at a Terre Haute, Indiana radio station and attending what is now Indiana State University, which is more proud of Larry Bird than of Burl Ives.

Burl spent time in the Army during World War II, then he moved to New York and wound up in the movies. Eventually he appeared in East of Eden (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and The Big Country (1958), which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Not too shabby.

The Ives film you are most likely to see on TV, though, is the 1964 Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As Sam the Snowman, Burl created a new Christmas classic tune, “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” If you haven’t watched this perennial special in the past twenty years or so, you should do so this year, though the cool Norelco shaver commercials are no longer part of the show.

I guess I ought to mention that, in the early 1950s, Burl was noted as a possible Communist and thus blacklisted. Unfortunately, he got out of that jam by giving up Pete Seeger and some others. A righteously annoyed folk-music community gave Burl plenty of grief for that, but he and Pete made up shortly before Burl’s death, which occurred in 1995.

The pair of songs Burl charted in early 1962 were both written by Hank Cochran (born 1935). Hank scored just three minor Top 40 Country hits as a solo artist, but he wrote “Make the World Go Away” for Eddy Arnold, as well as “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces” for Patsy Cline. Given his total output of 554 songs, you’d expect a hit or two, but these make for a pretty sweet résumé.

Even with the twists and turns my life took during my childhood, it came as a surprise to me when Rudolph came on TV one year in the 1970s, and my stepmother’s mother remembered a time when Burl lived down the street from her in Illinois. He was, she said, “a smelly old man” who was not one for bathing. That’s all right, I suppose, considering that a friend of mine is married to a woman who is related, by a different marriage, to B.B. King. She described him in a similar way.

I guess, then, that when you say that people who are close to greatness take it for granted, their perspective might change a bit if they stood a few feet farther away from the greatness.

Next week, I am going to bring you the kind of music one would have expected me to be playing when I was three. Since Sterling Holloway went over well, I’m not too worried, but we will just have to see, won’t we? See you Wednesday!

Burl Ives, Funny Way of Laughin'

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Creepy Places IV: Snap, Cackle, Pop!

A case of mistaken identity is at the root of this post, though I would have been freaked out by this tune regardless of the singer. It's a rough one for many people to listen to, so it's appropriate as the climax to my pre-Halloween creepy-song series.

As one of my many Mercury singles, this record caused me some unsurprising confusion when it first showed up. What happened was that I played the song, found it scary, and soon thereafter took it to my mom for an ID.

I took the single to her and asked her the artist's name. She said it was by Brook Benton. Indeed, the 45 I held in my hand was by that master of real soul. But between playing the scary song and taking it to Mom, I set down the 45 I wanted to identify and picked up the Benton disc. The target song, titled "Laughing Over My Grave," was by a different artist altogether. That mistake on my part caused me a lot of difficulty when I got around to searching for the 45 years later.

The Great Vinyl Meltdown robbed me of both the Brook Benton single (the title of which I cannot produce from the depths of my memory) and "Laughing Over My Grave." I started my search by looking at a Brook Benton singles discography. I saw no "Laughing" there. A thorough search of the title proved more fruitful, and soon I knew that "Laughing Over My Grave" was the B side of "Bubble Gum the Bubble Dancer" by Ray Stevens (Mercury 72307).

How could I let "Laughing" bother me so much when the A side was a light novelty number? That happened because "Laughing" got to four-year-old caithiseach first, and I never, ever flipped the 45. I barely listened to the whole scary song. It was a really bad one for me.

You know how old movies, usually black-and-white horror, sometimes go quiet except for one female voice, singing mournful notes meant to heighten the viewer's tension? Well, the woman laughing in this song was as creepy as those others, except she was laughing, of course, in a cold, cynical way. My attention was riveted on the laugh, so I barely knew what ol' Ray was saying. And about three seconds into the laughing, I was usually gone, a little cloud of dust hanging in the air where I had been standing.

Once I figured out that Ray Stevens had concocted this masterpiece of terror, the task of finding the darn 45 began. And it is still going on. A couple of times, I have seen it listed online, only to learn that someone beat me to it. Therefore, I still have never heard the A side. I took my recording of "Laughing" off a blog about two years ago. I didn't note which blog it was, so if you're a music blogger, and you put up a bunch of Halloween-appropriate songs, I may owe you credit, and I'm sorry I messed up.

Ray Stevens, for the underinitiated, is a master of the non-parody novelty tune, as well as some amusing songs that aren’t quite novelties, and the occasional serious effort. Born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Georgia in 1939, he has scored ten Top 40 hits, including two #1s, the serious, Grammy-winning “Everything Is Beautiful” (1970) and the fad-exploiting social commentary “The Streak” (1974). An extremely talented musician, he recorded with Elvis, Patti Page and Brook Benton, and later he produced Dolly Parton and B.J. Thomas. He also happened to be around the studio when Jeff Barry was recording hand claps for “Sugar, Sugar,” so you can pick out the distinctive smack of Ray’s palms if you have a discerning ear.

Since I do have a copy of “Laughing Over My Grave,” I can include it here. I have seen just one Ray Stevens anthology that includes it, and it seems to be out of print. That disappoints me, though as the election approaches, I can think of plenty of things that scare me, so I don't need this song on CD right now.

When you are finished with Halloween, it will be time for my first post-Halloween post. No longer even marginally scary, the song will be ultra-pleasant, I assure you. See you Saturday!

Ray Stevens, Laughing Over My Grave

Friday, October 24, 2008

Creepy Places III: Three of Us, with One Suddenly Absent

I am beginning to think today's song may be one you’ve never heard before. I used to own two copies, but the Great Vinyl Meltdown of 1972 ate one. I can find only one reference to the record label, and one to the song. There is no trail leading to the artist/songwriter. I hope you appreciate hearing something weird that almost no one else owns.

In the dim beginnings of my life, "Old Boris" by Bela LaGoldstein (IRC 6916) was one of the first singles that Uncle Tom brought me from the Big Top department store. Had I not heard a decent sample of other records before this one arrived, it might well have ended my interest in music. Not yet being toughened to the Slavic intonations of Bela Lugosi, three-year-old caithiseach found the spoken vocals, overlaid on a creepy track that included wolves in the distance, to be a bit much.

IRC Records was a Chicago operation that released records slowly from 1961 or so until at least 1966. Among its luminaries was Dick Biondi, a Hall of Fame disc jockey who recorded the only parody-of-a-parody that I know. Released as “The Pizza Song” on IRC 6904, the song starts with “On top of a pizza” and parodies “On Top of Spaghetti,” itself a parody of “On Top of Old Smoky.”

Another IRC artist, Ronnie Rice, went on to join the already existent New Colony Six in 1966. He co-wrote (with Les Kummel) their two Top 40 hits, “I Will Always Think About You” and “Things I’d Like to Say.”

Beyond these two artists, the trail grows pretty cold. I know the writer of “Old Boris” is H. Goldstein. He clearly played off the Lugosi name, and he mimics the late horror star fairly well. Goldstein pulls in many horror clichés, and he paints a vivid picture of life at the castle. Once I got over my fear of the song (earlier than some of the other songs that bothered me), I saw the tune as an amusing camp treatment of said clichés. I didn't yet realize just how clever Goldstein was.

Before I go into that, I want to tell you that the flip of the single, "Why Do I Love You?," is equally creepy. To paraphrase: "I love the way you sink your fangs into my neck." I'm not sharing it here because the song is so scratched it has become unplayable.

How clever was H. Goldstein? I didn't know until about the time I started writing the posts for this blog, a year ago. Last October, I found an early 1960s song I had not yet acquired, a spoken-word opus that turned out to be a pretty big hit for one of the few Rock Era Top 40 artists to have been born in the 1800s.

That song was "Old Rivers" by Walter Brennan, and "Old Boris" is a parody of that maudlin hit.

Since there's not much else to say, other than to repeat that I used this song yet again to torture myself, which led me to vacate the area until the song ended, I'll pair up the parody lyrics with the originals (in italics). The best line is “My ghoul, Old Boris, and me,” which plays on “That mule, old Rivers and me.”

For Wednesday, the series finale will feature the creepiest of the creepy songs, one I had serious difficulty finding. Why I wanted to own it again, I don’t know. See you Wednesday! (Songs after the lyrics.)

Old Boris
Now the last time I saw Old Boris
He was hanging out of a tree
We had great fun, the three of us
My ghoul, Old Boris, and me
Old Boris was a playful one
He was really something to see
We never had tea at four
But we’d always drink blood at three

Now one of these nights, you should come to my castle
No telling what you might see
And there will be the three of us
My ghoul, Old Boris, and me

Boris! What’s that in your chest, Boris?
Boris, take the stake out of your heart
That’s a good monster

Now Boris, he was a faithful soul
He was just like one of the gang
He always worked late in the dungeon
Breaking up bods with his own bare fangs

Old Boris is still a playful one
As playful as all heck
So never turn your back on him
He may bite you in the neck


Old Rivers
How old was I when I first seen old Rivers?
I can't remember when he weren't around
Well, that old fellow did a heap of work
Spent his whole life walking plowed ground.

He had a one-room shack not fer from us
And well, we was about as poor as him
He had one old mule he called Midnight
And I'd trail along after them.

He used to plow them rows straight and deep
And I'd come along there behind
A-bustin' up clods with my own bare feet
Old Rivers was a friend of mine.

The sun'd get high and that mule would work
And old Rivers'd finally say, ''Whoa!''
He'd wipe his brow, and lean back on the reins
And talk about a place he was gonna go.


He'd say, one of these days I'm gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among them clouds
Where the cotton's highAnd the corn's a-growin'
And there ain't no fields to plow.

I got a letter today from the folks back home
And they're all fine and crops is dry
Down near the end Mom said, ''Son,
You know, old Rivers died.''

Just sittin' here now on this new-plowed earth
Trying to find me a little shade
With the sun beating down 'cross the field I see
That mule, old Rivers and me.


Bela LaGoldstein, Old Boris

Walter Brennan, Old Rivers

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Creepy Places II: That Sinking Feeling

On Saturday, I said that I enjoyed torturing myself by playing music I found frightening. Of course, it was frightening only when I was alone, so I generally reserved my creepy songs for such times. In the case of today's two recordings, I often had company when they came on, but I still found them unnerving. One of them seems fairly tame these days, while the other one works its magic even now.

The reason other people were around when the songs came on was that they accompanied television shows. One was a song from a Disney film, and the other became the theme for a television show. I'll take them one at a time.

I discussed earlier in the year my subscription to the Disneyland LP series. The soundtracks of a number of Disney films wound up on these records, and the LPs I discussed, Peter and the Wolf, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Mother Goose, appeared in the collection as well. I think I remember having an LP of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but I could be wrong. I know for sure that I owned Babes in Toyland, because the scary song was on that disc.

That LP went the way of the glaciers in the Great Vinyl Meltdown, but for the sake of this post, I found the track I wanted on iTunes. "Slowly He Sank into the Sea" does not strike me as an ominous piece now, but boy, three-year-old caithiseach made a hasty exit, the track still playing, every time he played Side 1 of the Babes soundtrack.

The song is a report of the faked death of Tom, a character in the story. With music by Victor Herbert and a book originally by Glen MacDonough, the operetta was lighthearted to begin with, and in the hands of Disney, it didn't gain any great level of menace. The minor key and the subject matter of this song, a drowning in the depths of the ocean, nevertheless filled me with dread.

A rational look at the situation should have eased my mind immediately. For one thing, Tom didn't drown. These two guys were lying to his fiancée. Unfortunately, I didn't figure that out until about a year ago.

I also didn't realize who two of the characters in the film were. As a huge fan of the Zorro television show and The Wizard of Oz, I should have recognized Sergeant García (Henry Calvin) as one of the two lying scoundrels, and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) as the man Mary was supposed to marry instead of Tom. That would have served as some comfort. But when I saw the portly, mustachioed guy going on about the death of poor Tom, it freaked me out on TV when I was watching the film with my parents, and it was that much worse on the LP, when I was alone with the song and my imagination. The film was billed as “The happiest, most delightful musical comedy of your lifetime!” Well, OK . . .

Playing "Slowly He Sank into the Sea" so I could write the blog, I detected the camp, the falsehood and the amusing attempt at sincerity of Sergeant García. That's one more childhood fear, put in its place and buried. But it sure was a good one for a while.

The second song is one I never owned; I just heard it on TV. In most every city in the 1970s, I imagine there was at least one independent TV station that filled its late-night Saturday slot with horror films. This was the pre-Halloween era, so pretty much any black-and-white B flick could be shown on TV, and by the time the program started, when I was ten, I was basically immune to any long-term effects from the shambling mummies and stumbling Frankensteins.

The music that accompanied Creature Features on Chicago's WGN, channel 9, was another matter. Other cities may have called their show by that name, but the intro I knew was produced in Chicago. Another Chicago station, WFLD, channel 32, had a cheesy guy named Svengoolie hosting a horror-film show. Creature Features, to the best of my memory, had only the dread-inspiring music and a ghastly recitation of horrifying imagery.

That music was the appropriately titled "Experiment in Terror" by Henry Mancini. Sure, he scored The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany's and Romeo and Juliet, but he came up with some seriously creepy notes for the film Experiment in Terror, directed by Blake Edwards. I didn't see the film as a kid, but I didn't have to. I can tell now that the experiment was to see if you could write music so laden with fearful chords and instruments that even adults would shy away from it.

That's what happened around my house when Creature Features came on. The song started the show, then, at each commercial break, it was the outro and the intro for each piece of the film being shown. Accompanied by a still of a Grim Reaper type with a goblin's face and lettering in an unhappy-looking font, that intro almost made you want to change the channel to PBS.

On some occasions, I watched Creature Features with one of my babysitters, Carla. Carla and I were fine during the film, but when the commercials came and went, we would start singing an atonal "la-la-la" to drown out the Mancini masterpiece. Carla was eighteen, which means that she was an adult, and she certainly did find the music unnerving. I was really glad that she shared my opinion of the song and didn't force me to be quiet while it was playing.

An odd thing about the music is that no one knew the name or the composer of the piece. For lots of kids, it was the "Creature Features song." And we all hated what it did to us. At long last, when I was (most likely) a junior in high school, my friend Tom called me and told me to turn on a radio station in Beecher, Illinois that played whatever the nighttime DJ wanted to play. At this moment, he had fielded a request for "Experiment in Terror" by Henry Mancini. At last, I knew the name and the artist.

A week later, I had forgotten both.

A search for Creature Features a couple of years ago enlightened me again, and this time, it stuck. The music, designed to make adult bladders weak, still has an effect on my knees, if not my bladder. Try putting it on your stereo when kids come trick-or-treating, and see how much candy you have left over. Word will get around: "That house is playing scary music. Go somewhere else."

You're welcome to send me a portion of the chocolate you don't have to give to costumed fairies, Mutant Turtles and Gumbys. You can email me for an address.

After the songs is a meticulously recreated 1971 opening for Creature Features, as with all of the sounds and sights in this series, a dark room is the only suitable spot for experiencing the magic of creepiness.

Next time, I'll bring you a scary song that has a sonic connection to "Experiment in Terror" and a lyrical connection to a mule. See you Saturday!

Babes in Toyland, Slowly He Sank into the Sea

Creature Features, Experiment in Terror

Friday, October 17, 2008

Creepy Places, Part I

First, I have to note the passing of a previously featured composer, the amazing Neal Hefti, the award-winning creator of the Batman TV theme. He died on October 11 at 85.

I have to warn you that zshare has been down all day, so there are two links for the song. The first one goes to Sharebee, which is a bit more work than zshare.

Now, the post.

Call four-year-old caithiseach a baby, if you wish, but the next four posts are about records he owned that owned him—songs that reached into my soul and terrified me almost to the point of paralysis when I was very small. A couple of the songs still sound creepy to me, but the others have become sources of amusement. Today’s song, “(The Land of) Bobby Beeble” by Mitch Torok and the Matches (Inette 105) continues to give me a case of the shivers when I hear it.

I don’t think I was much more of a chicken than the average tot. I didn’t like to sleep with my closet door open; it was darker there than in the rest of the room. Once it was pitch black each night, I shied away from the darkest part of the back yard, near the shed. That area had not been a scary spot until the recently mentioned Bubby told me a scary guy lived there.

Oh, and when I was at Good Fellow Camp the year I turned nine, the stories about Crazy Man Wilson made me lie awake, waiting for the shutter to rise behind my head, and for Wilson’s hand to punch through the screen, grab my hair, and carry me off into the woods.

All of that fear was based on bogus stories, so it’s fair to call me impressionable. Something I can’t explain that easily is a feeling of deep dread that attacked me one night when I entered the bathroom of my residence. It was about three a.m., and I didn’t turn on the light because I could see just fine. However, I felt something malevolent all around me, and I opened the door and turned on the light. This event occurred two years ago, two apartments ago, and I can’t make myself believe that there wasn’t . . . something in that bathroom with me.

Generally, though, the dark doesn’t bother me now, and I love Halloween’s trappings, haunted houses and scary movies. I’m still not happy with today’s tune, though.

I can almost remember when the 45 arrived, in the usual stack of twenty singles Uncle Tom brought me. I sat down before the record player and slapped the records on the turntable, listened, flipped them over, and listened some more. Then I got to “(The Land of) Bobby Beeble,” which happened to be the “plug side” of the single.

I can only imagine the look on my face when the song started playing. There are a lot of songs recorded in a minor key, but whereas “Sixteen Tons” doesn’t sound scary or even dreadful, the D minor strumming on “Bobby Beeble” just sounds wrong, evil, from the very beginning. And then Mitch, who sounds so perky on “Caribbean,” “Mexican Joe” and “Are You Trying to Tell Me Somethin’,” starts intoning what amounts to an otherworldly tale that, in retrospect, reminds me of what became of Maine in Stephen King’s “The Mist” (thereafter nullified by its incarnation as an eye-roller of a lame horror flick).

This “land,” named after a boy with a truly awful name, Bobby Beeble, is home to pink dinosaurs, beaches covered with polka dots, and “what else, only heaven would know.” Yikes. Everything about this alternate world is disastrously wrong. I don’t know how this could have gained airplay.

DJ: That was the Beach Boys singing “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And now, the creepy song you’ve all been requesting, “Bobby Beeble.”

Nope. It wasn’t going to happen. Teens listening to the radio would have to turn it off quickly so the kids they were babysitting wouldn’t start screaming.

I just realized that I associate Mitchell Torok more strongly with “Bobby Beeble” than with the rest of his output. The final verse, spoken in an eerie singsong that brings to mind an accent-free Bela Lugosi, would finally drive me over the edge. After sitting through as much of the song as I could, I would finally lose my nerve, hair standing on end, and run from the room. When a couple of minutes had passed (or half an hour, if a good show was on TV), I would go back, remove the 45, and purify my record player with something cheery, like “Uncle Tom Got Caught.”

So, I performed this ritual once or twice, right? Nope. More like a hundred times. Did I think I would eventually desensitize myself? Did I love scaring myself into nightmares about the Land of Bobby Beeble? I think I loved scaring myself. After I played this song, or any of the others to follow the rest of this month, the atmosphere of my room (once I returned) seemed to have become thicker, more ominous, bordering on uninhabitable. Some upbeat tune would purge the room of its malevolence, but then, night came . . .

Laugh all you wish. I’m immune to it; I teach Spanish. But do this: Wait until night to listen to the song. Turn off the lights, except for your monitor. Close the curtains. Open the closet, if there is one. Turn up your volume a bit, so you won’t know if a being tiptoes toward you. Click on the song link, then turn off the monitor and close your eyes.

Let me know if you make it all the way through the song without at least reaching for a light switch. If you do, you’re a braver person than four-year-old caithiseach. Congratulations.

Wednesday, I’ll have a twofer for you: two songs to which I was exposed via visual media, one of which no longer seems the least bit scary to me. See you then!

Sharebee link (not as convenient), if zshare is still down:

Mitch Torok, (The Land of) Bobby Beeble

zshare link, when the site is running again:

Mitch Torok, (The Land of) Bobby Beeble

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mostly Oblivious Boyfriends

A number of my old 45s contain songs that I, but for some overwhelming aspect of the other side, might have enjoyed hearing regularly. Wynn Stewart’s “Uncle Tom Got Caught,” for example, received so much play that “Wishful Thinking,” a very solid and smooth recording that turned out to be a huge country hit, almost never sat face-up on my turntable. (Incidentally, I bought a violin on Saturday, and the first thing I tried to play on it was the intro to “Wishful Thinking.” I hope this title doesn’t become too tightly associated with my attempt to learn to play a bowed instrument.)

Today’s song fits into the overshadowed category, but for a completely different reason. “Uncle Tom Got Caught” was too much fun; the flip of “Are You Trying to Tell Me Somethin’” by Mitch Torok and the Matches (Inette 105) scared the bejeebers out of four-year-old caithiseach. Even so, I couldn’t help playing it on a regular basis, but its reputation made me decide I didn’t need to hear the other side.

That’s too bad, because, as clichéd as the cheery side sounds now, I don’t know for sure that the theme of clueless-guy-meets-homicidal-girlfriend was overdone by the time this single reached the DJs. If so, it still manages to be a congenial tune, and the narrator is likeable enough to gain my sympathy.

As is often the case with the artists on my cutout 45s, this disc flopped, but Mitchell Torok had a reasonably successful career. Born in Houston, Texas in 1929 and ready to celebrate his 79th birthday on October 28, he picked up a guitar when he was 12 and took a shot at the Country scene. He gave music up to study art after struggling for a while, but his songwriting helped him turn the corner.

In early 1953, while Mitch was still studying, a song he had written (in hopes of selling it to Hank Snow) wound up on the radio. He seems to have heard it there before anyone told him it had been recorded, but that could be apocryphal information. At any rate, it wasn’t Hank Snow, but a relative rookie named Jim Reeves, who recorded “Mexican Joe.” It was Jim’s first chart hit, and it spent nine weeks at #1.

That brought Mitch out of retirement, and he worked out a recording contract with the owner of Reeves’s label, Abbott Records. That man, you may remember from an earlier post on Bobby Lee Trammell, was Fabor Robison. Mitch’s August, 1953 debut on Abbott was another Torok-penned tune called “Caribbean,” and that one went to #1 as well, spending six months on the Country chart. His follow-up, “Hootchy Kootchy Henry from Hawaii,” also climbed into the Country Top Ten in early 1954.

On the pop side, Mitch took “Pledge of Love” to #25, beginning the Top 40 run on April 29, 1957. Ken Copeland, soon to become televangelist Kenneth Copeland, charted the same song on April 20, 1957, and reached #12 with it. However, the song was written by Ramona Redd, a future songwriting partner of Mitchell Torok, and Mitch’s photo appeared on the original sheet music, so who got burned there?

A reworked “Caribbean” hit the Top 40 on August 31, 1959, and it peaked at 27. “Pink Chiffon,” which charted ten days before I was born, stalled at #60. And that was that, chart-wise. Mitch has registered more than 200 titles with BMI, including several he wrote with Ramona Redd, such as “Taco Bell” and “Take a Chance on Me.”

The “Take a Chance on Me” you are most likely to know was written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the guys who co-wrote the musical Chess with Tim Rice. They also produced a lovely album of their compositions, as sung by Josefin Nilsson, called Shapes (1993). If I talk about female vocalists next year, she’ll be part of the deal. Benny Andersson was in a 1960s rock band called the Hep Stars, and Björn Ulvaeus led a folk group called the Hootenanny Singers. They recorded with other female vocalists as well.

But the Ramona Redd-Mitchell Torok “Take a Chance on Me” is not that song, and I can’t tell you anything about it. I can, however, tell you that Torok-Redd compositions made their way onto Dean Martin and Glen Campbell records, so they managed to do well for themselves. Mitchell Torok wound up recording as Mitch Torok and the Matches for Inette Records.

Today’s recording has a grumbly spot in it for the first 30 seconds, then it clears up nicely. I’m sorry about that. There is an amazing 4-CD Mitchell Torok compilation on Bear Family Records, Mexican Joe in the Caribbean. That set stops just shy of his time with Inette, which is why you get the scratchy 45.

For Inette, Mitch recorded at least two tunes that Ramona Redd wrote with Norris Green (clever, that), including today’s song. Ramona Redd has nearly 200 BMI songwriting credits, while Norris Green has 7. But whereas 0.52% of Ramona Redd’s songs gave four-year-old caithiseach nightmares, 14.3% of Norris Green’s managed to do that to me. And the song of nightmares, friends, comes Saturday and begins my countdown to Halloween. See you on the flip side!

Mitch Torok, Are You Trying to Tell Me Somethin’

Friday, October 10, 2008

Credibility Gap

After today's song post, please note the comments on the future of this blog. Thanks!

When three-year-old caithiseach was enjoying “Motorcyle” four years prior to his intersection with the trajectory of a hit-and-run Harley, there was another side to the single. There were also several facets to the recording career of the songwriter/lead vocalist of “Motorcycle.” I can without hesitation say that I was listening to this guy regularly years before even you fifty-year-olds picked up on him.

A brief aside: in that aspect, I was setting the tone for later music choices. In early 1978, on some alt radio station, I was introduced to the Cars, and people smirked at me when I brought them up. Ha! And when I trotted off to college, I took along the Blondie album Plastic Letters. No one would listen to it, but once “Heart of Glass” hit the airwaves, I was recognized as a music prophet. So it was with this “Motorcycle” guy, even if the song isn’t up to the caliber of his later material.

Mr. Motorcycle got his start in high school in Queens. There, he sang with a classmate. The two were named “Tom & Jerry” by their label, Big, and they reached #49 in early 1958 with “Hey, Schoolgirl.” Then came several years of very little success. Mr. Motorcycle wrote the song “Red Rubber Ball” under the pseudonym “Paul Kane” and “Motorcycle” under the name “Jerry Landis,” the name he used to record a #97 single, “The Lone Teen Ranger,” in 1963.

Jerry Landis was writing and producing for Amy Records when he discovered Tico and the Triumphs. He took these young people—Mickey Borack, Marty “Tico” Cooper and Gail Lynn—and had them learn some songs he had written. Gail left the act, and Jerry became part of the mix, along with Howie Beck. The group recorded “Motorcycle” with Jerry singing lead, and today’s tune, “I Don’t Believe Them,” features Marty Cooper on vocals.

A couple of years later, Jerry reunited with “Tom,” and they scored a recording contract with Columbia Records. They released a folk album that didn’t do so well, and Jerry went off to England to try his luck there. While he was gone, the producer of the album, Tom Wilson, remixed one of the tracks, adding electric instruments to what had been a folky acoustic piece. The pumped-up version went to #1 on January 1, 1966, and while Jerry muttered about artistic integrity and all that, he probably kept in mind that he had perpetrated “Motorcycle” with the same instruments and an out-of-tune sax to boot. He came home and started cashing royalty checks.

He and “Tom” started on their follow-up album, which included the electrified #1 version of that folk tune. I see that song as a prophetic statement about music in this decade when it says that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, tenement halls.” The debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A. M., had been a slow starter, and Sounds of Silence, including “The Sound of Silence,” fared better, but not up to the standard of the later #1 albums.

For a staid record company like Columbia, signing Tom & Jerry under their real last names must have taken some soul-searching. But despite “Tom’s” long last name, Garfunkel, being known as Simon & Garfunkel didn’t hurt the duo as much as being associated with a cartoon cat and mouse might have.

And after his time with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon went on to score 21 solo Hot 100 hits, including one #1, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and five other Top Ten hits. It’s funny that detailed compilations of his non-Simon & Garfunkel work fail to include “Motorcycle” . . .

I didn’t listen to “I Don’t Believe Them” a lot, because, well, you heard “Motorcycle.” Who needed another Tico and the Triumphs song in the rotation?

All the Tico information you could want is right at this page. I will now post the correct guesses. I should offer a reward to people who were able to pick out Paul Simon’s voice. I didn’t figure it out on my own; I did some reading about twenty years ago that clued me in.

Gee, I just checked my calendar. Monday is Paul Simon’s 67th birthday. Happy birthday, Paul.

Next week, we embark on a strange journey that will take us through the end of the month. First up is the innocuous side of an obscurity you probably have never heard. Then comes the other side, which will set the tone for October. As with some other posts, I have been waiting impatiently for a year for this series to have its turn. See you Wednesday!

Tico and the Triumphs, I Don’t Believe Them

Comments and a request: I want to note that the counter on my blog rolled over the 10,000 mark this week. I got the idea to use a counter from reading my friend whiteray’s blog, and the counter offered me a bit of reassurance that I was not the only person reading my posts (apart from whiteray, whom I pay $10 a month to read it). Reaching 10,000 hits means that I am topping 250 hits per week, or 125 per post. I am well aware that many music blogs receive several hundred more hits per week than mine does, but I always figured my collection of cutout 1960s 45s would attract a smallish niche readership. I would write it for even a handful of appreciative readers, and so I am grateful that I can, via the demographics, identify a satisfying number of regular, if mostly anonymous, readers. I know vaguely where you are, if nothing about who you are, and each time your city pops onto the counter, I thank you silently for coming back.

Now, we are getting to the end of 2008. A year ago, I sketched out 104 posts, which means I have 22 more to present this year. At that point, I will be virtually out of childhood 45s to discuss. I will not, however, be tired of writing about music I know.

So, I have been meditating for several months on what I might do next in this space. The blog title can be valid for whatever I do, since I will be breaking down the songs into their component parts, as I have been doing this year. I think, though, that I should not assume too much about my readership.

I always hope for more feedback about the artists and songs than I get, which is fine, but this time, I need some guidance. If something about three-year-old caithiseach and his box of vinyl intrigued you (even if you couldn’t tear yourself away, as when you witness a train wreck), but you don’t see any reason to read once I ring the curtain down on my old 45s, do let me know. If everyone bails, I’ll retire.

If you would keep reading, because it’s part of your routine or for any other reason, then you get to shape the blog so you’ll be glad you stuck around. In this U.S. election year, you get to vote for yet another thing: my Wednesday and Saturday topics for the start of 2009. I really need to know the blog matters to someone; I figure I’ll keep it going if I get at least ten opinions. Otherwise, I might start thinking that my sister is getting one of her hacker friends to jigger my counter to give me delusions of grandeur.

You can vote by leaving an anonymous comment on this post, but I don’t need the comment total to be prodigious or ostentatious. Therefore, you can also email me a thought at caithiseach at (You know how to put that together as an email address.) Doing it that way will be less anonymous, but I won’t start spamming you, so you’re safe.

Possibilities that my music collection allows (vote for all that you like; I’ll start with the top two, and I’ll switch topics when I run out of material):

1. Instrumentals, their writers and artists. 1950s on, maybe some older stuff.

2. Really old artists, 1890-1954. From Irish tenors to rock’s precursors.

3. Women. I could do a year on the women in my collection alone. I mean my music collection.

4. World music. My journalism has exposed me to some incredible world acts.

5. This day in the 1950s charts. I have the chart book, and there are loads of tidbits to discuss.

I’ll leave it there. Pick something, and I’ll write about it. Pick nothing, and I’ll stop altogether in January. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hit Me, Harley, One More Time

Have you ever been knocked unconscious? I don’t mean a faint from which you awoke, surprised, or a moment when you realized that maybe an hour had zipped by in a second, and you think that maybe you passed out. I mean flying through the air, landing with a clunk, and waking up sort of fuzzy.

Those TV shows where people wake up from being clobbered, and everything is blurry, and they get all squinty until the world becomes clear again, have it right. At least, I think I got all squinty, since the first thing I said was, “Where are my glasses?” Everything certainly was blurry.

No, my pre-Meltdown box of 45s did not fall on my head. I was riding my bicycle on a late spring afternoon, presumably a Saturday, since school was still in session, with my friend Bubby. (The lack of a comma indicates that I had more than one friend.) Bubby’s real name is James, but he went by Bubby when he was seven, and his twin sister was Sissy, and their older sister was Punky. (There were times when I thought it would be cool to have a nickname, but this was not one of them.) Now, I have my online name, caithiseach. That is, by the way, a word in Irish, not a scrambling of English letters.

So, Bubby and I were meandering along Dakota Street, and I am not using “meander” to be picturesque. I was, unfortunately, meandering, but a sixteen-year-old boy named K.A. was not meandering when he approached us on his Harley. No, he was driving straight and a bit fast for the conditions (sunny, dry, kids meandering in road). The accident was my fault, considering that I meandered into the left lane just as he, coming from behind, went into that lane to pass us. But the onus quickly fell upon K.A. when he kept on cruisin’.

I heard a thin “beep beep” that sounded very distant. Then, I woke up with everything blurry. I am glad my brain chose not to recall the actual ten-foot flight. I am glad my skull decided to absorb the impact without turning my brain to jelly. (Everyone who knows me must now stop saying “Are you sure about that?” or “Ah! That explains it!”) Seriously, it doesn’t take a lot to ruin your brain, so I do count my blessings, and I implore all of you to wear helmets when you ride anything.

The young lady who lived across the street from the accident site hopped in her car and chased after K.A., whom she did not know. Her sister came and stood beside Bubby, whereupon they both stared at me until I woke up all squinty. When I tried to get up, I think she told me to lie still. I crawled through the gravel to my glasses, which did not help my vision then.

She called my mom, who freaked appropriately despite her job as an ER nurse in a really rough hospital. I was transported home, where Bubby’s mom began a really rough scrubbing of my multiple road rash sites, including the ones on my head and the huge hole in my left knee that could not be sutured shut.

I had a headache, and my knee hurt, and I was lying on the living-room sofa when a sheriff’s deputy entered the house with a freaked-out K.A., who was told to look at what he had done to that poor scrawny seven-year-old boy. Man, I felt bad for him, being taken off by the cops and all that. I’m glad he was sixteen, because when I met a mutual acquaintance about fourteen years later, I learned that K.A. had experienced a brief difficulty when he was a teen, one that had passed and allowed him to mature without lasting issues. I’m glad.

My two lasting issues from the event involved music. I became rusty in my drumming, because I had to take a couple of weeks off. (Holy cow, I did miss a number of school days. Maybe that concussion was worse than I remember.) My other issue was that I temporarily lost my taste for one of my favorite 45s, “Motorcycle” by Tico and the Triumphs (Amy 835).

Golly, caithiseach finally divulged why he told this story. If the storyteller in me beat my internal editor to a pulp on this one, forgive me.

So, in 1963 I got a cutout 45 that had actually been a Hot 100 hit, achieving #99 for one week on January 6, 1962. (Whoa, when I looked up the details, I learned that my single would be worth $100 if it were in decent shape. Darn box with no dividers and no sleeves.) The song had previously been released on Madison 169 in 1961, and that one is worth $200. Dig through your box of 45s, friends.

I took an immediate liking to “Motorcycle,” because it was an upbeat tune with a peppy a cappella intro (if a cappella can include a motorcycle revving in the background). Apart from the short period of time when hearing the motorcycle engine growl made me wince, other features of the song have come to amuse me. The singer is a titch overenthusiastic about his motorcycle, and the sax solo is played on an out-of-tune contraption that only a vacuum cleaner could love. Even so, there is a charm to this number that would appeal to any three-year-old, especially a non-discriminating cutout-45 gourmet like caithiseach.

Amy Records was not as feeble as it sounds, considering that you probably don’t own any Amy 45s or LPs. It was one of those labels that printed silver ink directly onto the recording medium, rather than spring for the cost of labels. Amy was split off from Bell Records, which we all know from the Partridge Family and the 5th Dimension. Top 40 hits on Amy included “Keep Searchin’” by Del Shannon, “Working in the Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey, and “Midnight Mary” by Joey Powers, one of my favorite singles that I forgot completely until it showed up on the sound system of a mall store. (There are a number of such songs.)

And the gentleman who waxes too poetic (somewhat stridently) about his motorcycle went on to have a career for the ages. Not as Tico, let me tell you. Many of you know who he is. For the rest of you, give the song a dozen listens or so, and report to me via the comment feature who you think the singer is. Don’t peek on Wikipedia or a search engine. I promise to let you in on the facts for my Saturday post, which will present the flip of the single and a lot more information about the singer of “Motorcycle.”

I have to approve all comments (an anti-spam step I took), so I will approve all wrong guesses, acknowledge correct guesses privately, and publish the right ones on Saturday, when my post goes up. Remember, if you guess wrong now, you’ll have a lot more fun if don’t look up the song and are amazed on Saturday.

I don’t have a pristine recording of the record; my 45 is somewhat gritty, and I have a RealAudio version that is considerably compressed. Take your pick for listening. And no peeking!

Saturday, the revelation and the other song. See you on the flip side!

Tico and the Triumphs, Motorcycle 45

Tico and the Triumphs, Motorcycle RealAudio

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Semper Fi

God bless my cousin Jimmy. He is Aunt Eileen's elder son, and he and his brother, Bob, put up with my presence in their bachelor pad for close to two months in the summer of 1970. When the "Overture from Tommy" by the Assembled Multitude started getting airplay on WLS, Jimmy patiently explained to me that, in addition to the overture, Tommy had an underture. Another time, I was reading, and Jim took the book and closed it, then handed it back. Bob protested, but I thought it was a good exercise in always remembering to stay aware of the page you were on, in case you should drop the book or something.

And after I went back home in September, 1970, Jimmy challenged me: I was skinny, so if I would do as many sit-ups and push-ups as I could do, each day for a month, he would give me ten dollars. I was faithful to the task, and after thirty days, I could do 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups. I showed Jimmy my chart, my dad verified it, and Jimmy paid me. I was, alas, still skinny.

But these memories have not had the enduring effect that an older experience has had on my music listening. One day, four-year-old caithiseach asked Jimmy to read him the title of a 45 Uncle Tom had recently brought over. Jimmy kindly obliged, and I went away thinking that I had a military song to pair with "General of Broken Hearts" by Marlin Greene. This new song's title was "Little Marine."

I already had a song about the Army, and I didn't know a lot about the Marines, so when I dropped the needle on the record, the Marine theme didn't entice me, and the chugging guitar didn't, either. As was always the case with unimpressive songs, this platter went into the Stack of Oblivion, and thereby it avoided becoming a Victim of the Great Vinyl Meltdown of 1972.

The issue I now have with that scenario is that the song's title is not "Little Marine." It's "Little Marie." The single (Chess 1912) was released by a guy named Chuck Berry, and while the song didn't crack the Top 40, it did enter the Hot 100 on October 24, 1964. I figured out the title a number of years ago, but I didn't bother to play the single to see if I liked the song better than I had when I was four.

I played it this summer, when I was digitizing the song for this post. I didn't figure the song would do much for me, though I enjoy Chuck Berry's other songs, many of which follow the same basic pattern (for better or for worse).

Imagine my surprise when "Little Marie" turned out to be a sequel to "Memphis," his 1959 composition that Johnny Rivers took to #2 in 1964. "Little Marie" uses the same melody, subject matter and characters from the story line of "Memphis." The song doesn't seem too contrived, but its release at about the same time that Johnny Rivers was riding high with Part 1 of the story makes it seem that the inspiration was an opportunity to mint some extra money.

Chuck Berry is one of the true icons of rock and roll, with 14 Top 40 hits to his credit between 1955 and 1973, including "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven" (later covered by the Electric Light Orchestra), "Rock & Roll Music" (covered later by the Beach Boys), "Johnny B Goode" (referred to in Rick Nelson's "Garden Party"), "Back in the U.S.A." (covered by Linda Ronstadt and the obvious basis for a semi-parody by the Beatles, "Back in the U.S.S.R.") and "No Particular Place to Go." I won't bother to mention that Chuck's only #1 hit came in 1972 and was called "My Ding-A-Ling." No, I didn't mention that, and you can't prove that I did.

It also turned out that "Surfin' USA" by the Beach Boys was patterned so closely after Chuck's "Sweet Little Sixteen" that he is now credited as the writer of the Beach Boys classic.

Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926, which means he was 28 when his first Top 40 hit entered the charts. That makes him a late bloomer, but he is still going strong as he approaches his 82nd birthday. (I would have held this post until later in the month to acknowledge his birthday, but I have a series of related posts scheduled for that time frame.)

Chuck won the Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1984 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He has created a whole lot of enjoyable music, and if I had known he was singing about a little girl, rather than some Marine, I might have given today's song more attention.

Here's a glimpse of Chuck's live performance style. No one is like him. In the middle of the song, he does his famous duck walk, which I see as a misnomer, since he does not resemble a duck.

I'm away from my home computer, and I can't remember what I have planned for Wednesday. Thus, no teaser. Just a request that you stop by to visit on Wednesday!

Chuck Berry, Little Marie