Saturday, February 28, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 9: Two Women Singing

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

This will be another slightly abbreviated post, as I am getting in the car at 7am and hightailing it out of Minnesota for a visit to my family in Indiana. I won’t skip any posts this week.

February 26, 1955: This week marks the beginning of the Davy Crockett craze. Bill Hayes joins the Best Sellers at #16 with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Soon to come are Fess Parker, “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, and the Voices of Walter Schumann. Who will take the song to #1? Don’t peek!

Top 40 book error alert: Crazy Otto debuts this week on the Best Sellers with “Smiles.” Next week, its flip, “Glad Rag Doll,” will debut on the Best Sellers. The Hot 100 book gets the dates right, but not the Top 40 book.

Joni James debuted last week on the Best Sellers with “How Important Can It Be?,” and the answer must be “very,” as Sarah Vaughan decided to compete with the James version. Sarah’s cover debuts this week. Both singles debut on the Jockey chart.

March 3, 1956: This is the first chart week for “Bo Weevil,” but Fats Domino’s version won’t chart until April. For now, it’s the Best Seller flip of Teresa Brewer’s “A Tear Fell.” Teresa’s version will outperform the iconic Fats version on the charts. Another song has competition: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” charts a second version, by Gale Storm, which will join the Teenagers version in the Top Ten eventually. It’s no surprise to see that Gale’s version is a white cover on Dot Records.

March 2, 1957: This is one of the huge weeks in sales chart debut history. Check out what’s new on the Best Sellers this week: “Lucky Lips” by Ruth Brown, “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline, “Come Go with Me” by the Dell-Vikings, “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids, and “Butterfly” by Andy Williams. Add these Top 100 debuts: “Round and Round” by Perry Como and “Teen-Age Crush” by Tommy Sands, husband-to-be of Nancy Sinatra, and you can imagine how good radio sounded a couple of weeks later. “Party Doll” and “Butterfly” both reached #1.

March 3, 1958: This is another week with a lot of debuts on the Best Sellers chart, but most are less noteworthy than the 1957 debuts. “Tequila” by the Champs and “Who’s Sorry Now” by Connie Francis lead an acceptable pack of seven debuts, including the not-so-iconic “We Belong Together” by those crazy cats, Robert & Johnny. On the DJ chart, it’s the first week for “Get a Job” . . . by the Mills Brothers, who scored their first chart hit, “Tiger Rag,” in 1931.

March 2, 1959: Those two busy chart weeks are balanced by a slow 1959, as only “Please Mr. Sun” by Tommy Edwards jumps on board. This isn’t even a “new” song, as Tommy placed a different version on the charts in 1952.

For your listening pleasure, and to celebrate the opening of Women’s History Month, here are the two 1957 debuts by women. For Wednesday, I’ll take you into the early days of jazz recordings. See you then!

Ruth Brown, Lucky Lips

Patsy Cline, Walkin' After Midnight

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bargain Bin, Part I

This post was going to be about a female vocalist whose CD I picked up several years ago, a CD I didn’t rate highly, and which I was going to share with you so you could tell me why it was good. That would make me feel better about owning it for eighteen years without playing it a second time.

But I have claimed before that I can find something to like about darn near any music, and now, after much more exposure to hip hop than I had in 1991, I can truly say that there is at least one redeeming track. Before this evening, if someone told me at gunpoint to destroy one CD from my collection, this would have been the one. Now, if I were confronted with the same demand, I would dump . . . this CD, but with greater misgivings. Before, my main concern would have been the loss of an intact jewel case. Now, it would be that I had lost a party CD that could be fun to put on when everyone is beyond drunk.

I own the CD because my favorite CD store in Bloomington, Indiana, Tracks, received a load of ex-DJ CDs (remember my cutout/DJ 45s from Uncle Tom?), and they were selling some CD singles for 50 cents, and full-length albums for a dollar. I simply bought them all and took them home.

I actually liked a couple of the CDs, and one will feature here in a couple of months in an extremely positive light. But the eponymous album by Tamarah didn’t suit me. It wasn’t simply a hip hop problem, because there was other such material on the CDs I snagged. It wasn’t her voice, which is a clear soprano. I need you to help me articulate what isn’t quite right about this disc.

The cover doesn’t scream “buy me,” for one thing. Dark-brown script on tan background, with Tamarah, in a brown suede jacket with fringe on the sleeves, leaning on a brown gramophone with brown speaker horn. The liner notes . . . don’t exist. Her cover photo is on a one-sided slip of paper. (Rather, the other side is blank.)

The leadoff song is titled “Male Tender Roni,” and it is clearly an answer to Bobby Brown’s 1989 hit “Roni.” The third song is called “Satisfaction,” but it is not a Jagger-Richards composition. It, and all eight songs on this 33-minute opus, were written by Amos Larkins II.

Knowing the songwriter keeps this post from becoming a dead end right here. Mr. Larkins is known to Wikipedia by numerous professional names, including Willie Wong. He is a Miami-based pioneer of Miami bass, a subgenre of hip hop of which I actually was aware. The effects produced on a Roland TR-808 drum machine are the basis of this way of approaching music. Lo and behold, the label that released Tamarah’s album was RTR Records, with her 1990 release being #831.

While Mr. Larkins produced and engineered the album, its executive producer was Arny Leckie. A search for his name shows that he is “one of the top professionals real estate professionals in Miami-Dade County.” A bit of diversity in the business world is a good thing.

Someone is selling the LP of this release for $57 (US) because of its rarity. An eBay copy is going for $49. Someone else has the CD for $8. I could make at least eight times back on my original investment, if I were at all willing to part with a CD.

Since I don’t have a good enough grasp of obscure hip hop to decide if this music is any good, I’m depending on some feedback. You don’t have to be an expert to give an opinion. Let me know what you think.

Note that any crackles you hear are on the CD, not just on the compressed file.

For Saturday, we’ll look at another week of 1950s charts. See you then!

Tamarah, Male Tender Roni

Tamarah, This Love Will Never Die

Tamarah, Satisfaction

Tamarah, Back to Your Heart

Saturday, February 21, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 8: A Woman with a Bad Case of the Blues

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

Thanks to the bad timing of work and some physical wobbliness, this post, which is already 16 hours later than usual, will be confined to true highlights of the week. Sorry about that.

February 19, 1955: Johnny Ace scored his only Top 40 pop hit, “Pledging My Love,” beginning this week. It will wind up a mid-level performer on all three charts, and many artists in that situation would go on to reasonable careers. Johnny, born John Alexander, would not. Between Christmas Eve sets in Houston, he pointed a pistol at a couple of people, then at his own head, and shot himself. Varying accounts call it a three-person game of Russian Roulette or a simple suicide, and some venture to say his label owner had something to do with his death. Johnny died on Christmas Day. “Pledging My Love” topped the R&B chart for 10 weeks.

February 25, 1956: Louis Armstrong and Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra both debut their versions of the Threepenny Opera theme, and that puts us one shy of having five versions in the Top 100’s Top 40, which will happen next week. I’ll give you full recording details then.

February 23, 1957: Charlie Gracie debuts the first of two versions of “Butterfly.” In a rare feat, the song will top at least one chart in two different versions, the other coming next week. Competing versions of “Cinco Robles” debut this week, thanks to Russell Arms and Les Paul & Mary Ford.

February 24, 1958: A couple of iconic tunes show up: “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard. Their chart histories will differ quite a bit: When “Sweet Little Sixteen climbs to #2 on both sales charts, the Jockeys will take it to #5. By contrast, “Good Golly Miss Molly will reach #10 on the Top 100, but it will not chart with the Jockeys at all.

One Jockey phenomenon this week is “The Little Blue Man” by Betty Johnson. It spends just this week on the Jockey chart, at #17, but later it will reach both sales charts. I don’t know why radio jumped on this one, but you can try to figure it out for yourself by listening to the track here.

February 23, 1959: All huge hits start somewhere, and Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” begins its chart run, which will culminate in 5 weeks at #1, as a #28 debut. Its quick climb, 99-53-28, probably indicated to everyone that the song was bound for the top.

For your listening pleasure, how about the radio no-show, “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “The Little Blue Man,” a song about attempted murder of a stalker who is rejected primarily because of the color of his skin? The voice of the Blue Man was at one time thought to be Hugh Downs, but it turns out to be Fred Ebb, who helped concoct this ditty.

Wednesday, I’ll take a big risk and post an entire album by a female artist I can’t quite get into. I want to see if you find her more compelling than I do. See you then!

Little Richard, Good Golly Miss Molly

Betty Johnson, The Little Blue Man

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

220 Hits, and You Probably Don’t Know Him

In my perusal of the pre-1955 music world, I will obviously focus on big names, since virtually all of the early artists have been banished to oblivion. There’s little point, for example, in profiling such a One-Hit Wonder as 1916’s Hipólito Lázaro, when Ted “Is Everybody Happy?” Lewis, as well as other big hitters, are names that barely register on our radar.

One dominant artist people know only by name is Paul Whiteman. His orchestra was enormously popular; in fact, he scored 220 chart hits, including 31 #1 songs. Chances are, though, that you know so little about him that you would lump him in with such orchestra luminaries as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers. I did. I was wrong.

Paul Whiteman scored his first hit, “Whispering,” in 1920. It spent 11 weeks at #1. He charted eleven years before Goodman, fifteen before Miller, seven before Duke Ellington, and eight before the earliest Dorsey hits. Even so, his final hit, a remake of “Whispering,” charted in 1954, about as late as the other bandleaders, all of whom faded from the charts when people like Elvis (Presley) spoiled the party. Eventually, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band spoiled (or not) “Whispering” with their 1976 hit version. A number of Whiteman hits were reworked by Rock Era artists, including “My Blue Heaven” by Fats Domino and “Among My Souvenirs” by Connie Francis.

Paul Whiteman was born in 1890 in Denver, fourteen years after Colorado became a state. He was a symphonic violinist/violist until he decided to set up an orchestra when he was 29. Over the years, he teamed up with George Gershwin for the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” with Gershwin on piano; he turned his orchestra jazzy early on with the addition of the likes of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke; and, in 1927, he brought on board a young singer named Bing Crosby, who stuck around until he decided to try a solo career in 1930-31. Even Billie Holiday made an appearance on one hit in 1942.

To achieve the sound he desired, Whiteman essentially tripled the size of his band, as compared to other early 1920s bands. With somewhere around 30-35 musicians playing, he set the standard for the upcoming Swing Era. Despite orchestrating jazz sounds he liked rather than depending completely on improvisation, Whiteman was at times called the “Jazz King.”

Even in 1942, he was big enough that he earned the honor of releasing the debut Capitol Records 78, Capitol 101, which was “I Found a New Baby”/“The General Jumped at Dawn.”

Despite all that, and despite being a mainstay artist for Victor Records, it seems that fewer than half of his chart hits are available digitally, and there is no coherent box set that covers his career. Many of the Whiteman tracks one can buy online come from piecemeal compilations of the era or featured artists (Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden). Given Whiteman’s stature, influence and longevity, I find this omission odd, especially in contrast to such over-anthologized RCA Victor artists as my ultimate favorite bandleader, Dámaso Pérez Prado. I have seven CDs that contain Prado’s recording of “In a Spanish Town” and not a single disc that contains Whiteman’s 1927 8-week #1 version of the same song. There’s no Prado Complete Works box, but it’s inexcusable that Whiteman hasn’t gotten that treatment.

So, here are some of Paul Whiteman’s big recordings. If you know him, maybe you haven’t found some of these and will enjoy a listen. If you don’t know his work at all, I hope you’re glad you stopped by.

For Saturday, we’re on to Week Eight of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Paul Whiteman, Whispering

Paul Whiteman, Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, piano

Paul Whiteman, Charleston

Paul Whiteman, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Paul Whiteman with Billie Holiday, Trav’lin’ Light

Saturday, February 14, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 7, and Fools in Love

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

For Valentine’s Day, it’s appropriate that Frankie Lymon’s first hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” would debut around that holiday. A couple of One-Hit Wonders round out a fairly routine week across the charts.

February 12, 1955: It’s a quiet week, but the “Sincerely” era begins on the Best Sellers chart, where the McGuire Sisters reach #1 to start a six-week run there. They replace the Fontane Sisters, who are now atop the Juke Box chart with “Hearts of Stone.” “Sincerely” is also the darling of the Disc Jockeys, and the McGuires will owe their eventual 10-week #1 total for this song to radio alone.

The few debuts this week include a One-Hit Wonder, Lenny Dee, with his instrumental “Plantation Boogie.” Two “Earth Angel” versions (Crew-Cuts and Penguins) finally climb onto the Juke Box chart, and a third, by Gloria Mann, debuts on the Best Sellers.

February 18, 1956: Juke Box operators and patrons still love Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This,” at #1 for the fourth week on that chart. There is fragmentation at the other top spots: Kay Starr reaches the Best Seller #1 slot with “Rock and Roll Waltz.” The Platters enjoy their first week at #1 on both the Top 100 and the Disc Jockey charts.

Speaking of Dean Martin, if you want the most up-to-date word on the man, you should scoot on over to this blog: ilovedinomartin, run by Dino Martin Peters. Apart from keeping track of new releases and events, the blog simply provides amazing entertainment.

There is a smash debut this week, “Poor People of Paris” by Les Baxter, His Chorus and Orchestra. It’s an instrumental with some la-la vocalization, and its title is incorrect. The song is French in origin, and when it was described by transatlantic phone, the man on the American side heard the title as “Les Pauvres Gens” (Poor People), when it was actually “Pauvre Jean” (Poor John). Whatever the title, Baxter’s hit debuts in the Top Ten on the Best Sellers chart, and at #25 on the Top 100. The Disc Jockeys drive it into the Top Ten as well, but it’s still a week away from a low-level debut on the Juke Box chart.

An iconic debut: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, which steps into the fray at #15 on the Best Sellers chart. There’s no radio or juke box action, so it’s not a Top 40 hit on the Top 100 yet.

February 16, 1957: While Elvis Presley collects a second week at #1 on the Best Sellers with “Too Much,” he doesn’t do that well elsewhere. Tab Hunter’s version of “Young Love” tops the Top 100 and the Disc Jockey charts, and on the latter, Hunter replaces Sonny James’s original “Young Love.” On the Juke Box chart, Guy Mitchell hangs on to log a tenth week at #1 with “Singing the Blues.”

While last week brought “Marianne” to radio in both the Terry Gilkyson and the Hilltoppers versions, this is the first week as Best Sellers for both recordings. There, Gilkyson outpaces the Hilltoppers by 14 spots, but on the Top 100, the Hilltoppers win by four places.

On the Best Sellers chart, Guy Mitchell debuts with “Knee Deep in the Blues,” and it is listed there with its flip, “Take Me Back Baby.” However, because the flip charted independently and reached only #47, it doesn’t appear at all in the Top 40 book.

In the tradition of cowboy songs, Fess Parker and Bill Hayes, who competed previously with versions of “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” now lock horns over “Wringle Wrangle.” Hayes won round one, but Parker will take this battle.

Jazzy female singer Chris Connor scores her only Top 40 hit, reaching that level for the first time on the Top 100 with “I Miss You So.” While she will spend just three weeks at #40 or higher, the song will linger on the Top 100 for a total of 28 weeks.

Betty Johnson, who charted in December with “I Dreamed” and has been in the Top Ten on the Jockey chart for a little while, just now debuts on the Juke Box chart. A year and a week from now, she will give us one of the strangest Top 40 hits ever. I’ll bring you that one when the time is right.

February 17, 1958: “Don’t” by Elvis Presley remains atop the Best Sellers chart, but “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors logs its seventh week at #1 on the Top 100. The Jockeys have made “Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters #1 on their chart, but they will peak no higher than #5 on the two sales charts, so perhaps the song was not as big a #1 as it would seem.

Two very radio-friendly songs make their Best Sellers debut this week—but they’re a couple of weeks away from their Jockey debut. “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” by the Four Preps and “Witchcraft” by Frank Sinatra are uncharacteristic sales-only hits for these artists. That could have happened in part because the Jockey list is sluggish and almost static this week.

February 16, 1959: Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” logs a second week at #1. A notable debut is by a One-Hit Wonder: Thomas Wayne with the DeLons, who will take “Tragedy” into the Top Ten. Thomas Wayne Perkins is the brother of Luther Perkins, of Johnny Cash fame. Other than that, it’s an extremely quiet week on the Hot 100, as far as significant debuts go.

For your listening pleasure, give these One-Hit Wonders a spin. Lenny Dee, who recorded “Plantation Boogie” (Decca 29360), was born Leonard DeStoppelaire in Chicago. He played one of those big-sounding organs that are either used as solo instruments or not at all, because they overpower every other instrument within ten miles.

Thomas Wayne recorded “Tragedy” (Fernwood 109) with the DeLons. A Mississippi native, he died in an auto accident in 1971, at the age of 31. His brother, Luther, died at age 40 in 1968 when he fell asleep while smoking. Luther was Johnny Cash’s lead guitarist, the originator of the clicking guitar so prevalent on the Cash hits.

And for those who can’t get enough, or will get too much, of Valentine’s Day, here are the Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon as well.

Wednesday, the biggest hit-making bandleader of all time. See you then!

Lenny Dee, Plantation Boogie

Thomas Wayne with the DeLons, Tragedy

The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon, Why Do Fools Fall in Love

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Fav Less-Than-Successful 1990s Band

On alternate Wednesdays, I feature female vocalists I want to share with you. It’s time for such a post, and I am going to talk about a woman who sings, but I am going to cheat a bit, because this woman is a solo artist now, but in 1993, she was part of a band, and that music is what I most want to explore today.

In 1993-94, I had the good fortune to work at Tracks Records in Bloomington, Indiana. There, I was exposed to a number of artists I would not have met otherwise: Love Jones, Urge Overkill, Cowboy Junkies, and the like. I also got a far quicker introduction to Leonard Cohen’s classic The Future, though I would have come across it eventually.

Another act I would never have explored without Tracks was a melodic alternative band that was signed to Epic, which augured well in the early 1990s. I was introduced to the band via its second album, but I quickly looked up the first one and found it compelling as well.

The singer’s name was Joan Jones, a search-engine nightmare of the first order, but it’s not impossible to find information about her. What is essential to know is that she forged a songwriting partnership with the other vocalist of her band, and they made some spectacular music.

What struck me first about the songs recorded by this band, Sun 60, was their maturity. There was nothing raw about Sun 60, which put them in the same alternative category as Blondie. Inventive, proficient without being overly slick, and mature, the band rocked without losing its focus, and every note existed to further the goal of the song that contained it.

Joan Jones had a voice that reminded me of several other female vocalists of the time, including Lisa Germano, and stylistically I found her to be a cousin to Liz Phair. Joan’s voice could be tender, and she could wail. I didn’t count her among my top five favorite female singers, but her singing suited the songs she wrote.

She co-wrote all of the Sun 60 songs with David Russo (there’s the cheat—I mentioned a guy). They wrote three albums’ worth of music: Sun-60 (Epic 47849, 1991), Only (Epic 53447, 1993) and Headjoy (Epic 66794, 1995). While there are uneven spots on the albums, they are gems overall, and their legion of fans catapulted the band to the pinnacle of success.

Oh, wait. That last bit should have happened but didn’t. And I don’t get it at all.

I kept my ear to the ground in Bloomington. I played the Only CD often at the store, and people would come in, listen to it, and either buy it or tell me that they had bought it after seeing Sun 60 at a free show the band had put on. It seems that Epic believed in Sun 60 to a certain extent, and I gathered that the free shows were label-sponsored attempts to jump start a really promising act. Unlike the positive qualities of many decent acts, qualities that are difficult to pinpoint and articulate, those of Sun 60 are easy to list.

1. The presence of two distinctive lead vocalists provided listeners with great sonic balance. A dozen songs sung by Jones might have worn a bit, but Russo’s turns at the mic were crisp and compelling contrasts to Jones. On the songs they sang together, they clearly belonged together.

2. The guitar work was always tasteful, whether it was quiet acoustic arpeggios or loud, fast electric work. While bands obviously don’t keep guitar parts that stink, I mean that the layers of guitar parts were constructed carefully, not played happenstance and then accepted as suitable.

3. Though Russo was the band’s guitarist and piano player, and Jones sang and played trumpet, their recordings show off superb percussion. Despite having a revolving-door drummer situation, this aspect of the band’s sound carried through their three albums.

David Russo produced Only, which I consider to be the high point of the band’s output, and Headjoy. The debut album was produced by Greg Penny, but the production evolved rather than shifting dramatically when Russo took over.

A lot of evolution occurred as the band sought its niche. Beginning with the name, which began as Sun-60, moved to Sun 60 and finally to Sun60, the band tweaked itself in an ultimately futile quest for the success it deserved. The debut tended to be more acoustic-oriented, with the clever drumming coming from David Raven.

Only featured louder, but not usually rough, guitar, including a couple of raunchy leads by Dave Navarro. While David Raven played drums on a couple of songs, the ones I am featuring today, “Hold On” and “Tell Me Like You Know,” display the percussive handiwork of Jack Irons.

Headjoy was a reaction to the disappointment of having a really excellent album produce less-than-expected results. Russo opted for a heavier guitar sound, going grungy and leaving behind the crisp notes of the predecessors. On this album, Jones sang all of the vocals; I don’t know if they decided that the band should be fronted by a woman, or if the songs, all with lyrics by Jones, simply happened to require a female perspective in the singing.

The fact is that the third album showed tiny signs of a musical fraying, one that led to a creative split between Jones and Russo in 1996. Since then, Jones has performed solo, and she is on tour now with Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Russo has gone on to score films, including the Robin Williams movie Man of the Year, Pineapple Express, and the Dune TV miniseries.

And me, I just sit around listening to my Sun 60 CDs and wishing like crazy that these two, Jones and Russo, had found a larger audience in time to make it worth their while to put out another ten albums or so.

The first track listed below comes from the debut album, and the other two are from Only. David Russo sings the third track, one of my favorite recordings from the entire decade of the 1990s. Be sure to check out all three.

Joan Jones has a website, and you can find her tour dates there.

Sun 60, Middle of My Life

Sun 60, Hold On

Sun 60, Tell Me Like You Know

Apart from those songs, here’s a change of pace on YouTube, another song from Only, “Never Seen God.” Embedding is disabled by Sony, so here’s the link:

For Saturday, Week Seven of the 1950s chart breakdown. Next Wednesday, look for the biggest early bandleader to make his Great Vinyl Meltdown debut. See you Saturday!

Friday, February 6, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 6, and a Couple of Guys

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

February 5, 1955: Sister acts start a long run at #1 on the Best Sellers this week, as the Fontane Sisters, whose last name is actually Rosse, reach the top with “Hearts of Stone.” Joan Weber still rules the Juke Box and Disc Jockey charts. More cover competition emerges for some hits: the Crew-Cuts version of “Earth Angel” charts this week to challenge the Penguins, and the somewhat creepy “Make Yourself Comfortable,” a hit for the completely not creepy Sarah Vaughan, is met by a true One-Week Wonder, Peggy King. Peggy’s version scrapes into the bottom slot (#30) of the Best Sellers.

Note: the more recent chart books state that the King version reached #30 on both the Best Sellers and the Top 100, but the Top 100 won’t exist until November 2, 1955 (chart date November 12, 1955), and a careful perusal of Top 100 charts into early 1957 shows no re-emergence of this side.

Yet another version of “Make Yourself Comfortable” will appear for a One Week Wonder, and when that happens, I’ll bring you audio of all three hits in every speck of their splendor.

A sort of backwards cover debuts this week on the Best Sellers. Boogie pianist Johnny Maddox teams with the Rhythmasters on an instrumental medley called “The Crazy Otto,” inspired by a German pianist by that name. Crazy Otto himself will chart soon with the two-sided single “Glad Rag Doll”/“Smiles”; I don’t know if the Maddox release inspired an importation of Crazy Otto’s music, or if it was already on the way.

The Jockeys are still spinning four versions of “Melody of Love” in their Top 20, and the least popular version continues to be the Frank Sinatra recording, an unusual turn of events. Not much else is going on with the short charts.

February 11, 1956: Dean Martin’s monster “Memories Are Made of This” is still the unanimous #1. Since Gale Storm had the foresight to record this song as the flip to “Teen-Age Prayer,” her take on “Memories” has been listed as a Best Seller flip for most of the single’s chart run. This week, it is re-added after dropping off for a week.

Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” comes across in the books as a respectable Best Sellers hit at #15. In fact, it is part of a two-sided hit with “I’ll Be Home,” and on the Best Sellers, “Tutti Frutti” is listed as the A-side for just this debut week; the rest of the time, “I’ll Be Home” is the bigger record. The Top 100 confirms it; after entering the chart a week late, “I’ll Be Home” will need just two weeks to pass “Tutti Frutti.”

Error alert: “I’ll Be Home” is listed as having entered the Top 40 on February 4, 1956. It did enter the Top 100 at #72 that week, but its Top 40 debuts occur this week on the Top 100 and the Disc Jockey charts, and later on the other two charts.

On the Tasteless Music front, the terrible “Go On with the Wedding” resurfaces at the hands of Kitty Kallen and Georgie Shaw. This, after the Patti Page version has climbed to #11 on the Top 100 this week. Fortunately, Kitty and Georgie will get just this week to bask in their glory, tying for the bottom spot at #39.

February 9, 1957: In the collapse of the long Guy Mitchell stranglehold on the top spot, we find ourselves with four #1s this week: Elvis Presley on the Best Sellers with “Too Much”; Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me” on the Top 100; Sonny James on the DJ chart with “Young Love,” and Guy Mitchell in his ninth week atop the Juke Box chart with “Singing the Blues.”

For some reason, with Tab Hunter’s “Young Love” dropping from 3 to 4 on the Best Sellers, its flip, “Red Sails in the Sunset,” is co-listed for one week. This listing is ignored in the Top 40 books because the song reaches #57 on the Top 100 eventually. In a similar situation, “Playing for Keeps” by Elvis (Presley) reaches the Top 40 of the Top 100 chart this week, negating for the Top 40 book the song’s emergence as a Best Seller flip on February 2, 1957.

This is the week that “Marianne” hits radio, as both the Terry Gilkyson and the Hilltoppers versions make the Disc Jockey chart. A year ago, Gilkyson was riding high as a songwriter, with “Memories Are Made of This.” Now, he earns his only Top 40 single, though his Easy Riders will appear on a number of other hit singles.

February 10, 1958: “Don’t" by Elvis Presley is the new Best Sellers chart-topper, but “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors is still #1 everywhere else. A couple of big instrumentals join the Best Sellers, “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” by One-Hit Wonder Moe Koffman, and the iconic whistling of “March from the River Kwai and Col. Bogey” by the ubiquitous Mitch Miller and his cast of dozens.

Sixteen months after his first Top 40 hit, Johnny Cash proves he can still make the charts when “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” debuts this week. We all know “I Walk the Line” would not be his only pop hit, but after he reached just #99 and #88 in 1957, this success has to come as a relief to Johnny, and to Sun Records.

In one of the oddest chart movements ever, Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” is #3 on the DJ chart this week—and it will not appear among the 25 DJ songs next week. On February 24, 1958, it will reappear at #21, showing that it had not been on the chart the previous week, so it wasn’t a clerical error. I have no idea how the DJs could have decided not to play the song for a week when it had moved from #5 to #3 the previous week.

One song by a One-Hit Wonder makes its debut on the Disc Jockey chart this week, and it will never reach the sales charts Top 40. The artist is Nick Todd, and his hit is a cover of “At the Hop.” “Todd” is just his label, Dot, spelled backwards; his real name, according to the Top 40 books, is Nicholas Boone. Wikipedia lists his name as Cecil Altman Boone. Either way, he’s another Boone on Dot, which makes him Pat’s younger brother. And, you know how Pat took songs by Fats Domino, Little Richard, the El Dorados and others and made the songs sound whiter? Well, Nick makes the Danny and the Juniors classic sound even whiter than the original. Amazing.

February 9, 1959: One classic replaces another at #1: Lloyd Price jumps to the top spot with “Stagger Lee,” while “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters slips to #4.

This is probably the first reporting week that could show a chart effect from the previous week’s plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, but his death did not push “Donna” to #1. He stays steady at #3, and “La Bamba” drops 8 spots to #30.

A classic in the making debuts in the form of “Charlie Brown” by the Coasters. The other debut that will show some longevity is Brook Benton’s sophisticated reading of “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” Apart from “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Brook probably never sounded better.

For your listening pleasure, here are two very different singing styles. 1957 brought us “Marianne” by Terry Gilkyson. Terry (1916-1999) was a Pennsylvania boy who went out West to become a folk singer. He wrote “The Cry of the Wild Goose” for Frankie Laine, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for writing ‘Bare Necessities” for Disney’s The Jungle Book. His son, Tony, was a guitarist for Lone Justice and X, and one of his daughters, Eliza, will be featured on this blog soon.

Brook Benton (1931-1988) was born Benjamin Franklin Peay in South Carolina. He wrote “A Lover’s Question” for Clyde McPhatter, and his reputation as a songwriter (for the likes of Nat “King” Cole) got him a recording contract with Mercury Records. Nat was going to record Brook’s composition “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” but Clyde Otis of Mercury (who himself co-wrote “The Stroll”) asked Nat to hold off. Brook took the song, his Mercury debut, to #3.

Here’s Brook Benton performing this classic on television. The vocals are not lip-synched from the 45 version, at least.

Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders, Marianne (Columbia 40817)

Brook Benton, It’s Just a Matter of Time (Mercury 71394)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Comedy So Funny, It’s Not Funny

In the past week, I have been reminded how fragile three things are: plans, health, and comedy. You can probably see how the first two notions are related, but comedy? Give me a moment.

In August, 2007, I vowed I would be present at whatever events marked the 50th anniversary of the last stage performances by the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly (to shake up the usual name order a bit). Then, a couple of months ago, I was asked with some fervor to please be a chaperone on a school trip to Spain, no cost. The tradeoff? No Surf Ballroom on February 2.

I would have opted for the Surf anyway, as an ephemeral opportunity, but not going to Spain would have been a severe dereliction of duty at work. So, forget Clear Lake.

Then, a couple of days before I was to leave for Spain, an important person in my world was hospitalized, and I had to skip the trip. Once I had gotten past the disappointment of not going to Iowa, Spain had begun to seem alluring, and now I was not able to go. That disappointment was smaller than missing Iowa.

But now, although it was too late to get tickets to the February 2 concert at the Surf Ballroom, I could drive down to see the exhibits and listen to the panels, including one made up of people who attended the February 2, 1959 Winter Dance Party gig. Sometimes things work out as they were meant to.

Except, then, they don’t. A few hours after I was supposed to leave for Spain, and after the health crisis that had kept me home had passed, a disconcerting two-day loss of appetite turned into a gastrointestinal disaster of my own. Having been down with severe food poisoning a few times, I recognized the symptoms. It’s Wednesday morning here (and this post is going up hours later than usual), and I am actually sicker than I was Monday.

Of course, I did not go to Clear Lake, Iowa for any of the events. You could say, “Thank goodness you didn’t get on that plane, or you would be sick in Spain.” And I could counter with “I might not have eaten whatever sickened me if I had not stayed behind.”

That’s how plans are fragile. No Spain, no Iowa. Sometimes when I was distressed, I used to go out and buy myself a CD. Occasionally, I would have a “two-CD day,” which meant it was a real bummer. There was a memorable seven-CD day once. This time, I pulled out my Top 40 book, went online, and nabbed 400 One-Hit Wonders I didn’t yet own. Take that, Fates! This is officially a 21-CD set of circumstances.

How is health fragile? I have been laid low by a one-celled organism. I probably kill millions of them every time I walk around. But if you let this one into your gut, you pay. Since I haven’t yet turned the corner, I’m not happy about the situation.

What does any of this have to do with the fragility of comedy? Well, I’ll tell you: I am not in a funny situation now. In ten years, when we mark the 60th anniversary of the loss of those three young artists, I may indulge in a bit of dark humor about where I was sitting when Bobby Vee took the stage in Clear Lake.

What is not funny in 2009 may be mildly so in 2019. And, by contrast, what was uproariously funny in 1909 is not necessarily funny in 2009.

One way to make my point would be for you to seek a collection of New Yorker cartoons from the 1930s. The cartoons that appear in that magazine are made into cartoon-a-day calendars, and recent ones show up taped to the cubicle walls of many a frustrated office employee throughout the United States. The humor is sardonic, clever, dry. It always has been. It also tends to be topical. And while some comedic subjects are funny seventy years on, most political and social humor that is time-sensitive is not.

When we talk about vaudeville, we get the impression that there is a treasure trove of humor that we have missed, full of wonderful gags and one-liners that had the audience roaring with laughter. Well, these jokes did have the audiences roaring. But there is another factor to take into account: culture.

I have often heard that you can’t say you’ve assimilated a new culture (if you move to another nation or, in some cases, another state) until you begin to laugh at its jokes. Humor is an in-crowd phenomenon; if I laugh at Minnesotans’ Ole and Lena jokes, it is partly still as an outsider. I’m not laughing at my cultural roots, but someone else’s. The ones that I find amusing don’t have to be about two Swedes. The ones that depend on being Swedish to get them still escape me sometimes.

Listening to vaudeville recordings from a century ago shows that the culture that spawned vaudeville is very distinct from our current culture. One can extrapolate from there and see that, a century from now, very little of what we see on Saturday Night Live will seem funny to those people. We may think now that we are done with the Coneheads because we got tired of them, and that would be true if the people of 2109 found them delightful the first few times they saw them. But I would bet that people will stare blankly at a screen when those routines are run a century from now.

Vaudeville sketches that were recorded for sale on cylinders made up a huge part of the recording industry’s early chart history. People bought them, then sat around and listened to routines over and over. Imagine buying a CD that includes “Who’s on First?” by Abbott and Costello and sitting around the speaker with your family, listening to it every day for a few weeks, and laughing every time.

Recording limitations required that the sketches be recorded in the studio, which meant that there was no audience to provide a laugh track. All laughter would be supplied by the purchaser of the cylinder. This fact makes it easier for us to decide if a recorded joke is funny or not, because laughter is infectious, and its absence makes the joke responsible for any reaction it evokes.

A number of comedic artists seem to have made a success of these recordings. Some of the most successful include Len Spencer, whose most successful version of “Arkansaw Traveler” was the best-selling record released before 1905. Another extremely big spoken-word comic was Russell Hunting, who scored five #1 hits that played off his recurring character, Michael Casey, all between 1891 and 1894. Another artist, John Kaiser, used the Michael Casey character later, with less success.

A lot of these recordings were ethnic in nature. The prime targets of such dialogues were the Irish and African Americans, though some attention was paid to Jewish stereotypes as well. The relative assimilation of the Irish into mainstream culture makes 1900s jokes about them instantly less amusing, and the jokes about the other groups are simply not considered polite at this point in our cultural development.

Something else to note is that these artists speak differently from us (from current United States native speakers of English, I mean). I do not believe there are still pockets of the country where people speak as Hunting, Spencer and Kaiser do. Granted, there is some attempt to sound oratorical here, or to sound Irish, but it seems to me that there is a real shift in the way English is spoken when 1900s English is compared to ours.

Some of these recordings may have been meant to be educational as well as amusing. “Michael Casey at the Telephone,” for example, seems to serve as a procedural for using this invention, which would still be new to some Americans and especially to recent immigrants.

Well, I was going to launch into detailed discussions of the artists, but I’m beginning to get wobbly. So I’ll tell you that Len Spencer (1867-1947) was the first huge recording star, beginning with such eventual classics as “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom Der E” and “The Old Folks at Home.” His parents were noted citizens: his mother a leading suffragist, his father the inventor of an influential penmanship style. Russell Hunting (1865-1943) was first a dramatic actor, then a comedic recording artist. Hunting was perhaps the first recording artist to fall afoul of decency laws, and he spent time in jail for his jokes. He was a pioneer in using his fame as a recording artist to hawk products. He also recorded an 1893 recitation of the Ernest Thayer poem “Casey at the Bat.” After Hunting went off to be a record-label executive in England, John Kaiser was tapped by Edison Records to take over the Michael Casey persona. He was not as successful as Hunting, and the question arises: Was Hunting just better at it, or had humor just started to move on?

The routines that follow are not completely devoid of amusement, and they display a certain charm. Let me know if you happen to find yourself ROTFL, okay?

Saturday, it’s Week Six of the 1950s Billboard charts, and next Wednesday (I have my weeks straight this time), it’s a female singer-songwriter from the 1990s whose band should have been big but wasn’t. See you Saturday!

Len Spencer, Arkansaw Traveler

Russell Hunting, Michael Casey at the Telephone

John Kaiser, Casey Courting His Girl