Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You Can't Do This in Most Homes Now, but It's Safe to Do If You Own Vinyl

Hello, friends. This summer has been a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, the best of times and the worst of times, with little middle ground. I intended to keep blogging from the road as I traveled, but I was forced to spend far too much of my non-driving time doing work for an employer who doesn’t appreciate me enough to pay me for that work. I did get to do what I wanted to do, which was travel to as many Famous Dave’s barbeque restaurants as I could, and my efforts there seem to have earned me a year of free food. That’s the best/sublime part. The ridiculous/worst part—well, would you do two hundred extra hours of professional work, even if it’s spread over the course of an entire year, for nothing? That’s what I was supposed to do. And I was supposed to do a lot of it in the summer, when I am also expected to be gearing up for another year of teaching.

And so, the only things that could get me onto the blog this summer were the death of a pop icon and the arrival of Vinyl Record Day.

I want to talk about a feature of vinyl records that you simply can’t reproduce with a digital file, at least not without a bunch of software. In the days of record players, the act I’m going to describe was easy to undertake and loads of fun.

I’m talking about playing a song at the wrong speed.

I was very small when I acquired my first 78 rpm records, and I learned by accident that playing them at LP speed created deep rumbling sounds. To my young ears, the ponderous, roaring noises resembled what the world must have sounded like in the time of dinosaurs. Singing transformed itself into roars of rage, and drums became the earth-shaking thuds of huge dinosaur feet slamming into the earth.

Moving in the opposite direction, my 16 2/3 rpm talking-book records, played at 78, made sounds like very small, energetic animals. I’m glad I wasn’t using headphones when I was five, or I might have scrambled my brain.

I’m not sure I would have thought to talk about this aspect of vinyl if I hadn’t spoken recently with whiteray about something I did by accident a couple of years ago. At that time, I acquired a 45 of “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the late-night WLS hits from the summer of 1970, when I used music to distract me from the many issues I would otherwise have been pondering.

When I slapped that 45 on my turntable, it started playing at 33 1/3 rpm. I smiled to myself and let it run through the very slow intro. And then, when the song slid into its groove, magic occurred.

The backing track, played at normal speed, is pretty solid. But when it slowed to 74% of its regular speed, the guitar, bass and drums sounded like a raunchy slow blues that opened up the track to serve as the underpinning for any new melody and lyrics you might want to lay over it. Have a listen, and feel free to write a song around the riff.

And that, folks, is something you’ve never been able to do with a mere CD player and a shiny disc. When CD players first came out in 1983, someone, and I think it was Yamaha, made a CD player with a pitch control. That feature soon disappeared, though some players now offer pitch control again. However, I doubt that you can drop the pitch of a CD enough to create the effect of flipping the speed of a turntable from 45 to 33.

The song links below do what I described above. If you’re a product of the CD generation and you’ve never fiddled with the speed on a turntable, now you don’t have to—unless you want to. I hope you enjoy this glimpse at what five-year-old audio engineers used to do.

This is one of the many reasons why vinyl should never be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.

It just occurred to me for the first time to wonder why my parents never asked me why I was playing my records at an ultra-slow speed. If I ever come up with an answer, I’ll let you know.

Diamonds, The Very Slow Stroll

Sterling Holloway, Mother Goose on Speed

Pacific Gas & Electric, Are You Ready to Use This Groove?

Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again, But More Slowly

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oh, Michael.

He was born in Gary, Indiana, 21 months before me. I’m from Gary, too. We kids were all so proud of the child singer. He gave us a dream. His voice cheered me through the dark summer of 1970 after my mother died in January. His summer hit turned out to be my favorite 1970 song.

I will always remember him as the singer of the following songs.

Sorry for the hiatus. Back Saturday.

Jackson 5, ABC

Jackson 5, The Love You Save

Jackson 5, I'll Be There

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You’ve All Heard His Name

A long list of names from music’s pioneer era still shows up in print or in conversation. Many readers will have heard of such people as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Al Jolson, yet a decent percentage of this crowd will never have actually heard their recordings. I attribute this fact primarily to the disappearance of their recording catalogs from the shelves as far back as the vinyl days. Though such a creature probably exists, I have never seen a two-LP set of Paul Whiteman’s Greatest Hits.

Thanks to the sad state of pre-1955 reissues, a vast array of artists who once were the last word in music may never cross your eardrums. Think about it: Vanilla Ice is long gone as a hot commodity, but you can still buy his musical output. Much deeper digging, and greater motivation, are required to make the music of Thomas Waller part of your world.

They called him “Fats,” and apart from the iconic name, there are plenty of iconic song titles to his credit, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” The titles are most likely familiar, especially since a 1970s Broadway musical celebrating the Waller legacy put him on the map for a new generation. You may have heard these two songs, but probably by other artists. Today, you can hear the Fats Waller versions of these and a couple of other tunes.

Thomas Waller was born in New York in 1904. He began to study the piano when he was six years old, and when he was 14, he went to live with pianist Russell Brooks after Fats’s mother died. He polished his stride piano technique under the tutelage of James P. Johnson, the master of the form, which involves rapid left-hand octaves as the rhythmic base for the right-hand melody. (I simplify.)

Apart from his considerable jazz knowledge, Fats studied the classical repertoire with significant tutors, including the Austrian conductor Karl Böhm. It’s his classical training that took Fats to the next level: in his recordings, you hear structures that you hear in recordings by acclaimed classical pianists who are playing masterful compositions. With apologies, Fats was known as the “black Vladimir Horowitz.”

Fats was a powerful artist with as light and agile a touch as any pianist’s, when he needed it. It should not be surprising that his compositions display inventiveness and nuance so understated that his listeners may not even have known why they found him so impressive.

Something that frustrated Fats was the failure of this audience to give him the respect due a Horowitz. His vocals were playful, especially when he had been told to record a Tin Pan Alley tune that he considered to be garbage. By laughing in the face of such songs, he made them work and made them his own. This frivolity, though, paired with the ease with which he flowed through the notes, made him seem perhaps less serious than a pianist who would appear in a tux, bow to the audience, play with a permanent frown on his face, break a sweat, and bow to much applause, the first noise from the audience, at the end of the performance.

Fats, then, probably never received his due, and there’s no question that race contributed to the nation’s perception of his work. He was notable enough as a pop-culture phenomenon to appear in caricature in a Merrie Melodies short, “Tin Pan Alley Cats.” (You can find it at YouTube; it is one of the Censored Eleven Warner Brothers cartoons.) Whether that nod in his direction was really an honor is debatable, but I’m certain that no similar Horowitz send-up was considered. Liberace got the treatment, but he was no Horowitz.

Okeh Records first recorded Fats when he was 18 years old, and soon he was in demand as a composer. With lyricist Andy Razaf, he composed the songs for three Broadway musicals before the end of the 1920s. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” came from the show Hot Chocolates.

Once Fats started recording for Victor around 1929, his group, billed as Fats Waller & His Rhythm, produced 63 Top 25 hits, including 6 that topped the charts. In the manner of George Gershwin, Fats composed a major work, “London Suite,” and he recorded it in London in early 1939. He was scheduled to tour Europe that spring, but Hitler made things hard for him.

Fats came by his nickname honestly, and he ate and drank with abandon. He was experiencing strain from his multiple pursuits, including a fairly successful film career and the writing of more musicals. After a Hollywood engagement in December, 1943, he contracted pneumonia, and he took a train back to New York. He only made it to Kansas City, where he died on December 15, 1943.

The works of Fats Waller are, unlike those of many artists of his era, mostly available these days. Several hundred of his recordings can be found for download. To make the task of collecting Fats easier for you, I’ll post five tunes.

Now that I have bought myself a 1-terabyte music-storage drive, I’m going to work on acquiring bunches of Fats Waller recordings. Many are available on eMusic, where they cost about a quarter each. As amazing as his songs are, the songs are a bargain at a much higher price.

There you have it. The music of Fats Waller, available for listening to those of you who know the name, but not the sounds. Enjoy!

Saturday, it’s Week Twenty-Three of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Fats Waller, Ain't Misbehavin'

Fats Waller, Honeysuckle Rose

Fats Waller, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Fats Waller, Truckin'

Fats Waller, Your Feet's Too Big

Sunday, May 31, 2009

People Don’t Eat People; Purple People Eat People

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

I’m done teaching for the 2008-2009 school year! You might think that would give me a lot of time to write a music blog, or sleep, or things like that. I’m not to that point in the wrap-up process yet, and this will be a very busy summer regardless of how quickly I sort out everything at school.

A quick note: Sometimes I think about how cool it is that people come here from very far away. So, hello to my reader in Skopje! (Everyone else will get his or her turn later.)

Given how busy I’ve been, I’m hoping you won’t mind if I focus on the lighter side of 1950s pop in this installment of my perusal of the charts.

May 28, 1955: It’s week five at #1 on the Best Sellers chart for “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra. The King of the Mambo also is getting the most airplay, but Georgia Gibbs still rules the Juke Box chart with “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower).”

Tunes new to the Best Sellers are “Blue Star” by a One-Hit Wonder, Felicia Sanders, a cover of “Heart” by the Four Aces, and “Love Me or Leave Me” by S. Davis Jr. This would be Sammy, debuting his fourth-biggest Top 40 hit of eight. The biggest won’t come until 1972, when he scores a chart-topper with “The Candy Man.”

Bill Haley’s current hit is now a Top Ten single, climbing from #14 to #10 on the Best Sellers. He finally registers on the Jockey chart, at #20. Airplay is likely to fuel sales and really get this song moving.

June 2, 1956: There is finally a chink in the armor of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The Jockeys have turned their attention to “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic,” Morris Stoloff’s smooth instrumental. Elvis will not be completely done at #1 for a few weeks.

Some hot numbers just entering the charts will have lasting legacies. “It Only Hurts for a Little While” by the Ames Brothers is not one of them, but “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Elvis is. Apart from being a hard title to type, this song has jumped from #90 to #31 on the Top 100, and it enters the Best Sellers at #19.

June 3, 1957: “All Shook Up” is no longer the Best Seller #1, but it remains the favorite on the other three charts. Pat Boone has dislodged Elvis on the Best Sellers with “Love Letters in the Sand.”

There is an odd and not very resonant group of debuts this week. “Goin’ Steady” by Tommy Sands, “Freight Train” by Rusty Draper, and “Four Walls” by Jim Lowe make their first Best Seller appearances. Showing her street cred with the Jockeys, Patti Page debuts a two-sided hit on that chart, with “Old Cape Cod” leading the way, and “Wondering” following. Lieutenant Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids debuts “Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep” on the Top 40 and the radio chart.

June 2, 1958: The Everly Brothers maintain the consensus #1 song, “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Someone is sneaking up on them, but the Jockeys will give the Brothers the nod for a couple more weeks.

The Champs hope their latest debut single, “El Rancho Rock,” will maintain the magic of “Tequila.” Of course, it won’t, just as 1960’s “Too Much Tequila” will also stall at #30. Jerry Lee Lewis is hoping that “High School Confidential” will be his fourth consecutive Top Ten hit. The Jockeys won’t play the song, though, because they have been made aware that Jerry Lee’s wife is thirteen (13) (XIII) years old, and she is also the daughter of his bass player, his first cousin J.W. Brown. Sigh.

There are a couple of Spanish-themed tunes debuting on the Best Sellers: “Zorro” by the Chordettes and “Padre” by Toni Arden, the only Rock Era Top 40 hit for a singer whose hits go back to the 1940s. And that about wraps up the debuts for this week . . . oh, except for the #7 song on both the Best Sellers and toe Top 100, which even the Jockeys have catapulted to #10: “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley. And yes, it will be a huge #1 hit shortly.

June 1, 1959: We have a new #1 song, the history lesson I mentioned last week. Though the story is told in the first person, I do not believe Johnny Horton was old enough to witness the events of 1814, but he sings successfully about “The Battle of New Orleans.”

What’s new? A song for beatniks, “Bongo Rock” by Preston Epps. This One-Hit Wonder is joined by another, the Wailers, who are really hard to find via search engines unless you mention the name of their hit, “Tall Cool One.” For some reason, the song will rechart in 1964, but that doesn’t make them a Two-Hit Wonder in my book.

Also jumping into the Top 40 are “Crossfire” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Bobby Sox to Stockings” by Frankie Avalon, “I Waited Too Long” by LaVern Baker, “My Heart Is an Open Book” by Carl Dobkins Jr., “Along Came Jones” by the Coasters, and both “Lipstick on Your Collar” and “Frankie” by Connie Francis. Now, that’s a week chock-full of debuts.

For your listening pleasure, I can’t resist the obvious: here’s the huge 1958 debut by Sheb Wooley, a future 6-week #1, and a pop One-Hit Wonder nevertheless. If you check your country chart book, though, you’ll find that Sheb has 8 Top 40 Country hits to his credit. This novelty tune is not one of them.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the thrice-postponed discussion of a piano player many of us know by name—only. I’ve been delayed by work responsibilities and a desire to get this post just right. See you Wednesday!

Sheb Wooley, The Purple People Eater

Saturday, May 23, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 21: Summer Songs, Beaches and Barbeque

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

Lots has gone on this week. On Monday, the initiative to remove parking meters in St. Cloud, Minnesota, passed the City Council unanimously. Since I was the guy who got the ball rolling, I was busy both before and after that meeting, and I spoke to the City Council that night. That had a lot to do with the lack of a Wednesday post, but it wasn’t my only task.

On my web site I have a page I devote to Famous Dave’s, my favorite barbeque restaurant. The company’s ad agency found my page recently. As a result, I am in the running with a few other “Famous Fans” to see who can come up with the best mini-promotion this summer. I figure that, to assure myself of victory (which would earn me free barbeque for a year), I pretty much need to conquer the barbeque-eating world, and the rest of the world as well. You can help!

It’s not hard: if you have a Facebook account, please join my group: BarbeQuest. You don’t even have to become my friend to do it. If you aren’t on Facebook, you can find the BarbeQuest on MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, though I haven’t gotten any video up there yet. I have put some details about my fascination with Famous Dave’s in a blog called BarbeQuest, which you can find via a link to the right.

What is the BarbeQuest? I have plans to travel to every Famous Dave’s location, which means I’ll be visiting 177 restaurants in 38 states. My count is at 32 right now. You can see the list here.

You can win prizes through my group as well. The ad agency, John Roach Productions of Madison, Wisconsin, also has weekly challenges, which I transmit via my networking pages. Weekly Challenge #1 is to write a haiku about the ’Que for Two Platter, one of three summer menu items. But the promotional push is available to you at Facebook or Blogger, so now, let’s get to the charts!

All winter, any contact with summery songs seemed like torture to me. Now that winter seems to have ended here, it’s appropriate that one of the premiere surf/car acts of the 1960s would make its inaugural chart appearance this week—in 1958.

May 21, 1955: In its fourth week atop the Best Sellers, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra has finally overtaken the competition to top the Jockey chart, but Georgia Gibbs still reigns on the Juke Box chart with “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower).”

After starting its chart run on the Jockey chart, Eddie Fisher’s “Heart,” an eventual Top Ten hit, tiptoes onto the Best Sellers this week. Eddie is joined by the Sunnysiders, whose one Top 40 hit, “Hey, Mr. Banjo,” enters as the biggest Best Seller debut of the week. Despite their status as a One-Hit Wonder, the Sunnysiders include two former members of Spike Jones & His City Slickers, and another, Margie Rayburn, will have a solo hit in 1957.

In the Big Mover department, we have Bill Haley’s new hit climbing from #22 to #14 on the Best Sellers. There is neither Jockey nor Juke Box action yet, but this record could be as big as "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which reached #7 and spent half a year on the charts.

May 26, 1956: “Heartbreak Hotel” is still on top of everything. I get the impression that, had anyone had the foresight to rename a hotel as the single was released, it would have had a pretty good occupancy wake for a chunk of 1956.

Whereas there were no Best Seller debuts last week, this week there are three: “Picnic” by the McGuire Sisters, “Ivory Tower” by Gale Storm, and “Walk Hand in Hand” by Tony Martin. As insignificant as these titles may sound from an historic perspective, two of them are future Top Tens, and “Picnic” will reach #13.

May 27, 1957: Once again, “All Shook Up” is the consensus #1 song.

Some very recognizable debuts arrive on the Best Sellers: “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “It’s Not for Me to Say” by Johnny Mathis, for example. A dual Top Ten arrives, as Fats Domino’s Valley of Tears” checks in. Its flip, “It’s You I Love,” will get legs in a couple of weeks and start to compete with the A-side. A One-Hit Wonder, Johnnie & Joe, will reach the Top Ten with “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea,” which also joins the ranks this week.

May 26, 1958: Once again, the Everly Brothers have the consensus #1 song, “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” They should appreciate the moment, as they will soon be eaten alive by a huge novelty phenomenon.

Debuting on both the Best Sellers Top 40 and the Top 100 Top 40 is a couple of minutes of creepiness by Jody Reynolds, “Endless Sleep.” It’s not quite the “teen death song” that we will see surge around 1960, but it’s depressing enough as a precursor to the craze. It will be Jody’s sole Top 40 hit.

Another Best Seller/Top 100 debut marks the start of a huge career: “I Wonder Why” by Dion and the Belmonts. In the same vein, Jan & Arnie garner their first Top 40 hit, Jennie Lee. The song includes the voices of Jan Berry, Arnie Ginsburg, and Dean Torrence, but Dean was in the Army when Jan signed with a label. When Dean got out, Arnie joined the Navy, and Jan & Dean went on to become surf-rock pioneers.

Over at the Top 100, one huge debut is Bobby Freeman’s debut pop hit, “Do You Want to Dance,” which jumps into the Top 40 at #19. It’s also new to the Best Sellers Top 40, moving from #48 to #21 there.

May 25, 1959: Wilbert Harrison remains at #1, though he will give way to a history lesson next week. Among the debuts is a song with an iconic title, “Tallahassee Lassie,” Freddy Cannon’s first hit single. Fats Domino gets off to a good start with “I’m Ready,” which enters as the highest-charting debut at #29.

For your listening pleasure, I’m thinking you might not have heard the Jan & Dean prototype single before. Enjoy its faint resemblance to what is to come a few years later.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the twice-postponed discussion of a piano player many of us know by name—only. See you then!

Jan & Arnie, Jennie Lee

Saturday, May 16, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 20: Unchain Me

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

All sorts of melodies, unchained and otherwise, make up an uneven weeks of debuts on the 1950s charts.

May 14, 1955: This week’s #1 songs show one of the curiosities of the pre-Hot 100 chart system. If you happen to research the hits of May, 1955, you will see that “Unchained Melody” by Les Baxter, “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)” by Georgia Gibbs, and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado all reached #1. Only the fine print tells you that just one of these songs was ever the best-selling record in the nation.

Georgia Gibbs topped the Juke Box chart on May 14, and Les Baxter topped the Jockey chart. Neither song reached #1 on any other chart. So, kids played “Dance with Me Henry,” the DJs played “Unchained Melody,” and consumers bought more copies of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” than any other record. Which is the most legitimate hit? The DJs’ playlists often involved politics and prejudice. Five cents for the jukebox was not much of an investment to make in a song. Plunking down the full price for one’s own copy of a single strikes me as the most sincere form of support for a song, so I think Pérez Prado can already claim to have the biggest hit in the nation this week.

The week’s debuts are among the most significant ever. First, June Valli brings us the fourth version of “Unchained Melody” to grace the Best Sellers. The other three are much higher, with Baxter at #2, Hibbler at #5, and Hamilton at #9. June is in fact a One-Week Wonder at #29; she doesn’t hit either of the other charts at all. She will be back with another Top 40 hit in 1960, and anyone who has heard an old Chiquita Banana commercial knows her voice.

Now that the charts are consolidated and artists get a period of time when they can promote a hit undistracted by cover competition, you have to wonder just how big the Les Baxter version of “Unchained Melody” would have been, had there been no drain on its sales. The Righteous Brothers version, still ten years away, with a resurgence in 1990, is proof of the song’s strength, no matter who sings it. Look for my version at iTunes shortly.

The other debut is really a re-entry that has taken a year to chart again. Recorded on April 12, 1954 and released on May 10 of that year, the single, Decca 29124, has been gathering dust after selling a reported 18,000 copies and charting at #23 for one week on May 29, 1954. In the meantime, the author of the song’s guitar solo has fallen down a set of stairs and died (on June 17, 1954), and an actor, Glenn Ford, has swiped the record from his son Peter’s collection to show the honchos of his next movie what kids are listening to. The film is The Blackboard Jungle, and the song is “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets.

In other news, Eddie Fisher debuts on the Jockey chart with “Heart,” from Damn Yankees, which also gives us “Whatever Lola Wants.” The Jockeys will give Eddie the #6 slot eventually, while sales will peak at #15.

May 19, 1956: This “Heartbreak Hotel” thing is starting to get old, but here we have Elvis atop all four charts again.

Talk about stagnation: the Best Sellers chart has no debuts, with a number of songs flipping and flopping but not dropping. Over at the Top 100, one Top 40 debut of note is “A Little Love Can Go a Long, Long Way” by the Dream Weavers featuring Wade Buff. This single is a One-Week Wonder, but the Dream Weavers can console themselves with memories of their previous Top Ten hit, “It’s Almost Tomorrow.”

May 20, 1957: Between the 1956 and 1957 charts, Elvis has 8 #1 spots. Not bad work.

Unlike 1956, we have some interesting 1957 debuts this week. First up is “Start Movin’ (In My Direction)” by an actor who is branching out, Sal Mineo. Sal will chart four songs (two as Best Seller flips), and this one will reach the Top Ten, but don’t let all that success lull you into believing that Sal sings well. He’s no Caruso, more like a Fabian.

An iconic group hits the charts for the first time this week. The Coasters debut “Young Blood,” with “Searchin’” as its flip, this week. Both songs will reach the Top 100 Top Ten, but in the fourth week on the Best Sellers chart, the record will flip, and “Searchin’” will be considered the A-side for the remainder of the run.

May 19, 1958: The Everly Brothers have made the #1 spots all theirs, as “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is the consensus #1 now.

As for debuts, the Best Sellers give us “High Sign” by the Diamonds, which will creep into the Top 40 on two charts for one week each; the mildly creepy “Teacher, Teacher” by Johnny Mathis, the intense “Rumble” by Link Wray, already a Top 40 hit on the Top 100, and, at an encouraging #18, “Secretly” by Jimmie Rodgers. Its flip is the future One-Week Wonder “Make Me a Miracle.”

May 18, 1959: Wilbert Harrison dashes the hopes of several potential #1 hits by leaping from #6 to the pinnacle. He will get two weeks at the top, and none of the songs he jumped will get there (barring the song he replaced, The Happy Organ”).

I’ll list all of the debuts, which can be noted for their lackluster qualities: “Lonely for You,” a future #24 peak for One-Hit Wonder Gary Stites; “Someone,” a future #35 underperformer for Johnny Mathis; and “I’ve Come of Age,” a future #28 hit, based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, by One-Hit Wonder Billy Storm. As I said, there’s nothing amazing here, unless “hard-to-find” equals “amazing” in your world. In mine, it just means “annoying.”

For your listening pleasure, it’s time to celebrate the “Unchained Melody” phenomenon. All five of the hit versions, for your edification. I chose the stereo mix of the Righteous Brothers version.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the postponed discussion of a piano player many of us know by name—only. See you then!

Les Baxter and His Orchestra, Unchained Melody

Al Hibbler, Unchained Melody

Roy Hamilton, Unchained Melody

June Valli, Unchained Melody

Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody

Sunday, May 10, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 19: Chuck Willis’s Weeks

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

Long-running #1 hits and seasonal songs mark this week’s charts..

May 7, 1955: While “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Dámaso Pérez Prado and His Orchestra spends its second week at #1 on the Best Sellers chart, this monster is #4 on the Jockey and Juke Box charts. In fact, it dropped from #2 to #4 on the Jockey chart, an aberration that will correct itself soon. Radios and juke boxes are still cranking “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Bill Hayes more than any other single.

Two pop mainstays debut songs this week: Nat “King” Cole hits the Best Sellers with “A Blossom Fell,” and Frank Sinatra climbs aboard the Jockey chart with “Learnin’ the Blues.” Walter Schumann’s version of “Davy Crockett,” which has earned airplay since early April without showing much in the way of sales, is now a Best Seller, debuting at #29. It will drop to #30 next week, then disappear.

Lest I be less than complete with the 1955 debuts, I’ll note the arrival on the Best Sellers of “Boom Boom Boomerang” by the DeCastro Sisters, Peggy, Babette, and Cherie, who hail from Cuba. This gem won’t chart on the radio, but the populace will bypass the jockeys and take it onto the Juke Box chart shortly.

May 12, 1956: Elvis has elbowed his way past Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity” on the Jockey chart, and “Heartbreak Hotel” is now a consensus #1 hit. It will stay that way for three weeks, and then the Jockeys will opt for a slow instrumental as its successor. Everyone but the DJs will continue to keep Elvis atop the charts for a while after that.

The debuts this week are somewhat lackluster, with “The Church Bells May Ring” by the Diamonds and “Can You Find It in Your Heart” by Tony Bennett moving well on the Top 100. Neither song will reach the Top Ten anywhere. A song that will reach the Top Ten for two artists now has both versions on the Best Sellers chart: “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard and Pat Boone. For once, the unsanitized R&B version is making a greater dent on the Jockey chart, at least for now.

May 13, 1957: It’s “here we go again” time at #1, as Elvis tops all four charts with “All Shook Up.” It’s the third of 6 weeks as a consensus #1.

A debut that will not reach the Top Ten attains the bottom rung of the Best Sellers this week. It’s “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. This event is interesting in a number of ways. First, while the single’s sales have elevated it into the Best Sellers, weak airplay has dropped it from #59 to #71 this week on the Top 100. It will rebound to #46 next week, but the huge drop must have given the Atlantic people a case of the sweats. Next, Willis is just eleven months away from dying at age 30 of peritonitis from a perforated ulcer. Two of his four pop hits will be posthumous. Also, “C.C. Rider” is an update of Ma Rainey’s 1925 hit, “See See Rider Blues.” Her hit features Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano. Willis took the song to #1 on the R&B chart, exceeding Ma Rainey’s #14 chart performance. LaVern Baker and the Animals will take the song into the pop Top 40 as well. Finally, “C.C. Rider” is the record that teens use to develop a new dance called the Stroll. And we all know what that led to.

May 12, 1958: This is a great week to be a #1 pop single. If you are one, you are either the lovely “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (Everly Brothers, Best Sellers), the romantic “Twilight Time” (Platters, Jockeys), or the bouncy, fun “Witch Doctor” (David Seville, Top 100). Not bad.

The Best Seller debuts this week reflect the free-wheeling playlists that made Top 40 radio so much fun for so long. One debut is “Torero” by Renato Carosone, a One-Hit Wonder from Napoli, singing one of the few Top 40 hits sung in Italian.

Right above Carosone is the debut of the posthumous, final Top 40 single from the aforementioned Chuck Willis. The single’s trajectory is an odd one. The song eventually considered the flip, “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” charted first, entering the Top 100 on April 28, 1958, 18 days after Chuck died. Two weeks later, May 12, the other side, “What Am I Living For?,” entered the Best Sellers as the A-side, with “Hang Up” listed as the flip. Both songs are in the Top 100 now; “Hang Up” will stall at #24, but “What Am I Living For?” will reach #9. In August, Chuck’s final Top 100 single, “My Life,” will reach #46 on the Best Sellers.

Another debut in which I have personal interest is Pat Boone’s “Sugar Moon.” I owned this single as a child, but I chose not to feature it last year in my series of posts about my collection of 45s. It’s headed for #5, and it simply was one of the least quirky 45s in my collection, so it didn’t make the cut. If you really want my take on this record, ask for it, and I’ll give it to you.

A big jumper, debuting on the sales charts now after peeking into the Jockey chart last week, is “Big Man” by the Four Preps, an eventual #3 hit. This follows a #2 smash, “26 Miles (Santa Catalina),” and ensures that 1958 will be quite a year for the Four Preps.

The Top 100 sees a new kind of song reach its Top 40 this week. The first power chord, courtesy of the unlikely Cadence label (think Chordettes, Everly Brothers and Andy Williams), reaches our ears via Link Wray & His Ray Men, who bring us “Rumble.”

May 11, 1959: You can’t get any cheerier than this week’s #1 tune, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez. The #2 song, which will be leapfrogged by the next #1 hit, is about being sorry.

Debuts include a song that extols the virtues of (presumably) a woman and, 30 years later, will extol the virtues of a cooking oil. Lloyd Price’s “Personality” is destined to become a commercial for Wesson oil. It’s the only Top 40 debut this week.

For your listening pleasure, a celebration of the work of Chuck Willis, accompanied by the original “See See Rider Blues.” Note the spacious, clean recording of “C.C. Rider.” I’m not sure we’ve ever improved on the sound quality of the best analog recordings.

For Wednesday, I’ll discuss a piano player many of us know by name—only. See you then!

Chuck Willis, What Am I Living For?

Chuck Willis, C.C. Rider

Ma Rainey, See See Rider Blues

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Rare Peek Inside Sunshine Pop

A week ago, I was deeply involved in the task of eradicating parking meters in St. Cloud, Minnesota’s Downtown. The dust has settled a bit in that area, and now that we have all of the merchants on the petition and an endorsement from the newspaper, all I have to do is wait until the petition hits the City Council agenda in a couple of weeks. For now, I get to write a post I have anticipated for a long time.

A bit over a year ago, I wrote a post about a favorite song from my childhood, “Washington Square.” Shortly thereafter, I was able to converse with the song’s composer, Bobb Goldsteinn. We have become friends, and frankly, hanging out with such an artist in his hometown, in an area (South Street in Philadelphia) that certainly contributed to his composition, makes listening to the song a whole new experience.

Beyond “Washington Square,” though, my source for most of my early Bobb Goldsteinn data was a website devoted to the GoldeBriars, a fountain of pre-Mamas & Papas sonic delight that is now known as Sunshine Pop. The website tells a bit of the story: how Curt Boettcher, Dotti Holmberg, Sheri Holmberg, and Ron Neilson left Minneapolis for New York, signed with Epic Records, released a couple of LPs, and went about their business, leaving as their legacy the prototype for the Mamas & the Papas.

The website also mentions that Dotti was a thorough diarist and archivist of the band’s triumphs and travails—and that she had collected everything into a multimedia ebook.

Some aspects of the GoldeBriars’ story linked into my personal music experience: Bobb Goldsteinn, of course, who produced some of their recordings, and Curt Boettcher, who, you may know, has been acclaimed as the most innovative and talented vocal arranger ever. Ask whiteray what he thinks of a Boettcher-arranged vocal classic, “Cherish” by the Association.

With that incentive, I ordered the ebook, The GoldeBriars’ Story: Whatever Happened to Jezebel?. I promised Dotti that I would review it on this blog. The time has arrived for me to make good on that promise.

Thanks (or no thanks) to several editorial jobs and my participation in publishing ventures, I have been exposed to a lot of raw book manuscripts, as well as published works not vetted by major New York publishing houses. In many cases, the result is a less-than-spectacular offering that is hard on the eyes and ears of someone with an editor’s mindset. Such is not the case with Dotti’s book.

The organization of her thoughts is compelling, with an essentially chronological chapter structure that is interspersed with observations about the milieu in which the GoldeBriars performed and recorded. Dotti’s creative control takes the book far out of the realm of canned music biographies and makes for a refreshing change in music-history literature.

Dotti begins by telling how she left Hugo, Minnesota and met Curt Boettcher, who was singing in a Minneapolis coffee house. Dotti, Sheri, and their brother, Gary, had their own group, but when they joined in on an audience sing-along, the coffee-house manager made them take the stage with Curt, and thus began the GoldeBriars.

After their first management screw, the GoldeBriars learned to live on rice, and from then until they reached New York with a Minneapolis-based manager who cared about them, that’s pretty much what they ate. One day, they acquired a mascot, a carved idol named Jezebel, who give the book its title. Jezebel went everywhere with the GoldeBriars after her arrival.

The story is told primarily in Dotti’s voice, but there are excerpts from Curt Boettcher’s diary, as well as scans of newspaper articles, artwork that includes Curt’s cartoons, and numerous photographs. One rarity is a sketch of Curt and Dotti singing that was drawn by Rolf Harris, the Australian singer who scored a #3 hit here with “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” on Epic shortly before the GoldeBriars signed a contract with that label.

The GoldeBriars began their recording sessions on November 21, 1963. On this day, Bobb Goldsteinn’s composition was #2 in the nation, thanks to the Village Stompers. Bobb and the GoldeBriars had not yet met, but as label-mates of the Village Stompers, Curt and crew would soon do so.

The next day, prior to their evening recording session, the quartet walked around New York and noted the grief on everyone’s face. That was how they learned that the president had been shot. Dotti evokes the day in her memoir with grace and candor; she goes on to say that the band showed up for their recording session that night, as they felt they had to go on with their lives.

Epic Records rolled out a solid promo campaign for their first LP in early 1964, only to find that new folk-pop acts were shut out of the public consciousness with a bang when the first Beatles recordings hit the airwaves. Their LP sold reasonably well, but it wasn’t the monster hit it could have been a couple of months earlier.

The act did make it onto ABC’s Hootenanny, and the video of their appearance is on the ebook CD. From there, they were introduced to Bobb Goldsteinn. As Dotti puts it, they were dropped in Bobb’s lap “and he didn’t stand up fast enough.” He polished their stage act, gave them songs to add to their repertoire, and took them to Miami to perform. Not a bad deal.

Their schedule led them to a huge stay in Charleston, followed by Milwaukee. Eventually, they disbanded. (There’s a lot left out there.)

Part of Curt Boettcher’s musical expertise stemmed from his background in Japanese kabuki, which he studied when he lived with his family in Japan. As a result, the GoldeBriars developed a love for, and were loved by, the Japanese people. Dotti’s book shows great respect for the group’s entire fan base, as the PDF file of the text appears in both English and Japanese.

This chronicle of life on the road, of being almost a national phenomenon, as told through the words of a naïve Minnesota girl, is a fascinating collection of thoughts that goes far more deeply into the world of underpaid and physically neglected musicians than any sanitized biography you will find on the shelves of bookstores.

Between the scans of photos, clippings, and memorabilia, adding in the video of their TV performance of “Saro Jane,” which shows just how creative Curt was at arranging vocals (and how talented Dotti and Sheri were at producing the sounds he wanted), this ebook is a true gem, and I recommend it to everyone who loves this era in folk and pop music.

You can see the overview of the GoldeBriars story on Dotti’s website. There you will find Bobb Goldsteinn’s foreword to Dotti’s ebook. The link to a tribute to her brother, Gary Holmberg, including four of his recordings, is here. You can acquire the folk-music film in which the GoldeBriars appeared, as well as a CD compilation of Dotti’s solo recordings, here. And, finally, do yourself a favor and obtain the ebook at the same page. No work I have ever read gives a better street-level view of life in the music world of 1963-65.

Some video to whet your appetite:

Here you can see how relentless Curt was in making the most of vocals on even simple melodies. Truly amazing.

Dotti, from her compilation, singing a song produced by Curt.

Dotti again. Here I detect a touch of pre-Paula Abdul vocal inflection (which is a good thing).

And "Tell It to the Wind," a song from their second album. Bobb Goldsteinn wrote it with Jeff Barry, and Bobb produced it.

For Saturday, it’s Week Nineteen of the Great 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

GoldeBriars, Tell It to the Wind

Sunday, May 3, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 18: Dark Moons

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

Long-running #1 hits and seasonal songs mark this week’s charts..

April 30, 1955: An historic run begins atop the Best Sellers chart. “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Dámaso Pérez Prado and His Orchestra, from the film Underwater!, climbs from #2 to #1 there. The song is still stuck at #9 on the Juke Box chart, which has a slower reporting cycle, but it’s at #2 on the Jockey chart. It will be an eventual consensus #1, and even after a huge hit knocks it down to #2 on the Best Sellers in July, it will hold that spot for two weeks. Bill Hayes hangs in at #1 the other charts.

One song debuts twice this week, with the Crew-Cuts besting Nappy Brown in the race up the charts of “Don’t Be Angry.” The Crew-Cuts also have the advantage of a Best Sellers flip, “Chop Chop Boom,” which aids the overall sales of the single.

Riding on the Pérez Prado coattails is Alan Dale, who has persuaded the Jockeys to play his vocal version of this week’s #1 Best Seller.

May 5, 1956: “Heartbreak Hotel” still is not a consensus #1, as “Hot Diggity” moves from #2 to #1 on the Jockey chart. Radio will put Elvis over the top next week.

Among the debuts is “The Wayward Wind” by Gogi Grant, which begins its Best Sellers run at an inauspicious tie for #23. The romanticism of cowboys and other free spirits is still a recipe for success on the charts, and this tune’s destiny is to spend 8 weeks at #1.

Fats Domino comes aboard with a solid two-sided single, “I’m in Love Again” and “My Blue Heaven.” “I’m in Love Again” is destined to be Fats’s second-highest charting Pop single behind “Blueberry Hill,” reaching #3. “My Blue Heaven” is a revival of a 1927 Paul Whiteman hit.

The biggest debut is “The Happy Whistler” by Don Robertson, which climbs from #51 to #25 on the Top 100. Classified as an instrumental despite the pervasive human sounds, the song is one of the few Top 40 hits scored by an artist born in Beijing. Robertson will whistle his way up to #6.

April 29/May 6, 1957: The dating on the charts changes this week. Prior to the April 29, 1957 issue of Billboard, there was a ten-day gap between the end of a chart survey period and the issue date. As late as April 27, 1957, the magazine came out on Saturdays. They then produced an issue for Monday, April 29, which created a five-day turnaround on chart data. Billboard will be issued on Mondays until Saturday, January 6, 1962. The magazine will remain a Saturday magazine from that point on. This shift accounts for the fact that, in Whitburn, some songs debut on April 27, 1957 and others on April 29.

For both issues, “All Shook Up” sits atop all four charts. That will be the case into June, so there’s not much else to say about contenders.

The 1957 debuts are fun this time. Rolling around in various stages of debutness are four versions of a ditty called “Pledge of Love.” Johnny Janis will take this, his only Top 100 hit, to #63. Dick Contino, an accordion whiz who appeared with Horace Heidt in the 1940s, will almost break through, but he stalls at #42. Far more interesting to me is the Mitchell Torok version. His agreeable voice made a hit of “Caribbean” twice, and I featured him last year, thanks to a single of his called “(The Land of) Bobby Beeble,” which is still one of the creepiest songs I have ever heard. Torok takes “Pledge of Love” to #25.

And then we have the winner, the #12 version by a 20-year-old One-Hit Wonder named Ken Copeland. If you channel-surf thoroughly and pause for a few seconds on each channel, you will have run into a very intense televangelist named Kenneth Copeland. And yes, you would be listening to the same guy.

A competing version of a really good song, “Dark Moon,” has crept into the Top 40 of the Top 100. Gale Storm, of that successful cover label, Dot, will eventually take the song to #4, while Bonnie Guitar, née Buckingham, hangs in there with a peak at #6. I suspect that, free of the Storm cover, Bonnie Guitar’s version would have been a cinch to go to #1.

Beginning the road to a #2 peak is the Marty Robbins tune “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation).” After some frustration at having Guy Mitchell cover two of his country hits, including “Singing the Blues,” which spent 10 weeks atop various charts in 1956-57 and undercut the Robbins version, Robbins hired Ray Conniff to produce “A White Sport Coat” for him. Eventually, this song would be iconic enough to merit mention in “American Pie.”

On May 6, we find the debut of a cover of a Fats Domino hit that is past its peak at #4: Ricky Nelson’s version of “I’m Walking” is his debut single, and it will equal the performance of the Domino version. Even better for Ricky is the upcoming emergence of the flip, “A Teenager’s Romance,” which will reach #2.

May 5, 1958: Sped-up vocal mania continues as “Witch Doctor” maintains its hold on the #1 Best Sellers and Top 100 spots. It won’t reach #1 on the Jockey chart, but it stays at #2 there for a solid amount of time.

The big 1958 debut is nothing less than Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” It leaps onto the Best Sellers at #22 and jumps 47 spots to #20 on the Top 100. This song will earn Chuck his fourth straight Top Ten hit, and it will be his last Top Ten peak for six years.

May 4, 1959: “Come Softly to Me” gives the Fleetwoods a four-week run at #1. They will be back in late 1959 with “Mr. Blue.”

The debuts run from the classy “Endlessly” by Brook Benton to the educational “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton. Somewhere in the middle lies a typical pop number by one of the most versatile artists ever to hit the charts, Bobby Darin, whose “Dream Lover” will reach #2 as a precursor to a huge hit later this year.

For your listening pleasure, two looks at the Dark Moon, by Bonnie Guitar and Gale Storm, sound good. And for the quirkiness of the experience, let’s listen to future televangelist Ken Copeland’s take on “Pledge of Love,” which shows his voice to good advantage.

For Wednesday, look for the postponed musical book review that honors the Sunshine Pop era. See you then!

Bonnie Guitar, Dark Moon

Gale Storm, Dark Moon

Ken Copeland, Pledge of Love

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Take What? Pave What?

At this very moment, I am probably being more productive overall than at any time in my life. That would be great, if I were a high-powered CEO, equipped with an exit strategy and a cottage in the West. And I don’t mean the Pacific Coast.

Most of my productivity is getting me slaps on the back rather than money, which is fine for proving my claim that I am not overly materialistic. But the juggling I am doing is making me delay by a week a post I have waited to put together for several months. I am hopeful that next week it will see the light, but the research is time-consuming, and I am not available to do it correctly today.

So, I may as well get back into my wheelhouse and write about what I know: my childhood musical experiences. One memory relates to one of my current time-consuming projects, so I’ll tell you about that as well. I won’t jump away from this year’s blog premise, either; the artist I am featuring has a female vocal lead. Here we go.

I lived in Bloomington, Indiana from August, 1978 to July, 1998, with some short forays into the real world (Mexico, Indianapolis, Gary). When I got to Bloomington, I went downtown a few times to check it out; they were filming the Academy Award-winning film Breaking Away then, which made downtown seem appealing. But the reality was different: As is the case with most Indiana county seats, Bloomington had a courthouse on a square. The square was wall-to-wall old buildings, some of which had active storefronts. The others, like the former Kresge store, stood empty. The commercial action was all at College Mall.

By 1983, the square was truly dying. A glance at the newspapers of the time show talk of demolishing the courthouse to try to build something that would appeal to consumers. Horrified preservationists stepped in, and the courthouse still stands. But what to do about the terrible economic situation of the heart of Bloomington?

Someone looked around and said, “Let’s take out the parking meters. The Mall advertises its free parking as a selling point, and we get complaints daily about having to plug a meter to shop downtown.” The city put bags over the meter heads for a few months, and investors, shop-owners and customers began to flood the square. The city removed the meter heads, and eventually it sawed off the poles at sidewalk level. Downtown Bloomington is now the cultural and commercial center of South Central Indiana, and there isn’t even an interstate shunting traffic into it.

That lesson was not lost on me when I walked down St. Germain Street in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In the downtown area, there are 327 parking meters. If you park, you pay. If you decide to stop downtown but aren’t carrying coins, you don’t stop. There are about 11 empty storefronts on that street.

It turns out that the St. Cloud Downtown merchants have been begging the city to ditch the meters for years. But their pleas were based on instinct, rather than hard evidence that a meter-free Downtown would be a successful Downtown.

And then, this February, I lost a quarter in a defective meter. I was not offered a refund. I wrote to the mayor, and I told him about the Bloomington Renaissance and the role of meter removal. He had me put on the Parking Committee agenda. I went to Bloomington, took a lot of photos, turned them into a PowerPoint presentation, and the Parking Committee ran with the concept.

From there, it was easy work to get the Downtown Merchants on board. The Downtown Council is using the momentum to full advantage, with stunning results. Soon, the proposal, complete with a unanimous merchant petition, will be taken to the City Council, where I will present my PowerPoint essay for the fourth time. If the vote is what the Downtown Council hopes it will be, we will bag the meters, use essentially the same parking formula that made Bloomington rich, and recreate St. Cloud’s Downtown. All without spending any money on a consultant to tell everyone what they already knew: what worked in Bloomington will work here.

That means that I have been out getting signatures on the petition. The merchants of St. Cloud’s Downtown are very excited. It is a good feeling. But I couldn’t get to the media item I wanted to review for today’s post.

I’m done writing on what I know about St. Cloud in 2009. The topic reminds me, though, of a song that has caused me occasional embarrassment since I lived in Gary in 1970.

It was August of that year, and I was staying at my Aunt Eileen’s house then, mostly in the company of my cousin Bob. I wrote a lot about them last year, because so many of my personal-soundtrack songs came from that summer and that house.

One of the songs I left out last year was a lively cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” I heard the version by the Neighborhood a lot on WLS, though it spent just 4 weeks in the national Top 40, beginning with its debut on August 8. It climbed only to #29, which should have meant it got no airplay on WLS. Not so. It peaked at #11 on the WLS survey. (The week it reached #17, it was billed as “Bi Yellow Taxi.”)

Bob didn’t sing a lot, but he sang this song. That’s what has gotten me into trouble over the years. Bob’s lyrics went like this (the words can’t even be a mondegreen): “Take down a bank, put up a parking lot.”

His sister, Lois, told him repeatedly that the song referred to “paradise.” Bob didn’t remember that, but I did. However, I figured she meant that the lyrics were “Take paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Inevitably, I sang that line in the presence of a Joni Mitchell fan, circa 1986, in Bloomington. Her gleeful, shocked, mocking laugh still rings in my ears. And on the rare occasions that I am expected to quote the line in question, I tend to say, “Take—pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Thanks, Bob.

It took me until last summer to get the song, as recorded by the Neighborhood, known in Whitburn as a “seven-man, two-woman pop vocal group.” The two women are in the foreground of the vocal arrangement. Given some recent covers of the song, you might think you hate the thing. But I like this peppy version. Thanks to my parking-issue time crunch, I’m not going to research the group further.

Well, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek. Joni wrote it about seeing a parking lot in the distance while she was in Hawaii. There you go.

Fortunately for me, while I’m wandering around St. Cloud’s Downtown, this song does not run through my mind. At least, it hasn’t so far.

If I need more excuses for delaying the post I wanted to write today, I’ll tell you about the Barbeque Saga.

Saturday, I’ll bring you Week Eighteen of the Great 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

The Neighborhood, Big Yellow Taxi

Saturday, April 25, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 17: A Multitude of Instrumentals

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

As spring really arrives in Minnesota, it’s time to listen to bird calls and reflect on a bunch of cover records.

April 23, 1955: Bill Hayes still rules the #1 spot on all three charts, but the all-important Best Sellers chart is poised to welcome a new #1 next week. That song will be the biggest #1 of the 1950s, and no one will log more weeks atop the charts until 1992.

This Best Sellers chart shows that, despite its definition as part of the Rock Era, it is really part of the estuary between “old” music and Rock and Roll. Debuting on the Best Sellers is a song by a big band, Art Mooney and His Orchestra, “Honey Babe.” Also appearing for the first time are Roy Hamilton’s take on “Unchained Melody” and a Broadway tune, Sarah Vaughan’s “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees. Dinah Shore, one of the classic 1940s singers, will eventually chart a cover of this tune as further proof that we are not out of the woods when it comes to music for the previous generation.

April 28, 1956: We are truly in the Elvis Era now. His first hit single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reigns on the Best Sellers for the second week, though he still is looking up at Les Baxter’s “Poor People of Paris” on the other three charts. Perry Como is also outperforming him on the Jockey and Juke Box charts at #2 with “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom),” an eventual #1 Jockey hit. Apart from the eventual 8 weeks that “Heartbreak Hotel” will top the pop charts, it’s worth noting that this single will be a #1 Country hit for 17 weeks. Four of his Sun sides charted on the Country list before his first Top 40 pop hit.

Just a pair of debuts have reached the Best Sellers this week. The Four Lads’ intended follow-up to “No, Not Much!” is “My Little Angel,” which debuts at #22. However, next week, the single will sort itself out, and the flip, “Standing on the Corner,” will start to dominate. “My Little Angel” is peaking this week, but the flip will shoot to #3 this summer.

This is a huge time for instrumentals. Apart from “Poor People of Paris,” represented by Les Baxter, Lawrence Welk and Russ Morgan, we see “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic” in Morris Stoloff and George Cates versions. (An eventual vocal version of “Picnic” by the McGuire Sisters will feature lyrics by Steve Allen, who played piano on the George Cates instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.”) Another current instrumental is “Main Title (Man with the Golden Arm)” as recorded by both Elmer Bernstein and Richard Maltby. This song is also covered by Dick Jacobs (“Main Title and Molly-O”). The McGuire Sisters’ flip to “Picnic” is “Delilah Jones,” taken from the melody of the Bernstein hit. Don’t forget Nelson Riddle’s “Port au Prince” and “Lisbon Antigua,” the latter covered by Mitch Miller, and the slow-dropping “Theme from the Three Penny Opera (Moritat)” by Dick Hyman. This musical conjunction leaves me without words.

Thank goodness we have some real rock and roll joining the fray: “Blue Suede Shoes” in an Elvis (Presley) cover, and “Long Tall Sally” by, well, Pat Boone.

April 27, 1957: The #1 spot on all four charts is “All Shook Up,” which takes care of the previous weeks’ turmoil.

Coming back to haunt us is a “Banana Boat” cover, this time with intentional comic relief by Stan Freberg. Bonnie Guitar, who will eventually own a successful indie label, debuts on Dot with “Dark Moon.” A welcome throwback is the Top 100 surge of Rosemary Clooney’s “Mangos,” her final Top 40 hit. Not much else is going on this week.

April 28, 1958: The gospel musings of “He’s Got the Whole World (In His Hands)” by Laurie London still top the Jockey chart, but in addition to having been preceded by “Tequila,” this song is now rivaled by the pagan posturing of David Seville’s “Witch Doctor,” which leaps to #1 on the Best Sellers and the Top 100.

Best Sellers debuts were looking pretty pale until I read all the way up to #9, where “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers starts its successful quest for the top spot. The best evidence of the song’s initial impact is on the Top 100, where the record leapt from #69 to #7.

April 27, 1959: The #1 song this week, “Come Softly to Me” by the Fleetwoods, is indeed soft, an anomaly in a week where the Top Ten is full of peppy tunes. Some of the tunes are corny (“Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens), but you can’t deny their energy.

This week marks the beginning of the Exotica wave. “Quiet Village” by Martin Denny shoots into the Top 40 in its third Hot 100 week. Soon, this and other tunes laden with bird calls and African percussion will be gracing not just the airwaves, but the turntables of millions of Hi-Fi sets in bachelor pads around the country. Eager young men will be serving martinis, wet or dry, to their potential conquests, all thanks to Martin Denny. It seems to me that there was an uptick in baby boys named either Martin or Denny in the early 1960s. Now we know why.

Another strong debut is “A Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts. Jumping from #69 to #34, it’s the first eventual Top Ten for these guys. Despite the huge debut, it’s not the biggest one of the week: that belongs to none other than Edward Byrnes, with some help from Connie Stevens. Yes, friends, rocketing from #72 to #25 is “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb),” which instructed a generation of teens and pre-teens in the proper method of acquiring head lice.
For your listening pleasure, let’s have a listen to a couple of the true quirks of 1950s hit-making: the baby-engendering Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny and the louse-spreading kitsch of Edward Byrnes. After all, it’s spring.

For Wednesday, look for a musical book review that honors the Sunshine Pop era. You’ll love it. See you then!

Martin Denny, Quiet Village

Byrnes & Stevens, Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The More Things Change . . .

In the earliest days of the recording industry, master recordings could reproduce a severely limited number of copies. Therefore, an artist would have to record a popular hit hundreds of times to replace worn-out masters. It was also customary for artists to record the same song for more than one label. Often it is possible to keep track of the recording date of a take, but that information doesn’t always accompany mp3 files.

For that reason, it is very difficult for me to know exactly which of the early recordings I own is the oldest in my collection. I am fairly confident that the song I am featuring today, “Turkey in the Straw” by Billy Golden, is my oldest recording, even if it is not as old as the song’s original chart date: October 17, 1891.

Several details about this recording fascinate me. First, Billy Golden was born before the Civil War began. Second, when he sang about a horse breaking the tongue of a wagon, he was singing about the only conveyance he was likely to know. These days, if an old-time group sings “Turkey in the Straw,” it is a quaint exercise in how things used to be. Billy could easily visualize the song’s scenario from his daily life, and there really was no alternate reality for him.

Born William Heins in Cincinnati in 1855, Billy developed a significant vaudeville career for himself. That made it easy for him to transition to a recording career, though chances are good that his live performances were more perky than his recordings, especially once Billy got up to around one hundred takes or so.

Billy was a specialist in two types of early recordings: the laughing song, and what is now recognized as racist content. The laughing song involved the artist chortling loudly over the instrumental parts of the song, perhaps to encourage laughter from a live audience, perhaps to pull some chuckles out of those who listened to the recordings. Either way, the laughter sounds forced to me.

As for racist content, there’s a small chance that some recordings were a celebration, rather than a mockery, of African-American life. I won’t try to make a case for that point of view, but I can say that racism was so deeply embedded in American culture that it’s difficult to find a pioneer artist whose body of work is untainted by it.

Billy died in 1926, with 6 chart hits to his credit. “Turkey in the Straw” reached #1 for seven weeks at a time when there were few data to analyze and little competition for the top spot.

A characteristic of this and virtually all early recordings is a phenomenon that has returned in the 2000s: at the beginning of the record, the title and artist were announced and, in this case, the label was also announced. The person announcing this recording for Edison Records is Thomas Edison. Nowadays, as songs are cranking up, often rappers will give their name and tell us who is singing with them. As you can tell, the idea is not a new one.

And one other idea that has returned as of 2006 is the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” The melody, with the parody lyric “Do Your Ears Hang Low?,” was further parodied as “Chain Hang Low” by Jibbs (Jovan Campbell), and the single entered the Top 40 on August 26, 2006, reaching #7.

While we all know about sampling and retreads of songs that are just a few years old, the idea that a hip-hop artist based a song on a 180-year-old melody intrigues me. Give the songs a listen, and meditate on how vast a space the creative tableau is in the world of music.

For Saturday, it's Week Seventeen of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Billy Golden, Turkey in the Straw

Jibbs, Chain Hang Low

Sunday, April 19, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Weeks 14-16: All Comfy

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

A few historic events are taking place in the April music charts of the 1950s, so let’s catch them up.

April 2/9/16, 1955: The Bill Hayes version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” rules the Best Sellers chart for all three weeks. Not so with the Juke Boxes and Jockeys—the McGuire Sisters top both charts for all three weeks with “Sincerely.” Hayes will eventually make his chart-topper unanimous, but the sisters are holding on for now.

Among the April 2 debuts is one that puts the song in question into a select group. This is the third version of “Make Yourself Comfortable” to chart in the Best Sellers. While the Sarah Vaughan version, which debuted on 11/27/1954, reached #6 on the Jockey chart and #8 on the Best Sellers and Juke Box charts, the Peggy King version and this one, by a guy named Andy Griffith, each spent one week in the Top 40 on the charts, and for both artists, it was their only week in the Top 40 in the Rock Era. So, the song spawned not one, but two One-Week Wonders.

How did the song accomplish this feat? Well, though it is not as creepy as “Go On with the Wedding” or as stalky/murderous as “The Little Blue Man,” this tale of a woman who is using all of her feminine wiles to seduce a seemingly naïve young man is not truly compelling drama. Andy Griffith takes advantage of that slight tackiness, as his is a comedy version where he deconstructs the sexual tension. It is, for that reason, the best version of this song, which should have made even 1955 audiences snicker, even in its most serious versions. For the record, the vocalist on the Andy Griffith cover is Jean Wilson.

April 2 also brings complexity to the singles charts, as this is the last week of individual chart positions for flips on the Best Sellers and Juke Box charts. The Top 100 will continue to show individual chart action for double-sided hits, but from now on, when a Best Seller wanes, labels will try to push the flip in order to buoy a record’s chart performance.

In contrast to the cover weakness of “Make Yourself Comfortable,” April 9 brings us the first two versions of a 4-song 1955 smash, “Unchained Melody.” Les Baxter, His Chorus and Orchestra enter the Best Sellers one spot behind Al Hibbler, but Baxter will take the song to #1, with Hibbler stalling at #3. Once all four versions have charted, I’ll feature them here.

April 16 produces yet another One-Week Wonder, the Laurie Sisters, with the unforgettable “Dixie Danny.” Yay for the Laurie Sisters!

April 7/14/21, 1956: Les Baxter dominates the #1 slot, owning three of them with “Poor People of Paris” and leaving one to Kay Starr’s “Rock and Roll Waltz” on April 7. Kay’s 6-week run atop the Juke Box chart ends on April 7, but the kids still waltz at the soda shop for several more weeks.

A significant April 7 Best Sellers debut is Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” an eventual #6 hit that will spend 8 weeks at #1 on the R&B chart. This is Little Richard’s breakthrough hit.

Three versions of “Ivory Tower” are on the way, with the Cathy Carr version debuting on April 7 and climbing eventually to #2, a major coup for a 1-hit artist on a Cincinnati indie label (Fraternity). Her big competition, from Gale Storm, is also a Top Ten hit, on Dot. The Charms (listed on the charts as Otis Williams) round out the artists charting this song.

This is also the week that Dean Martin climbs to #31 on the Top 100 with “Innamorata.” He featured the song in a Martin Lewis film, Artists and Models. A Jerry Vale cover pales by comparison, of course.

One of the older One-Hit Wonders of the Rock Era debuts on April 21, with “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic.” It’s Morris Stoloff, in his 20th year at the helm of Columbia Pictures music, who decided in an inspired moment to resurrect the 1934 #1 Benny Goodman hit “Moon Glow” and merge it into the theme from the recent Holden/Novak hit film Picnic. Stoloff will take his instrumental to #1.

April 6/13/20, 1957: The four #1 spots are a mess during April, 1957, as Perry Como’s “Round and Round,” Tab Hunter’s “Young Love,” and “Butterfly” by both Andy Williams and Charlie Gracie, claim a slot atop at least one chart. Coming along soon to consolidate the charts is “All Shook Up” by Elvis (Presley), which debuts at #9 on the Best Sellers on April 6 and jumps to #1 there on April 13.

April 13 marks the end of an era, as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, now recording for Fraternity Records, charts Jimmy’s final hit. “So Rare” will reach #2 on the Jockey and Top 100 charts on June 17 and 24, respectively, just days after Jimmy’s death from throat cancer. He recorded the sax part in November, 1956 and died on June 12.

April 7/14/21, 1958: With “Tequila” at #1 to start the month, seeing that song replaced by a gospel tune “He’s Got the Whole World (In His Hands)” by Laurie London), is sort of like reinstating Prohibition, I think. But the Platters balance it out on April 21 when they climb to #1 with “Twilight Time.”

Ricky Nelson leads the way on the April 7 debuts with “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” If this doesn’t sound like one of Ricky’s brighter moments, maybe it’s not. It was the intended A-side, it seems, but the Whitburn books’ rule is to list as the A-side the song that charts higher between two songs that debut on the same date. Thus, the eventual bigger hit was “Believe What You Say.” Does that work better?

Showing his radio power, Dean Martin debuts on the Jockey chart at #20 with “Return to Me.” He is tied for #50 on the Best Sellers and tied for #53 on the Top 100. Clearly, radio was ready for another Dino tune.

An iconic R&B tune hits the Top 40 (#27) and the Best Sellers (#29): “Book of Love” by the Monotones. Despite the song’s inclusion in bunches of anthologies and the reference to it in “American Pie,” the Monotones did not hit the pop Top 40 again.

Moving on to April 14, an odd juxtaposition of debuts occurs on the Best Sellers. Frank Sinatra re-enters the Top 40 with “Witchcraft,” while David Seville debuts one notch higher with “Witch Doctor,” the precursor to the Chipmunks franchise.

The highest debut on this date, though, is at #7: “Twilight Time” by the Platters. It’s no surprise, then, that April 21 will find “Twilight Time” atop the Best Sellers.

Another huge debut comes aboard on April 21, and it’s one of the Elvis (Presley) songs that sound far too contrived for my tastes. I don’t know anyone who is a big fan of “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” but evidently it seemed to be a good idea at the time, as it debuted at #9.

A lesser April 21 debut but a still-recognizable tune is “Chanson d’amour,” by Art & Dotty Todd. This was their only U.S. Top 40 hit, but they had a thriving Las Vegas career, and they owned a supper club in Hawaii for a number of years, so they probably didn’t notice the lack of ongoing hits.

April 6/13/20, 1959: Frankie Avalon gives way to the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me” atop the Hot 100, but “Venus” will hang in the Top Ten for several more weeks.

The Fabian Era is truly underway now, with “Turn Me Loose” earning its Top 40 debut at #39 after entering the Hot 100 at #79 on March 30. The song will be his first Top Ten hit.

The big debut for April 13 is a song with a sad provenance: “Three Stars” by Tommy Dee (Donaldson), with singing by Carol Kay, written by Eddie Cochran, is a tribute to the victims of the Clear Lake, Iowa plane crash on February 3, 1959. The song enters the Top 40 at #21 in its third week in the Hot 100.

While April 20 provides us with several mildly recognizable Top 40 debuts, I think it’s more important to note the Hot 100 entry of “Wang Dang Taffy Apple Tango” at #62. The artist? Could it be anyone other than Pat Boone?


For your listening pleasure, make yourself comfortable and enjoy three hit versions of “Make Yourself Comfortable.”

For Wednesday, I am considering bringing you the oldest recording I own, a #1 hit from 1891. I may decide against it, as there’s not a lot of biographical information on this artist, but I’ll see what I can do.

Sarah Vaughan, Make Yourself Comfortable

Peggy King, Make Yourself Comfortable

Andy Griffith, Make Yourself Comfortable

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Who Ate Us? Hy Ate Us.

I have doggedly blogged each Wednesday and Saturday since January 1, 2008. I missed Saturday, April 4, and that opened me up to the temptation to take a short hiatus. I wasn’t burned out; a number of extracurricular (i.e. non-blog) projects reached the tipping point in the same short stretch of time. I didn’t think it would matter, but I got a few “what’s up” emails and an unnervingly consistent hit rate. So, to those of you who stopped by and found yourselves reading the same post for two weeks, I apologize. I am also grateful for the fact that you kept looking.

Now, let me tell you what I intended to tell you on Saturday, April 4. If you look at the previous (April 1) post, I discussed an artist named Mik Tap who releases all of her recordings backwards. Well, as it turns out, I masked the goal of that profile pretty well, as no one who asked me about her realized that it was an April Fool’s Day joke (not that any of you are fools). The singer is named Patty Kim, and she has been a mainstay of the Korean Adult Contemporary scene for some 50 years. The two songs I posted were two Korean-language recordings: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music.

Maybe you still see some humor here: Although the Republic can easily be construed as the Republic of Korea, if you wish, I can’t imagine how the puns of the Do Re Mi thing translate to Korean.

How did I get the Patty Kim Greatest Hits CD? When I worked at Tracks Records in Bloomington, Indiana, a guy came in, wanting to sell the CD as a used item. The store had no use for it, but I thought, “You never know when you might need a CD in Korean.” So I gave him two bucks for it, and my co-worker said I really made the seller’s day.

Well, two years later, I was tutoring an exchange professor in English. He was, of course, from South Korea, or this would be quite the digression. After a few sessions of English practice, I remembered the Patty Kim CD, and I pulled it off the shelf. He exclaimed, “Patty Kim!” and he sat, mesmerized, through the entire CD. At one point, he cried. So that was two dollars well spent.

I am posting the songs in their original format, below. A number of the recordings on the CD are in English, and her English is far more than passable. It’s really not a bad collection, if you enjoy cabaret music, and she is an icon of Korean pop. God bless Patty, and Mr. Cho, who cried when she sang.

And now, I want to bring up a female artist who is not quite breaking news. Most everyone will have heard her by now, but if I introduce her to even one new listener via this blog, I will consider the time and space worthwhile.

If you have ever watched American Idol, the U.S. counterpart to Britain’s Got Talent, you probably encountered the phenomenon of William Hung, who turned his shocking inability to sing into a recording career. We fixate on train wrecks, it seems.

Within the past few days, April 12, I believe, Britain’s Got Talent was doing auditions in Scotland for the upcoming season. You probably know from watching the auditions for American Idol what that tends to mean: people appear who can’t sing but sadly have been informed by their families and friends that they should go for it. Simon and the gang then have a good chuckle at their expense.

The British show has no age limit, unlike the U.S. show, so in the Scottish auditions, a matronly 47-year-old woman, unemployed and unkissed, stepped out in a modest dress and high heels to sing a song from Les Misérables, which she mispronounced. Simon rolled his eyes. Here we go, everyone thought.

And there we went. If you don’t already know this video, please watch the entire prelude to her performance, and listen to the song, and let the reaction of Simon and the other judges wash over you. It is really an unforgettable experience. If you saw it elsewhere, enjoy the event again. If you have not yet heard of Susan Boyle, don’t thank me for bringing her to your attention, as I owe my own acquaintance with her experience on stage to a string of people.

There’s no embedding allowed, so click here to see the video in another window.

So, there’s that, and I’ll get back to the 1950s charts for Saturday. See you then!

Patty Kim, Battle Hymn of the Republic

Patty Kim, Do Re Mi

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Vortex of Incompetence, or Cleverness Beyond Measure?

I’m writing about female artists every other Wednesday, and you may well imagine that not every singer in my collection is a flawless songbird. Since I am now writing when it’s still Women’s History Month in the USA and April Fools’ Day to points east of here, it seems the perfect time to bring up women who have become part of the historical record while becoming the butt of its jokes.

In recent years, such people as William Hung have made a fortune off their lousy singing voices. Our appetite for artistic train wrecks isn’t as new as “reality” TV, however. I offer you a couple of 1960s artists, as well as one who is still cranking ’em out, but in the oddest way of them all.

The first artist is a sister act, and many of you know their work. I’m sure, though, that even some thorough music fans will have managed to miss the Shaggs.

Begun as a trio of Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggin, later adding sister Rachel, the Shaggs were put onto the musical treadmill by their father, Austin, while they were schoolgirls. It had been predicted by Austin’s mother that his daughters would form a band, and he went for it with the single-minded fervor that only those who believe they are fulfilling prophecy can achieve. He even took his girls out of school so they could spend all of their time working on their music.

And what music it was. When their album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969, the few people who heard it thought it was a joke, or at least really awful. One hundred copies seem to have survived of the thousand LPs pressed. One copy belonged to Tom Ardolino of NRBQ, and the band used its pull to get Rounder Records, of all people, to reissue the album in 1980. Then, it received critical notice, but not acclaim.

At first listen, the music sounds like some little kids beating on pots and pans and screeching. But I, having heard the songs before and revisiting them for this essay, have come to agree with Cub Koda, the erstwhile Brownsville Station front man who went on to become a stunningly cogent music critic (primarily for All Music Guide). He says:

“The guilelessness that permeates these performances is simply amazing, making a virtue out of artlessness. There’s an innocence to these songs and their performances that’s both charming and unsettling. Hacked-at drumbeats, whacked-around chords, songs that seem to have little or no meter to them (“My Pal Foot Foot,” “Who Are Parents,” “That Little Sports Car,” “I'm So Happy When You're Near” are must-hears) being played on out-of-tune, pawn-shop-quality guitars all converge, creating dissonance and beauty, chaos and tranquility, causing any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationships between talent, originality, and ability. There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one.”

I listened to the songs carefully, and I now note that Helen’s drumming is not as random as it seems, and the guitar parts are rehearsed, if not good. Thus, the songs are reproducible in their recorded form, which means the girls intended to do what they did. They even stopped the recording and told the producer when one of them had messed up. Mind-boggling, but true. That leads me to ask: were these recordings signs that a higher form of life had arrived on Earth, dealing out tunes that mere humans could not appreciate? What if the collapse of the music industry means that all music will eventually sound like these songs?

You will love the broad Boston accents, which rival those of the Jamies (“Summertime, Summertime”) and, in a similar vein, the Jersey non-rhotic vocalizations of the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts).

If you have an open-minded ear (?), you will eventually learn to appreciate the messages and the arrangements of the songs I have brought to the blog. For contrast, I am also including a 1975 recording of a song not composed by Dot Wiggin (the first album was all her work), “Wheels,” which shows the girls in a far better light technically. At the end of that one, nevertheless, you catch a glimpse of the original Shaggs chaos coming through. The contrast makes me think they really did know what they were doing on their original compositions. If you do enjoy their work, you are in good company: Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain ranked their LP as one of their favorites.

Love ’em or not, you will have to admit that their original songs are not the same type of train wreck that “Photograph” by Ray Conniff is. He should have known better, whereas the Shaggs clearly did not. (Thanks to whiteray for this timely musical revelation.)

The next joke was perpetrated on the suspecting American public in 1966. Mrs. Miller, whose first name was Elva and whose actual last name may have been Connes, rather than Miller, warbled her way into a Capitol Records contract as a bit of comic relief from her stablemates, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. According to Wikipedia, she became offended when she realized that Capitol was actually making fun of her, but she got over it. Her album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks, far more than almost all of us have sold of our own work.

Mrs. Miller said that her production team chose the worst, rather than the best, takes of the songs she sang. And perhaps you know what became of her album, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits: It spawned two Hot 100 singles (links below) and is a cherished collector’s item. Mrs. Miller died in 1997 at age 89.

But the real oddity in my collection is an enterprising woman named Mik Tap, who, perhaps to hide a voice as odd as those of the previous artists, releases all of her recordings backwards. Her website claims that there is an “ethereal beauty to the backward masking of the songwriters’ original intent.” I don’t know about that, but when I listened, I know I did not hear anything as sinister as the mutterings alleged to emerge from playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. But then, the reverse of a stairway to heaven is a descent into hell, while the Mik Tap songs can’t possibly be an attempt to mess with the inner workings of our minds. Can they?

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Fourteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World

The Shaggs, Who Are Parents

The Shaggs, My Pal Foot Foot

The Shaggs, Wheels

Mrs. Miller, Downtown

Mrs. Miller, A Lover’s Concerto

Mik Tap, Im Er Od

Mik Tap, BHOTR

Saturday, March 28, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 13: Lucky for Some

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

I’m back on track for my discussion of the 1950s charts. There’s nothing pulling me away from St. Cloud for an extended period of time, so I have my references books to make this post work. Some good things have been happening in the charts, so here we go.

March 26, 1955: The Davy Crockett craze is full upon us. The Bill Hayes version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” spends its first week at #1 on the Best Sellers. Fes Parker is in the Top Ten, and Tennessee Ernie Ford is at #17. Hayes jumped from 31 to 1, bypassing another craze: the Crazy Otto craze. Johnny Maddox stays at #2 with his medley of songs by Crazy Otto, while the German pianist himself is bouncing on and off the Best Sellers chart with the two-sided hit “Glad Rag Doll”/“Smiles,” which is turning out to be very hard to document in book form. When the dust settles, I’ll tell you about all of the variations of this single’s chart tour.

The big debut is “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)” by Georgia Gibbs. It will spend three weeks atop the Juke Box chart. I suspect that it was fueled by teen girls who are trying to entice boys to dance with them. I hope it worked.

March 31, 1956: Les Baxter leads a considerable number of instrumental hits on the Best Sellers with “The Poor People of Paris,” at #1 for the third week. “Heartbreak Hotel” is still just #8, up from #11. At some point this song is going to begin to perform abnormally well. The Jockeys are helping a bit, as the song has reached #6 on their chart, up from #7.

This week marks the start of the ultra-small skiffle craze. Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group jump onto the Best Sellers chart with “Rock Island Line.” It’s probably more significant to recall that two guys named Lennon & McCartney were putting together a skiffle group before it evolved into whatever you want to call their later work.

March 30, 1957: Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids take over #1 on the Best Sellers for a week, though they won’t reach the summit on the Top 100 at all. The rush of #1 “Young Love” versions is giving way to competing “Butterfly” versions: Charlie Gracie is poised to top the Juke Box chart in a couple of weeks, and Andy Williams begins a #1 run this week on the Top 100 and the Jockey chart. Debuts this week are fairly nondescript, even the ones by iconic names: Eddie Cochran (“Sittin’ in the Balcony”) and the Platters (“I’m Sorry.”)

March 31, 1958: “Tequila” rules the Best Sellers again. A couple of big debuts show up as well: the previously mentioned Laurie London phenomenon, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and a song that enters the Best Sellers at #26 and the Top 40 at #27, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey (Piano) Smith and the Clowns. The Smith single will climb to #9 on the Top 100, but given its initial sales reception, I would expect more. The possible culprit? No pop airplay. None.

March 30, 1959: A lot of girls were happy to see Frankie Avalon atop the Hot 100 for the 4th week, but I’m guessing that a lot of DJs and hard-core guys would prefer to have it fade out. But what could take its place? “Alvin’s Harmonica?” “Pink Shoelaces?” “Hawaiian Wedding Song?” We’re starting to hit the pre-1964 doldrums that will make the Beatles so welcome.

The biggest Top 40 debut is “Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?” by Lloyd Price, but its Top 40 entry position is also its peak. Long-term bigger debuts are “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” at #26, which will peak at #2, and “I Need Your Love Tonight” at #33, a future #4 hit. They happen to appear on opposite sides of RCA Victor 7506, and the artist happens to be Elvis (Presley).

After spending two weeks at #20, Buddy Holly’s hit, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” climbs to #13. The flip, “Raining in My Heart,” enters the Hot 100 at #95, but it will peak next week at #88 and fade away.

For your listening pleasure, here are the Juke Box smash designed to get guys onto the floor, “Dance with Me, Henry” by Georgia Gibbs, and the song you never heard unless you bought it, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey (Piano) Smith and the Clowns. The lead singer of the Clowns was Bobby Marchan, who will have a solo hit in 1960.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you some female vocalists whose skills made it easy for the rest to succeed. Remember, Wednesday is April 1. See you then!

Georgia Gibbs, Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)

Huey (Piano) Smith, Don’t You Just Know It

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Clarinet As Vehicle to Stardom

These days, the drum machine is the “instrument” that helps an “artist” sell “records.” From 1955 until a few years ago, it was the electric guitar. During the 1960s, there was a stretch when a cheesy organ or a horn section would do the trick.

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, there were actually competing bands that based their sound on the clarinet. Woody Herman fronted a band as a clarinetist, as did Artie Shaw. But the biggest, best, and most creative of them all was the jazz clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman.

I didn’t grow up listening to Big Band music, but in the 1960s, Benny Goodman’s name, if not his recordings, were still part of the American pop-culture vernacular. As sometimes happens on this blog, I am probably writing for the under-40 set when I write the basics about Goodman’s career.

Benny was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrants. By the time he was 16, he had joined the orchestra of Ben Pollack in Benny’s hometown, Chicago. He was successful enough before he turned 20 that he tried to get his father to retire from his job in the Chicago stockyards. Instead, his father continued working, only to be killed by a car in 1929 as he stepped off a streetcar. He never saw Benny’s greatest success, and that loss affected all of the Goodman family.

In the early 1930s, Benny began working with a superb African-American pianist, Fletcher Henderson, and the result was a hotter form of jazz than what music fans were used to. His band was about to fold in 1935, when a couple of trajectories converged.

Benny’s band had been playing on a late-night radio show in New York called Let’s Dance. Few in New York listened to it, because it came on too late. The West Coast jazz crowd learned about Benny via that show, which aired at a listenable time there. When he took his band on the road, they wound up at the end, both literally and figuratively, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Ready to disband if they didn’t make a hit there, the band used the Fletcher Henderson charts they had used on the radio, as well as Henderson’s huge hit, “King Porter Stomp,” to turn the indifferent audience into an explosive, dance-crazy crowd.

After three weeks at the Palomar, playing for up to 8,000 people, Benny was officially reigning over the Swing Era as the King of Swing. And he did it all with a clarinet. By January, 1938, Benny and his band were big enough to play Carnegie Hall. There, they recorded their most iconic performance, “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).”

Given his musical longevity, it should come as no surprise that Benny tried out a number of different band structures. One of his more significant groups was a sextet that featured the early electric-guitar work of Charlie Christian. Beginning in 1938, Benny began recording Mozart, and after that, he commissioned clarinet works by Béla Bartók and Aaron Copeland, among others.

The 1955 film The Benny Goodman Story provided Benny with some amusement, but it contained a lot of good music, recorded by Benny, who was portrayed in the film by Steve Allen. If you want to know the Hollywood version of Benny’s life, check it out.

Benny died on June 13, 1986, and he left behind one of the largest legacies of any Depression-era artist. Of his 164 chart hits, 16 went to #1, including the two-sided 1936 hit “It’s Been So Long”/“Goody-Goody.” He worked with many huge stars of the Swing era: Gene Krupa, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and numerous others.

If you don’t know his work, here’s a taste of it. In addition to the three songs listed below, here’s a 1937 film of the band in action, including drummer extraordinaire Gene Krupa:

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Thirteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

Benny Goodman, King Porter

Benny Goodman, Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)

Benny Goodman, Goody-Goody