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’

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