A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs

By Andrew Hickey

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Subscribers: 180
Reviews: 2

Tim N
 Mar 3, 2021
First one of yours I've heard. I'm hooked. Love the depth, the layers you drove into. Being from the States, appreciated the setting the geographical scene and explaining the role that played.

SeanFromSanford
 Jul 7, 2020
Thank you so much for these amazing stories, especially 'Songs our daddy taught us' helps me relax and so do you as we all are trying to get through some tough times. I am telling my friends, as requested.

Description

Andrew Hickey presents a history of rock music from 1938 to 1999, looking at five hundred songs that shaped the genre.

Episode Date
Admin Note: Podcast Host Moved
0:00

A quick admin note about why the podcast has changed hosts. Click through for the transcript.

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Apr 14, 2021
Episode 119: “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks
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The Kinks, playing around with hunting horns

Episode one hundred and nineteen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, and the song that first took distorted guitar to number one. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “G.T.O.” by Ronny and the Daytonas.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Apr 05, 2021
Episode 118: “Do-Wah-Diddy-Diddy” by Manfred Mann
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Manfred Mann

Episode 118 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Do-Wah-Diddy-Diddy” by Manfred Mann, and how a jazz group with a blues singer had one of the biggest bubblegum pop hits of the sixties.

Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a thirteen-minute bonus episode available, on “Walk on By” by Dionne Warwick.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/ (more…)

Mar 28, 2021
Episode 117: “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys
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The Beach Boys in 1964

Episode one hundred and seventeen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys, and how the years 1963 and 1964 saw a radical evolution in the sound and subject matter of the Beach Boys’ work. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “You’re No Good” by the Swinging Blue Jeans.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Mar 20, 2021
Episode 116: “Where Did Our Love Go?” by The Supremes
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The Supremes

Episode one hundred and sixteen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes, and how the “no-hit Supremes” became the biggest girl group in history. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “She’s Not There” by the Zombies.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Mar 10, 2021
Episode 115: “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals
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The Animals

Episode one hundred and fifteen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, at the way the US and UK music scenes were influencing each other in 1964, and at the fraught question of attribution when reworking older songs. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Memphis” by Johnny Rivers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Feb 27, 2021
Episode 114: “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie
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Millie Small

This week’s episode looks at “My Boy Lollipop” and the origins of ska music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Feb 18, 2021
Episode 113: “Needles and Pins” by The Searchers
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The Searchers

This week’s episode looks at “Needles and Pins”, and the story of the second-greatest band to come out of Liverpool in the sixties, The Searchers. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a sixteen-minute bonus episode available, on “Farmer John” by Don and Dewey.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Feb 08, 2021
Episode 112: “She Loves You” by The Beatles
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The Beatles in 1963. John Lennon playing harmonica while the others look on.

This week’s episode looks at “She Loves You”, the Beatles in 1963, and the start of Beatlemania in the UK. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Jan 30, 2021
Episode 111: “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas
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Martha and the Vandellas

Episode one hundred and eleven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, and the beginnings of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Jan 20, 2021
Episode 110: “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes
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The Ronettes

Episode 110 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Be My Baby”, and at the career of the Ronettes and Ronnie Spector.  Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Little Saint Nick” by the Beach Boys.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/ (more…)

Jan 09, 2021
BONUS: A Tribute to Gerry Marsden
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Gerry and the Pacemakers

I just heard the sad news that Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, has died today aged seventy-eight. As the latest episode of the podcast is late due to personal issues, I thought I’d make this available to the general public – this is a ten-minute Patreon bonus episode I did back in October, on Gerry and the Pacemakers, so it’s here as a little tribute. He’ll be missed.

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Jan 03, 2021
Episode 109: “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, and Mary
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Peter, Paul, and Mary

Episode one hundred and nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, the UK folk scene and the civil rights movement. Those of you who get angry at me whenever I say anything that acknowledges the existence of racism may want to skip this one. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by the Crystals.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Dec 23, 2020
Episode 108: “I Wanna Be Your Man” by the Rolling Stones
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The Rolling Stones in 1963

Episode 108 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “I Wanna Be Your Man” by the Rolling Stones and how the British blues scene of the early sixties was started by a trombone player.

Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have an eight-minute bonus episode available, on “The Monkey Time” by Major Lance.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Dec 16, 2020
BONUS: I Read The NewsToday Oh Boy: The Kennedy Assassination
0:00

The third in the occasional series of ten-minute looks at topics in the news during the time we’re looking at covers the Kennedy assassination. Click through for the transcript:

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Dec 16, 2020
Episode 107: “Surf City” by Jan and Dean
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Jan and Dean

Episode 107 of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs looks at “Surf City” and the career of Jan and Dean, including a Pop Symphony, accidental conspiracy to kidnap, and a career that both started and ended with attempts to get out of being drafted. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Hey Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Dec 08, 2020
Episode 106: “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen
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The Kingsmen

Episode 106 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, and the story of how a band that had already split up accidentally had one of the biggest hits of the sixties and sparked a two-year FBI investigation.

Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have an eight-minute bonus episode available, on “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Dec 02, 2020
Episode 105: “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs
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Booker T. and the MGs

Episode 105 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Green Onions”, and how a company started by a Western Swing fiddle player ended up making the most important soul records of the sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Nov 24, 2020
Episode 104: “He’s a Rebel” by “The Crystals”
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The Crystals (top) and the Blossoms (bottom)

Episode 104 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “He’s a Rebel”, and how a song recorded by the Blossoms was released under the name of the Crystals.  Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Nov 16, 2020
BONUS: I Read The News Today Oh Boy — The Profumo Affair
0:00

This month’s ten-minute extra bonus episode on news events at the time we’re looking at is on the Profumo Affair, and how a sex scandal transformed Britain. Click through to the full post to read a transcript.

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Nov 16, 2020
Episode 103: “Hitch-Hike” by Marvin Gaye
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Marvin Gaye

Episode one hundred and three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Hitch-Hike” by Marvin Gaye, and the early career of one of Motown’s defining artists. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Any Other Way” by Jackie Shane.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Nov 05, 2020
Episode 102: “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers
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The Isley Brothers

Episode one hundred and two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, and the early career of Bert Berns. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “How Do You Do It?” by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/ (more…)

Oct 26, 2020
Episode 101: “Telstar” by the Tornados
0:00

 

The Tornadoes in the studio, with Joe Meek (standing)

Episode 101 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs is the first one of the podcast’s third year. This one looks at “Telstar” by the Tornados, and the tragic life of Joe Meek, Britain’s first great pop auteur. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Apologies for the lateness of this one — my two-week break got extended when my computer broke down.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Oct 17, 2020
BONUS: I Read The News Today, Oh Boy: The Cuban Missile Crisis
0:00

This is the first of a new monthly feature that will run alongside the main podcast — once a month I’ll be doing a ten-minute bonus episode looking at non-music news from the time we’re covering in the podcast. These can be skipped if you’re only interested in the music, but add valuable context about the culture in which those records were made. This month’s is on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Year three of the podcast starts in a few days’ time, with “Telstar”.

Click through for the episode transcript:

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Oct 06, 2020
Episode 100: “Love Me Do” by the Beatles
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The Beatles at the Cavern Club

This week there are two episodes of the podcast going up, both of them longer than normal. This one, episode one hundred, is the hundredth-episode special and is an hour and a half long. It looks at the early career of the Beatles, and at the three recordings of “Love Me Do”. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and the Deltones.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

(more…)

Sep 26, 2020
Episode 99: “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys
0:00

This week there are two episiodes of the podcast going up, both of them longer than normal. This one, episode ninety-nine, is on “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys, and the group’s roots in LA, and is fifty minutes long. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and the Deltones.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

No Mixclouds this week, as both episodes have far too many songs by one artist. The mixclouds will be back with episode 101.

I used many resources for this episode, most of which will be used in future Beach Boys episodes too. It’s difficult to enumerate everything here, because I have been an active member of the Beach Boys fan community for twenty-three years, and have at times just used my accumulated knowledge for this. But the resources I list here are ones I’ve checked for specific things.

Becoming the Beach Boys by James B. Murphy is an in-depth look at the group’s early years.

Stephen McParland has published many, many books on the California surf and hot-rod music scenes, including several on both the Beach Boys and Gary Usher. The Beach Boys: Inception and Creation is the one I used most here, but I referred to several. His books can be found at https://payhip.com/CMusicBooks

Andrew Doe’s Bellagio 10452 site is an invaluable resource.

Jon Stebbins’ The Beach Boys FAQ is a good balance between accuracy and readability.

And Philip Lambert’s Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is an excellent, though sadly out of print, musicological analysis of Wilson’s music from 1962 through 67.

The Beach Boys’ Morgan recordings and all the outtakes from them can be found on this 2-CD set.

The Surfin’ Safari album is now in the public domain, and so can be found cheaply, but the best version to get is still the twofer CD with the Surfin’ USA album.

*But*, those two albums are fairly weak, the Beach Boys in their early years were not really an album band, and you will want to investigate them further. I would recommend, rather than the two albums linked above, starting with this budget-priced three-CD set, which has a surprisingly good selection of their material on it.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today, there are going to be two podcast episodes. This one, episode ninety-nine, will be a normal-length episode, or maybe slightly longer than normal, and episode one hundred, which will follow straight after it, will be a super-length one that’s at least three times the normal length of one of these podcasts.

I’m releasing them together, because the two episodes really do go together. We’ve talked recently about how we’re getting into the sixties of the popular imagination, and those 1960s began, specifically, in October 1962. That was the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw the world almost end. It was the month that James Brown released Live at the Apollo — an album we’ll talk about in a few weeks’ time. And if you want one specific date that the 1960s started, it was October the fifth, 1962.

On that date, a film came out that we mentioned last week — Doctor No, the first ever James Bond film. It was also the date that two records were released on EMI in Britain. One was a new release by a British band, the other a record originally released a few months earlier in the USA, by an American band. Both bands had previously released records on much smaller labels, to no success other than very locally, but this was their first to be released on a major label, and had a slightly different lineup from those earlier releases. Both bands would influence each other, and go on to be the most successful band from their respective country in the next decade. Both bands would revolutionise popular music. And the two bands would even be filed next to each other alphabetically, both starting “the Bea”. In episode one hundred, we’re going to look at “Love Me Do” by the Beatles, but right now, in episode ninety-nine, we’re going to look at “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ Safari”]

Before I start this story properly, I just want to say something — there are a lot of different accounts of the formation of the Beach Boys, and those accounts are all different. What I’ve tried to do here is take one plausible account of how the group formed and tell it in a reasonable length of time. If you read the books I link in the show notes, you might find some disagreements about the precise order of some of these events, or some details I’ve glossed over. This episode is already running long, and I didn’t want to get into that stuff, but it’s important that I stress that this is just as accurate as I can get in the length of an episode.

The Beach Boys really were boys when they made their first records. David Marks, their youngest member, was only thirteen when “Surfin’ Safari” came out, and Mike Love, the group’s oldest member, was twenty-one. 

So, as you might imagine when we’re talking about children, the story really starts with the older generation. In particular, we want to start with Hite and Dorinda Morgan. The Morgans were part-time music business people in Los Angeles in the fifties. Hite Morgan owned an industrial flooring company, and that was his main source of income — putting in floors at warehouses and factories that could withstand the particular stresses that such industrial sites faced.

But while that work was hard, it was well-paying and didn’t take too much time. The company would take on two or three expensive jobs a year, and for the rest of the year Hite would have the money and time to help his wife with her work as a songwriter. She’d collaborated with Spade Cooley, one of the most famous Western Swing musicians of the forties, and she’d also co-written “Don’t Put All Your Dreams in One Basket” for Ray Charles in 1948:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, “Don’t Put All Your Dreams in One Basket”]

Hite and Dorinda’s son, Bruce, was also a songwriter, though I’ve seen some claims that often the songs credited to him were actually written by his mother, who gave him credits in order to encourage him. One of Bruce Morgan’s earliest songs was a piece called “Proverb Boogie”, which was actually credited under his father’s name, and which Louis Jordan retitled to “Heed My Warning” and took a co-writing credit on:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, “Heed My Warning”]

Eventually the Morgans also started their own publishing company, and built their own small demo studio, which they used to use to record cheap demos for many other songwriters and performers.

The Morgans were only very minor players in the music industry, but they were friendly with many of the big names on the LA R&B scene, and knew people like John Dolphin, Bumps Blackwell, Sam Cooke, and the Hollywood Flames. Bruce Morgan would talk in interviews about Bumps Blackwell calling round to see his father and telling him about this new song “You Send Me” he was going to record with Cooke.

But although nobody could have realised it at the time, or for many years later, the Morgans’ place in music history would be cemented in 1952, when Hite Morgan, working at his day job, met a man named Murry Wilson, who ran a machine-tool company based in Hawthorne, a small town in southwestern Los Angeles County. It turned out that Wilson, like Dorinda Morgan, was an aspiring songwriter, and Hite Morgan signed him up to their publishing company, Guild Music.

Wilson’s tastes in music were already becoming old-fashioned even in the very early 1950s, but given the style of music he was working in he was a moderately talented writer. His proudest moment was writing a song called “Two Step Side Step” for the Morgans, which was performed on TV by Lawrence Welk — Murry gathered the whole family round the television to watch his song being performed. 

That song was a moderate success – it was never a hit for anyone, but it was recorded by several country artists, including the rockabilly singer Bonnie Lou, and most interestingly for our purposes by Johnny Lee Wills, Bob Wills’ brother:

[Excerpt: Johnny Lee Wills, “Two Step Side Step”]

Wilson wrote a few other songs for the Morgans, of which the most successful was “Tabarin”, which was recorded by the Tangiers — one of the several names under which the Hollywood Flames performed. Gaynel Hodge would later speak fondly of Murry Wilson, and how he was always bragging about his talented kids:

[Excerpt: The Tangiers, “Tabarin”]

But as the fifties progressed, the Morgans published fewer and fewer of Wilson’s songs, and none of them were hits. But the Morgans and Wilson stayed in touch, and around 1958 he heard from them about an opportunity for one of those talented kids.

Dorinda Morgan had written a song called “Chapel of Love” — not the same song as the famous one by the Dixie Cups — and Art Laboe had decided that that song would be perfect as the first record for his new label, Original Sound. Laboe was putting together a new group to sing it, called the Hitmakers, which was based around Val Poliuto. Poliuto had been the tenor singer of an integrated vocal group — two Black members, one white, and one Hispanic — which had gone by the names The Shadows and The Miracles before dismissing both names as being unlikely to lead to any success and taking the name The Jaguars at the suggestion of, of all people, Stan Freberg, the comedian and voice actor.

The Jaguars had never had much commercial success, but they’d recorded a version of “The Way You Look Tonight” which became a classic when Laboe included it on the massively successful “Oldies But Goodies”, the first doo-wop nostalgia album:

[Excerpt: The Jaguars, “The Way You Look Tonight”]

The Jaguars continued for many years, and at one point had Richard Berry guest as an extra vocalist on some of their tracks, but as with so many of the LA vocal groups we’ve looked at from the fifties, they all had their fingers in multiple pies, and so Poliuto was to be in this new group, along with Bobby Adams of the Calvanes, who had been taught to sing R&B by Cornell Gunter and who had recorded for Dootsie Williams:

[Excerpt: The Calvanes, “Crazy Over You”]

Those two were to be joined by two other singers, who nobody involved can remember much about except that their first names were Don and Duke, but Art Laboe also wanted a new young singer to sing the lead, and was auditioning singers. Murry Wilson suggested to the Morgans that his young son Brian might be suitable for the role, and he auditioned, but Laboe thought he was too young, and the role went to a singer called Rodney Goodens instead:

[Excerpt: The Hitmakers, “Chapel of Love”]

So the audition was a failure, but it was a first contact between Brian Wilson and the Morgans, and also introduced Brian to Val Poliuto, from whom he would learn a lot about music for the next few years.

Brian was a very sensitive kid, the oldest of three brothers, and someone who seemed to have some difficulty dealing with other people — possibly because his father was abusive towards him and his brothers, leaving him frightened of many aspects of life. He did, though, share with his father a love of music, and he had a remarkable ear — singular, as he’s deaf in one ear. He had perfect pitch, a great recollection for melodies — play him something once and it would stay in his brain — and from a very young age he gravitated towards sweet-sounding music. He particularly loved Glenn Miller’s version of “Rhapsody in Blue” as a child:

[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue”]

But his big musical love was a modern harmony group called the Four Freshmen — a group made up of two brothers, their cousin, and a college friend. Modern harmony is an outdated term, but it basically meant that they were singing chords that went beyond the normal simple triads of most pop music. While there were four, obviously, of the Four Freshmen, they often achieved an effect that would normally be five-part harmony, by having the group members sing all the parts of the chord *except* the root note — they’d leave the root note to a bass instrument. So while Brian was listening to four singers, he was learning five-part harmonies. The group would also sing their harmonies in unusual inversions — they’d take one of the notes from the middle of the chord and sing it an octave lower.

There was another trick that the Four Freshmen used — they varied their vocals from equal temperament. 

To explain this a little bit — musical notes are based on frequencies, and the ratio between them matters. If you double the frequency of a note, you get the same note an octave up — so if you take an A at 440hz, and double the frequency to 880, you get another A, an octave up. If you go down to 220hz, you get the A an octave below.

You get all the different notes by multiplying or dividing a note, so A# is A multiplied by a tiny bit more than one, and A flat is A multiplied by a tiny bit less than one. But in the middle ages, this hit a snag — A#. which is A multiplied by one and a bit, is very very slightly different from B flat, which is B multiplied by 0.9 something. And if you double those, so you go to the A# and B flat the next octave up, the difference between A# and B flat gets bigger. And this means that if you play a melody in the key of C, but then decide you want to play it in the key of B flat, you need to retune your instrument — or have instruments with separate notes for A# and B flat — or everything will sound out of tune.

It’s very very hard to retune some instruments, especially ones like the piano, and also sometimes you want to play in different keys in the same piece. If you’re playing a song in C, but it goes into C# in the last chorus to give it a bit of extra momentum, you lose that extra momentum if you stop the song to retune the piano. So a different system was invented, and popularised in the Baroque era, called “equal temperament”. In that system, every note is very very slightly out of tune, but those tiny errors cancel out rather than multiply like they do in the old system. You’re sort of taking the average of A# and B flat, and calling them the same note. And to most people’s ears that sounds good enough, and it means you can have a piano without a thousand keys. 

But the Four Freshmen didn’t stick to that — because you don’t need to retune your throat to hit different notes (unless you’re as bad a singer as me, anyway). They would sing B flat slightly differently than they would sing A#, and so they would get a purer vocal blend, with stronger harmonic overtones than singers who were singing the notes as placed on a piano:

[Excerpt: the Four Freshmen, “It’s a Blue World”]

Please note by the way that I’m taking the fact that they used those non-equal temperaments somewhat on trust — Ross Barbour of the group said they did in interviews, and he would know, but I have relatively poor pitch so if you listened to that and thought “Hang on, they’re all singing dead-on equal tempered concert pitch, what’s he talking about?”, then that’s on him.

When Brian heard them singing, he instantly fell for them, and became a major, major fan of their work, especially their falsetto singer Bob Flanigan, whose voice he decided to emulate. He decided that he was going to learn how they got that sound. Every day when he got home from school, he would go to the family’s music room, where he had a piano and a record player. He would then play just a second or so of one of their records, and figure out on the piano what notes they were singing in that one second, and duplicating them himself. Then he would learn the next second of the song. He would spend hours every day on this, learning every vocal part, until he had the Four Freshmen’s entire repertoire burned into his brain, and could sing all four vocal parts to every song.

Indeed, at one point when he was about sixteen — around the same time as the Art Laboe audition — Brian decided to go and visit the Four Freshmen’s manager, to find out how to form a successful vocal group of his own, and to find out more about the group themselves. After telling the manager that he could sing every part of every one of their songs, the manager challenged him with “The Day Isn’t Long Enough”, a song that they apparently had trouble with:

[Excerpt: The Four Freshmen, “The Day Isn’t Long Enough”]

And Brian demonstrated every harmony part perfectly. He had a couple of tape recorders at home, and he would experiment with overdubbing his own voice — recording on one tape recorder, playing it back and singing along while recording on the other. Doing this he could do his own imitations of the Four Freshmen, and even as a teenager he could sound spookily like them:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys [Brian Wilson solo recording released on a Beach Boys CD], “Happy Birthday Four Freshmen”]

While Brian shared his love for this kind of sweet music with his father, he also liked the rock and roll music that was making its way onto the radio during his teen years — though again, he would gravitate towards the sweet vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers rather than to more raucous music.

He shared his love of the Everlys with his cousin Mike Love, whose tastes otherwise went more in the direction of R&B and doo-wop. Unlike Brian and his brothers, Mike attended Dorsey High School, a predominantly Black school, and his tastes were shaped by that — other graduates of the school include Billy Preston, Eric Dolphy, and Arthur Lee, to give some idea of the kind of atmosphere that Dorsey High had. He loved the Robins, and later the Coasters, and he’s been quoted as saying he “worshipped” Johnny Otis — as did every R&B lover in LA at the time. He would listen to Otis’ show on KFOX, and to Huggy Boy on KRKD. His favourite records were things like “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” by the Robins, which combined an R&B groove with witty lyrics:

[Excerpt: The Robins, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”]

He also loved the music of Chuck Berry, a passion he shared with Brian’s youngest brother Carl, who also listened to Otis’ show and got Brian listening to it. While Mike was most attracted to Berry’s witty lyrics, Carl loved the guitar part — he’d loved string instruments since he was a tiny child, and he and a neighbour, David Marks, started taking guitar lessons from another neighbour, John Maus. Maus had been friends with Ritchie Valens, and had been a pallbearer at Valens’ funeral. John was recording at the time with his sister Judy, as the imaginatively-named duo “John & Judy”:

[Excerpt: John & Judy, “Why This Feeling?”]

John and Judy later took on a bass player called Scott Engel, and a few years after that John and Scott changed their surnames to Walker and became two thirds of The Walker Brothers.

But at this time, John was still just a local guitar player, and teaching two enthusiastic kids to play guitar. Carl and David learned how to play Chuck Berry licks, and also started to learn some of the guitar instrumentals that were becoming popular at the time.

At the same time, Mike would sing with Brian to pass the time, Mike singing in a bass voice while Brian took a high tenor lead. Other times, Brian would test his vocal arranging out by teaching Carl and his mother Audree vocal parts — Carl got so he could learn parts very quickly, so his big brother wouldn’t keep him around all day and he could go out and play. And sometimes their middle brother Dennis would join in — though he was more interested in going out and having fun at the beach than he was in making music.

Brian was interested in nothing *but* making music — at least once he’d quit the school football team (American football, for those of you like me who parse the word to mean what it does in Britain), after he’d got hurt for the first time. But before he did that, he had managed to hurt someone else — a much smaller teammate named Alan Jardine, whose leg Brian broke in a game. Despite that, the two became friends, and would occasionally sing together — like Brian, Alan loved to sing harmonies, and they found that they had an extraordinarily good vocal blend. While Brian mostly sang with his brothers and his cousin, all of whom had a family vocal resemblance, Jardine could sound spookily similar to that family, and especially to Brian. Jardine’s voice was a little stronger and more resonant, Brian’s a little sweeter, with a fuller falsetto, but they had the kind of vocal similarity one normally only gets in family singers.

However,  they didn’t start performing together properly, because they had different tastes in music — while Brian was most interested in the modern jazz harmonies of the Four Freshman, Jardine was a fan of the new folk revival groups, especially the Kingston Trio. Alan had a group called the Tikis when he was at high school, which would play Kingston Trio style material like “The Wreck of the John B”, a song that like much of the Kingston Trio’s material had been popularised by the Weavers, but which the Trio had recorded for their first album:

[Excerpt: The Kingston Trio, “The Wreck of the John B”]

Jardine was inspired by that to write his own song, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”, putting Longfellow’s poem to music. One of the other Tikis had a tape recorder, and they made a few stabs at recording it. They thought that they sounded pretty good, and they decided to go round to Brian Wilson’s house to see if he could help them — depending on who you ask, they either wanted him to join the band, or knew that his dad had some connection with the music business and wanted to pick his brains. When they turned up, Brian was actually out, but Audree Wilson basically had an open-door policy for local teenagers, and she told the boys about Hite and Dorinda Morgan. The Tikis took their tape to the Morgans, and the Morgans responded politely, saying that they did sound good — but they sounded like the Kingston Trio, and there were a million groups that sounded like the Kingston Trio. They needed to get an original sound.

The Tikis broke up, as Alan went off to Michigan to college. But then a year later, he came back to Hawthorne and enrolled in the same community college that Brian was enrolled in. Meanwhile, the Morgans had got in touch with Gary Winfrey, Alan’s Tikis bandmate, and asked him if the Tikis would record a demo of one of Bruce Morgan’s songs. As the Tikis no longer existed, Alan and Gary formed a new group along the same lines, and invited Brian to be part of one of these sessions. That group, The Islanders made a couple of attempts at Morgan’s song, but nothing worked out. But this brought Brian back to the Morgans’ attention — at this point they’d not seen him in three years.

Alan still wanted to record folk music with Brian, and at some point Brian suggested that they get his brother Carl and cousin Mike involved — and then Brian’s mother made him let his other brother Dennis join in. 

The group went to see the Morgans, who once again told them that they needed some original material. Dennis piped up that the group had been fooling around with a song about surfing, and while the Morgans had never heard of the sport, they said it would be worth the group’s while finishing off the song and coming back to them.

At this point, the idea of a song about surfing was something that was only in Dennis’ head, though he may have mentioned the idea to Mike at some point. Mike and the Wilsons went home and started working out the song, without Al being involved at this time — some of the rehearsal recordings we have seem to suggest that they thought Al was a little overbearing and thought of himself as a bit more professional than the others, and they didn’t want him in the group at first.

While surf music was definitely already a thing, there were very few vocal surf records. Brian and Mike wrote the song together, with Mike writing most of the lyrics and coming up with his own bass vocal line, while Brian wrote the rest of the music:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ (Rehearsal)”]

None of the group other than Dennis surfed — though Mike would later start surfing a little — and so Dennis provided Mike with some surfing terms that they could add into the song. This led to what would be the first of many, many arguments about songwriting credit among the group, as Dennis claimed that he should get some credit for his contribution, while Mike disagreed:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ (Rehearsal)”]

The credit was eventually assigned to Brian Wilson and Mike Love.

Eventually, they finished the song, and decided that they *would* get Al Jardine back into the group after all. When Murry and Audree Wilson went away for a long weekend and left their boys some money for emergencies, the group saw their chance. They took that money, along with some more they borrowed from Al’s mother, and rented some instruments — a drum kit and a stand-up bass. They had a party at the Wilsons’ house where they played their new song and a few others, in front of their friends, before going back to the Morgans with their new song completed.

For their recording session, they used that stand-up bass, which Al played, along with Carl on an acoustic guitar, giving it that Kingston Trio sound that Al liked. Dennis was the group’s drummer, but he wasn’t yet very good and instead of drums the record has Brian thumping a dustbin lid as its percussion. As well as being the lead vocalist, Mike Love was meant to be the group’s saxophone player, but he never progressed more than honking out a couple of notes, and he doesn’t play on the session.

The song they came up with was oddly structured — it had a nine-bar verse and a fourteen-bar chorus, the latter of which was based around a twelve-bar blues, but extended to allow the “surf, surf with me” hook. But other than the unusual bar counts it followed the structure that the group would set up most of their early singles. The song seems at least in part to have been inspired by the song “Bermuda Shorts” by the Delroys, which is a song the group have often cited and would play in their earliest live shows:

[Excerpt: The Delroys, “Bermuda Shorts”]

They messed around with the structure in various ways in rehearsal, and those can be heard on the rehearsal recordings, but by the time they came into the studio they’d settled on starting with a brief statement of the chorus hook:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin'”]

It then goes into a verse with Mike singing a tenor lead, with the rest of the group doing block harmonies and then joining him on the last line of the verse:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin'”]

And then we have Mike switching down into the bass register to sing wordless doo-wop bass during the blues-based chorus, while the rest of the group again sing in block harmony:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin'”]

That formula would be the one that the Beach Boys would stick with for several singles to follow — the major change that would be made would be that Brian would soon start singing an independent falsetto line over the top of the choruses, rather than being in the block harmonies. 

The single was licensed to Candix Records, along with a B-side written by Bruce Morgan, and it became a minor hit record, reaching number seventy-five on the national charts. But what surprised the group about the record was the name on it. They’d been calling themselves the Pendletones, because there was a brand of thick woollen shirt called Pendletons which was popular among surfers, and which the group wore.  It might also have been intended as a pun on Dick Dale’s Deltones, the preeminent surf music group of the time. But Hite Morgan had thought the name didn’t work, and they needed something that was more descriptive of the music they were doing. He’d suggested The Surfers, but Russ Regan, a record promoter, had told him there was already a group called the Surfers, and suggested another name. So the first time the Wilsons realised they were now in the Beach Boys was when they saw the record label for the first time.

The group started working on follow-ups — and as they were now performing live shows to promote their records, they switched to using electric guitars when they went into the studio to record some demos in February 1962. By now, Al was playing rhythm guitar, while Brian took over on bass, now playing a bass guitar rather than the double bass Al had played. For that session, as Dennis was still not that great a drummer, Brian decided to bring in a session player, and Dennis stormed out of the studio. However, the session player was apparently flashy and overplayed, and got paid off. Brian persuaded Dennis to come back and take over on drums again, and the session resumed. Val Poliuto was also at the session, in case they needed some keyboards, but he’s not audible on any of the tracks they recorded, at least to my ears.

The most likely song for a follow-up was another one by Brian and Mike. This one was very much a rewrite of “Surfin'”, but this time the verses were a more normal eight bars, and the choruses were a compromise between the standard twelve-bar blues and “Surfin'”s fourteen, landing on an unusual thirteen bars. With the electric guitars the group decided to bring in a Chuck Berry influence, and you can hear a certain similarity to songs like “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” in the rhythm and phrasing:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ Safari [early version]”]

Around this time, Brian also wrote another song — the song he generally describes as being the first song he ever wrote. Presumably, given that he’d already co-written “Surfin'”, he means that it was the first song he wrote on his own, words and music. The song was inspired, melodically, by the song “When You Wish Upon A Star” from the Disney film Pinocchio:

[Excerpt: Cliff Edwards “When You Wish Upon a Star”]

The song came to Brian in the car, and he challenged himself to write the whole thing in his head without going to the piano until he’d finished it. The result was a doo-wop ballad with Four Freshmen-like block harmonies, with lyrics inspired by Brian’s then girlfriend Judy Bowles, which they recorded at the same session as that version of “Surfin’ Safari”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfer Girl [early version]”]

At the same session, they also recorded two more songs — a song by Brian called Judy, and a surf instrumental written by Carl called “Karate”.

However, shortly after that session, Al left the group. As the group had started playing electric instruments, they’d also started performing songs that were more suitable for those instruments, like “What’d I Say” and “The Twist”. Al wasn’t a fan of that kind of music, and he wanted to be singing “Tom Dooley” and “Wreck of the John B”, not “Come on baby, let’s do the Twist”. He was also quite keen on completing his university studies — he was planning on becoming a dentist — and didn’t want to spend time playing tons of small gigs when he could be working towards his degree. This was especially the case since Murry Wilson, who had by this point installed himself as the group’s manager, was booking them on all sorts of cheap dates to get them exposure. As far as Al could see, being a Beach Boy was never going to make anyone any real money, and it wasn’t worth disrupting his studies to keep playing music that he didn’t even particularly like.

His place was taken by David Marks, Carl’s young friend who lived nearby. Marks was only thirteen when he joined, and apparently it caused raised eyebrows among some of the other musicians who knew the group, because he was so much younger and less experienced than the rest. Unlike Al, he was never much of a singer — he can hold a tune, and has a pleasant enough voice, but he wasn’t the exceptional harmony singer that Al was — but he was a competent rhythm player, and he and Carl had been jamming together since they’d both got guitars, and knew each other’s playing style.

However, while Al was gone from the group, he wasn’t totally out of the picture, and he remained close enough that he was a part of the first ever Beach Boys spin-off side project a couple of months later. Dorinda Morgan had written a song inspired by the new children’s doll, Barbie, that had come out a couple of years before and which, like the Beach Boys, was from Hawthorne. She wanted to put together a studio group to record it, under the name Kenny and the Cadets, and Brian rounded up Carl, Al, Val Poliuto, and his mother Audree, to sing on the record for Mrs Morgan:

[Excerpt: Kenny and the Cadets, “Barbie”]

But after that, Al Jardine was out of the group for the moment — though he would be back sooner than anyone expected.

Shortly after Al left, the new lineup went into a different studio, Western Studios, to record a new demo. Ostensibly produced by Murry Wilson, the session was actually produced by Brian and his new friend Gary Usher, who took charge in the studio and spent most of his time trying to stop Murry interfering.

Gary Usher is someone about whom several books have been written, and who would have a huge influence on West Coast music in the sixties. But at this point he was an aspiring singer, songwriter, and record producer, who had been making records for a few months longer than Brian and was therefore a veteran. He’d put out his first single, “Driven Insane”, in March 1961:

[Excerpt: Gary Usher, “Driven Insane”]

Usher was still far from a success, but he was very good at networking, and had all sorts of minor connections within the music business. As one example, his girlfriend, Sandra Glanz, who performed under the name Ginger Blake, had just written “You Are My Answer” for Carol Connors, who had been the lead singer of the Teddy Bears but was now going solo:

[Excerpt: Carol Connors, “You Are My Answer”]

Connors, too, would soon become important in vocal surf music, while Ginger would play a significant part in Brian’s life.

Brian had started writing songs with Gary, and they were in the studio to record some demos by Gary, and some demos by the Beach Boys of songs that Brian and Gary had written together, along with a new version of “Surfin’ Safari”. Of the two Wilson/Usher songs recorded in the session, one was a slow doo-wop styled ballad called “The Lonely Sea”, which would later become an album track, but the song that they were most interested in recording was one called “409”, which had been inspired by a new, larger, engine that Chevrolet had introduced for top-of-the-line vehicles.

Musically, “409” was another song that followed the “Surfin’ Safari” formula, but it was regularised even more, lopping off the extra bar from “Surfin’ Safari”‘s chorus, and making the verses as well as the choruses into twelve-bar blues. But it still started with the hook, still had Mike sing his tenor lead in the verses, and still had him move to sing a boogie-ish bassline in the chorus while the rest of the group chanted in block harmonies over the top.

But it introduced a new lyrical theme to the group — now, as well as singing about surfing and the beach, they could also sing about cars and car racing — Love credits this as being one of the main reasons for the group’s success in landlocked areas, because while there were many places in the US where you couldn’t surf, there was nowhere where people didn’t have cars.

It’s also the earliest Beach Boys song over which there is an ongoing question of credit. For the first thirty years of the song’s existence, it was credited solely to Wilson and Usher, but in the early nineties Love won a share of the songwriting credit in a lawsuit in which he won credit on many, many songs he’d not been credited for.

Love claims that he came up with the “She’s real fine, my 409” hook, and the “giddy up” bass vocal he sang. Usher always claimed that Love had nothing to do with the song, and that Love was always trying to take credit for things he didn’t do. It’s difficult to tell who was telling the truth, because both obviously had a financial stake in the credit (though Usher was dead by the time of the lawsuit). Usher was always very dismissive of all of the Beach Boys with the exception of Brian, and wouldn’t credit them for making any real contributions, Love’s name was definitely missed off the credits of a large number of songs to which he did make substantial contributions, including some where he wrote the whole lyric, and the bits of the song Love claims *do* sound like the kind of thing he contributed to other songs which have no credit disputes. On the other hand, Love also overreached in his claims of credit in that lawsuit, claiming to have co-written songs that were written when he wasn’t even in the same country as the writers.

Where you stand on the question of whether Love deserves that credit usually depends on your views of Wilson, Love and Usher as people, and it’s not a question I’m going to get into, but I thought I should acknowledge that the question is there.

While “409” was still following the same pattern as the other songs, it’s head and shoulders ahead of the Hite Morgan productions both in terms of performance and in terms of the sound. A great deal of that clearly owes to Usher, who was experimenting with things like sound effects, and so “409” starts with a recording that Brian and Usher made of Usher’s car driving up and down the street:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “409”]

Meanwhile the new version of “Surfin’ Safari” was vastly superior to the recording from a couple of months earlier, with changed lyrics and a tighter performance:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ Safari (second version)”]

So at the end of the session, the group had a tape of three new songs, and Murry WIlson wanted them to take it somewhere better than Candix Records. He had a contact somewhere much better — at Capitol Records. He was going to phone Ken Nelson.

Or at least, Murry *thought* he had a contact at Capitol. He phoned Ken Nelson and told him “Years ago, you did me a favour, and now I’m doing one for you. My sons have formed a group and you have the chance to sign them!”

Now, setting aside the question of whether that would actually count as Murry doing Nelson a favour, there was another problem with this — Nelson had absolutely no idea who Murry Wilson was, and no recollection of ever doing him a favour. It turned out that the favour he’d done, in Murry’s eyes, was recording one of Murry’s songs — except that there’s no record of Nelson ever having been involved in a recording of a Murry Wilson song.

By this time, Capitol had three A&R people, in charge of different areas. There was Voyle Gilmore, who recorded soft pop — people like Nat “King” Cole. There was Nelson, who as we’ve seen in past episodes had some rockabilly experience but was mostly country — he’d produced Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson, but he was mostly working at this point with people like Buck Owens and the Louvin Brothers, producing some of the best country music ever recorded, but not really doing the kind of thing that the Beach Boys were doing.

But the third, and youngest, A&R man was doing precisely the kind of thing the Beach Boys did. That was Nik Venet, who we met back in the episode on “LSD-25”, and who was one of the people who had been involved with the very first surf music recordings. Nelson suggested that Murry go and see Venet, and Venet was immediately impressed with the tape Murry played him — so impressed that he decided to offer the group a contract, and to release “Surfin’ Safari” backed with “409”, buying the masters from Murry rather than rerecording them. Venet also tried to get the publishing rights for the songs for Beechwood Music, a publishing company owned by Capitol’s parent company EMI (and known in the UK as Ardmore & Beechwood) but Gary Usher, who knew a bit about the business, said that he and Brian were going to set up their own publishing companies — a decision which Murry Wilson screamed at him for, but which made millions of dollars for Brian over the next few years.

The single came out, and was a big hit, making number fourteen on the hot one hundred, and “409” as the B-side also scraped the lower reaches of the charts. Venet soon got the group into the studio to record an album to go with the single, with Usher adding extra backing vocals to fill out the harmonies in the absence of Al Jardine. While the Beach Boys were a self-contained group, Venet seems to have brought in his old friend Derry Weaver to add extra guitar, notably on Weaver’s song “Moon Dawg”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Moon Dawg”]

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Beach Boys recorded that, because not only was it written by Venet’s friend, but Venet owned the publishing on the song. The group also recorded “Summertime Blues”, which was co-written by Jerry Capehart, a friend of Venet and Weaver’s who also may have appeared on the album in some capacity. Both those songs fit the group, but their choice was clearly influenced by factors other than the purely musical, and very soon Brian Wilson would get sick of having his music interfered with by Venet. 

The album came out on October 1, and a few days later the single was released in the UK, several months after its release in the US. And on the same day, a British group who *had* signed to have their single published by Ardmore & Beechwood put out their own single on another EMI label. And we’re going to look at that in the next episode…

Sep 25, 2020
Episode 98: “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone” by Adam Faith
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Episode ninety-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone” by Adam Faith, and is our final look at the pre-Beatles British pop scene. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “San Francisco Bay Blues” by Jesse Fuller.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

This double-CD set contains all Adam Faith’s early recordings.

And Big Time: The Life of Adam Faith by David and Caroline Stafford is a delightfully-written, extremely quotable, and by all accounts accurate biography of Faith.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Errata

I repeatedly mispronounce Faith’s birth surname as “Nelham”. It was “Nelhams”, with an “s”.

I also say that “Milk From the Coconut” by Johnny Gentle made the top thirty. It didn’t — I got this from an unreliable source.

Transcript

Today we’re going to take our last look at the pre-Beatles British pop world, and we’re going to look at a record that’s far more important in retrospect than it seemed at the time. We’re going to look at Adam Faith, and a track he recorded called “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone”:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone”]

As is normal for British rock and roll stars of the fifties, Adam Faith was a pseudonym, in this case for someone whose birth name is the subject of some debate — the registrar seems to have got a bit confused — but who was known as Terry Nelhams, a five-foot-five singer with high cheekbones, a strong chin, and a weak voice.

The crucial change in Nelhams’ life had come at the cinema, when he had watched a film called Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean. Amazingly, I think we managed to get through the whole 1950s without mentioning Dean, but he was a massive figure in youth pop culture of the fifties, and his presence still resonated for decades afterwards. Dean only starred in three films, and only one, East of Eden, was released in his lifetime — he died in a car crash while the other two were in post-production — but his performance in the posthumously-released Rebel Without A Cause seemed to many teenagers of the time to encapsulate everything that they wanted to be. 

And Terry Nelhams decided he wanted to be James Dean — why not? He bore a slight resemblance to him. Terry was going to go into showbiz.

There was a problem, though — in the Britain of the fifties, acting was something that was largely the purview of the middle classes, and Terry was firmly working class. He lived on a council estate and went to a secondary modern — the schools which, in the fifties UK education system, were designed for people who were considered unlikely to succeed academically. There was no way he was going to end up studying at RADA or any of the other ways one got into acting.

So he decided that rather than become a film star, he would become a director. That was much easier to get into than acting was, in the British film industry of the fifties — you got a job as a tea boy at a film studio, worked your way up into the editing suite, became an editor, and then became a director. There was a steady career path, and you had job security at every stage — and Terry Nelhams was someone who always looked after his money. So that’s what he did — he got a job at the Rank organisation as a messenger, then moved across to a company that made commercials for the new commercial TV network ITV, where he was an assistant editor.

But while he was working at Rank, Nelhams had joined a skiffle group, the Worried Men — named after the skiffle standard — who had been formed by some of the younger employees. They became the resident band at the 2is when the Vipers Skiffle Group went out on tour. Despite all the stories about other people who had been discovered at the 2is on their first gig, the Worried Men ended up performing there for months before any kind of success. But then they did get a certain amount of fame, when Six-Five Special did its single most famous episode — a live outside broadcast from the 2is itself. As the house band, the Worried Men got to perform a few songs on that show, and they also got a couple of tracks on two Decca compilations, “Rockin’ at the 2is” and “Stars of the Six-Five Special”:

[Excerpt: The Worried Men, “This Little Light”]

But neither album sold particularly well, and the Worried Men slowly drifted apart — one member joined the Vipers, and Nelhams left before the group got in a couple of people we’ve already seen a few times in our story — both Tony Meehan, who would go on to join the Shadows, and Brian Bennett, who ended up replacing him, passed through the group.

But while Nelhams had quit the Worried Men — as much as anything else because holding down a day job while he also played for four hours at the 2is every night was starting to affect his health — Jack Good remembered him from that one Six-Five Special appearance, and thought that his looks, if not his singing ability, gave him the potential to be a star. 

Good changed Nelhams’ name to Adam Faith, and gave him a solo spot on Six-Five Special, as well as getting him a contract with HMV, one of several record labels owned by the large conglomerate EMI. His first single on HMV was “(Got A) Heartsick Feeling”, backed by Geoff Love and his Orchestra:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “(Got A) Heartsick Feeling”]

That record was, of course, publicised on Six-Five Special, but the extent to which Faith’s star potential was based on his looks rather than his singing ability can probably be seen from the fact that after his first appearance on the show he mimed rather than sing live, unlike all the other performers. The record was not a success, and nor was his second single, a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential”:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “High School Confidential”]

Faith was unpopular, but he was able to give up his day job in the editing room to go on tour with a package based on Six-Five Special, at the bottom of the bill. And on that tour he became friendly with one of the other acts, John Barry, the trumpet playing leader of a group called the John Barry Seven. Barry had wanted to be an arranger for big bands, but when he realised that was no longer a viable career path, he’d formed his small group, who at the time were making records like “Zip Zip”, which were fairly awful early British rock and roll efforts, but with slightly more interesting instrumental arrangements than the bulk of the work being put out in the UK at that point:

[Excerpt: The John Barry Seven, “Zip Zip”]

When Jack Good moved over to ITV to do Oh Boy!, he took Faith with him, but Faith’s career was stagnating, and he quit performing altogether, and got another job as an assistant editor at Elstree studios, working on ATV shows like William Tell and The Invisible Man. But then Faith got a call from John Barry. The BBC were putting together a new show, Drumbeat, to compete with Oh Boy!, and they wanted their own star to compete with Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. Would Adam be interested?

He would — though he was cautious enough after last time that he kept his day job. He’d bunk off work on Thursday and Friday afternoons to rehearse and record the show, and make the time up on Sundays. His workmates covered for him when he bunked off, and that worked until his boss’ daughter mentioned to the boss that she’d seen Terry on the telly. He was told he had to choose between his pop career and a secure job, and he decided to make his pop career into a secure job, by getting a guaranteed six-month contract on Drumbeat before quitting Elstree.

Drumbeat did little to make Faith’s records sell any more, but it did lead to acting appearances — as a biker in the police show No Hiding Place, and as a musician in a cheap exploitation film that was originally titled “Striptease Girl”, before the censors made the film producers cut the nudity out (except for foreign markets) at which point it was retitled Beat Girl in the UK, and Wild For Kicks in the US. It was hardly Rebel Without a Cause, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.

The music for that film was done by Adam’s friend John Barry — the very first film score Barry ever did:

[Excerpt: The John Barry Seven, “Beat Girl”]

But Adam Faith was still a pop star without a hit, and that was a situation that couldn’t last. He was also temporarily without a record contract, but his new manager Eve Taylor managed to get him one with Parlophone, another EMI-owned label. And then his Drumbeat contacts came through in a big way. 

One of the other acts who regularly appeared on the show was a group called the Raindrops, who featured a singer who had been born Yannis Skoradalides, but whose name had soon been anglicised to John Worsley. He’d then taken on the stage name Johnny Worth, which was the name he performed under, but he was also starting to write songs — and because he was under contract as a recording artist, he took on yet another name as a songwriter to avoid any legal complications, so he was writing as Les Vandyke.

It was under that name that he wrote a song called “What Do You Want?”, which he played to Faith and Barry, his two colleagues on Drumbeat. They saw potential in it — a lot of potential. And John Barry had an idea for an instrumental gimmick.

We’re now into 1959, and Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” had just been a big posthumous hit for him:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”]

The pizzicato strings, in particular, had caught the ear of a lot of people, and Barry had already used them in the arrangement he’d written for “Be Mine”, a record by the minor British pop star Lance Fortune:

[Excerpt: Lance Fortune, “Be Mine”]

That hadn’t been released yet – it went top five when it eventually was – and Barry thought that it was worth repeating the trick, and so he came up with a pizzicato arrangement for the song Vandyke had written. And for a final touch, Faith received some vocal coaching from another Drumbeat performer, Roy Young, who taught him how to mangle his vowels so that he could sing in what was, to British ears, almost a convincing imitation of Buddy Holly’s hiccupping vocal, particularly on the word “baby”.

The result was a huge hit, becoming the first number one single ever on the Parlophone label:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “What Do You Want?”]

Faith was now a real pop star at last. “What Do You Want?” was also one of the very rare British records to actually get an American cover version — Bobby Vee, the Buddy Holly soundalike, picked up on the record and issued his own version of it:

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, “What Do You Want?”]

That wasn’t a success, but as Vee became a star he would occasionally record versions of other songs Faith recorded.

Faith’s second Parlophone single was another number one, and another song written by Les Vandyke and arranged by John Barry. It was very much “What Do You Want?” part two, but there was an interesting musical figure Barry came up with in the intro:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “Poor Me”]

In the 1990s, Barry used that as evidence in a court case over his claim to authorship of the piece of music with which he is most associated, a piece arranged and performed by Barry, but whose credited writer is Monty Norman. Compare and contrast “Poor Me”:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “Poor Me”]

And the James Bond theme:

[Excerpt: John Barry, “James Bond Theme”]

For the next couple of years, Faith had a string of hits, mostly written by Vandyke and arranged by Barry, though no more number ones. By most metrics — in hits, record sales, and fan appeal — he was the second-biggest British pop star of the early sixties, after Cliff Richard. 

He also became well known as a media personality, thanks in large part to his appearance on the interview show Face to Face. This was a TV programme that ran from 1959 through 1962 — almost the precise same length as Faith’s pop career — and which had interviewer John Freeman sat with his back to the camera, while the studio was largely in darkness other than the face of the person he was interviewing. Freeman’s questions seem in the modern media landscape to be remarkably gentle, but in the early sixties he was regarded as the most incisive and probing interviewer in the British media. He reduced at least one subject, Gilbert Harding, to tears, and his questioning of Tony Hancock is popularly supposed to have started Hancock into the spiral of questioning, self-doubt, and depression that led first to his career crashing and burning and eventually to his suicide.

Most of the guests that Freeman had on the show were serious, important, highbrow people. The thirty-five episodes of the show included interviews with Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Adlai Stevenson, Henry Moore, Martin Luther King and Jomo Kenyatta. But occasionally there would be someone invited on from the world of sport or entertainment, and Faith was invited on to the show as a representative of youth culture and pop music.

The questions asked on the show were clearly designed to make Faith — a twenty-year-old pop singer who went to a secondary modern and still lived on a council estate even now he’d hit the big time — seem a laughing stock, and to poke holes in his image. Everyone involved seems to have been surprised when he came across as a well-read, cultured, if rather mercenary, young man who could string three words together:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “Face to Face”, interview questions about classical music and literature]

As a result of that appearance, Faith was increasingly asked on to TV shows to be “the voice of the youth”, particularly as he was the first pop star to admit to things like having sex before marriage. He debated with the Archbishop of York about religion on national TV, in a debate chaired by Ludovic Kennedy, and Faith was largely viewed as having come out better than the bishop.

He also took at least one brave political stand in 1964. He had been booked to tour in South Africa, and agreed to do so only under the condition that he would perform only to integrated audiences. But when he got on stage for one show, he saw the police dragging two young girls out of an otherwise all-white audience, because they weren’t white. He walked off stage, and refused to do the rest of the tour. The promoter demanded compensation, and Faith refused, saying he’d made clear that he was only going to play to integrated audiences. He tried to leave the country, booking plane tickets under his birth name to escape suspicion, but was dragged off the plane at gunpoint by South African police. Eventually the intervention of the chairman of EMI, the British Foreign Secretary, the general secretary of Equity, the actor’s union, and several brave journalists who said that if Faith was imprisoned they would go to prison with him, meant that Faith was allowed to leave the country, though EMI paid the promoter’s compensation and took it out of Faith’s future royalties.

Not that there were many royalties by that point. In early 1963, John Barry had stopped working with Faith to concentrate on his film music — he’d just started working on the Bond films that would make his name — and the hits dried up then, especially when musical styles suddenly changed in the middle of that year.

But Faith had managed to parlay his looks into an acting career by that point, and over the next decade he appeared in several films, starred in the TV series Budgie, and toured in repertory theatre. He also became a manager and producer, managing Leo Sayer and producing Roger Daltrey’s solo recordings.

He would occasionally make the odd record himself, up to the nineties, with his final single being a duet with Daltrey on a cover version of “Stuck in the Middle With You”:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith and Roger Daltrey, “Stuck in the Middle With You”]

But as someone who looked after his money, Faith had been far more canny than most of his fellow pop stars, and for much of his life he was a very wealthy man. While he continued performing, his main role in the eighties and nineties was as a financial journalist and investment advisor, writing columns on finance for the Daily Mail. He presented the BBC business show Working Lunch, the Channel 4 money show Dosh, and eventually started his own TV channel devoted to business, The Money Channel. Unfortunately for him, the Money Channel went down in the stock market crashes of the early 2000s, and Faith went bankrupt in 2002. He died in 2003, aged sixty-two.

But you’ll notice we haven’t yet mentioned the song that this episode is about. That’s because that song, “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone”, was completely unimportant in Adam Faith’s life. It was just a bit of album filler on his second album. But though Faith didn’t know it, it was an important song in rock music history:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “I’ve Just Fallen For Someone”]

Like Faith’s hits, that was written by another performer, one who like Les Vandyke had a variety of different names. John Askew was one of Larry Parnes’ stable of acts, and far from the most successful of them. He performed under the name Johnny Gentle, and didn’t have a great deal of success. Askew’s first single, “Wendy”, was unsuccessful, but it was unusual among British singles of the period in that it was written by Askew himself:

[Excerpt: Johnny Gentle, “Wendy”]

His second, though, made the top thirty:

[Excerpt: Johnny Gentle, “Milk From the Coconut”]

That would be the most success Johnny Gentle ever had, and his live shows were made up entirely of cover versions of other people’s records — when he toured Scotland in 1960, for example, his setlist consisted of two Buddy Holly songs, and one each by Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Eddie Cochran, and Jim Reeves.

But he was still writing songs on that tour, and he was working on one in a hotel in Inverness – one that clearly referenced “What Do You Want?” with its girl who doesn’t want ermine and pearls – when he got stuck for a middle eight for the song, and mentioned it to the rhythm guitarist in his backing band. The guitarist came up with a new middle eight — referencing a line from a favourite song of his, “Money” by Barrett Strong. Askew took that new middle eight, though didn’t give the guitarist any songwriting credit — Askew was an established songwriter, after all. He gave the song to Faith, who recorded it in late 1961, and released it in 1962:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, “I’ve Just Fallen for Someone”]

That was on his second album, Adam Faith (his first album had been called Adam), and on an EP taken from the album. But Askew thought it had more potential, and he recorded his own version, as Darren Young — by this point he’d decided that his old stage name was bringing him bad luck:

[Excerpt: Darren Young, “I’ve Just Fallen for Someone”]

That version wasn’t successful either, and the song remained completely obscure until the mid-1990s. It was at that point that Askew started telling the story of how the song had been written. And suddenly the song was of a lot more interest, at least to some people, because that rhythm guitarist who wrote that middle eight was John Lennon, and Gentle’s backing band on that tour was the Beatles. We’ve just heard the story of the first ever commercial recording of a John Lennon song. And we’ll pick up on that next week…

Sep 15, 2020
Episode 97: “Song to Woody” by Bob Dylan
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Episode ninety-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Song To Woody” by Bob Dylan, and at the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Sherry” by the Four Seasons.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This might not be available in the US, due to the number of Woody Guthrie songs in a row.

Dylan’s first album is in the public domain in Europe, so a variety of reissues of it exist. An interesting and cheap one is this, which pairs it (and a non-album single by Dylan) with two Carolyn Hester albums which give a snapshot of the Greenwich Village scene, on one of which Dylan plays harmonica.

The Harry Smith Anthology is also now public domain, and can be freely downloaded from archive.org

I have used *many* books for this episode, most of which I will also be using for future episodes on Dylan:

The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald is the fascinating and funny autobiography of Dylan’s mentor in his Greenwich Village period.

Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald is the definitive book on Robert Johnson.

Information on Woody Guthrie comes from Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray.

Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan is a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography.

Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon is a song-by-song look at every song Dylan ever wrote, as is Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.

Heylin also wrote the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades.

I’ve also used Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, which is less accurate, but which is written by someone who knew Dylan.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

1962 is the year when the sixties really started, and in the next few episodes we will see the first proper appearances of several of the musicians who would go on to make the decade what it was. By two weeks from now, when we get to episode one hundred and the end of the second year of the podcast, the stage will be set for us to look at that most mythologised of decades.

And so today, we’re going to take our first look at one of the most important of the sixties musicians, the only songwriter ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a man who influenced every single performer and songwriter for at least the next decade, and whose work inspired a whole subgenre, albeit one he had little but contempt for. We’re going to look at his first album, and at a song he wrote to his greatest influence. And we’re also going to look at how his career intersected with someone we talked about way back in the very first episode of this podcast.

Today we’re going to look at Bob Dylan, and at “Song to Woody”:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”]

This episode is going to be a little different from several of the other episodes we’ve had recently. At the time he made his first album, Dylan was not the accomplished artist he quickly became, but a minor performer whose first record only contained two original songs. But he was from a tradition that we’ve looked at only in passing before. We’ve barely looked at the American folk music tradition, and largely ignored the musicians who were major figures in it, because those figures only really enter into rock and roll in a real way starting with Dylan. So as part of this episode, we’re going to have very brief, capsule, looks at a number of other musicians we’ve not touched on before. I’ll only be giving enough background for these people so you can get a flavour of them — in future episodes when we look at the folk and folk-rock scenes, we’ll also fill in some more of the background of these artists. That also means this episode is going to run a little long, just because there’s a lot to get through.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in the Minnesota Iron Range, an area of the US that was just beginning a slow descent into poverty, as the country suddenly needed a lot less metal after the end of World War II. He was born in Duluth, but moved to Hibbing, a much smaller town, when he was very young.

As a kid, he was fascinated with music that sounded a little odd. He was first captivated by Johnnie Ray — and incidentally, Clinton Heylin, in his biography of Dylan, thinks that this must be wrong, and “Dylan has surely mixed up his names” and must be thinking of Johnny Ace, because “Ray’s main period of chart success” was 1956-58. Heylin’s books are usually very, very well researched, but here he’s showing his parochialism. Johnnie Ray’s biggest *UK* hits were in 1956-8, but in the US his biggest hits came in 1951, and he had a string of hits in the very early fifties. 

Ray’s hits, like “Cry”, were produced by Mitch Miller, and were on Columbia records:

[Excerpt: Johnnie Ray, “Cry”]

Shortly after his infatuation with Ray’s music, he fell for the music of Hank Williams in a big way, and became obsessed with Williams’ songwriting:

[Excerpt: Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”]

He also became a fan of another Hank, Hank Snow, the country singer who had been managed by Colonel Tom Parker, and through Snow he became aware of the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, who Snow frequently covered, and who Snow admired enough that Snow’s son was named Jimmie Rodgers Snow. 

But he soon also became a big fan of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. He taught himself to play rudimentary piano in a Little Richard style, and his ambition, as quoted in his high school yearbook, was to join Little Richard’s band. He was enough of a fan of rock and roll music that he went to see Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on the penultimate date of their ill-fated tour. He later claimed to have seen a halo over Holly’s head during the performance.

His first brush with fame came indirectly as a result of that tour. A singer from Fargo, North Dakota, named Bobby Vee, was drafted in to cover for Holly at the show that Holly had been travelling to when he died. Vee sounded a little like Holly, if you didn’t listen too closely, and he had a minor local hit with a song called “Suzy Baby”:

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, “Suzy Baby”]

Dylan joined Vee’s band for a short while under the stage name Elston Gunn, playing the piano, though he was apparently not very good (he could only play in C, according to some sources I’ve read), and he didn’t stay in Vee’s band very long. But while he was in Vee’s band, he would tell friends and relatives that he *was* Bobby Vee, and at least some people believed him.

Vee would go on to have a career as one of the wave of Bobbies that swarmed all over American Bandstand in the late fifties and early sixties, with records like “Rubber Ball”:

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, “Rubber Ball”]

While Dylan made his name with a very different kind of music, he would always argue that Vee deserved rather more respect than he usually got, and that there was some merit to his music.

But it wasn’t until he went to university in Minneapolis that Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, and changed everything about his life. As many people do when they go to university, he reinvented himself — he took on a new name, which has variously been quoted as having been inspired by Marshall Dillon from the TV series Gunsmoke and by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He stopped studying, and devoted his time to music and chasing women. And he also took on a new musical style.

The way he tells it, he had an epiphany in a record shop listening booth, listening to an album by the folk singer Odetta. Odetta was an astonishing singer who combined elements of folk, country, and blues with an opera-trained voice, and Dylan was probably listening to her first album, which was largely traditional folk songs, plus one song each by Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers:

[Excerpt: Odetta, “Muleskinner Blues”]

Dylan had soon sold his electric guitar and bought an acoustic, and he immediately learned all of Odetta’s repertoire and started performing her songs, and Lead Belly’s, with a friend, “Spider” John Koerner, who would later become a fairly well-known folk blues musician in his own right:

[Excerpt: Ray, Koerner, and Glover, “Hangman”]

And then, at a coffee-shop, he got talking with a friend of his, Flo Castner, and she invited him to come round to her brother’s apartment, which was nearby, because she thought he might be interested in some of the music her brother had.

Dylan discovered two albums at Lyn Castner’s house that day that would change his life. The first, and the less important to him in the short term, is one we’ve talked about before — he heard the Spirituals to Swing album, the record of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concerts that we talked about back in the first few episodes of the podcast:

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner & Pete Johnson, “It’s Alright, Baby”]

That album impressed him, but it was the other record he heard that day that changed everything for him immediately. It was a collection of recordings by Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie is someone we’ve only mentioned in passing so far, but he was pivotal in the development of American folk music in the 1940s, and in particular he was important in the politicisation of that music.

In the 1930s, there wasn’t really a distinction made between country music and folk — that distinction is one that only really came later — and Guthrie had started out as a country singer, singing songs inspired by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other 1920s greats. For most of his early twenties he’d bummed around Oklahoma and Texas doing odd jobs as a sign painter, psychic, faith healer, and whatever else he could pick up a little money for. But then in 1936 he’d travelled out to California in search of work. When there, he’d hooked up with a cousin, Jack Guthrie, who was a Western singer, performing the kind of Western Swing that would later become rockabilly. We don’t have any recordings of Jack from this early, but when you listen to him in the forties, you can hear the kind of hard-edged California Western Swing that would influence most of the white artists we looked at in the first year or so of the podcast:

[Excerpt: Jack Guthrie, “Oakie Boogie”]

Woody and Jack weren’t musically compatible — this was when country and western were seen as very, very different genres, rather than being lumped into one — but they worked together for a while. Jack was the lead singer and guitarist, and Woody was his comedy sidekick, backing vocalist, and harmonica player. They performed with a group called the Beverly Hillbillies and got their own radio show, The Oakie and Woody Show, but it wasn’t successful, and Jack decided to give up the show. Woody continued with a friend, Maxine Crissman, who performed as “Lefty Lou From Old Mizzou”. The Woody and Lefty act became hugely popular, but Lefty eventually also quit, due to her health failing, and while at the time she seems to have been regarded as the major talent in the duo, her leaving the act was indirectly the best thing that ever happened to Guthrie.

The radio station they were performing on was owned by a fairly left-wing businessman who had connections with the radical left faction of the Democratic Party (and in California in the thirties that could be quite radical, somewhere close to today’s Democratic Socialists of America), and when Lefty quit the act, the owner of the station gave Guthrie another job — the owner also ran a left-wing newspaper, and since Guthrie was from Oklahoma, maybe he would be interested in writing some columns about the plight of the Okie migrants? 

Guthrie went and spent time with those people, and his shock at the poverty they were living in and the discrimination they were suffering seems to have radicalised him. He started hanging round with members of the Communist Party, though he apparently never joined — he wasn’t all that interested in Marxist theory or the party line, he just wanted to take the side of the victims against the bullies, and he saw the Communists as doing that. He was, though, enough of a fellow traveller that when World War II started he took the initial Communist line of it being a capitalist’s fight that socialists should have no part of (a line which was held until Russia joined the war, at which point it became a crusade against the evils of fascism). His employer was a more resolute anti-fascist, and so Guthrie lost his newspaper job, and he decided to move across the country to New York, where he hooked up with a group of left-wing intellectuals and folk singers, centring on Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.

It was this environment, centred in Almanac House in Greenwich Village, that spawned the Almanac Singers and later the Weavers, who we talked about a few episodes back. And Guthrie had been the most important of all of them.

Guthrie was a folk performer — a big chunk of his repertoire was old songs like “Ida Red”, “Stackolee”, and “Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” – but he also wrote songs himself, taking the forms of old folk and country songs, and reworking the lyrics — and sometimes, but not always, the music — creating songs that dealt with events that were happening at the time. There were songs about famous outlaws, recast as Robin Hood type figures:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd”]

There were talking blues with comedy lyrics:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, “Talking Fishing Blues”]

There were the famous Dust Bowl Ballads, about the dust storms that had caused so much destruction and hardship in the west:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, “The Great Dust Storm”]

And of course, there was “This Land is Your Land”, a radical song about how private property is immoral and unnatural, which has been taken up as an anthem by people who would despise everything that Guthrie stood for:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land”]

It’s not certain which records by Guthrie Dylan heard that day — he talks about it in his autobiography, but the songs he talks about weren’t ones that were on the same album, and he seems to just be naming a handful of Guthrie’s songs. What is certain is that Dylan reacted to this music in a visceral way. He decided that he had to *become* Woody Guthrie, and took on Guthrie’s playing and singing style, even his accent.

However, he soon modulated that slightly, when a friend told him that he might as well give up — Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was already doing the Guthrie-imitation thing. Elliot, like Dylan, was a middle-class Jewish man who had reinvented himself as a Woody Guthrie copy — in this case, Elliot Adnopoz, the son of a surgeon, had become Ramblin’ Jack the singing cowboy, and had been an apprentice of Guthrie, living with him and learning everything from him, before going over to Britain, where his status as an actual authentic American had meant he was one of the major figures in the British folk scene and the related skiffle scene. Alan Lomax, who had moved to the UK temporarily to escape the anti-Communist witch hunts, had got Elliot a contract with Topic Records, a folk label that had started out as part of the Workers’ Music Association, which as you can probably tell from the name was affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There he’d recorded an album of Guthrie songs, which Dylan’s acquaintance played for him:

[Excerpt: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, “1913 Massacre”]

Dylan was shocked that there was someone out there doing the same thing, but then he just took on aspects of Elliot’s persona as well as Guthrie’s. He was going to be the next Woody Guthrie, and that meant inhabiting his persona utterly, and giving his whole repertoire over to Guthrie songs.

He was also, though, making tentative efforts at writing his own songs, too. One which we only have as a lyric was written to a girlfriend, and was set to the same tune we just heard — Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”. The lyrics were things like “Hey, hey Bonny, I’m singing to you now/The song I’m singing is the best I know how”

Incidentally, the woman that was written for is yet another person in the story who now has a different name — she became a moderately successful actor, appearing in episodes of Star Trek and Gunsmoke, and changed her name to Jahanara Romney shortly after her marriage to the hippie peace activist Wavy Gravy (which isn’t Mr. Gravy’s birth name either). Their son, whose birth name was Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, also changed his name later on, you’ll be unsurprised to hear.

Dylan by this point was feeling as constrained by the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as he had earlier by the small town Hibbing. In January 1961, he decided he was going to go to New York, and while he was there he was going to go and meet Woody Guthrie in person.

Guthrie was, by this time, severely ill — he had Huntington’s disease, a truly awful genetic disorder that had also killed his mother. Huntington’s causes dementia, spasmodic movements, a loss of control of the body, and a ton of other mental and physical symptoms. Guthrie had been in a psychiatric hospital since 1956, and was only let out every Sunday to see family at a friend’s house. 

Bob Dylan quickly became friendly with Guthrie, visiting him regularly in the hospital to play Guthrie’s own songs for him, and occasionally joining him on the family visits on Sundays. He only spent a few months doing this — Dylan has always been someone who moved on quickly, and Guthrie also moved towards the end of 1961, to a new hospital closer to his family, but these visits had a profound effect on the young man.

When not visiting Guthrie, Dylan was spending his time in Greenwich Village, the Bohemian centre of New York. The Village at that time was a hotbed of artists and radicals, with people like the poet Allen Ginsberg, the street musician Moondog, and Tiny Tim, a ukulele player who sang Rudy Vallee songs in falsetto, all part of the scene. It was also the centre of what was becoming the second great folk revival.

That revival had been started in 1952, when the most important bootleg ever was released, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music:

[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”]

Harry Smith was a record collector, experimental filmmaker, and follower of the occultist Aleister Crowley. His greatest work seems at least in part to have been created as a magickal work, with album covers designed by himself full of esoteric symbolism. Smith had a huge collection of old 78 records — all of them things that had been issued commercially in the late 1920s and early thirties, when the record industry had been in a temporary boom before the depression. Many of these records had been very popular in the twenties, but by 1952 even the most popular acts, like Blind Lemon Jefferson or the Carter Family, were largely forgotten.

So Smith and Moe Asch, the owner of Folkways Records, took advantage of the new medium, the long-playing album, and put together a six-album set of these recordings, not bothering with trivialities like copyright even though, again, most of these had been recorded for major labels only twenty or so years earlier — but at this time there was not really such a thing as a market for back catalogue, and none of the record labels involved seem to have protested.

Smith’s collection was an idiosyncratic one, based around his own tastes. It ran the gamut from hard blues:

[Excerpt: Joe Williams’ Washboard Blues Singers, “Baby Please Don’t Go”]

To the Carter Family’s country recordings of old ballads that date back centuries:

[Excerpt: The Carter Family, “Black Jack Davey”]

To gospel:

[Excerpt: Sister Clara Hudmon, “Stand By Me”]

But put together in one place, these records suggested the existence of a uniquely American roots music tradition, one that encompassed all these genres, and Smith’s Anthology became the favourite music of the same type of people who in the UK around the same time were becoming skifflers — many of them radical leftists who had been part of the US equivalent of the trad jazz movement (who were known as “mouldy figs”) and were attracted by the idea of an authentic music of the working man. The Harry Smith Anthology became the core repertoire for every American folk musician of the fifties, the seed around which the whole movement crystallised. Every folkie knew every single song on those records.

Those folkies had started playing at coffee shops in Greenwich Village, places that were known as basket houses, because they didn’t charge for entry or pay the artists, but the performers could pass a basket and split whatever the audience decided to donate. 

Originally, the folk musicians were not especially popular, and in fact they were booked for that reason. The main entertainment for those coffee shops was poetry, and the audience for poetry would mostly buy a single coffee and make it last all night. The folkies were booked to come on between the poets and play a few songs to make the audience clear out to make room for a new audience to come and buy new coffees. However, some of the people got good enough that they actually started to get their own audiences, and within a short time the roles were reversed, with the poets coming on to clear out the folk audience.

Dylan’s first gigs were on this circuit, playing on bills put together by Fred Neil, a musician who was at this point mostly playing blues songs but who within a few years would write some of the great classics of the sixties singer-songwriter genre:

[Excerpt: Fred Neil, “Everybody’s Talkin'”]

By the time Dylan hit the scene, there were quite a few very good musicians in the Village, and the folk scene had grown to the point that there were multiple factions. There were the Stalinists, who had coalesced around Pete Seeger, the elder statesman of the scene, and who played a mixture of summer-camp singalong music and topical songs about news events. There were the Zionists, who were singing things like “Hava Nagilah”. There were bluegrass players, and there were the two groups that most attracted Dylan — those who sang old folk ballads, and those who sang the blues.

Those latter two groups tended to cluster together, because they were smaller than the other groups, and also because of their own political views — while all of the scene were leftists, the blues and ballad singers tended either to be vaguely apolitical, or to be anarchists and Trotskyites rather than Stalinists. But they had a deeper philosophical disagreement with the Stalinists — Seeger’s camp thought that the quality of a song was secondary to the social good it could do, while the blues and ballad singers held that the important thing was the music, and any political or social good was a nice byproduct.

There was a huge amount of infighting between these small groups — the narcissism of small differences — but there was one place they would all hang out. The Folklore Centre was a record and bookshop owned by a man named Izzy Young, and it was where you would go to buy every new book, to buy and sell copies of the zines that were published, and to hang out and find out who the new musicians on the scene were. 

And it was at the Folklore Centre that Dylan met Dave Van Ronk:

[Excerpt: Dave Van Ronk, “Cocaine Blues”]

Van Ronk was the most important musician in the blues and ballads group of folkies, and was politically an anarchist who, through his connection with the Schachtmanites (a fringe-left group who were more Trotskyite than the Trotskyites, and whose views sometimes shaded into anarchism) was becoming converted to Marxism. A physically massive man, he’d started out as a traditional jazz guitarist and banjo player, but had slowly moved on into the folk side of things through his love of blues singers like Bessie Smith and folk-blues artists like Lead Belly. Van Ronk had learned a great deal from Rev. Gary Davis, a blind gospel-blues singer whose technique Van Ronk had studied:

[Excerpt: Rev. Gary Davis, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”]

Van Ronk was one of the few people on the Village scene who was a native New Yorker, though he was from Queens rather than the Village, and he was someone who had already made a few records that Dylan had heard, mostly of the standard repertoire:

[Excerpt: Dave Van Ronk, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”]

Dylan consciously sought him out as the person to imitate on the scene, and he was soon regularly sleeping on Van Ronk’s couch and being managed for a brief time by Van Ronk’s wife. Once again, Dylan was learning everything he could from the people he was around — but he had a much bigger ambition than anyone else on the scene.

A lot of the people on that scene have been very bitter over the years about Dylan, but Van Ronk, who did more for Dylan than anyone else on the scene, never really was — the two stopped being close once he was no more use to Dylan, as so often happened, but they remained friendly, because Van Ronk was secure enough in himself and his own abilities that he didn’t need the validation of being important to the big star. Van Ronk was an important mentor to him for a crucial period of six months or so, and Dylan always acknowledged that, just as Van Ronk always acknowledged Dylan’s talent.

And that talent, at least at first, was a performing talent rather than a songwriting one. Dylan was writing songs by now, but hardly any, and when he did perform them, he was not acknowledging them. His first truly successful song, a song about nuclear war, “Let Me Die in my Footsteps”, he would introduce as a Weavers song:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Let Me Die in my Footsteps”]

For the most part, his repertoire was still only Woody Guthrie songs, but people were amazed by his personal charisma, his humour — one comparison you see time and again when people talk about his early performances is Charlie Chaplin — and his singing. There are so many jokes about Dylan’s vocals that this sounds like a joke, but among the folk crowd, his phrasing in particular — as influenced by the R&B records he grew up listening to as by Guthrie — was considered utterly astonishing.

Dylan started publishing some of his song lyrics in Broadside, a magazine for new topical songs, and in other magazines like Sing Out! These were associated with the Communist side of the folk movement, and Dylan had a foot in both camps through his association with Guthrie and Guthrie’s friends. Through these people he got to know Suze Rotolo, a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality, who became his girlfriend, and her sister Carla, who was the assistant to Alan Lomax, who was now back from the UK, and the Rotolos played a part in Dylan’s big breakthrough. 

The timeline that follows is a bit confused, but Carla Rotolo recorded some of the best Village folk singers, and wrote to John Hammond about the tape, mentioning Dylan in particular. At the same time, Hammond’s son John Hammond Jr, another musician on the circuit and a friend of Dylan’s, apparently mentioned Dylan to his father. Dylan was also working on Robert Shelton, the folk critic of the New York Times, who eventually gave Dylan a massive rave review for a support slot he’d played at Gerde’s Folk City. And the same day that review came out, eight days after Carla Rotolo’s letter, Dylan was in the recording studio with the folk singer Carolyn Hester, playing harmonica on a few of her tracks, and Hammond was the producer:

[Excerpt: Carolyn Hester, “I’ll Fly Away”]

Hammond had, of course, organised the Spirituals to Swing concerts which had influenced Dylan. And not only that, he’d been the person to discover Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. And Charlie Christian. He was now working for Columbia Records, where he’d just produced the first secular records for a promising new gospel singer who had decided to turn pop, named Aretha Franklin:

[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Today I Sing the Blues”]

So Hammond was an important figure in many ways, and he had a lot of latitude at Columbia Records. He decided to sign Dylan, and even though Mitch Miller, Columbia’s head of A&R at the time, had no clue what Hammond saw in Dylan, Hammond’s track record was good enough that he was allowed to get on with it and put out an album.

Hammond also gave Dylan an album to take home and listen to, a record which hadn’t come out yet, a reissue of some old blues records called “King of the Delta Blues Singers” by Robert Johnson:

[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Crossroads Blues”]

There has been a hell of a lot of mythology about Johnson over the years, so much so that it’s almost impossible to give anyone who’s heard of him at all an accurate impression of Johnson’s place in music history. One question I have been asked repeatedly since I started this podcast is “How come you didn’t start with Robert Johnson?”, and if you don’t know about him, you’ll get an idea of his general perception among music fans from the fact that I recently watched an episode of a science fiction TV series where our heroes had to go back in time to stop the villains from preventing Johnson from making his recordings, because by doing that they could stop rock and roll from ever existing.

There’s a popular perception that Johnson was the most important blues musician of his generation, and that he was hugely influential on the development of blues and R&B, and it’s simply false.

He *was* a truly great musician, and he *was* hugely influential — but he was influential on white musicians in the sixties, not black musicians in the thirties, forties, and fifties. In his lifetime, his best selling records sold around five thousand copies, which to put it in perspective is about the same number of people who’ve listened to some of my more popular podcast episodes. Johnson’s biographer Elijah Wald — a man who, like I do, has a huge respect for Johnson’s musicianship, has said “knowing about Johnson and Muddy Waters but not about Leroy Carr or Dinah Washington [is] like knowing about, say, the Sir Douglas Quintet but not knowing about the Beatles.” I’d agree, except that the Sir Douglas Quintet were much, much, bigger in the sixties than Robert Johnson was in the thirties.

Johnson’s reputation comes entirely from that album that Hammond had handed Dylan. Hammond had been one of the tiny number of people who had actually listened to Johnson at the time he was performing. Indeed, Hammond had wanted to get Johnson to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, only to find that Johnson had died only a short time earlier — they’d got Big Bill Broonzy to play in his place, and played a couple of Johnson’s records from the stage. That had, in fact, kickstarted Broonzy’s later second career as a folk-blues musician playing for largely white audiences, rather than as a proto-Chicago-blues performer playing for Black ones.

Hammond’s friend Alan Lomax had also been a fan of Johnson — he’d gone to Mississippi later, to try to record Johnson, also without having realised that Johnson had died. But far from Johnson being the single most important blues musician of the thirties, as he is now portrayed in popular culture, if you’d asked most blues musicians or listeners about Robert Johnson in the twenty-three years between his death and the King of the Delta Blues Singers album coming out, most of them would have looked at you blankly, or maybe asked if you meant Lonnie Johnson, the much more famous musician who was a big inspiration for Robert.

When King of the Delta Blues Singers came out, it changed all that, and made Robert Johnson into a totemic figure among white blues fans, and we’ll see over the next year or two a large number of very important musicians who took inspiration from him — and deservedly so. While the myth of Robert Johnson has almost no connection to the real man, his music demonstrated a remarkable musical mind — he was a versatile, skilled guitarist and arranger, and someone whose musical palette was far wider than his recorded legacy suggests — Ramblin’ Johnny Shines, who travelled with Johnson for a time, describes him as particularly enjoying playing songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and Jimmie Rodgers songs, and polkas, calling Johnson “a polka hound, man”. And even though in his handful of recording sessions he was asked only to play blues, you can still hear elements of that:

[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “They’re Red Hot”]

But the music wasn’t the main thing that grabbed Dylan. Dylan played the album for Dave Van Ronk, who was unimpressed — musically, Johnson just didn’t seem very original to Van Ronk, who played Dylan records by Skip James, Leroy Carr, and others, showing Dylan where Johnson had picked up most of his musical ideas. And Dylan had to agree with him that Johnson didn’t sound particularly original in that context — but he also didn’t care, reasoning that many of the Woody Guthrie songs he loved were rewrites of old Carter Family songs, so if Johnson was rewriting Leroy Carr songs that was fair enough.

What got to Dylan was Johnson’s performance style, but also his ability with words. Johnson had a very sparse, economical, lyrical style which connected with Dylan on a primordial level. Most of those who became fans of Johnson following the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers saw Johnson as an exotic and scary figure — the myth commonly told about him is that he sold his soul at a crossroads to the Devil in return for the ability to play the guitar, though that’s a myth that was originally told about a different Mississippi blues man called Tommy Johnson, and there’s no evidence that anyone thought that of him at the time — and so these later fans see his music as being haunted. Dylan instead seems to see Johnson as someone very like himself — in his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan talks about Johnson being a bothersome kid who played harmonica, who was later taught a bit of guitar and then learned the rest of his music from records, rather than from live performers. Dylan’s version of Johnson is closer to the reality, as far as we know it, than the Johnson of legend is, and Dylan seems to have been delighted when he found out much later that the name of the musician who taught Johnson to play guitar was Ike Zimmerman.

Dylan immediately tried to incorporate Johnson’s style into his own songwriting, and we’ll see the effects of that in future episodes. But that songwriting wouldn’t be seen much on his debut album. And nor would his Woody Guthrie repertoire. Instead, Dylan performed a set of traditional ballads and blues numbers, most of which he never performed live normally, and at least half of which were arrangements that Dylan copied wholesale from Dave Van Ronk.

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”]

The album was recorded quickly, in a couple of days. Hammond found Dylan incredibly difficult to work with, saying he had appalling mic technique, and for many of the songs Dylan refused to do a second take.

There were only two originals on the album. One, “Talkin’ New York”, was a comedy talking blues about his early time in New York, very much in the style of Woody Guthrie’s talking blues songs. The other, “Song To Woody”, was a rewrite of his earlier “Song For Bonny”, which was itself a rewrite of Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”. The song is a touching one, Dylan paying tribute to his single biggest influence:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”]

Dylan was moving on, and he knew he was moving on, but he had to say goodbye.

Dylan’s first album was not a success, and he became known within Columbia Records as “Hammond’s Folly”, but nor did it lose money, since it was recorded so quickly. It’s a record that Dylan and Hammond both later spoke poorly of, but it’s one I rather like, and one of the best things to come out of the Greenwich Village folk scene.

But by the time it came out, Dylan’s artistic heart was already elsewhere, and when we come back to him in a couple of months, we’ll be seeing someone who had completely reinvented himself.

 

Sep 10, 2020
Episode 96: “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva
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Episode ninety-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva, and how a demo by Carole King’s babysitter became one of the biggest hits of the sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are no biographies of Little Eva, so I’ve used a variety of sources, including the articles on Little Eva and The Cookies at This Is My Story. The following books were also of some use:

A Natural Woman is Carole King’s autobiography.

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the whole scene.

Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including articles on both Little Eva and The Cookies.

There are no decent CDs of Eva’s material readily available, but I can recommend two overlapping compilations. This compilation contains Little Eva’s only sixties album in full, along with some tracks by Carole King, the Cookies, and the Ronettes, while Dimension Dolls is a compilation from 1963 that overlaps substantially with that album but contains several tracks not on it.

 

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Transcript

A quick note before this begins — there is some mention of domestic violence in this episode. If that’s something that might upset you, please check the transcript of the episode at 500songs.com if reading it might be easier than listening.

A couple of months back, we talked about Goffin and King, and the early days of the Brill Building sound. Today we’re going to take another look at them, and at a singer who recorded some of their best material, both solo and in a group, but who would always be overshadowed by the first single they wrote for her, when she was still working as their childminder. Today, we’re going to look at Little Eva and “The Loco-Motion”, and the short history of Dimension Records:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, “The Loco-Motion”]

The story of Little Eva is intertwined with the story of the Cookies, one of the earliest of the girl groups, and so we should probably start with them. We’ve mentioned the Cookies earlier, in the episode on “What’d I Say”, but we didn’t look at them in any great detail. The group started out in the mid-fifties, as a group of schoolgirls singing together in New York — Dorothy Jones, her cousin Beulah Robertson, and a friend, Darlene McRae, who had all been in the choir at their local Baptist Church. They formed a group and made their first appearance at the famous Harlem Apollo talent contests, where they came third, to Joe Tex and a vocal group called the Flairs (not, I think, any of the Flairs groups we’ve looked at). They were seen at that contest by Jesse Stone, who gave them the name “The Cookies”. He signed them to Aladdin Records, and produced and co-wrote their first single, “All-Night Mambo”. That wasn’t commercially successful, but Stone liked them enough that he then got them signed to Atlantic, where he again wrote their first single for the label. That first single was relatively unsuccessful, but their second single on Atlantic, “In Paradise”, did chart, making number nine on the R&B chart:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, “In Paradise”]

But the B-side to that record would end up being more important to their career in the long run. “Passing Time” was the very first song by Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield to get recorded, even before Sedaka’s recordings with the Tokens or his own successful solo records:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, “Passing Time”]

But then two things happened. Firstly, one of the girls, Beulah Robertson, fell out with Jesse Stone, who sacked her from the group. Stone got in a new vocalist, Margie Hendrix, to replace her, and after one more single the group stopped making singles for Atlantic. But they continued recording for smaller labels, and they also had regular gigs as backing vocalists for Atlantic, on records like “Lipstick, Powder, and Paint” by Big Joe Turner:

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, “Lipstick, Powder and Paint”]

“It’s Too Late” by Chuck Willis:

[Excerpt: Chuck Willis, “It’s Too Late”]

And “Lonely Avenue” by Ray Charles:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, “Lonely Avenue”]

It was working with Ray Charles that led to the breakup of the original lineup of the Cookies — Charles was putting together his own group, and wanted the Cookies as his backing vocalists, but Dorothy was pregnant, and decided she’d rather stay behind and continue working as a session singer than go out on the road. Darlene and Margie went off to become the core of Charles’ new backing group, the Raelettes, and they would play a major part in the sound of Charles’ records for the next few years. It’s Margie, for example, who can be heard duetting with Charles on “The Right Time”:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, “The Right Time”]

Dorothy stayed behind and put together a new lineup of Cookies. To make sure the group sounded the same, she got Darlene’s sister Earl-Jean into the group — Darlene and Earl-Jean looked and sounded so similar that many histories of the group say they’re the same person — and got another of her cousins, Margaret Ross, to take over the spot that had previously been Beulah’s before Margie had taken her place. 

This new version of the Cookies didn’t really start doing much for a couple of years, while Dorothy was raising her newborn and Earl-Jean and Margaret were finishing high school. But in 1961 they started again in earnest, when Neil Sedaka remembered the Cookies and called Dorothy up, saying he knew someone who needed a vocal group.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King had become hot songwriters, and they’d also become increasingly interested in record production after Carole had been involved in the making of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Carole was recording her own demos of the songs she and Goffin were writing, and was increasingly making them fully-produced recordings in their own right. The first record the new Cookies sang on was one that seems to have started out as one of these demos. “Halfway to Paradise” by Tony Orlando sounds exactly like a Drifters record, and Orlando was, at the time, a sixteen-year-old demo singer. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that this was a demo intended for the Drifters, that it was turned down, and so the demo was released as a record itself:

[Excerpt: Tony Orlando, “Halfway to Paradise”]

That made the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, while a British cover version by Billy Fury made number three in the UK.

From this point on, the new lineup of the Cookies were once again the premier session singers. They added extra backing vocals to a lot of the Drifters’ records at this time, and would provide backing vocals for most of Atlantic’s artists, as the earlier lineup had. They were also effectively the in-house backing singers for Aldon Music — as well as singing on every Goffin and King demo, they were also singing with Neil Sedaka:

[Excerpt: Neil Sedaka, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”]

But it was Goffin and King who spent the most time working with the Cookies, and who pushed them as recording artists in their own right. They started with a solo record for Dorothy, “Taking That Long Walk Home”, a song that was very much “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” part two:

[Excerpt: Dorothy Jones, “Taking That Long Walk Home”]

The Cookies were doing huge amounts of session work, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Dorothy Jones described being in the studio working on a King Curtis session until literally fifteen minutes before giving birth. 

They weren’t the only ones working hard, though. Goffin and King were writing from their Aldon offices every single day, writing songs for the Drifters, the Shirelles, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney, the Crickets, the Everly Brothers, and more. And on top of that they had a child and Carole King was pregnant with a second one. 

And, this being the very early 1960s, it never occurred to either Goffin or King that just because Carole King was working the exact same number of hours as Goffin, that might mean she shouldn’t also be doing the housework and looking after the children with no help from Goffin. There was only one way they could continue their level of productivity, and that was to get someone in to help out Carole. She mentioned to the Cookies that she was looking for someone to help her with the children, and Earl-Jean mentioned that a nineteen-year-old acquaintance — her friend’s husband’s sister — had just moved to New York from North Carolina to try to become a singer and was looking for any work she could get while she was trying to make it. Eva Narcissus Boyd, Earl-Jean’s acquaintance, moved in with Goffin and King and became their live-in childminder for $35 a week plus room and board.

Goffin and King had known that Eva was a singer before they hired her, and they discovered that her voice was rather good. Not only that, but she blended well with the Cookies, and was friends with them. She became an unofficial “fourth Cookie”, and was soon in the studio on a regular basis too — and when she was, that meant that Eva’s sister was looking after the kids, as a subcontracted babysitter.

During this time, Don Kirshner’s attitude was still that he was determined to get the next hit for every artist that had a hit. But that wasn’t always possible. 

Cameo-Parkway had, after the success they’d had with “The Twist”, fully jumped on the dance-craze bandwagon, and they’d hit on another dance that might be the next Twist. The Mashed Potato was a dance that James Brown had been doing on stage for a few years, and in the wake of “The Twist”, Brown had had a hit with a song about it “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes”, which was credited to Nat Kendrick & the Swans rather than to Brown for contractual reasons:

[Excerpt: Nat Kendrick and the Swans, “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes”]

Cameo-Parkway had picked up on that dance, and had done just what Kirshner always did and created a soundalike of a recent hit — and in fact they’d mashed up, if you’ll pardon the expression, two recent hits. In this case, they’d taken the sound of “Please Mr. Postman”, slightly reworked the lyrics to be about Brown’s dance, and given it to session singer Dee Dee Sharp:

[Excerpt: Dee Dee Sharp, “Mashed Potato Time”]

That had gone to number two on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, and even inspired its own rip-offs, like “The Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett:

[Excerpt: Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, “The Monster Mash”]

So Kirshner just assumed that Sharp would be looking for another dance hit, one that sounded just like “Mashed Potato Time”, and got Goffin and King to write one to submit to her. 

Unfortunately for him, he’d assumed wrong. Cameo-Parkway was owned by a group of successful songwriters, and they didn’t need outside writers bringing them hits when they could write their own. Dee Dee Sharp wasn’t going to be recording Goffin and King’s song. 

When he listened to the demo, Don Kirshner was astonished that they hadn’t taken the song. It had “hit” written all over it. He decided that he was going to start his own record label, Dimension Records, and he was just going to release that demo as the single. The Cookies went into the studio to overdub another layer of backing vocals, but otherwise the record that was released was the demo Eva — now renamed “Little Eva” — had sung:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, “The Loco-Motion”]

The record went to number one, and made Little Eva a star. It also made Gerry Goffin a successful producer, because even though Goffin and King had coproduced it, Goffin got sole production credit on this, and on other records the two produced together. According to King, Goffin was the one in the control room for their productions, while she would be on the studio floor, and she didn’t really question whether what she was doing counted as production too until much later — and anyway, getting the sole credit was apparently important to Gerry.

“The Loco-Motion” was such a big hit that it inspired its own knockoffs, including one song cheekily called “Little Eva” by a group called “The Locomotions”  — so the record label would say “Little Eva, The Locomotions”, and people might buy it by mistake. You’ll be shocked to learn that that one was on a Morris Levy label:

[Excerpt: The Locomotions, “Little Eva”]

That group featured Leon Huff, who would later go on to make a lot of much better records.

Meanwhile, as Little Eva was now a star, Carole King once again had to look for a childminder. This time she insisted that anyone she hired be unable to sing, so she wouldn’t keep having to do this.

Dimension Records was soon churning out singles, all of them involving the Cookies, and Eva, and Goffin and King. They put out “Everybody’s Got a Dance But Me” by Big Dee Irwin, a song that excerpted “The Loco-Motion”, “Wah Watusi”, “Hully Gully” and “Twist and Shout” among many others, with the Cookies on backing vocals, and with Goffin as the credited producer:

[Excerpt: Big Dee Irwin, “Everybody’s Got a Dance But Me”]

That wasn’t a hit, but Dimension soon released two more big hits. One was a solo single by Carole King, “It Might as Well Rain Until September”, which went to number twenty even though its only national exposure was a disastrous appearance by King on American Bandstand which left her feeling humiliated:

[Excerpt: Carole King, “It Might as Well Rain Until September”]

Her solo performing career wouldn’t properly take off for a few more years, but that was a step towards it. The Cookies also had a hit on Dimension around this point. Goffin and King had written a song called “Chains” for the Everly Brothers, who had recorded it but not released it:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Chains”]

So they gave the song to the Cookies instead, with Little Eva on additional vocals, and it made the pop top twenty, and the R&B top ten:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, “Chains”]

Several people have pointed out that that lyric can be read as having an element of BDSM to it, and it’s not the only Goffin and King song from this period that does — there’s a 1964 B-side they wrote for Eva called “Please Hurt Me”, which is fairly blatant:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, “Please Hurt Me”]

But the BDSM comparison has also been made — wrongly, in my opinion — about one of the most utterly misguided songs that Goffin and King ever wrote — a song inspired by Little Eva telling them that her boyfriend beat her up. They’d asked her why she put up with it, and she said that he only hit her because he loved her. They were inspired by that to write “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”, an utterly grotesque song which, in a version produced by Phil Spector for the Crystals, was issued as a single but soon withdrawn due to general horror. I won’t be excerpting that one here, though it’s easy enough to find if you want to.

(Having said that, I should also say that while people have said that Goffin & King’s material at this point flirts with BDSM, my understanding of BDSM, as it has been explained to me by friends who indulge in such activities, is that consent is paramount, so I don’t think that “He Hit Me” should be talked about in those terms. I don’t want anything I’ve said here to contribute to the blurring of distinctions between consensual kink and abuse, which are too often conflated).

Originally, Eva’s follow-up to “The Loco-Motion” was going to be “One Fine Day”, another Goffin and King song, but no matter how much Goffin and King worked on the track, they couldn’t come up with an arrangement, and eventually they passed the song over to the Tokens, who solved the arrangement problems (though they kept King’s piano part) and produced a version of it for the Chiffons, for whom it became a hit:

[Excerpt: The Chiffons, “One Fine Day”]

Instead, Goffin and King gave Eva “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”. This is, in my opinion, the best thing that Eva ever did, and it made the top twenty, though it wasn’t as big a hit as “The Loco-Motion”:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”]

And Eva also appeared on another Cookies record, “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby”, which made the top ten:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby”]

The Cookies, Eva, and Goffin and King were such a package deal that Dimension released an album called Dimension Dolls featuring the first few hits of each act and padded out with demos they’d made for other artists.  This hit-making machine was so successful for a brief period in 1962 and 63 that even Eva’s sister Idalia got in on the act, releasing a song by Goffin, King, and Jack Keller, “Hula Hoppin'”:

[Excerpt: Idalia Boyd, “Hula Hoppin'”]

For Eva’s third single, Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller wrote a song called “Let’s Turkey Trot”, which also made the top twenty. But that would be the last time that Eva would have a hit of her own.

At first, the fact that she had a couple of flop singles wasn’t a problem — no artists at this time were consistent hit-makers, and it was normal for someone to have a few top ten hits, then a couple at number 120 or something, before going back to the top. And she was touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, and still in high demand as a live performer.

She also, in 1963, recorded a version of “Swinging on a Star” with Big Dee Irwin, though she wasn’t credited on the label, and that made the top forty (and made number seven in the UK):

[Excerpt: Big Dee Irwin, “Swinging on a Star”]

But everything changed for Little Eva, and for the whole world of Brill Building pop, in 1964. In part, this was because the Beatles became successful and changed the pop landscape, but by itself that shouldn’t have destroyed the careers of Eva or the Cookies, who the Beatles admired — they recorded a cover of “Chains”, and they used to play “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby” in their live sets. But Don Kirshner decided to sell Aldon Music and Dimension Records to Columbia Pictures, and to start concentrating on the West Coast rather than New York. The idea was that they could come up with songs that would be used in films and TV, and make more money that way, and that worked out for many people, including Kirshner himself.

But even when artists like Eva and the Cookies got hit material, the British Invasion made it hard for them to get a footing. For example, Goffin and King wrote a song for Earl-Jean from the Cookies to record as a solo track just after Dimension was taken over by Columbia. That record did make the top forty:

[Excerpt: Earl-Jean, “I’m Into Something Good”]

But then Herman’s Hermits released their version, which became a much bigger hit. That sort of thing kept happening. The Cookies ended up splitting up by 1967.

Little Eva did end up doing some TV work — most famously, she sang a dance song in an episode of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Magilla Gorilla:

[Excerpt: Little Eva “Makin’ With the Magilla”]

But Dimension Records was not a priority for anyone — Columbia already owned their own labels, and didn’t need another one — and the label was being wound down. And then Al Nevins, Don Kirshner’s partner in Aldon, died. He’d always been friendly with Eva, and without him to advocate for her, the label sold her contract off to Bell Records. From that point on, she could no longer rely on Goffin and King, and she hopped between a number of different labels, none of them with any great success. After spending seven years going from label to label, and having split up with her husband, she quit the music business in 1971 and moved back to North Carolina. She was sick of the music industry, and particularly sick of the lack of money — she had signed a lot of bad contracts, and was making no royalties from sales of her records.

She worked menial day jobs, survived on welfare for a while, became active in her local church, and depending on which reports you read either ran a soul-food restaurant or merely worked there as a waitress. Meanwhile, “The Loco-Motion” was a perennial hit. Her version re-charted in the UK in the early seventies, and Todd Rundgren produced a version for the heavy metal band Grand Funk Railroad which went to number one in the US in 1974:

[Excerpt: Grand Funk Railroad, “The Loco-Motion”]

And then in 1988 an Australian soap star, Kylie Minogue, recorded her own version, which went top five worldwide and started Minogue’s own successful pop career:

[Excerpt: Kylie Minogue, “The Loco-Motion”]

That record becoming a hit got a series of “where are they now?” articles written about Eva, and she was persuaded to come out of retirement and start performing again — though having been so badly hurt by the industry, she was very dubious at first, and she also had scruples because of her strong religious faith. She later said that she’d left the contracts on her table for eight months before signing them — but when she finally did, she found that her audience was still there for her. For the rest of her life, she was a popular performer on the oldies circuit, performing on package tours with people like Bobby Vee and Brian Hyland, playing state fairs and touring Europe. She continued performing until shortly before her death, even after she was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed her, as she once again connected with the audiences who had loved her music back when she was still a teenager. She died, aged fifty-nine, in 2003.

Sep 01, 2020
Episode 95: “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander
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Episode ninety-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “You Better Move On”, and the sad story of Arthur Alexander. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created Mixcloud playlists with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This week it’s been split into two parts because of the number of songs by Arthur Alexander. Part one. Part two.

This compilation collects the best of Alexander’s Dot work.

Much of the information in this episode comes from Richard Younger’s biography of Alexander. It’s unfortunately not in print in the UK, and goes for silly money, though I believe it can be bought cheaply in the US.

And a lot of the background on Muscle Shoals comes from Country Soul by Charles L. Hughes.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

Before we start, a warning for those who need it. This is one of the sadder episodes we’re going to be doing, and it deals with substance abuse, schizophrenia, and miscarriage.

One of the things we’re going to see a lot of in the next few weeks and months is the growing integration of the studios that produced much of the hit music to come out of the Southern USA in the sixties — studios in what the writer Charles L. Hughes calls the country-soul triangle: Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals.

That integration produced some of the greatest music of the era, but it’s also the case that with few exceptions, narratives about that have tended to centre the white people involved at the expense of the Black people. The Black musicians tend to be regarded as people who allowed the white musicians to cast off their racism and become better people, rather than as colleagues who in many cases somewhat resented the white musicians — there were jobs that weren’t open to Black musicians in the segregated South, and now here were a bunch of white people taking some of the smaller number of jobs that *were* available to them. 

This is not to say that those white musicians were, individually, racist — many were very vocally opposed to racism — but they were still beneficiaries of a racist system. These white musicians who loved Black music slowly, over a decade or so, took over the older Black styles of music, and made them into white music. Up to this point, when we’ve looked at R&B, blues, or soul recordings, all the musicians involved have been Black people, almost without exception. And for most of the fifties, rock and roll was a predominantly Black genre, before the influx of the rockabillies made it seem, briefly, like it could lead to a truly post-racial style of music.

But over the 1960s, we’re going to see white people slowly colonise those musics, and push Black musicians to the margins. And this episode marks a crucial turning point in the story, as we see the establishment of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as a centre of white people making music in previously Black genres. But the start of that story comes with a Black man making music that most people at the time saw as coded as white.

Today we’re going to look at someone whose music is often considered the epitome of deep soul, but who worked with many of the musicians who made the Nashville Sound what it was, and who was as influenced by Gene Autry as he was by many of the more obvious singers who might influence a soul legend. Today, we’re going to look at Arthur Alexander, and at “You Better Move On”:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “You’d Better Move On”]

Arthur Alexander’s is one of the most tragic stories we’ll be looking at. He was a huge influence on every musician who came up in the sixties, but he never got the recognition for it. He was largely responsible for the rise of Muscle Shoals studios, and he wrote songs that were later covered by the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, as well as many, many more. The musician Norbert Putnam told the story of visiting George Harrison in the seventies, and seeing his copy of Alexander’s hit single “You Better Move On”. He said to Harrison, “Did you know I played bass on that?” and Harrison replied, “If I phoned Paul up now, he’d come over and kiss your feet”. That’s how important Arthur Alexander was to the Beatles, and to the history of rock music.

But he never got to reap the rewards his talent entitled him to. He spent most of his life in poverty, and is now mostly known only to fans of the subgenre known as deep soul.

Part of this is because his music is difficult to categorise. While most listeners would now consider it soul music, it’s hard to escape the fact that Alexander’s music has an awful lot of elements of country music in it.

This is something that Alexander would point out himself — in interviews, he would talk about how he loved singing cowboys in films — people like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry — and about how when he was growing up the radio stations he would listen to would “play a Drifters record and maybe an Eddy Arnold record, and they didn’t make no distinction. That’s the way it was until much later”.

The first record he truly loved was Eddy Arnold’s 1946 country hit “That’s How Much I Love You”:

[Excerpt: Eddy Arnold, “That’s How Much I Love You”]

Alexander grew up in Alabama, but in what gets described as a relatively integrated area for the time and place — by his own account, the part of East Florence he grew up in had only one other Black family, and all the other children he played with were white, and he wasn’t even aware of segregation until he was eight or nine.

Florence is itself part of a quad-city area with three other nearby towns – Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. This area as a whole is often known as either “the Shoals”, or “Muscle Shoals”, and when people talk about music, it’s almost always the latter, so from this point on, I’ll be using “Muscle Shoals” to refer to all four towns. The consensus among people from the area seems to have been that while Alabama itself was one of the most horribly racist parts of the country, Muscle Shoals was much better than the rest of Alabama. Some have suggested that this comparative integration was part of the reason for the country influence in Alexander’s music, but as we’ve seen in many previous episodes, there were a lot more Black fans of country music than popular myth would suggest, and musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were very obviously influenced by country singers.

Alexander’s father was also called Arthur, and so for all his life the younger Arthur Alexander was known to family and friends as “June”, for Junior. Arthur senior had been a blues guitarist in his youth, and according to his son was also an excellent singer, but he got very angry the one time June picked up his guitar and tried to play it — he forbade him from ever playing the guitar, saying that he’d never made a nickel as a player, and didn’t want that life for his son. As Arthur was an obedient kid, he did as his father said — he never in his life learned to play any musical instrument.

But that didn’t stop him loving music and wanting to sing. He would listen to the radio all the time, listening to crooners like Patti Page and Nat “King” Cole, and as a teenager he got himself a job working at a cafe owned by a local gig promoter, which meant he was able to get free entry to the R&B shows the promoter put on at a local chitlin circuit venue, and get to meet the stars who played there. He would talk to people like Clyde McPhatter, and ask him how he managed to hit the high notes — though he wasn’t satisfied by McPhatter’s answer that “It’s just there”, thinking there must be more to it than that. And he became very friendly with the Clovers, once having a baseball game with them, and spending a lot of time with their lead singer, Buddy Bailey, asking him details of how he got particular vocal effects in the song “One Mint Julep”:

[Excerpt: The Clovers, “One Mint Julep”]

He formed a vocal group called the Heartstrings, who would perform songs like “Sixty Minute Man”, and got a regular spot on a local TV show, but according to his account, after a few weeks one of the other members decided he didn’t need to bother practising any more, and messed up on live TV. The group split up after that.

The only time he got to perform once that group split up was when he would sit in in a band led by his friend George Brooks, who regularly gigged around Muscle Shoals. But there seemed no prospect of anything bigger happening — there were no music publishing companies or recording studios in Alabama, and everyone from Alabama who had made an impact in music had moved away to do it — W.C. Handy, Hank Williams, Sam Phillips, they’d all done truly great things, but they’d done them in Memphis or Nashville, not in Montgomery or Birmingham. There was just not the music industry infrastructure there to do anything.

That started to change in 1956, when the first record company to set up in Muscle Shoals got its start. Tune Records was a tiny label run from a bus station, and most of its business was the same kind of stuff that Sam Phillips did before Sun became big — making records of people’s weddings and so on. But then the owner of the label, James Joiner, came up with a song that he thought might be commercial if a young singer he knew named Bobby Denton sang it. “A Fallen Star” was done as cheaply as humanly possible — it was recorded at a radio station, cut live in one take. The engineer on the track was a DJ who was on the air at the time — he put a record on, engineered the track while the record was playing, and made sure the musicians finished before the record he was playing did, so he could get back on the air.

That record itself wasn’t a hit, and was so unsuccessful that I’ve not been able to find a copy of it anywhere, but it inspired hit cover versions from Ferlin Husky and Jimmy C. Newman:

[Excerpt: Jimmy C. Newman, “A Fallen Star”]

Off the back of those hit versions, Joiner started his own publishing company to go with his record company. Suddenly there was a Muscle Shoals music scene, and everything started to change. A lot of country musicians in the area gravitated towards Joiner, and started writing songs for his publishing company.

At this point, this professional music scene in the area was confined to white people — Joiner recalled later that a young singer named Percy Sledge had auditioned for him, but that Joiner simply didn’t understand his type of music — but a circle of songwriters formed that would be important later.

Jud Phillips, Sam’s brother, signed Denton to his new label, Judd, and Denton started recording songs by two of these new songwriters, Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill. Denton’s recordings were unsuccessful, but they started getting cover versions. Roy Orbison’s first single on RCA was a Hall and Sherrill song:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Sweet and Innocent”]

Hall and Sherrill then started up their own publishing company, with the help of a loan from Joiner, and with a third partner, Tom Stafford. Stafford is a figure who has been almost written out of music history, and about whom I’ve been able to find out very little, but who seems in some ways the most intriguing person among these white musicians and entrepreneurs. Friends from the time describe him as a “reality-hacking poet”, and he seems to have been a beatnik, or a proto-hippie, the only one in Muscle Shoals and maybe the only one in the state of Alabama at the time. He was the focal point of a whole group of white musicians, people like Norbert Puttnam, David Briggs, Dan Penn, and Spooner Oldham.

These musicians loved Black music, and wanted to play it, thinking of it as more exciting than the pop and country that they also played. But they loved it in a rather appropriative way — and in the same way, they had what they *thought* was an anti-racist attitude. Even though they were white, they referred to themselves collectively as a word I’m not going to use, the single most offensive slur against Black people.

And so when Arthur Alexander turned up and got involved in this otherwise-white group of musicians, their attitudes varied widely. Terry Thompson, for example, who Alexander said was one of the best players ever to play guitar, as good as Nashville legends like Roy Clark and Jerry Reed, was also, according to Alexander, “the biggest racist there ever was”, and made derogatory remarks about Black people – though he said that Alexander didn’t count. Others, like Dan Penn, have later claimed that they took an “I don’t even see race” attitude, while still others were excited to be working with an actual Black man. Alexander would become close friends with some of them, would remain at arm’s length with most, but appreciated the one thing that they all had in common – that they, like him, wanted to perform R&B *and* country *and* pop.

For Hall, Sherrill, and Stafford’s fledgling publishing company FAME, Alexander and one of his old bandmates from the Heartstrings, Henry Lee Bennett, wrote a song called “She Wanna Rock”, which was recorded in Nashville by the rockabilly singer Arnie Derksen, at Owen Bradley’s studio with the Nashville A-Team backing him:

[Excerpt: Arnie Derksen, “She Wanna Rock”]

That record wasn’t a success, and soon after that, the partnership behind FAME dissolved. Rick Hall was getting super-ambitious and wanted to become a millionaire by the time he was thirty, Tom Stafford was content with the minor success they had, and wanted to keep hanging round with his friends, watching films, and occasionally helping them make a record, and Billy Sherrill had a minor epiphany and decided he wanted to make country music rather than rock and roll. Rick Hall kept the FAME name for a new company he was starting up and Sherrill headed over to Nashville and got a job with Sam Phillips at Sun’s Nashville studio. Sherrill would later move on from Sun and produce and write for almost every major country star of the sixties and seventies – most notably, he co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” with Tammy Wynette, and produced “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for George Jones. And Stafford kept the studio and the company, which was renamed Spar.

Arthur Alexander stuck with Tom Stafford, as did most of the musicians, and while he was working a day job as a bellhop, he would also regularly record demos for other writers at Stafford’s studio. By the start of 1960, 19-year-old June had married another nineteen-year-old, Ann. And it was around this point that Stafford came to him with a half-completed lyric that needed music. Alexander took Stafford’s partial lyric, and finished it. He added a standard blues riff, which he had liked in Brook Benton’s record “Kiddio”:

[Excerpt: Brook Benton, “Kiddio”]

The resulting song, “Sally Sue Brown”, was a mixture of gutbucket blues and rockabilly, with a soulful vocal, and it was released under the name June Alexander on Judd Records:

[Excerpt: June Alexander, “Sally Sue Brown”]

It’s a good record, but it didn’t have any kind of success. So Arthur started listening to the radio more, trying to see what the current hits were, so he could do something more commercial. He particularly liked the Drifters and Ben E. King, and he decided to try to write a song that fit their styles. He eventually came up with one that was inspired by real events — his wife, Ann, had an ex who had tried to win her back once he’d found out she was dating Arthur.

He took the song, “You Better Move On”, to Stafford, who knew it would be a massive hit, but also knew that he couldn’t produce the record himself, so they got in touch with Rick Hall, who agreed to produce the track. There were multiple sessions, and after each one, Hall would take the tapes away, study them, and come up with improvements that they would use at the next session.

Hall, like Alexander, wanted to get a sound like Ben E. King — he would later say, “It was my conception that it should have a groove similar to ‘Stand By Me’, which was a big record at the time. But I didn’t want to cop it to the point where people would recognise it was a cop. You dig? So we used the bass line and modified it just a little bit, put the acoustic guitar in front of that.”:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “You Better Move On”]

For a B-side, they chose a song written by Terry Thompson, “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”, which would prove almost as popular as the A-side:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”]

Hall shopped the record around every label in Nashville, with little success. Eventually, in February 1961, the record was released by Dot Records, the label that Pat Boone was on. It went to number twenty-four on the pop charts, becoming the first ever hit record to be made in Alabama. Rick Hall made enough money from it that he was able to build a new, much better, studio, and Muscle Shoals was set to become one of the most important recording centres in the US. As Norbert Puttnam, who had played bass on “You Better Move On”, and who would go on to become one of the most successful session bass players and record producers in Nashville, later said “If it wasn’t for Arthur Alexander, we’d all be at Reynolds” — the local aluminium factory.

But Arthur Alexander wouldn’t record much at Muscle Shoals from that point on. His contracts were bought out — allegedly, Stafford, a heavy drug user, was bought off with a case of codeine — and instead of working with Rick Hall, the perfectionist producer who would go on to produce a decade-long string of hits, he was being produced by Noel Ball, a DJ with little production experience, though one who had a lot of faith in Alexander’s talent, and who had been the one to get him signed to Dot. His first album was a collection of covers of current hits. The album is widely regarded as a failure, and Alexander’s heart wasn’t in it — his father had just died, his wife had had a miscarriage, and his marriage was falling apart.

But his second single for Dot was almost as great as his first. Recorded at Owen Bradley’s studio with top Nashville session players, the A-side, “Where Have You Been?” was written by the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and was very much in the style of “You Better Move On”:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Where Have You Been?”]

While the B-side, “Soldiers of Love” (and yes, it was called “Soldiers of Love” on the original label, rather than “Soldier”), was written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon, two members of Brenda Lee’s backing band, The Casuals:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Soldiers of Love”]

The single was only a modest hit, reaching number fifty-eight, but just like his first single, both sides became firm favourites with musicians in Britain. Even though he wasn’t having a huge amount of commercial success, music lovers really appreciated his music, and bands in Britain, playing long sets, would pick up on Arthur’s songs. Almost every British guitar group had Arthur Alexander songs in their setlists, even though he was unaware of it at the time.

For his third Dot single, Arthur was in trouble. He’d started drinking a lot, and taking a lot of speed, and his marriage was falling apart. Meanwhile, Noel Ball was trying to get him to record all sorts of terrible songs. He decided he’d better write one himself, and he’d make it about the deterioration of his marriage to Ann — though in the song he changed her name to Anna, because it scanned better:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go To Him)”]

Released with a cover version of Gene Autry’s country classic “I Hang My Head and Cry” as the B-side, that made the top ten on the R&B chart, but it only made number sixty-eight on the pop charts. His next single, “Go Home Girl”, another attempt at a “You Better Move On” soundalike, only made number 102. Meanwhile, a song that Alexander had written and recorded, but that Dot didn’t want to put out, went to number forty-two when it was picked up by the white singer Steve Alaimo:

[Excerpt: Steve Alaimo, “Every Day I Have To Cry”]

He was throwing himself into his work at this point, to escape the problems in his personal life. He’d often just go to a local nightclub and sit in with a band featuring a bass player called Billy Cox, and Cox’s old Army friend, who was just starting to get a reputation as a musician, a guitarist they all called Marbles but who would later be better known as Jimi Hendrix. He was drinking heavily, divorced, and being terribly mismanaged, as well as being ripped off by his record and publishing companies. He was living with a friend, Joe Henderson, who had had a hit a couple of years earlier with “Snap Your Fingers”:

[Excerpt: Joe Henderson, “Snap Your Fingers”]

Henderson and Alexander would push each other to greater extremes of drug use, enabling each other’s addiction, and one day Arthur came home to find his friend dead in the bathroom, of what was officially a heart attack but which everyone assumes was an overdose. Not only that, but Noel Ball was dying of cancer, and for all that he hadn’t been the greatest producer, Arthur cared deeply about him.

He tried a fresh start with Monument Records, and he was now being produced by Fred Foster, who had produced Roy Orbison’s classic hits, and his arrangements were being done by Bill Justis, the saxophone player who had had a hit with “Raunchy” on a subsidiary of Sun a few years earlier.

Some of his Monument recordings were excellent, like his first single for the label, “Baby For You”:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Baby For You”]

On the back of that single, he toured the UK, and appeared on several big British TV shows, and was generally feted by all the major bands who were fans of his work, but he had no more commercial success at Monument than he had at the end of his time on Dot.

And his life was getting worse and worse. He had a breakdown, brought on by his constant use of amphetamines and cannabis, and started hallucinating that people he saw were people from his past life — he stopped a taxi so he could get out and run after a man he was convinced was his dead father, and assaulted an audience member he was convinced was his ex-wife. He was arrested, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent several months in a psychiatric hospital.

Shortly after he got out, Arthur visited his friend Otis Redding, who was in the studio in Memphis, and was cutting a song that he and Arthur had co-written several years earlier, “Johnny’s Heartbreak”:

[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Johnny’s Heartbreak”]

Otis asked Arthur to join him on a tour he was going to be going on a couple of weeks later, but fog grounded Arthur’s plane so he was never able to meet up with Otis in Atlanta, and the tour proceeded without him — and so Arthur was not on the plane that Redding was on, on December 10 1967, which crashed and killed him.

Arthur saw this as divine intervention, but he was seeing patterns in everything at this point, and he had several more breakdowns. He ended up getting dropped by Monument in 1970. He was hospitalised again after a bad LSD trip led to him standing naked in the middle of the road, and he spent several years drifting, unable to have a hit, though he was still making music. He kept having bad luck – for example, he recorded a song by the songwriter Dennis Linde, which was an almost guaranteed hit, and could have made for a comeback for him:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Burning Love”]

But between him recording it and releasing it as a single, Elvis Presley released his version, which went to number two on the charts, and killed any chance of Arthur’s version being a success:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Burning Love”]

He did, though, have a bit of a comeback in 1975, when he rerecorded his old song “Every Day I Have To Cry”, as “Every Day I Have To Cry Some”, in a version which many people think likely inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” a few years later:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Every Day I Have To Cry Some”]

That made number forty-five, but unfortunately his follow-up, “Sharing the Night Together”, was another song where multiple people released versions of it at the same time, without realising, and so didn’t chart – Dr. Hook eventually had a hit with it a year later. Arthur stepped away from music. He managed to get himself more mentally well, and spent the years from 1978 through 1993 working a series of blue-collar jobs in Cleveland — construction worker, bus driver, and janitor. He rarely opened up to people about ever having been a singer. He suffered through more tragedy, too, like the murder of one of his sons, but he remained mentally stable.

But then, in March 1993, he made a comeback. The producer Ben Vaughn persuaded him into the studio, and he got a contract with Elektra records. He made his first album in twenty-two years, a mixture of new songs and reworkings of his older ones. It got great reviews, and he was rediscovered by the music press as a soul pioneer.

He got a showcase spot at South by Southwest, he was profiled by NPR on Fresh Air, and he was playing to excited crowds of new, young fans. He was in the process of getting his publishing rights back, and might finally start to see some money from his hits.

And then, three months after that album came out, in the middle of a meeting with a publisher about the negotiations for his new contracts, he had a massive heart attack, and died the next day, aged fifty-three. His bad luck had caught up with him again.

Aug 27, 2020
BONUS: “Strawberry Fair” by Anthony Newley
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This is a special extra episode of the podcast, not one of the “proper” five hundred. A book I’ve written, on the TV series The Strange World of Gurney Slade, has just become available for pre-order from Obverse Books, so to publicise that I’ve done an extra episode, on the pop music career of its star, Anthony Newley. The next normal episode will be up in a day or two. Transcript below the cut. 

Erratum: In a previous version of this episode, I mentioned, in passing, my understanding that Newley was an alcoholic. This has been strongly questioned by some fans, who took offence at the suggestion, and as it was utterly irrelevant to the point I was making I have deleted those three words rather than cause further offence.

 

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Welcome to a special bonus episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs. This is not this week’s normal episode, which will be up in a couple of days, and nor is it the Patreon bonus episode, which will also be up as normal. This is an extra, full-length episode, on a song which didn’t make the list of songs I’m covering.

But this week, a book I’ve written has gone on pre-order, and it’ll be out on the first of September. That book is on The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a TV show from the very early 1960s. And the star of that show, Anthony Newley, also had a very successful music career in the late fifties and early sixties — and a career which had a real influence on many people who will be seen in future episodes. So, in order to promote my book, I’m going to talk today about some of Newley’s music. If you’re not interested in anything that isn’t part of my “official” five hundred songs, then you can skip this episode, but I promise that other than a brief mention at the end, this is not going to be an advert for my book, but just another episode, about the music career of one of Britain’s most interesting stars of the pre-Beatles era. So let’s look at “Strawberry Fair” by Anthony Newley:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, “Strawberry Fair”]

Anthony Newley was someone whose career only came about by what would seem at first to be bad luck. Newley was a child in London during the Blitz, the son of an unmarried mother, which had a great deal of stigma to it in those days. When the Blitz hit, he was evacuated, and felt abandoned by his mother. That sense of abandonment increased when his mother married her new boyfriend and moved to Scotland.

And then Newley was moved into a second foster home, this one in Morecambe, Lancashire. His foster father during the war was one George Pescud, a music hall performer about whom I can discover nothing else, except that he instilled in Newley a great love of the theatre and of the arts, and that as a result of this Newley started writing music, painting, writing, and, especially, acting.

When the war ended, Newley was fourteen, and didn’t go back to live with his mother and her new husband, choosing instead to move to London and start living an artistic life.

He saw an advert in the paper for the Italia Conti stage school, and tried to become a student there. When he found out that he couldn’t afford the fees, he found another way in — he got a job there as an office boy, and his tuition was included in his wages. While there, he became friends with another student, Petula Clark, who would herself go on to stardom with records like “Downtown”.

[Excerpt: Petula Clark, “Downtown”]

Clark also encouraged him to start singing — something that would definitely pay off for him later. Apparently, Clark had a crush on Newley, but he wasn’t interested in her.

While at the school, Newley got cast in a couple of roles in low-budget films, which brought him to the attention of David Lean, who was directing his film adaptation of Oliver Twist, and cast Newley in the role of the Artful Dodger. The film, which featured Alec Guinness, became one of the classics of British cinema, and also starred Diana Dors, with whom Newley started an affair, and who managed to get him a job as a bit player for the Rank Organisation.

For the next few years, Newley had small roles in films, started a double act with the comedy writer Dick Vosburgh, had a brief spell in the army (very brief — he was discharged because of his mental health problems), spent a couple of years in rep, shared a flat with Christopher Lee and appeared in a Hammer Horror film — the usual things that low-level actors do as they slowly work their way up to stardom.

His most notable appearance was in the West End revue Cranks, which opened in late 1955. A revue, for those who don’t know, is a theatrical show that usually mixes comedy sketches and songs (though the term was, confusingly for our purposes, sometimes also used for a bill with several different musical acts). These were very popular in the fifties and sixties, and Cranks was one of the most popular. After its West End run it transferred to Broadway, and Newley was one of the cast members who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to promote it, though the Broadway run of the show was not a success like the British one was. It was in Cranks that Newley’s singing first came to public attention:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, “Cold Comfort”]

Newley was starting to get substantial film roles, and it was with the film Idol on Parade that Newley became a star, and became drawn into the world of pop music. In that film, the first film written by the prominent British screenwriter John Antrobus, he played a pop star who was drafted into the British army, as all young men were in Britain in the fifties. The film is usually said to have been inspired by Elvis Presley having been called up, though it was likely that it was also influenced by Terry Dene, a British rock and roll star who had recently been drafted, before having a breakdown and being discharged due to ill health, and who had recorded songs like “Candy Floss”:

[Excerpt: Terry Dene, “Candy Floss”]

Dene’s story must have struck a chord with Newley, who’d had a very similar Army experience, though you couldn’t tell that from the film, which was a typical low-budget British comedy.

As Newley was playing a pop singer, obviously he had to sing some songs in the film, and so he recorded five songs, one of which, “I’ve Waited So Long”, was released as a single and went to number three in the charts:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, “I’ve Waited So Long”]

Somehow, despite Newley being an actor — and someone who despised a lot of rock and roll music — he had become a pop star. He won the Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Most Promising Newcomer of 1959, even though he’d been making films since 1946.

“I’ve Waited So Long” was co-written by Jerry Lordan, who wrote “Apache”, and Len Praverman, but two of the other songs in the film were written by Newley and Joe ‘Mr. Piano’ Henderson, and this would soon set Newley on the way to a career as a songwriter — indeed, as the most important singer-songwriter in pre-Beatles British pop music.

He had seven UK top ten hits, two of them number ones, in the years from 1959 through 61, and he had a few more minor hits after that. Most of those hits were either cover versions of American hits like Lloyd Price’s “Personality”, or were written for him by people like Lionel Bart. One odd example shows where he would go as a music-maker, though. “Strawberry Fair” is a traditional folk song, which was collected, and presumably bowdlerised, by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould — the lyrics, about a young woman offering a young man the chance to pluck the cherries from her basket, read as innuendo, and Baring-Gould, who wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”, was well known for toning down the lyrics of the folk songs he collected.

Newley rewrote the lyrics under the pseudonym “Nollie Clapton”:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, “Strawberry Fair”]

But Newley was someone who wanted to do *everything*, and did so very well. While he was a pop star, he starred in his own series of TV specials, and then in his own sitcom, The Strange World of Gurney Slade. He starred in the classic British noir film The Small World of Sammy Lee. And he recorded a satirical album with his second wife, Joan Collins, and Peter Sellers, mocking the Government over the Profumo sex scandal:

[Excerpt: Fool Britannia, “Twelve Randy Men”]

That album went top ten, and was co-written by Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse would go on to collaborate with Newley in writing a series of songs, mostly for musicals, that everyone knows, though many don’t realise that Newley was involved in them. Newley mostly wrote the music, while Bricusse mostly wrote lyrics, though both did both. Their first major collaboration was on the play Stop The World, I Want To Get Off!, a semi-autobiographical starring vehicle for Newley, which displayed the life of a selfish womaniser called Littlechap, who would regularly stop the action of the play to monologue at the audience in much the same way as Newley’s TV character Gurney Slade.

Much of Newley’s work seems to be trying to be three different things at the same time — he seems to want to write self-flagellating autobiography about his own selfish and sometimes misogynistic behaviour — this is a man who would later write a song called “Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am”, and mean it — while also wanting to create work that is formally extraordinary and involves a lot of metafictional and postmodern elements — *and* at the same time wanting to make all-round family entertainment. For a while, at least, he managed to juggle all three aspects very successfully, and Stop The World, I Want to Get Off! became a massive hit on stage, and was adapted for the cinema once and TV twice.

Stop The World introduced two songs that would become standards. “What Kind of Fool Am I?” became a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr, and won the Grammy for “Song of the Year” at the 1963 Grammy Awards:

[Excerpt: Sammy Davis Jr., “What Kind of Fool Am I?”]

Davis also recorded another song from that show, “Gonna Build a Mountain”, as the B-side, and that too became a standard, recorded by everyone from Matt Monroe to the Monkees:

[Excerpt: The Monkees, “Gonna Build a Mountain”]

Newley and Bricusse followed that up with another musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, which again introduced a whole host of famous songs. “Who Can I Turn To?” was the big hit at the time, for Tony Bennett, and has since been performed by everyone from Miles Davis to Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield to the Temptations:

[Excerpt: Temptations, “Who Can I Turn To?”]

But the song from that musical that is now best known is almost certainly “Feeling Good”, which you’ve almost certainly heard in Nina Simone’s staggering version:

[Excerpt: Nina Simone, “Feeling Good”]

They also wrote the theme to “Goldfinger”, with John Barry:

[Excerpt: Shirley Bassey, “Goldfinger”]

That song was one that Bricusse would use in interviews to demonstrate the almost telepathic rapport that he and Newley had – when Barry played them the beginning of the melody, they both instantly sang, without looking at each other, “wider than a mile”. Barry was unimpressed, and luckily for all concerned the rest of the melody wasn’t that similar to “Moon River”, and the song became arguably the definitive Bond theme.

But at the same time that Newley was having this kind of popular success, he was also doing oddities like “Moogies Bloogies”, a song in which Newley sings about voyeuristically watching women, while Delia Derbyshire backs him with experimental electronic music:

[Excerpt: Delia Derbyshire and Anthony Newley, “Moogies Bloogies”]

That was recorded in 1966, though it wasn’t released until much later.

Newley’s career was a bizarre one by almost every measure. Possibly the highlight, at least in some senses, was his 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

[Excerpt: “Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” trailer]

On one level, that film is a terrible sex comedy of the kind that the British film industry produced far too much of in the late sixties and seventies, featuring people like Bruce Forsyth and with characters named Hieronymus Merkin, Filligree Fondle, and Polyester Poontang. On the other hand, it’s a work of postmodern self-commenting autobiography, with Newley co-writing the script, starring as multiple characters, directing, producing, and writing the music. Roger Ebert said it was the first English-language film to attempt the same things that Fellini and Godard had been attempting, which is not something you’d normally expect of a musical featuring Milton Berle and Joan Collins.

The film has at least four different layers of reality to it, including a film within a film within the film, and it features Newley regularly stepping out of character to talk about the problems with the film. It’s a film of his midlife crisis, basically, but where Ebert compares it to Fellini and Godard, I’d say it’s closer to Head, 200 Motels, or other similarly indulgent rock films of the era, and it deals with a lot of the same concerns — God and the Devil, sexual freedom, and the nature of film as a narrative medium.

All of Newley’s career was like that — a mixture of lowbrow light entertainment and attempts at postmodernist art, both treated by Newley as of equal value, but each being offputting to an audience that might have enjoyed the other. If you want songs and pretty women and dirty jokes, you probably don’t want metafictional conversations between the main character of the film and the director, both of whom are the same person. If you want a film that Roger Ebert will compare to Fellini, you probably don’t want it to be a musical including a song that starts out as a fairy-tale about a lonely princess named Trampolena Whambang, and ends up with the princess having sex with a donkey:

[Excerpt: Heironymus Merkin soundtrack, “Princess Trampolena”]

The film also was one of the things that led to Newley’s breakup with Collins — she decided that she didn’t like the aspects of his character, and his attitudes towards women, the film revealed — though Newley claimed until his dying day that while the film was inspired by his own life, it wasn’t directly autobiographical. Given that the film’s main character, in one sequence, talks about his attraction to underage girls, that’s probably for the best.

(And Newley did have a deplorable attitude to women generally — I’m not going into it in detail here, because this podcast is about the work, not the person, but Newley was a thoroughly unpleasant person in many respects.)

Hieronymus Merkin was a massive flop, though the critical response to it was far kinder than its reputation suggests. Unfortunately, Joan Collins so detests the film that it’s never been available on DVD in the UK, and only sporadically elsewhere — DVD copies on Amazon currently go for around three hundred pounds.

That was, largely, the end of Anthony Newley’s career as an auteur. It wasn’t, though, the end of his career in songwriting. With Leslie Bricusse he wrote the songs that made up the soundtrack of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — songs like “Pure Imagination”:

[Excerpt: Gene Wilder, “Pure Imagination”]

That film also featured “The Candy Man”, which became a number one hit in a cover version by Sammy Davis Jr:

[Excerpt: Sammy Davis Jr, “The Candy Man”]

After that, though, Newley didn’t have much more success as a songwriter, but by this point his biggest influence on rock and roll music was already very apparent.

David Bowie once said “I never thought I could sing very well, and I used to try on people’s voices if they appealed to me. When I was a kid, about fifteen, sixteen, I got into Anthony Newley like crazy, because a couple of things about him — one, before he came to the States and did the whole Las Vegas thing, he really did bizarre things over here. Now, a television series he did, called the Strange World of Gurney Slade, which was so odd, and off the wall, and I thought, ‘I like what this guy’s doing, where he’s going is really interesting’. And so I started singing songs like him… and so I was writing these really weird Tony Newley type songs, but the lyrics were about, like, lesbians in the army, and cannibals, and paedophiles”

If you listen to Bowie’s earliest work, it’s very, very apparent how much he took from Newley’s vocal style in particular:

[Excerpt: David Bowie, “Rubber Band”]

There is a whole vein of British music that usually gets called “music hall” when bad critics talk about it, even though it owes nothing to the music that was actually performed in actual music halls. But what it does owe a great deal to is the work of Anthony Newley. One can draw a direct line from him through Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie, Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, Ian Dury, Blur… even a performer like John Lydon, someone who would seem worlds away from Newley’s showbiz sheen, has far more of his influence in his vocal inflections than most would acknowledge. Every time you hear a singer referred to as “quintessentially British”, you’re probably hearing someone who is either imitating Newley, or imitating someone who was imitating Newley.

Newley is one of the most frustrating figures in the history of popular culture. He was someone who had so much natural talent as an actor, singer, songwriter, and playwright, and so many different ideas, that he didn’t work hard enough at any of those things to become as great as he could have been — there are odd moments of genius scattered throughout his work, but very little one can point to and say “that is a work worthy of his talents”. His mental and emotional problems caused damage to him and to the people around him, and he spent much of the last half of his career making a living from appearing in Las Vegas and as a regular on Hollywood Squares, and appearing in roles in things like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie — his last starring role in the cinema.

He attempted a comeback in the nineties, appearing with his ex-wife Joan Collins in two Noel Coward adaptations on TV, taking the lead role in the hit musical Scrooge, written by his old partner Bricusse, and getting a regular role in East Enders (one of the two most popular soap operas on British TV), but unfortunately he had to quit the East Enders role as he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him in 1999, aged sixty-seven.

Anyway, if this episode has piqued your interest in Newley, you might want to check out my book on The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which is a TV show that has almost all the best aspects of Newley’s work, and which deserves to be regarded as one of the great masterpieces of TV, a series that is equal parts Hancock’s Half Hour, The Prisoner, and Waiting for Godot.

You can order the book from Obverse Books, at obversebooks.co.uk, and I’ll provide a link in the show notes. While you’re there, check out some of the other books Obverse have put out — they’ve published two more of my books and a couple of my short stories, and many of their writers are both friends of mine and some of the best writers around.

I’ll be back in a couple of days with the next proper episode.

Aug 24, 2020
Episode 94: “Stand By Me”, by Ben E. King
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Episode ninety-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, and at the later career of the Drifters. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “If I Had a Hammer” by Trini López.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

This 3-CD set has all Ben E. King’s recordings, both solo and with the Drifters, the Crowns, and LaVern Baker, up to 1962.

This episode follows on from episode seventy-five, on “There Goes My Baby”.

I’m not going to recommend a Drifters compilation, because I know of none that actually have only the original hit recordings without any remakes or remixes. The disclaimer in episode seventy-five also applies here — I may have used an incorrect version of a song here, because of the sloppy way the Drifters’ music is packaged.

My main resource in putting this episode together was Marv Goldberg’s website, and his excellent articles on both the early- and late-period Drifters, Bill Pinkney’s later Original Drifters, the Five Crowns, and Ben E. King. 

Lonely Avenue, a biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, helped me with the information on Pomus.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller’s side of the story well.

And Bill Millar’s book on the Drifters, while it is more a history of 50s vocal group music generally using them as a focus than a biography of the group, contains some interesting material.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today, we’re going to look at a song that ties together several of the threads we’ve looked at in previous episodes. We’re going to look at a song that had its roots in a gospel song that had been performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, that involves the Drifters, Leiber and Stoller, and Phil Spector, and which marks the highpoint of the crossover from gospel to pop audiences that had been started by Ray Charles. We’re going to look at “Stand By Me”, by Ben E King.

[Excerpt: Ben E King, “Stand By Me”]

When we left the Drifters, they’d hit a legal problem. When the contracts for the individual members had been sold to George Treadwell, the owner of the Drifters’ name, Ben E King’s contract had not been sold with the rest. This had meant that while King continued to sing lead on the records, including the first few big hits of this new lineup of Drifters, he wasn’t allowed to tour with them, and so they’d had to bring in a soundalike singer, Johnnie Lee Williams, to sing his parts on stage. So there were now five Drifters in the studio, but only four of them in the touring group.

That might seem like an unworkable arrangement for any length of time, and so it turned out, but at first this was very successful. Leiber and Stoller continued producing records for this new Drifters lineup, but didn’t tend to write for them. They were increasingly tiring of writing to a teenage audience that didn’t really share their tastes, and were starting to move into writing for adult stars like Peggy Lee.

And so Leiber and Stoller increasingly relied on songs by other writers, and one team they particularly relied on was Pomus and Shuman. You’ll remember we’ve talked about them in association with both the Drifters and Leiber and Stoller previously, and that they’d been the ones who’d discovered the Ben E. King lineup of the Drifters. Doc Pomus was one of the great R&B songwriters of the fifties, but by 1960 he and Mort Shuman, who was thirteen years younger than him, had written a whole string of hits for white performers like Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Darin. A typical example of the stuff they were writing was “Two Fools” for Frankie Avalon:

[Excerpt: Frankie Avalon, “Two Fools”]

They were one of the hottest teams in the Brill Building, but they still had a sensibility for the R&B music that the Drifters had their roots in, and so they were the perfect writers to provide crossover hits for the group, and that’s what they did. They’d already written “If You Cry True Love, True Love” for the group, which had gone to number thirty-three and which had been the only Drifters single on which Williams had taken a lead vocal, and now they wrote a song for King to sing, “This Magic Moment”:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and the Drifters, “This Magic Moment”]

That made number sixteen on the pop charts. But the next song they wrote for the group was a much bigger success, and a far more personal song. Pomus was paraplegic after having had polio as a child, and either used crutches or a wheelchair to get around. His wife, though, was younger, and was an actor and dancer. On their wedding day, Pomus was unable to dance with her himself, and watched as she danced with a succession of other people. The feeling stayed with him, and a few years later, he turned those thoughts into a set of lyrics, which Shuman then put to music with a vaguely Latin feel, like many of the Drifters’ recent hits.

The result was a number one record, and one of the all-time classic songs of the rock and roll era:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and the Drifters, “Save the Last Dance For Me”]

That song has gone on to be one of the most covered songs of all time, with recordings by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, Buck Owens, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Harry Nilsson, and Bruce Willis, among many others. It would be the Drifters’ only number one on the pop charts, and it was also Ben E King’s last single with the Drifters, after King’s manager Lover Patterson came to an agreement with the Drifters’ manager George Treadwell that would let King move smoothly into a solo career.

There might have been more to it than that, as there seems to have been a lot of negotiation going on around the group’s future at this time. There were reports, for example, that King Records were negotiating to buy the Drifters’ contract from Atlantic, which would have been interesting — it’s hard to see the group continuing to have success at King, which didn’t have Leiber and Stoller, and which put out very different records from Atlantic.

But either way, the result was that Ben E. King started performing solo, and indeed by the time “Save the Last Dance” came out, he had already released a couple of solo records. The first of these was not a success, and nor was the second, a duet with LaVern Baker:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and LaVern Baker, “How Often”]

But the third was something else.

At this point, as a favour to their old friend Lester Sill, Leiber and Stoller were mentoring a kid that Sill thought had promise, named Phil Spector, who we’ve talked about before in the episode on The Gamblers, but who had now moved over to New York for a time. Spector was staying with Leiber, and would follow him around literally everywhere, claiming that he was so traumatised by his father’s death that he couldn’t be left alone at any time. Leiber found Spector annoying, but owed Sill a favour, and so kept working with him.

And Spector kept pestering Leiber to collaborate with him on some songs. Leiber told Spector, “No, I write with Mike Stoller”, to which Spector would reply, “Well, he can write with us too.”

Leiber explained to him that that wasn’t how things worked, and that if there was any collaboration, it would be Leiber and Stoller letting Spector write with them, not Spector graciously allowing Stoller to write with him and Leiber. Spector said that that was what he had meant, of course.

Leiber and Stoller reluctantly agreed that Spector could write with them, but then Stoller was unable to turn up to the writing session. Spector persuaded Leiber to go ahead and just write a song with him since Stoller wasn’t around.

He agreed, and they came up with a song called “Spanish Harlem”, to which Stoller later added a prominent instrumental line, for which he didn’t claim credit, because he thought that Spector would only whine, and he didn’t need the hassle.

Or at least, that’s the story that normally gets told — there are people who knew Ritchie Valens who say that the marimba riff on the record, which became the most defining feature of the song, was actually something that Valens had been regularly playing in the months before he died. According to them, Spector, who moved in the same circles as Valens, must have stolen the riff from him.

I tend to believe Stoller’s version of the story myself, but either way, Leiber, Stoller, and Spector played the song to Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun as a trio, with Stoller on piano, Spector on guitar, and Leiber singing. They agreed it should be on the B-side of the next single by King, though the song was popular enough that the record was soon flipped, and “Spanish Harlem” made the top ten:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, “Spanish Harlem”]

But that wasn’t even the most important record they made at that session, because after recording it, they decided to record a song that King had written for the Drifters, but which they had turned down. King had brought in the basic idea for the song, and Leiber had helped him finish off the lyric, while Stoller had helped with the music — the resulting songwriting credit gave fifty percent of the royalties to King, and twenty-five percent each to Leiber and Stoller, as a result. King’s song had a long prehistory before he wrote it, and like many early soul songs it had its basis in gospel music. The original source for the song is a spiritual from 1905 by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, which had been recorded by various people, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

[Excerpt: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Stand By Me”]

But the proximate influence for the song was a song that Sam Cooke had written for his old group, the Soul Stirrers, the year before, which had in turn been inspired by Tindley’s song. The lead vocal on the Soul Stirrers’ record was by Johnnie Taylor, a friend of Cooke’s who had replaced Cooke in his first group, the Highway QCs, and then replaced him in his second one, because he sounded exactly like Cooke:

[Excerpt: The Soul Stirrers, “Stand By Me, Father”]

King idolised Cooke, and was inspired by that record to come up with his own variant on the song. Working with Leiber and Stoller, he carefully crafted his secular adaptation of it, writing a lyric that worked equally well as a gospel song or as a song to a lover, other than the words “darling, darling” in the chorus. The chord sequence they used was a simple adaptation of the standard doo-wop chord changes. On a normal doo-wop song, the chords would go I, minor vi, IV, V, with each chord taking up the same amount of time, like this:

[demonstrates on guitar]

Stoller took those changes, and made the I and minor vi last two bars each,

[demonstrates]

then had the IV and V chords both last a bar, then go to two more bars of the I chord.

[demonstrates]

That bar of IV, bar of V, two bars of I thing is almost what you get at the end of a twelve-bar blues, except there you go V, IV, I, I, rather than IV, V, I, I. So to compare, here’s the end of a twelve-bar blues:

[demonstrates]

And here’s what Stoller did again:

[demonstrates]

So effectively Stoller has taken the two most hackneyed chord sequences in rock and roll music, and hybridised them to turn them into a single new sequence that’s instantly recognisable:

[demonstrates on guitar]

In later years, Leiber always gave Stoller the credit for the song’s success, saying that while the lyrics and melody were good, and King’s performance exceptional, it was the bass line that Stoller came up with which made the song the success it was. I agree, to a large extent — but that bassline is largely just following the root notes of the chord sequence that Stoller had written. But it’s one of the most immediately recognisable pieces of music of the early sixties:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, “Stand By Me”]

The record sounded remarkably original, for something that was made up almost entirely out of repurposed elements from other songs, and it shows more clearly than perhaps any other song that originality doesn’t mean creating something entirely ab initio, but can mean taking a fresh look at things that are familiar, and putting just a slight twist on them.

In particular, one thing that doesn’t get noted enough is just how much of a departure the song was lyrically. People had been reworking gospel ideas into secular ones for years — we’ve already looked at Ray Charles doing this, and at Sam Cooke, and there were many other examples, like Little Walter turning “This Train” into “My Babe”. But in most cases those songs required wholesale lyrical reworking.

“Stand By Me” is different, it brings the lyrical concerns and style of gospel firmly into the secular realm. “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountains should crumble to the sea” is an apocalyptic vision, not “Candy’s sweet/And honey too/There’s not another quite, quite as sweet as you”, which were the lyrics Sam Cooke wrote when he turned a song about how God is wonderful into one about how his girl is loveable.

This new type of more gospel-inflected lyric would become very common in the next few years, especially among Black performers. Another building block in the music that would become known as soul had been put in place.

The record went to number four on the charts, and it looked like he was headed for a huge career. But the next few singles he released didn’t do so well — he recorded a version of the old standard “Amor” which made number nineteen, and then his next two records topped out at sixty-six and fifty-six. He did get back in the pop top twenty with a song co-written by his wife and Ahmet Ertegun, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, which reached number eleven and became an R&B standard:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”]

But as many people did at the time, he tried to move into the more lucrative world of adult supper-club singers, rather than singing R&B. While his version of “I Who Have Nothing” — a French song that has since become a standard, and whose English lyrics were written for King by Leiber and Stoller — managed to reach number twenty-nine, everything else did terribly. He sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “What Now My Love?” perfectly well, but that wasn’t what the audience wanted from him.

He made some great records in the later 60s, like “What Is Soul”:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King “What Is Soul?”]

But even teaming up with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Joe Tex, and Arthur Conley as The Soul Clan didn’t help him kickstart his recording career:

[Excerpt: The Soul Clan, “Soul Meeting”]

He asked to be let go from his contract with Atlantic in 1969, and spent a few years in the early seventies recording for small labels.

Meanwhile, the Drifters were continuing without King. After King left, Atlantic started releasing whatever material they had in their vaults, both songs with King’s leads and older records from the earlier line-up of Drifters. But they were about to have even more personnel shifts. When they were on tour and got to Mobile, Alabama, Johnny Lee Williams said that he was just going to stay there and not continue on the tour — he was sick of not getting to sing lead vocals, and he came from Mobile anyway. Williams went on to join a group called the Embraceables, who released this with him singing lead:

[Excerpt: The Embraceables, “My Foolish Pride”]

That was later rereleased as by The Implaceables, for reasons I’ve not been able to discover.

The Drifters got in a replacement for Williams, James Poindexter, but he turned out to have stage fright, and the group spent several months as a trio, before being joined by new lead singer Rudy Lewis. And then Elsbeary Hobbs, the group’s bass singer, was drafted, and the group got in a couple of different singers before settling on Tommy Evans, who had sung with the old versions of the Drifters in the fifties. The new lineup, Rudy Lewis, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, and Tommy Evans, would be one of the group’s longest-lasting lineups, lasting more than a year, and would record hits like “Up On the Roof”, by Goffin and King:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Up On the Roof”]

But then Dock Green left the group. He and Tommy Evans joined another group — even though Evans was also still in the Drifters. The Drapers, the group they joined, was managed by Lover Patterson, Ben E. King’s manager, and had been given a name that sounded as much like “The Drifters” as possible. As well as Green and Evans, it also had Johnny Moore and Carnation Charlie Hughes, who had been in the same 1956 lineup of the Drifters that Tommy Evans had been in.

That lineup of the Drapers released one single that didn’t do particularly well:

[Excerpt: The Drapers, “(I Know) Your Love Has Gone Away”]

The new Drifters lineup, without Dock Green, recorded “On Broadway”, a song that Leiber and Stoller had co-written with the Brill Building team of Mann and Weill. The guitar on the record was by Phil Spector — he was by that point a successful producer, but Leiber and Stoller had bumped into him on the way to the session and invited him to sit in:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “On Broadway”]

Tommy Evans then also left the Drifters, and was replaced by Johnny Terry, leaving a lineup of Rudy Lewis, Charlie Thomas, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry. But Rudy Lewis, the lead singer of the group since just after King had left, was thinking of going solo, and even released one solo single:

[Excerpt: Rudy Lewis, “I’ve Loved You So Long”]

That wasn’t a success, but George Treadwell wanted some insurance in case Lewis left, so he got Johnny Moore — who had been in the group in the fifties and had just left the Drapers — to join, and for a few months Lewis and Moore traded off leads in the studio.

One song that they recorded during 1963, but didn’t release, was “Only in America”, written for them by Leiber and Stoller. Leiber and Stoller had intended the song to be a sly satire, with Black people singing about the American dream, but Atlantic worried that in the racial climate of 1963, the satire would seem tasteless, so they took the Drifters’ backing track and got Jay and the Americans, a white group, to record new vocals, turning it into a straightforward bit of boosterism:

[Excerpt: Jay and the Americans, “Only in America”]

Tragedy struck on the day the Drifters recorded what would be their last US top ten hit, the twenty-first of May 1964. Johnny Moore bumped into Sylvia Vanterpool, of Mickey and Sylvia, and she said “thank God it wasn’t you”. He didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told him that Rudy Lewis had died suddenly earlier that day. The group went into the studio anyway, and recorded the songs that had been scheduled, including one called “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You” which took on a new meaning in the circumstances. But the hit from the session was “Under the Boardwalk”, with lead vocals from Moore:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Under the Boardwalk”]

This version of the group — Johnny Moore, Charlie Thomas, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry, would be the longest-lasting of all the versions of the group managed by George Treadwell, staying together a full two years. But after “Under the Boardwalk”, which went to number four, they had no more top ten hits in the US. The best they could do was scrape the top twenty with “Saturday Night at the Movies”:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Saturday Night at the Movies”]

There were several more lineup changes, but the big change came in 1967 when George Treadwell died. His wife, Faye, took over the management of the group, and shortly after that, Charlie Thomas — the person who had been in the group for the longest continuous time, nine years at that point, decided to leave. There were a lot more squabbles and splinter groups, and by 1970 the Drifters’ career on Atlantic was over.

By this point, there were three different versions of The Drifters. There was a group called The Original Drifters, which had formed in 1958 after the first set of Drifters had been fired, and was originally made up entirely of members of the early-fifties lineups, but which was now a revolving-door group based around Bill Pinkney, the bass singer of the Clyde McPhatter lineup, and stayed that way until Pinkney’s death in 2007.

Then there was a version of the Drifters that consisted of Dock Green, Charlie Thomas, and Elsbeary Hobbs, the people who had been in Ben E. King’s version of the group. Charlie Thomas won the right to use the name in the USA in 1972, and continues touring with his own group there to this day, though no more of that lineup of the Drifters are with him.

And then there was a UK-based group, managed by Faye Treadwell, with Johnny Moore as lead singer. That group scored big UK hits when the group moved to the UK in 72, with re-releases of mid-sixties records that had been comparative flops at the time — “Saturday Night at the Movies”, “At the Club”, and “Come On Over to My Place” all made the UK top ten in 1972, and Moore’s Drifters would have nine more top ten hits with new material in the UK between 1973 and 76.

And Ben E. King, meanwhile, had signed again to Atlantic, and had a one-off top ten hit with “Supernatural Thing” in 1975:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, “Supernatural Thing”]

But other than that he’d continued to have far less chart success than his vocal talents deserved, and in the eighties he moved to the UK and joined the UK version of the Drifters, singing his old hits on the nostalgia circuit with them, and adding more authenticity to the Johnny Moore lineup of the group.

He spent several years like that, until in 1986 his career had a sudden resurgence, when the film Stand By Me came out and his single was used as the theme. On the back of the film’s success, the song reentered the top ten, twenty-five years after its initial success, and made number one in the UK. As a result, King became the first person to have hit the top ten in the US in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties — a remarkable record for someone who had had relatively few hits. A greatest hits collection of King’s records made the top twenty in the UK, as well, and King left the Drifters to once again become a solo artist.

But this is where we say goodbye to King, and to the Drifters, and to Leiber and Stoller as songwriters. The UK version of the Drifters carried on with Johnny Moore as lead singer until he died in 1998, and up to that point it was reasonable to think of that group as a real version of the Drifters, because Moore had sung with the group on hits in the fifties and sixties, and in the UK in the seventies – roughly eighty percent of records released as by The Drifters had had Moore singing on them. But after Moore’s death, it gets very confusing, with the Treadwell family apparently abandoning the trademark and moving back to the US, and then changing their mind, resulting in a series of lawsuits. The current UK version of the Drifters has nobody who was in the group before 2010, and is managed by George and Faye Treadwell’s daughter. They still fill medium-sized theatres on large national tours, because their audiences don’t seem to care, so long as they can hear people singing “Up On the Roof” and “On Broadway”, “There Goes My Baby” and “Save the Last Dance For Me”. In total thirty-four different people were members of the Drifters during their time with Atlantic Records. It’s the only case I know where a group identity was genuinely bigger than the members, where whoever was involved, somehow they carried on making exceptional records.

Leiber and Stoller, meanwhile, will turn up again, once more, next year, as record executives, collaborating with another figure we’ve seen several times before to run a record label. But this is the last record we’ll look at with them as a songwriting team. We’ve been following their remarkable career since episode fifteen, and they would continue writing great songs for a huge variety of artists, but “Stand By Me” would be the last time they would come up with something that would change the music industry. It was the end of a truly remarkable run, and one which stands as one of the great achievements in twentieth century popular music.

And Ben E. King, who was, other than Clyde McPhatter, the only member of the Drifters to ever break away and become a solo success, spent the last twenty-nine years of his life touring as a solo artist off the renewed success of his greatest contribution to music. He died in 2015, but as long as people listen to rock, pop, soul, or R&B, there’ll be people listening to “Stand By Me”.

Aug 18, 2020
Episode 93: “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes
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Episode ninety-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes, and the career of the first group to have a number one on a Motown label. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Take Good Care of My Baby” by Bobby Vee.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Erratum

After recording this, I happened to discover that in 2017 Katherine actually came out of retirement and formed a new “Marvelettes”, who recorded in the UK in 2017 with someone called “Hitsville Chalky”.

 

Resources

This week’s Mixcloud playlist is split into two parts, because of the number of Marvelettes songs. Part one, and part two.

The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group by Marc Taylor is the only biography of the group. Sadly it currently goes for silly money.

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy’s own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Katherine Anderson Schaffner.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown’s thirty-year history.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 693 tracks released on Motown singles.

There is a Complete Motown Singles 1959-62 box available from Hip-O-Select with comprehensive liner notes, but if you just want the music, I recommend instead this much cheaper bare-bones box from Real Gone Music.

And this three-CD set contains the group’s complete discography up to mid-1966 — the Gladys Horton years.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

When we left the Tamla Motown family of labels, a couple of months back, they’d finally had their first big hit with Barrett Strong’s “Money”, and the label was starting to pull together the full creative team that would be responsible for its later successes. But while “Money” is a great record, it’s not a record with what would later become known as the “Motown Sound” — it sounds far more like a Ray Charles record than the records that would later make Motown’s name.

So today, we’re going to look at the first number one to come out of Motown — a record that definitely did have the Motown sound, and which established the label as the sound of young America. Today, we’re going to look at “Please Mr. Postman”:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman”]

The story of the Marvelettes starts with Gladys Horton, who lived in the small town of Inkster in Michigan. When Horton was only fourteen, she had formed a group called the Del-Rhythmettes, who made one single, “Chic-A-Boomer”:

[Excerpt: The Del-Rhythmettes, “Chic-A-Boomer”]

That had got a little bit of airplay on local radio, but had otherwise been unsuccessful, and the Del-Rhythmettes had split up. But Gladys still wanted to make music, and she started looking around for other people to sing with. One who caught her eye was a young girl who would appear in the High School talent contests, named Georgia Dobbins. By the time Gladys got to high school herself, Georgia had graduated, but Gladys persuaded her to join a group she put together for her own talent contest entry. The group she formed originally jokingly named themselves the Casinyettes — because they “can’t sing yet” — and that was the name under which they performed at the talent contest.

There was a reason that Gladys wanted Georgia for this talent contest — this one had, as its first prize, the chance of an audition at Motown. Motown was still a small label, but it had started to have hits, and everyone in Michigan with an interest in music knew about Berry Gordy. In particular, Motown had just released “Shop Around” by the Miracles.

Smokey Robinson had written that song, and it had been released to no real effect. The record had been pulled, and another version released. THAT had had no success either, and then at three o’clock in the morning Berry Gordy had suddenly realised that the record needed a new, faster, arrangement. He’d phoned up Smokey and told him to get the group together and into the studio, before he lost the inspiration, even though it was the middle of the night. They did, and the second version of “Shop Around” was pulled and replaced with the new third version, which went to number two on the pop charts and sold a million copies:

[Excerpt: The Miracles, “Shop Around”]

So Motown were now in the big leagues, and the chance of recording for them was an exciting one, and one that the girls, and Gladys in particular, wanted.

The Casinyettes at this point consisted of Gladys, Georgia, Georgeanna Tillman, Katherine Anderson, and Juanita Cowart — I’ve also seen Juanita’s name reported as Wyanetta, and can’t find anything which definitively says which it was. At the talent show, they sang “Maybe” by the Chantels:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, “Maybe”]

The group came fourth — but one of their teachers, Shirley Sharpley, knew the person from Motown who was arranging the auditions, and persuaded them to offer auditions to the top five, rather than just to the winners. The Cansinyettes went to their audition, and Motown were interested, but told them they had to come up with something original before they’d be signed. They went back to Inkster and got to work. A friend of Georgia, William Garrett, had started a blues song about a postman, and Georgia worked on his idea, writing most of the lyrics and recasting it as something less bluesy.

But then Georgia had to quit the group. Her father hadn’t known she was singing until she brought the record contract home for him to countersign — as she was under twenty-one, she needed a parent to sign it, and her mother was too ill. Her father believed the entertainment industry to be sinful, and wouldn’t sign. She was so depressed that she gave up singing altogether, and by her own account didn’t sing a note until 1978. By the time they came back to Motown with the beginnings of a song, Georgia had been replaced by Wanda Young, though the remaining group members were still singing her song.

The song was decent, but it needed work. The group were assigned to Brian Holland, who had a listen to the song and had a brainwave. Holland and his brother Eddie were both on Motown staff at the time, but before joining Motown Holland had been in a group called the Fidelitones. The Fidelitones had recorded some tracks for Aladdin, produced by Gordy, in the late fifties but they’d never been released:

[Excerpt: The Fidelitones, “Is It Too Late?”]

Holland had stayed in touch with Freddie Gorman, another member of the group. Gorman still had musical ambitions, and he would pop into Motown every day after he finished work — as a postman.

So when Gorman popped in that day, Holland asked him to chip in ideas for the song and use his experience to make it more realistic — though there’s nothing much in the finished song that would seem to require expertise. Gorman became one of five credited writers on the song, along with Holland, Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, and Holland’s normal songwriting partner Robert Bateman, who worked with Holland as a songwriting and production team called “Brianbert”. Before moving into production, Bateman had been a member of the Satintones, who had made several unsuccessful records for Motown, including this one that was a knock-off of “There Goes My Baby”:

[Excerpt: The Satintones, “My Beloved”]

The Casinyettes weren’t the first girl group to be signed to the label — Motown had already signed one girl group, a group called the Primettes, who had been renamed and who had so far released two singles:

[Excerpt: The Supremes, “I Want a Guy”]

But the Supremes, as they were renamed, wouldn’t become successful for several years, and were generally regarded as a joke among the Motown staff, who thought — not entirely without reason — that they had been signed more because Berry Gordy was attracted to Diane Ross, one of the members of the group, than because of any talent they had.

One of the girls, though, Florence Ballard, was very popular at Motown, and was generally regarded as being helpful and friendly. She worked with Gladys on her lead vocal part, and helped her craft her performance.

The production that Brian Holland crafted for the song was very heavy on the percussion — along with piano player Popcorn Wylie, guitarist Eddie Willis, and bass player James Jamerson, the backing musicians included a percussion player, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, and two drummers — the normal session drummer on most of the Motown recordings, Benny Benjamin, and a young man who had been a member of the last lineup of the Moonglows before Harvey Fuqua had moved over to working for the Gordy family labels, and who was now doing whatever he could around the studio, named Marvin Gaye.

There was one final change that needed to be made — The Casinyettes was obviously a joke name, and they needed a better one. The name they were eventually given supposedly came after Berry Gordy heard them sing and said “those girls are marvels”. The Marvelettes were born, and their first single was the catchiest thing Motown had put out to that point:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman”]

“Please Mr. Postman” became the second million seller from Motown, and its first number one on the pop charts. It only stayed there for one week, but that one week was all that was needed — Motown was now a label that everyone in the industry had to notice.

And “Please Mr. Postman” was the record that saved Motown. I’ve talked before about how a hit record could put a small label out of business — they had to pay for the records to be pressed up and distributed, but it would be many months before the distributors would actually pay them the money they were owed. And many distributors would not pay at all — they reasoned that a small label wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it if they didn’t pay, so why bother?

The only leverage a small label with a big hit had was a second big hit. If they had another record the distributors wanted from them, then they could tell the distributors they wouldn’t get it until they paid up. And after “Shop Around” sold a million copies, Motown’s follow-ups had all sold poorly. They were running out of money, and they needed another hit quickly before they went bankrupt altogether.

Berry Gordy had, early on, given the label a slogan — Create, Make, and Sell — because he wanted to make great records and then have them sell a lot of copies — but around this time he realised that there was no point in selling the records if they didn’t get paid for them. So reasoning that “create” and “make” were near-synonyms, he changed that slogan to Create, Sell, and Collect.

By being a second million-seller for Motown, “Please Mr. Postman” ensured that they got paid for the first one. If it hadn’t come along, it’s possible that Motown would just be a footnote in histories of Chess Records — “Chess also distributed a handful of records from a small Detroit label owned by Harvey Fuqua’s brother-in-law, who co-wrote several hits for Jackie Wilson, before that label went bankrupt.”

But as it is, the Marvelettes were now big stars. For the followup, Berry Gordy wanted to do something that was as close to the hit as possible . This would be the policy from this point on with Motown — if someone had a hit, the same producers and songwriters would be assigned to come up with something that sounded like the hit, and the artist would only go in a different direction once they stopped having hits with their original formula. In this case, the Marvelettes’ second single was designed not only to capitalise on their original hit, but on the popularity of the Twist craze, and so they released “Twistin’ Postman”:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Twistin’ Postman”]

“Twistin’ Postman” went top forty, but it didn’t do anything like as well as “Please Mr. Postman”. But just as with their first single, one of the group brought in a new song which brought them back to the top ten, if not number one. This time it was Gladys, who came up with a song called “Playboy”, which Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, and Mickey Stevenson rewrote, and which made number seven on the pop charts and number four on the R&B charts.

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Playboy”]

Meanwhile, Freddie Gorman had continued working with Brian Holland as well, and had put out a single under his own name, “The Day Will Come”:

[Excerpt: Freddie Gorman, “The Day Will Come”]

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a success, and Freddie had to continue on his post rounds. That also meant that his songwriting partnership with Holland came to an end — Freddie kept finding that when he came round to Hitsville after work, if Brian Holland had had an idea for a song, he’d already finished it — usually with the help of his brother Eddie and their new writing partner Lamont Dozier.

And there were problems brewing for the Marvelettes, too. They’d felt all along that they were looked down on a bit by the people from Detroit, who thought of them as hicks from the sticks because they came from Inkster. They were so self-conscious about this that it led to the first member leaving the group. They appeared on American Bandstand, and Juanita said that Detroit was a suburb of Inkster, when she’d meant to say that Inkster was a suburb of Detroit. She felt so bad about this slipup and the way she was mocked for it that she had a breakdown, and ended up leaving the group.

That didn’t bother Motown too much — when “Please Mr. Postman” had been a hit but the girls had been at school, it had been suggested that they could just send any five girls out on the road as the Marvelettes, until the girls put their foot down about that. Not only that, but at one point when Wanda had been pregnant, Motown had replaced her on the road with Florence Ballard from the Supremes — the contracts for that tour had specified five Marvelettes, the Supremes were the least successful group on Motown at the time, and the girls got on well with Florence. If Motown were willing to do that, they were definitely willing to have the group just carry on with one member gone, and just make sure the contracts said there would be four Marvelettes.

They carried on as a four-piece group, and had a few more records, mostly written and produced by Smokey Robinson but with others like Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye sometimes contributing, but while those records did okay on the R&B charts, they didn’t have much success on the pop charts, mostly getting to around number fifty. At one point, Motown started to wonder if they needed to change things up a little — they put out a single by the group with Gladys and Wanda singing a dual lead, and with the group joined by Motown’s in-house backing vocal group The Andantes. The record was put out under the name The Darnells, but was unsuccessful:

[Excerpt: The Darnells, “Too Hurt Too Cry, Too Much In Love To Say Goodbye”]

Unfortunately for them, they missed the chance at a really big hit. Holland, Dozier, and Holland had written a song for them, but Gladys didn’t like it, she thought it was too simplistic, and so they took it to the group who were still known within Motown as the no-hit Supremes. We’ll be looking at “Where Did Our Love Go?” in more detail next year.

Eddie Holland did cowrite a hit for them with Norman Whitfield, though — though it wasn’t a monster hit like “Where Did Our Love Go?”, it did give all the girls a chance to have a solo spot, a rarity for them:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Too Many Fish in the Sea”]

That took them back into the top thirty, and made the top five on the R&B chart. It would be the last hit that they would have with Georgeanna in the group, though — she’d been diagnosed with sickle-cell anaemia as a child, and the constant strain of touring made her more ill.

The tours had been a shock for all of them, to be honest. Their first major national tour was the first Motor Town Revue in 1962 — a tour with a lineup that seems preposterously good these days. All of Motown’s major acts, and several acts that weren’t yet major but soon would be, were on the same bill — the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Marv Johnson, Stevie Wonder, the Contours, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, and Singing Sammy Ward.

The girls had grown up in Michigan, and while they had an intellectual understanding that the South was different, they were unprepared for the realities of segregation, of not being able to use public toilets or eat in the same restaurants that white people did. That was awful enough, but there was also the fact that all those acts were on the same bus. And starting the year before, there had been the phenomenon of Freedom Riders — black people from the North who had been coming down to the south to sit in whites-only seats on Greyhound buses, to protest segregation.

In several places in the South, the sight of a lot of black people on a bus brought the Freedom Riders to mind, and people actually took pot-shots at the bus. A couple of years living like that took an immense toll on Georgeanna’s health, and she started suffering from unexplained fatigue. Eventually it was realised that she had lupus, an autoimmune disease which is now largely treatable if not curable, but at the time was often a death sentence. She retired from music, going to work for Motown as a secretary instead. She died in 1980, aged only thirty-six.

The remaining three carried on as a trio, and they were about to have a second commercial wind. After a couple of flop follow-ups to “Too Many Fish in the Sea”, Smokey Robinson took over their production, and decided to start using Wanda as the lead vocalist, rather than Gladys, who had sung lead on their hits up to that point. “Don’t Mess With Bill”, their first single of 1966, became their first top ten pop hit since “Playboy” in early 1962:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Don’t Mess With Bill”]

Robinson also wrote the marvellous “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” for the group:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”]

Or, at least, he wrote it for Wanda. By this point, while the records were getting released as by “the Marvelettes”, Robinson was only using Wanda for lead vocals, and having the Andantes sing all the backing vocals. The explanation for this was generally that the group were on tour all the time, and it was easier to make the records without them and then get Wanda just to sing the lead, and the other members reluctantly accepted that, but it rankled.

There were other problems, too. Juanita and Georgeanna had been the glue holding the group together — they’d been the ones who had been friends with all the others. Katherine, Gladys, and Wanda, hadn’t known each other before forming the group, and they started to discover that they weren’t hugely fond of each other now.

At first, they still worked well together, each having their assigned area of responsibility — Gladys was a combination musical director and choreographer, working out the group’s setlists and dance moves, Katherine was the spokesperson in interviews, and looked after the group’s money, and Wanda was the lead singer. This worked for a while, but as Katherine would later put it, when there had been five of them, they’d been friends. Now they were somewhere between acquaintances and co-workers.

And then in 1967, Gladys decided to leave the group. This made the group an even lower priority for Motown — while Wanda was by now the undisputed lead singer, within Motown they were thought of as Gladys’ group, as she’d been the leader in the beginning.

Motown did decide to get someone else in to replace her. They could cope with the group going from five members to four, and from four to three — three women, after all, was still a girl group. But once they’d got down to two members, they needed a third. Harvey Fuqua suggested Ann Bogan, who he’d discovered a while before and recorded a few duets with:

[Excerpt: Harvey and Ann, “What Can You Do Now?”]

Ann was a sort of general utility singer around Motown — she’d sung with the Andantes and the Challengers Three, and she’d also gone out on the road with Marvin Gaye, subbing for his duet partner Tammi Terrell, when the latter had become sick with the brain tumour that eventually killed her.

Ann replaced Gladys, and the group made two further albums, and Ann was at least allowed to sing on album tracks. The group continued having R&B hits, but while they kept releasing great records like “Destination: Anywhere”, they were by now barely scraping the hot one hundred on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Destination: Anywhere”]

And Wanda was having problems. She’d been doing too much cocaine and drinking too much, and was starting to act strangely. Then in 1969 her younger sister was shot dead, by her other sister’s estranged husband (who seems to have thought he was shooting the other sister), and to compound matters while the group were on tour in Europe someone spiked Wanda’s drink. She was never the same again, and has had mental health problems for the last fifty years. The group split up, though nothing was announced — they just didn’t get booked on any more tours, and went their separate ways.

Bogan went on to join a group called Love, Peace, and Happiness, who had a minor hit with a song that had been, coincidentally, co-written by Katherine, who wrote it for Gladys Knight:

[Excerpt: Love, Peace, and Happiness, “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong”]

That group then joined with Harvey Fuqua in a seventeen-piece funk band called New Birth, with Bogan singing on their hit “I Can Understand It”:

[Excerpt: New Birth, “I Can Understand It”]

Motown decided to give the Marvelettes one more try, and in 1970 they got Wanda in to record an album titled The Return of the Marvelettes. This was essentially a solo album, produced by Smokey Robinson, but they did try to get Katherine to appear on the cover photograph. She told the label that if she wasn’t good enough to sing on the record, she wasn’t good enough to appear on the cover, either, and so the cover, like the record, only featured Wanda of the original Marvelettes.

Over the next few decades, various groups toured under the Marvelettes name, none featuring any of the original members — Motown, rather than the women, had owned the group name, and had sold it off. Gladys, Katherine, and Juanita were busy being homemakers, and Wanda and Georgeanna were too ill to consider a music career.

Then in the late 1980s, Ian Levine entered the picture. Levine is a British DJ who at the time owned and ran Motor City Records, which put out new recordings by people who had released records on Motown in the sixties.

He got over a hundred former Motown artists to record for him, and one album he put out was a Marvelettes reunion of sorts — he managed to persuade Gladys and Wanda out of retirement to make a new Marvelettes album with two new backing vocalists, Echo Johnson and Jean Maclean. The new record was a mixture of remakes of their old hits and new songs by Levine, like “Secret Love Affair”:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, “Secret Love Affair”]

Wanda was still too ill to perform regularly, but Gladys went out on tour on the oldies circuit, singing her old hits as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes”, as none of the group owned the original name. She and Katherine were in the process of suing to regain the name under the Truth in Music Act, when she died of a stroke in 2011.

Of the other Marvelettes, Katherine and Juanita are retired, though Katherine still gives regular interviews about her time with the group, and Wanda’s mental health has apparently improved enough in the last few years that she can perform again. They’re all apparently happy with their situations now, and don’t miss the old life.

They do miss the recognition, though. For the twenty-fifth, fortieth, fiftieth, and sixtieth anniversary celebrations of Motown, TV specials were produced featuring many of the label’s acts, and honouring the label’s history. None of the members of the first group to hit number one on the label were invited to be part of any of them.

Aug 10, 2020
Episode 92: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens
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Episode ninety-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, and at a seventy-year-long story of powerful people repeatedly ripping off less powerful people, then themselves being ripped off in turn by more powerful people, and at how racism meant that a song that earned fifteen million dollars for other people paid its composer ten shillings. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis.

 

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 

—-more—-

 

ERRATUM: I say “Picture in Your Wallet” when I mean “Picture in My Wallet”.

 

Resources

 

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

 

Rian Malan’s 2000 article on Solomon Linda and The Lion Sleeps Tonight can be found here.

 

This 2019 article brings the story of the legal disputes up to date.

 

The information about isicathamiya comes from Nightsong: Performance, Power and Practice in South Africa by Veit Erlmann.

 

This collection of early isicathamiya and Mbube music includes several tracks by the Evening Birds.

 

Information on Pete Seeger and the Weavers primarily comes from Pete Seeger vs. The Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist by Edward Renehan.

 

This collection has everything the Weavers recorded before their first split.

 

This is the record of one of the legal actions taken during Weiss’ dispute with Folkways in the late eighties and early nineties.

 

Information on the Tokens came from This is My Story.

 

There are, surprisingly, no budget compilations of the Tokens’ music, but this best-of has everything you need.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

Today we’re going to look at a song that became a worldwide hit in multiple versions, and which I can guarantee everyone listening to this podcast has heard many times. A song that has been recorded by REM, that featured in a Disney musical, and which can be traced back from a white doo-wop group through a group of Communist folk singers to a man who was exploited by racist South African society — a man who invented an entire genre of music, which got named after his most famous song, but who never saw any of the millions that his song earned for others, and died in poverty. We’re going to look at the story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”]

 

The story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a story that goes back to 1939, when a singer called Solomon Linda was performing in South Africa. Linda was a Zulu, and thus in the racist regime of South Africa was largely without rights.

Linda was, in the thirties and forties, probably the single most important performer in South Africa. He was the leader of a vocal group called the Evening Birds, who were the most popular isicathamiya group in South Africa.

 

Isicathamiya — and I hope I’m pronouncing that right — was a form of music which has a lot of parallels to some of the American vocal group music we’ve looked at, largely because it comes from some of the same roots. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the music by any means — I’ll put a link on the podcast webpage to a book which has far more information about this — but as best I understand it, it’s a music created when rural black people were forcibly displaced in the late nineteenth century and forced to find work in the city.

 

Those people combined elements of traditional Zulu music with two more Western elements. The first was the religious music that they heard from Church missions, and the second was American minstrel songs, heard from troupes of minstrels that toured the country, especially a black performer named Orpheus McAdoo, who led a troupe of minstrel and gospel performers who toured South Africa a lot in the late nineteenth century.

 

This new style of music was usually performed a capella, though sometimes there might be a single instrument added, and it gained a relatively formalised structure — it would almost always have very specific parts based on European choral music, with parts for a tenor, a soprano, an alto, and a bass, in strict four-part harmony — though the soprano and alto parts would be sung in falsetto by men. It would usually be based around the same I, IV, and V chords that most Western popular music was based on, and the Zulu language would often be distorted to fit Western metres, though the music was still more freeform than most of the Western music of the time.

 

This music started to be recorded in around 1930, and you can get an idea of the stylistic range from two examples. Here’s “Umteto we Land Act” by Caluza’s Double Quartet:

 

[Excerpt, “Umteto We Land Act”, Caluza’s Double Quartet”]

 

While here’s the Bantu Glee Singers, singing “Jim Takata Kanjani”:

 

[Excerpt: The Bantu Glee Singers, “Jim Takata Kanjani”]

 

Solomon Linda’s group, the Evening Birds, sang in this style, but incorporated a number of innovations. One was that they dressed differently — they wore matching striped suits, rather than the baggy trousers that the older groups wore — but also, they had extra bass singers. Up until this point, there would be four singers or multiples of four, with one singer singing each part. The Evening Birds, at Linda’s instigation, had a much thicker bass part, and in some ways prefigured the sound of doo-wop that would take over in America twenty years later.

 

Their music was often political — while the South African regime was horribly oppressive in the thirties, it wasn’t as oppressive as it later became, and a certain amount of criticism of the government was allowed in ways it wouldn’t be in future decades.

 

At the time, the main way in which this music would be performed was at contests with several groups, most of whom would be performing the same repertoire. An audience member would offer to pay one of the groups a few pennies to start singing — and then another audience member, when they got bored with the first group, would offer that group some more money to stop singing, before someone else offered another group some money. The Evening Birds quickly became the centre of this scene, and between 1933 and 1948, when they split, they were the most popular group around. As with many of the doo-wop groups they so resembled, they had a revolving lineup with members coming and going, and joining other groups like the Crocodiles and the Dundee Wandering Singers. There was even a second group called the Evening Birds, with a singer who sounded like Linda, and who had a long-running feud with Linda’s group.

 

But it wasn’t this popularity that got the Evening Birds recorded. It was because Solomon Linda got a day job packing records for Gallo Records, the only record label in South Africa, which owned the only recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa. While he was working in their factory, packing records, he managed to get the group signed to make some records themselves. In the group’s second session, they recorded a song that Linda had written, called “Mbube”, which means “lion”, and was about hunting the lions that would feed on his family’s cattle when he was growing up:

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, “Mbube”]

 

There’s some dispute as to whether Linda wrote the whole song, or whether it’s based on a traditional Zulu song — I tend to fall on the side of Linda having written the whole thing, because very often when people say something is based on a traditional song, what they actually mean is “I don’t believe that an uneducated or black person can have written a whole song”.

 

But whatever the circumstances of most of the composition, one thing is definitely known – Linda was the one who came up with this falsetto melody:

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, “Mbube”]

 

The song became massively, massively popular — so popular that eventually the master copy of the record disintegrated, as they’d pressed so many copies from it. It gave its name to a whole genre of music — in the same way that late fifties American vocal groups are doo-wop groups, South African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo are, more than eighty years later, still known as “mbube groups”.

 

Linda and the Evening Birds would make many more records, like “Anodu Gonda”:

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, “Anodu Gonda”]

 

But it was “Mbube” that was their biggest hit. It sold a hundred thousand copies on Gallo Records — and earned Solomon Linda, its writer and lead singer, ten shillings. The South African government at the time estimated that a black family could survive on thirty-seven shillings and sixpence a week. So for writing the most famous melody ever to come out of Africa, Linda got a quarter of a week’s poverty-level wages. When Linda died in 1962, he had a hundred rand — equivalent then to fifty British pounds — in his bank account. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

And, a little over a year before his death, his song had become an international number one hit record. To see why, we have to go back to 1952, and a folk group called the Weavers.

 

Pete Seeger, the most important member of the Weavers, is a figure who is hugely important in the history of the folk music rebirth of the 1960s. Like most of the white folk singers of the period, he had an incredibly privileged background — he had attended Harvard as a classmate of John F Kennedy — but he also had very strong socialist principles. He had been friends with both Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly in the forties, and he dedicated his later career to the same kind of left-wing activism that Guthrie had taken part in. 

 

Indeed, Guthrie and Seeger had both been members of the Almanac Singers, a folk group of the forties who had been explicitly pro-Communist. They’d been pacifists up until the Soviet entry into the Second World War, at which point they had immediately turned round and become the biggest cheerleaders of the war:

 

[Excerpt: The Almanac Singers, “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”]

 

The Almanac Singers had a revolving door membership, including everyone from Burl Ives to Cisco Houston at one point or another, but the core of the group had been Seeger and Lee Hays, and those two had eventually formed another group, more or less as a continuation of the Almanac Singers, but with a less explicitly political agenda — they would perform Guthrie and Lead Belly songs, and songs they wrote themselves, but not be tied to performing music that fit the ideological line of the Communist Party.

 

The Weavers immediately had far more commercial success than the Almanac Singers ever had, and recorded such hits as their version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”, with orchestration by Gordon Jenkins:

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, “Goodnight Irene”]

 

And one of the hits they recorded was a version of “Mbube”, which they titled “Wimoweh”.

 

Alan Lomax, the folk song collector, had discovered somewhere a big stack of African records, which were about to be thrown out, and he thought to himself that those would be exactly the kind of thing that Pete Seeger might want, and gave them to him. Seeger loved the recording of “Mbube”, but neither man had any clear idea of what the song was or where it came from. Seeger couldn’t make out the lyrics — he thought Linda was singing something like “Wimoweh”, and he created a new arrangement of the song, taking Linda’s melody from the end of the song and singing it repeatedly throughout:

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, “Wimoweh”]

 

At the time, the Weavers were signed as songwriters to Folkways, a company that was set up to promote folk music, but was part of a much bigger conglomerate, The Richmond Organisation. When they were informed that the Weavers were going to record “Wimoweh”, Folkways contacted the South African record company and were informed that “Mbube” was a traditional folk song. So Folkways copyrighted “Mbube”, as “Wimoweh”, in the name Paul Campbell — a collective pseudonym that the Weavers used for their arrangements of traditional songs.

 

Shortly after this, Gallo realised their mistake and tried to copyright “Mbube” themselves in the USA, under Solomon Linda’s name, only to be told that Folkways already had the copyright. Now, in the 1950s the USA was not yet a signatory to the Berne Convention, the international agreement on copyright laws, and so it made no difference that in South Africa the song had been copyrighted under Linda’s name — in the USA it was owned by Folkways, because they had registered it first.

 

But Folkways wanted the rights for other countries, too, and so they came to an agreement with Gallo that would be to Gallo’s immense disadvantage. Because they agreed that they would pay Gallo a modest one-off fee, and “let” Gallo have the rights to the song in a few territories in Africa, and in return Folkways would get the copyright everywhere else. Gallo agreed, and so “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and “Wimoweh” by Paul Campbell became separate copyrights — Gallo had, without realising it, given up their legal rights to the song throughout the world.

 

“Wimoweh” by the Weavers went to number six on the charts, but then Senator McCarthy stepped in. Both Pete Seeger and Lee Hays had been named as past Communist Party members, and were called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee to testify. Hays stood on his fifth amendment rights, refusing to testify against himself, but Seeger took the riskier option of simply refusing on first amendment grounds. He said, quite rightly, that his political activities, voting history, and party membership were nobody’s business except his, and he wasn’t going to testify about them in front of Congress. He spent much of the next decade with the threat of prison hanging over his head.

 

As a result, the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and TV, as was Seeger as a solo artist. “Wimoweh” dropped off the charts, and the group’s recording catalogue was deleted. The group split up, though they did get back together again a few years later, and managed to have a hit live album of a concert they performed at Carnegie Hall in 1955, which also included “Wimoweh”:

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, “Wimoweh (live at Carnegie Hall)”]

 

Seeger left the group permanently a couple of years after that, when they did a commercial for tobacco — the group were still blacklisted from the radio and TV, and saw it as an opportunity to get some exposure, but Seeger didn’t approve of tobacco or advertising, and quit the group because of it — though because he’d made a commitment to the group, he did appear on the commercial, not wanting to break his word. At his suggestion, he was replaced by Erik Darling, from another folk group, The Tarriers. Darling was an Ayn Rand fan and a libertarian, so presumably didn’t have the same attitudes towards advertising.

 

As you might have gathered from this, Seeger was a man of strong principles, and so you might be surprised that he would take credit for someone else’s song. As it turned out, he didn’t. When he discovered that Solomon Linda had written the song, that it wasn’t just a traditional song, he insisted that all future money he would have made from it go to Linda, and sent Linda a cheque for a thousand dollars for the money he’d already earned. But Seeger was someone who didn’t care much about money at all — he donated the vast majority of his money to worthy causes, and lived frugally, and he assumed that the people he was working with would behave honourably and keep to agreements, and didn’t bother checking on them. They didn’t, and Linda saw nothing from them.

 

Over the years after 1952, “Wimoweh” became something of a standard in America, with successful versions like the one by Yma Sumac:

 

[Excerpt: Yma Sumac, “Wimoweh”]

 

And in the early sixties it was in the repertoire of almost every folk group, being recorded by groups like the Kingston Trio, who had taken the Weavers’ place as the most popular folk group in the country.

 

And then the Tokens entered the picture. We’ve mentioned the Tokens before, in the episode on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” — they were the group, also known as the Linc-Tones, that was led by Carole King’s friend Neil Sedaka, and who’d recorded “While I Dream” with Sedaka on lead vocals:

 

[Excerpt: Neil Sedaka and the Tokens, “While I Dream”]

 

After recording that, one member of the group had gone off to college, and been replaced by the falsetto singer Jay Siegel. But then the group had split up, and Sedaka had gone on to a very successful career as a solo performer and a songwriter. 

But Siegel and one of the other group members, Hank Medress, had carried on performing together, and had formed a new group, Darrell and the Oxfords, with two other singers. That group had made a couple of records for Roulette Records, one of which, “Picture in Your Wallet”, was a local hit:

 

[Excerpt: Darrell and the Oxfords, “Picture in Your Wallet”]

 

But that group had also split up. So the duo invited yet another pair of singers to join them — Mitch Margo, who was around their age, in his late teens, and his twelve-year-old brother Phil. The group reverted to their old name of The Tokens, and recorded a song called “Tonight I Fell In Love”, which they leased to a small label called Warwick Records:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, “Tonight I Fell In Love”]

 

Warwick Records sat on the track for six months before releasing it. When they did, in 1961, it went to number fifteen on the charts. But by then, the group had signed to RCA Records, and were now working with Hugo and Luigi, the production duo who you might remember from the episode on “Shout”.

 

The group put out a couple of flop singles on RCA, including a remake of the Moonglows’ “Sincerely”:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, “Sincerely”]

 

But after those two singles flopped, the group made the record that would define them for the rest of their lives.

The Tokens had been performing “Wimoweh” in their stage act, and they played it for Hugo and Luigi, who thought there was something there, but they didn’t think it would be commercial as it was. They decided to get a professional writer in to fix the song up, and called in George David Weiss, a writer with whom they’d worked before. The three of them had previously co-written “Can’t Help Falling In Love” for Elvis Presley, basing it on a traditional melody, which is what they thought they were doing here:

 

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”]

 

Weiss took the song home and reworked it. Weiss decided to find out what the original lyrics had been about, and apparently asked the South African consulate, who told him that it was about lions, so he came up with new lyrics — “in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.

 

Hugo and Luigi came up with an arrangement for Weiss’ new version of the song, and brought in an opera singer named Anita Darian to replicate the part that Yma Sumac had sung on her version. The song was recorded, and released on the B-side of the Tokens’ third flop in a row:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”]

 

As it was believed by everyone involved that the song was a traditional one, the new song was copyrighted in the names of Weiss, Hugo, and Luigi. And as it was released as a B-side of a flop single, nobody cared at first.

 

But then a DJ flipped the record and started playing the B-side, and suddenly the song was a hit. Indeed, it went to number one. And it didn’t just go to number one, it became a standard, recorded over the years by everyone from Brian Eno to Billy Joel, The New Christy Minstrels to They Might Be Giants.

 

Obviously, the publishers of “Wimoweh”, who knew that the song wasn’t a traditional piece at all, wanted to get their share of the money. However, the owner of the publishing company was also a good friend of Weiss — and Weiss was someone who had a lot of influence in the industry, and who nobody wanted to upset, and so they came to a very amicable agreement. The three credited songwriters would stay credited as the songwriters and keep all the songwriting money — after all, Pete Seeger didn’t want it, and the publishers were only under a moral obligation to Solomon Linda, not a legal one — but the Richmond Organisation would get the publishing money.

 

Everyone seemed to be satisfied with the arrangement, and Solomon Linda’s song went on earning a lot of money for a lot of white men he never met.

 

The Tokens tried to follow up with a version of an actual African folk song, “Bwa Nina”, but that wasn’t a hit, and nor was a version of “La Bamba”. While they continued their career for decades, the only hit they had as performers was in 1973, by which point Hank Medress had left and the other three had changed their name to Cross Country and had a hit with a remake of “In the Midnight Hour”:

 

[Excerpt: Cross Country, “The Midnight Hour”]

 

I say that was the only hit they had as performers, because they went into record production themselves. There they were far more successful, and as a group they produced records like the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”, making them the first vocal group to produce a hit for another vocal group:

 

[Excerpt: The Chiffons, “He’s So Fine”]

 

That song would, of course, generate its own famous authorial dispute case in later years. After Hank Medress left the group, he worked as a producer on his own, producing hits for Tony Orlando and Dawn, and also producing one of the later hit versions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, Robert John’s version, which made number three in 1972:

 

[Excerpt: Robert John, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”]

 

Today there are two touring versions of the Tokens, one led by Jay Siegel and one by Phil Margo.

 

But while in 1961 the Richmond Organisation, Hugo and Luigi, and George Weiss all seemed happy with their agreement, things started to go wrong in 1989.

 

American copyright law has had several changes over the years, and nothing of what I’m saying applies now, but for songs written before 1978 and the first of the Mickey Mouse copyright extensions, the rule used to be that a song would be in copyright for twenty-eight years. The writer could then renew it for a second twenty-eight-year term. (The rule is now that songs published in America remain in copyright until seventy years after the writer’s death). 

 

And it’s specifically the *writer* who could renew it for that second term, not the publishers. George Weiss filed notice that he was going to renew the copyright when the twenty-eight-year term expired, and that he wasn’t going to let the Richmond Organisation publish the song.

 

As soon as the Richmond Organisation heard about this, they took Weiss to court, saying that he couldn’t take the publishing rights away from them, because the song was based on “Wimoweh”, which they owned. Weiss argued that if the song was based on “Wimoweh”, the copyright should have reflected that for the twenty-eight years that the Richmond Organisation owned it. They’d signed papers agreeing that Weiss and Hugo and Luigi were the writers, and if they’d had a problem with that they should have said so back in 1961.

 

The courts sided with Weiss, but they did say that the Richmond Organisation might have had a bit of a point about the song’s similarity to “Wimoweh”, so they had to pay a small amount of money to Solomon Linda’s family.

 

And the American writers getting the song back coincided with two big boosts in the income from the song. First, R.E.M recorded a song called “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, on their album Automatic For the People (a record we will definitely be talking about in 2026, assuming I’m still around and able to do the podcast by then). The album was one of the biggest records of the decade, and on the song, Michael Stipe sang a fragment of Solomon Linda’s melody:

 

[Excerpt: R.E.M. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”]

 

The owners of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” took legal action about that, and got themselves credited as co-writers of R.E.M.’s song, and the group also had to record “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, releasing it as a B-side to the hit single version of “Sidewinder”:

 

[Excerpt: R.E.M. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”]

 

Even better from their point of view, the song was featured in the Disney film The Lion King, which on its release in 1994 became the second highest-grossing film of all time and the most successful animated film ever, and in its Broadway adaptation, which became the most successful Broadway show of all time.

 

And in 2000, Rian Malan, a South African journalist based in America, who mostly dedicated his work to expunging his ancestral guilt — he’s a relative of Daniel Malan, the South African dictator who instituted the apartheid system, and of Magnus Malan, one of the more monstrous ministers in the regime in its last days of the eighties and early nineties — found out that while Solomon Linda’s family had been getting some money, it amounted at most to a couple of thousand dollars a year, shared between Linda’s daughters. At the same time, Malan estimated that over the years the song had generated something in the region of fifteen million dollars for its American copyright owners.

 

Malan published an article about this, and just before that, the daughters got a minor windfall — Pete Seeger noticed a six thousand dollar payment, which came to him when a commercial used “Wimoweh”, rather than “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. He realised that he’d been receiving the royalties for “Wimoweh” all along, even though he’d asked that they be sent to Linda, so he totalled up how much he’d earned from the song over the years, which came to twelve thousand dollars, and he sent a cheque for that amount to Linda’s daughters.

 

Those daughters were living in such poverty that in 2001, one of the four died of AIDS — a disease which would have been completely treatable if she’d been able to afford the anti-retroviral medication to treat it.

 

The surviving sisters were told that the copyright in “Mbube” should have reverted to them in the eighties, and that they had a very good case under South African law to get a proper share of the rights to both “Wimoweh” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

 

They just needed to find someone in South Africa that they could sue. Abilene Music, the current owners of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, were based in the USA and had no assets in South Africa. Suing them would be pointless.

But they could sue someone else:

 

[Excerpt: Timon and Pumbaa, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”]

 

Disney had assets in South Africa. Lots of them. And they’d used Solomon Linda’s song in their film, which under South African law would be copyright infringement. It would even be possible, if the case went really badly for Disney, that Linda’s family could get total ownership of all Disney assets in South Africa.

 

So in 2006, Disney came to an out of court settlement with Linda’s family, and they appear to have pressured Abilene Music to do the same thing. Under South African law, “Mbube” would go out of copyright by 2012, but it was agreed that Linda’s daughters would receive royalties on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” until 2017, even after the South African copyright had expired, and they would get a lump sum from Disney. The money they were owed would be paid into a trust.

 

After 2017, they would still get money from “Wimoweh”, but not from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, whose rights would revert fully to its American owners.

 

Unfortunately, most of the money they got seems to have gone on legal bills. The three surviving sisters each received, in total, about eighty-three thousand dollars over the ten-year course of the agreement after those bills, which is much, much, more than they were getting before, but only a fraction of what the song would have earned them if they’d been paid properly.

 

In 2017, the year the agreement expired, Disney announced they were making a photorealistic CGI remake of The Lion King. That, too, featured “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and that, too, became the most successful animated film of all time.

Under American copyright law, “Wimoweh” will remain in copyright until 2047, unless further changes are made to the law. Solomon Linda’s family will continue to receive royalties on that song. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, the much more successful song, will remain in copyright until 2057, and the money from that will mostly go to Claire Weiss-Creatore, who was George Weiss’ third wife, and who after he died in 2010 became the third wife of Luigi Creatore, of Hugo and Luigi, who died himself in 2015. Solomon Linda’s daughters won’t see a penny of it.

 

According to George Weiss’ obituary in the Guardian, he “was a familiar figure at congressional hearings into copyright reform and music piracy, testifying as to the vital importance of intellectual property protection for composers”.

 

Aug 02, 2020
Episode 91: “The Twist” by Chubby Checker
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Episode ninety-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, and how the biggest hit single ever had its roots in hard R&B. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Viens Danser le Twist” by Johnny Hallyday, a cover of a Chubby Checker record that became the first number one for France’s biggest rock star.

 

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 

Also, people have asked me to start selling podcast merchandise, so you can now buy T-shirts from https://500-songs.teemill.com/. That store will be updated semi-regularly.

 

—-more—-

 

Resources

 

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

 

Much of the information in this episode comes from The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World by Jim Dawson. 

 

This collection of Hank Ballard’s fifties singles is absolutely essential for any lover of R&B.

 

And this four-CD box set contains all Chubby Checker’s pre-1962 recordings, plus a selection of other Twist hits from 1961 and 62, including recordings by Johnny Hallyday, Bill Haley, Vince Taylor, and others.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

Today we’re going to look at a record that achieved a feat that’s unique in American history. It is the only non-Christmas-themed record — ever — to go to number one on the Billboard pop charts, drop off, and go back to number one again later. It’s a record that, a year after it went to number one for the first time, started a craze that would encompass everyone from teenagers in Philadelphia to the first lady of the United States.

 

We’re going to look at Chubby Checker, and at “the Twist”, and how a B-side by a washed-up R&B group became the most successful record in chart history:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, “The Twist”]

 

One of the groups that have been a perennial background player in our story so far has been Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. We talked about them most in the episode on “The Wallflower”, which was based on their hit “Work With Me Annie”, and they’ve cropped up in passing in a number of other places, most recently in the episode on Jackie Wilson. By 1958, though they were largely a forgotten group. Their style had been rooted in the LA R&B sound that had been pioneered by Johnny Otis, and which we talked so much about in the first year or so of this podcast. That style had been repeatedly swept away by the newer sounds that had come out of Memphis, Chicago, and New York, and they were yesterday’s news. They hadn’t had a hit in three years, and they were worried they were going to be dropped by their record label.

 

But they were still a popular live act, and they were touring regularly, and in Florida (some sources say they were in Tampa, others Miami) they happened to play on the same bill as a gospel group called the Sensational Nightingales, who were one of the best gospel acts on the circuit:

 

[Excerpt: The Sensational Nightingales, “Morning Train”]

 

The Sensational Nightingales had a song, and they were looking for a group to sing it. They couldn’t sing it themselves — it was a secular song, and they were a gospel group — but they knew that it could be a success if someone did. The song was called “The Twist”, and it was based around a common expression from R&B songs that was usually used to mean a generic dance, though it would sometimes be used as a euphemism for sexual activity. There was, though, a specific dance move that was known as the twist, which was a sort of thrusting, grinding move. (It’s difficult to get details of exactly what that move involved these days, as it wasn’t a formalised thing at all). Twisting wasn’t a whole dance itself, it was a movement that people included in other dances.

 

Twisting in this sense had been mentioned in several songs. For example, in one of Etta James’ sequels to “The Wallflower”, she had sung:

 

[Excerpt: Etta James, “Good Rockin’ Daddy”]

 

There had been a lot of songs with lines like that, over the years, and the Sensational Nightingales had written a whole song along those lines. They’d first taken it to Joe Cook, of Little Joe and the Thrillers, who had had a recent pop hit with “Peanuts”:

 

[Excerpt: Little Joe and the Thrillers, “Peanuts”]

 

But the Sensational Nightingales were remembering an older song, “Let’s Do the Slop”, that had been an R&B hit for the group in 1954:

 

[Excerpt: Little Joe and the Thrillers, “Let’s Do the Slop”]

 

That song was very similar to the one by the Nightingales’, which suggested that Little Joe might be the right person to do their song, but when Little Joe demoed it, he was dissuaded from releasing it by his record label, Okeh, because they thought it sounded too dirty. So instead the Nightingales decided to offer the song to the Midnighters.

 

Hank Ballard listened to the song and liked it, but he thought the melody needed tightening up. The song as the Sensational Nightingales sang it was a fifteen-bar blues, and fifteen bars is an awkward, uncommercial, number. So he and the Midnighters’ guitarist Cal Green took the song that the Nightingales sang, and fit the lyrics to a pre-existing twelve-bar melody.

 

The melody they used was one they’d used previously — on a song called “Is Your Love For Real?”:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, “Is Your Love For Real?”]

 

But this was one of those songs whose melody had a long ancestry. “Is Your Love For Real?” had been inspired by a track by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, “Whatcha Gonna Do?”:

 

[Excerpt, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, “Whatcha Gonna Do?”]

 

That song is credited as having been written by Ahmet Ertegun, but listening to the gospel song “Whatcha Gonna Do?” by the Radio Four, from a year or so earlier, shows a certain amount of influence, shall we say, on the later song:

 

[Excerpt: The Radio Four, “Whatcha Gonna Do?”]

 

Incidentally, it took more work than it should to track down that song, simply because it’s impossible to persuade search engines that a search for The Radio Four, the almost-unknown fifties gospel group, is not a search for Radio Four, the popular BBC radio station.

 

Initially Ballard and Green took that melody and the twist lyrics, and set them to a Jimmy Reed style blues beat, but by the time they took the song into the studio, in November 1958, they’d changed it for a more straightforward beat, and added the intro they’d previously used on the song “Tore Up Over You”:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, “Tore Up Over You”]

 

They apparently also changed the lyrics significantly — there exists an earlier demo of the song, recorded as a demo for VeeJay when Ballard wasn’t sure that Syd Nathan would renew his contract, with very different, more sexually suggestive, lyrics, which are apparently those that were used in the Sensational Nightingales’ version.

 

Either way, the finished song didn’t credit the Nightingales, or Green – who ended up in prison for two years for marijuana possession around this time, and missed out on almost all of this story – or any of the writers of the songs that Ballard lifted from. It was released, with Ballard as the sole credited writer, as the B-side of a ballad called “Teardrops on Your Letter”, but DJs flipped the single, and this went to number sixteen on the R&B chart:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, “The Twist”]

 

And that should have been the end of the matter, and seemed like it would be, for a whole year. “The Twist” was recorded in late 1958, came out in very early 1959, and was just one of many minor R&B hits the Midnighters had. But then a confluence of events made that minor R&B hit into a major craze. The first of these events was that Ballard and the Midnighters released another dance-themed song, “Finger-Poppin’ Time”, which became a much bigger hit for them, thanks in part to an appearance on Dick Clark’s TV show American Bandstand:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, “Finger-Poppin’ Time”]

 

The success of that saw “The Twist” start to become a minor hit again, and it made the lower reaches of the chart.

 

The second event was also to do with Dick Clark. American Bandstand was at the time the biggest music show on TV — at the time it ran for ninety minutes every weekday afternoon, and it was shown live, with a studio audience consisting almost entirely of white teenagers. Clark was very aware of what had happened to Alan Freed when Freed had shown Frankie Lymon dancing with a white girl on his show, and wasn’t going to repeat Freed’s mistakes.

 

But Clark knew that most of the things that would become cool were coming from black kids, and so there were several regulars in the audience who Clark knew went to black clubs and learned the latest dance moves. Clark would then get those teenagers to demonstrate those moves, while pretending they’d invented them themselves. Several minor dance crazes had started this way, and in 1960 Clark noticed what he thought might become another one.

 

To understand the dance that became the Twist, we have to go back to the late thirties, and to episode four of this podcast, the one on “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”. If you can remember that episode, we talked there about a dance that was performed in the Savoy Ballroom in New York in the late thirties, called the Lindy Hop.

 

There were two parts of the Lindy Hop. One of those was a relatively formalised dance, with the partners holding each other, swinging each other around, and so on. That part of the dance was later adopted by white people, and renamed the jitterbug. But there was another part of the dance, known as the breakaway, where the two dancers would separate and show off their own individual moves before coming back together. That would often involve twisting in the old sense, along with a lot of other movements. The breakaway part of the Lindy Hop was never really taken up by white culture, but it continued in black clubs.

 

And these teenagers had copied the breakaway, as performed by black dancers, and they showed it to Clark, but they called the whole dance “the Twist”, possibly because of Ballard’s record. Clark thought it had the potential to become something he could promote through his TV shows, at least if they toned down the more overtly sexual aspects. But he needed a record to go with it.

 

Now, there are several stories about why Clark didn’t ask Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on to the show. Some say that they were simply busy elsewhere on tour and couldn’t make the trip back, others that Clark wanted someone less threatening — by which it’s generally considered he meant less obviously black, though the artist he settled on is himself black, and that argument gets into a lot of things about colourism about which it’s not my place to speak as a white British man. Others say that he wanted someone younger, others that he was worried about the adult nature of Ballard’s act, and yet others that he just wanted a performer with whom he had a financial link — Clark was one of the more obviously corrupt people in the music industry, and would regularly promote records with which he had some sort of financial interest. Possibly all of these were involved.

 

Either way, rather than getting Hank Ballard and the Midnighters onto his shows to perform “The Twist”, even as it had entered the Hot One Hundred at the lower reaches, Clark decided to get someone to remake the record. He asked Cameo-Parkway, a label based in Philadelphia, the city from which Clark’s show was broadcast, and which was often willing to do “favours” for Clark, if they could do a remake of the record. This was pretty much a guaranteed hit for the label — Clark was the single most powerful person in the music industry at this point, and if he plugged an artist they were going to be a success — and so of course they said yes, despite the label normally being a novelty label, rather than dealing in rock and roll or R&B. They even had the perfect singer for the job.

 

Ernest Evans was eighteen years old, and had repeatedly tried and failed to get Cameo-Parkway interested in him as a singer, but things had recently changed for him. Clark had wanted to do an audio Christmas card for his friends — a single with “Jingle Bells” sung in the style of various different singers. Evans had told the people at Cameo-Parkway he could do impressions of different singers, and so they’d asked him to record it. That recording was a private one, but Evans later did a rerecording of the song as a duet with Bobby Rydell, including the same impressions of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and the Chipmunks that he’d done on Clark’s private copy, so you can hear what it sounded like:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, “Jingle Bell Imitations”]

 

It was that Fats Domino imitation, in particular, that gave Evans his stage name. Dick Clark’s wife Barbara was there when he was doing the recording, and she called him “Chubby Checker”, as a play on “Fats Domino”.

 

Clark was impressed enough with the record that Cameo-Parkway decided to have the newly-named Chubby Checker make a record in the same style for the public, and his version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in that style, renamed “The Class” made number thirty-eight on the charts thanks to promotion from Clark:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, “The Class”]

 

Two more singles in that vein followed, “Whole Lotta Laughin'” and “Dancing Dinosaur”, but neither was a success. But Checker was someone known to Clark, someone unthreatening, someone on a label with financial connections to Clark, and someone who could do decent impressions. So when Clark wanted a record that sounded exactly like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters singing “The Twist”, it was easy enough for Checker to do a Ballard impression:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, “The Twist”]

 

Clark got Checker to perform that on The Dick Clark Show — a different show from Bandstand, but one with a similar audience size — and to demonstrate the toned-down version of the dance that would be just about acceptable to the television audience. This version of the dance basically consisted of miming towelling your buttocks while stubbing out a cigarette with your foot, and was simple enough that anyone could do it.

 

Checker’s version of “The Twist” went to number one, as a result of Clark constantly plugging it on his TV shows. It was so close to Ballard’s version that when Ballard first heard it on the radio, he was convinced it was his own record. The only differences were that Checker’s drummer plays more on the cymbals, and that Checker’s saxophone player plays all the way through the song, rather than just playing a solo — and King Records quickly got a saxophone player in to the studio to overdub an identical part on Ballard’s track and reissue it, to make it sound more like the soundalike. Ballard’s version of the song ended up going to number twenty-eight on the pop charts on Checker’s coattails.

 

And that should, by all rights, have been the end of the Twist. Checker recorded a series of follow-up hits over the next few months, all of them covers of older R&B songs about dances — a version of “The Hucklebuck”, a quick cover of Don Covay’s “Pony Time”, released only a few months before, which became Checker’s second number one, and “Dance the Mess Around”. All of these were hits, and it seemed like Chubby Checker would be associated with dances in general, rather than with the Twist in particular. In summer 1961 he did have a second Twist hit, with “Let’s Twist Again” — singing “let’s twist again, like we did last summer”, a year on from “The Twist”:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, “Let’s Twist Again”]

 

That was written by the two owners of Cameo-Parkway, who had parallel careers as writers of novelty songs — their first big hit had been Elvis’ “Teddy Bear”. But over the few months after “Let’s Twist Again”, Checker was back to non-Twist dance songs. But then the Twist craze proper started, and it started because of Joey Dee and the Starliters.

 

Joey DiNicola was a classmate of the Shirelles, and when the Shirelles had their first hits, they’d told DiNicola that he should meet up with Florence Greenberg. His group had a rotating lineup, at one point including guitarist Joe Pesci, who would later become famous as an actor rather than as a musician, but the core membership was a trio of vocalists — Joey Dee, David Brigati, and Larry Vernieri, all of whom would take lead vocals. They were one of the few interracial bands of the time, and the music they performed was a stripped-down version of R&B, with an organ as the dominant instrument — the kind of thing that would later get known as garage rock or frat rock.

 

Greenberg signed the Starliters to Scepter Records, and they released a couple of singles on Scepter, produced and written like much of the material on Scepter by Luther Dixon:

 

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, “Shimmy Baby”]

 

Neither of their singles on Scepter was particularly successful, but they became a popular live act around New Jersey, and got occasional gigs at venues in New York. They played a three-day weekend at a seedy working-class Mafia-owned bar called the Peppermint Lounge, in Manhattan. Their shows there were so successful that they got a residency there, and became the house band. Soon the tiny venue — which had a capacity of about two hundred people — was packed, largely with the band’s fans from New Jersey — the legal drinking age in New Jersey was twenty-one, while in New York it was eighteen, so a lot of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds from New Jersey would make the journey.

 

As Joey Dee and the Starliters were just playing covers of chart hits for dancing, of course they played “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again”, and of course these audiences would dance the Twist to them. But that was happening in a million dingy bars and clubs up and down the country, with nobody caring. The idea that anyone would care about a tiny, dingy, bad-smelling bar and the cover band that played it was a nonsense.

 

Until it wasn’t.

 

Because the owners of the Peppermint Lounge decided that they wanted a little publicity for their club, and they hired a publicist, who in turn got in touch with a company called Celebrity Services. What Celebrity Services did was, for a fee, they would get some minor celebrity or other to go to a venue and have a drink or a meal, and they would let the gossip columnists know about it, so the venue would then get a mention in the newspapers. Normally this would be one or two passing mentions, and nothing further would happen.

 

But this time it did. A couple of mentions in the society columns somehow intrigued enough people that some more celebrities started dropping in. The club was quite close to Broadway, and so a few of the stars of Broadway started popping in to see what the fuss was about. And then more stars started popping in to see what the other stars had been popping in for. Noel Coward started cruising the venue looking for rough trade, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Tallulah Bankhead were regulars, Norman Mailer danced the Twist with the granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook, and Tennessee Williams and even Greta Garbo turned up, all to either dance to Joey Dee and the Starliters or to watch the younger people dancing to them. There were even rumours, which turned out to be false, that Jackie Kennedy had gone to the Peppermint Lounge – though she did apparently enjoy dancing the Twist herself.

 

The Peppermint Lounge became a sensation, and the stories all focussed on the dance these people were doing.

“The Twist” reentered the charts, eighteen months after it had first come out, and Morris Levy sprang into action. Levy wanted a piece of this new Twist thing, and since he didn’t have Chubby Checker, he was going to get the next best thing. He signed Joey Dee and the Starliters to Roulette Records, and got Henry Glover in to produce them.

 

Henry Glover is a figure who we really didn’t mention as much as we should have in the first fifty or so episodes of the podcast. He’d played trumpet with Lucky Millinder, and he’d produced most of the artists on King Records in the late forties and fifties, including Wynonie Harris, Bill Doggett, and James Brown. He’d produced Little Willie John’s version of “Fever”, and wrote “Drown in My Own Tears”, which had become a hit for Ray Charles.

 

Glover had also produced Hank Ballard’s original version of “The Twist”, and now he was assigned to write a Twist song for Joey Dee and the Starliters. His song, “Peppermint Twist”, became their first single on Roulette:

 

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, “Peppermint Twist”]

 

“Peppermint Twist” went to number one, and Chubby Checker’s version of “The Twist” went back to number one, becoming the only record ever to do so during the rock and roll era. In fact, Checker’s record, on its reentry, became so popular that as recently as 2018 Billboard listed it as the *all-time* number one record on the Hot One Hundred.

 

The Twist was a massive sensation, but it had moved first from working-class black adults, to working-class white teenagers, to young middle-class white adults, and now to middle-aged and elderly rich white people who thought it was the latest “in” thing. And so, of course, it stopped being the cool in thing with the teenagers, almost straight away. If you’re young and rebellious, you don’t want to be doing the same thing that your grandmother’s favourite film star from when she was a girl is doing.

 

But it took a while for that disinterest on the part of the teenagers to filter through to the media, and in the meantime there were thousands of Twist cash-in records. There was a version of “Waltzin’ Matilda” remade as “Twistin’ Matilda”, the Chipmunks recorded “The Alvin Twist”. The Dovells, a group on Cameo Parkway who had had a hit with “The Bristol Stomp”, recorded “Bristol Twistin’ Annie”, which managed to be a sequel not only to “The Twist”, but to their own “The Bristol Stomp” and to Hank Ballard’s earlier “Annie” recordings:

 

[Excerpt: The Dovells, “Bristol Twistin’ Annie”]

 

There were Twist records by Bill Haley, Neil Sedaka, Duane Eddy… almost all of these were terrible records, although we will, in a future episode, look at one actually good Twist single.

 

The Twist craze proper started in November 1961, and by December there were already two films out in the cinemas. Hey! Let’s Twist! starred Joey Dee and the Starliters in a film which portrayed the Peppermint Lounge as a family-run Italian restaurant rather than a Mafia-run bar, and featured Joe Pesci in a cameo that was his first film role. Twist Around the Clock starred Chubby Checker and took a whole week to make. As well as Checker, it featured Dion, and the Marcels, trying desperately to have another hit after “Blue Moon”:

 

[Excerpt: The Marcels, “Merry Twistmas”]

 

Twist Around The Clock was an easy film to make because Sam Kurtzman, who produced it, had produced several rock films in the fifties, including Rock Around the Clock. He got the writer of that film to retype his script over a weekend, so it talked about twisting instead of rocking, and starred Chubby Checker instead of Bill Haley. As Kurtzman had also made Bill Haley’s second film, Don’t Knock The Rock, so Checker’s second film became Don’t Knock the Twist.

 

Checker also appeared in a British film, It’s Trad, Dad!, which we talked about last week. That was a cheap trad jazz cash-in, but at the last minute they decided to rework it so it included Twist music as well as trad, so the director, Richard Lester, flew to the USA for a couple of days to film Checker and a couple of other artists miming to their records, which was then intercut with footage of British teenagers dancing, to make it look like they were dancing to Checker.

 

Of course, the Twist craze couldn’t last forever, but Chubby Checker managed a good few years of making dance-craze singles, and he married Catharina Lodders, who had been Miss World 1962, in 1964. Rather amazingly for a marriage between a rock star and a beauty queen, they remain married to this day, nearly sixty years later.

 

Checker’s last big hit came in 1965, by which point the British Invasion had taken over the American charts so comprehensively that Checker was recording “Do the Freddie”, a song about the dance that Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers did on stage:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, “Do the Freddie”]

 

In recent decades, Checker has been very bitter about his status. He’s continued a career of sorts, even scoring a novelty hit in the late eighties with a hip-hop remake of “The Twist” with The Fat Boys, but for a long time his most successful records were unavailable. Cameo-Parkway was bought in the late sixties by Allen Klein, a music industry executive we’ll be hearing more of, more or less as a tax writeoff, and between 1975 and 2005 there was no legal way to get any of the recordings on that label, as they went out of print and weren’t issued on CD, so Checker didn’t get the royalties he could have been getting from thirty years of nostalgia compilation albums. Recent interviews show that Checker is convinced he is the victim of an attempt to erase him from rock and roll history, and believes he deserves equal prominence with Elvis and the Beatles. He believes his lack of recognition is down to racism, as he married a white woman, and has protested outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at his lack of induction. Whatever one’s view of the artistic merits of his work, it’s sad that someone so successful now feels so overlooked.

 

But the Twist fad, once it died, left three real legacies. One was a song we’ll be looking at in a few months, and the other two came from Joey Dee and the Starliters. The Young Rascals, a group who had a series of hits from 1965 to 1970, started out as the instrumentalists in the 1964 lineup of Joey Dee and the Starliters before breaking out to become their own band, and a trio called Ronnie and the Relatives made their first appearances at the Peppermint Lounge, singing backing vocals and dancing behind the Starliters. They later changed their name to The Ronettes, and we’ll be hearing more from them later.

 

The Twist was the last great fad of the pre-Beatles sixties. That it left so little of a cultural mark says a lot about the changes that were to come, and which would sweep away all memory of the previous few years…

Jul 25, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford
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Welcome to the seventh and final in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey . I’m glad to say that this pledge week has been successful enough that I may do another of these in a year or so.

This one is about “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a record that was a huge influence on many, many artists in the mid fifties.

—-more—-

As we’re reaching the end of 1956, and are also now on the fiftieth episode of the podcast, I thought it worth while trying to fill in a few gaps in the year we’ve been covering. And one of those gaps is the song “Sixteen Tons”. We’ve mentioned this song a couple of times before — we talked during the episode on Bo Diddley about how much he liked the song, and it also came up in the episode on Johnny Cash, but because it’s not actually a rock and roll song as such we never looked at it in any more detail. But it’s a song that was a huge hit in 1956, and which influenced many rock and rollers, and so we should probably have a quick look at its history:

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons”]

That’s the version of the song that became a hit in 1956, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it’s not the original version of the song. The song was originally written by Merle Travis, one of the greatest country guitarists of all time.

Merle Travis is credited with the invention of “Travis picking”, a type of guitar playing where you play a bass line on the bottom two strings of the guitar while you play melody on the top two, with the melody syncopated as in ragtime — it’s a particular pattern that can be heard in everything from “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel to “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam.

Travis’ own playing was more complicated than the kind of music that now gets called “Travis picking”, as you can hear on, say, “Cannonball Rag”:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, “Cannonball Rag”]

That owes a lot to ragtime and blues, not just to country music. While Travis is credited as the inventor of this style, he wasn’t actually its originator. It was actually invented by a black blues guitarist called Arnold Shultz, who lived in Travis’ home state of Kentucky. Shultz never made a record, but he taught the style to several other guitarists, including one called Kennedy Jones, who in turn taught it to many other guitarists — including Ike Everly, who we’ll be hearing more about in the second year of the main podcast.

Travis spent the early part of his career as a fairly conventional country singer. He started off as one of the very first artists on Syd Nathan’s King Records, before King made its turn to the R&B for which it became better known, but then in 1946 he signed to Capitol Records, where he made country-pop records like “Divorce Me COD”:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, “Divorce Me COD”]

But then Travis made an album called “Folk Songs of the Hills”, which was very different from anything else he’d recorded before. This was before the long-playing vinyl record, and so it was a box of four singles, all of which consisted just of Travis singing to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The songs were a mixture of the traditional folk songs that the title led you to expect:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, “John Henry”]

and new songs written by Travis himself, mostly about the culture of the mining areas of Kentucky where he grew up. And “Sixteen Tons” was one of those. In its original version it started with a spoken introduction explaining the concept of “company scrip”, where someone could work for a company and be paid, not in cash that could be spent anywhere, but in tokens that could only be exchanged for goods sold by the company they worked for. This was an unfortunately common practice in the early and mid twentieth century, and those of you who’ve been following developments in cryptocurrencies and the big tech companies know that it’s making a return at the moment:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, “Sixteen Tons”]

Travis’ recording was not particularly successful, and he went back to recording the honky tonk country records that he was successful with, but his career started to fade in the fifties. Until his friend Tennessee Ernie Ford, who had become nationally known thanks to some appearances on I Love Lucy, decided he wanted to record a new version of “Sixteen Tons” in 1956, a decade after Travis’ original version.

Ford’s version is very, very, different from Travis’ original. It cuts out the spoken explanation, and where Travis’ version is a ragtime-influenced guitar track, Ford’s is taken at a much lower pitch, and it is dominated by clarinet and fingersnaps. It’s quite an astonishing arrangement, although it was soon imitated by all sorts of people, not least Peggy Lee in her version of “Fever”:

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons”]

Ford’s recording became an instant classic, inspiring everyone from Johnny Cash to Bo Diddley to Tom Waits. It’s a perfect marriage of song, arrangement, and vocalist, and one of those records that perfectly encapsulates its time.

It also revived the career of Merle Travis, who had stopped having any commercial success with his electric recordings, despite being a musician’s musician who every single other guitarist in the business looked up to. Suddenly people started to reevaulate Travis’ work, and he became an integral part of the new folk music movement. Travis continued playing the electric guitar, but he started recording solo albums of electric guitar performances of traditional songs, and became known as one of the great exponents of country guitar, as well as one of the great songwriters, with his “Dark as a Dungeon” in particular, another song from “Folk Songs of the Hills”, becoming a country standard.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, meanwhile, went on to a career as a presenter of TV variety shows, and while he continued making records, none of them had the success, either artistically or commercially, of “Sixteen Tons”. But you only need to make one classic like that per career for your career to be worthwhile.

Jul 19, 2020
Episode 90: “Runaway” by Del Shannon
0:00

Episode ninety of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Runaway” by Del Shannon, and at the early use of synthesised sound in rock music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Blue Moon” by the Marcels.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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A note

Almost every version of “Runaway” currently available is in stereo, and the stereo version of the song has a slightly different vocal take to the original mono version. Unfortunately, there appear to be multiple “original mono versions” too. To check that what I’m using here, a mono track available as a bonus on a reissue of the album Runaway With Del Shannon, is actually the hit single version, I downloaded two vinyl rips of the single and one vinyl rip of a mono hits compilation from the sixties that had been uploaded to YouTube. Unfortunately no two copies of the song I could find online would play in synch – they all appear to be mastered at slightly different speeds, possibly due to the varispeeding I talk about in the episode. I’ve gone with the version I did because it’s a clean-sounding mono version, but it may not be exactly what people heard in 1961.

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This one is in two parts because of the number of songs by Del Shannon in the mix. Part one, part two.

Only one biography of Del Shannon has ever been written, and that’s out of print and (to judge from the Amazon reviews) not very well written, so I’ve relied again on other sources. Those include the liner notes to this CD, a good selection of Shannon’s work (with the proviso that “Runaway” is in stereo — see above; the articles on Shannon and Max Crook on This Is My Story, the official Del Shannon website,  and the Internet Archive’s cached copy of Max Crook’s old website.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

Today’s episode is an odd one to write, as just as I put the finishing touches to the script I discovered that Max Crook, the keyboard player at the centre of this story, died less than two weeks ago. The news wasn’t widely reported, and I only discovered this by double-checking a detail and discovering an obituary of him. Crook was one of the great early pioneers of electronic music, and a massive talent, and he’s a big part of the story I’m telling today, so before we go into the story proper I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge his passing, and to regret that it hasn’t been more widely noted.

One of the things we’ve not talked about much in this podcast so far is the technology of music. We’ve discussed it a bit — we’ve looked at how things like the change from 78s to 45s affected the music industry, at the transition from recording on discs to recording on tape, at the electrification of the guitar, and at Les Paul’s inventions. But in general, the music we’ve looked at has been made in a fairly straightforward manner — some people with some combination of guitars, bass, piano, drums, and saxophone, and maybe a few string players on the most recent recordings, get together in front of a microphone and sing and play those instruments.

But today, we’re going to look at the start of synthesisers being used in rock and roll music. Today we’re going to look at “Runaway” by Del Shannon:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Runaway”]

Synthesised sound has a far longer pedigree than you might expect. The use of electronics to create music goes back to the invention of the theremin and the ondes martenot in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, people had already started using polyphonic keyboard-based electronic instruments. The Novachord was produced by the Hammond organ company between 1938 and 1942, and was introduced at the World’s Fair in 1939, where Ferdinand Grofe, who we talked about a little in the episode on “Cathy’s Clown”, led a group consisting only of Novachord players in a public performance.

The Novachord never achieved mass popularity because of World War II halting its production, but it was still used in a few recordings. One that’s of particular interest to those of us interested in early rock and roll is Slim Gaillard’s “Novachord Boogie”:

[Excerpt: Slim Gaillard, “Novachord Boogie”]

But also it was used on one of the most famous records of the late thirties. These days, when you hear “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn on documentaries about the second world war, this is the version you hear:

[Excerpt: Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again”]

But the record that people actually listened to in World War II didn’t have any of that orchestration. It was Lynn accompanied by a single instrument, a Novachord played by Arthur Young, and is notably more interesting and less syrupy:

[Excerpt: Vera Lynn with Arthur Young on Novachord, “We’ll Meet Again”]

So even in the late thirties, synthesised sounds were making their way on to extremely popular recordings, but it wasn’t until after the war that electronic instruments started getting used in a major way. And the most popular of those instruments was a monophonic keyboard instrument called the clavioline, which was first produced in 1947. The clavioline was mostly used as a novelty element, but it appeared on several hit records. We’re going to devote a whole episode in a few months’ time to a record with the clavioline as lead instrument, but you can hear it on several fifties novelty records, like “Little Red Monkey” by Frank Chacksfield’s Tunesmiths, a UK top ten hit from 1953:

[Excerpt: Frank Chacksfield’s Tunesmiths, “Little Red Monkey”]

But while the clavioline itself was in use quite widely in the fifties, the first big rock and roll hit with an electronic synthesiser actually used a modified clavioline called a musitron, which was put together by an electronics amateur and keyboard player named Max Crook, from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Crook had built his musitron using a clavioline as a base, but adding parts from TVs, reel-to-reel recorders, and bits of whatever electronic junk he could salvage parts from. He’d started playing electronic instruments in his teens, and had built his own recording studio.

Sadly, the early records Crook made are not easily available. The only place I’ve been able to track down copies of his early singles in a digital format is one grey-market CD, which I wasn’t able to obtain in time to include the tracks here and which only seems to be available from one shop in Cornwall. His first band, the White Bucks, released a single, “Get That Fly” backed with “Orny”, on Dot Records, but I can tell you from experience that if you search anywhere online for “White Bucks Orny” you will find… well, not that record, anyway.

Even more interestingly, he apparently recorded a version of “Bumble Boogie”, the novelty instrumental that would later become a hit for B. Bumble and the Stingers, with Berry Gordy at some point in the late fifties. Sadly, that too is not generally available.

But it wasn’t until he auditioned for Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band that Max Crook met the people who were going to become his most important collaborators. The Big Little Show Band had started as Doug DeMott and The Moonlight Ramblers, a honky-tonk band that played at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, Michigan. Battle Creek is a company town, midway between Chicago and Detroit, which is most famous as being the headquarters of the Kellogg company, the cereal manufacturer and largest employer there. It’s not somewhere you’d expect great rock and roll to come from, being as it is a dull medium-sized town with little in the way of culture or nightlife.

The Hi-Lo Club was a rough place, frequented by hard-working, hard-drinking people, and Doug DeMott had been a hard drinker himself — so hard a drinker, in fact, that he was soon sacked. The group’s rhythm guitarist, Charles Westover, had changed his name to Charlie Johnson and put together a new lineup of the group based around himself and the bass player, Loren Dugger. They got in a new drummer, Dick Parker, and then went through a couple of guitarists before deciding to hire a keyboard player instead.

Once they auditioned Crook, with his musitron, which he could clip to the piano and thus provide chordal piano accompaniment while playing a lead melody on his musitron, they knew they had the right player for them.

Crook had a friend, a black DJ named Ollie McLaughlin, who had music industry connections, and had been involved in the White Bucks recordings. Crook and Johnson started writing songs and recording demos for McLaughlin, who got Johnson a session with Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk, two record producers who were working with Johnny and the Hurricanes, an instrumental group who’d had a big hit with “Red River Rock” a year or so previously:

[Excerpt: Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Red River Rock”]

Johnson recorded two songs in New York, without his normal musicians backing him. However, Micahnik and Balk thought that the tracks were too dirgey, and Johnson was singing flat — and listening to them it’s not hard to see why they thought that:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “The Search”]

They told him to go back and come up with some more material that was less dirgey. Two things did come out of the association straight away, though. The first was that Charles Johnson changed his name again, combining a forename he chose to be reminiscent of the Cadillac Coup deVille with a surname he took from an aspiring wrestler he knew, Mark Shannon, to become Del Shannon.

The second was that Johnny and the Hurricanes recorded one of Max Crook’s instrumentals, “Mr Lonely”, as a B-side, and you can hear in the Hammond organ part the kind of part that Crook would have been playing on his Musitron:

[Excerpt: Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Mr Lonely”]

Shannon and Crook recorded a tape of many other songs they were working on for McLaughlin to play to Micahnik and Balk, but they weren’t interested — until they heard a fragment of a song that Shannon and Crook had recorded, and which they’d then mostly taped over. That song, “Runaway”, was the one they wanted.

“Runaway” had been an idea that had happened almost by accident. The band had been jamming on stage, and Crook had hit a chord change that Shannon thought sounded interesting — in later tellings of the story, this is always the Am-G chord change that opens the song, but I suspect the actual chord change that caught his ear was the one where they go to an E major chord rather than the expected G or E minor on the line “As our hearts were young”. That’s the only truly unusual chord change in the song.

But whatever it was, Shannon liked the changes that Crook was playing — he and Crook would both later talk about how bored he was with the standard doo-wop progression that made up the majority of the songs they were playing at the time — and the band ended up jamming on the new chord sequence for fifteen or twenty minutes before the club owner told them to play something else.

The next day, Shannon took his guitar to the carpet shop where he worked, and when there were no customers in, he would play the song to himself and write lyrics. He initially wrote two verses, but decided to scrap one.

They performed the song, then titled “My Little Runaway”, that night, and it became a regular part of their set. The crucial element in the song, though, came during that first performance. Shannon said, just before they started, “Max, when I point to you, play something”. And so when Shannon got to the end of the chorus, he pointed, and Crook played this:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Runaway”]

When they were told that Micahnik and Balk liked the fragment of song that they’d heard, Shannon and Crook recorded a full demo of the song and sent it on to them. The producers weren’t hugely impressed with the finished song, saying they thought it sounded like three songs trying to coexist, and they also didn’t like Shannon’s voice, but they *did* like Crook and the Musitron, and so they invited Crook and Shannon to come to New York to record. The two men drove seven hundred miles in a broken-down car, with their wives, to get from Michigan to New York. It was the middle of winter, the car had no heating, and Shannon smoked while Crook was allergic to tobacco smoke, so they had to keep the windows open.

The session they were going to do was a split session — they were going to record two Del Shannon vocal tracks, and two instrumentals by Crook, who was recording under the name “Maximilian” without a surname (though the “Max” in his name was actually short for Maxfield). Crook was definitely the one they were interested in — he rearranged the way the microphones were arranged in the studio, to get the sound he wanted rather than the standard studio sound, and he also had a bag full of gadgets that the studio engineers were fascinated by, for altering the Musitron’s sound.

The first single released as by “Maximilian” was “The Snake”, which featured Crook and Shannon’s wives on handclaps, along with an additional clapper who was found on the street and paid forty dollars to come in and clap along:

[Excerpt: Maximilian, “The Snake”]

After that, the two women got bored and wandered off down Broadway. They eventually found themselves in the audience for a TV game show, Beat the Clock, and Joann Crook ended up a contestant on the show — their husbands didn’t believe them, when they explained later where they’d been, until acquaintances mentioned having seen Joann on TV.

Meanwhile, the two men were working on another Maximillian track, and on two Del Shannon tracks, one of which was “Runaway”. They couldn’t afford to stay overnight in New York, so they drove back to Michigan, but when the record company listened to “Runaway”, they discovered that Shannon had been singing flat due to nerves. Shannon had to go back to New York, this time by plane, to rerecord his vocals.

According to Crook, even this wasn’t enough, and the engineers eventually had to varispeed his vocals to get them in key with the backing track. I’m not at all sure how this would have worked, as speeding up his vocals would have also meant that he was singing at a different tempo, but that’s what Crook said, and the vocal does have a slightly different quality to it. And Harry Balk backed Crook up, saying “We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn’t sound like Del. We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful. When I brought Ollie and Del into my office to hear it, Del had a bit of a fit. He said, ‘Harry, that doesn’t even sound like me!’ I just remember saying, ‘Yeah but Del, nobody knows what the hell you sound like!”

Like most great records, “Runaway” was the sum of many parts. Shannon later broke down all the elements that went into the song, saying:

“I learned falsetto from The Ink Spots’ ‘We Three,'”:

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)”]

“I eventually got hooked on Jimmy Jones’ ‘Handy Man’ in ’59 and would sing that at the Hi-Lo Club.”:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Jones, “Handy Man”]

“I always had the idea of ‘running away’ somewhere in the back of my mind. ‘I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder, why…’ I borrowed from Dion & The Belmonts’ ‘I Wonder Why.'”

[Excerpt: Dion and the Belmonts, “I Wonder Why”]

“The beats you hear in there, ‘…I wonder, bam-bam-bam, I wa-wa…’ I stole from Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.'”

[Excerpt: Bobby Darin, “Dream Lover”]

Listening to the song, you can definitely hear all those elements that Shannon identifies in there, but what emerges is something fresh and original, unlike anything else out at the time:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Runaway”]

“Runaway” went to number one in almost every country that had a chart at the time, and top five in most of the rest. In America, the song it knocked off the top was “Blue Moon” by the Marcels, one of those songs with the doo-wop progression that Shannon had been so bored with. At its peak, it was selling eighty thousand copies a day, and Billboard put it at number three hundred and sixty four on the all-time charts in 2018. It was a massive success, and a game-changer in the music industry.

Maximilian’s single, on the other hand, only made the top forty in Argentina. Clearly, Del Shannon was the artist who was going to be worth following, but they did release a few more singles by Maximilian, things like “The Twisting Ghost”:

[Excerpt: Maximilian, “The Twisting Ghost”]

That made the Canadian top forty, but Maximilian never became a star in his own right. Shannon, on the other hand, recorded a string of hits, though none were as successful as “Runaway”. The most successful was the follow-up, “Hats off to Larry”, which was very much “Runaway part 2”:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Hats off to Larry”]

But every single he released after that was slightly less successful than the one before. He soon stopped working with Crook, who remained at the Hi-Lo Club with the rest of the band while Shannon toured the country, and without Crook’s Musitron playing his records were far less interesting than his earliest singles, though he did have the distinction of being one of the few singers of this era to write the bulk of his own material.

He managed to further sabotage his career by suing Micahnik and Balk, and by 1963 he was largely washed up, though he did do one more thing that would make him at least a footnote in music history for something other than “Runaway”.

He was more popular in the UK than in the US, and he even appeared in the film “It’s Trad Dad!”, a cheap cash-in on the trad jazz craze, starring Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas as teenagers who try to persuade the stuffy adults who hate the young people’s music that the Dukes of Dixieland, Mr. Acker Bilk and the Temperance Seven are not dangerous obscene noises threatening the morals of the nation’s youth. That film also featured Gene Vincent and Chubby Checker along with a lot of British trumpet players, and was the first feature film made by Richard Lester, who we’ll be hearing more about in this story.

So Shannon spent a fair amount of time in the UK, and in 1963 he noticed a song by a new British group that was rising up the UK charts and covered it. His version of “From Me to You” only made number seventy-seven on the US charts, but it was still the first version of a Lennon/McCartney song to make the Hot One Hundred:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “From Me to You”]

He made some interesting records in the rest of the sixties, and had the occasional fluke hit, but the music he was making, a unique blend of hard garage rock and soft white doo-wop, was increasingly out of step with the rest of the industry. In the mid and late sixties, his biggest successes came with songwriting and productions for other artists. He wrote “I Go to Pieces” which became a hit for Peter & Gordon:

[Excerpt: Peter and Gordon, “I Go to Pieces”]

Produced the band Smith in their cover version of “Baby It’s You”, which made the top five:

[Excerpt: Smith, “Baby It’s You”]

And produced Brian Hyland’s million-selling version of a Curtis Mayfield song that I’m not going to play, because its title used a racial slur against Romani people which most non-Romani people didn’t then regard as a slur, but which is a great record if you can get past that. That Hyland record featured Crook, reunited briefly with Shannon.

But over the seventies Shannon seemed increasingly lost, and while he continued to make records, including some good ones made in the UK with production by Dave Edmunds and Jeff Lynne, he was increasingly unwell with alcoholism. He finally got sober in 1978, and managed to have a fluke hit in 1981 with a cover version of Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love”, produced by Tom Petty and with Petty’s band the Heartbreakers backing him:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Sea of Love”]

He also came to people’s attention when a rerecorded version of “Runaway” with new lyrics was used as the theme for the TV show Crime Story.

In 1989, Del Shannon was working on a comeback album, with Jeff Lynne producing and members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as backing musicians. The same people had previously worked on Roy Orbison’s last album, which had been his biggest success in decades, and Lynne was gaining a reputation for resuscitating the careers of older musicians. Both Lynne and Petty were fans of Shannon and had worked with him previously, and it seemed likely that he might be able to have a hit with some of the material he was working on. Certainly “Walk Away”, which Shannon co-wrote with Lynne and Petty, sounds like the kind of thing that was getting radio play around that time:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, “Walk Away”]

There were even rumours that Lynne and Petty were thinking of inviting Shannon to join the Travelling Wilburys to replace Roy Orbison, though that seems unlikely to me.

Unfortunately, by the time the album came out, Shannon was dead. He’d been suffering from depression for decades, and he died of suicide in early 1990, aged fifty-five. His widow later sued the manufacturers of the new wonder drug, Prozac, which he’d been prescribed a couple of weeks earlier, claiming that it caused his death.

Max Crook, meanwhile, had become a firefighter and burglar alarm installer, while also pursuing a low-key career in music, mostly making religious music. When Shannon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Crook volunteered to perform at the ceremony, playing his original Musitron, but his offer was ignored. In later years he would regularly show up at annual celebrations of Shannon, and talk about the music they made together, and play for their fans. He died on July the first this year, aged eighty-three.

Jul 18, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” by the Cheers
0:00

Welcome to the sixth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” by the Cheers, one of the first Teen Tragedy records, and Leiber and Stoller’s biggest hit. Content warning — contains mentions of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations. Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

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Welcome to the latest ten-minute Patreon bonus episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. In this one we’re going to talk about “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” by The Cheers. This episode has some discussion of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations, so if that’s going to be traumatic for anyone, please turn off now, or read the transcript to check if it’ll be OK for you.

The Cheers are not a group who usually turn up in histories of rock and roll. If they’re mentioned at all by anyone, it’s usually because one of the trio, Bert Convy, later went on to be a host of several syndicated game shows in the eighties and early nineties.

But “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” was one of the biggest-selling singles of 1955, and the ur-example of a genre that would become hugely popular over the next decade:

[Excerpt: “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”]

We’ve talked about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller before in the main series, and they are going to come up a lot more, but at the time we’re talking about they weren’t the massive stars of rock and roll songwriting they later became. They were, rather, just one of a lot of songwriting teams who were working in blues and R&B in the mid-fifties. Normally, they worked only with black artists, but for once they were working with a white group.

The Cheers were signed to Capitol Records, one of the major labels. They were a trio consisting of Bert Convy, Gill Garfield, and Sue Allan, and they were tragically uncool in the way that only white vocal groups of the early fifties could be.

When they were signed to Capitol, they were assigned Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as their producers. I’ve not been able to find anything out about how this came to happen — Leiber and Stoller weren’t staffers at Capitol, and they never really talked about their work with the Cheers in interviews. But their first record with the group, “Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin’)” was a hit:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, “Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin’)”]

The Cheers’ sound really, really doesn’t fit with the style of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting, but the power of white blandness meant that this was the first Leiber and Stoller song to hit the pop charts.

Around this time, Jerry Leiber was involved in something that would traumatise him for the rest of his life. The story as Leiber told it — and to be clear, this is *his* telling of the story, not necessarily the truth — was that he’d got drunk, and then two attractive women had offered to have a threesome with him. He’d been keen, but then backed out as he’d pulled a muscle earlier that day. The two women, however, insisted that he should pay them two hundred dollars or they would accuse him of raping them. He didn’t have two hundred dollars on him, so, very drunk and in pain, he drove them to go and meet a friend who would give him the money.

They never made it to their destination. Leiber had no memory of the crash, but he and one of the women were injured, and the other woman died.

Now, I don’t know for sure that this experience fed into Leiber’s writing process — I’ve not been able to find out the dates for the car crash, or any interviews about his writing of the song — but the second, and final, hit for the Cheers, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” certainly seems likely to have been inspired by it, dealing as it does with an automotive crash and a loss of life:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”]

The main hook for the song, a teen tragedy about a young man who dies in a crash after his girlfriend tells him not to ride his motorbike, was simply that it was about a motorcycle — there had been no hit records about motorbikes before, and this one latched on to the newfound popularity of bikes and bikers.

But the song was given an unexpected, and tragic, boost in popularity when the week after it came out, James Dean, a young actor who specialised in moody, rebellious, tormented characters and appealed to almost exactly the same teenage demographic who were buying rock and roll records, died in a car crash. People started buying “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” as a form of tribute to Dean.

Meanwhile, the royalty cheques for “Bazoom” were starting to come in. Mike Stoller was astonished to get a cheque for a whole five thousand dollars — more money than he’d ever seen in his life — and he and his wife went on a trip to Europe for three months. While they were there, they went to see Edith Piaf in concert, and heard her perform this:

[Excerpt: Edith Piaf, “L’Homme a la Moto”]

It was Piaf’s own version of “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”, which had become her biggest hit. “Black Denim Trousers” had become a sensation, the first in what would become a whole new genre of records about tragic rebellious figures dying in car crashes, and you can hear its echoes in everything from “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. It also inspired this parody record a few years later:

[Excerpt: Dodie Stevens, “Pink Shoe Laces”]

But Stoller, too, would be affected by tragedy. He and his wife were persuaded that on the way back they should go by sea, on a new fancy ocean liner, the Andrea Doria. While he was on the boat, Stoller was reading A Night To Remember, the bestselling book about the Titanic, as were many of the other passengers.

The night before it was due to arrive in New York, the Andrea Doria collided with another liner, the Stockholm. Both ships sank, and fifty-one people died. Stoller and his wife, though, survived, and made it to New York. When they got to New York Harbor, Jerry Leiber ran up to them. He was excited that they’d survived, of course, but he was also excited about something else.

“Mike, you’re OK! We have a smash hit!”

“You’re kidding?”

“Hound Dog”

“Big Mama Thornton?”

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

For Leiber and Stoller, nothing would ever be the same again.

Jul 18, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry
0:00

Welcome to the fifth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry, a classic of both novelty music and New Orleans R&B.

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

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This episode is almost a request one — Daniel Helton asked during the question and answer sessions last week if I’d thought about covering this song in an episode, and I said then that I’d do it as a Patreon bonus. I may do other songs suggested by backers in future bonus episodes, we’ll see, but this one is a song that genuinely deserves at least a brief look:

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “Ain’t Got No Home”]

Clarence “Frogman” Henry is from New Orleans, as you can immediately hear from the record. It’s yet another of those classic records made in Cosimo Matassa’s studio, but Henry was young enough that he grew up listening to those earlier records — as a teenager, he was a fan of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

He started playing in bars in his teens, with various local bands, and he soon developed a unique vocal technique. At the time Shirley and Lee were one of the biggest acts in New Orleans, and everyone wanted to hear their material:

[Excerpt: Shirley and Lee, “Let the Good Times Roll”]

But Henry was the only singer with the bands he was in, and so he would sing both Shirley’s vocal part and Lee’s, and he developed ways to make his voice sound more feminine. He would also play around with his voice and try other unusual voices, including one that sounded like a bullfrog — he used to imitate frogs and alligators in school to scare the girls.

And then one night, performing in a club at two o’clock in the morning, far past when he wanted to go to bed, he started wondering if the audience had no homes to go to, and improvised a song around that theme, “Ain’t Got No Home”, using his different voices.

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “Ain’t Got No Home”]

The song was very loosely based on one he’d already written called “Lonely Tramp”, but sped up and turned into a showcase for his vocal tricks.

The song became a regular in his sets, and he eventually came to the attention of Paul Gayten, a musician in New Orleans who also worked as an A&R man for Chess Records. Gayten signed Henry to Chess’ new subsidiary Argo, and they went into Cosimo Matassa’s studio to record a single. “Ain’t Got No Home” was intended for the B-side — the A-side was a Fats Domino style song called “Troubles, Troubles”:

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “Troubles, Troubles”]

Leonard Chess initially didn’t want to release the single at all, but then the New Orleans DJ known as “Poppa Stoppa” played an acetate of it. “Poppa Stoppa” was one of several white men who performed under that name, playing a character initially created by a black man and pretending to *be* black, and he was to New Orleans what Alan Freed was to Cleveland, Huggy Boy to LA, and Dewey Phillips to Memphis — the white DJ who could make or break black music in the mass market.

“Poppa Stoppa” played both sides of the record, but it was the B-side that made listeners sit up and take note — they kept calling in to hear “the song by the frog man”. Poppa Stoppa turned to Henry, who was in the studio with him, and said “from now on you’re Frogman”.

The record went out with “Ain’t Got No Home” on the A-side, and it became a big hit, going to number three on the R&B charts and hitting the top twenty in the pop charts. However, the follow-up, “Lonely Tramp”, didn’t chart:

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “Lonely Tramp”]

After a couple more failed attempts at follow-ups, Henry went back to just being a live performer, and didn’t make a record for three years. But then in 1961 he teamed up with the songwriter Bobby Charles.

Charles was a white Cajun songwriter who had been as influenced by Fats Domino as Henry was. He’d written hits for Domino, but was best known for his song “Later Alligator”, which as “See You Later Alligator” had been a big hit for Bill Haley:

[Excerpt: Bobby Charles, “Later Alligator”]

Charles and Gayten wrote a ballad called “I Don’t Know Why (But I Do)” which they gave to Henry to sing. Allen Toussaint produced, arranged, and played piano, and the result was absolutely nothing like his first hit, but a catchy pop ballad that became a perennial classic:

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, “But I Do”]

“But I Do” became a worldwide hit, reaching number four in the pop charts and number three in the UK. Several follow-ups also charted, though less well. Many listeners believed Henry to be white — something that Chess encouraged by putting a stock photo of a white man with his head in his hands on the cover of his first album. This was a common technique in the early sixties when a black artist had crossover appeal.

Clarence “Frogman” Henry was no longer a one-hit wonder who’d had a hit with a novelty record, but a serious artist who’d had multiple big hits. While he would never again reach the heights of “But I Do”, that was enough to ensure him a career which continues to this day.

For decades Henry had a residency in a club on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, but he also spent lengthy periods in Britain, where he had a big following. His most famous British fans were the Beatles, who invited him to perform as their opening act on their first US tour. He’d first met them on a UK tour a little earlier, and they had occasionally played “But I Do” in their set when that had been in the charts.

But he had other UK fans as well, and would occasionally perform with them, as this record from 1983 shows:

[Excerpt: Clarence “Frogman” Henry with Chas and Dave, “That Old Piano”]

That’s Frogman with Chas and Dave, remaking one of their songs, released on Chas & Dave’s “Rockney” record label. He also toured with Cannon & Ball around that time.

Clarence “Frogman” Henry is still alive, aged eighty-two, and was still performing at least as recently as May 2017, the most recent gig I’ve been able to find for him, still playing his classic hits. Here’s hoping he carries on for many more years.

Jul 17, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “Shake a Hand” by Faye Adams
0:00

Welcome to the fourth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about “Shake a Hand” by Faye Adams, a classic of gospel-tinged R&B that influenced Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Paul McCartney among others.

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

—-more—-

Welcome to this week’s Patreon-only bonus podcast. Today, we’re going to have another look backwards, to another song I’ve referenced several times in the main podcast, but never properly talked about. Today we’re going to look at “Shake a Hand” by Faye Adams.

“Shake a Hand” is one of the most important R&B ballads of the early fifties, and one which inspired almost every musician working in the field at the time, but its writer would never live to see exactly how important the song became.

[Excerpt: Faye Adams, “Shake A Hand”]

Joe Morris was a trumpet player who had worked in the forties with a lot of the most important names in jump band music, and in particular he’d spent several years with Lionel Hampton before striking out on his own and forming his own band. His first record as a bandleader was a cover version of “Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee”, with Wynonie Harris singing lead:

[Excerpt: Wynonie Harris, “Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee”]

In the early fifties, Morris had been performing with a female singer, Laurie Tate, and had had a big hit in 1950 with her singing on “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”:

[Excerpt Joe Morris and Laurie Tate, “Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere”]

But by 1952, Tate was thinking of leaving the group, and Morris was looking for a replacement, and so Herb Abramson at Atlantic introduced him to a singer who had been born Fanny Tuell, but performed under her married name Faye Scruggs.

Scruggs had started out in the gospel field — her father was a gospel singer, and he was supposedly a key figure in the Church of God in Christ, though since almost every article I can find uses that exact wording, which they seem to have copied from her Wikipedia page, and I can find no independent confirmation of the fact, it should be taken with a grain of salt. (That said, Marv Goldberg also uses that wording, and Goldberg knows his stuff and can generally be trusted – I suspect Wikipedia copied it from Goldberg).

Her big break came when Ruth Brown saw her performing in Atlanta, and was so impressed that she got several of her musician friends to go and see this new singer. Count Basie, Billy Eckstein, and Marshall Royal all went to see her, and Royal suggested that she start working with a vocal coach called Phil Moore. Moore was famous for coaching people such as Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge, and also released a few records himself, like his bebop Christmas recording “Chinchy Old Scrooge”:

[Excerpt: Phil Moore, “Chinchy Old Scrooge”]

Moore started working with Scruggs, and brought her to the attention of Herb Abramson at Atlantic, who in turn paired her with Joe Morris, who agreed that Scruggs would make a suitable replacement for Tate. Almost immediately, she was in the studio with him — Tate was advertised as performing with him on a tour that ended on December 11 1952, but by December 23 Scruggs was recording with Morris.

At their first session together, Scruggs sang lead on three songs, and duetted with Morris on “That’s What Makes My Baby Fat”:

[Excerpt: Fay Scruggs and Joe Morris, “That’s What Makes My Baby Fat”]

Herb Abramson wanted to push Scruggs as a singer, but unfortunately Abramson was drafted to fight in the Korean War, and the other Atlantic executives seemed much less interested, both in her and in Morris.

Both of them went to Herald Records, and in the transition between labels, Scruggs also changed her name, to Faye Adams. Her first single under the new name was written by Morris, and recorded with Morris’ band and a vocal group called the Five Pennies:

[Excerpt: Faye Adams, “Shake a Hand”]

By this point Phil Moore had become Adams’ manager, and she was being promoted as a star in her own right, not just as Joe Morris’ singer, even though she was still also singing with Morris’ band.

“Shake a Hand” would go on to become a classic, covered by many artists. Even at the time, it had a number of competing versions, including a country one by Red Foley:

[Excerpt: Red Foley, “Shake a Hand”]

As “Shake a Hand” was such a big hit, Atlantic decided to release some tracks they had left over from her earlier sessions with them, under the new name of Faye Adams. Herald records threatened a lawsuit, but the Atlantic tracks had little success anyway, and Adams’ career was unaffected by their release.

She was, though, increasingly dissatisfied working with Joe Morris, even though they had several more hits together, and Adams eventually decided to start working with Bill Doggett instead (yes, this is yet another artist at the dawn of rock and roll who had Bill Doggett performing with them). Doggett and his band accompanied her on stage, and various different musicians worked with her on records. Her commercial success seemed unaffected at first — her third R&B number one came out after she moved on from Morris:

[Excerpt: Faye Adams: “Hurts Me to My Heart”]

But after that, her career slowly declined, each record selling a little less than the one before, and she was eventually dropped by her label.

She had a comeback in the late sixties, and became a gospel artist again, under her new married name, Fannie Jones. According to Wikipedia, she’s still alive aged ninety-six, but Marv Goldberg says on his website that he’s found one source saying she died in 2016, but he can’t find another source to confirm that.

So we don’t know if she’s alive. We do know, sadly, that Joe Morris died all too young. Morris was only thirty-six when he died suddenly, of a brain haemorrhage, in 1958. He didn’t live to see “Shake A Hand” taken up by Lavern Baker, Jackie Wilson, Paul McCartney and more. These days, probably the best known version is the one cut by Elvis Presley towards the end of his life:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Shake a Hand”]

But still, the definitive version of the song is the one cut by a young woman, known as Faye or Fannie, Scruggs or Adams or Tuell or Jones, the little woman with the big voice who might or might not be alive to this day.

Jul 16, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “Blue Yodel #9” by Jimmie Rodgers
0:00

Welcome to the third in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about “Blue Yodel #9” by Jimmie Rodgers, but it’s really about two great women who shaped twentieth century popular music without much credit — Lil Hardin and Elsie McWilliams

 

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

—-more—-

Welcome to the latest episode of the Patreon-only bonus podcasts. For this episode, we’re going to do something different from what we’ve normally done. In the main series, I’ve been going strictly chronologically — each episode covers a fairly long period of time, but each song I’ve dealt with has come chronologically after the song before.

This time, we’re going to go right back in time, to the beginnings of country music. I’ll be doing that kind of thing a lot more on these Patreon episodes, because the short length gives me the freedom to look at any time period I want, and to jump back and forth in the story.

Today, we’re going to talk about two great women who don’t get as much credit as they deserve for the work of the great men they were behind.

Lil Hardin was the piano player for King Oliver’s jazz band in the 1920s, when he hired a new second cornet player, a young musician called Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was a promising musician, with a lot of ability, but he was also a bit of a hick — badly-dressed, with a bad haircut, and with no understanding of how to present himself on stage. He also had no ambition – he just wanted to play with his hero. Lil Hardin saw something in him, though, and tidied him up, showed him how to act on stage, how to dress and how to do his hair. She persuaded him that while he loved just playing in the same band as King Oliver, he could become a star himself.

The two of them both divorced their respective spouses and married, and when the time came for Louis Armstrong, who had been only second cornet when he’d met Lil, to become the leader of his own band, the Hot Five, Lil Hardin Armstrong was its piano player. The recordings by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were the records that built Louis’ reputation as a musician, and which still to this day are regarded as the peak of New Orleans jazz. And Lil Hardin is all over them.

[Excerpt: Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, “Muskrat Ramble”]

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Jimmie Rodgers had had to retire from his job on the railway due to tuberculosis, and was trying to make a living as a singer.

I’ve mentioned Jimmie Rodgers a few times, and if I’d decided to start the narrative in the 1920s rather than in 1938 he would almost certainly have had a full episode devoted to him. He was probably the first big superstar of country music, but he influenced people in all sorts of other fields as well — for example Howlin’ Wolf developed his vocal style by attempting to imitate Rodgers’ trademark yodel.

In 1927 he began his recording career with records like “Sleep Baby Sleep”:

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Sleep Baby Sleep”]

Rodgers is the credited songwriter on most of his work, but many of his songs were written or co-written by his sister in law, Elsie McWilliams, who had played piano in his band and who he asked to help him whip his ideas into shape when he got a recording contract. McWilliams wanted to make sure her sick brother-in-law and his family would have money, so she only got credited on about half the songs she wrote or co-wrote, giving Rodgers the credit on the rest. And when she did get credited, she often gave Rodgers the actual money anyway.

Much later she said, “I didn’t want a penny for those songs, you understand, if there was any money coming, I wanted him to have it. He was sick and broke and I loved ‘em both so very much.

He kept after me to sign a contract, but I wouldn’t, I didn’t want any of his money. But he kept after me anyway, so I finally agreed to accept 1/25th of a percent… I nearly fainted when I got my first royalty check, it was for $256.56. I signed it right over to the church.”

No-one knows for sure exactly which songs McWilliams co-wrote, but she’s generally credited with having worked on roughly a third of Rodgers’ songs. This means I can’t know for sure if she worked on the song we’re looking at today, but whether she did or not, it’s entirely possible that Rodgers would not have been in any position to even be recording without McWilliams’ contributions.

Rodgers’ greatest successes were a series of recordings called the Blue Yodels, which started shortly after Rodgers started collaborating with McWilliams, with “Blue Yodel #1”, a record we’ve repeatedly mentioned in the main podcast:

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel #1”]

For the ninth Blue Yodel, though, Rodgers was inspired by a record that had come out four years earlier, “The Bridwell Blues”, by Nolan Welsh, with Louis Armstrong on trumpet:

[Excerpt: Nolan Welsh, “The Bridwell Blues”]

So in what was for the time an extraordinary fusion of musical styles, and an extraordinary collaboration between black and white musicians, he got Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin to add their jazz instruments to his “Blue Yodel #9”:

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel #9”]

Within a year of that recording, Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong would split up for good. Armstrong went on to become the biggest star in jazz music history, while Hardin never managed much greater success than being billed as “Mrs Louis Armstrong”. And within three years, Jimmie Rodgers would be dead — the tuberculosis finally took him in 1933.

At the time of his death, Rodgers was selling ten percent of all the records on his label, RCA, and while he’s now largely forgotten except to fans of country music’s history, he was so famous at the time that seventeen years later an ethnomusicologist studying the music of the Kipsigis people of Kenya recorded this:

[Excerpt: Kipsigis people, “Chemirocha”]

That’s someone singing “Chemirocha” — Jimmie Rodgers.

Jul 15, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: “The Flying Saucer” by Buchanan and Goodman
0:00

Welcome to the second in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

—-more—-

Transcript

Today we’re going to talk about a record that wasn’t a rock and roll record at all — in fact it was a novelty record, and regarded as such. But it was a record that would have a huge impact on the whole history of the record industry, in ways you really wouldn’t expect from a silly little track. Today, we’re going to talk about “The Flying Saucer”.

“The Flying Saucer” is an extremely early example of what would come to be called sampling. It’s a novelty record that in most ways is no different from the kind of thing Stan Freberg was doing at the time with records like “St George and the Dragonet”:

[Excerpt: Stan Freberg, “St George and the Dragonet”]

Before video, and before even widespread adoption of TV, there was a large market for audio comedy, and we’ll see as the series goes on how audio engineering techniques developed for comedy would be repurposed for use in rock and roll music. For comedy records, you needed to be able to make strange and unusual sounds — and that kind of thing would come in useful when trying to develop a sound that would catch the ear of young people.

The track we’re talking about today, “The Flying Saucer”, was put together by the songwriting and production team Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. Buchanan was a songwriter who specialised in comedy songs — for example he wrote several albums’ worth of material for the Three Stooges:

[Excerpt: The Three Stooges, “We’re Coming To Your House”]

Goodman, meanwhile, was a producer, and it seems like he only had one idea. That idea was something that he called “break-ins”, but would later be better known as sampling or mash-ups.

In a break-in recording, there would be a spoken-word narrative, but bits of other people’s records would interrupt the narrative, usually acting as punchlines to a set-up. “The Flying Saucer” was the first, and most successful, of these.

Flying saucers were very much in the zeitgeist in the early fifties. The term had come to prominence in 1947, as a result of the famous Roswell incident, and for the next few years — a time of increasing paranoia in the US as the USSR had developed their own nuclear bombs, and there was a real possibility that the world might be rendered unfit for human habitation at any moment — a lot of the paranoia was filtered into belief that the world was being watched over by malevolent aliens.

“The Flying Saucer” tapped in to that, and into the other new craze that was sweeping the nation, rock and roll, and merged the two. It took the format of Orson Welles’ famous radio version of War of the Worlds, and parodied it, first having a DJ interrupt the record he was playing — “Open up That Door” by Nappy Brown — to announce that a flying saucer had landed, and then having an on-the-spot reporter interview witnesses and the aliens themselves — and having all the dialogue from those witnesses be excerpts of current hits, including songs by Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, Carl Perkins, and Nappy Brown’s “Don’t Be Angry”:

[Excerpt: “The Flying Saucer”]

Nothing like this had ever been done before — there had, apparently, been a single other record, decades earlier, that had included samples of other records, but that had been as part of a comedy sketch with people turning the dial of the radio and hearing different songs — it had been diegetic music that they were listening to. This was something else, and something for which the music industry wasn’t prepared.

Buchanan and Goodman tried to get several record labels to put it out, but had no success, and eventually took the tape directly to WINS radio, where several DJs, including Alan Freed, played it, and it got an immediate response from the audience. The next day, they took the recording to George Goldner, who you may remember from the episode on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” as having a near-infallible ear for a hit record.

He agreed to put it out, and set up a new label, Universe, for Buchanan and Goodman’s record. But after they’d pressed up a few thousand records, he discovered there already was a Universe Records. Rather than waste the money, Goldner, Buchanan, Goodman, and a few of Goldner’s employees spent all night drawing the letter L at the beginning of “Universe”, changing it to “Luniverse”.

The track became a massive hit, but also a massive legal headache. The record company cut deals with the licensing agencies responsible for the songs sampled, which meant that they ended up paying a massive seventeen cents in songwriting royalties per eighty-nine-cent record sold (by comparison it was not unknown for songwriting royalties to be as low as a cent a record). And that should have been enough to cover them, at a time when there were no federal copyrights on sound recordings, but they were sued nonetheless by Imperial Records, Chess Records, and artists Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis.

The lawsuit was ruled in Buchanan and Goodman’s favour, as the record was clearly parody by the standards of 1950s copyright law, and they celebrated with a followup single, “Buchanan and Goodman on Trial”, which followed the same formula as “The Flying Saucer”, and was a minor hit:

[Excerpt: Buchanan and Goodman, “Buchanan and Goodman on Trial”]

The two men made one further record before Buchanan went on his way, but Goodman kept making records under the Buchanan and Goodman name, with records like “Flying Saucer Goes West”, “Flying Saucer the Third”, and “Frankenstein of ’59”.

Goodman kept doing this for decades, churning out supposed novelty records long after the novelty had well and truly worn off, and usually trying to cash in on some hit film, with records like “Superfly Meets Shaft”, or “Kong” (a parody of the King Kong remake). One time, amazingly enough, he did manage to get to number four with one of these, “Mr Jaws”:

[Excerpt: Dickie Goodman, “Mr. Jaws”]

The follow-up, “Mrs. Jaws”, based on Jaws II, didn’t do so well, and “Mr. Jaws” would be Goodman’s last big hit. He died in 1989.

Next week, we’ll look at the only group other than Buchanan and Goodman ever to release a record on Luniverse…

Jul 14, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK BONUS: “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper
0:00

Welcome to Pledge Week! I’m doing a week of posting some of the Patreon bonuses I’ve done, to encourage those who can to sign up to my Patreon.

Every day of Pledge Week will start with the same section, which I’ll transcribe once, below, before the cut.

Pledge Week Intro

This is not a proper episode of the podcast. Rather, this is something else.

I’ve decided to hold a pledge week, to try to get a few more subscribers to my Patreon. So every day this week I’ll be putting one of the backer-only episodes I’ve done over the past year up on the main podcast feed, so people can hear what it is you get if you sign up for the Patreon, with this little introductory piece before them. If you’re already a backer, you will already have this episode, so you can skip this and everything else labelled “pledge week”.

I do one of these every week for my backers, and backers even at the lowest levels get them — if you sign up for a dollar a month you get each new one as it comes out, and access to all the old ones. There are fifty-nine of them up so far, as well as a few other things like the monthly Q&As I’ve been doing for backers. I’m only making seven of these available on the public feed, so there’s a lot still there for you to listen to. If this works well, I might do another one next year, when there’ll be another fifty-odd episodes to choose from.

None of this is meant to put any pressure on anyone who can’t afford it to back the podcast — the podcast will always remain free to listen to, and I hope it will remain ad-free as well. I know times are especially tough right now, and many of you literally can’t afford the money you’re already spending, let alone paying any more out. I only want backers who can spare the money.

But if you can afford it, and you like these bonus episodes enough, then go to patreon.com slash andrewhickey, that’s spelled h-i-c-k-e-y, or follow the link in the shownotes, and sign up, and you’ll get one of these the same day as every new episode. If you can’t, well… enjoy this extra free bonus, and don’t worry about it.

Transcript behind cut

—-more—-

Since we looked at Ritchie Valens in the main podcast last week, and this week we’re looking at Buddy Holly, it’s probably worth devoting this week’s bonus podcast to the third person who died in that terrible plane crash.

The Big Bopper is known as a one-hit wonder who had a novelty hit, and these days when he’s remembered at all by rock and roll fans it’s simply because he died in the same crash as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. And certainly his one big hit, “Chantilly Lace”, doesn’t suggest he would have been one of the greats of music. But J.P. Richardson actually had rather more of a career than that might suggest, much of it posthumous:

[Excerpt: The Big Bopper, “Chantilly Lace”]

Jiles Perry Richardson always liked to be known as “Jape”, after his initials, but he developed a public persona from working as a DJ on KTRM radio, when he switched from his original show, “the Dishwashers’ Serenade”, to a new one called “the Bop”. While on KTRM he took part in all sorts of publicity stunts, such as breaking the world record for longest uninterrupted broadcast by staying on the air for five days, two hours, and eight minutes straight, after which he apparently slept for twenty hours.

At KTRM he got to know his fellow DJ George Jones, and he also got to know Pappy Daily, who was the promotion manager for Mercury Starday records (If you listen to the great country music podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, the episode on Shelby Singleton talks quite a bit about Daily). Mercury Starday had been having some success with records by Jones, who had hit the country top ten a few times, and Jape had written a few country songs, so he started recording for the label. His first effort was a pure country ballad, released under the name Jape Richardson and the Japettes:

[Excerpt: Jape Richardson and the Japettes, “Beggar to a King”]

That did absolutely nothing sales-wise, so Richardson changed to a rockabilly style. His next single, “Monkey Song”, didn’t do much better:

[Excerpt: Jape Richardson, “Monkey Song”]

But the next song was much more successful. “Chantilly Lace” is the song that made the Big Bopper’s name. If you don’t mind the objectification in the lyrics, there’s a lot of charm to the song, and at the time it became a massive hit, and it’s one that’s still remembered to this day:

[Excerpt: The Big Bopper, “Chantilly Lace”]

The fact that it was intended as a novelty cash-in can be seen by its B-side – which was originally its A-side – “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor”, a team-up song inspired by the two novelty hits we talked about a few weeks ago:

[Excerpt: The Big Bopper, “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”]

The single made the top ten, and it was followed up by “The Big Bopper’s Wedding”, which was less successful, but followed the same formula:

[Excerpt: The Big Bopper, “The Big Bopper’s Wedding”]

But then, of course, came the fateful tour we look at in this week’s main podcast, and the Big Bopper’s death in a plane crash, with two much more prominent musicians. That should, by all rights, have been the end of his career. But as it turned out, his two most important contributions to music hadn’t yet been released.

Shortly before he died, Richardson had written a song called “Running Bear”, and he’d given it to a young friend of his, Johnny Preston. It was a teen tragedy song of the type that was a rather successful subgenre of the time, this one with the novelty element that the characters were native Americans (or an “Indian brave” and “Indian maid” as the song puts it) who lived on opposite banks of a river and ended up drowning in the middle when they tried to be together.

Richardson and George Jones had sung backing vocals on it, doing Hollywood-Indian chanting and generally playing up to every stereotype of the Western-film Indian, but it hadn’t been released at the time of Richardson’s death. When it was released a few months later, it went to number one and became one of the biggest hits of all time:

[Excerpt: Johnny Preston, “Running Bear”]

But that wasn’t Richardson’s only posthumous contribution to music. Richardson had already co-written a country top ten hit for George Jones, “Treasure of Love”:

[Excerpt: George Jones, “Treasure of Love”]

But less than a week after Richardson’s death, Jones went back into the studio again, to record another song that Richardson had written for him. Jones was still shaken by his friend’s death, and turned up to the session drunk — the first time he would do so in a long career of drunkenness. They had to do so many takes that the bass player, Buddy Killen, got blisters on his fingers and threatened to physically attack Jones. Jones never got the song right, and eventually they stuck with either the first or third take — accounts vary — where he’d only messed up one word — singing “s-slug” rather than “slug”, which honestly sounds fine to me:

[Excerpt: George Jones, “White Lightning”]

That became Jones’ first country number one, and one of only three singles he ever released to also make the pop top one hundred — it reached number seventy-three, the highest he would ever reach in the pop charts.

While Jones had had country top ten hits before, “White Lightning” is generally regarded as the breakout hit that made his career — a career that would last more than fifty more years, during which time he would have over a hundred and fifty records make the country charts, thirteen of them going to number one. That’s more chart hits than any other act in history, and that career was owed at least in part to Jape Richardson, the one-hit wonder who died with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

Jul 13, 2020
Episode 89: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” by the Shirelles
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Episode eighty-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” by the Shirelles, and at the beginnings of the Brill Building sound. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are no biographies of the Shirelles in print, so I’ve used a variety of sources, including the articles on the Shirelles and Luther Dixon at This Is My Story. The following books were also of some use:

A Natural Woman is Carole King’s autobiography.

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the whole scene.

Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era.

And Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin goes into some detail about Scepter Records.

I also referred to the liner notes of this CD, which contains most of the Shirelles tracks worth owning.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

We’re currently in a patch of rock and roll history that is ludicrously undocumented. There is book after book about the major stars of the early rock and roll era — while you won’t find much out there on a lot of truly important artists, you can find out enough about Elvis and Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and the rest — these are all romantic figures of legend, the Titans who were defeated in the Titanomachy that was the mid-sixties Beat boom. And of course, there are many many, books on almost every band of the mid to late sixties to even have a minor hit.

But the period from 1958 through 1964 is generally summed up by “and there were some whitebread nonentities like Fabian and Frankie Avalon”. Occasionally, in some of the books, there is a slightly more subtle approach taken, and the summary is “there were some whitebread nonentities like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, and also Roy Orbison and one or two others made a decent record”.

But there were many other people making great records — people who made hits that are still staples of oldies radio in a way that a lot of records from a few years later aren’t; records that still sound like they’re fresh new records made by people who have ideas.

Today we’re going to talk about a few of those people, and about one of those great records. We’re going to look at the Brill Building, and some of the songwriters who worked there, and at the great record producer Luther Dixon, and at the Shirelles, and their record “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”]

It’s been a little while since we looked at any of the early girl groups, but if you remember the episodes on the Bobettes and the Chantels, girl groups in the early years were largely a phenomenon based in New York, and that’s more or less the case with the Shirelles, who didn’t come from New York itself, but from Passaic New Jersey, about sixteen miles away. Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee met at school, and formed a group called the Poquellos, which is apparently Spanish for “little birds”. As we’ve discussed previously, most of the early doo-wop groups were named after birds, and these girls were forming their group before girl groups became regarded as something separate from male vocal groups.

Oddly, the group that became the most successful of the early girl groups, and the one that more than any other set the template for all those that would follow, never wanted to become professional singers, and almost had to be forced against their will at every stage. Their first public performance, in fact, was as a punishment. They had been singing with each other in gym class, and not paying attention to the teacher, and so the teacher told them that, as a punishment, they would have to perform in the school talent contest, which they didn’t want to do. They performed at the show, singing a song they’d made up themselves, “I Met Him on a Sunday”, and went down a storm with the kids at the school. In particular, one of the girls there, Mary Jane Greenberg, insisted that the girls come and meet her mother, Florence.

Florence Greenberg was a bored suburban housewife, who until her mid-forties had concentrated on being a homemaker for her husband, who was an executive at a potato chip firm, and for her two children. In her spare time she mostly did things like run fundraisers for the local Republican party. But her son was interested in getting into the music business in some way, and her husband was friends with Freddy Bienstock, who worked for Hill and Range at the Brill Building, and whose job was choosing the songs that Elvis Presley would record. Bienstock invited Greenberg to come and visit him at Hill and Range’s offices, and after spending a little time around the Brill Building, Greenberg became convinced that she should start her own record label, despite having no experience in the field whatsoever. She would often just go and hang around at a restaurant near the Brill Building to soak in the atmosphere.

The Poquellos were actually not at all interested in making a record, but Mary Jane kept insisting that they should meet with her mother anyway. It got to the point that the girls used to try to avoid her at school and hide from her, but she was insistent and eventually they relented, and went to see Mrs Greenberg. They auditioned for her in her front room, singing the same song they’d performed at the school talent contest. Mrs Greenberg decided that they were going to be the first group signed to her new label, Tiara Records, and they recorded the song they’d written, with Greenberg’s musical son Stan producing and arranging, under the name Stan Green:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “I Met Him On A Sunday (Ronde Ronde)”]

Stan wasn’t the only person with a new name. The Poquellos were also renamed, to the Shirelles — after Shirley Owens, but with the “el” ending to be reminiscent of the Chantels, and that was the name they would be known by from that point on. “I Met Him On A Sunday” was a minor local success, and was picked up by Decca Records, who bought the girls’ contract out from Greenberg. They managed to get it to number fifty on the charts, but the two singles they recorded for Decca after that didn’t have any success, and the label dropped them.

That might have been the end of the Shirelles, but Greenberg had remained their manager, and she had started up a new record label, Scepter Records, and signed them up to that instead of Tiara. Their first few singles for Scepter did nothing, but then a change in Scepter’s staffing changed everything, not just for the Shirelles, but for the world of music.

Greenberg was not a particularly musical person — and indeed several of the people who worked for her would later mock some decisions she’d made when she’d used her own judgment about songs. But she surrounded herself with people who were musical. The director of A&R for Scepter was Wally Roker, who had originally been the bass singer in the Heartbeats, who’d had a top five hit with “A Thousand Miles Away” in 1956:

[Excerpt: The Heartbeats, “A Thousand Miles Away”]

Roker in turn introduced Greenberg to a friend of his, Luther Dixon. Greenberg and Dixon’s initial meeting was just the length of one elevator ride, but that was long enough for them to exchange numbers and arrange to meet again. Soon Dixon was working for Greenberg at Scepter, and was also her lover.

Dixon had started out as a singer, joining a minor group called The Buddies, who had recorded singles like “I Stole Your Heart”:

[Excerpt: The Buddies, “I Stole Your Heart”]

But he had soon moved into songwriting. Dixon was a collaborator by nature, and his first big hit was written with a writing partner called Larry Harrison. “Why Baby Why” went to number five for Pat Boone in 1957:

[Excerpt: Pat Boone, “Why Baby Why”]

He spent some time writing with Otis Blackwell, with whom he wrote “All the Way Home” for Bobby Darin:

[Excerpt: Bobby Darin, “All the Way Home”]

And at the time he met Greenberg, he had just written “Sixteen Candles” with Allyson Khent, a number two hit for the Crests:

[Excerpt: The Crests, “Sixteen Candles”]

Greenberg took him on as a staff writer and producer, and gave him a cut of the publishing rights for his songs — almost unheard of at that time.

The first record he worked on for the Shirelles was also the group’s first top forty hit. With Shirley Owens, Dixon wrote “Tonight’s the Night”. It was intended as a B-side to a song with a lead by Doris, but “Tonight’s the Night” was an unexpected success and established Shirley firmly in the role of the group’s lead singer:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Tonight’s the Night”]

That went to number thirty-nine, and a competing version by the Chiffons also made the Hot One Hundred:

[Excerpt: The Chiffons, “Tonight’s the Night”]

The Shirelles were a hit group, and they needed a follow-up. And that’s where Goffin and King enter our story…

Carole King had, from a very early age, been a child prodigy with a particular talent for music. In her autobiography she talks about how when she was a child, her dad would have her, as a party trick, turn to the wall while he played notes on the piano and she called out which one he was playing. Apparently her father would claim she had perfect pitch, and this was not quite true — she had relative pitch, which meant that once she heard one note she knew, she could tell all the rest of the notes from that, so her father would always start with middle C. But that sense of relative pitch is in itself an amazing talent for a tiny child — I still can’t do that with any great accuracy in my forties, and I’ve spent most of my life studying and playing music.

By the age of eight she had appeared in a couple of shows, including Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, which was a nationally broadcast show, performing in a duo with a friend, but she didn’t know exactly what it was she wanted to do until she was thirteen, when she went on a date with Joel Zwick, who would later become known as the director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding among others — one thing that seems to happen a lot in King’s early life is getting to know people who would go on to become very successful. Zwick took her to an Alan Freed show at the Paramount in Brooklyn, where she saw LaVern Baker, BB King, Mickey Baker, the Moonglows, and several other R&B stars of the period.

It wasn’t, though, seeing the musicians themselves that made Carol Klein, as she then was, want to go into rock and roll music, though that was certainly an inspiration, and she talks a lot about how that Freed show was her introduction to a whole world of music that was far from the whitebread pop on which she had grown up. Rather, it was almost a chance event. She and her date hung around the stage door to see if they could see any of the performers and get autographs. The group they were in accidentally got drawn in through the stage door when some people who were meant to be there were let in, and she got to see the performers hanging around backstage. She knew then, not that she wanted to be a performer herself, but that she wanted to be part of that world, someone that those performers knew and respected.

She started attending a stage school, where one of her classmates was Al Pacino, but after a short while she left, deciding that she wasn’t cut out for the non-musical aspects of the school, and went back to a normal high school, where she formed her first group, the Cosines. along with Zwick.

She started writing songs when she heard a group from a rival local high school, Neil Sedaka and the Linc-Tones, singing a song called “While I Dream”:

[Excerpt: The Tokens “While I Dream”]

Sedaka had briefly dated her, and had co-written that song himself, with Howard Greenfield, and his group got a record deal under the name The Tokens. King figured that if he could do that, so could she. She started writing songs, and found she was good at melodies but not particularly great at lyrics. But she still thought she was good enough to do something. She decided that she was going to go and see Alan Freed, and play him some of her songs.

Freed listened to her politely, and explained to her how, at the time, one went about becoming a professional songwriter for the R&B market. He told her to get the addresses of record labels from the phone book, go and try to play her songs to them, and explained how a publishing contract would work. The record label he mentioned to her specifically was Atlantic Records, so she tried that one first. Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun listened to her, and told her she had talent and to come back when she had more songs. It wasn’t a rejection, but it wasn’t the instant acceptance she’d hoped for.

The second label she went to was ABC-Paramount, where she saw Don Costa. Costa was head of A&R at the label, but also a musician himself. Around this time he had released a cover version of Bill Justis’ “Raunchy”, under the name Muvva Guitar Hubbard:

[Excerpt: Muvva “Guitar” Hubbard, “Raunchy”]

Costa would later go on to arrange and conduct for Frank Sinatra, and he also had a respectable career as a session guitarist, but Carol didn’t know any of this when she went into his office and played through her songs for him. She was flabbergasted to find that, rather than just sign her to a publishing contract, he asked her to sign a recording contract as well. She was disappointed that he wasn’t interested in signing the rest of her group — he thought she was good enough by herself, without needing to hear the other three — but not so disappointed that she didn’t sign with him straight away.

Her first few singles were solo compositions, and didn’t do very much in terms of sales, partly because she still didn’t consider herself especially good as a lyricist:

[Excerpt: Carole King, “The Right Girl”]

So while she was trying to have a music career, she also went off to college, aged sixteen — she had skipped multiple years in school — where she met someone else who had had a minor hit. The boy who performed under the name Jerry Landis had released “Hey! Schoolgirl”, an Everly Brothers knockoff, with a friend, as Tom and Jerry:

[Excerpt: Tom and Jerry, “Hey! Schoolgirl”]

Landis and King started working together, recording demos for other writers, though never writing together. For some of those demos, they re-used the Cosines name, like on this one for a song by Marty Kalfin:

[Excerpt: The Cosines, “Just to Be With You”]

They were quite proud when the arrangement they came up with for that demo was copied exactly for the finished record, which made the lower regions of the Hot One Hundred:

[Excerpt: The Passions, “Just to Be With You”]

They didn’t work together for very long, and Jerry Landis went on to record under other names like “True Taylor” and “Paul Kane”, before getting back together with Tom, and deciding to work together under their real names. We’ll be hearing more of Paul Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel in future episodes.

Someone else she met while at college was the man who was to become her first husband, another Gerry — Gerry Goffin. Goffin impressed her with his looks the first time she saw him — he looked exactly like a drawing she had clipped out of a magazine, which looked to her like the perfect boyfriend.

Goffin impressed her less, though, with his studied dislike of rock and roll music, but was suddenly keen to write a song with her when she mentioned that she’d been selling songs. He’d been trying to write a musical, but he was primarily a lyricist, and couldn’t do much with music.

King mentioned that she knew that Atlantic were looking for a new song for Mickey and Sylvia, and the two of them worked on a song based on the style of “Love is Strange”, which they completed very quickly, and took to Atlantic. Unfortunately, when they got there, they were told that Mickey and Sylvia had split up, but that their song would be suitable for the new duo they’d put together to continue the act — Mickey and Kitty:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Kitty, “The Kid Brother”]

That was released as a B-side. The A-side, “Ooh Sha La La” was written by Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield:

[Excerpt: MIckey and Kitty, “Ooh Sha La La”]

Sedaka and Greenfield had become hot songwriters, and around this time Sedaka was also becoming a successful performer. His first hit as a performer, “Oh Carol”, was in fact written about Carole King:

[Excerpt: Neil Sedaka, “Oh Carol”]

And King herself recorded an answer record to that, with new lyrics by Goffin:

[Excerpt: Carole King, “Oh Neil”]

By the time she was seventeen, King was married to Goffin, and pregnant with his child. Goffin was working a day job, and they were treating the occasional twenty-five dollar advance they got from writing songs as windfalls. But then, when she was on one of her visits to 1650 Broadway to sell songs, King bumped into Sedaka, who told her she should come and meet Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, the owners of Aldon Music.

Aldon is the publisher who, more than any single other company, was responsible for what became known as the Brill Building sound. Even though they weren’t based in the actual Brill Building, which was at 1619 Broadway, but in 1650 Broadway, the companies in that second building were so associated with the Brill Building sound that you’ll find almost every history of music misattributes them and places them there, and in most interviews, when you see people talking about the Brill Building, even people who worked in one or other building, they’re as likely to be talking about 1650 as 1619.

Kirshner is someone we’ve met briefly before. He’d started out as a songwriter, working with his friend Bobby Darin on songs like “I Want Elvis For Christmas”, which had been recorded by the Holly Twins with Eddie Cochran impersonating Elvis:

[Excerpt: The Holly Twins and Eddie Cochran, “I Want Elvis For Christmas”]

However, as Darin had moved into performance, Kirshner had gone into music publishing. He’d scored early success when working for Vanderbilt Music by bringing Al Lewis out of retirement. Lewis had been a hit songwriter in the thirties and forties, but hadn’t done much for a while. But then Fats Domino had had a hit with “Blueberry Hill”, a song Lewis had cowritten decades earlier, and Kirshner decided to pair Lewis with a black musician, Sylvester Bradford, and the two started writing hits together, notably “Tears on My Pillow” for Little Anthony and the Imperials:

[Excerpt: Little Anthony and the Imperials, “Tears on My Pillow”]

Kirshner had then formed his own publishing company. He’d first approached Pomus and Shuman, and then Leiber and Stoller, to go into business with him, but he ended up with Al Nevins, who had been a musician and had also co-written “Twilight Time” with Buck Ram, which had been a hit in the forties and then later revived by the Platters:

[Excerpt: The Platters, “Twilight Time”]

Kirshner and Nevins were looking for talented new songwriters, and they had signed up Sedaka and Greenfield, and also signed Paul Simon around this time, as well as another couple, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. When Carole King played them a few of the songs she’d co-written with Goffin, they signed Goffin and King to a three-year contract, with advances of one thousand dollars for the first year, two thousand for the second, and three thousand for the third, to be offset against their royalties.

This was a fortune for the young couple, and so they went from soul-crushing day jobs to… a day job, working in a cubicle.

Aldon had a very regimented system. Every writing team had a tiny cubicle, containing a piano and a couple of chairs, in which they would work during normal office hours. Kirshner’s system was simple — any time any new act had a hit, he would get all the songwriters in his office to try to write a follow-up to the hit, in the same style. Of the efforts to find a follow-up to “Tonight’s the Night”, Kirshner decided on one that Goffin and King had written.

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” had lyrics that had rather more depth than most of the songs that were charting at the time. Goffin’s initial dislike of rock and roll music had been because of what he perceived as its lyrical vacuity, and in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” he found a lyrical formula that would define girl groups from that point on — a look at a kind of female adolescent emotion that had previously not been discussed in pop music. In this case the lyrics were from the point of view of a woman worrying that she’s just a one-night stand, not someone the man cares about, and struck a chord with millions.

But King’s music is at least as impressive. She modelled the song on “There Goes My Baby”, and when Luther Dixon accepted the song for the Shirelles, she decided she would write a string arrangement for it like the one the Drifters had used. She’d never written for an orchestra before, so she got a book on arrangement out of the library, and looked through it quickly before writing the string arrangement overnight.

The group didn’t like the song, thinking it sounded like a country song, but Luther Dixon insisted, and the result went to number one:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”]

The B-side to that single, a Luther Dixon song called “Boys”, would also become a well-known track itself:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Boys”]

Two more top ten hits followed, and then the group’s singles started doing less well again. To reverse the downward trend, Dixon brought in a song by another new writer, Burt Bacharach. Bacharach had written a song with Mack David — the brother of his usual lyricist Hal David — called “I’ll Cherish You”. Dixon liked the song, but thought the lyrics were a bit too sickly. He changed the lyrics around, making them instead about someone who still loves her boyfriend despite her friends telling her how bad he is, and retitling it “Baby It’s You”. For the record itself, he just used Bacharach’s original demo and stuck Shirley’s voice on top — Shirley was the only member of the group to sing on the record, though it was still released as by the Shirelles. You can still hear Bacharach singing on the “sha la la”s:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Baby It’s You”]

That returned them to the top ten, and the follow-up, “Soldier Boy”, written by Dixon and Greenberg, became their second number one. Unfortunately, it would be their last. Dixon and Greenberg ended their relationship, and Dixon went on to a new job at Capitol Records. Various other people produced recordings for the Shirelles at Scepter, but none had the same success with them that Dixon did.

It didn’t help that the girls were starting families, and at various times one or other member had to be replaced on the road while they were on maternity leave. The singer who replaced them for those shows was a session singer who Bacharach was producing for Scepter, named Dionne Warwick.

To make matters worse, the Shirelles discovered that Greenberg had been lying to them. They’d been told that their royalties were being put into a trust for them, for when they turned twenty-one, but they discovered that no such trust existed, and Greenberg had just been keeping their money. They entered into lawsuits against Scepter, but remained signed to the label, and so couldn’t record for anyone else. Their career was destroyed.

They remained together in one lineup or another, with members coming and going, until the early eighties, when they all went their separate ways, though they all started their own lineups of Shirelles. These days Shirley tours under her married name as Shirley Alston Reeves and Her Shirelles, while Beverly Lee owns the rights to tour as The Shirelles with no modifiers. Addie Harris died in 1982, and Doris Coley in 2000.

The Shirelles were badly treated by their record company, and by history. They made some of the most important records of the sixties, and it was their success that led to the great boom in girl groups of the next few years — the Supremes, the Marvelettes, the Crystals, the Ronettes, and the rest, all were following in the Shirelles’ footsteps. Because they had their greatest success in that period between 1958 and 1964 which most rock historians treat as having nothing of interest in, they’re almost ignored despite their huge influence on the musicians who followed them. But without them, the sound of sixties pop would have been vastly different, and to this day their greatest records sound as fresh and inspiring as the day they were recorded.

Jul 10, 2020
Episode 88: “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers
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Episode eighty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Cathy’s Clown” by The Everly Brothers, and at how after signing the biggest contract in music business history their career was sabotaged by their manager. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Poetry in Motion” by Johnny Tillotson

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Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are no first-rate biographies of the Everly Brothers in print, at least in English (apparently there’s a decent one in French, but I don’t speak French well enough for that). Ike’s Boys by Phyllis Karp is the only full-length bio,  and I relied on that in the absence of anything else, but it’s been out of print for nearly thirty years, and is not worth the exorbitant price it goes for second-hand.

The Everlypedia is a series of PDFs containing articles on anything related to the Everly Brothers, in alphabetical order.

This collection has all the Everlys’ recordings up to the end of 1962.  I would also recommend this recently-released box set containing expanded versions of their three last studio albums for Warners, including Roots, which I discuss in the episode.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

This week we’re going to look at the Everly Brothers’ first and biggest hit of the sixties, a song that established them as hit songwriters in their own right, which was more personal than anything they’d released earlier, and which was a big enough hit that it saved what was to become a major record label. We’re going to look at “Cathy’s Clown”:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

When we left the Everly Brothers, six months ago, we had seen them have their first chart hits and record the classic album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, an album that prefigured by several years the later sixties folk music revival, and which is better than much of the music that came out of that later scene. Both artistically and commercially, they were as successful as any artists of the early rock era. But Don Everly, in particular, wanted them to have more artistic control themselves — and if they could move to a bigger label as well, that was all the better.

But as it happens, they didn’t move to a bigger label, just a richer one.

Warner Brothers Records had started in 1958, and had largely started because of changes in the film industry. In the late 1940s and early fifties, the film industry was being hit on all sides. Anti-trust legislation meant that the film studios had to get rid of the cinema chains they owned, losing a massive revenue stream (and also losing the opportunity to ensure that their films got shown no matter how poor their reputation). A series of lawsuits from actors had largely destroyed the star system on which the major studios relied, and then television became a huge factor in the entertainment industry, cutting further into the film studios’ profits.

An aside about that — one of the big reasons for the growth of television as America’s dominant entertainment medium is racism. In the thirties and forties, there had been huge waves of black people moving from rural areas to the cities in search of work, and we’ve looked at that and the way that led to the creation of rhythm and blues in many of the previous episodes. After World War II there was a corresponding period of white flight, where white people moved en masse away from the big cities and into small towns and suburbs, to get away from black people. This is largely what led to America’s car culture and general lack of public transport, because low-population-density areas aren’t as easy to serve with reliable public transport. And in the same way it’s also uneconomical to run mass entertainment venues like theatres and cinemas in low-population-density areas, and going to the cinema becomes much less enticing if you have to drive twenty miles to get to one, rather than walking down the street.

So white flight had essentially meant the start of a process by which entertainment in America moved from the public sphere to the private one. This is also a big reason for the boom in record sales in the middle decades of last century — records are private entertainment, as opposed to going out to a dance or a show.

And this left the big film studios in dire straits. But while they were down on their luck when it came to films, Warners were doing very well in the music publishing business, where unlike their ownership of cinemas they didn’t have to get rid of their properties. Warners had always owned the songs used in their films, and indeed one of the reasons that Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies existed in the first place was so that they could plug songs that Warners owned. When Tex Avery has Owl Jolson singing “I Love to Singa”:

[Excerpt: “Owl Jolson”, “I Love to Singa”]

That’s a song that had originally appeared in a Warners feature film a few months earlier, sung by Al Jolson and Cab Calloway:

[Excerpt: Al Jolson and Cab Calloway, “I Love to Singa”]

So Warners were making money from the music industry. But then they realised something. Tab Hunter, one of their film stars under contract to them, had started to have hit records. His record “Young Love” spent six weeks at number one:

[Excerpt: Tab Hunter, “Young Love”]

And whenever he was interviewed to promote a film, all the interviewers would ask about was his music career. That was bad enough — after all, he wasn’t signed to Warners as a singer, he was meant to be a film star — but what was worse was that the label Hunter was on, Dot Records, was owned by a rival film studio, Paramount. Warners would go to all the trouble of getting an interview set up for their star, and then all it would do was put money into Paramount’s pocket!

They needed to get into the record business themselves, as a way to exploit their song catalogue if nothing else. At first they thought about just buying Imperial Records, but when that deal fell through they started their own label, and signed Hunter to it right at the point that his career nosedived.

In the first two years that Warner Brothers Records existed, they only had two hit singles — “Kookie Kookie Lend Me Your Comb”, a record based on the Warner-owned TV series 77 Sunset Strip and co-performed by one of that series’ stars, Edd Byrnes:

[Excerpt: Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens, “Kookie Kookie Lend Me Your Comb”]

And another record by Connie Stevens, who also sang on “Kookie Kookie Lend Me Your Comb”, and was the star of a different Warners TV series, Hawaiian Eye:

[Excerpt: Connie Stevens, “Sixteen Reasons”]

Everything else they released flopped badly. After two years they had lost three million dollars, and would have closed down the label altogether, except the label was owed another two million, and they didn’t want to write that off.

The main reason for these losses was that the label was mostly releasing stuff aimed at the easy listening adult album market, records by people like Henry Mancini, and at the time the singles market was where the money was, and the singles market was dominated by young people. They needed some records that would appeal to young people.

They decided that they needed the Everly Brothers. At the beginning of 1960, the duo had released ten singles since May 1957, of which nine had charted, as had four of the B-sides. They’d topped the pop charts twice, the R&B charts twice, and the country charts four times. At a time when even the biggest stars would occasionally release the odd flop, they were as close to a guaranteed hit-making machine as existed in the music industry. And they were looking to get away from Cadence Records, for reasons that have never been made completely clear. It’s usually said that they had artistic differences with Cadence, but at the same time they always credited Archie Bleyer from Cadence with being the perfect arranger for them — he arranged their final Cadence single, “Let it Be Me”:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Let it Be Me”]

But for whatever reason, the Everlys *were* looking to find a new label, and Warner Brothers were desperate enough that they signed them up to the biggest contract ever signed in music business history up to that point. Remember that four years earlier, when Elvis had signed with RCA records, they’d paid a one-off fee of forty thousand dollars and *that* was reportedly the largest advance ever paid in the industry up until that point. Now, the Everlys were signing to Warners on a ten-year contract, with a guaranteed advance of one hundred thousand dollars a year for those ten years — the first million-dollar contract in music history. They were set up until 1970, and were sure to provide Warners with a string of hits that would last out the decade — or so it seemed at first.

Their first recording for the label had an unusual melodic inspiration. Ferde Grofé was an arranger and orchestrator for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band in the 1920s and thirties. He’s particularly known these days for having been the original arranger of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — Gershwin had written it for two pianos, and it was Grofé who had come up with the instrumental colouring that these days we think of as being so important to that piece:

[Excerpt: Paul Whiteman “Rhapsody in Blue (original 1924 recording)”]

Grofé had written a piece in 1931 called the “Grand Canyon Suite”, and its third movement, “On the Trail” had become the most popular piece of music he ever wrote. Disney made an Oscar-winning short with the suite as its soundtrack in 1958, and you can still hear “On the Trail” to this day in the Grand Canyon section of the Disneyland Railroad. But “On the Trail” was best known as the music that Phillip Morris used in their radio and TV commercials from the thirties through to the sixties. Here’s a bit from the original Whiteman recording of the piece:

[Excerpt: Paul Whiteman, “Grand Canyon Suite: On the Trail”]

Don took that melodic inspiration, and combined it with two sources of lyrical inspiration — when his dad had been a child, he’d had a crush on a girl named Mary, who hadn’t been interested, and his schoolfriends had taunted him by singing “Mary had a little Ike” at him. The other key to the song came when Don started thinking about an old crush of his own, a girl from his school called Catherine Coe — though in later years he was at pains to point out that the song wasn’t actually about her.

They took the resulting song into the studio with the normal members of the Nashville A-Team, and it became only their second hit single with an A-side written by one of the brothers, reaching number one on both the pop and R&B charts:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

I say it’s written by Don — the original issue of the record credited the songwriting to both Don and Phil, but Phil signed an agreement in 1980 relinquishing his claim to the song, and his name was taken off all future copies. It sounds to me like Don’s writing style, and all the anecdotes about its writing talk about him without mentioning any input from Phil, so I’m assuming for these purposes that it’s a Don solo composition.

Listening to the record, which was the first that the duo produced for themselves, as well as being their first for Warners, you can hear why Don was at times dissatisfied with the songs that Felice and Boudleaux Bryant had written for the brothers. It’s a sophisticated piece of work in a number of different ways. For a start, there’s the way the music mirrors the lyric on the first line. That line is about separation — “Don’t want your love any more” — and the brothers start the line in unison, but Don’s voice slowly drops relative to Phil’s, so by the end of the line they’re a third apart. It’s like he’s stepping away:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

The song’s structure also seems unusual. Wikipedia says it has a chorus and a bridge but no verse, while the Library of Congress disagrees and says it has a verse and a bridge but no chorus.

Personally, I’d say that it definitely does have a chorus — the repeated section with the same words and melody each time it’s repeated, with both brothers singing, and with the title of the song at the end, seems as definitively a chorus as one could possibly ask for:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

If that’s not a chorus, I’m honestly not sure what is.

The reason this comes into question is the other section. I would call that section a verse, and I think most people would, and the song’s structure is a straightforward A-B-A-B repetition which one would normally call verse/chorus. But it’s such a change of pace that it feels like the contrasting section that normally comes with a bridge or middle eight. Indeed the first time I properly learned what a middle eight was — in a column in Mojo magazine in the mid-nineties called Doctor Rock which explained some basic musicology — it was specifically cited as an example of one:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

Part of the reason that seems so different is that Don’s singing it solo, while the brothers are duetting on the choruses, and normally Don’s solo lines would be on a bridge or middle eight. Not always, but often enough that that’s what you expect if you’ve listened to a few of their records. But there’s also a change in rhythm.

One of the things you’ll notice as we go further into the sixties is that, for a while in the early sixties, the groove in rock and roll — and also in soul — moved away from the swinging, shuffling rhythm you get in most of the fifties music we’ve looked at into a far more straightforward four-four rhythm. In roughly 1961 through 64 or so, you have things like the bam-bam-bam-bam four-on-the-floor beat of early Motown or Four Seasons records, or the chugga-chugga-chugga rhythm of surf guitar, rather than the looser, triplet-based grooves that you’d get in the fifties. And you can hear in “Cathy’s Clown” the shift in those rhythms happening in the song itself. The verses have an almost Latin feel, with lots of loose cymbal work from Buddy Harman:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

While the choruses have an almost martial feel to them, a boom-BAP rhythm, and sound like they have two drummers on them:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”]

While I say that sounds like there are two drummers, it’s still just Harman playing. The difference is that here the engineer, Bill Porter, who was the engineer on a lot of the Nashville recordings we’ve looked at, notably the Roy Orbison ones, had just obtained a new device — a tape loop. Now, I’ve seen some people misunderstand what it was that Porter did with this — thinking he looped the drums in the way one would loop things today, just playing the same recording over and over. It wasn’t that. Rather it was a way of doing what Sam Phillips had been doing with tape echo in Sun a few years earlier — there would be an endlessly circulating loop of tape, which had both record and playback heads. The drums would be recorded normally, but would also be recorded onto that tape loop, and then when it played back a few milliseconds later it would sound like a second drummer playing along with the first. It’s an almost inaudible delay, but it’s enough to give a totally different sound to the drums.

Porter would physically switch this loop on and off while recording the track live — all the vocals and instruments were recorded live together, onto a three-track tape, and he would turn it on for the choruses and off for the verses. This is an early example of the kind of studio experimentation that would define the way records were made in the sixties.

The rhythm that Harman played was also very influential — you can hear that it strongly influenced Paul McCartney if you listen to Beatles records like “What You’re Doing”, “Ticket to Ride”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, all of which have drum patterns which were suggested by McCartney, and all of which are strongly reminiscent of the “Cathy’s Clown” chorus.

“Cathy’s Clown” topped the charts for five weeks, and sold two million copies. It was an immense success, and the Everlys seemed to be on top of the world. But it was precisely then that problems started for the duo.

First, they moved from Nashville to LA. The main reason for that was that as well as being a record contract, their new contract with Warners would give them the opportunity to appear in films, too. So they spent six months taking acting lessons and doing screen tests, before concluding that neither of them could actually act or remember their lines, and wisely decided that they were going to stick to music.

The one good thing they took from that six month period was that they rekindled their friendship with the Crickets, and Sonny Curtis wrote them a song called “Walk Right Back”, which made the top ten (and number one in the UK and New Zealand):

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Walk Right Back”]

Curtis wrote that song while he was in basic training for the military, and when he got a pass for a few days he’d only written the first verse. He played the song to the brothers while he was out on his pass, and they said they liked it. He told them he’d write a second verse and send it to them, but by the time they received his letter with the lyrics for the second verse, they’d already recorded the song, just repeating the first verse.

Curtis wasn’t the only one who had to go into basic military training. The brothers, too, knew they would be drafted sooner rather than later, and so they decided to do as several other acts we’ve discussed did, and sign up voluntarily for six months rather than be drafted for two years. Before they did so, they recorded another song, “Temptation”, an old standard from the thirties:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Temptation”]

And that track marked the beginning of the end of the Everlys as a chart act. Because it was an old standard, the publishing was not owned by Acuff-Rose, and Wesley Rose was furious. He was both their manager and the owner of Acuff-Rose, the biggest publishing company in country music, and things between them had already become strained when the Everlys had moved to California while Rose had stayed in Nashville. Rose insisted that they only release Acuff-Rose songs as singles, and they refused, saying they wanted to put the single out.

Rose retaliated in the most staggeringly petty manner imaginable. He stopped managing them, and he blocked them from being sent any new songs by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. Because he knew they’d already recorded “Love Hurts”, a song written by the Bryants, as an album track, he got Roy Orbison, who he also managed, to record a version and put it out as a B-side, as a spoiler in case the Everlys tried to release their version as a single:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Love Hurts”]

Worse than that, even, the Everlys were also signed to Acuff-Rose as songwriters, which meant that they were no longer allowed to record their own songs. For a while they tried writing under pseudonyms, but then Acuff-Rose found out about that and stopped them.

For a while, even after basically taking a year away from music and being banned from recording their own songs, the brothers continued having hits. They also started another project — their own record label, Calliope, which would put out their outside projects. For Don, this was a mostly-instrumental adaptation of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”, which he recorded with an arrangement by Neal Hefti, under the name “Adrian Kimberly”:

[Excerpt: Adrian Kimberly, “Pomp and Circumstance”]

That made the lower reaches of the US charts, but was banned by the BBC in Britain, because it would offend British patriotic sentiment (for those who don’t know, “Pomp and Circumstance”, under the name “Land of Hope and Glory”, is something of a second national anthem over here).

Phil’s side project was a comedy folk group, the Keestone Family Singers, who recorded a parody of the Kingston Trio’s “Raspberries, Strawberries”, written by Glen Hardin of the Crickets:

[Excerpt: The Keestone Family Singers, “Cornbread and Chitlings”]

The other two singers on that track were people we’re going to hear a lot from in later episodes — a songwriter called Carole King, who a few months later would co-write the Everlys hit “Crying in the Rain”, and a session guitarist named Glen Campbell.

But neither of these ventures were particularly successful, and they concentrated on their own records. For a while, they continued having hits. But having no access to the Bryants’ songs, and being unable to record the songs they were writing themselves, they relied more and more on cover versions, right at the point the market was starting to change to being based entirely around artists who wrote their own material.

And on top of that, there were personal problems — Don was going through a divorce, and before they were inducted into the Marines, both Don and Phil had started seeing a doctor who gave them what they were told were “vitamin shots” to help them keep their energy up, but were actually amphetamines. Both became addicted, and while Phil managed to kick his addiction quickly, Don became incapacitated by his, collapsing on a UK tour and being hospitalised with what was reported as “food poisoning”, as most overdoses by rock musicians were in the early sixties, leaving Phil to perform on his own while Don recuperated.

Their fall in popularity after “Temptation” was precipitous. Between 1957 and early 1961 they had consistently had massive hits. After “Temptation” they had three more top thirty hits, “Don’t Blame Me”, “Crying in the Rain”, and “That’s Old Fashioned”. They continued having regular hits in the UK through 1965, but after “That’s Old Fashioned” in early 1962 their US chart positions went seventy-six, forty-eight, a hundred and seven, a hundred and one, didn’t chart at all, a hundred and thirty-three… you get the idea. They only had two more top forty hits in the US in the rest of their career — “Gone Gone Gone” in 1964, which made number thirty-one, and “Bowling Green” in 1967 which made number forty.

Eventually they got the ability to record their own material again, and also to record songs by the Bryants, but the enforced period of several years of relying on cover versions and old standards had left them dead as a commercial act.

But surprisingly, they weren’t artistically dead. They did have a slump around the time of Don’s troubles, with a series of weak albums, but by 1965 they’d started making some very strong tracks, covering a stylistic range from soul to country to baroque pop to an entire album, Two Yanks in England, of covers of British songs, backed by the Hollies (who wrote eight of the twelve songs) and a young keyboard player named Reg Dwight, who would later change his name to Elton John:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Somebody Help Me”]

In the middle of this commercial slump came their second album-length masterpiece, “Roots”, an album that, like their earlier “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us”, looked back to the music they’d grown up on., while also looking forward to the future, mixing new songs by contemporary writers like Merle Haggard and Randy Newman with older folk and country songs:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “Illinois”]

It stands with the great marriages of Americana, orchestral pop, and psychedelia from around that time, like Randy Newman’s first album and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, and has many of the same people involved, including producer Lenny Waronker and keyboard player Van Dyke Parks. It’s conceived as a complete piece, with songs fading in and out to excerpts of the Everlys’ performances on the radio with their parents as children, and it’s quite, quite, lovely. And, like those other albums, it was a complete commercial flop.

The brothers continued working together for several more years, recording a live album to finish off their ten-year Warners contract, and then switching to RCA, where they recorded a couple of albums of rootsy country-rock in the style of artists they had influenced like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But nothing happened for them commercially, and they were getting less and less happy with working together.

The two men argued about literally everything, from who was their father’s real favourite to politics — Phil was an intensely conservative Republican while Don is a liberal Democrat. They ended up travelling separately on tour and staying in separate hotels. It all came to a head in early 1973, when Don announced that their shows at Knotts Berry Farm would be their last, as he was tired of being an Everly brother. For the first of the two shows they were booked for, Don turned up drunk. After a few songs, Phil walked off stage, smashing his guitar. For the second show, Don turned up alone, and when someone in the crowd shouted “Where’s Phil?” He replied “The Everly Brothers died ten years ago”.

Both of them had attempts at solo careers for a decade, during which time the only time they saw each other was reportedly at their father’s funeral. They both had minor points of success — an appearance on a film soundtrack here, a backing vocal on a hit record there — but no chart success, until in 1983 Phil had a UK top ten hit with a duet with Cliff Richard, “She Means Nothing to Me”:

[Excerpt: Phil Everly and Cliff Richard, “She Means Nothing to Me”]

But by this point, the brothers had reconciled, at least to an extent. They would never be close, but they’d regained enough of a relationship to work together, and they came together for a reunion show at the Royal Albert Hall, with a great band led by the country guitarist Albert Lee. That show was followed by a new album, produced by Dave Edmunds and featuring a lead-off single written for the brothers by Paul McCartney, “On the Wings of a Nightingale”:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, “On the Wings of a Nightingale”]

Over the next twenty-two years, the brothers would record a couple more studio albums, and would frequently guest on records by other people, including performing backing vocals on Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, from his massively successful album of the same name:

[Excerpt: Paul Simon, “Graceland”]

It was also Simon who enticed them into what turned out to be their final reunion, in 2004, after a period of a few years where once again the brothers hadn’t worked together. Simon had a similarly rocky relationship with his own duet partner Art Garfunkel, and when Simon and Garfunkel did their first tour together in over twenty years, they invited the Everly Brothers to tour with them as guests, doing a short slot by themselves and joining Simon and Garfunkel to perform “Bye Bye Love” together:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel, “Bye Bye Love”]

The year after that, they did what was to be their final tour, and I was lucky enough to see one of those shows myself. More than fifty years after they started performing together, they still sounded astonishing, and while they were apparently once again not on speaking terms offstage, you would never have known it from their effortless blend on stage, the kind of close harmony that you can only get when you know someone else’s voice as well as your own.

After that tour, Phil Everly’s health put an end to the Everly Brothers — he died in 2014 from COPD, a lung disease brought on by his smoking, and for many years before that he had to use an oxygen tank at all times. That wasn’t an end to Everly infighting though — the most recent court date in the ongoing lawsuit between Phil’s estate and Don over the credit for “Cathy’s Clown” was only last month.

But even though their relationship was fraught, they were still brothers, and Don has talked movingly of how he speaks every day to the portion of Phil’s ashes that he has in his house. The bonds that held them together were the same things that drove them apart, but Don knows that no matter how much longer he lives, he will always be one of the Everly Brothers.

Jul 02, 2020
Episode 87: “Apache” by the Shadows
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Episode eighty-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Apache”, by the Shadows, and at the three years in which they and Cliff Richard were on top of the music world. Patreon backers also have a fifteen-minute bonus episode, on “Handy Man” by Jimmy Jones.

My apologies for the lateness of this episode, which is due to my home Internet connection having been out for a week.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Resources

 

As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

This four-CD set contains all the singles and EPs released by Cliff Richard and the Shadows, together and separately, between 1958 and 1962.

Meanwhile, this six-CD set contains every recording the Shadows made on their own between 1959 and 1966, for a very low price.

Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective. Be warned, though — his jokey and irreverent style can, when dealing with people like Larry Parnes (who was gay and Jewish) very occasionally tip over into reinforcing homophobic and anti-semitic stereotypes for an easy laugh.

Some of the information on Royston Ellis and Norrie Paramor comes from the extended edition of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Beatles, British post-war culture, and British post-war music.

This volume contains Royston Ellis’ two very slim books, one on Cliff and one on the Shadows, written for a teen audience in 1960 and 61. They are more of historical interest than anything else.

And Cliff Richard: The Biography by Steve Turner is very positive towards Richard, but not at the expense of honesty.

 Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we’re going to look at the group that, more than any other, made the guitar group the standard for rock music; the group which made the Fender Stratocaster the single most popular guitar in the world; and who dominated the British charts for much of the early 1960s.

We’re going to look at the Shadows:

[Excerpt: The Shadows: “Apache”]

We talked about Cliff Richard four months ago, but we’ve not yet looked at his backing group in any great detail. That’s because his group at the time of “Move It”, the single we looked at back then, was not the group that would end up becoming famous for backing him. We only mentioned in the last few minutes of that episode how his original backing band, the Drifters, were replaced one at a time by Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, most of whom had been members of the Vipers at one point or another during that group’s commercial decline.

This group, still calling themselves the Drifters, went into Abbey Road studios with Cliff in February 1959, to record Richard’s first album — a live album in front of a studio audience. The album was mostly made up of rather anaemic cover versions of American records, though drawing from a rather wider pool than one might expect — as well as ballads like Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” and rockabilly covers like “Baby I Don’t Care” and “That’ll Be the Day”, there were also attempts at styles like Chicago blues, with a cover version of “My Babe”, the song Willie Dixon had written for Little Walter:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, “My Babe”]

The album also featured two instrumentals by the Drifters, one of which was “Jet Black”, named after Jet Harris, who was the de facto leader of the band at this time. Harris was a very experienced musician long before joining the group. He had played bass with Tony Crombie and the Rockets, the very first ever British rock and roll band, and Crombie had told him about a new instrument — the electric bass guitar. Harris had obtained one, and seems to have been the very first British musician to play an electric bass. His bass was a signature of the band’s early work, and it gets the spotlight in “Jet Black”:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, “Jet Black”]

It was around this time that Hank Marvin ended up being the first British musician to play a solid-body electric guitar — and a Fender Stratocaster at that.

At the time we’re talking about, there were import restrictions on many goods from America — at the time, most economies were a lot more protectionist than they are these days, and the doctrine of free trade hadn’t taken a foothold — and so there were literally no American electric guitars in the UK, and there were no British manufacturers of them. Every British electric guitar player was playing a hollow-bodied guitar — what we’d these days call a semi-acoustic or electro-acoustic guitar.

But Cliff Richard was determined that his guitarist was going to have the best instrument. An instrument that was suitable for his music.

While Cliff was portrayed as England’s Elvis, and always credited Elvis as his inspiration, he had another favourite American singer, Ricky Nelson, whose softer style appealed to him, and was closer to the music that he ended up making:

[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, “Poor Little Fool”]

Nelson’s lead guitarist was James Burton, who Hank Marvin admired almost as much as Cliff admired Nelson. Burton had got his start playing on Dale Hawkins’ “Suzy Q”:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, “Suzy Q”]

But at this point, as well as playing for Nelson, he was making a reputation as the best session guitarist on the West Coast of America — so much of a reputation that even musicians in Britain knew his name. So it made sense that they should get Marvin the guitar that Burton played. They knew it was a Fender guitar, but they didn’t know anything else, so they got themselves a Fender catalogue sent over from the US. Looking through it, they recognised one guitar, the Stratocaster, as being the one Buddy Holly played. It was also the most expensive, and the coolest-looking, so it must be the one that Burton played, right?

As it turns out, Burton didn’t play a Stratocaster, but a Telecaster, but they didn’t know that until much later, and so Cliff Richard sent off the equivalent of several months’ worth of Marvin’s salary to have a Stratocaster shipped over and pay the import taxes.

While they were waiting for it, though, there were records to be made — and some of those records were ones that nobody involved was particularly interested in making.

Cliff had started up a film career in parallel with his musical career. His first film was an attempt at an “issue” film, about teen pregnancy and false rape accusations, which featured him in a very minor role as a juvenile delinquent. In the film, he had to sing three songs written by Lionel Bart, who had written Tommy Steele’s hits, and he didn’t realise until afterwards that his film contract stipulated that one of them must be released as a single. The one that was chosen was “Living Doll”.

The problem was that Richard loathed the song. He thought it was an attempt at sounding like an American rock and roll record, but one that completely missed everything that made American rock and roll exciting. He flat-out refused to do it. And then Norrie Paramor came up with an ingenious scheme.

Paramor was Richard’s producer at EMI, and in a couple of years he became notorious in Britain when a jealous colleague, George Martin, leaked one of his scams to the TV presenter David Frost. Paramor would regularly write songs under pseudonyms, and get his artists to record them as B-sides, so he would get the same royalties from the record sales as the composer of the hit on the A-side. He apparently used thirty-six different pseudonyms, and was so widely known for this in the industry that people would sing of him “Oh I Do Like To See Me On The B-Side”. Paramor earned enough money from his songwriting sideline that he owned a speedboat, a second home at the seaside, and an E-type Jag, while George Martin, ostensibly on the same salary, had a second-hand Mini.

But for once, Paramor was going to be able to get the A-side to a single, and present it as doing his artist a favour. He explained to Richard that one way to be sure he’d never have to put out “Living Doll” as a single would be if he’d already put out a single with a similar name. So if, say, Paramor were to write him a song called “Livin’ Lovin’ Doll”, then there’d be no way they could put out “Living Doll” — and, if anyone had seen the film and *did* want “Living Doll”, well, that would be free promotion for Paramor’s song.

“Livin’ Lovin’ Doll” went to number twenty on the charts:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, “Livin’ Lovin’ Doll”]

But, as it turned out, the contracts didn’t say anything about only releasing a single if you didn’t have a good reason not to. Cliff still had to release the song he’d sung in the film. But he decided he wasn’t going to release that recording — he was going to get the band to rearrange it into something that he could live with. The band members put their heads together, and decided that the song might work in a country direction, perhaps with a little of that Ricky Nelson soft-rock feel that Cliff liked. So, grudgingly, they recorded a slowed-down, acoustic version of “Living Doll”.

Which promptly became Cliff’s first UK number one, as well as becoming a minor hit in the USA:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, “Living Doll”]

Meanwhile, the Drifters were doing some stuff on the sidelines by themselves, too, including backing a beat poet. British popular culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s was largely, if not solely, made up of poor imitations of American pop culture, usually without any understanding of what that culture was. The phrase “cargo cult” is one that reinforces a number of unpleasant stereotypes, and as far as I can tell the story on which the phrase is based is a gross misunderstanding, but if you imagine the cargo cult as it is popularly imagined, much of British pop culture was a cargo cult imitation of America, with signifiers yanked completely out of their contexts and placed in wholly new ones. The British musicians we’ve looked at so far have been the ones that were the most innovative, the least tied to their American inspirations, and yet I’m sure you’ve been able to detect even in them the sense that they were the ersatz version of the American rock stars, the Cheez-wizz to Elvis Presley’s fine mature Stilton, a collection of sneers and hip swivels and “uh-huh”s performed in the vain hope that by doing so they could invoke some of the magic of the King of Rock and Roll.

But it wasn’t just popular culture that was like this — even the Bohemian underground were trying desperately to copy American models. We’ve already seen how the skiffle craze came out of trad music, which was in itself an attempt to replicate the music made by black American musicians in New Orleans some thirty or forty years earlier. In the visual arts, there was Pop Art, which was, to start with, a purely British artistic phenomenon, but it was one made up of recycled Americana. A work like Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? was made up entirely of images found in American magazines sent over to Britain. Pop Art was interested in commenting on mass culture, but Hamilton wasn’t interested in commenting on culture that British people would have any experience of — he uses an image of a Young Romance comic cover, drawn by Jack Kirby, rather than Biffo the Bear or Desperate Dan, and the advert the collage was based on was from Ladies Home Journal, not Home Chat.

And so in the late 1950s Britain got its own Beat Poet, Royston Ellis. Ellis was a bearded bisexual teenage speed freak, who hung around in Soho, which was, not coincidentally, simultaneously the gayest place in Britain, the most ethnically diverse, the artiest, and the place where every fifties British rock and roll artist came from. For all that the dozens of identikit Larry Parnes artists were made to a showbiz formula, British rock and roll was still fundamentally intertwined with the Bohemian subculture, and there were usually at most only two degrees of separation between some spotty bequiffed youth pinup in the teen magazines and a bearded folk-singing physics lecturer who went on Ban the Bomb marches every weekend.

Ellis managed to parlay being willing to say controversial things like “many teenagers quite like drugs” and “some teenagers have sex before marriage” into a “spokesman for his generation” role, with regular appearances on TV. And so when he decided that he was going to copy the American Beat poets and perform in front of musicians, he wasn’t going to just go for jazz musicians like they did. He was going to continue being the voice of a generation by performing the music that would go with his talk of sex and drugs — he was going to perform his poetry backed by rock and roll music, what he called “rocketry”. And when you think of sex and drugs and rock and roll, obviously your first thought is of Cliff Richard.

And so it was that Royston Ellis struck up a friendship with Cliff. Ellis’ first book of beat poetry was dedicated to Cliff, and Cliff’s first attempt at autobiography was dedicated to Royston. And Cliff’s backing band became Ellis’ backing band:

[Excerpt: Royston Ellis and the Shadows, “Gone Man Squared”]

That wasn’t all the Drifters were doing without Cliff. They were encouraged by Cliff to make their own records — it made him look better if his backing band were famous in their own right, and it would make the tours more attractive if both Cliff and the Drifters were star names, and so they went into Abbey Road themselves to record their first single, which is actually strikingly like the Merseybeat music that would become famous a few years later — Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies, but with the electric guitar more prominent than on the Everlys’ records, and sung in an English accent. Even the scream as they went into the guitar solo sounds very familiar if you’ve spent a lot of time listening to records from 1963 and 64. Remember again that this is 1959:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Feeling Fine”]

That was unsuccessful. By this time, though, Hank Marvin’s Fender had arrived, and he was using it on records like Cliff’s second number one, “Travellin’ Light”:

[Excerpt: Cliff Richard and the Shadows, “Travellin’ Light”]

That single was also the first to bear a new credit — rather than by Cliff Richard and the Drifters, it was credited to Cliff Richard and the Shadows. It turns out that if you want to release records in the US by a new group made up of geeky-looking white British teenagers, putting it out under the name of an established black vocal group who are climbing the charts with their own massive hit is a good way to get legal letters and have to withdraw the release. Jet Harris and Hank Marvin went to the pub to discuss a new name, and Harris suggested “The Shadows”, because they were always standing in Cliff Richard’s shadow.

Their first single under the Shadows name, “Lonesome Fella”, was a hybrid of country and doo-wop, with backing vocals that were more than a little reminiscent of the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me”:

[Excerpt: The Shadows, “Lonesome Fella”]

That was also unsuccessful, and it seemed that for the time being the Shadows’ time was best spent working as a backing group, either with Cliff Richard or Royston Ellis.

But Ellis worked with other musicians too. For example here’s a TV appearance with John Betjeman from very early 1961, where Ellis is accompanied by a single guitar:

[Excerpt: Royston Ellis, “Lumbering Now”]

The guitar there was played by a young musician Ellis had discovered named Jimmy Page. And in summer 1960, Ellis went up to Liverpool and met a band there that had been formed by a couple of art students and their younger friends. He got them to back him on stage and introduced them to drugs (showing them how at the time you could open up an inhaler to get at the amphetamine inside).

He was impressed enough by them that in July 1960 an article appeared about him in Record Mirror, reading in part “the bearded sage of the coffee bars has not always been satisfied with the accompaniment provided, so he’s thinking of bringing down to London a young backing group which he considers is most in accord with his poetry. The name of the group? The Beetles!”

When Tony Meehan saw that, he got annoyed — Meehan was the Shadow who, more than any of the others, was interested in being properly artistic. He’d thought that they were doing something worthwhile with Ellis, and didn’t appreciate having their accompaniment dismissed like that in favour of some nobodies from Liverpool. Ellis had to write to the Record Mirror “clarifying” his previous remarks:

“These remarks were not intended as disparaging comments on the many excellent groups I have worked with on television and stage shows — groups such as Cliff Richard’s Shadows and the London group The Red Cats. For some time I have been searching for a group to use regularly, and I feel that “The Beetles” (most of them are Liverpool ex-art students) fill the bill. However, I am looking forward to working with other groups as well, and plans are at the moment underway for television appearances with both Bert Weedon and with The Shadows.”

As it turned out, Ellis never did bring the Beatles down to London — when he turned twenty, he declared that as he was now middle-aged, he could no longer function as the voice of the teenagers, and turned to travelling and writing novels.

You’ll notice that in Ellis’ apology, he refers to “Cliff Richard’s Shadows”, because at this point they were still just Cliff’s backing band in the eyes of the public. That was going to change that same month, and it was about to change, in part, because of someone else Ellis mentioned there — Bert Weedon. Weedon is someone who, when I pencilled in my initial list of songs to cover, was down as a definite. I was going to look at his record “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”:

[Excerpt: Bert Weedon, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”]

But unfortunately, it turned out that the tiny amount of information about Weedon available made it impossible to write a full episode about him, even though he had a career that lasted sixty years and was one of the most important people in British music history.

But to boil it down to its basics, Bert Weedon was a jazz guitarist, at a time when the guitar was not the prominent instrument it has been since the sixties. When he was growing up in the twenties and thirties, as he would put it, the only time you’d see a guitar was being held by a singing cowboy in a film. There were almost no guitarists in Britain, and he soon became the first-call session player any time anyone in Britain was making a record that needed guitar.

Then came both rock and roll and the skiffle boom. Most of Weedon’s contemporaries were bitterly contemptuous of the new music, but the way he saw it, for the first time in his lifetime people were starting to make a decent living out of the guitar, and he wanted in. While his jazz friends started sneering at him and calling him “boogie Bert”, for the first couple of years of British rock and roll he played on almost every record that came out.

But his biggest contribution to music came with a book called “Play in a Day”. That book was the first guitar tutorial published in the UK to attempt to show young players how to play the instrument in a way that got them playing songs quickly. While it’s creakily old-fashioned today, Weedon did know that what kids wanted was to learn a couple of chords so they could accompany themselves playing a song, rather than to have to practice scales for months before moving on to anything more interesting. These days there are much better books, and Weedon’s book looks exactly like all those older books it was replacing, but at the time it was a revelation.

A lot of guitarists are credited as having learned from Weedon’s book, some of them almost certainly apocryphally. But while it’s been superseded by many better books, it was a massive seller in its time, and sold over two million copies. It’s safe to say that at the very least every British guitarist we look at over the next hundred or so episodes will have had a look at Weedon’s book, and many of them will have learned their first chords from it.

Weedon had been a session musician and writer, but not a star musician in his own right, until he released his single “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” in 1959. It was a cover version of a hillbilly boogie called “Guitar Boogie”, by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and Weedon’s version became a hit, reaching number ten in the UK — the first British guitar instrumental to make the top ten:

[Excerpt: Bert Weedon, “Guitar Boogie”]

Dick Rowe, the boss of Top Rank Records, for which Weedon recorded at the time, had disliked that song so much that Weedon had tried to record it under a pseudonym for another label, because Rowe wouldn’t put it out. But it became a hit, and started a run of instrumental hits for Weedon.

After he’d had four hits along the lines of “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”, Weedon was sent a piece of sheet music by the publishers Francis, Day, and Hunter. “Apache” was a song inspired by a 1954 western, and written by a young songwriter called Jerry Lordan. Lordan was a minor British singer, who’d had a recent hit with “I’ll Stay Single”:

[Excerpt: Jerry Lordan, “I’ll Stay Single”]

But while he was a mildly successful singer, he was much more successful as a songwriter, writing Anthony Newley’s top five hit “I’ve Waited So Long”:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, “I’ve Waited So Long”]

And “A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring”, which had the unusual distinction for a British song of getting an American cover version, by Dale Hawkins:

[Excerpt: Dale Hawkins, “A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring”]

Lordan’s song, “Apache”, seemed to be the kind of thing that Bert Weedon could do well, and Weedon recorded a version of it some time in late 1959 or early 1960:

[Excerpt: Bert Weedon, “Apache”]

Weedon also started performing the song in his shows and on TV. But the recording hadn’t been released yet — according to Weedon, he was planning on releasing the single in September, because that was when the most records were sold.

But Lordan didn’t want to wait until September for his song to come out on a record, so while he was on tour with Cliff and the Shadows, he showed the tune to Jet Harris on his ukulele. The group liked the tune, and released it as their second single under their new name. Hank Marvin had by this time been given a guitar echo unit by Joe Brown, who’d bought it and then disliked it. He used it on this record, along with another innovation — the tremolo arm on his guitar. A tremolo arm, sometimes called a whammy bar, is a metal bar on your guitar that allows you to bend all the strings at once, and nobody else in Britain had a guitar with one at this point, but Hank had his Fender Stratocaster, on which they come fitted as standard. The combination of the tremolo arm and the echo unit was a sound that no-one else in the UK had, but which was strikingly similar to some of the surf music being made in the US, which was still mostly on tiny labels with no distribution over here:

[Excerpt: The Shadows, “Apache”]

“Apache” went to number one on the charts, knocking off “Please Don’t Tease”, a track by Cliff with the Shadows backing him. It stayed on the charts for five months, and became a standard performed by every British guitarist — and soon by American guitarists like the Ventures. Weedon’s version was rushed out to compete with it, but only made number twenty-four. Many versions of the song have become classics in their own right, and I won’t go through all the hit versions here because this is a long episode anyway, but I do have to mention one version — a novelty version recorded as album filler by a group of session musicians hired to make an album under the name The Incredible Bongo Band:

[Excerpt: The Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache”]

The guitarist on that, incidentally, is Mike Deasy, who we heard last week playing with Bruce Johnston and Sandy Nelson in various bands, and who had been in Eddie Cochran’s backing band.

That track includes a drum break, with bongos by King Errisson, and drums probably played by Jim Gordon, which is probably the most sampled recording of all time, and certainly in the top ten:

[Excerpt: The Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache”, drum breaks]

That’s been sampled by everyone from the Roots to Madonna, Vanilla Ice to Amy Winehouse, Rage Against the Machine to Kanye West. It’s been called “hip-hop’s national anthem”, and there’s a whole ninety-minute documentary on Netflix just about that track.

But getting back to 1960 and the Shadows’ version of the tune, it came as a revelation to many British kids, inspiring thousands of young boys who had already learned the guitar to start playing *electric* guitar, and making everyone who wanted to be a rock and roll star covet a Stratocaster specifically (with a few odd exceptions who reacted against what was popular, like there always are). Pete Townshend, for example, in a documentary earlier this year said that hearing “Apache” was for him even more important than his first orgasm.

“Apache” stayed on the charts so long that the group’s next single, “Man of Mystery”, went to number five in the charts while “Apache” was still in the top forty:

[Excerpt: The Shadows, “Man of Mystery”]

And while that was at number five, “Nine Times Out of Ten” by Cliff Richard and the Shadows was at number three.

Between 1959 and 1965, Cliff had twenty-six consecutive top ten hit singles, of which twenty-one had the Shadows (or the Drifters) as his backing group. In the same time period, the Shadows had a run of thirteen top ten hits in their own right. They were a phenomenon in British music like nothing anyone had ever seen. They appeared in a series of films, starring Richard, who was in 1962 and 63 a bigger draw at the British cinema than the early James Bond films. Neither Cliff nor the Shadows ever had much American success, but in Europe and Australia, and from 1962 on in Canada, they were at the very peak of success in the music industry.

Everything seemed to be going perfectly for Cliff and the Shadows, even when in 1961 a bizarre love triangle upended everything. Jet Harris, who was at the time the band member who was closest to Cliff, had married a beautiful young woman called Carol Costa, without realising that she had never really been interested in him, but was using him to get to Cliff. Cliff and Costa started an affair, Harris became physically abusive towards Costa, she — quite rightly — left him, and he spiralled into depression and alcoholism. Cliff and Costa’s affair didn’t last long either — but as it turned out, she would be the only woman with whom he would ever have sex.

Richard’s sexuality or lack of it has been the subject of a huge amount of discussion over the years. For many decades he said he was straight but celibate because of his religious views — that he couldn’t get married without disappointing his female fans, and that he felt sex outside marriage was wrong. In more recent years he’s switched the wording he uses, saying his sexuality is his own business, that he’ll never talk about it publicly, that he has a live-in male companion, and that it shouldn’t matter to anyone what his sexuality is. Most descriptions of him from those who’ve known him over the decades have said that he was and is someone who is simply not very interested in sex. I mention this not to engage in prurient speculation about him, but to show how utterly bizarre it is that the one woman he would ever have sex with would be the wife of a friend and colleague.

More in character, though, was the way he would dump Costa — as was so often the case with Cliff Richard when discarding people for whom he had no further use, he got someone else to do it. In this case it was Tony Meehan who was given the task of letting her know that Cliff had suddenly developed moral scruples.

Those moral scruples would soon get a lot more scrupulous, as this affair would indirectly lead to the most famous religious conversion in all of British music history.

Shortly after dumping Costa on Cliff’s behalf, Tony Meehan left the group, just before a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Meehan had slowly become disenchanted with the rest of the group, and didn’t really fit in with them — he was an intellectual who read books about the history of folk music and jazz, and wanted one day to write a history of Soho’s music scene in the style of books he’d read about New Orleans, while the rest of them just liked reading thrillers.

When he left, the group’s second number one, “Kon-Tiki”, was still at the top of the charts:

[Excerpt: The Shadows, “Kon-Tiki”]

He was replaced by Brian Bennett, who had played in the very first lineup of Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and had been in Marty Wilde’s Wildcats for a while. Jet Harris lasted in the group another few months, until April 1962, when the drink caught up with him and he was fired.

Bennett suggested that the group get in his old friend Licorice Locking, who he’d played with in the Vipers, the Playboys, and the Wildcats, and who had played with Bennett on those Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent Saturday Club sessions we heard a couple of weeks back. Locking was a fine bass player, had played with most of them before back in their 2is days, and fitted in perfectly, though he had a very different playing style than Harris — many hardcore Shadows fans think the group’s golden age ended when Harris left, and he’s rated enough as a bass player that while there are currently no substantial books on the Shadows themselves still in print, there are two separate self-published biographies of Harris available.

Within a month of being fired, Harris had his own solo hit, making the top thirty with a version of “Besame Mucho” modelled on the Coasters’ version, but with Harris playing lead bass instead of singing:

[Excerpt: Jet Harris, “Besame Mucho”]

But Locking would have an odd effect on the Shadows. Brian Bennett had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and even though he was no longer a believer in that religion, he’d told Locking about its beliefs — and Locking had become an enthusiastic convert. As soon as he joined the group, he set about trying to convert the other members, too. He succeeded with Hank Marvin, who to this day is a devoted Witness, and he came part way with Cliff, who never became a Witness but was inspired by Locking’s Bible-reading sessions to become an evangelical Christian, and who is now British rock music’s most famously religious person.

Meanwhile, Harris had switched from bass to guitar, and was now going in a more Duane Eddy style. He teamed up with Tony Meehan, and together they recorded another Jerry Lordan song, “Diamonds”, featuring Royston Ellis’ friend Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar, on his first major session:

[Excerpt: Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, “Diamonds”]

At the beginning of 1963, Cliff and the Shadows, past and present, had a ridiculous monopoly of the top of the charts. “Bachelor Boy” by Cliff and the Shadows, written by Cliff and Bruce Welch, was at number one for three weeks, then was replaced by “Dance On” by the Shadows, which in turn was replaced by “Diamonds” by Jet and Tony. There was a brief three-week respite while Frank Ifield topped the charts with his “Wayward Wind”, then “Summer Holiday” by Cliff and the Shadows, written by Bruce and Brian. Then “Foot Tapper” by the Shadows went to number one, then “Summer Holiday” went back to the top position.

They all looked unstoppable. However, while they would all chart again, it would be two years before Cliff would have another number one, and neither the Shadows nor Jet and Tony ever would. In the case of Cliff and the Shadows, this change in commercial fortunes was because of a general change in the music market, which we’ll be looking at towards the end of the year. In the case of Jet and Tony, though, that was only part of it. Jet was in a car accident which put him out of commission for a while, and when he got better he was drinking even more. He made a brief attempt at a comeback and even joined an early lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, but spent the rest of his life either working labouring jobs or playing the nostalgia circuit. He died in 2011.

Jet and Tony’s touring bass player, John Paul Jones, actually auditioned for the Shadows, as Licorice Locking left the group to spend more time evangelising, but Jones didn’t get the job, and we’ll be picking up on him later. We’ll be seeing Cliff again too, as well as having a brief appearance from Tony Meehan, but this is the last we’ll see of the Shadows, who continued with a variety of different bass players, and with Brian Bennett as the permanent drummer, off and on until 2015. Marvin, Bennett, and Welch all continue to make music separately, and it’s still possible they may perform together as the Shadows one day. But even if they don’t, “Apache” stands as the moment when a million British kids first decided that they wanted to be a guitar hero and play a Fender Stratocaster.

Jun 23, 2020
Episode 86: “LSD-25” by the Gamblers
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Episode eighty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “LSD-25” by the Gamblers, the first rock song ever to namecheck acid, and a song by a band so obscure no photos exist of them. (The photo here is of the touring lineup of the Hollywood Argyles. Derry Weaver, the Gamblers’ lead guitarist, is top left). Patreon backers also have a fifteen-minute bonus episode, on “Papa Oom Mow Mow” by the Rivingtons.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Resources

 

As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

This episode, more than most, required tiny bits of information from dozens of sources. Among those I used were the one existing interview with Derry Weaver I have been able to find, Dean Torrence’s autobiography , a book about John Dolphin by his son, and He’s A Rebel, a biography of Phil Spector by Mark Ribkowsky. 

But more than anything else, I used the self-published books by Stephen McParland,  who is the premier expert on surf music, and which you can buy in PDF form here. The ones I used the most were The Beach Boys: Inception and Conception, California Confidential, and Surf & Hot-Rod Music Chronicles: Bull Sessions With the Big Daddy.

“LSD-25” is on numerous various-artists compilations of surf music, of which this two-CD set looks like the best value for the casual listener.

 

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Transcript

On the sixteenth of April, 1943, Albert Hoffman, a research scientist in Zurich, had a curious experience after accidentally touching a tiny speck of the chemical he was experimenting with at the pharmaceutical lab in which he worked, and felt funny afterwards. Three days later, he decided to experiment on himself, and took a tiny dose of the chemical, to see if anything happened. He felt fine at first, but asked a colleague to escort him as he rode home on his bicycle. By the time he got home, he was convinced that his neighbour was a witch and that he had been poisoned.

But a few hours later, he felt a little better, though still unusual. As he would later report, “Little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux”.

The chemical he had taken was a derivative of ergotamine that had been discovered about five years earlier and mostly ignored up until that time, a chemical called D-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate. Sandoz, the company he worked for, were delighted with this unusual chemical and its effects. They came up with some variants of the molecule without those effects, but which still affected the brain, and marketed those as migraine treatments. The chemical itself, they decided to make available as an experimental drug for psychiatrists and psychologists who wanted to investigate unusual states of consciousness. It found some uptake, among experimenters who wished to experience psychotic symptoms in a controlled environment in order to get a better understanding of their patients, or who wanted to investigate neurochemistry, and it had some promise as a treatment for alcoholism and various other psychiatric illnesses, and throughout the 1950s it was the subject of much medical research, under the trade name Sandoz came up with for it, Delysid.

But in the sixties, it became better known as LSD-25:

[Excerpt: The Gamblers, “LSD-25”]

There are some records that one can look back at retrospectively and see that while they seemed unimportant at the time, they signalled a huge change in the musical culture. The single “Moon Dawg”, backed by “LSD-25”, by the Gamblers, is one of those records.

Unfortunately, everything about the Gamblers is shrouded in mystery. The story I am going to tell here is the one that I’ve been able to piece together from stray fragments of recollection from the main participants over the years, but it could very well be wrong. Put it this way, on the record, there are two guitarists, bass, drums, and keyboards. I have seen fifteen people credited as having been members of the group that recorded the track.

Obviously, those credits can’t all be true, so I’m going to go here with the stories of the people who are most commonly credited, but with the caveat that the people I’m talking about could very easily not have been the people on the record. I have also made mistakes about this single before — there are a couple of errors in the piece on it in my book California Dreaming.

Part of the problem is that almost everyone who has laid claim to being involved in the record is — or was, as many of them have died — a well-known credit thief, someone who will happily place themselves at the centre of the story, happily put their name on copyright forms for music with which they had no involvement, and then bitterly complain that they were the real unsung geniuses behind other records, but that some evil credit thief stole all their work.

The other people involved — those who haven’t said that everything was them and they did everything — were for the most part jobbing musicians who, when asked about the record, would not even be sure if they’d played on it, because they played on so many records, and weren’t asked about them for decades later.

Just as one example, Nik Venet, who is generally credited as the producer of this record, said for years that Derry Weaver, the credited co-composer of the song and the person who is generally considered to have played lead guitar on it, was a pseudonym for himself. Later, when confronted with evidence that Derry Weaver was a real person, he admitted that Weaver *had* been a real person, but claimed that it was still a pseudonym for himself. Venet claimed that Weaver had died in a car crash years earlier, and that as a result he had been able to use his social security number on forms to claim himself extra money he wasn’t entitled to as a staff producer.

The only problem with that story is that Venet died in 1998, while the real Derry Weaver died in 2013, but Weaver only ever did one interview I’ve been able to track down, in 2001, so Venet’s lies went unchallenged, and many books still claim that Weaver never existed.

So today, I’m going to tell the story of a music scene, and use a few people as a focus, with the understanding that they may not be the people on the record we’re talking about. I’m going to look at the birth of the surf and hot-rod studio scene in LA, and at Bruce Johnston, Kim Fowley, Derry Weaver, Nik Venet, Sandy Nelson, Elliot Ingber, Larry Taylor, Howard Hirsch, and Rod Schaffer, some or all of whom may or may not have been the Gamblers:

[Excerpt: The Gamblers, “Moon Dawg”]

Possibly the best place to start the story is at University High School, Los Angeles, in the late 1950s. University High had always had more than its fair share of star students over the years — Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor had all attended in previous years, and over the succeeding decades members of Sonic Youth, the Doors, Black Flag, the Foo Fighters and the Partridge Family would all attend the school, among many others. But during the period in the late fifties, it had a huge number of students who would go on to define the California lifestyle in the pop culture of the next few years. There was Sandra Dee, who starred in Gidget, the first Beach Party film; Anette Funicello, who starred in most of the other Beach Party films; Randy Newman, who would document another side of California life a few years later; and Nancy Sinatra, who was then just her famous father’s daughter, but who would go on to make a series of magnificent records in the sixties with Lee Hazelwood.

And there was a vocal group at the school called the Barons, one of the few interracial vocal groups around at the time. They had a black lead singer, Chuck Steele, a Japanese tenor, Wally Yagi, two Jewish boys, Arnie Ginsburg and John Saligman, and two white kids, Jan Berry — who was the leader of the group, and Dean Torrence, his friend who could sing a little falsetto. As they were all singers, they were backed by three instrumentalists who also went to the school — Berry’s neighbour Bruce Johnston on piano, Torrence’s neighbour Sandy Nelson on drums, and Nelson’s friend Dave Shostac on saxophone.

This group played several gigs together, but slowly split apart as people’s mothers wanted them to concentrate on school, or they got cars that they wanted to fix up. In Sandy Nelson’s case he was sacked by Berry for playing his drums so loud — as he packed up his kit for the last time, he told Berry, “You’ll see, I’m going to have a hit record that’s *only* drums”.

Slowly they were whittled down to three people — Berry, Torrence, and Ginsburg, with occasional help from Berry’s friend Don Altfeld. The Barons cut a demo tape of a song about a prominent local stripper, named Jennie Lee, but then Torrence decided to sign up with the Army. He’d discovered that if he did six months’ basic training and joined the Army Reserves, he would be able to avoid being drafted a short while later. He thought that six months sounded a lot better than two years, so signed up, and he was on basic training when he heard a very familiar sounding record on the radio:

[Excerpt: Jan and Arnie, “Jennie Lee”]

He was surprised to hear it, and also surprised to hear it credited to “Jan and Arnie” rather than “the Barons”. He called Berry, who told him that no, it was a completely new recording — though Torrence was absolutely certain that he could hear his own voice on there as well. What had happened, according to Jan, was that there’d been a problem with the tape, and he and Arnie had decided to rerecord it. He’d then gone into a professional studio to get the tape cut into an acetate, so he could play it at parties, and someone in the next room had happened to hear it — and that someone happened to be Joe Lubin. Lubin was the Vice President of Arwin Records, a label owned by Marty Melcher, Doris Day’s husband. He told Berry that he would make Jan and Arnie bigger than the Everly Brothers, but Jan didn’t believe him, though he let him have a copy of the disc.

Jan took his copy to play at a friend’s party, where it went down well. That friend was Craig Bruderlin, who later changed his name to James Brolin and became a major film star. Presumably Bruderlin’s best friend Ryan O’Neal, who also went to University High, was there as well. I told you, University High School had a lot of future stars.

And Jan and Arnie became two more of those stars. Joe Lubin overdubbed extra instruments on the track and released it. He didn’t quite make them bigger than the Everly Brothers, but for a while they were almost as big — at one point, the Everly Brothers were at number one in the charts, number two was Sheb Wooley with “The Purple People Eater”, and number three was Jan and Arnie with “Jennie Lee”. And Dean Torrence was off in the Army, regretting his choices. We’ll be picking up on what happened with those three in a few months’ time…

But what of the other Barons? The instrumentalists, Bruce Johnston, Dave Shostac, and Sandy Nelson, formed their own band, the Sleepwalkers, with various guitarists sitting in, often a young blues player called Henry Vestine, who had already started taking LSD at this time, though none of the other band members indulged. They would often play parties organised by another University High student, Kim Fowley. Now, Fowley is the person who spoke most about this time on the record, but he was also possibly the least honest person involved in this episode (and, if the accusations made about him since his death are true, also one of the most despicable people in this episode, which is quite a high bar…), so take this with a grain of salt. But Fowley claimed in later years that these parties were his major source of income — that he would hire sex workers to take fellow University High students who had big houses off to a motel to have sex with them. While the students were otherwise occupied, Fowley would break into their house and move all the furniture, so people could dance, he’d get the band in, and he’d invite everyone to come to the party. Then dope dealers would sell dope to the partygoers, giving Fowley a cut, and meanwhile friends of Fowley’s would be outside breaking into the partygoers’ cars and stealing their stuff.

But then Fowley got arrested — according to him, for stealing wine from a liquor store owned by a girlfriend who was twice his age, and selling it to other students at the school. He was given a choice of joining the Army or going to prison, and he chose the Army, on the same deal as Dean Torrence, who he ended up going through some of his training with.

Meanwhile, Johnston, Shostac, and Nelson were trying to get signed as a band. They went to see John Dolphin on February the first, 1958. We’ve talked about Dolphin before, in the episodes on Gene and Eunice and the Penguins. Dolphin owned Dolphin’s of Hollywood, the biggest black-owned record store in the LA area, and was responsible for a large part of the success of many of the records we’ve covered, through getting them played on radio shows broadcast from his station. He also owned a series of small labels which would put out one or two singles by an artist before the artist was snapped up by a bigger label. For example, he owned Cash Records, which had put out “Walkin’ Stick Boogie”, by Jerry Capehart and Eddie and Hank Cochran:

[Excerpt: Jerry Capehart and the Cochran Brothers, “Walkin’ Stick Boogie”]

He also owned a publishing company, which owned the publishing on “Buzz Buzz Buzz” by the Hollywood Flames:

[Excerpt: The Hollywood Flames, “Buzz Buzz Buzz”]

Johnston, Shostac, and Nelson hoped that maybe they could get signed to one of Dolphin’s labels, but they chose the worst possible day to do it. While they were waiting to see Dolphin, they got talking to an older man, Percy Ivy, who started to tell them that Dolphin couldn’t be trusted and that he owed Ivy a lot of money. They were used to hearing this kind of thing about people in the music business, and decided they’d go in to see Dolphin anyway. When they did, Ivy came in with them. What happened next is told differently by different people. What’s definitely the case is that Ivy and Dolphin got into a heated row. Ivy claimed that Dolphin pulled a knife on him. Witness statements seem confused on the matter, but most say that all that Dolphin had in his hand was a cigar. Ivy pulled out a gun and shot Dolphin — one shot also hit Shostac in the leg. Sandy Nelson ran out of the room to get help. Johnston comforted the dying Dolphin, but by the time Nelson got back, he was busily negotiating with Ivy, talking about how they were going to make a record together when Ivy got out of jail.

One presumes he was trying to humour Ivy, to make sure nobody else got shot.

Obviously, with John Dolphin having died, he wasn’t going to be running a record company any more. The shop part of his business was, from then on, managed by his assistant, a failed singer called Rudy Ray Moore who later went on to become famous playing the comedy character Dolemite.

Then the Sleepwalkers got a call from another acquaintance. Kip Tyler had a band called the Flips who had had some moderate success with rockabilly records produced by Milt Gabler. And this is one of the points where the conflicting narratives become most confusing. According to every one of the few articles I can find about Tyler, before forming the Flips he was the lead singer of the Sleepwalkers, the toughest rock and roll band in the school, when he was at Union High School. According to those same articles, he was born in 1929. So either there were two bands at Union High School, a decade apart, called the Sleepwalkers, one of which was a rock and roll band before the term had been coined; or Tyler was still at high school aged twenty-eight; or someone is deeply mistaken somewhere.

Kip and the Flips didn’t have much recording success, and kept moving to smaller and smaller labels, but they were considered a hot band in LA — in particular, they were the house band at Art Laboe’s regular shows at El Monte stadium — the shows which would later be immortalised by the Penguins in “Memories of El Monte”.

[Excerpt: The Penguins, “Memories of El Monte”]

But then the group’s piano player, Larry Knechtel, saxophone player, Steve Douglas, and drummer, Mike Bermani, all left to join Duane Eddy’s group. Kim Fowley was by this point a roadie and general hanger-on for the Flips, and he happened to know a piano player, a saxophone player, and a drummer who were looking for a gig, and so the Sleepwalkers joined Kip Tyler and guitarist Mike Deasy in the Flips, and took over that role performing at El Monte, performing themselves but also backing other musicians, like Ritchie Valens, who played at these shows.

Sandy Nelson didn’t stay long in the Flips, though — he was replaced by another drummer, Jim Troxel, and it was this lineup, with extra sax from Duane Eddy’s sax player Jim Horn, that recorded “Rumble Rock”:

[Excerpt: Kip Tyler, “Rumble Rock”]

Nelson’s departure from the group coincided with him starting to get a great deal of session work from people who had seen him play live. One of those people was a young man named Harvey Philip Spector, who went by his middle name. Spector went to Fairfax High, a school which had a strong rivalry with University High and produced a similarly ludicrous list of famous people, and he’d got his own little clique of people around him with whom he was making music. These included his best friend Marshall Leib, and sometimes also Leib’s girlfriend’s younger brother Russ Titelman. Spector and Leib had formed a vocal group, the Teddy Bears, with a girl they knew who then went by a different name but is now called Carol Connors.

Their first single was called “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, inspired by the epitaph on Spector’s father’s grave:

[Excerpt: The Teddy Bears, “To Know Him is to Love Him”]

Sandy Nelson played the drums on that, and the track went to number one. I’ve also seen some credits say that Bruce Johnston played the bass on it, but at the time Johnston wasn’t a bass player, so this seems unlikely. Even though Nelson’s playing on the track is absolutely rudimentary, it gave him the cachet to get other gigs, for example playing on Gene Vincent’s “Crazy Times” LP:

[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, “She She Little Sheila”]

Another record Nelson played on reunited him with Bruce Johnston. Kim Fowley was by this point doing some work for American International Pictures, and was asked to come up with an instrumental for a film called Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, a film about a drag-racing club that have a Halloween party inside a deserted mansion but then discover a real monster has shown up. It’s not as fun as it sounds.

A songwriter friend of Fowley’s named Nik Venet is credited with writing “Geronimo”, although Richie Polodor, the guitarist and bass player on the session says he came up with it. Polodor said “There are three guys in the business who really have no scruples whatsoever. They are Bruce Johnston, Kim Fowley and Sandy Nelson. And I was Mr. Scruples… I wrote both Geronimo and Charge, but they were taken away from me. It was all my stuff, but between Nik Venet, Kim Fowley and Bruce Johnston I had no chance. It was cut in my studio. I did all the guitars. I wrote it all and Nik Venet walked away with the credit.”

Venet did the howls on the track, Johnston played piano, Nelson drums, Polodor guitar and bass, and Fowley produced:

[Excerpt: The Renegades, “Geronimo”]

Meanwhile, Phil Spector had become disenchanted with being in the Teddy Bears, and had put together a solo instrumental single, under the name Phil Harvey:

[Excerpt: Phil Harvey, “Bumbershoot”]

Spector wanted a band to play a gig to promote that single, and he put together the Phil Harvey band from the members of another band that Marshall Leib had been in before joining the Teddy Bears. The Moon Dogs had consisted of a singer called Jett Power, guitarists Derry Weaver and Elliot Ingber, and bass player Larry Taylor, along with Leib. Taylor and Ingber joined the Phil Harvey band, along with keyboard player Howard Hirsch, and drummer Rod Schaffer.

The Phil Harvey band only played one gig — the band’s concept was apparently a mix of Duane Eddy style rock guitar instrumentals and complex jazz, with the group all dressed as mobsters — but Kim Fowley happened to be there and liked what he saw, and made a note of some of those musicians as people to work with. Spector, meanwhile, had decided to use his connection with Lester Sill to go and work with Leiber and Stoller, and we’ll be picking up that story in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, Derry Weaver from the Moon Dogs had started to date Mary Jo Sheeley, the sister of Sharon Sheeley, and Sharon started to take an interest in her little sister’s boyfriend and his friends. She suggested that Jett Power change his name to P.J. Proby, and she would regularly have him sing on the demos of her songs in the sixties:

[Excerpt: P.J. Proby, “The Other Side of Town”]

And she introduced Weaver to Eddie Cochran and Jerry Capehart. Cochran taught Weaver several of the guitar licks he used, and Capehart produced a session for Weaver with Cochran on guitar, Jim Stivers on piano, Guybo Smith on bass and Gene Riggio on drums:

[Excerpt: Derry Weaver, “Bad Baby Doll”]

That track was not released until decades later, but several other songs by Weaver, with no Cochran involvement, were released on Capehart’s own label (under the misspelled name Darry Weaver), and Capehart was Weaver’s manager for a little while. Weaver was actually living at the Sheeley residence when they received the phone call saying that Eddie had died and Sharon was in hospital, and it haunted him deeply for the rest of his life.

Another record on which Guybo Smith played at this time was one by Sandy Nelson. The Flips had split up by this point — Mike Deasy had gone on to join Eddie Cochran’s backing band, and Bruce Johnston was playing on random sessions, so he was here for what was going to be Nelson’s “single that was only drums”. It wasn’t quite only drums — as well as Nelson on drums, there was Smith on bass, Johnston on piano, and Polodor on guitar. The musicians on the record have said they all deserved songwriting credit for it, but the writing credit went to Art Laboe and Nelson:

[Excerpt: Sandy Nelson, “Teen Beat”]

“Teen Beat” went to number four on the charts, and Nelson had a handful of other hits under his own name, including “Let There Be Drums”. Less successful was a ballad released under the name “Bruce and Jerry”, released on Arwin records after the owner’s son, Terry Melcher, had remembered seeing the Sleepwalkers, and was desperate for some more rock and roll success on the label like Jan and Arnie, even though Melcher was a student at Beverly High and, like Fairfax, everyone at Beverly hated people at University High. “Take This Pearl” was sung by Johnston and Jerry Cooper, with backing by Johnston, Shostac, Deasy, Nelson, and bass player Harper Cosby, who would later play for Sam Cooke:

[Excerpt: Bruce and Jerry, “Take This Pearl”]

“Take This Pearl” by Bruce and Jerry did nothing, but Terry Melcher did think that name sounded good, except maybe it should be Terry instead of Jerry…

Meanwhile, Nik Venet had got a production role at World Pacific Records, and he wanted to put together yet another studio group. And this is where some of the confusion comes in. Because this record was important, and everyone later wanted a piece of the credit. According to Nik Venet, the Gamblers were originally going to be called Nik and the Gamblers, and consisted of himself, Bruce Johnston, Sandy Nelson, Larry Taylor, and the great guitarist James Burton, with Richie Polodor engineering, and Kim Fowley involved somehow. Meanwhile, Fowley says he was not involved at all — and given that this is about the only record in the history of the world that Fowley ever said he *wasn’t* on, I tend to believe him. Elliot Ingber said that the group was Ingber, Taylor, Derry Weaver, Howard Hirsch, and Rod Schaffer. Bruce Johnston says he has no memory of the record. I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked James Burton about it, but it doesn’t sound like him playing.

Given that the A-side is called “Moon Dawg”, that Weaver and Taylor were in a band called The Moondogs that used to play a song called “Moon Dog”, and that Weaver is credited as the writer, I think we can assume that the lead guitar is Derry Weaver, and that Elliot Ingber’s list of credits is mostly correct. But on the other hand, one of the voices singing the wordless harmonies sounds *very* much like Bruce Johnston to me, and he has a very distinctive voice that I know extremely well. so my guess is that the Gamblers on this occasion were Derry Weaver, Larry Taylor, Elliot Ingber, Bruce Johnston, and either Rod Schaffer or Sandy Nelson — probably Schaffer, since no-one other than Venet has credited Nelson with being there. I suspect Ingber is understandably misremembering Howard Hirsch being there because Hirsch *did* play on the second Gamblers single.

The B-side of the record is credited as written by Weaver and Taylor:

[Excerpt: The Gamblers, “LSD-25”]

That song is called “LSD-25”, and while we have said over and over that there is no first anything in rock music, this is an exception — that is, without any doubt whatsoever, the first rock and roll record to mention LSD, and so in its way a distant ancestor of psychedelic music. Weaver and Taylor have said in later years that neither of them knew anything about the drug (and it’s very clear that Johnston, who takes a very hardline anti-drugs stance, never indulged) — they’ve said they read a magazine article about acid and liked the name. On the other hand, Henry Vestine was part of the same circle and he was apparently already taking acid by then, though details are vague (every single article I can find about it uses the same phrasing that Wikipedia does, talking of having taken it with “a close musician friend” — who might have been one of the Gamblers, but who might not).

So the B-side was a milestone in rock music history, and in a different way so was the A-side, just written by Weaver:

[Excerpt: The Gamblers, “Moon Dawg”]

“Moon Dawg” was a local hit, but sold nothing anywhere outside Southern California, and there were a couple of follow-ups by different lineups of Gamblers, featuring some but never all of the same musicians, along with other people we’ve mentioned like Fowley. The Gamblers stopped being a thing, and Derry Weaver went off to join another group.

Kim Fowley and his friend Gary Paxton had put together a novelty record, “Alley Oop”, under the name The Hollywood Argyles, which featured Gaynel Hodge on piano and Sandy Nelson banging a bin lid:

[Excerpt: The Hollywood Argyles, “Alley Oop”]

That became a hit, and they had to put together a band to tour as the Hollywood Argyles, and Weaver became one of them, as did Marshall Leib. After that Weaver hooked up again with Nik Venet, who started getting him regular session work, as Venet had taken a job at Capitol Records.

And Venet doing that suddenly meant that “Moon Dawg” became very important indeed. Even though it had been only a minor success, because Venet owned the rights to the master tape, and also the publishing rights, he got “Moon Dawg” stuck on a various-artists compilation album put out on Capitol, Golden Gassers, which featured big acts like Sam Cooke and the Four Preps, and which exposed the song to a wider audience. Cover versions of it started to sprout up, by people like the Ventures, the Surfaris, and the Beach Boys — Larry Taylor’s brother Mel was the drummer for the Ventures, which might have helped bring the track to their attention, while Nik Venet was the Beach Boys’ producer. Indeed, some have claimed that Derry Weaver played on the Beach Boys’ version — he’s credited on the session sheets, but nobody involved with the session has ever said if it was actually him, or whether that was just Venet putting down a friend’s name to claim some extra money:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Moon Dawg”]

While there had been twangy guitar instrumentals before “Moon Dawg”, and as I said, there’s never a first anything, historians of the surf music genre now generally point to it as the first surf music record ever, and it’s as good a choice as any. We won’t be seeing anything more from Derry Weaver, who fell into obscurity after a few years of session work, but Bruce Johnston, Larry Taylor, Elliot Ingber, Henry Vestine, Nik Venet, Kim Fowley, Phil Spector, Jan Berry, Terry Melcher, and Dean Torrence will be turning up throughout the sixties, and in some cases later. The records we looked at today were the start of a California music scene that would define American pop music in the sixties.

As a final note, I mentioned Gaynel Hodge as the piano player on “Alley Oop”. As I was in the middle of writing this episode, I received word that Hodge had died earlier this week. As people who’ve listened to earlier episodes of this podcast will know, Gaynel Hodge was one of the most important people in the fifties LA vocal group scene, and without him there would have been no Platters, Penguins, or Jesse Belvin. He was also one of the few links between that fifties world of black R&B musicians and the white-dominated sixties LA pop music scene of surf, hot rods, folk rock, and sunshine. He’s unlikely to turn up again in more than minor roles in future episodes, but I’ve made this week’s Patreon episode be on another classic record he played on. As well as being an important musician in his own right, Hodge was someone without whom almost none of the music made in LA in the fifties or sixties would have happened. He’ll be missed.

 

Jun 10, 2020
Episode 85: “Three Steps to Heaven” by Eddie Cochran
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Episode eighty-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Three Steps to Heaven” by Eddie Cochran, and at the British tour which changed music and ended his life. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a fifteen-minute bonus episode, on “Quarter to Three” by Gary US Bonds.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Resources

 

As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

Much of the information here comes from Spencer Leigh’s book Things Do Go Wrong, which looks specifically at the 1960 tour.

I also used Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran: Rock and Roll Revolutionaries by John Collis. 

While there are dozens of compilations of Cochran’s music available, many of them are flawed in one way or another (including the Real Gone Music four-CD set, which is what I would normally recommend). This one is probably the best you can get for Cochran novices.

This CD contains the Saturday Club recordings by Vincent and Cochran, which are well worth listening to.

 

Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective. Be warned, though — his jokey and irreverent style can, when dealing with people like Larry Parnes (who was gay and Jewish) very occasionally tip over into reinforcing homophobic and anti-semitic stereotypes for an easy laugh.

And a fair chunk of the background information here also comes from the extended edition of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Beatles, British post-war culture, and British post-war music.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

There’s been a sad running theme in the episodes in recent months of rock stars dying in accidents. Sadly, in the 1950s and sixties, travelling long distances was even more dangerous than it is today, and rock musicians, who had to travel a lot more than most people, and did much of that travelling at night, were more likely to be in accidents than most. Today, we’re going to look at yet another of these tragic deaths, of someone who is thought of in the US as being something of a one-hit wonder, but who had a much bigger effect on British music. We’re going to look at what would be Eddie Cochran’s final tour, and at his UK number one single “Three Steps to Heaven”:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “Three Steps to Heaven”]

When we left Eddie Cochran, he had just appeared in the film “The Girl Can’t Help It”, singing “Twenty Flight Rock”, and he had also had a hit with “Sittin’ in the Balcony”. But he hadn’t yet managed to establish himself as the star he knew he could be — he was the whole package, singer, songwriter, and especially guitarist, and he hadn’t yet made a record that showed him to his best advantage as an artist. “Twenty Flight Rock” had come close, but it wasn’t a song he’d written himself, and the record hadn’t yet been released in the US.

Meanwhile, Liberty Records seemed to not understand what they had in him — they were trying to push him to be another Pat Boone, and become a bland pop singer with no rock and roll in his sound. His first album, Singin’ to My Baby, had little to do with the music that he was interested in playing.

So Cochran needed to find something that would really put him on the map — a song that would mean he wasn’t just one of dozens of Fabians and Frankie Avalons and interchangeable Bobbies who were starting to take over shows like American Bandstand. “Twenty Flight Rock” hadn’t ended up being a hit at all, despite its placement in a popular film — they’d left it too long between the film coming out and releasing the record, and he’d lost that momentum.

At the end of 1957 he’d gone on the Australian tour with Little Richard and Gene Vincent which had led to Richard retiring from rock and roll, and he’d become much closer with Vincent, with whom he’d already struck up a friendship when making The Girl Can’t Help It. The two men bonded, particularly, over their love of guns, although they expressed that love in very different ways. Cochran had grown up in rural Minnesota, and had the same love of hunting and fishing that most men of his background did at that time (and that many still do). He was, by all accounts, an affable person, and basically well adjusted.

Vincent, on the other hand, was a polite and friendly person when not drinking. Unfortunately, he was in constant pain from his leg wounds, and that meant he was drinking a lot, and when he was drunk he was an incredibly unpleasant, aggressive, person. His love of guns was mostly for threatening people with, and he seems to have latched on to Cochran as someone who could look after him when he got himself into awkward situations — Cochran was so personally charming that he could defuse the situation when Vincent had behaved appallingly towards someone.

At the time, Vincent seemed like a has-been and Cochran a never-would-be. This was late 1957, and it seemed like rock and roll records with guitars on were a fad that had already passed their sell-by date. The only white guitarist/vocalist other than Elvis who’d been having hits on a regular basis was Buddy Holly, and his records were doing worse and worse with each release. Vincent hadn’t had a real hit since his first single, “Be Bop A Lula”, while Cochran had made the top twenty with “Sittin’ in the Balcony”, but the highest he’d got after that was number eighty-two. He’d recently recorded a song co-written by George Mottola, who’d written “Goodnight My Love”, but “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie” stalled at number ninety-four when it was released in early 1958:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie”]

So neither man was in a good place at the start of 1958, but they had very different attitudes — Vincent was depressed and angry, but Cochran knew that something would come along. He was only nineteen, he was astonishingly good looking, he was a great guitarist — if rock and roll didn’t work out, something would.

In early 1958, Cochran was still hunting for that elusive big hit, as he joined the Blue Caps in the studio, to provide bass, arrangements, and backing vocals on several tracks for Vincent’s latest album. It’s Cochran singing the bass vocals at the start of “Git It”, one of Vincent’s greatest tracks:

[Excerpt: Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, “Git It”]

But shortly after that recording, a major turn in Cochran’s fortunes came from an unexpected place. Liberty Records had been in financial difficulties, and part of the reason that Cochran’s records were unsuccessful was that they just didn’t have the money to promote them as much as they’d like. But then at the beginning of April a man called Ross Bagdasarian, under the name David Seville, released a novelty song called “The Witch Doctor”, featuring some mildly racist comedy and a sped-up voice. That record became a massive hit, selling over a million copies, going to number one, and becoming the fourth most successful record of 1958. Suddenly, Liberty Records was saved from bankruptcy.

That made all the difference to the success of a track that Cochran had recorded on March the 28th, the same week he recorded those Gene Vincent sessions, and which came out at the tail-end of summer. Cochran had come up with a guitar riff that he liked, but he didn’t have any lyrics for it, and his friend and co-writer Jerry Capehart said “there’s never been a blues about the summer”. The two of them came up with some comedy lyrics in the style of the Coasters, who had just started to have big hits, and the result became Cochran’s only top ten hit in the US, reaching number eight, and becoming one of the best-remembered tracks of the fifties:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “Summertime Blues”]

That track was recorded with a minimal number of musicians — Cochran played all the guitars and sang both vocal parts, his bass player Guybo Smith played the bass part, and the great session drummer Earl Palmer played drums. There was also a fourth person on the record — Sharon Sheeley, who added handclaps, and who had written the B-side.

Sheeley was a talented songwriter who also had a propensity for dating musicians. She’d dated one of the Everly Brothers for a while — different reports name different brothers, but the consensus seems to be that it was Don — and then when they’d split up, she’d written a song called “Poor Little Fool”. She’d then faked having her car break down outside Ricky Nelson’s house, and collared him when he came out to help. That sort of thing seemed to happen to Nelson a lot with songwriters — Johnny and Dorsey Burnette had sold Nelson songs by sitting on his doorstep and refusing to move until he listened to them — but it seemed to work out very well for him. The Burnettes wrote several hits for him, while Sheeley’s “Poor Little Fool” became Nelson’s first number one, as well as being the first number one ever on Billboard’s newly-renamed Hot One Hundred, and the first number one single on any chart to be written by a woman without a male cowriter:

[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, “Poor Little Fool”]

Sheeley gets unfairly pigeonholed as a groupie (not that there’s anything wrong with being a groupie) because she had relationships with musicians, and at this point she was starting a relationship with Cochran. But it’s important to remember that when they got together, even though he was eighteen months older than her, she was the one who had written a number one single, and he was the one whose last record had gone to number ninety-four — and that after her relationship with Cochran, she went on to form a writing partnership with Jackie DeShannon that produced a long string of hits for people like Brenda Lee and the Fleetwoods, as well as songs that weren’t hits but probably deserved to be, like Ral Donner’s “Don’t Put Your Heart in His Hands”:

[Excerpt: Ral Donner, “Don’t Put Your Heart in His Hands”]

Sheeley was more invested in her relationship with Cochran than he was, but this has led rock writers to completely dismiss her as “just Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend”, when in terms of their relative statuses in the music industry, it would be more fair to define Cochran as “just Sharon Sheeley’s boyfriend”. I have to emphasise this point, because in the limited number of books about Cochran, you will see a lot of descriptions of her as “a groupie”, “a fantasist”, and worse, and very few mentions of the fact that she had a life outside her partner.

“Summertime Blues” looked like it was going to be the start of Eddie Cochran’s career as a rock and roll star, but in fact it was the peak of it, at least in the US. While the song was a big hit, the follow-up, “C’mon Everybody”, which was written by Cochran and Capehart to much the same formula, but without the humour that characterised “Summertime Blues”, didn’t do so well:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “C’mon Everybody”]

That made only number thirty-five on the US charts, and would be Cochran’s last top forty record there — but in the UK, it was a bigger hit than “Summertime Blues”, reaching number six.

“C’mon Everybody” was, though, big enough for Cochran to make some TV appearances. He’d agreed to go on tour with his friends Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on a tour called the Winter Dance Party tour, but had bowed out when he got some offers of TV work. He definitely appeared on a show called Town Hall Party broadcast from California on February the second 1959, and according to Sheeley he was booked to appear in New York on the Ed Sullivan Show, which was the reason he’d decided not to do the tour, a few days later.

As it turned out, Cochran never made that Ed Sullivan Show appearance, as in the early hours of February the third, his friends died in a plane crash. He refused to get on the plane to New York for the show, and instead drove out to the desert in his station wagon to grieve, and from that point on he developed a fear of flying.

The follow-up to “C’mon Everybody”, “Teenage Heaven”, only went to number ninety-nine on the charts, and his next two singles didn’t do much better. “Somethin’ Else”, a song that Sheeley had written for him, made number fifty-eight, while his cover version of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” didn’t chart at all. 1959 was a depressing year for Cochran personally and professionally.

But while “Somethin’ Else” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So” were flops in the US, they both made the top thirty in the UK. In the US, guitar-based white rock and roll was now firmly out of fashion, with the audience split between black vocal groups singing R&B and white male solo singers called Bobby singing mid-tempo pop. But in the UK, the image of rock and roll in people’s minds was still that of the rockabillies from a couple of years earlier — while British musical trends would start to move faster than the US by the sixties, in the fifties they lagged a long way behind.

And in particular, Cochran’s friend Gene Vincent was doing much better in Britain than in the US.

Very few US performers had toured the UK, and with the exception of Buddy Holly, most of those who had were not particularly impressive. Because of an agreement between the two countries’ musicians’ unions, it was difficult for musicians to perform in one country if they were from the other.

It wasn’t quite so difficult for solo performers, who could be backed by local musicians and were covered under a different agreement, but Lew and Leslie Grade, who had a virtual monopoly on the UK entertainment business, had had a very bad experience with Jerry Lee Lewis when his marriage to his teenage cousin had caused his UK tour to be cancelled, and anyway, Britain was an unimportant market a long way away from America, so why would Americans come all that way? For most of 1959, the closest thing to American rock and roll stars touring the UK were Connie Francis and Paul Anka, neither of whom screamed rock and roll rebellion. American rockers just didn’t come to the UK.

Unless they had nowhere else to go, that is — and Gene Vincent had nowhere else to go. In the US, he was a washed-up has been who’d burned every single bridge, but in the UK he was an American Rock Star. In late 1959 he released a not-great single, “Wildcat”:

[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, “Wildcat”]

That single wasn’t doing particularly well, but then Larry Parnes and Jack Good hatched a plan. Good had a new TV show, “Boy Meets Girls”, based around one of Parnes’ artists, Marty Wilde, and also had a column in Disc magazine. They’d get an American rock star over to the UK, Parnes would stick him on a bill with a bunch of Parnes’ acts, Good would put him on the TV show and promote him in Disc magazine, and the tour and TV show would split the costs.

Wilde was, at the time, about to go into a career slump. He’d just got married, and he and his wife were trying for their first kid — they’d decided that if it was a girl, they were going to call her Kim. It seemed likely they were going to lose his audience of teenage girls, as he was no longer available, and so Larry Parnes was trying to move him from rock and roll into musical styles that would be more suitable for adults, so his latest single was a ballad, “Bad Boy”:

[Excerpt: Marty Wilde, “Bad Boy”]

That meant that Wilde’s band, the Wildcats, made up at this point of Tony Belcher, Big Jim Sullivan, Licorice Locking and Brian Bennett, were no longer going to be suitable to back Wilde, as they were all rock and rollers, so they’d be fine for whichever rock star they could persuade over to the UK.

Vincent was the only rock star available, and his latest single was even called “Wildcat”. That made him perfect for Parnes’ purposes, though Vincent was slightly nervous about using British musicians — he simply didn’t think that British musicians would be any good.

As it turned out, Vincent had nothing to worry about on that score at least. When he got to the studios in Didsbury, in Manchester, where Boy Meets Girls was filmed, he met some of the best session musicians Britain had to offer. The house band for the show, the Flying Squad, was a smaller version of the bands that had appeared on Good’s earlier shows, a nine-piece group that included organist Cherry Wainer and session drummer Andy White, and was led by Joe Brown.

Brown was a Larry Parnes artist, who at this point had released one rather uninspired single, the country-flavoured “People Gotta Talk”:

[Excerpt: Joe Brown, “People Gotta Talk”]

But Brown had an independent streak, which could be seen just from his name — Larry Parnes had tried to change it, as he did with all his acts, but Brown had flat-out refused to be called Elmer Twitch, the name Parnes had chosen for him. He insisted on keeping his own name, and it was under that name that he became one of Britain’s most respected guitarists.

Vincent, amazingly, found these British musicians to be every bit as good as any musicians he’d worked with in the USA. But that was about all that he liked about the UK — you couldn’t get a hamburger or a pizza anywhere in the whole country, and the TV was only in black and white, and it finished at 11PM. For someone like Vincent, who liked to stay up all night watching old monster movies on TV, that was completely unacceptable. Luckily for him, at least he had his gun and knife to keep him occupied — he’d strapped them both to the leg iron he used for his damaged leg, so they wouldn’t set off the metal detectors coming into the country.

But whatever his thoughts about the country as a whole, he couldn’t help loving the audience reaction. Jack Good knew how to present a rock and roll star to an audience, and he’d moved Vincent out of the slacks and sweater vests and blue caps into the kind of leather that he’d already had Vince Taylor wear. He got Vincent to emphasise his limp, and to look pained at all times. He was imagining Vincent as something along the lines of Richard III, and wanted him to appear as dangerous as possible.

He used all the tricks of stagecraft that he’d used on Taylor, but with the added advantage that Vincent had a remarkable voice, unlike Taylor. Sadly, as is the case with almost all of the British TV of the period, the videotapes of the performances have long since been wiped, but we have poor-quality audio that demonstrates both how good Vincent was sounding and how well the British musicians were able to adapt to backing him:

[Excerpt: Gene Vincent, “Summertime”, live on Boy Meets Girls]

After making three appearances on Boy Meets Girls, Vincent was put on tour backed by the Wildcats, on a bill with acts like Wee Willie Harris and the Bachelors (the ones who recorded for Parlophone, not the later act of the same name), and “Wildcat” started going up the charts.

Even though Gene Vincent hadn’t had a hit in three years, he was a massive success with the British audiences, and as a result Parnes and Good decided that it might be an idea if they got another American star over here, and the obvious choice was Eddie Cochran. Cochran had the same agent as Vincent, and so there was a working relationship there; they both knew each other and so Vincent could help persuade Cochran over; and Cochran had had a string of top thirty hits in the UK, but was commercially dead in the US.

It was tempting for Cochran, too — as well as the obvious advantage of playing to people who were actually buying his record, the geography of Britain appealed. He’d been terrified of flying since Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens had died, but the British tour would only involve the transatlantic flight — all the travel once he was in the UK would be by road or rail. Before he came over, he had to record his next single, to be released while he was over in the UK.

So on January the 8th, 1960, Eddie Cochran went into Gold Star Studios with his normal bass player, Guybo, and with his friends Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison, the guitarist and drummer of the Crickets, and they cut what turned out to be his last single, “Three Steps to Heaven”:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “Three Steps to Heaven”]

Two days later, he was in Britain, for the start of what was the biggest rock and roll tour in British history to that point — a hundred and eight live appearances, plus several TV and radio appearances, in a little over three months, playing two shows a night most nights. Parnes felt he had to work them hard to justify their fees — Vincent was getting $2500 a week, and Cochran $1000, while for example Billy Fury, at that point the biggest of Parnes’ acts, was on a salary of twenty pounds a week.

While Vincent had made a great impression largely despite himself, Cochran was a different matter. Everyone seemed to love him. Unlike Vincent, he was a musician’s musician, and he formed close friendships with the players on the tour. Joe Brown, for example, remembers Cochran explaining to him that if you swap the G string on your guitar for a second B string, tuned down to G, you could bend a note a full tone — Brown used that trick to make himself one of the most sought-after session players in the UK before his own pop career started to take off.

It was also apparent that while Jack Good had had to create a stage act for Gene Vincent, he didn’t have to do anything to make Cochran look good in front of the cameras. Marty Wilde said of him “The first thing I noticed about Eddie was his complexion. We British lads had acne and all the usual problems, and Eddie walked in with the most beautiful hair and the most beautiful skin – his skin was a light brown, beautiful colour, all that California sunshine, and I thought ‘you lucky devil’. We had Manchester white all over us. And he had the most beautiful face — the photographs never did the guy justice”.

From the moment Cochran started his set in Ipswich, by saying “It’s great to be here in Hipswich” and wiggling his hips, he was utterly in command of the British audiences.

Thankfully, because they did so many TV and radio sessions while they were over here, we have some idea of what these shows sounded like — and from the recordings, even when they were in the antiseptic environment of a BBC recording studio, without an audience, they still sounded fantastic. On some shows, Cochran would start with his back to the audience, the band would start playing “Somethin’ Else”, the song that Sharon Sheeley had written for him that had been a minor hit, and he’d whirl round and face the audience on the opening line, “Well look-a there!”

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, “Somethin’ Else [Eddie Cochran vocals]”, Saturday Club version]

The shows all had a number of acts on, all of them other than the stars Larry Parnes acts, and because there were so many shows, acts would get rotated in and out as the tour went on. But some of those who played on many dates were Vince Eager, who had named himself after Gene Vincent but quickly grew more attached to Eddie Cochran, who he started to regard as his best friend as the tour went on, Tony Sheridan, who was building a solo career after leaving the Oh Boy! band, Georgie Fame, who was already more interested in being a jazz and R&B pianist in the mould of Mose Allison than he was in being a pop star, Johnny Gentle, a Liverpudlian performer who never rose to massive success, and Billy Fury, by far the most talented of Parnes’ acts. Fury was another Liverpudlian, who looked enough like Cochran that they could be brothers, and who had a top ten hit at the time with “Collette”, one of many hits he wrote for himself:

[Excerpt: Billy Fury, “Collette”]

 Fury was something of a sex symbol, aided by the fact that he would stuff his pants with the cardboard tube from a toilet roll before going on stage. This would lead the girls to scream at him — but would also lead their violent boyfriends to try to bottle him off stage, which meant he had more reason than most to have stagefright. Cochran would joke with Fury, and try to put him at ease — one story has him telling a nervous Fury, about to go on stage, to just say to himself “I am the greatest performer in the world”. Fury repeated back “I am the greatest performer in the world”, and Cochran replied, “No you’re not — I am!”

This kind of joking led to Cochran becoming immensely popular among all the musicians on the tour, and to him once again falling into his old role of protecting Gene Vincent from the consequences of his own actions, when Vincent would do things like cut up a suit belonging to one of the road managers, while the road manager was inside it.

While Vincent was the headliner, Cochran was clearly the one who impressed the British audiences the most. We have some stories from people who saw the tour, and they all focus on Eddie. Particularly notable is the tour’s residency in Liverpool, during which time Cochran was opening his set with his version of “What’d I Say”:

[Excerpt: Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, “What’d I Say [Eddie Cochran vocals]”, Saturday Club version]

We have this report of Cochran’s performance in Liverpool:

“Eddie blew me away. He had his unwound 3rd string, looked good and sang good and he was really getting to be a good guitarist… One moment will always represent Eddie to me. He finished a tune, the crowd stopped screaming and clapping, and he stepped up to the mike and before he said something he put both his hands back, pushed his hair back, and some girl, a single voice in the audience, she went ‘Eddie!’ and he said ‘Hi honey!’… I thought, ‘Yes! That’s it – rock ’n’ roll!’”

That’s a quote from George Harrison in the early 1990s. He’d gone to see the show with a friend, John Lennon — it was Lennon’s first ever rock and roll gig as an audience member, and one of a very small number he ever attended. Lennon never particularly enjoyed seeing live shows — he preferred records — but even he couldn’t resist seeing Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent on the same bill.

The Liverpool shows were massive successes, despite both American rockers being increasingly bored and turning more and more to drink as a result. Apparently the two would drink a bottle of bourbon between them before going on stage, and at one Liverpool show Cochran had to hold on to a mic stand to keep himself upright for the first two songs, before he sobered up enough to let go.

The shows were successful enough that a local promoter, Allan Williams, asked if he could book Cochran and Vincent for another show, and Larry Parnes said yes — after Liverpool, they had to play Newcastle, Manchester, London, and Bristol, taking up another month, and then Eddie Cochran was going to be going back to the US for a couple of weeks, but he could pencil them in for six weeks’ time, when Cochran was going to come back.

It’s quite surprising that Cochran agreed to come back, because he was getting thoroughly sick of the UK. He’d asked Sharon Sheeley to fly over and join him, but other than her and Vincent he had nothing of home with him, and he liked sunshine, fast food, cold beer, and all-night TV, and hated everything about the British winter, which was far darker and wetter than anything he’d experienced.

But on the other hand, he was enjoying making music with these British people. There’s a great recording of Cochran, Vincent, Billy Fury, and Joe Brown jamming on the Willie Dixon blues song “My Babe” on “Boy Meets Girls”:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Billy Fury, Joe Brown, “My Babe”]

But by the time the tour ended in Bristol, Eddie was very keen to get back. He was going to be bringing Vince Eager over to America to record, and arranged to meet him in London in the early hours of Easter Sunday. They were going to be taking the lunchtime plane from what was then London Airport but is now Heathrow.

But there was a problem with getting there on time. There were very few trains between Bristol and London, and they’d have to get a car from the train station to the airport. But that Easter Sunday was the day of the annual Aldermaston March against nuclear weapons. These were massive marches which were big enough that they spawned compilation albums of songs to sing on the march, like Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s “Brother Won’t You Join the Line”:

[Excerpt: Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, “Brother Won’t You Join the Line?”]

But the main effect the march was having on Cochran and Vincent was that it meant that to be sure of catching their plane, they would have to travel overnight by car. At first, they asked one of the other artists on the tour, Johnny Gentle, if they could go in his car, but he already had a carful, so they ended up getting a local driver, named George Martin (not the one at Parlophone Records) to drive them overnight. They got into the back seat of the car — Cochran sitting between Vincent and Sheeley, as Sheeley couldn’t stand Vincent.

Vincent took a sleeping pill and went to sleep almost immediately, but Sheeley and Cochran were in a good mood, singing “California Here We Come” together, when Martin took a turn too fast and hit a lamppost. Vincent and Sheeley suffered major injuries and had to spend time in hospital. Cochran died.

A short while later, Johnny Gentle’s car made its way onward towards London, and ran out of fuel. As all-night garages weren’t a thing in Britain then, they flagged down a policeman who told them there’d been a crash, and they could see if the breakdown vehicle would let them siphon petrol from the wrecked car. They did, and it was only the next day they realised which car it was they’d taken the fuel from. One of the police at the scene – maybe even that one – was a cadet who would later change his name to Dave Dee, and become the lead singer in Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch.

As soon as the news got out about Cochran’s death, “Three Steps to Heaven”, which had come out in the US, but not yet in the UK, was rush-released:

[Excerpt: Eddie Cochran, “Three Steps to Heaven”]

It went to number one, and became Cochran’s biggest hit.

Larry Parnes didn’t see why Cochran’s death should put a crimp in his plans, and so he immediately started promoting the shows for which Vincent and Cochran had been booked, calling them Eddie Cochran Tribute Shows, and talking to the press about how ironic it was that Cochran’s last song was “Three Steps to Heaven”. Vince Eager was so disgusted with Parnes that he never worked with him again.

But those shows turned out to have a much bigger impact than anyone could have imagined. Allan Williams was worried that without Cochran, the show he’d got booked in Liverpool wouldn’t get enough of a crowd, so he booked in a number of local bands — Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Cass and the Cassanovas, Nero and the Gladiators, and Gerry and the Pacemakers — to fill out the bill. This led to all the bands and musicians in Liverpool realising, for the first time, how much talent there was in the city and how many bands there were. That one show changed Liverpool from a town where there were a few bands to a town with a music scene, and May the third 1960 can be pointed to as the day that Merseybeat started.

Parnes was impressed enough by the local groups that he decided that Liverpool might be a good place to look for musicians to back his singers on the road. And we’ll pick up on what happened then in a few months.

Sharon Sheeley, once she’d recovered from her injuries, went on to write hits for Brenda Lee, Jackie DeShannon, the Fleetwoods, and Irma Thomas, and when Jack Good moved back to the US, she renewed her acquaintance with him, and together with Sheeley’s husband they created Shindig, the most important American music show of the sixties. But by the time she died in 2002, all her obituaries talked about was that she’d been Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend.

And as for Gene Vincent, he was already in chronic pain, suffering mood swings, and drinking too much before the accident hospitalised him. After that, all those things intensified. He became increasingly unreliable, and the hits dried up even in Britain by mid-1961. He made some good music in the sixties, but almost nobody was listening any more, and an attempted comeback was cut short when he died, aged thirty-six, in 1971, from illnesses caused by his alcoholism.

Despite their tragic deaths, Vincent and Cochran, on that 1960 UK tour, almost accidentally catalysed a revolution in British music, and the changes from that will reverberate throughout the rest of this story.

Jun 05, 2020
The Show Must Be Paused
0:00

 

Today’s podcast is eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence. 

Jun 02, 2020
Episode 84: “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates
0:00

Episode eighty-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and how the first great British R&B band interacted with the entertainment industry. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a fifteen-minute bonus episode, on “Under Your Spell Again” by Buck Owens.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

 

As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

Only one biography of Kidd has been written, and that’s been out of print for nearly a quarter of a century and goes for ridiculous prices. Luckily Adie Barrett’s site http://www.johnnykidd.co.uk/ is everything a fan-site should be, and has a detailed biographical section which I used for the broad-strokes outline.

Clem Cattini: My Life, Through the Eye of a Tornado is somewhere between authorised biography and autobiography. It’s not the best-written book ever, but it contains a lot of information about Clem’s life.

Spike & Co by Graham McCann gives a very full account of Associated London Scripts.

Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation is the best book available looking at British 50s rock and roll from a historical perspective. Be warned, though — his jokey and irreverent style can, when dealing with people like Larry Parnes (who was gay and Jewish) very occasionally tip over into reinforcing homophobic and anti-semitic stereotypes for an easy laugh.

Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is one of the best books I’ve read on music at all, and gives far more detail about the historical background.

And a fair chunk of the background information here also comes from the extended edition of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Beatles, British post-war culture, and British post-war music.

 

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This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

As we get more into this story, we’re going to see a lot more British acts becoming part of it. We’ve already looked at Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, and Vince Taylor, but without spoiling anything I think most of you can guess that over the next year or so we’re going to see a few guitar bands from the UK enter the narrative.

Today we’re going to look at one of the most important British bands of the early sixties — a band who are now mostly known for one hit and a gimmick, but who made a massive contribution to the sound of rock music. We’re going to look at Johnny Kidd and the Pirates:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over”]

Our story starts during the skiffle boom of 1957. If you don’t remember the episodes we did on skiffle and early British rock and roll, it was a musical craze that swept Britain after Lonnie Donegan’s surprise hit with “Rock Island Line”. For about eighteen months, nearly every teenage boy in Britain was in a group playing a weird mix of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs, old folk tunes, and music-hall numbers, with a lineup usually consisting of guitar, banjo, someone using a washboard as percussion, and a homemade double bass made out of a teachest, a broom handle, and a single string.

The skiffle craze died away as quickly as it started out, but it left a legacy — thousands of young kids who’d learned at least three chords, who’d performed in public, and who knew that it was possible to make music without having gone through the homogenising star-making process. That would have repercussions throughout the length of this story, and to this day.

But while almost everyone in a skiffle group was a kid, not everyone was. Obviously the big stars of the genre — Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt, the Vipers — were all in their twenties when they became famous, and so were some of the amateurs who tried to jump on the bandwagon.

In particular, there was Fred Heath. Heath was twenty-one when skiffle hit, and was already married — while twenty-one might seem young now, at the time, it was an age when people were meant to have settled down and found a career. But Heath wasn’t the career sort. There were rumours about him which attest to the kind of person he was perceived as being — that he was a bookie’s runner, that he’d not been drafted because he was thought to be completely impossible to discipline, that he had been working as a painter in a warehouse and urinated on the warehouse floor from the scaffolding he was on — and he was clearly not someone who was *ever* going to settle down. The first skiffle band Heath formed was called Bats Heath and the Vampires, and featured Heath on vocals and rhythm guitar, Brian Englund on banjo, Frank Rouledge on lead guitar, and Clive Lazell on washboard. The group went through a variety of names, at one point naming themselves the Frantic Four in what seems to have been an attempt to confuse people into thinking they were seeing Don Lang’s Frantic Five, the group who often appeared on Six-Five Special:

[Excerpt: Don Lang and his Frantic Five, “Six-Five Hand Jivel”]

The group went through the standard lineup and name changes that almost every amateur group went through, and they ended up as a five-piece group called the Five Nutters. And it was as the Five Nutters that they made their first attempts at becoming stars, when they auditioned for Carroll Levis.

Levis was one of the most important people in showbusiness in the UK at this time. He’d just started a TV series, but for years before that his show had been on Radio Luxembourg, which was for many teenagers in the UK the most important radio station in the world.

At the time, the BBC had a legal monopoly on radio broadcasting in the UK, but they had a couple of problems when it came to attracting a teenage audience. The first was that they had to provide entertainment for *everyone*, and so they couldn’t play much music that only appealed to teenagers but was detested by adults. But there was a much bigger problem for the BBC when it came to recorded music.

In the 1950s, the BBC ran three national radio stations — the Light Programme, the Home Service, and the Third Programme — along with one national TV channel. The Musicians’ Union were worried that playing recorded music on these would lead to their members losing work, and so there was an agreement called “needletime”, which allowed the BBC to use recorded music for twenty-two hours a week, total, across all three radio stations, plus another three hours for the TV. That had to cover every style of music from Little Richard through to Doris Day through to Beethoven. The rest of the time, if they had music, it had to be performed by live musicians, and so you’d be more likely to hear “Rock Around the Clock” as performed by the Northern Dance Orchestra than Bill Haley’s version, and much of the BBC’s youth programming had middle-aged British session musicians trying to replicate the sound of American records and failing miserably.

But Luxembourg didn’t have a needle-time rule, and so a commercial English-language station had been set up there, using transmitters powerful enough to reach most of Britain and Ireland. The station was owned and run in Britain, and most of the shows were recorded in London by British DJs like Brian Matthew, Jimmy Savile, and Alan Freeman, although there were also recordings of Alan Freed’s show broadcast on it. The shows were mostly sponsored by record companies, who would make the DJs play just half of the record, so they could promote more songs in their twenty-minute slot, and this was the main way that any teenager in Britain would actually be able to hear rock and roll music.

Oddly, even though he spent many years on Radio Luxembourg, Levis’ show, which had originally been on the BBC before the War, was not a music show, but a talent show. Whether on his original BBC radio show, the Radio Luxembourg one, or his new TV show, the format was the same. He would alternate weeks between broadcasting and talent scouting. In talent scouting weeks he would go to a different city each week, where for five nights in a row he would put on talent shows featuring up to twenty different local amateur acts doing their party pieces — without payment, of course, just for the exposure. At the end of the show, the audience would get a chance to clap for each act, and the act that got the loudest applause would go through to a final on the Saturday night. This of course meant that acts that wanted to win would get a lot of their friends and family to come along and cheer for them. The Saturday night would then have the winning acts — which is to say, those who brought along the most paying customers — compete against each other. The most popular of *those* acts would then get to appear on Levis’ TV show the next week.

It was, as you can imagine, an extremely lucrative business.

When the Five Nutters appeared on Levis’ Discoveries show, they were fairly sure that the audience clapped loudest for them, but they came third. Being the type of person he was, Fred Heath didn’t take this lying down, and remonstrated with Levis, who eventually promised to get the Nutters some better gigs, one suspects just to shut Heath up. As a result of Levis putting in a good word for them, they got a few appearances at places like the 2Is, and made an appearance on the BBC’s one concession to youth culture on the radio — a new show called Saturday Skiffle Club.

Around this time, the Five Nutters also recorded a demo disc. The first side was a skiffled-up version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, with some extremely good jazzy lead guitar:

[Excerpt: Fred Heath and the Five Nutters, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”]

I’ve heard quite a few records of skiffle groups, mostly by professionals, and it’s clear that the Five Nutters were far more musical, and far more interesting, than most of them, even despite the audible sloppiness here. The point of skiffle was meant to be that it was do-it-yourself music that required no particular level of skill — but in this case the Nutters’ guitarist Frank Rouledge was clearly quite a bit more proficient than the run-of-the-mill skiffle guitarist.

What was even more interesting about that recording, though, was the B-side, which was a song written by the group. It seems to have been mostly written by Heath, and it’s called “Blood-Red Beauty” because Heath’s wife was a redhead:

[Excerpt: Fred Heath and the Five Nutters, “Blood Red Beauty”]

The song itself is fairly unexceptional — it’s a standard Hank Williams style hillbilly boogie — but at this time there was still in Britain a fairly hard and fast rule which had performers and songwriters as two distinct things. There were a handful of British rock musicians who were attempting to write their own material — most prominently Billy Fury, a Larry Parnes artist who I’m afraid we don’t have space for in the podcast, but who was one of the most interesting of the late-fifties British acts — but in general, there was a fairly strict demarcation. It was very unusual for a British performer to also be trying to write songs.

The Nutters split up shortly after their Saturday Skiffle Club appearance, and Heath formed various other groups called things like The Fabulous Freddie Heath Band and The Fred, Mike & Tom Show, before going back to the old name, with a new lineup of Freddie Heath and the Nutters consisting of himself on vocals, Mike West and Tom Brown — who had been the Mike and Tom in The Fred, Mike, & Tom Show, on backing vocals, Tony Doherty on rhythm guitar, Ken McKay on drums, Johnny Gordon on bass, and on lead guitar Alan Caddy, a man who was known by the nickname “tea”, which was partly a pun on his name, partly a reference to his drinking copious amounts of tea, and partly Cockney rhyming slang — tea-leaf for thief — as he was known for stealing cars.

The Nutters got a new agent, Don Toy, and manager, Guy Robinson, but Heath seemed mostly to want to be a songwriter rather than a singer at this point. He was looking to place his songs with other artists, and in early 1959, he did. He wrote a song called “Please Don’t Touch”, and managed to get it placed with a vocal group called the Bachelors — not the more famous group of that name, but a minor group who recorded for Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI run by a young producer named George Martin. “Please Don’t Touch” came out as the B-side of a Bachelors record:

[Excerpt: The Bachelors, “Please Don’t Touch”]

One notable thing about the songwriting credit — while most sources say Fred Heath wrote the song by himself, he gave Guy Robinson a co-writing credit on this and many of his future songs. This was partly because it was fairly standard at the time for managers to cut themselves in on their artists’ credits, but also because that way the credit could read Heath Robinson — Heath Robinson was a famous British cartoonist who was notable for drawing impossibly complicated inventions, and whose name had become part of the British language — for American listeners, imagine that the song was credited to Rube Goldberg, and you’ll have the idea.

At this point, the Nutters had become quite a professional organisation, and so it was unsurprising that after “Please Don’t Touch” brought Fred Heath to the attention of EMI, a different EMI imprint, HMV, signed them up.

Much of the early success of the Nutters, and this professionalism, seems to be down to Don Toy, who seems to have been a remarkably multi-talented individual. As well as being an agent who had contracts with many London venues to provide them with bands, he was also an electrical engineer specialising in sound equipment. He built a two-hundred watt bass amp for the group, at a time when almost every band just put their bass guitar through a normal guitar amp, and twenty-five watts was considered quite loud. He also built a portable tape echo device that could be used on stage to make Heath’s voice sound like it would on the records. Heath later bought the first Copicat echo unit to be made — this was a mass-produced device that would be used by a lot of British bands in the early sixties, and Heath’s had serial number 0001 — but before that became available, he used Toy’s device, which may well have been the very first on-stage echo device in the UK.

On top of that, Toy has also claimed that most of the songs credited to Heath and Robinson were also co-written by him, but he left his name off because the credit looked better without it. And whether or not that’s true, he was also the drummer on this first session — Ken McKay, the Nutters’ drummer, was a bit unsteady in his tempo, and Toy was a decent player and took over from him when in April 1959, Fred Heath and the Nutters went into Abbey Road Studio 2, to record their own version of “Please Don’t Touch”. This was ostensibly produced by HMV producer Walter Ridley, but Ridley actually left rock and roll records to his engineer, Peter Sullivan:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “Please Don’t Touch”]

It was only when the session was over that they saw the paperwork for it. Fred Heath was the only member of the Nutters to be signed to EMI, with the rest of the group being contracted as session musicians, but that was absolutely normal for the time period — Tommy Steele’s Steelmen and Cliff Richard’s Drifters hadn’t been signed as artists either. What they were concerned about was the band name on the paperwork — it didn’t say Fred Heath and the Nutters, but Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

They were told that that was going to be their new name. They never did find out who it was who had decided on this for them, but from now on Fred Heath was Johnny Kidd.

The record was promoted on Radio Luxembourg, and everyone thought it was going to go to number one. Unfortunately, strike action prevented that, and the record was only a moderate chart success — the highest position it hit in any of the UK charts at the time was number twenty on the Melody Maker chart. But that didn’t stop it from becoming an acknowledged classic of British rock and roll. It was so popular that it actually saw an American cover version, which was something that almost never happened with British songs, though Chico Holliday’s version was unsuccessful:

[Excerpt: Chico Holliday, “Please Don’t Touch”]

It remained such a fond memory for British rockers that in 1980 the heavy metal groups Motorhead and Girlschool recorded it as the supergroup HeadGirl, and it became the biggest hit either group ever had, reaching number five in the British charts:

[Excerpt: Headgirl, “Please Don’t Touch”]

But while “Please Don’t Touch” was one of the very few good rock and roll records made in Britain, it wasn’t the one for which Johnny Kidd and the Pirates would be remembered.

It was, though, enough to make them a big act. They toured the country on a bill compered by Liverpool comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, and they made several appearances on Saturday Club, which had now dropped the “skiffle” name and was the only place anyone could hear rock and roll on BBC radio.

Of course, the British record industry having the immense sense of potential it did, HMV immediately capitalised on the success of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates doing a great group performance of an original rock and roll number, by releasing as a follow-up single, a version of the old standard “If You Were the Only Girl in the World and I Were the Only Boy” by Johnny without the Pirates, but with chorus and orchestra conducted by Ivor Raymonde:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd, “If You Were The Only Girl in the World”]

For some reason — I can’t imagine why — that didn’t chart. One suspects that young Lemmy wasn’t quite as fond of that one as “Please Don’t Touch”. The B-side was a quite good rocker, with some nice guitar work from the session guitarist Bert Weedon, but no-one bothered to buy the record at the time, so they didn’t turn it over to hear the other side.

The follow-up was better — a reworking of Marv Johnson’s “You’ve Got What it Takes”, one of the hits that Berry Gordy had been writing and producing for Johnson. Johnson’s version made the top five in the UK, but the Pirates’ version still made the top thirty. But by this time there had been some changes.

The first change that was made was that the Pirates changed manager — while Robinson would continue getting songwriting credits, the group were now managed through Associated London Scripts, by Stan “Scruffy” Dale.

Associated London Scripts was, as the name suggests, primarily a company that produced scripts. It was started as a writers’ co-operative, and in its early days it was made up of seven people. There was Frankie Howerd, one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the time, who was always looking for new material; Spike Milligan, the writer and one of the stars of the Goon Show, the most important surreal comedy of the fifties; Eric Sykes, who was a writer-performer who was involved in almost every important comedy programme of the decade, including co-writing many Goon episodes with Milligan, before becoming a TV star himself; Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote the most important *sitcom* of the fifties and early sixties, Hancock’s Half Hour; and Scruffy Dale, who was Howerd and Sykes’ manager and was supposed to take care of the business stuff.

In fact, though, most of the business was actually taken care of by the seventh person and only woman, Beryl Vertue, who was taken on as the secretary on the basis of an interview that mostly asked about her tea-making skills, but soon found herself doing almost everything — the men in the office got so used to asking her “Could you make the tea, Beryl?”, “Could you type up this script, Beryl?” that they just started asking her things like “Could you renegotiate our contract with the BBC, Beryl?” She eventually became one of the most important women in the TV industry, with her most recent prominent credit being as executive producer on the BBC’s Sherlock up until 2017, more than sixty years after she joined the business.

Vertue did all the work to keep the company running — a company which grew to about thirty writers, and between the early fifties and mid sixties, as well as Hancock’s Half Hour and the Goons, its writers created Sykes, Beyond Our Ken, Round the Horne, Steptoe and Son, The Bedsitting Room, the Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, Til Death Us Do Part, Citizen James, and the Daleks. That’s a list off the top of my head — it would actually be easier to list memorable British comedy programmes and films of the fifties and early sixties that *didn’t* have a script from one of ALS’ writers.

And while Vertue was keeping Marty Feldman, John Junkin, Barry Took, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus and all the rest of these new writers in work, Scruffy Dale was trying to create a career in pop management. As several people associated with ALS had made records with George Martin at Parlophone, he had an in there, and some of the few pop successes that Martin had in the fifties were producing acts managed by Dale through ALS, like the Vipers Skiffle Group:

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, “Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O”]

and a young performer named Jim Smith, who wanted to be a comedian and actor, but who Dale renamed after himself, and who had a string of hits as Jim Dale:

[Excerpt: Jim Dale, “Be My Girl”]

Jim Dale eventually did become a film and TV star, starting with presenting Six-Five Special, and is now best known for having starred in many of the Carry On films and narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks, but at the time he was still a pop star.

Jim Dale and the Vipers were the two professional acts headlining an otherwise-amateur tour that Scruffy Dale put together that was very much like Carroll Levis’ Discoveries show, except without the need to even give the winners a slot on the TV every other week. This tour was supposed to be a hunt for the country’s best skiffle group, and there was going to be a grand national final, and the winner of *that* would go on TV. Except they just kept dragging the tour out for eighteen months, until the skiffle fad was completely over and no-one cared, so there never was a national final. And in the meantime the Vipers had to sit through twenty groups of spotty kids a night, all playing “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O”, and then go out and play it themselves, every night for eighteen months.

Scruffy Dale was unscrupulous in other ways as well, and not long after he’d taken on the Pirates’ management he was sacked from ALS. Spike Milligan had never liked Dale — when told that Dale had lost a testicle in the war, he’d merely replied “I hope he dropped it on Dresden” — but Frankie Howerd and Eric Sykes had always been impressed with his ability to negotiate deals.

But then Frankie Howerd found out that he’d missed out on lucrative opportunities because Dale had shoved letters in his coat pocket and forgotten about them for a fortnight. He started investigating a few more things, and it turned out that Dale had been siphoning money from Sykes and Howerd’s personal bank accounts into his own, having explained to their bank manager that it would just be resting in his account for them, because they were showbiz people who would spend it all too fast, so he was looking after them. And he’d also been doing other bits of creative accounting — every success his musical acts had was marked down as something he’d done independently, and all the profits went to him, while all the unsuccessful ventures were marked down as being ALS projects, and their losses charged to the company.

So neither Dale nor the Pirates were with Associated London Scripts very long. But Dale made one very important change — he and Don Toy decided between them that most of the Pirates had to go. There were six backing musicians in the group if you counted the two backing vocalists, who all needed paying, and only one could read music — they weren’t professional enough to make a career in the music business.

So all of the Pirates except Alan Caddy were sacked. Mike West and Tony Doherty formed another band, Robby Hood and His Merry Men, whose first single was written by Kidd (though it’s rare enough I’ve not been able to find a copy anywhere online).

The new backing group was going to be a trio, modelled on Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio — just one guitar, bass, and drums. They had Caddy on lead guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, and Brian Gregg on bass.

Cattini was regarded as by far the best rock drummer in Britain at the time. He’d played with Terry Dene’s backing band the Dene Aces, and can be seen glumly backing Dene in the film The Golden Disc:

[Excerpt: Terry Dene, “Candy Floss”]

Gregg had joined Dene’s band, and they’d both then moved on to be touring musicians for Larry Parnes, backing most of the acts on a tour featuring Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran that we’ll be looking at next week. They’d played with various of Parnes’ acts for a while, but had then asked for more money, and he’d refused, so they’d quit working for Parnes and joined Vince Taylor and the Playboys. They’d only played with the Playboys a few weeks when they moved on to Chas McDevitt’s group. For a brief time, McDevitt had been the biggest star in skiffle other than Lonnie Donegan, but he was firmly in the downward phase of his career at this point.

McDevitt also owned a coffee bar, the Freight Train, named after his biggest hit, and most of the musicians in London would hang out there. And after Clem Cattini and Brian Gregg had joined the Pirates, it was at the Freight Train that the song for which the group would be remembered was written.

They were going to go into the studio to record another song chosen by the record label — a version of the old standard “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” — because EMI had apparently not yet learned that if you had Johnny Kidd record old standards, no-one bought it, but if you had him record bluesy rock and roll you had a hit. But they’d been told they could write their own B-side, as they’d been able to on the last few singles. They were also allowed to bring in Joe Moretti to provide a second guitar — Moretti, who had played the solo on “Brand New Cadillac”, was an old friend of Clem Cattini’s, and they thought he’d add something to the record, and also thought they’d be doing him a favour by letting him make a session fee — he wasn’t a regular session player.

So they all got together in the Freight Train coffee bar, and wrote another Heath/Robinson number. They weren’t going to do anything too original for a B-side, of course. They nicked a rhythm guitar part from “Linda Lu”, a minor US hit that Lee Hazelwood had produced for a Chuck Berry soundalike named Ray Sharpe, and which was itself clearly lifted from “Speedoo” by the Cadillacs:

[Excerpt: Ray Sharpe, “Linda Lu”]

They may also have nicked Joe Moretti’s lead guitar part as well, though there’s more doubt about this. There’s a Mickey and Sylvia record, “No Good Lover”, which hadn’t been released in the UK at the time, so it’s hard to imagine how they could have heard it, but the lead guitar part they hit on was very, very similar — maybe someone had played it on Radio Luxembourg:

[Excerpt: Mickey and Sylvia, “No Good Lover”]

They combined those musical ideas with a lyric that was partly a follow-on to the line in “Please Don’t Touch” about shaking too much, and partly a slightly bowdlerised version of a saying that Kidd had — when he saw a woman he found particularly attractive, he’d say “She gives me quivers in me membranes”.

As it was a B-side, the track they recorded only took two takes, plus a brief overdub for Moretti to add some guitar shimmers, created by him using a cigarette lighter as a slide:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over”]

The song was knocked off so quickly that they even kept in a mistake — before the guitar solo, Clem Cattini was meant to play just a one-bar fill. Instead he played for longer, which was very unlike Cattini, who was normally a professional’s professional. He asked for another take, but the producer just left it in, and that break going into the solo was one of the things that people latched on to:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over”]

Despite the track having been put together from pre-existing bits, it had a life and vitality to it that no other British record except “Brand New Cadillac” had had, and Kidd had the added bonus of actually being able to hold a tune, unlike Vince Taylor. The record company quickly realised that “Shakin’ All Over” should be the record that they were pushing, and flipped the single. The Pirates appeared on Wham!, the latest Jack Good TV show, and immediately the record charted. It soon made number one, and became the first real proof to British listeners that British people could make rock and roll every bit as good as the Americans — at this point, everyone still thought Vince Taylor was from America.

It was possibly Jack Good who also made the big change to Johnny Kidd’s appearance — he had a slight cast in one eye that got worse as the day went on, with his eyelid drooping more and more. Someone — probably Good — suggested that he should make this problem into an advantage, by wearing an eyepatch. He did, and the Pirates got pirate costumes to wear on stage, while Kidd would frantically roam the stage swinging a cutlass around. At this point, stagecraft was something almost unknown to British rock performers, who rarely did more than wear a cleanish suit and say “thank you” after each song. The only other act that was anything like as theatrical was Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, a minor act who had ripped off Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ act.

The follow-up, “Restless”, was very much “Shakin’ All Over” part two, and made the top thirty. After that, sticking with the formula, they did a version of “Linda Lu”, but that didn’t make the top forty at all. Possibly the most interesting record they made at this point was a version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, a song Willie Dixon had written for Muddy Waters:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”]

The Pirates were increasingly starting to include blues and R&B songs in their set, and the British blues boom artists of the next few years would often refer to the Pirates as being the band that had inspired them. Clem Cattini still says that Johnny Kidd was the best British blues singer he ever heard.

But as their singles were doing less and less well, the Pirates decided to jump ship. Colin Hicks, Tommy Steele’s much less successful younger brother, had a backing band called the Cabin Boys, which Brian Gregg had been in before joining Terry Dene’s band. Hicks had now started performing an act that was based on Kidd’s, and for a tour of Italy, where he was quite popular, he wanted a new band — he asked the Pirates if they would leave Kidd and become the latest lineup of Cabin Boys, and they left, taking their costumes with them. Clem Cattini now says that agreeing was the worst move he ever made, but they parted on good terms — Kidd said “Alan, Brian and Clem left me to better themselves. How could I possibly begrudge them their opportunity?”

We’ll be picking up the story of Alan, Brian, and Clem in a few months’ time, but in the meantime, Kidd picked up a new backing band, who had previously been performing as the Redcaps, backing a minor singer called Cuddly Dudley on his single “Sitting on a Train”:

[Excerpt: Cuddly Dudley and the Redcaps, “Sitting on a Train”]

That new lineup of Pirates didn’t last too long before the guitarist quit, due to ill health, but he was soon replaced by Mick Green, who is now regarded by many as one of the great British guitarists of all time, to the extent that Wilko Johnson, another British guitarist who came to prominence about fifteen years later, has said that he spent his entire career trying and failing to sound like MIck Green.

In 1962 and 63 the group were playing clubs where they found a lot of new bands who they seemed to have things in common with. After playing the Cavern in Liverpool and a residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, they added Richie Barrett’s “Some Other Guy” and Arthur Alexander’s “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” to their sets, two R&B numbers that were very popular among the Liverpool bands playing in Hamburg but otherwise almost unknown in the UK. Unfortunately, their version of “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” didn’t chart, and their record label declined to issue their version of “Some Other Guy” — and then almost immediately the Liverpool group The Big Three released their version as a single, and it made the top forty.

As the Pirates’ R&B sound was unsuccessful — no-one seemed to want British R&B, at all — they decided to go the other way, and record a song written by their new manager, Gordon Mills (who would later become better known for managing Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck). “I’ll Never Get Over You” was a very catchy, harmonised, song in the style of many of the new bands that were becoming popular, and it’s an enjoyable record, but it’s not really in the Pirates’ style:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “I’ll Never Get Over You”]

That made number four on the charts, but it would be Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ last major hit. They did have a minor hit with another song by Mills, “Hungry For Love”, but a much better record, and a much better example of the Pirates’ style, was an R&B single released by the Pirates without Kidd. The plan at the time was that they would be split into two acts in the same way as Cliff Richard and the Shadows — Kidd would be a solo star, while the Pirates would release records of their own.

The A-side of the Pirates’ single was a fairly good version of the Willie Dixon song “My Babe”, but to my ears the B-side is better — it’s a version of “Casting My Spell”, a song originally by an obscure duo called the Johnson Brothers, but popularised by Johnny Otis. The Pirates’ version is quite possibly the finest early British R&B record I’ve heard:

[Excerpt: The Pirates, “Casting My Spell”]

That didn’t chart, and the plan to split the two acts failed. Neither act ever had another hit again, and eventually the classic Mick Green lineup of the Pirates split up — Green left first, to join Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, and the rest left one by one.

In 1965, The Guess Who had a hit in the US with their cover version of “Shakin’ All Over”:

[Excerpt: The Guess Who, “Shakin’ All Over”]

The Pirates were reduced to remaking their own old hit as “Shakin’ All Over ’65” in an attempt to piggyback on that cover version, but the new version, which was dominated by a Hammond organ part, didn’t have any success.

After the Pirates left Kidd, he got a new group, which he called the New Pirates. He continued making extremely good records on occasion, but had no success at all. Even though younger bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals were making music very similar to his, he was regarded as an outdated novelty act, a relic of an earlier age from six years earlier. There was always the potential for him to have a comeback, but then in 1966 Kidd, who was never a very good driver and had been in a number of accidents, arrived late at a gig in Bolton. The manager refused to let him on stage because he’d arrived so late, so he drove off to find another gig. He’d been driving most of the day, and he crashed the car and died, as did one person in the vehicle he crashed into.

His final single, “Send For That Girl”, was released after his death. It’s really a very good record, but at the time Kidd’s fortunes were so low that even his death didn’t make it chart:

[Excerpt: Johnny Kidd and the New Pirates, “Send For That Girl”]

Kidd was only thirty when he died, and already a has-been, but he left behind the most impressive body of work of any pre-Beatles British act. Various lineups of Pirates have occasionally played since — including, at one point, Cattini and Gregg playing with Joe Moretti’s son Joe Moretti Jr — but none have ever captured that magic that gave millions of people quivers down the backbone and shakes in the kneebone.

May 28, 2020
Episode 83: “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison
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Episode eighty-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison, and how Orbison finally found success by ignoring conventional pop song structure. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have two bonus podcasts — part one of a two-part Q&A and a ten-minute bonus on “Walk Don’t Run” by the Ventures.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—- 

Resources

Apologies for the delay this week — I’m still trying to catch up after last week. 

 

As usual, I have put together a Mixcloud mix with every song excerpted in this podcast.

I have relied for biographical information mostly on two books — The Authorised Roy Orbison written by Jeff Slate and three of Orbison’s children, and Rhapsody in Black by John Kruth. 

For the musicological analysis, I referred a lot to the essay “Only the Lonely: Roy Orbison’s Sweet West Texas Style,” by Albin Zak, in Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music

 There are many Orbison collections available, but many have rerecordings rather than the original versions of his hits. The Monument Singles Collection is the originals. 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

It’s been nearly a year since we last looked at Roy Orbison, so it’s probably a good idea to quickly catch up with where we were up to. Roy Orbison had started out as a rockabilly singer, with a group called the Wink Westerners who changed their name to the Teen Kings and were signed to Sun Records. Orbison had thought that he would like to be a ballad singer, but everyone at Sun was convinced that he would never make it as anything other than a rocker. He had one minor hit on Sun, “Ooby Dooby”, but eventually got dissatisfied with the label and asked to be allowed to go to another label — Sam Phillips agreed to free him from his contract, in return for all the songwriting royalties and credits for everything he’d recorded for Sun.

Newly free, Orbison signed to a major publisher and a major record label, recording for RCA with the same Nashville A-Team that were recording with Elvis and Brenda Lee. He had some success as a songwriter, writing “Claudette”, which became a hit for the Everly Brothers, but he did no better recording for RCA than he had recording for Sun, and soon he was dropped by his new label, and the money from “Claudette” ran out. By the middle of 1959, Roy Orbison was an absolute failure.

But this episode, we’re going to talk about what happened next, and the startling way in which someone who had been a failure when produced by both Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins managed to become one of the most important artists in the world on a tiny label with no track record. Today, we’re going to look at “Only the Lonely”, and the records that turned Roy Orbison into a star:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”]

It seems odd that Roy Orbison could thank Wesley Rose for introducing him to Monument Records. Rose was the co-owner of Acuff-Rose publishing, the biggest country music publishing company in the world, and the company to which Orbison had signed as a songwriter. Fred Foster, the owner of Monument, describes being called to a meeting of various Nashville music industry professionals, at which Rose asked him in front of everyone “Why are you trying to destroy Nashville by making these…” and then used an expletive I can’t use here and a racial slur I *won’t* use here, to describe the slightly R&B-infused music Foster was making.

Foster was part of the new wave of Nashville record makers that also included Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, though at this time he was far less successful than either of them. Foster had started out as a songwriter, writing the words for the McGuire Sisters’ hit “Picking Sweethearts”:

[Excerpt: The McGuire Sisters, “Picking Sweethearts”]

He had moved from there into record production, despite having little musical or technical ability. He did, though, have a good ear for artists, and he made his career in the business by picking good people and letting them do the music they wanted. He started out at 4 Star Records, a small country label. From there he moved to Mercury Records, but he only spent a brief time there — he was in favour of moving into the rockabilly market, while his superiors in the company weren’t. He quickly found another role at ABC/Paramount, where he produced hits for a number of people, including one track we’ve already covered in this podcast, Lloyd Price’s version of “Stagger Lee”. He then put his entire life savings into starting up his own company, Monument, which he initially co-owned with a DJ named Buddy Deane. As Foster and Deane were based in Washington at this time, they used an image of the Washington Monument as the label’s logo, and that also inspired the name.

The first single they put out on the label caused them some problems. Billy Grammer, their first signing, recorded a song that they believed to be in the public domain, “Done Laid Around”, which had recently been recorded by the Weavers under the name “Gotta Travel On”:

[Excerpt: The Weavers, “Gotta Travel On”]

However, after putting out Grammer’s version, Foster discovered that the song was actually in copyright, with a credit to the folk singer and folklorist Paul Clayton. I don’t know if Clayton actually wrote the song or not — it was common practice at that time for folk songs to be copyrighted in the name of an artist.

But whether Clayton wrote the song or not, “Done Laid Around” had to be withdrawn from sale, and reissued under the name “Gotta Travel On”, with Clayton credited as the composer — something which cost the new label a substantial amount of money. But it worked out well for everyone, with Grammer’s record eventually reaching number four on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Billy Grammer, “Gotta Travel On”]

After that success, Foster bought out Buddy Deane and moved the label down to Nashville. They put out a few more singles over the next year, mostly by Grammer, but nothing recaptured that initial success. But it did mean that Foster started working with the Nashville A-Team of session musicians — people like Bob Moore, the bass player who played on almost every important record to come out of Nashville at that time, including the Elvis records we looked at last week.

Moore had also played on Roy Orbison’s last sessions for RCA, where he’d seen how downcast Orbison was. Orbison had explained to Moore about how this was going to be his last session for RCA — his contract was about to expire, and it was clear that Chet Atkins had no more idea than Sam Phillips how to make a successful Roy Orbison record. Moore told him not to worry — he very obviously had talent, and Moore would speak to Wesley Rose about him.

As well as being Orbison’s music publisher, Rose was also Orbison’s manager, something that would nowadays be considered a conflict of interest, but was par for the course at the time — he was also the Everly Brothers’ manager and publisher, which is how Orbison had managed to place “Claudette” with them. There were a lot of such backroom deals in the industry at the time, and few people knew about them — for example, none of Bob Moore’s fellow session players on the A-Team knew that he secretly owned thirty-seven percent of Monument Records.

While Fred Foster is credited as the producer on most of Orbison’s sessions from this point on, it’s probably reasonable to think of Bob Moore as at the very least an uncredited co-producer — he was the arranger on all of the records, and he was also the person who booked the other musicians on the sessions.

Orbison was by this point so depressed about his own chances in the music industry that he couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to sign him at all — he was convinced even after signing that Fred Foster was confusing his own “Ooby Dooby” with another Sun single, Warren Smith’s similar sounding “Rock and Roll Ruby”:

[Excerpt: Warren Smith, “Rock and Roll Ruby”]

Wesley Rose had very clear ideas as to what Orbison’s first single for Monument should be — that last session at RCA had included two songs, “Paper Boy”, and “With the Bug”, that RCA had not bothered to release, and so Orbison went into the studio with much the same set of musicians he’d been working with at RCA, and cut the same songs he’d recorded there. The single was released, and made absolutely no impact — unsurprising for a record that was really the end of Orbison’s period as a failure, rather than the beginning of his golden period.

That golden period came when he started collaborating with Joe Melson. The two men had known each other for a while, but the legend has it that they started writing songs together after Melson was walking along and saw Orbison sat in his car playing the guitar — Orbison and his wife Claudette had recently had a son, Roy DeWayne Orbison (his middle name was after Orbison’s friend Duane Eddy, though spelled differently), and the flat they were living in was so small that the only way Orbison could write any songs without disturbing the baby was to go and write them in the car.

Melson apparently tapped on the car window, and asked what Roy was doing, and when Roy explained, he suggested that the two of them start working together. Both men were more than capable songwriters on their own, but they brought out the best in one another, and soon they were writing material that was unlike anything else in popular music at the time.

Their first collaboration to be released was Orbison’s second Monument single, “Uptown”, a bluesy rock and roll track which saw the first big change in Orbison’s style — the introduction of a string section along with the Nashville A-Team. This was something that was only just starting to be done in Nashville, and it made little sense to most people involved that Orbison would want strings on what would otherwise be a rockabilly track, but they went ahead:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Uptown”]

The string arrangement was written by Anita Kerr, of the Anita Kerr Singers, the female vocal group that would be called into any Nashville session that required women’s voices (the male equivalent was the Jordanaires). Kerr would write a lot of the string arrangements for Orbison’s records, and her vocal group — with Joe Melson adding a single male voice — would provide the backing vocals on them for the next few years.

Wesley Rose was still unsure that Orbison could ever be a star, mostly because he thought he was so odd-looking, but “Uptown” started to prove him wrong. It made number seventy-two on the pop charts — still not a massive hit, but the best he’d done since “Ooby Dooby” three years and two record labels earlier.

But it was the next single, another Orbison/Melson collaboration, that would make him into one of the biggest stars in music.

“Only the Lonely” had its roots in two other songs. Melson had written a song called “Cry” before ever meeting Orbison, and the two of them had reworked it into one called “Only the Lonely”, but they were also working on another song at the same time. They had still not had a hit, and were trying to write something in the style of a current popular record. At the time, Mark Dinning was having huge success with a ballad called “Teen Angel”, about a girl who gets run over by a train:

[Excerpt: Mark Dinning, “Teen Angel”]

Orbison and Melson were writing their own knock-off of that, called “Come Back to Me My Love”. But when they played it for Fred Foster, he told them it was awful, and they should scrap the whole thing — apart from the backing vocal hook Joe was singing. That was worth doing something with:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”, vocal intro]

They took that vocal part and put it together with “Only the Lonely” to make a finished song. According to most reports, rather than have Orbison record it, they initially tried to get Elvis to do it — if they did, they must have known that they had no chance of it getting recorded, because Elvis was only recording songs published by Hill and Range, and Orbison and Melson were Acuff-Rose songwriters. They also, though, tried to get it recorded by the Everly Brothers, who were friends of Orbison, were also signed with Acuff-Rose, and were also managed by Wesley Rose, and even they turned it down.

This is understandable, because the finished “Only the Lonely” is one of the most bizarrely structured songs ever to be a hit. Now, I’ve known this song for more than thirty years, I have a fair understanding of music, *and* I am explaining this with the help of a musicological essay on the song I’ve read, analysing it bar by bar. I am *still* not sure that my explanation of what’s going on with this song is right. *That’s* how oddly structured this song is.

The intro is straightforward enough, the kind of thing that every song has. But then the lead vocal comes in, and rather than continue under the lead, like you would normally expect, the lead and backing vocals alternate, and push each other out of phase as a result. Where in the intro, the first “dum dum dum” starts on the first bar of the phrase, here it starts on the *second* bar of the phrase and extends past the end of Orbison’s line, meaning the first line of the verse is actually five bars (from where the instruments come in after the a capella “Only the”), and not only that, the backing vocals are stressing different beats to the ones the lead vocal is stressing:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”, first line of verse]

This is quite astonishingly jarring. Pop songs, of whatever genre — country, or blues, or rock and roll, or doo-wop, or whatever — almost all work in fours. You have four-bar phrases that build up into eight- or twelve-bar verses, choruses, and bridges. Here, by overlaying two four-bar phrases out of synch with each other, Orbison and Melson have created a five-bar phrase — although please note if you try to count bars along with these excerpts, you may come out with a different number, because phrases cross bar lines and I’m splitting these excerpts up by the vocal phrase rather than by the bar line.

The lead vocal then comes back, on a different beat than expected — the stresses in the melody have moved all over the place. Because the lead vocal starts on a different beat for the second phrase, even though it’s the same length as the first phrase, it crosses more bar lines, meaning two five-bar phrases total eleven bars. Not only that, but the bass doesn’t move to a new chord where you expect, but it stays on its original chord for an extra two beats, giving the impression of a six-beat bar, even though the drums are staying in four-four. So the first half of the verse is eleven bars long, if you don’t get thrown by thinking one of the bars is six beats rather than four. Structurally, harmonically, and rhythmically, it feels like someone has tried to compromise between a twelve-bar blues and an eight-bar doo-wop song:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”, second line]

There’s then another section, which in itself is perfectly straightforward — an eight-bar stop-time section, whose lyric is possibly inspired by the Drifters song that had used strings and rhythmic disorientation in a similar way a few months earlier:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”, “There goes my baby…”]

The only incongruity there is a very minor one — a brief move to the fifth-of-fifth chord, which is the kind of extremely minor deviation from the key that’s par for the course in pop music. That section by itself is nothing unusual.

But then after that straightforward eight-bar section, which seems like a return to normality, we then get a five-bar section which takes us to the end of the verse:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely”, “But only the lonely know why…”]

The song then basically repeats all its musical material from the start, with a few changes – the second time, the verse starts on the third of the scale rather than the first, and the melody goes up more, but it’s structured similarly, and finishes in under two and a half minutes.

So the musical material of the song covers twenty-four bars, not counting the intro. Twenty-four bars is actually a perfectly normal number of bars for a song to cover, but it would normally be broken down into three lots of eight or two lots of twelve — instead it’s a five, a six, an eight, and a five. I think. Honestly, I’ve gone back and forth several times about how best to break this up.

The song is so familiar to most of us now that this doesn’t sound strange any more, but I distinctly remember my own first time listening to it, when I was about eight, and wondering if the backing vocalists just hadn’t known when to come in, if the people making the record just hadn’t known how to make one properly, because this just sounded *wrong* to me.

But it’s that wrongness, that strangeness, of course — along with Orbison’s magnificent voice — that made the record a hit, expressing perfectly the confusion and disorientation felt by the song’s protagonist. It went to number two in the US, and number one in the UK, and instantly made Roy Orbison a star.

A couple of slightly more conventional singles followed — “Blue Angel” and “I’m Hurtin'” — and they were both hits, but nowhere near as big as “Only the Lonely”, and this seems to have convinced Orbison and Melson that they needed to follow their instincts and go for different structures than the norm. They started to make their songs, as far as possible, through-composed pieces. While most songs of the time break down into neat little sections — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, instrumental solo, chorus to fade, or a similar structure, Orbison and Melson’s songs rarely have sections that repeat without any changes. Instead a single melody develops and takes twists and turns over the course of a couple of minutes, with Orbison usually singing throughout.

This also had another advantage, as far as Orbison was concerned — their songs hardly ever had space for an instrumental break, and so he never had to do the rock and roll star thing of moving around the stage and dancing while the instrumentalists soloed, which was something he felt uncomfortable doing. Instead he could just stand perfectly still at the microphone and sing.

The first single they released that fit this new style was inspired by a piece of music Fred Foster introduced Orbison to — Ravel’s “Bolero”:

[Excerpt: Ravel, “Bolero” (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra)]

Orbison and Melson took that basic feel and changed it into what would become Orbison’s first number one in the US, “Running Scared”:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Running Scared”]

That song was apparently one that met some resistance from the Nashville A-Team. A chunk of the song is in rubato, or “free time”, where the musicians speed up or slow down slightly to make the music more expressive. This was not something that Bob Moore, in particular, was comfortable with — they were making pop music, weren’t they? Pop music was for kids to dance to, and if kids were going to dance to it, it had to have a steady beat.

Orbison wasn’t very good at all at dealing with conflict, and wherever possible he would try to take the most positive attitude possible, and in this case he just went into the control room and waited, while the musicians tried to figure out a way of playing the song in strict tempo, and found it just didn’t work. After a while, Orbison walked back into the studio and said “I think we should play it the way it was written”, and the musicians finally went along with him.

It may also have been on “Running Scared” that they pioneered a new recording technique, or at least new for Nashville, which was surprisingly conservative about recording technology for a town so rooted in the music industry. I’ve seen this story written about three different early Orbison songs, and it could have been any of them, but the descriptions of the “Running Scared” session are the most detailed. While Orbison had a great voice, at this point it wasn’t especially powerful, and with the addition of strings, the band were overpowering his voice. At this time, it was customary for singers to record with the band, all performing together in one room, but the sound of the instruments was getting into Orbison’s mic louder than his voice, making it impossible to get a good mix. Eventually, they brought a coatrack covered with coats into the studio, and used it to partition the space — Orbison would stand on one side of it with his mic, and the band and their mics would be on the other side. The coats would deaden the sound of the musicians enough that Orbison’s voice would be the main sound on his vocal mic.

In this case, the reason his voice was being overpowered was that right at the end of the song he had to hit a high A in full voice — something that’s very difficult for a baritone like Orbison to do without going into falsetto. It may also be that he was nervous about trying this when the musicians could see him, and the coats in the way helped him feel more secure. Either way, he does a magnificent job on that note:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Running Scared”, tag]

Apparently when Chet Atkins popped into the studio for a visit, he was utterly bemused by what he saw — but then he was impressed enough by the idea that he got RCA to build a proper vocal isolation booth at their studios to get the same effect.

“Running Scared” also came along just after Orbison made one big change to his image. He’d been on tour with Patsy Cline, promoting “Blue Angel”, and had left his glasses on the plane. As he couldn’t see well without them, he had to resort to using his prescription sunglasses on stage, and was astonished to find that instead of looking gawky and rather odd-looking, the audience now seemed to think he looked cool and brooding. From that point on, he wore them constantly.

For the next three years, Orbison and Melson continued working together and producing hits — although Orbison also wrote several hits solo during this time, including “In Dreams”, which many consider his greatest record. But Melson was becoming increasingly convinced that he was the real talent in the partnership. Melson was also putting out singles on his own at this time, and you can judge for yourself whether his most successful solo track, “Hey Mr. Cupid” is better or worse than the tracks Orbison did without him.

[Excerpt: Joe Melson, “Hey Mr. Cupid”]

Eventually Melson stopped working with Orbison altogether, after their last major collaboration, “Blue Bayou”.

This turned out to be the beginning of the collapse of Orbison’s entire life, though it didn’t seem like it at the time. It was the first crack in the team that produced his biggest hits, but for now he was on a roll. He started collaborating with another writer, Bill Dees, and even though Beatlemania was raging in the UK, and later in the US, he was one of a tiny number of American artists who continued to have hits. Indeed, two of the early collaborations by Orbison and Dees were the *only* two records by an American artist to go to number one in the UK between August 1963 and February 1965. The second of those, “Oh, Pretty Woman”, also went to number one in the US, and became one of his most well-known songs:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, “Oh, Pretty Woman”]

That song again caused problems with his new collaborator, as Bill Dees sang the harmony vocals on it, and felt he wasn’t getting enough credit for that.

But that was the high point for Orbison. Wesley Rose and Fred Foster had never got on, and Rose decided that he was going to move Orbison over to MGM Records, who gave him an advance of a million dollars, but immediately the hits dried up. And the events of the next few years were the kind of thing that would would break almost anyone. He had divorced his wife Claudette, who had inspired “Oh, Pretty Woman”, in November 1964, just before signing to MGM, because he’d discovered she was cheating on him. But the two of them had been so in love they’d ended up reconciling and remarrying in December 1965. But then six months later, they were out riding motorbikes together, Claudette crashed hers, and she died.

And then a little over two years later, while he was on tour in the UK, his house burned down, killing two of his three children.

Orbison continued to work, putting out records that no-one was buying, and playing the chicken-in-a-basket circuit in the UK. He even remarried in 1969, and found happiness and a new family with his second wife. But for about twenty years, from 1965 through to 1985, he was in a wilderness period. Between personal tragedy, changing fashions in music, and the heart condition he developed in the 70s, he was no longer capable of making records that resonated with the public, even though his voice was as strong as ever, and he could still get an audience when singing those old hits. And even the old hits were hard to get hold of — Monument Records went bankrupt in the seventies, and reissues of his old songs were tied up in legal battles over their ownership.

But then things started to change for him in the mid-eighties. A few modern artists had had hits with cover versions of his hits, but the big change came in 1985, when he collaborated with his fellow ex-Sun performers Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, on an album called Class of 55:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and the Class of 55, “Coming Home”]

That came out in 1986, and made the top twenty on the country charts — the first time he’d had an album make any chart at all since 1966. Also in 1986, David Lynch used Orbison’s “In Dreams” in his film Blue Velvet, which brought the record to a very different audience. He collaborated with k.d. lang, who was then one of the hottest new singers in country music, on a new version of his hit “Crying”:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison and k.d. lang, “Crying”]

That later won a Grammy. He recorded a new album of rerecordings of his greatest hits, which made the lower reaches of the charts. He got inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame, and recorded a live TV special, A Black and White Night, where he was joined by Elvis’ seventies backing band, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Tom Waits, among others, all just acting as backing singers and musicians for a man they admired.

He also joined with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan in a supergroup called The Travelling Wilburys, whose first album made the top five:

[Excerpt: The Travelling Wilburys, “Handle With Care”]

And he recorded an album of new material, his best in decades, Mystery Girl, produced by Lynne and with songs written by Orbison, Lynne, and Petty — along with a couple of songs contributed by famous admirers like Bono and the Edge of U2.

But by the time that came out, Orbison was dead — after a day flying model aeroplanes with his sons, he had a heart attack and died, aged only fifty-two. When Mystery Girl came out a couple of months later, it rose to the top five or better almost everywhere — and in the UK and US, he had two albums in the top five at the same time, as in the UK a hits compilation was also up there, while in the US the Wilburys album was still near the top of the charts.

Orbison’s is one of the saddest stories in rock music, with one of the greatest talents in history getting derailed for decades by heartbreaking tragedies unimaginable to most of us, and then dying right at the point he was finally starting to get the recognition he deserved. But the work he did, both as a songwriter and as a singer, would inspire people long after his death.

May 21, 2020
Episode 82: “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley
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Episode eighty-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley, and the way his promising comeback after leaving the Army quickly got derailed. This episode also contains a brief acknowledgment of the death of the great Little Richard, who died just as I was recording this episode. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Muleskinner Blues” by the Fendermen.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—- 

Resources

Apologies for the delay this week — I’ve been unwell, as you might be able to tell from the croaky voice in places. Don’t worry, it’s not anything serious… 

 

No Mixcloud this week, as almost every song excerpted is by Elvis, and it would be impossible to do it without breaking Mixcloud’s rules about the number of songs by the same artist.

My main source for this episode is Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the second part of Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis. It’s not *quite* as strong as the first volume, but it’s still by far the best book covering his later years. I also used Reconsider Baby: The Definitive Elvis Sessionography 1954-1977 by Ernst Jorgensen.

The box set From Nashville to Memphis contains all Elvis’ sixties studio recordings other than his gospel and soundtrack albums, and thus manages to make a solid case for Elvis’ continued artistic relevance in the sixties, by only including records he chose to make. It’s well worth the very cheap price.

And Back in Living Stereo, which rounds up the 1960s public domain Elvis recordings, contains the gospel recordings, outtakes, and home recordings from 1960 through 1962.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Errata

I say that by the time “Stuck on You” had come out, Elvis had already made his TV appearance with Sinatra. In actual fact, he was still rehearsing for it, and wouldn’t record it for a few more days.

I also say that the Colonel had managed Gene Austin. In fact the Colonel had only promoted shows for Austin, not been his manager.

Transcript

ERRATUM: I say that by the time “Stuck on You” had come out, Elvis had already made his TV appearance with Sinatra. In actual fact, he was still rehearsing for it, and wouldn’t record it for a few more days.

Before I start this week’s episode, I had to mark the death of Little Richard. We’ve already covered his work of course, in episodes on “Tutti Frutti” and “Keep A Knockin'”, and I don’t really have a lot to add to those episodes in terms of his importance to twentieth-century music. We can argue about which of Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard was the most important artist of the fifties, but I don’t think you can make a good argument that anyone other than one of those three was, and I don’t think you can argue that those three weren’t the three most important in whatever order.

Without Little Richard, none of the music we’re covering in this podcast after 1955 would be the same, and this podcast would not exist. There are still a handful of people alive who made records we’ve looked at in the podcast, but without intending the slightest offence to any of them, none are as important a link in the historical chain as Richard Penniman was.

So, before the episode proper, let’s have a few moments’ noise in memory of the force of nature who described himself as the King and Queen of Rock and Roll:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, “Ooh! My Soul!”]

Now on to the main podcast itself.

Today we’re going to take what will be, for a while, our last look at Elvis Presley. He will show up in the background of some other episodes as we go through the sixties, and I plan to take a final look at him in a hundred or so episodes, but for now, as we’re entering the sixties, we’re leaving behind those fifties rockers, and Elvis is one of those we’re definitely leaving for now.

Elvis’ two years spent in the Army had changed him profoundly. His mother had died, he’d been separated from everyone he knew, and he’d met a young woman named Priscilla, who was several years younger than him but who would many years later end up becoming his wife. And the music world had changed while he was gone. Rockabilly had totally disappeared from the charts, and all the musicians who had come up with Elvis had moved into orchestrated pop like Roy Orbison or into pure country like Johnny Cash, with the exception of a handful like Gene Vincent who were no longer having hits, at least in the US.

Elvis had, though, continued to have hits. He’d recorded enough in 1958 for RCA to have a tiny stockpile of recordings they could issue as singles over the intervening two years — “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, “Hard-Headed Woman”, “One Night”, “I Need Your Love Tonight”, and “A Big Hunk O’ Love”. Along with those hits, they repackaged several single-only recordings into new albums, and managed to keep Elvis in the spotlight despite him not recording any new material.

This had been a plan of the Colonel’s from the moment it became clear that Elvis was going to be drafted — his strategy then, and from then on, was to record precisely as much material for RCA as the contracts stipulated they were entitled to, and not one song more. His thinking was that if Elvis recorded more songs than they needed to release at any given time, then there would be nothing for him to use as leverage in contract negotiations. The contract wasn’t due for renegotiation any time soon, of course, but you don’t want to take that chance.

This meant that Elvis didn’t have long to relax at home before he had to go back into the studio. He had a couple of weeks to settle in at Graceland — the home he had bought for his mother, but had barely spent any time in before being drafted, and which was now going to be inhabited by Elvis, his father, and his father’s new, much younger, girlfriend, of whom Elvis definitely did not approve. In that time he made visits to the cinema, and to an ice-dancing show — he went to the performance for black people, rather than the one for whites, as Memphis was still segregated, and he made a brief impromptu appearance at that show himself, conducting the orchestra. And most importantly to him, he visited the grave of his mother for the first time.

But two weeks and one day after his discharge from the Army, he was back in the studio, recording tracks for what would be his first album of new material since his Christmas album two and a half years earlier.

We talked a little bit, a few weeks back, about the Nashville Sound, the new sound that had become popular in country music, and how Chet Atkins, who had produced several of Elvis’ early recordings, had been vitally responsible for the development of that sound. Many of the Nashville A-team, the musicians who were responsible for making those records with Atkins or the other main producer of the sound, Owen Bradley, had played on Elvis’ last session before he went into the Army, and they were at this session, though to keep fans from congregating outside, they were told they were going to be playing on a Jim Reeves session — Reeves was one of the country singers who were having hits with that sound, with records like “He’ll Have to Go”:

[Excerpt: Jim Reeves, “He’ll Have to Go”]

So with Chet Atkins in the control booth, the musicians were Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland — the great guitarist who had briefly replaced Scotty Moore on stage when Elvis and his band had split; Floyd Cramer, who had been playing piano with Elvis on record since his first RCA session, Buddy Harman, who had doubled DJ Fontana on percussion on Elvis’ last session from 58, on drums, and Bob Moore, who had played bass on those sessions, back on bass. And of course the Jordanaires were at the session as well — as well as having sung on Elvis’ pre-Army records, they were also part of the Nashville A-Team, and were the go-to male backing vocalists for anyone in Nashville making a country or pop record.

Scotty and DJ were there, too, but they were in much reduced roles — Scotty was playing rhythm guitar, rather than lead, and DJ was only one of two drummers on the session. Bill Black was not included at all — Black had always been the one who would try to push for more recognition, and he was now a star in his own right, with his Bill Black Combo. He would never record with Elvis again.

The session took a while to get going — the first hour or so was spent ordering in hamburgers, listening to demos, and Elvis and Bobby Moore showing each other karate moves — and then the first song they recorded, an Otis Blackwell number titled “Make Me Know It” took a further nineteen takes before they had a satisfactory one:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Make Me Know It”]

Elvis’ voice had improved dramatically during his time in the Army — he had been practising a lot, with his new friend Charlie Hodge, and had added a full octave to his vocal range, and he was eager to display his newfound ability to tackle other kinds of material. But at the same time, all the reports from everyone in the studio suggest that these early sessions were somewhat hesitant. The best song from this initial session was Pomus and Shuman’s “A Mess of Blues”:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “A Mess of Blues”]

But it was a song by Aaron Schroeder and Leslie McFarland that was chosen for the first single — a mediocre track called “Stuck on You”:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Stuck on You”]

Such was the demand for new Elvis material that the single of “Stuck on You” backed with “Fame and Fortune” was released within seventy-two hours. By that time, RCA had printed up 1.4 million copies of the single, just to fulfil the advance orders — they came out in sleeves that just read “Elvis’ 1st New Recording For His 50,000,000 Fans All Over The World”, because when they were printing the sleeves the record company had no idea what songs Elvis was going to record.

By that time, Elvis had already made what would turn out to be his only TV appearance for eight years. The Colonel had arranged for a TV special, to be hosted by Frank Sinatra — The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis.

Most of that special was the standard Rat Packisms, with Sinatra joined by Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. Sinatra had not been at all complimentary about Elvis before he’d gone into the Army, and in later years would continue to be insulting about him, but money was money, and so Sinatra put on a grin and pretended to be happy to be working with him.

The train trip to Florida to record the TV show was something Scotty Moore would always remember, saying that at every single crossroads the train tracks went past, there were people lined up to cheer on the train, and that the only comparisons he could make to that trip were the funeral journeys of Lincoln and Roosevelt’s bodies.

Scotty also remembered one other thing about the trip — that Elvis had offered him some of the little pills he’d been taking in the Army, to keep him awake and alert.

Elvis, Scotty, and DJ were friendly enough on the train journey, but when they got to Miami they found that during the week they were in rehearsals, Scotty, DJ, and the Jordanaires were forbidden from socialising with Elvis, by order of the Colonel.

The TV show was one of a very small number of times in the sixties that Elvis would perform for an audience, and here, dressed in a dinner jacket and clearly attempting to prove he was now a family-friendly entertainer, he looks deeply uncomfortable at first, as he croons his way through “Fame and Fortune”. He gets into his stride with the other side of his single, “Stuck on You”, and then Sinatra joins him for a duet, where Sinatra sings “Love Me Tender” while Elvis sings Sinatra’s “Witchcraft”. Watching the footage, you can see that by this point Elvis is completely comfortable in front of the audience again, and frankly he wipes the floor with Sinatra. Sinatra is trying to mock “Love Me Tender”, but Elvis takes Sinatra’s song completely straight, but at the same time knows exactly how ridiculous he is being:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft”]

There’s a passage in Umberto Eco’s book about writing The Name of the Rose, where he talks about the meaning of postmodernism. He explains that an unsophisticated writer like Barbara Cartland might write “I love you madly”. A sophisticated modernist writer would recognise that as a cliche, and so choose not to write about love at all, having no language to do it in, and mock those who did. And a postmodernist would embrace and acknowledge the cliche, writing “As Barbara Cartland might say, ‘I love you madly'”. This, crucially, means that the postmodernist is, once again, able to talk about real emotions, which the modernist (in Eco’s view) can’t.

By this definition, Sinatra’s performance is modernist — he’s just showing contempt for the material — while Elvis is postmodernist, sincere even as he’s also knowingly mocking himself. It comes across far more in the video footage, which is easily findable online, but you can hear some of it just in the audio recording:

[Excerpt: Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft”]

A week later, Elvis was back in the studio, with the same musicians as before, along with Boots Randolph on saxophone, to record the rest of the tracks for his new album, to be titled Elvis is Back!

Elvis is Back! is quite possibly the most consistent studio album Elvis ever made, and that second 1960 session is where the most impressive material on the album was recorded. They started out with a version of “Fever” that easily measured up to the original by Little Willie John and the most famous version by Peggy Lee, with Elvis backed just by Bobby Moore on bass and the two drummers:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Fever”]

Then there was “Like a Baby”, a song originally recorded by Vikki Nelson, and written by Jesse Stone, who had written so many R&B classics before. This saw some of Elvis’ best blues vocals:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Like a Baby”]

The next song was a huge departure from anything he’d done previously. Elvis had always loved Tony Martin’s 1950 hit “There’s No Tomorrow”:

[Excerpt: Tony Martin, “There’s No Tomorrow”]

That had become one of the songs he rehearsed with Charlie Hodge in Germany, and he’d mentioned the idea of recording it. But, of course, “There’s No Tomorrow” was based on the old song “O Sole Mio”, which at the time was considered to be in the public domain (though in fact a later Italian court ruling means that even though it was composed in 1897, it will remain in copyright until 2042), so Freddy Bienstock at Hill and Range, the publishing company that supplied Elvis with material, commissioned a new set of lyrics for it, and it became “It’s Now or Never”.

Elvis did several near-perfect takes of the song, but then kept flubbing the ending, which required a particularly powerful, sustained, note. Bill Porter, who was engineering, suggested that they could do a take of just that bit and then splice it on to the rest, but Elvis was determined. He was going to do the song all the way through, or he was not going to do it. Eventually he got it, and the result was extraordinary, nothing like any performance he’d given previously:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “It’s Now Or Never”]

That would go to number one, as would another non-album single from this session. This one was the only song the Colonel had ever asked Elvis to record, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

That song had been written in 1926, and had been a hit in several versions, most notably the version by Al Jolson:

[Excerpt: Al Jolson, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”]

But the Colonel had two reasons for wanting Elvis to record the song. The first was that, while the Colonel didn’t have much interest in music, he associated the song with Gene Austin, the country singer who had been the first act the Colonel had managed, and so he had a sentimental fondness for it. And the second was that it was the Colonel’s wife Marie’s favourite song.

While the studio was normally brightly lit, for this song Elvis made sure that no-one other than the few musicians on the track, which only featured acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, were in the studio, and that all the lights were off.

He did one take of the song, on which the Jordanaires apparently made a mistake. He then did a false start, and decided to give up on the song, but Steve Sholes, RCA’s A&R man, insisted that the song could be a hit. They eventually got through it, although even the finished take of the song contains one mistake — because the song was recorded in the dark, the musicians couldn’t see the microphones, and you can hear someone bumping into a mic during the spoken bridge:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”]

Despite that flaw, the track was released as a single, and became a massive success, and a song that would stay in Elvis’ repertoire until his very last shows.

During that one overnight session, Elvis and the band recorded twelve songs, covering a stylistic range that’s almost inconceivable. There was a Leiber and Stoller rocker left over from “King Creole”, a cover version of “Such a Night”, the hit for Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the old Lowell Fulson blues song “Reconsider Baby”, the light Latin pop song “The Girl of My Best Friend”, a Louvin Brothers style duet with Charlie Hodge — in one session Elvis managed to cover every style of American popular song as of 1960, and do it all well.

In total, between this session and the previous one, Elvis recorded eighteen tracks — three singles and a twelve-track album — and while they were slicker and more polished than the Sun recordings, it’s very easy to make the case that they were every bit as artistically successful, and this was certainly the best creative work he had done since signing to RCA. All three singles went to number one, and the Elvis Is Back! album went to number two, and sold half a million copies.

But then, only three weeks after that session, he was in a different studio, cutting very different material.

His first post-Army film was going to be a quick, light, comedy, called “GI Blues”, intended to present a new, wholesome, image for Elvis. Elvis disliked the script, and he was also annoyed when he got into the recording studio in Hollywood, which was used for his film songs, to discover that he wasn’t going to be recording any Leiber and Stoller songs for this film, for what the Colonel told him were “business reasons” — Elvis seems not to have been aware that the Colonel had made them persona non grata.

Instead, he was to record a set of songs mostly written by people like Sid Wayne, Abner Silver, Sid Tepper, and Fred Wise, journeymen songwriters with little taste for rock and roll. Typical of the songs was one called “Wooden Heart”, based on an old German folk song, and with a co-writing credit to the German bandleader Bert Kaempfert (of whom we’ll hear a little more in a future episode):

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Wooden Heart”]

Now, one should be careful when criticising Elvis’ film songs, because they were written for a specific context. These aren’t songs that were intended to be listened to as singles or albums, but they were intended to drive a plot forward, and to exist in the context of a film. Taking them out of that context is a bit like just writing down all the lines spoken by one character in a film and complaining that they don’t work as a poem. There’s a habit even among Elvis’ fans, let alone his detractors, of dunking on some of the songs he recorded for film soundtracks without taking that into account, and it does rather miss the point.

But at the same time, they still had to be *performed* as songs, not as parts of films, and it was apparent that Elvis wasn’t happy with them. Bones Howe, who was working on the sessions, said that Elvis had lost something when compared to his pre-Army work — he was now trying, and often failing, to find his way into a performance which, pre-Army, he would have been able to do naturally. But when you compare his performances from the Elvis is Back! sessions, it’s clear that the time in the Army wasn’t the problem — it’s just that Elvis had no desire to be singing those songs or appearing in this film.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “GI Blues”]

Elvis told the Colonel that at least half the songs for the film soundtrack had to be scrapped, but the Colonel told him he was locked into them by contract, and he just had to do the best he could with them. And he did — he gave as good a performance as possible, both in the film and on the songs. But his heart wasn’t in it.

He was placated, though, by being told that his next couple of films would be *proper films*, like the ones he’d been making before going into the Army. These next two films were made back-to-back. Flaming Star was a Western with a rather heavy-handed message about racism, starring Elvis as a mixed-race man who felt at home neither with white people nor Native Americans, and directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry. Elvis’ role was originally intended for Marlon Brando, his acting idol, and he only sang one song in the film, other than the title song which played over the credits.

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Flaming Star”]

And then he made Wild in the Country, which featured only a very small number of songs, and had Elvis playing a troubled young man who has to get court-ordered psychological counselling, but eventually goes off to college to become a writer.

There’s quite a bit of debate about the merits of both these films, and of Elvis’ acting in them, but there’s no doubt at all that they were intended to be serious films, even more so than Jailhouse Rock and King Creole had been.

After filming these three films, Elvis went back into the studio for another overnight session, to record another album. This time, it was a gospel album, his first full-length gospel record. His Hand in Mine was possibly the purest expression of Elvis’ own musical instincts yet — he had always wanted to be a singer in a gospel quartet, and now he was singing gospel songs with the Jordanaires, exactly as he’d wanted to:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “His Hand in Mine”]

So in 1960, Elvis had recorded two very different, but hugely artistically satisfying, albums, and had made three films, of which he could reasonably be proud of two.

Unfortunately for him, it was the film he didn’t like, GI Blues, that was the big success — and while Elvis Is Back had gone to number two and sold half a million copies, the soundtrack to GI Blues went to number one and stayed there for eleven weeks, and sold a million copies — an absurd number at a time when albums generally sold very little. His Hand in Mine only made number thirteen.

The same pattern happened the next year — a studio album was massively outsold by the soundtrack album for Blue Hawaii, a mindless film that was full of sea, sand, and bikinis, and which featured dreadful songs like “Ito Eats”:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Ito Eats”]

There would be a couple more films in 1961 and 62, Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream, which tried to do a little more, and which weren’t as successful as Blue Hawaii.

From that point on, the die was cast for Elvis. The Colonel wasn’t going to let him appear in any more dramatic roles. The films were all going to be light comedies, set somewhere exotic like Hawaii or Acapulco, and featuring Elvis as a surfer or a race-car driver or a surfing race-car driver, lots of girls in bikinis, and lots of songs called things like “There’s No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car”. When Elvis got a chance to go into the studio and just make records, as he occasionally did over the next few years, he would make music that was as good as anything he ever did, but starting in 1962 there was a routine of three films a year, almost all interchangeable, and until 1968 Elvis wouldn’t be able to step off that treadmill. After 68, he did make a handful of films in which, again, he tried to be an actor, but after twenty or so lightweight films about beaches and bikinis, no-one noticed.

As a result, Elvis mostly sat out the sixties. While the music world was changing all around him, he was an irrelevance to the new generation of musicians, who mostly agreed with John Lennon that “Elvis died when he went into the Army”. We’ll pick up his story in 1968, when he finally got off the treadmill.

 

May 14, 2020
Episode 81: “Shout” by the Isley Brothers
0:00

Episode eighty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, and the beginnings of a career that would lead to six decades of hit singles. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—- 

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

 

Amazingly, there are no books on the Isley Brothers, unless you count a seventy-two page self-published pamphlet by Rudolph Isley’s daughter, so I’ve had to piece this together from literally dozens of different sources.

The ones I relied on most were this section of a very long article on Richie Barrett, this interview with Ronald Isley, and Icons of R&B and Soul by Bob Gulla

The information on Hugo and Luigi comes mostly from two books — Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick, and  Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin.

There are many compilations of the public-domain recordings of the Isleys. This one seems the most complete.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we’re going to take one of our rare looks — at this point in the story anyway — at an act that is still touring today. Indeed, when I started writing this script back in February, I started by saying that I would soon be seeing them live in concert, as I have a ticket for an Isley Brothers show in a couple of months. Of course, events have overtaken that, and it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will be going to any shows then, but it shows a fundamental difference between the Isley Brothers and most of the other acts we’ve looked at, as even those who are still active now mostly concentrate on performing locally rather than doing international tours playing major venues.

Of course, the version of the Isley Brothers touring today isn’t quite the same as the group from the 1950s, but Ronald Isley, the group’s lead singer, remains in the group — and, indeed, has remained artistically relevant, with collaborations with several prominent hip-hop artists. The Isleys had top forty hits in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and two thousands, and as recently as 2006 they had an album go to number one on the R&B charts.

But today, we’re going to look back at the group’s very first hit, from 1959.

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Shout”]

The Isley Brothers were destined to be a vocal group even before they were born, indeed even before their parents were married. When O’Kelly Isley senior was discussing his marriage proposal with his future in-laws, he told his father-in-law-to-be that he intended to have four sons, and that they were going to be the next Mills Brothers. Isley Sr had been a vaudeville performer himself, and as with so many family groups the Isleys seem to have gone into the music business more to please their parents than because they wanted to do it themselves.

As it turned out, O’Kelly and Sallye Isley had six children, all boys, and the eldest four of them did indeed form a vocal group. Like many black vocal groups in the early fifties, they were a gospel group, and O’Kelly Jr, Rudolph, Ronald, and Vernon Isley started performing around the churches in Cincinnati as teenagers, having been trained by their parents. They appeared on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, the popular TV talent show which launched the careers of many entertainers, and won — their prize was a jewelled watch, which the boys would take turns wearing.

But then tragedy struck. Vernon, the youngest of the four singing Isleys, and the one who was generally considered to be far and away the most talented singer in the group, was hit by a car and killed while he was riding his bike, aged only thirteen.

The boys were, as one would imagine, devastated by the death of their little brother, and they also thought that that should be the end of their singing career, as Vernon had been their lead singer. It would be two years before they would perform live again. By all accounts, their parents put pressure on them during that time, telling them that it would be the only way to pay respect to Vernon. Eventually a compromise was reached between parents and brothers — Ron agreed that he would attempt to sing lead, if in turn the group could stop singing gospel music and start singing doo-wop songs, like the brothers’ favourite act Billy Ward and the Dominoes.

We’ve talked before about how Billy Ward & The Dominoes were a huge influence on the music that became soul, with hit records like “Have Mercy Baby”:

[Excerpt: Billy Ward and the Dominoes, “Have Mercy Baby”]

Both Ward’s original lead singer Clyde McPhatter and McPhatter’s later replacement Jackie Wilson sang in a style that owed a lot to the church music that the young Isleys had also been performing, and so it was natural for them to make the change to singing in the style of the Dominoes. As soon as Ronald Isley started singing lead, people started making comparisons both to McPhatter and to Wilson. Indeed, Ronald has talked about McPhatter as being something of a mentor figure for the brothers, teaching them how to sing, although it’s never been clear exactly at what point in their career they got to know McPhatter.

But their real mentor was a much less well-known singer, Beulah Bryant.

The three eldest Isley brothers, O’Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald, met Bryant on the bus to New York, where they were travelling to try and seek their fortunes. Bryant was one of the many professional blues shouters who never became hugely well known, but who managed to have a moderately successful career from the fifties through to the eighties, mostly in live performances, though she did make a handful of very listenable records:

[Excerpt: Beulah Bryant, “What Am I Gonna Do?”]

When they got to New York, while they had paid in advance for somewhere to stay, they were robbed on their second day in the city and had no money at all. But Bryant had contacts in the music industry, and started making phone calls for her young proteges, trying to get them bookings. At first she was unsuccessful, and the group just hung around the Harlem Apollo and occasionally performed at their amateur nights.

Eventually, though, Bryant got Nat Nazzaro to listen to them over the phone. Nazzaro was known as “the monster agent” — he was one of the most important booking agents in New York, but he wasn’t exactly fair to his young clients. He would book a three-person act, but on the contracts the act would consist of four people — Nazzaro would be the fourth person, and he would get an equal share of the performance money, as well as getting his normal booking agent’s share.

Nazzaro listened to the Isleys over the phone, and then he insisted they come and see him in person, because he was convinced that they had been playing a record down the phone rather than singing to him live. When he found out they really did sound like that, Nazzaro started getting them the kind of bookings they could only dream of — they went from having no money at all to playing on Broadway for $750 a week, and then playing the Apollo for $950 a week, at least according to O’Kelly Isley Jr’s later recollection. This was an astonishing sum of money to a bunch of teenagers in the late 1950s.

But they still hadn’t made a record, and their sets were based on cover versions of songs by other people, things like “Rock and Roll Waltz” by Kay Starr:

[Excerpt: Kay Starr, “Rock and Roll Waltz”]

It was hardly the kind of material they would later become famous for. And nor was their first record. They had signed to a label called Teenage Records, a tiny label owned by two former musicians, Bill “Bass” Gordon and Ben Smith. As you might imagine, there were a lot of musicians named Ben Smith and it’s quite difficult to sort out which was which — even Marv Goldberg, who normally knows these things, seems confused about which Ben Smith this was, describing him as a singer on one page and a sax player on another page. As Ben Smith the sax player seems to have played on some records for Teenage, it was probably him, in which case this Ben Smith probably also played alto sax for Lucky Millinder’s band and wrote the hit “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Harlem” for Glenn Miller:

[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Harlem”]

It’s more certain exactly who Bill “Bass” Gordon was — he was the leader of Bill “Bass” Gordon and the Colonials, who had recorded the doo-wop track “Two Loves Have I”:

[Excerpt: Bill “Bass” Gordon and the Colonials, “Two Loves Have I”]

Smith and Gordon signed the Isley Brothers to Teenage Records, and in June 1957 the first Isley Brothers single, “Angels Cried”, came out:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Angels Cried”]

Unfortunately, the single didn’t have any real success, and the group decided that they wanted to record for a better label. According to O’Kelly Isley they got some resistance from Teenage Records, who claimed to have them under contract — but the Isley Brothers knew better. They had signed a contract, certainly, but then the contract had just been left on a desk after they’d signed it, rather than being filed, and they’d swiped it from the desk when no-one was looking. Teenage didn’t have a copy of the contract, so had no proof that they had ever signed the Isley Brothers, and the brothers were free to move on to another label.

They chose to sign to Gone Records, one of the family of labels that was owned and run by George Goldner. Goldner assigned Richie Barrett, his talent scout, producer, and arranger, to look after the Isleys, as he had previously done with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Chantels, as well as his own group the Valentines:

[The Valentines, “The Woo Woo Train”]

By this point, Barrett had established an almost production-line method of making records. He would block-book a studio and some backing musicians for up to twenty-four hours, get as many as ten different vocal groups into the studio, and record dozens of tracks in a row, usually songs written by either group members or by Barrett.

The Isleys’ first record with Barrett, “Don’t Be Jealous”, was a fairly standard doo-wop ballad, written by Ron Isley:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Don’t Be Jealous”]

There’s some suggestion that Barrett is also singing on that recording with the group — it certainly sounds like there are four voices on there, not just three. Either way, the song doesn’t show much of the style that the Isley Brothers would later make their own. Much more like their later recordings was the B-side, another Ronald Isley song, which could have been a classic in the Coasters’ mould had it not been for the lyrics, which were an attempt at a hip rewriting of “Old McDonald”:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Rockin’ McDonald”]

They were nearly there, but not quite. The next single, “I Wanna Know”, came closer — you can hear they were clearly trying to incorporate elements of other people’s successful records — Ronald Isley’s vocal owes a lot to Little Richard, while the piano playing has the same piano “ripping” that Jerry Lee Lewis had made his own. But you can also hear the style that would make them famous coming to the fore.

But they were not selling records, and Richie Barrett was stretched very thin. A few more singles were released on Gone (often pairing a previously-released track with a new B-side) but nothing was successful enough to justify them staying on with Goldner’s label.

But just as they’d moved from a micro-indie label to a large indie without having had any success, now they were going to move from a large indie to a major label, still not having had a hit. They took one of their records to Hugo and Luigi at RCA records, and the duo signed them up.

Hugo and Luigi were strange, strange, figures in popular music in the 1950s. They were two cousins, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, who were always known by their first names, and had started out making children’s records before being hired by Mercury Records, where they would produce, among other things, the cover versions by Georgia Gibbs of black records that we’ve talked about previously, and which were both ethically and musically appalling:

[Excerpt: Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry”]

After a couple of years of consistently producing hits, they got tempted away from Mercury by Morris Levy, who was setting up a new label, Roulette, with George Goldner and Alan Freed. Goldner and Freed quickly dropped out of the label, but Hugo and Luigi ended up having a fifty percent stake in the new label. While they were there, they showed they didn’t really get rock and roll music at all — they produced follow-up singles by a lot of acts who’d had hits before they started working with Hugo and Luigi, but stopped as soon as the duo started producing them, like Frankie Lymon:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon, “Goodie Goodie”]

But they still managed to produce a string of hits like “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers (who is not either the blues singer or the country singer of the same name), which went to number one:

[Excerpt: Jimmie Rogers, “Honeycomb”]

And they also recorded their own tracks for Roulette, like the instrumental Cha-Hua-Hua:

[Excerpt: Hugo and Luigi, “Cha-Hua-Hua”]

After a year or so with Roulette, they were in turn poached by RCA — Morris Levy let them go so long as they gave up their shares in Roulette for far less than they were worth. At RCA they continued their own recording career, with records like “Just Come Home”:

[Excerpt: Hugo and Luigi, “Just Come Home”]

They also produced several albums for Perry Como. So you would think that they would be precisely the wrong producers for the Isley Brothers. And the first record they made with the trio would tend to suggest that there was at least some creative difference there. “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door” was written by Aaron Schroeder and Sid Wayne, two people who are best known for writing some of the less interesting songs for Elvis’ films, and has a generic, lightweight, backing track — apart from an interestingly meaty guitar part. The vocals have some power to them, and the record is pleasant, and in some ways even ground-breaking — it doesn’t sound like a late fifties record as much as it does an early sixties one, and one could imagine, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers making a substantially identical record. But it falls between the stools of R&B and pop, and doesn’t quite convince as either:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door”]

That combination of a poppy background and soulful vocals would soon bear a lot of fruit for another artist Hugo and Luigi were going to start working with, but it didn’t quite work for the Isleys yet.

But their second single for RCA was far more successful. At this point the Isleys were a more successful live act than recording act, and they would mostly perform songs by other people, and one song they performed regularly was “Lonely Teardrops”, the song that Berry and Gwen Gordy and Roquel Davis had written for Jackie Wilson:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, “Lonely Teardrops”]

The group would perform that at the end of their shows, and they started to extend it, with Ron Isley improvising as the band vamped behind him, starting with the line “say you will” from Wilson’s song. He’d start doing a call and response with his brothers, singing a line and getting them to sing the response “Shout”. These improvised, extended, endings to the song got longer and longer, and got the crowds more and more excited, and they started incorporating elements from Ray Charles records, too, especially “What’d I Say” and “I Got a Woman”.

When they got back to New York at the end of the tour, they told Hugo and Luigi how well these performances, which they still thought of as just long performances of “Lonely Teardrops”, had gone. The producers suggested that if they went down that well, what they should do is cut out the part that was still “Lonely Teardrops” and just perform the extended tag. As it turned out, they kept in a little of “Lonely Teardrops” — the “Say you will, say you will” line — and the resulting song, like Ray Charles’ similar call-and-response based “What’d I Say”, was split over two sides of a single, as “Shout (Parts One and Two)”:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Shout (Parts One and Two)”]

That was nothing like anything that Hugo and Luigi had ever produced before, and it became the Isley Brothers’ first chart hit, reaching number forty-seven. More importantly for them, the song was credited to the three brothers, so they made money from the cover versions of the song that charted much higher. In the USA, Joey Dee and the Starliters made number six in 1962 with their version:

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, “Shout”]

In the UK, Lulu and the Luvvers made number seven in 1964:

[Excerpt: Lulu and the Luvvers, “Shout”]

And in Australia, Johnny O’Keefe released his version only a month after the Isleys released theirs, and reached number two:

[Excerpt: Johnny O’Keefe, “Shout”]

Despite all these cover versions, the Isleys’ version remains the definitive one, and itself ended up selling over a million copies, though it never broke into the top forty.

It was certainly successful enough that it made sense to record an album. Unfortunately, for the album, also titled Shout!, the old Hugo and Luigi style came out, and apart from one new Isleys original, “Respectable”, which became their next single, the rest of the album was made up of old standards, rearranged in the “Shout!” style. Sometimes, this almost worked, as on “Ring-A-Ling A-Ling (Let The Wedding Bells Ring)”, whose words are close enough to Little Richard-style gibberish that Ronald Isley could scream them effectively. But when the Isleys take on Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, neither the song nor the group are improved by the combination.

They released several more singles on RCA, but none of them repeated the success of “Shout!”. At this point they moved across to Atlantic, where they started working with Leiber and Stoller. Leiber and Stoller kept them recording old standards as B-sides, but for the A-sides they went back to gospel-infused soul party songs, like the Leiber and Stoller song “Teach Me How To Shimmy” and the Isleys’ own “Standing On The Dance Floor”, a rewrite of an old gospel song called “Standing at the Judgment”:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, “Standing on the Dance Floor”]

But none of these songs scraped even the bottom of the charts, and the brothers ended up leaving Atlantic after a year, and signing with a tiny label, Scepter. After having moved from a tiny indie label to a large indie to a major label, they had now moved back down from their major label to a large indie to a tiny indie. They were still a great live act, but they appeared to be a one-hit wonder.

But all that was about to change, when they recorded a cover version of a flop single inspired by their one hit, combined with a dance craze. The Isley Brothers were about to make one of the most important records of the 1960s, but “Twist and Shout” is a story for another time.

 

May 04, 2020
Episode 80: “Money” by Barrett Strong
0:00

Episode eighty of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Money” by Barrett Strong, the dispute over its authorship, and the start of a record label that would change music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-Erratum

I say “His name didn’t appear on the label of the record.” I mean here that Strong’s name didn’t appear on the label as a songwriter. It obviously did appear as the performer.

 

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

You might want to listen again to the episode on Jackie Wilson, in which we looked at Berry Gordy’s career to this point.

I used six principal sources to put together the narrative for this one, most of which I will be using for most future Motown episodes. 

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy’s own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Janie Bradford.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown’s thirty-year history.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 693 tracks released on Motown singles.

There is a Complete Motown Singles 1959-62 box available from Hip-O-Select with comprehensive liner notes, but if you just want the music, I recommend instead this much cheaper bare-bones box from Real Gone Music.

And this set contains every recording that Barrett Strong made for Tamla as a performer.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today, we’re going to look at a record which was the first success for one of the most important record labels of all time, which has one of the most instantly recognisable riffs of any record ever, and which was the product of a one-hit wonder who would, several years later, go on to be a hugely important figure as a writer, rather than a performer. Along the way we’re going to look at the beginnings of many, many, other careers we’ll be seeing more of in the next couple of years. Today, we’re going to look at “Money” by Barrett Strong:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Money”]

When we left Berry Gordy Jr, he had just stopped writing songs for Jackie Wilson — while the songs he’d co-written with his sister Gwen and her boyfriend Roquel Davis had been massive hits for Wilson, Wilson’s manager had believed that any songwriters could bring the same amount of success, and that Wilson’s records were selling solely because of Wilson’s performances.

Davis and Gwen had started up a new record label with the help of another Gordy sister, Anna, after whom they named the label. But at the start, Berry Gordy had little involvement in that label. While Gwen had wanted Berry to become a partner in the business, Berry had soured on the idea of business partners after some of his other ventures had failed due to conflicts between him and his partners. Berry was going to work for himself. He would write and produce for his family’s record labels, but he wasn’t going to be a partner in their businesses.

Instead, he focussed on a group he’d got to know. The Matadors were a vocal group he’d seen audition, and been mildly impressed with, but he had decided to work with them mostly because he was very attracted to one of their singers, Claudette Rogers. He’d worked with them for a few days before asking Claudette out, and she’d turned him down because she was seeing one of the other group members, William Robinson. But by that point Gordy had got to know Robinson, and to appreciate his talent, and his response was just to tell her how lucky she was to have a man like that.

He took them on as a management project, and also decided to teach Robinson songwriting — Robinson had written a lot of songs, which showed potential, but Gordy thought none of them were quite there yet. What impressed Gordy most was Robinson’s attitude, every time Gordy told him what was wrong with a song — Robinson would just go on to the next song, as enthusiastic as ever.

Eventually, Robinson came up with a song that they thought could be a hit. At the time, the Silhouettes had a big hit with a song called “Get a Job”:

[Excerpt: The Silhouettes, “Get a Job”]

Robinson had come up with an answer song, which he called “Got a Job”. Gordy decided that that was good enough for him to produce a recording — he’d recently started up a production company, which he primarily used to produce demos of his own songs, with singers like Eddie Holland.

Gordy took the group into the studio, and got a deal with George Goldner’s label End Records to distribute the single that resulted. The only thing was, Gordy still wasn’t happy with the group’s name — The Matadors sounded too masculine for a group which had a woman in it. So they all chose other names, wrote them down, stuck them in a hat, and the one that came out was “the Miracles”; and so “Got a Job” by the Miracles came out on End Records on William “Smokey” Robinson’s eighteenth birthday:

[Excerpt: The Miracles, “Got a Job”]

Gordy at this point was a songwriter first and foremost, but he wanted to make sure he was making money from the songs. He had already started his own publishing company, after having not been paid the royalties he was owed on several of his songs. He’d decided that he could use his production company to ensure his songs got a release — he’d lease the recordings out to other labels, like End, or his sister’s label Anna. The recordings themselves were just a way to get some money from the songs, which were his real business.

He and his second wife Raynoma also used their production company, named Rayber as a portmanteau of their two names, in another way — they would, for a fee, provide a full professional recording of anyone — you could walk in and pay for an arrangement of your song by Berry Gordy, instrumental backing, vocals by the Rayber Singers (a fluid group of people that included Raynoma and Eddie Holland), and a copy of the record. If the amateur singer who came in was any good, the results would be quite listenable, as in “I Can’t Concentrate” by Wade Jones, which they liked so much they later even released it properly:

[Excerpt: “I Can’t Concentrate”, Wade Jones]

But at this point, Gordy still wasn’t making much money at all. In 1959, according to court papers around a claim for child support for his kids, he made $27.70 a week on average — and almost all of that came from a single one-thousand-dollar cheque for writing “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson. And producing the Miracles didn’t add much to that — when Gordy received his first royalty cheque from End Records for “Got a Job”, he was astonished to see that it was only for $3.19.

To add insult to injury, End Records tried to claim that the Miracles were now their artists, and they were going to record them directly, without the involvement of Gordy. This was a thing that many businesses connected with Morris Levy did, and they were usually successful, because if you get into an argument with the Mafia you’ll probably not win. But in the case of Gordy, his family were so well-known and respected in Detroit’s black community, and Gordy himself had enough cachet because of his work with Jackie Wilson, that a contingent of black DJs told End Records that they’d stop playing any of their records unless they backed off on the Miracles.

But all this led Gordy to one conclusion — one he didn’t come to until Smokey Robinson pointed it out to him. He needed to start his own record label, just like his sisters had. The problem was that he had no money, and while his family was, for a black family at the time, very rich, they held their money in a trust and required a proper contract and unanimous approval from all eight siblings before they would provide one of the family with a business loan — and Berry was regarded by his siblings as a useless drifter and underachiever.

But eventually he managed to win them round, and they lent him $800. His original idea for the name of the label was “Tammy”, after Debbie Reynolds’ hit, to show that they weren’t just aiming at the R&B market:

[Excerpt: Debbie Reynolds, “Tammy”]

However, it turned out that there was another label called Tammy, and so Gordy decided on Tamla instead.

Tamla’s first record was by a local singer called Marv Johnson, who had a very similar voice to that of Jackie Wilson, but who was known for having more of an ego than Wilson. There’s an anonymous quote by someone who knew both men — “The difference between Marv and Jackie Wilson was that Wilson would kiss all the women, especially the ugly ones, because he knew if he did they’d be with him forever. Marv only kissed the pretty ones, and that coldness came through in everything he did.”

One can argue about whether it’s colder to cynically manipulate people’s feelings or to show contempt for them, but it’s definitely the case that Marv Johnson does not seem to have been well loved by many of the people who knew him.

Johnson had recorded one previous single, “My Baby-O”, on another record label:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, “My Baby-O”]

Some sources claim that Berry Gordy produced that track — others that he was just present at the session, watching.

Whatever Gordy’s involvement with Johnson before signing him to Tamla, the first Tamla single, “Come to Me”, was the start of something big. It was written by Johnson and Gordy, and featured a group of session players who would form the core of what would become known as the Funk Brothers — James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Thomas “Beans” Bowles. On top of that, Brian Holland, who with his brother Eddie would later go on to become part of arguably the most important songwriting and production team of the sixties, was on backing vocals:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, “Come to Me”]

Johnson wrote that song himself, and Gordy polished it up, giving himself a co-writing credit.

At the start, Tamla was a very, very small operation. Other than the musicians they employed, the team mostly consisted of Berry and Raynoma Gordy, Smokey Robinson acting essentially as Berry’s apprentice and assistant, and Janie Bradford, a teenage songwriter with whom Gordy had collaborated on a couple of songs for Jackie Wilson:

[Excerpt: Jackie Wilson, “The Joke (Is Not On Me)”]

Bradford was given the official job title of receptionist, but she actually did almost all the admin at the label offices, doing everything from sorting out the contracts to mopping the floor, along with chipping in with songs when she had an idea.

Because they were a shoestring operation, Gordy, Marv Johnson, and Robinson would do most of the legwork of getting the track to radio stations, and it only got local distribution. They followed up with a second Tamla record, three weeks later, written by Berry and sung by Eddie Holland, who had sung on Berry’s demos for Jackie Wilson and also had a Wilson-esque voice:

[Excerpt: Eddie Holland, “Merry Go Round”]

Marv Johnson’s record, “Come to Me”, became a local hit, but as we’ve talked about before, when you’re running an indie label the last thing you want is a hit — you have to pay to get the records pressed, but then you have to wait months for the money to come in from the distributors. Becoming too big too fast could be a problem.

Luckily, before the record got too big, United Artists stepped in. They wanted to buy the master for “Come to Me”, and to buy both Johnson and Holland’s contracts from Gordy. Gordy would continue writing and producing for them, but they would be United Artists performers rather than on Tamla. Gordy got enough money from that deal to continue running his label for a while longer, and United Artists got their first R&B star — “Come to Me” ended up going top thirty on the pop charts and top ten on the R&B charts. Not bad at all for something put out on a little micro-label.

Eddie Holland, on the other hand, didn’t do so well on United Artists — he wasn’t ever a confident performer, and after two years he was back with Gordy’s operation, this time working behind the scenes rather than as the main performer.

So Tamla was ready to put out its third single, and Gordy may have had a plan for how his label was going to get much bigger. It’s been suggested by several people that a few of the early acts he signed were intended as ways to get more famous relatives of those acts interested in the label. For example, the first female solo singer he signed to the label, Mable John, was the sister of Little Willie John, the R&B star. Mable was certainly good enough to be hired on her own merits, but at the same time the thought must have crossed Gordy’s mind that it would be good to get her brother recording for him.

In the same way, Smokey Robinson’s favourite local group was Nolan Strong and the Diablos, who recorded the doo-wop classic “The Wind”:

[Excerpt: Nolan Strong and the Diablos, “The Wind”]

Nolan Strong’s cousin Barrett was also an aspiring singer, and Gordy signed him to Tamla, and wrote him a song with his sister Gwen and her then-boyfriend Roquel Davis, the same team with whom he’d collaborated on Jackie Wilson’s hits:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Let’s Rock”]

Unfortunately, “Let’s Rock” wasn’t a hit, and Gordy seemed to decide to try to throw a lot of records at the wall to see what would stick. Over the next few months, they put out a variety of odd singles, none of which charted, and none of which seem much like the music Gordy was generally known for. There was “Snake Walk”, a jazz instrumental played by the Funk Brothers under the name The Swinging Tigers, with the songwriting credited to Gordy and Robinson:

[Excerpt: The Swinging Tigers, “Snake Walk (part 1)”]

There was “It”, a novelty single about an alien, performed by Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White of the Miracles, under the name “Ron & Bill”:

[Excerpt: Ron & Bill, “It”]

And a few more. But it wasn’t until Barett Strong’s second single, in August 1959, that Tamla hit the jackpot again.

There are three very different stories about how “Money” was written. According to Berry Gordy, he came up with the music and the whole first verse and chorus himself, and played it to Janie Bradford, who suggested a couple of lines for the second verse, but he was impressed enough with her lines that he gave her fifty percent of the song, even though she didn’t think she’d contributed very much. Barrett Strong came and sat down with them, uninvited, and started singing along, but didn’t contribute anything to the writing of the song.

According to Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy was playing the riff on the piano, but had no words or melody yet. He said to her, “I need a title, give me a title, something that everybody wants,” and she replied “Money, that’s what I want!” and the two of them wrote the lyrics together based on her lyrical idea.

And according to Barrett Strong, who is backed up by the engineer and the guitarist on the session, *Strong* — who played the piano on the session as well as singing — was jamming the riff, having hit upon it while messing around with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”. Gordy only came into the session after Strong had already taught the instrumental parts to the musicians, and Gordy and Bradford only wrote the lyrics after the instrumental track was already completed.

The initial filing of the song’s copyright credited Strong for words and music, Gordy for words and music, and Bradford only for words. According to both Bradford and Gordy, that’s because Bradford, who filled out the form, didn’t understand the form and made a mistake. Three years later, Strong’s name was taken off the copyright, and he wasn’t informed of the change. His name didn’t appear on the label of the record.

Personally, I tend to believe Strong. The song simply doesn’t sound that much like Gordy’s other songs of the period, which were based far less on riffs, and which didn’t tend to be twelve-bar blueses.

Whoever wrote it, the result was a great record, and the first true classic to come out of the Gordy operation:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Money”]

The B-side isn’t quite as good, but it’s still a strong ballad, and if you’re a fan of John Lennon’s solo work you might find the middle eight very familiar:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Oh I Apologize”]

“Money” came out on Tamla and was initially fairly unsuccessful, because Tamla didn’t have any national distribution. But Anna Records did.

That label had partnered with Chess Records. Chess had sent Harvey Fuqua, who was working for Chess as an executive as well as a performer, over to work with Anna Records. Fuqua had brought with him another member of his latest lineup of the Moonglows, a young man named Marvin Gay, to work for Anna as a session drummer and part-time janitor, and Marvin soon got into a relationship with Anna Gordy.

But Marvin wasn’t the only one to get into a relationship with a Gordy sister. Harvey Fuqua had been dating Etta James, with whom he was having a few hits as a duet act on Chess:

[Excerpt: Etta James and Harvey Fuqua, “Spoonful”]

But he soon struck up a relationship with Gwen Gordy. He split up with James, Gwen Gordy split up with Roquel Davis — and then Berry and Gwen Gordy and Roquel Davis wrote a song about the splits, which Etta James performed for Chess, back as a solo artist again:

[Excerpt: Etta James, “All I Could Do Was Cry”]

That became a hit in June 1960, and that was also the month that “Money” finally became a hit, nearly a year after it was released. The Tamla record had been a local hit, but Tamla still didn’t have any national distribution, so Berry Gordy leased the recording to his sisters’ label. It was rereleased on Anna Records, distributed through Chess, and became the first national hit for one of the Gordy family of labels, reaching number two on the R&B charts and number twenty-three on the pop charts. The Gordy family of labels was starting to have some real success:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Money”]

Unfortunately, that would be Barrett Strong’s only hit as a performer. Over the next eighteen months he would release a whole variety of singles, none of which had any success, eventually trying the desperate tactic of recording a follow-up to “Money”, titled “Money and Me”, with the writing credited to Berry Gordy, Janie Bradford, Smokey Robinson, and Robert Bateman — a singer who was one of the Rayber singers:

[Excerpt: Barrett Strong, “Money and Me”]

That didn’t work, and Strong ended up going back to work on the Chrysler production line, giving up his singing career. But that won’t be the last we’ll see of him — he’ll be back with a new job in a few years’ time.

But in late 1959, they didn’t know yet that “Money” would even be a hit, let alone a classic that would be remembered more than sixty years later. Indeed, the biggest success that had come out of the Gordy operation was still Marv Johnson, and while he was signed to United Artists, he was still making records with Berry Gordy. Gordy was writing and producing his records, and now they were also being recorded at Gordy’s home — he and Raynoma had bought a house with a recording studio in the back in August 1959. They named the house Hitsville USA, and it became the headquarters for the Gordy family of labels. Berry and Raynoma lived in a flat upstairs, while the recording studio downstairs was open twenty-two hours a day. Eventually they would buy all the other nearby houses, and turn them into offices for their recording, publishing, and management empire.

The whole family pitched in to make the company a success. Berry’s sister Esther took over the finances of Tamla, with the assistance of her accountant husband. Their other sister Loucye took charge of the record manufacturing side of the business — liaising with pressing plants, overseeing cover art, and so on. Raynoma managed Jobete, the publishing company named after Berry’s first three children, Joy, Berry, and Terry.

The Hitsville studio was primitive at first — the echo chamber was also the toilet, and someone had to stand guard outside it while they were recording to make sure no-one used it during a session — but it was good enough for Gordy to use it to make hit records for Marv Johnson, like “You Got What It Takes”:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, “You Got What It Takes”]

That went top ten on both the pop and R&B charts, as did the follow-up, “I Love The Way You Love”:

[Excerpt: Marv Johnson, “I Love the Way You Love”]

But those hits were on someone else’s label. Berry Gordy was still looking to expand his own record business, and so he decided he was going to start a second label, to go along with Tamla. Smokey Robinson had still not had a hit, though he was writing a lot of material, but then Smokey brought Berry a song he thought was a guaranteed hit, “Bad Girl”:

[Excerpt: The Miracles, “Bad Girl”]

Gordy decided that he was going to start up a new label just for groups, while Tamla would be for solo artists, and “Bad Girl” was going to be the first release on it.

But once again, he didn’t have a proper national distributor for his record, so after it started selling around Detroit, he licensed the record to Chess Records, who reissued it. “Bad Girl” went to number ninety-three on the Hot One Hundred, proving that Smokey Robinson did indeed have the potential to make a real hit.

But, as was so often the way, Chess didn’t pay Gordy’s company the proper royalties for the record, and so Gordy decided that his new label was going to have to have national distribution. He wasn’t going to let any more of its records come out on Chess or United Artists. From now on, either they were on Tamla, or they were coming out on the new label, Motown.

Apr 27, 2020
Episode 79: “Sweet Nothin’s” by Brenda Lee
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Episode seventy-nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Sweet Nothin’s” by Brenda Lee, and at the career of a performer who started in the 1940s and who was most recently in the top ten only four months ago. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “16 Candles” by the Crests.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Errata: I say that the A-Team played on “every” rock and roll or country record out of Nashville. This is obviously an exaggeration. It was just an awful lot of the most successful ones.

It has also been pointed out to me that the version of “Dynamite” I use in the podcast is actually a later remake by Lee. This is one of the perennial problems with material from this period — artists would often remake their hits, sticking as closely as possible to the original, and these remakes often get mislabelled on compilation CDs. My apologies.

Resources

As always, I’ve put together a Mixcloud playlist of all the songs excerpted in the episode.

Most of the information in here comes from Brenda Lee’s autobiography, Little Miss Dynamitethough as with every time I rely on an autobiography I’ve had to check the facts in dozens of other places.

And there are many decent, cheap, compilations of Lee’s music. This one is as good as any.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 A couple of months ago, we looked in some detail at the career of Wanda Jackson, and in the second of those episodes we talked about how her career paralleled that of Brenda Lee, but didn’t go into much detail about why Lee was important.

But Brenda Lee was the biggest solo female star of the sixties, even though her music has largely been ignored by later generations. According to Joel Whitburn, she was the fourth most successful artist in terms of the American singles charts in that whole decade — just behind the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles, and just ahead of the Supremes and the Beach Boys, in that order.

Despite the fact that she’s almost completely overlooked now, she was a massively important performer — while membership of the “hall of fame” doesn’t mean much in itself, it does say something that so far she is the *only* solo female performer to make both the rock and roll and country music halls of fame. And she’s the only performer we’ve dealt with so far to have a US top ten hit in the last year. So today we’re going to have a look at the career of the girl who was known as “Little Miss Dynamite”:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “Sweet Nothin’s”]

 Lee’s music career started before she was even in school. She started performing when she was five, and by the time she was six she was a professional performer. So by the time she first came to a wider audience, aged ten, she was already a seasoned professional. Her father died when she was very young, and she very quickly became the sole breadwinner of the household. She changed her name from Brenda Tarpley to the catchier Brenda Lee, she started performing on the Peach Blossom Special, a local sub-Opry country radio show, and she got her own radio show. Not only that, her stepfather opened the Brenda Lee Record Shop, where she would broadcast her show every Saturday — a lot of DJs and musicians performed their shows in record shop windows at that time, as a way of drawing crowds into the shops. All of this was before she turned eleven.

One small piece of that radio show still exists on tape — some interaction between her and her co-host Peanut Faircloth, who was the MC and guitar player for the show — and who fit well with Brenda, as he was four foot eight, and Brenda never grew any taller than four foot nine.

You can hear that when she was talking with Faircloth, she was as incoherent as any child would be:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee and Peanut Faircloth dialogue]

But when she sang on the show, she sounded a lot more professional than almost any child vocalist you’ll ever hear:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee and Peanut Faircloth, “Jambalaya”]

Her big break actually came from *not* doing a show. She was meant to be playing the Peach Blossom Special one night, but she decided that rather than make the thirty dollars she would make from that show, she would go along to see Red Foley perform.

Foley was one of the many country music stars who I came very close to including in the first year of this podcast. He was one of the principal architects of the hillbilly boogie style that led to the development of rockabilly, and he was a particular favourite of both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis — Elvis’ first ever public performance was him singing one of Foley’s songs, the ballad “Old Shep”. But more typical of Foley’s style was his big hit “Sugarfoot Rag”:

[Excerpt: Red Foley, “Sugarfoot Rag”]

Foley had spent a few years in semi-retirement — his wife had died by suicide a few years earlier, and he had reassessed his priorities a little as a result. But he had recently been tempted back out onto the road as a result of his being offered a chance to host his own TV show, the Ozark Jubilee, which was one of the very first country music shows on television. And the Ozark Jubilee put on tours, and one was coming to Georgia.

Peanut Faircloth, who worked with Brenda on her radio show, was the MC for that Ozark Jubilee show, and Brenda’s parents persuaded Faircloth to let Brenda meet Foley, in the hopes that meeting him would give Brenda’s career a boost. She not only got to meet Foley, but Faircloth managed to get her a spot on the show, singing “Jambalaya”.

Red Foley said of that performance many years later:

“I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.”

Foley got Brenda to send a demo tape to the producers of the Ozark Jubilee — that’s the tape we heard earlier, of her radio show, which was saved in the Ozark Jubilee’s archives, and Brenda immediately became a regular on the show. Foley also got her signed to Decca, the same label he was on, and she went into the studio in Nashville with Owen Bradley, who we’ve seen before producing Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, and Wanda Jackson, though at this point Bradley was only the engineer and pianist on her sessions — Paul Cohen was the producer.

Her first single was released in September 1956, under the name “Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)”, though in fact she was almost twelve when it came out. It was a version of “Jambalaya”, which was always her big showstopper on stage:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old), “Jambalaya”]

Neither that nor her follow-up, a novelty Christmas record, were particularly successful, but they were promoted well enough to get her further national TV exposure. It also got her a new manager, though in a way she’d never hoped for or wanted.

Her then manager, Lou Black, got her a spot performing at the national country DJs convention in Nashville, where she sang “Jambalaya” backed by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. She went down a storm, but the next night Black died suddenly, of a heart attack. Dub Albritten, Red Foley’s manager, was at the convention, and took the opportunity to sign Brenda up immediately.

Albritten got her a lot of prestigious bookings — for example, she became the youngest person ever to headline in Las Vegas, on a bill that also included a version of the Ink Spots — and she spent the next couple of years touring and making TV appearances. As well as her regular performances on the Ozark Jubilee she was also a frequent guest on the Steve Allen show and an occasional one on Perry Como’s.

She was put on country package tours with George Jones and Patsy Cline, and on rock and roll tours with Danny & the Juniors, the Chantels, and Mickey & Sylvia. This was the start of a split in the way she was promoted that would last for many more years.

Albritten was friends with Colonel Tom Parker, and had a similar carny background — right down to having, like Parker, run a scam where he put a live bird on a hot plate to make it look like it was dancing, though in his case he’d done it with a duck rather than a chicken. Albritten had managed all sorts of acts — his first attempt at breaking the music business was when in 1937 he’d helped promote Jesse Owens during Owens’ brief attempt to become a jazz vocalist, but he’d later worked with Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb before managing Foley.

Brenda rapidly became a big star, but one thing she couldn’t do was get a hit record. The song “Dynamite” gave her the nickname she’d be known by for the rest of her life, “Little Miss Dynamite”, but it wasn’t a hit:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee, “Dynamite”]

And while her second attempt at a Christmas single, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, didn’t chart at all at the time, it’s been a perennial hit over the decades since — in fact its highest position on the charts came in December 2019, sixty-one years after it was released, when it finally reached number two on the charts:

[Excerpt: Little Brenda Lee, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”]

Part of the problem at the beginning had been that she had clashed with Paul Cohen — they often disagreed about what songs she should perform. But Cohen eventually left her in the charge of Owen Bradley, who would give her advice about material, but let her choose it herself.

While her records weren’t having much success in the US, it was a different story in other countries. Albritten tried — and largely succeeded — to make her a breakout star in countries other than the US, where there was less competition. She headlined the Paris Olympia, appeared on Oh Boy! in the UK, and inspired the kind of riots in Brazil that normally didn’t start to hit until Beatlemania some years later — and to this day she still has a very substantial Latin American fanbase as a result of Albritten’s efforts.

But in the US, her rockabilly records were unsuccessful, even as she was a massively popular performer live and on TV. So Bradley decided to take a different tack. While she would continue making rock and roll singles, she was going to do an album of old standards from the 1920s, to be titled “Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang!”

But that was no more successful, and it would be from the rockabilly world that Brenda’s first big hit would come.

Brenda Lee and Red Foley weren’t the only acts that Dub Albritten managed. In particular, he managed a rockabilly act named Ronnie Self. Self recorded several rockabilly classics, like “Ain’t I’m A Dog”:

[Excerpt: Ronnie Self, “Ain’t I’m A Dog”]

Self’s biggest success as a performer came with “Bop-A-Lena”, a song clearly intended to cash in on “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, but ending up sounding more like Don and Dewey — astonishingly, this record, which some have called “the first punk record” was written by Webb Pierce and Mel Tillis, two of the most establishment country artists around:

[Excerpt: Ronnie Self, “Bop-A-Lena”]

That made the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, but was Self’s only hit as a performer. While Self was talented, he was also unstable — as a child he had once cut down a tree to block the road so the school bus couldn’t get to his house, and on another occasion he had attacked one of his teachers with a baseball bat. And that was before he started the boozing and the amphetamines. In later years he did things like blast away an entire shelf of his demos with a shotgun, get into his car and chase people, trying to knock them down, and set fire to all his gold records outside his publisher’s office after he tried to play one of them on his record player and discovered it wouldn’t play. Nobody was very surprised when he died in 1981, aged only forty-three.

But while Self was unsuccessful and unstable, Albritten saw something in him, and kept trying to find ways to build his career up, and after Self’s performing career seemed to go absolutely nowhere, he started pushing Self as a songwriter, and Self came up with the song that would change Brenda Lee’s career – “Sweet Nothin’s”:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “Sweet Nothin’s”]

“Sweet Nothin’s” became a massive hit, reaching number four on the charts both in the UK and the US in early 1960. After a decade of paying her dues, Brenda Lee was a massive rock and roll star at the ripe old age of fifteen.

But she was still living in a trailer park. Because she was a minor, her money was held in trust to stop her being exploited — but rather too much was being kept back. The court had only allowed her to receive seventy-five dollars a week, which she was supporting her whole family on. That was actually almost dead on the average wage for the time, but it was low enough that apparently there was a period of several weeks where her family were only eating potatoes. Eventually they petitioned the court to allow some of the money to be released — enough for her to buy a house for her family.

Meanwhile, as she was now a hitmaker, she was starting to headline her own tours — “all-star revues”. But there were fewer stars on them than the audience thought. The Hollywood Argyles and Johnny Preston were both genuine stars, but some of the other acts were slightly more dubious.

She’d recently got her own backing band, the Casuals, who have often been called Nashville’s first rock and roll band. They’d had a few minor local hits that hadn’t had much national success, like “My Love Song For You”:

[Excerpt: The Casuals, “My Love Song For You”]

They were led by Buzz Cason, who would go on to a very long career in the music business, doing everything from singing on some Alvin and the Chipmunks records to being a member of Ronnie and the Daytonas to writing the massive hit “Everlasting Love”.

The British singer Garry Mills had released a song called “Look For A Star” that was starting to get some US airplay:

[Excerpt: Garry Mills, “Look For A Star”]

Cason had gone into the studio and recorded a soundalike version, under the name Garry Miles, chosen to be as similar to the original as possible. His version made the top twenty and charted higher than the original:

[Excerpt: Garry Miles, “Look For A Star”]

So on the tours, Garry Miles was a featured act too. Cason would come out in a gold lame jacket with his hair slicked back, and perform as Garry Miles. Then he’d go offstage, brush his hair forward, take off the jacket, put on his glasses, and be one of the Casuals. And then the Casuals would back Brenda Lee after their own set. As far as anyone knew, nobody in the audience seemed to realise that Garry Miles and Buzz Cason were the same person.

And at one point, two of the Casuals — Cason and Richard Williams — had a minor hit with Hugh Jarrett of the Jordanaires as The Statues, with their version of “Blue Velvet”:

[Excerpt: The Statues, “Blue Velvet”]

And so sometimes The Statues would be on the bill too…

But it wasn’t the Casuals who Brenda was using in the studio. Instead it was the group of musicians who became known as the core of the Nashville A-Team — Bob Moore, Buddy Harmon, Ray Edenton, Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, and Boots Randolph. Those session players played on every rock and roll or country record to come out of Nashville in the late fifties and early sixties, including most of Elvis’ early sixties records, and country hits by Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, George Jones and others.

And so it was unsurprising that Brenda’s biggest success came, not with rock and roll music, but with the style of country known as the Nashville Sound.

The Nashville Sound is a particular style of country music that was popular in the late fifties and early sixties, and Owen Bradley was one of the two producers who created it (Chet Atkins was the other one), and almost all of the records with that sound were played on by the A-Team. It was one of the many attempts over the years to merge country music with current pop music to try to make it more successful. In this case, they got rid of the steel guitars, fiddles, and honky-tonk piano, and added in orchestral strings and vocal choruses. The result was massively popular — Chet Atkins was once asked what the Nashville Sound was, and he put his hand in his pocket and jingled his change — but not generally loved by country music purists.

Brenda Lee’s first number one hit was a classic example of the Nashville Sound — though it wasn’t originally intended that that would be the hit.

To follow up “Sweet Nothin’s”, they released another uptempo song, this time written by Jerry Reed, who would go on to write “Guitar Man” for Elvis, among others:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “That’s All You Gotta Do”]

That went to number six in the charts — a perfectly successful follow-up to a number four hit record. But as it turned out, the B-side did even better.

The B-side was another song written by Ronnie Self — a short song called “I’m Sorry”, which Owen Bradley thought little of. He later said “I thought it kind of monotonous. It was just ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ over and over”. But Brenda liked it, and it was only going to be a B-side. The song was far too short, so in the studio they decided to have her recite the lyrics in the middle of the song, the way the Ink Spots did:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “I’m Sorry”]

Everyone concerned was astonished when that record overtook its A-side on the charts, and went all the way to number one, even while “That’s All You Gotta Do” was also in the top ten.

This established a formula for her records for the next few years — one side would be a rock and roll song, while the other would be a ballad. Both sides would chart — and in the US, usually the ballads would chart higher, while in other countries, it would tend to be the more uptempo recordings that did better, which led to her getting a very different image in the US, where she quickly became primarily known as an easy listening pop singer and had a Vegas show choreographed and directed by Judy Garland’s choreographer, and in Europe, where for example she toured in 1962 on the same bill as Gene Vincent, billed as “the King and Queen of Rock and Roll”, performing largely rockabilly music.

Those European tours also led to the story which gets repeated most about Brenda Lee, and which she repeats herself at every opportunity, but which seems as far as I can tell to be completely untrue.

She regularly claims that after her UK tour with Vincent in 1962, they both went over to tour military bases in Germany, where they met up with Little Richard, and the three of them all went off to play the Star Club in Hamburg together, where the support act was a young band called the Beatles, still with their drummer Pete Best. She says she tried to get her record label interested in them, but they wouldn’t listen, and they regretted it a couple of years later.

Now, Brenda Lee *did* play the Star Club at some point in 1962, and I haven’t been able to find the dates she played it. But the story as she tells it is full of holes. The tour she did with Gene Vincent ended in mid-April, around the same time that the Beatles started playing the Star Club. So far so good. But then Vincent did another UK tour, and didn’t head to Germany until the end of May — he performed on the same bill as the Beatles on their last three nights there. By that time, Lee was back in the USA — she recorded her hit “It Started All Over Again” in Nashville on May the 18th:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “It Started All Over Again”]

Little Richard, meanwhile, did play the Star Club with the Beatles, but not until November, and he didn’t even start performing rock and roll again until October. Brenda Lee is not mentioned in Mark Lewisohn’s utterly exhaustive books on the Beatles except in passing — Paul McCartney would sometimes sing her hit “Fool #1” on stage with the Beatles, and he went to see her on the Gene Vincent show when they played Birkenhead, because he was a fan of hers — and if Lewisohn doesn’t mention something in his books, it didn’t happen.

(I’ve tweeted at Lewisohn to see if he can confirm that she definitely didn’t play on the same bill as them, but not had a response before recording this).

So Brenda Lee’s most often-told story, sadly, seems to be false. The Beatles don’t seem to have supported her at the Star Club.

Over the next few years, she continued to rack up hits both at home and abroad, but in the latter half of the sixties the hits started to dry up — her last top twenty pop hit in the US, other than seasonal reissues of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, was in 1966. But in the seventies, she reinvented herself, without changing her style much, by marketing to the country market, and between 1973 and 1980 she had nine country top ten hits, plus many more in the country top forty. She was helped in this when her old schoolfriend Rita Coolidge married Kris Kristofferson, who wrote her a comeback hit, “Nobody Wins”:

[Excerpt: Brenda Lee, “Nobody Wins”]

Her career went through another downturn in the eighties as fashions changed in country music like they had in pop and rock, but she reinvented herself again, as a country elder stateswoman, guesting with her old friends Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn on the closing track on k.d. lang’s first solo album Shadowland:

[Excerpt: k.d. lang, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee, “Honky Tonk Angels Medley”]

While Lee has had the financial and personal ups and downs of everyone in the music business, she seems to be one of the few child stars who came through the experience happily. She married the first person she ever dated, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, and they remain together to this day — they celebrate their fifty-seventh anniversary this week. She continues to perform occasionally, though not as often as she used to, and she’s not gone through any of the dramas with drink and drugs that killed so many of her contemporaries. She seems, from what I can tell, to be genuinely content. Her music continues to turn up in all sorts of odd ways — Kanye West sampled “Sweet Nothin’s” in 2013, on his hit single “Bound 2” – which I’m afraid I can’t excerpt here, as the lyrics would jeopardise my iTunes clean rating. And as I mentioned at the start, she had “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” go to number two on the US charts just last December. And at seventy-five years old, there’s a good chance she has many more active years left in her.

I wish I could end all my episodes anything like as happily.

Apr 22, 2020
Episode 78: “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles
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Apr 13, 2020
Episode 77: “Brand New Cadillac” by Vince Taylor and the Playboys
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Episode seventy-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Brand New Cadillac” by Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and the sad career of rock music’s first acid casualty. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers have two bonus podcasts this week. There’s a haf-hour Q&A episode, where I answer backers’ questions, and a ten-minute bonus episode on “The Hippy Hippy Shake” by Chan Romero.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are several books available on Vince Taylor, including an autobiography, but sadly these are all in French, a language I don’t speak past schoolboy level, so I can’t say if they’re any good.

The main resources I used for this episode were the liner notes for this compilation CD of Taylor’s best materialthis archived copy of a twenty-year-old homepage by a friend of Taylor’s, this blogged history of Taylor and the Playboys, and this Radio 4 documentary on Taylor. But *all* of these were riddled with errors, and I used dozens of other resources to try to straighten out the facts — everything from a genealogy website to interviews with Tony Sheridan to the out-of-print autobiography of Joe Barbera. No doubt this episode still has errors in it, but I am fairly confident that it has fewer errors than anything else in English about Taylor on the Internet.

 Errata

I say that Gene Vincent also appeared on Oh Boy! — in fact he didn’t appear on UK TV until Parnes’ next show, Boy Meets Girls, which would mean Taylor was definitely the originator of that style.

A major clanger — I say that Sheridan recorded “Why” while he was working on “Oh Boy!” — in fact this wasn’t recorded until later — *with the Beatles* as his backing band. I should have known that one, but it slipped my mind and I trusted my source, wrongly.

 

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Transcript

On the twenty-first of May 1965, at the Savoy Hotel in London, there was a party which would have two major effects on the history of rock and roll music, one which would be felt almost immediately, and one whose full ramifications wouldn’t be seen for almost a decade. Bob Dylan was on the European tour which is chronicled in the film “Don’t Look Back”, and he’d just spent a week in Portugal. He’d come back to the UK, and the next day he was planning to film his first ever televised concert.

 

That plan was put on hold. Dylan was rushed to hospital the day after the party, with what was claimed to be food poisoning but has often been rumoured to be something else. He spent the next week in bed, back at the Savoy, attended by a private nurse, and during that time he wrote what he called “a long piece of vomit around twenty pages long”. From that “long piece of vomit” he later extracted the lyrics to what became “Like a Rolling Stone”.

But Dylan wasn’t the only one who came out of that party feeling funny. Vince Taylor, a minor British rock and roller who’d never had much success over here but was big in France, was also there. There are no euphemisms about what it was that happened to him. He had dropped acid at the party, for the first time, and had liked it so much he’d immediately spent two hundred pounds on buying all the acid he could from the person who’d given it to him.

The next day, Taylor was meant to be playing a showcase gig. His brother-in-law, Joe Barbera of Hanna Barbera, owned a record label, and was considering signing Taylor. It could be the start of a comeback for him.

Instead, it was the end of his career, and the start of a legend:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, “Brand New Cadillac”]

There are two problems with telling the story of Vince Taylor. One is that he was a compulsive liar, who would make up claims like that he was related to Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese mountaineer who was one of the two men who first climbed Everest, or that he was an airline pilot as a teenager. The other is that nobody who has written about Taylor has bothered to do even the most cursory fact-checking

For example, if you read any online articles about Vince Taylor at all, you see the same story about his upbringing — he was born Brian Holden in the UK, he emigrated to New Jersey with his family in the forties, and then his sister Sheila met Joe Barbera, the co-creator of the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Sheila married him in 1955 and moved with him to Los Angeles — and so the rest of the family also moved there, and Brian went to Hollywood High School. Barbera decided to manage his brother-in-law, bring him over to London to check out the British music scene, and get him a record deal.

There’s just… a bit of a problem with this story. Sheila did marry Joe Barbera, but not until the mid 1960s. Her first marriage, in 1947, was to Joe Singer, and it was Singer, not Barbera, who was Taylor’s first manager. That kind of inaccuracy appears all over the story of Vince Taylor

So, what we actually know is that Brian Maurice Holden — or Maurice Brian Holden, even his birth name seems to be disputed — was born in Isleworth Middlesex, and moved to New Jersey when he was seven, with his family, emigrating on the Mauretania, and that he came back to London in his late teens. While there was a real Hollywood High School, which Ricky Nelson among others had attended, I suspect it’s as likely that Holden decided to just tell people that was where he’d been to school, because “Hollywood High School” would sound impressive to British people.

And sounding impressive to British people was what Brian Holden had decided to base his career on. He claimed to an acquaintance, shortly after he returned to the UK, that he’d heard a Tommy Steele record while he was in the US, and had thought “If this is rock and roll in England, we’ll take them by storm!”

[Excerpt: Tommy Steele, “Rock With the Caveman”]

Holden had been playing American Legion shows and similar small venues in the US, and when his brother-in-law Joe Singer came over to Britain on a business trip, Holden decided to tag along, and Singer became Holden’s manager.

Holden had three great advantages over British stars like Steele. He had spent long enough in America that he could tell people that he was American and they would believe him. In Britain in the 1950s, there were so few Americans that just being from that country was enough to make you a novelty, and Holden milked that for all it was worth, even though his accent, from the few bits of interviews I’ve heard with him, was pure London. He was also much, much better looking than almost all the British rock and roll stars. Because of rationing and general poverty in the UK in the forties and fifties as a result of the war, the British fifties teenage generation were on the whole rather scrawny, pasty-looking, and undernourished, with bad complexions, bad teeth, and a general haggardness that meant that even teen idols like Dickie Pride, Tommy Steele, or Marty Wilde were not, by modern standards, at all good looking.

Brian Holden, on the other hand, had film-star good looks. He had a chiselled jaw, thick black hair combed into a quiff, and a dazzling smile showing Hollywood-perfect teeth. I am the farthest thing there is from a judge of male beauty, but of all the fifties rock and roll stars, the only one who was better looking than him was Elvis, and even Elvis had to grow into his good looks, while Holden, even when he came to the UK aged eighteen, looked like a cross between James Dean and Rock Hudson.

And finally, he had a real sense of what rock and roll was, in a way that almost none of the British musicians did. He knew, in particular, what a rockabilly record should sound like.

He did have one tiny drawback, though — he couldn’t sing in tune, or keep time. But nobody except the unfortunate musicians who ended up backing him saw that as a particular problem.

Being unable to sing was a minor matter. He had presence, and he was going to be a star. Everyone knew it. He started performing at the 2Is, and he put together a band which had a rather fluid membership that to start with featured Tony Meehan, a drummer who had been in the Vipers Skiffle Group and would later join the Shadows, but by the time he got a record deal consisted of four of the regular musicians from the 2is — Tony Sheridan on lead guitar, Tony Harvey on rhythm, Licorice Locking on bass and Brian Bennett on drums.

He also got himself a new name, and once again there seems to be some doubt as to how the name was chosen. Everyone seems agreed that “Taylor” was suggested by his sister Sheila, after the actor Robert Taylor. But there are three different plausible stories for how he became Vince. The first is that he named himself after Vince Everett, Elvis’ character in Jailhouse Rock. The second is that he was named after Gene Vincent. And the third is that he took the name from a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, which had a logo with the Latin motto “in hoc signo vinces” — that last word spelled the same way as “Vinces”.

And while I’ve never seen this suggestion made anywhere else, there is also the coincidence that both Licorice Locking and Tony Sheridan had been playing, with Jimmy Nicol, in the Vagabonds, the backing band for one of Larry Parnes’ teen idol acts, Vince Eager, who had made one EP before the Vagabonds had split from him:

[Excerpt: Vince Eager, “Yea Yea”]

So it may be that the similarity of names was in someone’s mind as well.

Taylor and his band, named the Playboys, made a huge impression at the 2is, and they were soon signed to Parlophone Records, and in November 1958 they released their first single. Both sides of the single were cover versions of relatively obscure releases on Sun records. The B-side was a cover version of “I Like Love”, which had been written by Jack Clement for Roy Orbison, while the A-side, “Right Behind You Baby” was written by Charlie Rich and originally recorded by Ray Smith:

[Excerpt: Ray Smith, “Right Behind You Baby”]

Taylor’s version was the closest thing to an American rockabilly record that had been made in Britain to that point. While the vocal was still nothing special, and the recording techniques in British studios created a more polite sound than their American equivalents, the performance is bursting with energy:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, “Right Behind You Baby”]

It’s Sheridan, though, who really makes the record — he plays a twenty-four bar guitar solo that is absolute light years ahead of anything else that was being done in Britain. Here, for example, is “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”, an instrumental hit from Britain’s top rock and roll guitarist of the time, Bert Weedon:

[Excerpt: Bert Weedon, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”]

As you can hear, that’s a perfectly good guitar instrumental, very pleasant, very well played. Now listen to Tony Sheridan’s guitar solo on “Right Behind You Baby”:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, “Right Behind You Baby”]

That’s clearly not as technically skilled as Weedon, but it’s also infinitely more exciting, and it’s more exciting than anything that was being made by any other British musicians at the time.

Jack Good certainly thought so. While “Right Behind You Baby” wasn’t a hit, it was enough to get Vince on to Oh Boy!, and it was because of his Oh Boy! performances that Vince switched to the look he would keep for the rest of his career — black leather trousers, a black leather jacket, a black shirt with the top few buttons undone, showing his chest and the medallion he always wore, and black leather gloves. It was a look very similar to that which Gene Vincent also adopted for his performances on Oh Boy! — before that, Vincent had been dressing in a distinctly less memorable style — and I’ve seen differing accounts as to which act took on the style first, though both made it their own.

Taylor was memorable enough in this getup that when, in the early seventies, another faded rocker who had been known as Shane Fenton made a comeback as a glam-rocker under the name Alvin Stardust, he copied Taylor’s dress exactly.

But Good was unimpressed with Taylor’s performance — and very impressed with Sheridan’s. Sheridan was asked to join the Oh Boy! house band, as well as performing under his own name as Tony Sheridan and the Wreckers. He found himself playing on such less-than-classics as “Happy Organ” by Cherry Wainer:

[Excerpt: Cherry Wainer, “The Happy Organ”]

He also released his own solo record, “Why”:

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan, “Why”]

But Sheridan’s biggest impact on popular music wouldn’t come along for another few years…

Losing the most innovative guitarist in the British music industry should have been a death-blow to Taylor’s career, but he managed to find the only other guitarist in Britain at that time who might be considered up to Sheridan’s standard, Joe Moretti — who Taylor nicknamed Scotty Moretti, partly because Moretti was Scottish, but mostly because it would make his name similar to that of Scotty Moore, Elvis’ guitarist, and Taylor could shout out “take it, Scotty!” on the solos.

While Sheridan’s style was to play frantic Chuck Berry-style licks, Moretti was a more controlled guitarist, but just as inventive, and he had a particular knack for coming up with riffs. And he showed that knack on Taylor’s next single, the first to be credited to Vince Taylor and the Playboys, rather than just to Vince Taylor.

The A-side of that single was rather poor — a cover version of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”, which was done no favours by Taylor’s vocal:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, “Pledging My Love”]

But it was the B-side that was to become a classic. From the stories told by the band members, it seems that everyone knew that that song — one written by Taylor, who otherwise barely ever wrote songs, preferring to perform cover versions — was something special. But the song mentioned two different brand names, Cadillac and Ford, and the BBC at that time had a ban on playing any music which mentioned a brand name at all.

So “Brand New Cadillac” became a B-side, but it’s undoubtedly the most thrilling B-side by a British performer of the fifties, and arguably the only true fifties rock and roll classic by a British artist. “Move It” by Cliff Richard had been a good record by British standards — “Brand New Cadillac” was a great record by any standards:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, “Brand New Cadillac”]

Unfortunately, because “Pledging My Love” was the A-side, the record sold almost nothing, and didn’t make the charts. After two flops in a row, Parlophone dropped Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and Taylor went back to performing at the 2Is with whatever random collection of musicians he could get together. Brian Bennett and Licorice Locking, meanwhile, went on to join Marty Wilde’s band the Wildcats, and scored an immediate hit with Wilde’s rather decent cover version of Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love”:

[Excerpt: Marty Wilde and the Wildcats, “Teenager in Love”]

Moretti, Locking, and Bennett will all turn up in our story in future episodes.

Taylor’s career seemed to be over before it had really begun, but then he got a second chance. Palette Records was a small label, based in Belgium, which was starting operations in Britain. They didn’t have any big stars, but they had signed Janis Martin, who we talked about back in episode forty, and in August 1960 they put out her single “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow Love”:

[Excerpt: Janis Martin, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow Love”]

And at the same time, they put out a new single by Vince Taylor, with a new lineup of Playboys. The A-side was a fairly uninspired ballad called “I’ll Be Your Hero”, very much in the style of Elvis’ film songs, but they soon switched to promoting the flip side, “Jet Black Machine”, which was much more in Taylor’s style. It wasn’t up to the standards of “Brand New Cadillac”, but it was still far more exciting than most of the records that were being made in the UK at the time:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Playboys, “Jet Black Machine”]

That seemed like it would be a turning point in Taylor’s career — according to one source I’ve read, it made the top twenty on the NME charts, though I haven’t been able to check those charts myself, and given how unreliable literally everything I’ve read about Taylor is, I don’t entirely trust that. But it was definitely more successful than his two previous singles, and the new lineup of Playboys were booked on a package tour of acts from the 2Is. Things seemed like they were about to start going Taylor’s way.

But Taylor had always been a little erratic, and he started to get almost pathologically jealous. He would phone his girlfriend up every night before going on stage, and if she didn’t answer he’d skip the show, to drive to her house and find out what she was doing. And in November 1960, just before the start of the tour, he skipped out on the tour altogether and headed back to visit his family in the States.

The band carried on without him, and became the backing group for Duffy Power, one of the many acts managed by Larry Parnes. Power desperately wanted to be a blues singer, but he was pushed into recording cover versions of American hits, like this one, which came out shortly after the Playboys joined him:

[Excerpt: Duffy Power, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”]

The Playboys continued to back Power until June 1960, when they had a gig in Guildford, and a remarkable coincidence happened. They were unloading their equipment at the 2Is, to drive to Guildford with it, when Taylor walked round the corner. He’d just got back from the USA and happened to be passing, and they invited him along for the drive to the show. He came with them, and then Duffy Power, who was almost as unreliable as Taylor, didn’t turn up for the show. They invited Taylor to perform in his place, and he did, and blew the audience away.

Power eventually turned up half-way through the show, got angry, punched the drummer in the face during the interval, and drove off again. The drummer got two stitches, and then they finished the show.

Taylor was back with the Playboys, and Duffy Power was out, and so the next month when Power was booked for some shows in Paris, on a bill with Vince Eager and Wee Willie Harris, Taylor took his place there, too. France was about as far behind Britain in rock and roll terms as Britain was behind America, and no-one had ever seen anything like Vince Taylor. Taylor and the Playboys got signed to a French label, Barclay Records, and they became huge stars — Taylor did indeed get himself a brand new Cadillac, a pink one just like Elvis had. Taylor got nicknamed “le diable noir” — the black Devil — for his demonic stage presence, and he inspired riots regularly with his shows.

A review of one of his performances at that time may be of interest to some listeners:

“The atmosphere is like many a night club, but the teenagers stand round the dancing floor which you use as a stage. They jump on a woman with gold trousers and a hand microphone and then hit a man when he says “go away.” A group follows, and so do others, playing ‘Apache’ worse than many other bands. When the singer joins the band, the leather jacket fiends who are the audience, join in dancing and banging tables with chairs.

The singers have to go one better than the audience, so they lie on the floor, or jump on a passing drummer, or kiss a guitar, and then hit the man playing it. The crowd enjoy this and many stand on chairs to see the fun, and soon the audience are all singing and shouting like one man, but he didn’t mind.

Vince (Ron, Ron) Taylor finally appeared and joined the fun, and in the end he had so much fun that he had to rest. But in spite of this it had been a wonderful show, lovely show…lovely.”

That was written by a young man from Liverpool named Paul McCartney, who was visiting Paris with his friend John Lennon for Lennon’s twenty-first birthday. The two attended one of Taylor’s shows there, and McCartney sent that review back to run in Mersey Beat, a local music paper. Lennon and McCartney also met Taylor, with whom they had a mutual friend, Tony Sheridan, and tried to blag their way onto the show themselves, but got turned down. While they were in Paris, they also got their hair cut in a new style, to copy the style that was fashionable among Parisian bohemians. When they got back to Liverpool everyone laughed at their new mop-top hairdos…

Taylor kept making records while he was in Paris, mostly cover versions of American hits. Probably the best is his version of Chuck Willis’ “Whatcha Gonna Do?”:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor et ses Play-Boys, “Watcha Gonna Do (When Your Baby Leaves You)?”]

But while Taylor was now a big star, his behaviour was becoming ever more erratic, not helped by the amphetamines he was taking to keep himself going during shows. The group quit en masse in November 1962, but he persuaded them back so they could play a two-week residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, before a group from Liverpool called the Beatles took over for Christmas.

But Taylor only lasted four days of that two-week residency. Just before midnight on the fifth night, just before they were about to go on, he phoned his girlfriend in Paris, got no answer, decided she was out cheating on him, and flew off to Paris instead of playing the show. He phoned the club’s manager the next day to apologise and say he’d be back for that night’s show, but Horst Fascher, the manager, wasn’t as forgiving of Taylor as most promoters had been, and said that he’d shoot Taylor dead if he ever saw him again. The residency was cancelled, and the Playboys had to sell their mohair suits to Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers to pay for their fare back to Paris.

For the next few years, Taylor put out a series of fairly poor records with different backing groups, often singing sickly French-language ballads with orchestral backings. He tried gimmicks like changing from his black leather costume into a white leather one, but nothing seemed to work. His money was running out, but then he had one more opportunity to hit the big time again.

Bobby Woodman, the drummer from the second lineup of the Playboys, had been playing with Johnny Hallyday, France’s biggest rock and roll star, under the stage name Bobbie Clarke, but then Hallyday was drafted and his band needed work. They got together with Taylor, and as Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise they recorded an EP of blues and rock covers that included a version of the Arthur Crudup song made famous by Elvis, “My Baby Left Me”. It was a quite extraordinary record, his best since “Brand New Cadillac” seven years earlier:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise, “My Baby Left Me”]

They played the Paris Olympia again, this time supporting the Rolling Stones. Vince Taylor was on his way to the top again. And they had the prospect of an American record deal — Taylor’s sister Sheila had married Joe Barbera, and he’d started up a new label and was interested in signing Taylor. They arranged a showcase gig for him, and everyone thought this could be the big time.

But before that, he had to make a quick trip to the UK. The group were owed money by a business associate there, and so Taylor went over to collect the money, and while he was there he went to Bob Dylan’s party, and dropped acid for the first time. And that was the end of Vince Taylor’s career.

One of the things that goes completely unreported about the British teen idols of the fifties is that for whatever reason, and I can’t know for sure, there was a very high incidence of severe mental illness among them — an astonishingly high incidence given how few of them there were. Terry Dene was invalided out of the Army with mental health problems shortly after he was drafted. Duffy Power attempted suicide in the early sixties, and had recurrent mental health problems for many years. And Dickie Pride, who his peers thought was the most talented of the lot, ended up dead aged twenty-seven, after having spent time in a psychiatric hospital and suffering so badly he was lobotomised.

Vince Taylor was the one whose mental problems have had the most publicity, but much of that has made his illness seem somehow glamorous or entertaining, so I want to emphasise that it was anything but. I spent several years working on a psychiatric ward, and have seen enough people with the same condition that Taylor had that I have no sense of humour about this subject at all. The rest of this podcast is about a man who was suffering horribly.

Taylor had always been unstable — he had been paranoid and controlling, he had a tendency to make up lies about himself and act as if he believed them, and he led a chaotic lifestyle. And while normally LSD is safe even if taken relatively often, Taylor’s first acid trip was the last straw for his fragile mental health.

He turned up at the showcase gig unshaven, clutching a bottle of Mateus wine, and announced to everyone that he was Mateus, the new Jesus, the son of God. When asked if he had the band’s money, he pulled out a hundred and fifty francs and set fire to it, ranting about how Jesus had turfed the money-lenders out of the temple. An ambulance was called, and the band did the show without him.

They had a gig the next day, and Taylor turned up clean-shaven, smartly dressed, and seemingly normal. He apologised for his behaviour the night before, saying he’d “felt a bit strange” but was better now. But when they got to the club and he saw the sign saying “Vince Taylor and the Bobbie Clarke Noise”, he crossed “Vince Taylor” out, and wrote “Mateus” in a felt pen. During the show, instead of singing, he walked through the crowd, anointing them with water.

He spent the next decade in and out of hospital, occasionally touring and recording, but often unable to work. But while he was unwell, “Brand New Cadillac” found a new audience. Indeed, it found several audiences. The Hep Stars, a band from Sweden who featured a pre-ABBA Benny Andersson, had a number one hit in Sweden with their reworking of it, just titled “Cadillac”, in 1965, just a month before Taylor’s breakdown:

[Excerpt: Hep Stars, “Cadillac”]

In 1971, Mungo Jerry reworked the song as “Baby Jump”, which went to number one in the UK, though they didn’t credit Taylor:

[Excerpt: Mungo Jerry, “Baby Jump”]

And in 1979, the Clash recorded a version of it for their classic double-album London Calling:

[Excerpt: The Clash, “Brand New Cadillac”]

Shortly after recording that, Joe Strummer of the Clash met up with Taylor, who spent five hours explaining to Strummer how the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were trying to kill him with poisoned chocolate cake.

Taylor at that time was still making music, and trying to latch on to whatever the latest trend was, as in his 1982 single “Space Invaders”, inspired by the arcade game:

[Excerpt: Vince Taylor, “Space Invaders”]

But the new music he was making was almost an irrelevance — by this point he had become a legend in the British music industry, not for who he was in 1982, but for who he was in 1958, and he has had songs written about him by people as diverse as Adam Ant and Van Morrison. But his biggest influence came in the years immediately after his breakdown.

Between 1966 and 1972, Taylor spent much of his time in London, severely mentally ill, but trying to have some kind of social life based on his past glories, reminding people that he had once been a star. One of the people he got to know in London in the mid-sixties was a young musician named David Jones. Jones was fascinated by Taylor, even though he’d never liked his music — Jones’ brother was schizophrenic, and he was worried that he would end up like his brother. Jones also wanted to be a rock and roll star, and had some mildly messianic ideas of his own. So a rock and roll star who thought he was Jesus — although he sometimes thought he was an alien, rather than Jesus, and sometimes claimed that Jesus *was* an alien — and who was clearly severely mentally ill, had a fascination for him. He talked later about not having been able to decide whether he was seeing Taylor as an example to follow or a cautionary tale, and about how he’d sat with Taylor outside Charing Cross Station while Taylor had used a magnifying glass and a map of Europe to show him all the sites where aliens were going to land.

Several years later, after changing his name to David Bowie, Jones remembered the story of Vince Taylor, the rock and roll star who thought he was an alien messiah, and turned it into the story of Ziggy Stardust:

[Excerpt: David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust”]

In 1983, Taylor retired to Switzerland with his new wife Nathalie. He changed his name back to Brian Holden, and while he would play the occasional gig, he tried as best he could to forget his past, and seems to have recovered somewhat from his mental illness. In 1991 he was diagnosed with cancer, and died of it three months later. Shortly before he died, he told a friend “If I die, you can tell them that the only period in my life where I was really happy was my life in Switzerland”.

Apr 07, 2020
Episode 76: “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
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Episode seventy-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, and how a barroom fight 125 years ago led to a song performed by everyone from Ma Rainey to Neil Diamond. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “That Crazy Feeling” by Kenny Rogers.

I have also beeped out some expletives in the song excerpts this week, so as not to be censored by some podcast aggregators, and so I’ve uploaded an unbeeped version for backers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 —-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

The bulk of the information in this episode came from Stagolee Shot Billy, by Cecil Brown, the person who finally identified Lee Shelton as the subject of the song.

I also got some information from Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition by Bruce Jackson, Unprepared to Die by Paul Slade, and Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie.

Lloyd Price has written a few books. His autobiography is out of print and goes for silly money (and don’t buy the “Kindle edition” at that link, because it’s just the sheet music to the song, which Amazon have mislabelled) but he’s also written a book of essays with his thoughts on race, some of which shed light on his work.

The Lloyd Price songs here can be found on The Complete Singles As & Bs 1952-62 .

And you can get the Snatch and the Poontangs album on a twofer with Johnny Otis’ less explicit album Cold Shot.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Before we start today’s episode, a brief note.

Firstly, this episode contains a description of a murder, so if you’re squeamish about that sort of thing, you may want to skip it.

Secondly, some of the material I’m dealing with in this episode is difficult for me to deal with in a podcast, for a variety of reasons. This episode will look at a song whose history is strongly entwined both with American racism and with black underworld culture. The source material I’ve used for this therefore contains several things that for different reasons are difficult for me to say on here. There is frequent use of a particular racial slur which it is not okay under any circumstances for me as a white man to say; there are transcripts of oral history which are transcribed in rather patronising attempts at replicating African-American Vernacular English, which even were those transcripts themselves acceptable would sound mocking coming out of my English-accented mouth; and there is frequent use of sexual profanity, which I personally have no problem with at all, but would get this podcast an explicit rating on several of the big podcast platforms.

There is simply no way to tell this story while avoiding all of those things, so I’ve come up with the best compromise I can. I will not use, even in quotes, that slur. I will minimise the use of transcripts, but when I have to use them, I will change them from being phonetic transcripts of AAVE into being standard written English, and I will include the swearing where it comes in the recordings I want to use but will beep it out of the version that goes up on the main podcast feed. I’ll make an unexpurgated version available for my Patreon backers, and I’ll put the unbleeped recordings on Mixcloud.

The story we’re going to tell goes back to Christmas Day 1895, but we’re going to start our story in the mid 1950s, with Lloyd Price.

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee”]

You may remember us looking at Lloyd Price way back in episode twelve, from Christmas 2018, but if you don’t, Price was a teenager in 1952, when he wandered into Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans, at the invitation of his acquaintance Dave Bartholomew, who had produced, co-written, and arranged most of Fats Domino’s biggest hits. Price had a song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, which was loosely based around the same basic melody as Domino’s earlier hit “The Fat Man”, and they recorded it with Bartholomew producing, Domino on piano, and the great Earl Palmer on drums:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”]

That was one of the first R&B records put out on Specialty Records, the label that would later bring Little Richard, Larry Williams, Sam Cooke and others to prominence, and it went to number one on the R&B charts. Price had a couple more big R&B hits, but then he got drafted, and when he got back the musical landscape had changed enough that he had no hits for several years. But then both Elvis Presley and Little Richard cut cover versions of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, and that seemed to bring Price enough extra attention that in 1957 he got a couple of songs into the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, and one song, “Just Because” went to number three on the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Just Because”]

But it wasn’t until 1958 that Price had what would become his biggest hit, a song that would kickstart his career, and which had its roots in a barroom brawl in St. Louis on Christmas Day 1895:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee”]

The Lee Line was a line of steamboats that went up and down the Mississippi, run by the Lee family. Their line was notorious, even by Mississippi riverboat standards, for paying its staff badly, but also for being friendly to prostitution and gambling. This meant that some people, at least, enjoyed working on the ships despite the low pay. There is a song, whose lyrics were quoted in an article from 1939, but which seems to have been much older, whose lyrics went (I’ve changed these into standard English, as I explained at the start):

Reason I like the Lee Line trade

Sleep all night with the chambermaid

She gimme some pie, and she gimme some cake

And I give her all the money that I ever make

The Lee Line was one of the two preferred steamboat lines to work on for that reason, and it ended up being mentioned in quite a few songs, like this early version of the song that’s better known as “Alabamy Bound”, but was here called “Don’t You Leave Me Here”:

[Excerpt: Little Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed, “Don’t You Leave Me Here”]

The line, “If the boat don’t sink and the Stack don’t drown” refers to one of the boats on the Lee Line, the Stack Lee, a boat that started service in 1902. But the boat was named, as many of the Lee Line ships were, after a member of the Lee family, in this case one Stack Lee, who was the captain in the 1880s and early 90s of a ship named after his father, James Lee, the founder of the company.

In 1948 the scholar Shields McIlwayne claimed that the captain, and later the boat, were popular enough among parts of the black community that there were “more colored kids named Stack Lee than there were sinners in hell”. But it was probably the boats’ reputation for prostitution that led to a thirty-year-old pimp in St. Louis named Lee Shelton taking on the name “Stack Lee”, at some time before Christmas Day 1895.

On that Christmas Day, a man named Bill Lyons entered the Bill Curtis Saloon. Before he entered the saloon, he stopped to ask his friend to give him a knife, because the saloon was the roughest in the whole city, and he didn’t want any trouble.

Bill Lyons was known as “Billy the Bully”, but bully didn’t quite, or didn’t only, mean what it means today. A “bully”, in that time and place, was a term that encompassed both being a pimp and being a bagman for a political party. There was far more overlap in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between politics and organised crime than many now realise, and the way things normally operated in many areas was that there would be a big man in organised crime whose job it would be to raise money for the party, get people out to vote, and tell them which way to vote.

Lyons was not a popular man, but he was an influential man, and he was part of a rich family — one of the richest black families in St. Louis. He was, like his family, very involved with the Republican Party. Almost all black people in the US were Republicans at that time, as it was only thirty years since the end of the Civil War, when the Republican President Lincoln had been credited with freeing black people from slavery, and the Bridgewater Saloon, owned by Lyons’ rich brother-in-law Henry Bridgewater, was often used as a meeting place for local Republicans.

Lyons had just ordered a drink when Lee Shelton walked into the bar. Shelton was a pimp, and seems to have made a lot of money from it. Shelton was also a Democrat, which in this time and place meant that he was essentially a member of a rival gang.

[Excerpt: Duke Ellington, “Stack-A-Lee Blues”]

Shelton was very big in the local Democratic party, and from what we can tell was far more popular among the black community than Lyons was. While the Democrats were still the less popular of the two major parties among black people in the area, some were starting to feel like the Republicans talked a good game but were doing very little to actually help black people, and were considering taking their votes elsewhere.

He was also a pimp who seems to have had a better reputation than most among the sex workers who worked for him, though like almost everything in this story it’s difficult to know for certain more than a hundred and twenty years later. When he walked into the bar, he was wearing mirror-toed shoes, a velvet waistcoat, an embroidered shirt, and gold rings, and carrying an ebony cane with a gold top. He had a slightly crossed left eye, and scars on his face. And he was wearing a white Stetson.

Lee asked the crowd, “Who’s treating?” and they pointed to Lyons. There was allegedly some bad blood between Lyons and Shelton, as Lyons’ step-brother had murdered Shelton’s friend a couple of years earlier, in the Bridgewater Saloon. But nonetheless, the two men were, according to the bartenders working there, who had known both men for decades, good friends, and they were apparently drinking and laughing together for a while, until they started talking about politics.

They started slapping at each other’s hats, apparently playfully. Then Shelton grabbed Lyons’ hat and broke the rim, so Lyons then snatched Shelton’s hat off his head.

Shelton asked for his hat back, and Lyons said he wanted six bits — seventy-five cents — for a new hat. Shelton replied that you could buy a box of those hats for six bits, and he wasn’t going to give Lyons any money. Lyons refused to hand the hat back until Shelton gave him the money, and Shelton pulled out his gun, and told Lyons to give him the hat. Lyons refused, and Shelton hit him on the head with the gun. He then threatened to kill Lyons if he didn’t hand the hat over.

Lyons pulled out the knife his friend had given him, and said “You cock-eyed son of a bitch, I’m going to *make* you kill me” and came at Shelton, who shot Lyons. Lyons staggered and clutched on to the bar, and dropped the hat. Shelton addressed Lyons using a word I am not going to say, and said “I told you to give me my hat”, picked it up, and walked out. Lyons died of his wounds a few hours later.

[Excerpt: Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, “Stack O’ Lee Blues”]

Shelton was arrested, and let go on four thousand dollars bail — that’s something like a hundred and twenty thousand in today’s money, to give you some idea, though by the time we go that far back comparisons of the value of money become fairly meaningless.

Shelton hired himself the best possible lawyer — a man named Nat Dryden, who was an alcoholic and opium addict, but was also considered a brilliant trial lawyer. Dryden had been the first lawyer in the whole of Missouri to be able to get a conviction for a white man murdering a black man.

Shelton was still at risk, though, simply because of the power of Henry Bridgewater in local politics — a mob of hundreds of people swamped the inquest trying to get to Shelton, and the police had to draw their weapons before they would disperse. But something happened between Shelton’s arrest and the trial that meant that Bridgewater’s political power waned somewhat.

Shelton was arraigned by Judge David Murphy, who was regarded by most black people in the city as on their side, primarily because he was so against police brutality that when a black man shot a policeman, claiming self defence because the policeman was beating him up at the time, Murphy let the man off. Not only that, when a mob of policemen attacked the defendant outside the court in retribution, Murphy had them jailed.

This made him popular among black people, but less so among whites.

[Excerpt: Frank Westphal and his Orchestra, “Stack O’Lee Blues”]

The 1896 Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis, and one of the reasons it was chosen was that the white restaurants had promised the party that if they held the convention there, they would allow black people into the restaurants, so the black caucus within the party approved of the idea. But when the convention actually happened, the restaurants changed their minds, and the party did nothing.

This infuriated many black delegates to the convention, who had seen for years how the system of backhanders and patronage on which American politics ran never got so far as to give anything to black people, who were expected just to vote for the Republicans. James Milton Turner, one of the leaders of the radical faction of the Republicans, and the first ever black US ambassador, who was a Missouri local and one of the most influential black politicians in the state, loudly denounced the Republican party for the way it was treating black voters.

Shortly afterwards, the party had its local convention. Judge Murphy was coming up for reelection, and the black delegates voted for him to be the Republican nominee again. The white delegates, on the other hand, voted against him.

This was the last straw. In 1896, ninety percent of black voters in Missouri voted Democrat, for the first time. Shelton’s faction was now in the ascendant.

Because Murphy wasn’t reselected, Shelton’s trial wasn’t held by him, but Nat Dryden did an excellent job in front of the new judge, arguing that Shelton had been acting in self-defence, because Lyons had pulled out a knife. There was a hung jury, and it went to a retrial.

Sadly for Shelton, though, Dryden wasn’t going to be representing him in the second trial. Dryden had hidden his alcoholism from his wife, and she had offered him a glass of sherry. That had triggered a relapse, he’d gone on a binge, and died.

At his next trial, in late 1897, Shelton was convicted, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison — presumably the influence of his political friends stopped him from getting the death penalty, just as it got him paroled twelve years later. Two years after that, though, Shelton was arrested again, for assault and robbery, and this time he died in prison.

But even before his trial — just before Dryden’s death, in fact — a song called “Stack-A-Lee” was mentioned in the papers as being played by a ragtime pianist in Kansas City.

The story gets a bit hazy here, but we know that Shelton was friends with the ragtime pianist Tom Turpin.

Ragtime had become popular in the US as a result of Scott Joplin’s performance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — the same fair, incidentally, that introduced the belly dancers known as “Little Egypt” who we talked about in the episode on the Coasters a few weeks back. But a year before that, Turpin, who was a friend of Joplin’s, had written “Harlem Rag”, which was published in 1897, and became the first ragtime tune written by a black man to be published:

[Excerpt: Ragtime Dorian Henry, “Harlem Rag”]

Turpin was another big man in St. Louis politics, and he was one of those who signed petitions for Shelton’s release. While we can’t know for sure, it seems likely that the earliest, ragtime, versions of the “Stagger Lee” song were written by Turpin. It’s been suggested that he based the song on “Bully of the Town”, a popular song written two years earlier, and itself very loosely based on a real murder case from New Orleans.

That song was popularised by May Irwin, in a play which is also notable for having a love scene filmed by Edison in 1897, making it possibly the first ever love scene to be filmed. Irwin recorded her version in 1909, but she uses a racial slur, over and over again, which I am not going to allow on this podcast, so here’s a 1920s version by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers:

[Excerpt: Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, “Bully of the Town”]

That song, in its original versions, is about someone who goes out and kills a bully — in the same sense that Billy Lyons was a bully — and so becomes the biggest bully himself. It’s easy to see how Turpin could take that basic framework and add in some details about how his friend had done the same thing, and turn it into a new song.

By 1910, the song about Stack Lee had spread all across the country. The folklorist and song collector John Lomax collected a version that year that went “Twas a Christmas morning/The hour was about ten/When Stagalee shot Billy Lyons/And landed in the Jefferson pen/O lordy, poor Stagalee”.

In 1924, two white songwriters copyrighted a version of it, called “Stack O’Lee Blues”, and we’ve heard instrumental versions of that, from 1923 and 24, earlier in this episode — that’s what those instrumental breaks were. Lovie Austin recorded a song called “Skeg-A-Lee Blues” in 1924, but that bears little lyrical resemblance to the Stagger Lee we know about:

[Excerpt: Ford & Ford, “Skeg-A-Lee Blues”]

The first vocal recording of the song that we would now recognise as being Stagger Lee was by Ma Rainey, in 1925. In her version, the melody and some of the words come from “Frankie and Johnny”, another popular song about a real-life murder in St. Louis in the 1890s:

[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, “Stack O’Lee Blues”]

According to Wikipedia, Louis Armstrong is playing cornet on that song. It doesn’t sound like him to me, and I can’t find any other evidence for that except other sites which get their information from Wikipedia. Sites I trust more say it was Joe Smith, and they also say that Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson are on the track.

By 1927, the song was being recorded in many different variants. Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull recorded a version that clearly owes something to “the Bully of the Town”:

[Excerpt: Long Cleve Reed and Little Henry Hull — Down Home Boys, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues”]

And in possibly the most famous early version, Mississippi John Hurt asks why the police can’t arrest that bad man Stagger Lee:

[Excerpt: Mississippi John Hurt, “Stack O’Lee (1928 version)”]

By this point, all connection with the real Lee Shelton had been lost, and it wouldn’t be until the early nineties that the writer Cecil Brown would finally identify Shelton as the subject of the song.

During the thirties and forties, the song came to be recorded by all sorts of musicians, almost all of them either folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, blues musicians like Ivory Joe Hunter, or field recordings, like the singer known as “Bama” who recorded this for the Lomaxes:

[Excerpt: Bama, “Stackerlee”]

None of these recorded versions was a major hit, but the song became hugely well known, particularly among black musicians around Louisiana. It was a song in everyone’s repertoire, and every version of the song followed the same basic structure to start with — Stagger Lee told Billy Lyons he was going to kill him over a hat that had been lost in a game of craps, Billy begged for his life, saying he had a wife and children, and Stagger Lee killed him anyway. Often the bullet would pass right through Billy and break the bartender’s glass.

From there, the story might change — in some versions, Lee would go free — sometimes because they couldn’t catch him and sometimes because crowds of women implored the judge to let him off. In other versions, he would be locked up in jail, and in yet other versions he would be sentenced to death. Sometimes he would survive execution through magical powers, sometimes he would be killed, and crowds of women would mourn him, all dressed in red.

In the versions where he was killed, he would often descend to Hell, where he would usurp the Devil, because the Devil wasn’t as bad as Stagger Lee.

There were so many versions of this song that the New Orleans pianist Doctor John was, according to some things I’ve read, able to play “Stagger Lee” for three hours straight without repeating a verse.

Very few of these recordings had any commercial success, but one that did was a 1950 New Orleans version of the song, performed by “Archibald and His Orchestra”:

[Excerpt: Archibald and His Orchestra, “Stack A’Lee”]

That version of the song was the longest ever recorded up to that point, and took up both sides of a seventy-eight record. It was released on Imperial Records, the same label that Fats Domino was on, in 1950, and was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. It went top ten on the Billboard R&B charts, and was Archibald’s only hit.

That’s the version that, eight years later, inspired Lloyd Price to record this:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee”]

That became a massive, massive hit. It went to number one on both the Hot One Hundred and the R&B charts — which incidentally makes Lloyd Price the earliest solo artist to have a number one hit on the Hot One Hundred and still be alive today. Price’s career was revitalised — and “Stagger Lee” was brought properly into the mainstream of American culture.

Over the next few decades, the song — in versions usually based on Price’s — became a standard among white rock musicians. Indeed, it seems to have been recorded by some of the whitest people in music history, like Huey Lewis and the News:

[Excerpt: Huey Lewis and the News, “Stagger Lee”]

Mike Love of the Beach Boys:

[Excerpt: Mike Love, “Stagger Lee”]

and Neil Diamond:

[Excerpt: Neil Diamond, “Stagger Lee”]

But while the song had hit the white mainstream, the myth of Stagger Lee had an altogether different power among the black community. You see, up to this point all we’ve been able to look at are versions of the song that have seen commercial release, and they all represent what was acceptable to be sold in shops at the time.

But as you may have guessed from the stuff about the Devil I mentioned earlier, Stagger Lee had become a folkloric figure of tremendous importance among many black Americans. He represented the bad man who would never respect any authority — a trickster figure, but one who was violent as well. He represented the angry black man, but a sort of righteous anger, even if that anger was chaotic. Any black man who was not respected by white society would be thought of as a Stagger Lee figure, at least by some — I’ve seen the label applied to everyone from O.J. Simpson to Malcolm X.

Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panther Party, named his son Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, and was often known to recite a version of “Stagger Lee” at parties. In an interview, later, Seale said “Now I transformed Stagolee, more or less in my own mind, into brothers standing on the block and all of the illegitimate activity. In effect, they were the lumpen proletariat in a high-tech social order, different from how ‘lumpen’ had been described historically. My point is this; that Malcolm X at one time was an illegitimate hustler. Later in life, Malcolm X grows to have the most profound political consciousness as far as I’m concerned. To me, this brother was really getting ready to move. So symbolically, at one time he was Stagolee.”

The version of Stagger Lee that Seale knew is the one that came from something called “toasts”.

Toasting is a form of informal storytelling in black American culture, usually rhyming, and usually using language and talking about subjects that would often be considered obscene. Toasting is now generally considered one of the precursors of rapping, and the style and subject matter are often very similar.

Many of the stories told in toasts are very well known, including the story of the Signifying Monkey (which has been told in bowdlerised forms in many blues songs, including Chuck Berry’s “Jo Jo Gunne”), and the story of Shine, the black cook on the Titanic, who swims for safety and refuses to help the Captain’s daughter even after she offers sex in return for his help. Shine outswims the sharks who try to eat him, and arrives back on land before anyone there even knew the ship was sinking.

Shine is, of course, another Stagger Lee style figure.

These toasts remained largely unknown outside of the less respectable parts of the black community, until the scholar Bruce Jackson published his seminal book “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Poetry from Oral Tradition”, whose title is taken from a version of the story of Shine and the Titanic. Jackson’s field recordings, mostly recorded in prisons, have more recently been released on CD, though without the names of the performers attached. Here’s the version of Stagger Lee he collected — there will be several beeps in this, and the next few recordings, if you’re listening to the regular version of this podcast:

[Excerpt: Unknown field recording, “Stagger Lee”]

After Jackson’s book, but well before the recordings came out, Johnny Otis preserved many of these toasts in musical form on his Snatch and the Poontangs album, including “The Great Stack-A-Lee”, which clearly has the same sources as the version Jackson recorded:

[Excerpt: Snatch and the Poontangs, “The Great Stack-A-Lee”]

That version was used as the basis for the most well-known recentish version of the song, the 1995 version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:

[Excerpt: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”]

Cave has later said in interviews that they improvised the music and used the lyrics from Jackson’s book, but the melody is very, very, close to the Johnny Otis version. And there’s more evidence of Cave basing his version on the Johnny Otis track. There’s this line:

[Excerpt: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”]

That’s not in the versions of the toast in Jackson’s book, but it *is* in a different song on the Snatch and the Poontangs album, “Two-Time Slim”:

[Excerpt: Snatch and the Poontangs, “Two-Time Slim”]

This is the Stagger Lee of legend, the Stagger Lee who is the narrator of James Baldwin’s great poem “Stagolee Wonders”, a damning indictment of racist society:

[Excerpt: James Baldwin, reading an excerpt from “Stagolee Wonders” on “Poems for a Listener”,]

Baldwin’s view of Stagger Lee was, to quote from the interview from which that reading is also excerpted, “a black folk hero, a singer essentially, who actually truly comes out of the auction block, by way of the cotton field, into the beginning of the black church. And Stagger Lee’s roots are there, and Stagger Lee’s often been a preacher. He’s one who conveys the real history.”

It’s a far cry from one pimp murdering another on Christmas Day 1895. And it’s a mythos that almost everyone listening to Lloyd Price’s hit version will have known nothing of.

As a result of “Stagger Lee”, Lloyd Price went on to have a successful career, scoring several more hits in 1959 and 1960, including the song for which he’s now best known, “Personality”:

[Excerpt: Lloyd Price, “Personality”]

Price also moved into other areas, including boxing promotion — he was the person who got Don King, another figure who has often been compared to Stagger Lee, the chance to work with Mohammed Ali, and he later helped King promote the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight.

Lloyd Price is eighty-seven years old, now, and released his most recent album in 2016. He still tours — indeed, his most recent live show was earlier this month, just before the current coronavirus outbreak meant live shows had to stop. He opened his show, as he always does, with “Stagger Lee”, and I hope that when we start having live shows again, he will continue to do so for a long, long time.

Mar 31, 2020
Episode 75: “There Goes My Baby” by the Drifters
0:00

Episode seventy-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “There Goes My Baby” by the Drifters, and how a fake record label, a band sacked for drunkenness, and a kettledrum player who couldn’t play led to a genre-defining hit. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

—-more—-

Resources

As always, I’ve created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

I’m not going to recommend a compilation this week, for reasons I mention in the episode itself. There are plenty available, none of them as good as they should be.

The episode on the early career of the Drifters is episode seventeen

My main resource in putting this episode together was Marv Goldberg’s website, and his excellent articles on both the early- and late-period Drifters, Bill Pinkney’s later Original Drifters, the Five Crowns, and Ben E. King. 

Lonely Avenue, a biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, helped me with the information on Pomus.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller’s side of the story well.

And Bill Millar’s book on the Drifters, while it is more a history of 50s vocal group music generally using them as a focus than a biography of the group, contains some interesting material.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

A quick note about this one, before I start. As we’ll see in this episode, there have been many, many, lineups of the Drifters over the years, with many different people involved. One problem with that is that there have been lots of compilations put out under the Drifters name, featuring rerecorded versions of their hits, often involving nobody who was on the original record.

Indeed, there have been so many of these compilations, and people putting together hits compilations, even for major labels, have been so sloppy, that I can’t find a single compilation of the Drifters’ recordings that doesn’t have one or two dodgy remakes on replacing the originals.

I’ve used multiple sources for the recordings I’m excerpting here, and in most cases I’m pretty sure that the tracks I’m excerpting are the original versions. But particularly when it comes to songs that aren’t familiar, I may have ended up using a rerecording rather than the original. Anyway, on with the story…

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby”]

It’s been more than a year since we last properly checked in with the Drifters, one of the great R&B vocal groups of all time, so I’ll quickly bring you up to speed — if you want to hear the full story so far, episode seventeen, on “Money Honey”, gives you all the details.

The Drifters had originally formed as the backing group for Clyde McPhatter, who had been the lead singer of Billy Ward and the Dominoes in the early fifties, when that group had had their biggest success. The original lineup of the group had all been sacked before they even released a record, and then a couple of members of the lineup who recorded their first big hits became ill or died, but the group had released two massive hits — “Money Honey” and “Such a Night”, both with McPhatter on lead vocals:

[Excerpt: Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, “Such a Night”]

But then McPhatter had been drafted, and the group’s manager, George Treadwell, had got in a member of the original lineup, David Baughan, to replace McPhatter, as Baughan could sound a little like McPhatter. When McPhatter was discharged from the army, he decided to sell the group name to Treadwell, and the Drifters became employees of Treadwell, to be hired and fired at his discretion. This group went through several lineup changes, some of which we’ll look at later in this episode, but they kept making records that sounded a bit like the ones they’d been making with Clyde McPhatter, even after Baughan also left the group.

But there was a big difference behind the scenes. Those early records had been produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and had usually been arranged by Jesse Stone, the man who’d written “Money Honey” and many other early rock and roll hits, like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”. But a little while after Baughan left the group, Ertegun and Wexler asked Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to start working with them.

Leiber and Stoller, you might remember, were working with a *lot* of people at the time. They’d come over to Atlantic Records with a non-exclusive contract to write and produce for the label, and while their main project at Atlantic was with the Coasters, they were also producing records for people like Ruth Brown, as well as also working on records for Elvis and others at RCA.

But they took on the Drifters as well, and started producing a string of minor hits for them, including “Ruby Baby” and “Fools Fall In Love”. Those hits went top ten on the R&B chart, but did little or nothing in the pop market.

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Fools Fall In Love”]

That song, which had Johnny Moore on lead vocals, was the last big hit for what we can think of as the “original” Drifters in some form. It came out in March 1957, and for the rest of the year they kept releasing singles, but nothing made the R&B charts at all, though a few did make the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred.

Throughout 1957, the group had been gaining and losing members. Bill Pinkney, who had been chosen by the other group members to be essentially their shop steward, had gone to Treadwell and asked for a raise in late 1956, and been promptly fired. He’d formed a group called the Flyers, with a new singer called Bobby Hendricks on lead. The Flyers recorded one single, “My Only Desire”:

[Excerpt: the Flyers, “My Only Desire”]

But then Tommy Evans, Pinkney’s replacement in the group, was fired, and Pinkney was brought back into the group. Hendricks thought that was the end of his career, but then a few days later Pinkney phoned him up — Johnny Moore was getting drafted, and Hendricks was brought into the group to take Moore’s place.

But almost immediately after Hendricks joined the group, Pinkney once again asked for a raise, and was kicked out and Evans brought back in. Pinkney went off and made a record for Sam Phillips, with backing music overdubbed by Bill Justis:

[Excerpt: Bill Pinkney, “After the Hop”]

The group kept changing lineups, and there was only one session in 1958, which led to a horrible version of “Moonlight Bay”. Apparently, the session was run by Leiber and Stoller as an experiment (they would occasionally record old standards with the Coasters, so presumably they were seeing if the same thing would work with the Drifters), and several of the group’s members were drunk when they recorded it. They decided at the session that it was not going to be released, but then the next thing the group knew, it was out as their next single, with overdubs by a white vocal group, making it sound nothing like the Drifters at all:

[Excerpt: The Drifters “Moonlight Bay”]

Bobby Hendricks hated that recording session so much that he quit the group and went solo, going over to Sue Records, where he joined up with another former Drifter, Jimmy Oliver. Oliver wrote a song for Hendricks, “Itchy Twitchy Feeling”, and the Coasters sang the backup vocals for him, uncredited. That track went to number five on the R&B charts:

[Excerpt: Bobby Hendricks, “Itchy Twitchy Feeling”]

By this time, the Drifters were down to just three people — Gerhart Thrasher, Jimmy Milner, and Tommy Evans. They no longer had a lead singer, but they had a week’s worth of shows they were contracted to do, at the Harlem Apollo, on a show hosted by the DJ Doctor Jive. That show was headlined by Ray Charles, and also featured the Cookies, Solomon Burke, and a minor group called the Crowns, among several other acts.

Treadwell was desperate, so he called Hendricks and Oliver and got them to return to the group just for one week, so they would have a lead vocalist. They both did return, though just as a favour. Then, at the end of the week’s residency, one of the group members got drunk and started shouting abuse at Doctor Jive, and at the owner of the Apollo.

George Treadwell had had enough. He fired the entire group.

Tommy Evans went on to join Charlie Fuqua’s version of the Ink Spots, and Bill Pinkney decided he wanted to get the old group back together. He got a 1955 lineup of the Drifters together — Pinkney, David Baughan, Gerhart Thrasher, and Andrew Thrasher. That group toured as The Original Drifters, and the group under that name would consist almost entirely of ex-members of the Drifters, with some coming or going, until 1968, when most of the group retired, while Pinkney carried on leading a group under that name until his death in 2007. But they couldn’t use that name on records. Instead they made records as the Harmony Grits:

[Excerpt: The Harmony Grits, “I Could Have Told You”]

and with ex-Drifter Johnny Moore singing lead, as a solo artist under the name Johnny Darrow:

[Excerpt: Johnny Darrow, “Chew Tobacco Rag”]

And with Bobby Hendricks singing lead, as the Sprites:

[Excerpt: The Sprites, “My Picture”]

But the reason they couldn’t call themselves the Drifters on their records is that George Treadwell owned the name, and he had hired a totally different group to tour and record under that name.

The Crowns had their basis in a group called the Harmonaires, a street-corner group in New York. They had various members at first, but by the time they changed their name to the Five Crowns, they had stabilised on a lineup of Dock Green, Yonkie Paul, and three brothers — Papa, Nicky, and Sonny Boy Clark.

The group were managed by Lover Patterson, who they believed was the manager of the Orioles, but was actually the Orioles’ valet. Nonetheless, Patterson did manage to get them signed to a small record label, Rainbow Records, where they released “You’re My Inspiration” in 1952:

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, “You’re My Inspiration”]

The record label sent out a thousand copies of that single to one of their distributors, right at the point a truckers’ strike was called, and ended up having to send another thousand out by plane. That kind of thing sums up the kind of luck the Five Crowns would have for the next few years.

Nothing they put out on Rainbow Records was any kind of a success, and in 1953 the group became the first act on a new label, Old Town Records — they actually met the owner of the label, Hy Weiss, in a waiting room, while they were waiting to audition for a different label. On Old Town they put out a couple of singles, starting with “You Could Be My Love”:

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, “You Could Be My Love”]

But none of these singles were hits either, and the group were doing so badly that when Nicky Clark left the group, they couldn’t get another singer in to replace him at first — Lover Patterson stood on stage and mimed while the four remaining members sang, so there would still be five people in the Five Crowns.

By 1955, the group had re-signed to Rainbow Records, now on their Riviera subsidiary, and they had gone through several further lineup changes. They now consisted of Yonkie Paul, Richard Lewis, Jesse Facing, Dock Green, and Bugeye Bailey. They put out one record on Riviera, “You Came To Me”:

[Excerpt: The Five Crowns, “You Came to Me”]

The group broke up shortly after that, and Dock Green put together a totally new lineup of the Five Crowns. That group signed to one of George Goldner’s labels, Gee, and released another single, and then they broke up. Green got together *another* lineup of the Five Crowns, made another record on another label, and then that group broke up too. They spent nearly two years without making a record, with constantly shifting lineups as people kept leaving and rejoining, and by the time they went into a studio again, they consisted of Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Papa Clark, Elsbeary Hobbs, and a new tenor singer called Benjamin Earl Nelson, who hadn’t sung professionally before joining the group — he’d been working in a restaurant owned by his father, and Lover Patterson had heard him singing to himself while he was working and asked him to join the group.

This lineup of the group, who were now calling themselves the Crowns rather than the Five Crowns, finally got a contract with a record label… or at least, it was sort of a record label.

We’ve talked about Doc Pomus before, back in November, but as a brief recap — Pomus was a blues singer and songwriter, a white Jewish paraplegic whose birth name was Jerome Felder, who had become a blues shouter in the late forties:

[Excerpt: Doc Pomus, “Send for the Doctor”]

He had been working as a professional songwriter for a decade or so, and had written songs for people like Ray Charles, but the music he loved was hard bluesy R&B, and he didn’t understand the new rock and roll music at all. Other than writing “Young Blood”, which Leiber and Stoller had rewritten and made into a hit for the Coasters, he hadn’t written anything successful in quite some time.

He’d recently started writing with a much younger man, Mort Shuman, who did understand rock and roll, and we heard one of the results of that last week — “Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts, which would be the start of a string of hits for them:

[Excerpt: Dion and the Belmonts, “Teenager in Love”]

But in 1958, that had not yet been released. Pomus’ wife had a baby on the way, and he was desperate for money. He was so desperate, he got involved in a scam. An old girlfriend introduced him to an acquaintance, a dance instructor named Fred Huckman. Huckman had recently married a rich old widow, and he wanted to get away from her during the day to sleep with other people.

So Huckman decided he was going to become the owner of a record label, using his wife’s money to fund an office. The label was named R&B Records at Doc’s suggestion, and Doc was going to be the company’s president, while Mort was going to be the company’s shipping clerk.

The company would have offices in 1650 Broadway, one of the buildings that these days gets lumped in when people talk about “the Brill Building”, though the actual Brill Building itself was a little way down the street at 1619. 1650 was still a prime music business location though, and the company’s office would let both Doc and Mort go and try to sell their songs to publishing companies and record labels. And they’d need to do this because R&B Records wasn’t going to put out any records at all.

Doc and Mort’s actual job was that one of them had to be in the office at all times, so when Huckman’s wife phoned up, they could tell her that he’d just popped out, or was in a meeting, or something so she didn’t find out about his affairs.

They lived off the scam for a little while, while writing songs, but eventually they started to get bored of doing nothing all day. And then Lucky Patterson brought the Crowns in.

They didn’t realise that R&B Records wasn’t a real record label, and Pomus decided to audition them. When he did, he was amazed at how good they sounded. He decided that R&B Records was *going* to be a real record label, no matter what Huckman thought. He and Shuman wrote them a single in the style of the Coasters, and they got in the best session musicians in New York — people like King Curtis and Mickey Baker, who were old friends of Pomus — to play on it:

[Excerpt: The Crowns, “Kiss and Make Up”]

At first that record was completely unsuccessful, but then, rather amazingly, it started to climb in the charts, at least in Pittsburgh, where it became a local number one. It started to do better elsewhere as well, and it looked like the Crowns could have a promising career.

And then one day Mrs. Huckman showed up at the office. Pomus tried to tell her that her husband had gone out and would be back later, but she insisted on waiting in the office, silently, all day. R&B Records closed the next day.

But “Kiss and Make Up” had been a big enough success that the Crowns had ended up on that Doctor Jive show with the Drifters. And then when George Treadwell fired the Drifters, he immediately hired the Crowns — or at least, he hired four of them. Papa Clark had a drinking problem, and Treadwell was fed up of dealing with drunk singers. So from this point on the Drifters were Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs, and Benjamin Nelson, who decided that he was going to take on a stage name and call himself Ben E. King.

This new lineup of the group went out on tour for almost a year before going into the studio, and they were abysmal failures. Everywhere they went, promoters advertised their shows with photos of the old group, and then this new group of people came on stage looking and sounding nothing like the original Drifters. They were booed everywhere they went.

They even caused problems for the other acts — at one show they nearly killed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Hawkins used to pop out of a coffin while performing “I Put A Spell on You”:

[Excerpt: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You”]

The group were sometimes asked to carry the coffin onto the stage with Hawkins inside it, and one night Charlie Thomas accidentally nudged something and heard a click. What he didn’t realise was that Hawkins put matchbooks in the gap in the coffin lid, to stop it closing all the way — Thomas had knocked the coffin properly shut.

The music started, and Hawkins tried to open the coffin, and couldn’t. He kept pushing, and the coffin wouldn’t open. Eventually, he rocked the coffin so hard that it fell off its stand and popped open, but if it hadn’t opened there was a very real danger that Hawkins could have asphyxiated.

But something else happened on that tour — Ben E. King wrote a song called “There Goes My Baby”, which the group started to perform live. As they originally did it, it was quite a fast song, but when they finally got off the tour and went into the studio, Leiber and Stoller, who were going to be the producers for this new group just like they had been for the old group, decided to slow it down.

They also decided that this was going to be a chance for them to experiment with some totally new production ideas. Stoller had become infatuated with a style called baion, a Brazillian musical style that is based on the same tresillo rhythm that a lot of New Orleans R&B is based on.

If you don’t remember the tresillo rhythm, we talked about it a lot in episodes on Fats Domino and others, but it’s that “bom [pause] bom-bom [pause] bom [pause] bom-bom” rhythm. We’ve always been calling it the tresillo, but when people talk about the Drifters’ music they always follow Stoller’s lead and call it the baion rhythm, so that’s what we’ll do in future.

They decided to use that rhythm, and also to use strings, which very few people had used on a rock and roll record before — this is an idea that several people seemed to have simultaneously, as we saw last week with Buddy Holly doing the same thing. It may, indeed, be that Leiber and Stoller had heard “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” and taken inspiration from it — Holly had died just over a month before the recording session for “There Goes My Baby”, and his single hit the top forty the same week that “There Goes My Baby” was recorded.

Stoller sketched out some string lines, which were turned into full arrangements by an old classmate of his, Stan Applebaum, who had previously arranged for Lucky Millinder, and who had written a hit for Sarah Vaughan, who was married to Treadwell.

Charlie Thomas was meant to sing lead on the track, but he just couldn’t get it right, and eventually it was decided to have King sing it instead, as he’d written the song. King tried to imitate the sound of Sam Cooke, but it came out sounding like no-one but King himself.

Then, as a final touch, Leiber and Stoller decided to use a kettledrum on the track, rather than a normal drum kit. There was only one problem — the drummer they booked didn’t know how to change the pitch on the kettledrum using the foot pedal. So he just kept playing the same note throughout the song, even as the chords changed:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby”]

When Leiber and Stoller took that to their bosses at Atlantic Records, they were horrified. Jerry Wexler said “It’s dog meat. You’ve wasted our money on an overpriced production that sounds like a radio caught between two stations. It’s a goddamn awful mess!”

Ahmet Ertegun was a little more diplomatic, but still said that the record was unreleasable. But eventually he let them have a go at remixing it, and then the label stuck the record out, assuming it would do nothing.

Instead, it went to number two on the charts, and became one of the biggest hits of 1959. Not only that, but it instantly opened up the possibilities for new ways of producing records. The new Drifters were a smash hit, and Leiber and Stoller were now as respected as producers as they already had been as songwriters. They got themselves a new office in the Brill Building, and they were on top of the world.

But already there was a problem for the new Drifters, and that problem was named Lover Patterson.

Rather than sign the Crowns to a management deal as a group, Patterson had signed them all as individuals, with separate contracts. And when he’d allowed George Treadwell to take over their management, he’d only sold the contracts for three of the four members. Ben E. King was still signed to Lover Patterson, rather than to George Treadwell. And Patterson decided that he was going to let King sing on the records, but he wasn’t going to let him tour with the group.

So there was yet another lineup change for the Drifters, as they got in Johnnie Lee Williams to sing King’s parts on stage. Williams would sing one lead with the group in the studio, “If You Cry True Love, True Love”:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, “If You Cry True Love, True Love”]

But for the most part, King was the lead singer in the studio, and so there were five Drifters on the records, but only four on the road. But they were still having hits, and everybody seemed happy.

And soon, they would all have the biggest hit of their careers, with a song that Doc Pomus had written with Mort Shuman, about his own wedding reception. We’ll hear more about that, and about Leiber and Stoller’s apprentice Phil Spector, when we return to the Drifters in a few weeks time.

Mar 23, 2020
Episode 74: “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” by Buddy Holly
0:00

Episode seventy-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” by Buddy Holly, and at the reasons he ended up on the plane that killed him. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper.

 Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/—-more—-

Before I get to the resources and transcript, a quick apology. This one is up more than a day late. I’ve not been coping very well with all the news about coronavirus outbreak (I’m one of those who’s been advised by the government to sel-isolate for three months) and things are taking longer than normal. Next week’s should be up at the normal time.

Also, no Mixcloud this week — I get a server error when uploading the file to Mixcloud’s site.

Erratum

I mention that Bob Dylan saw the first show on the Winter Dance Party tour with no drummer. He actually saw the last one with the drummer, who was hospitalised that night after the show, not before the show as I had thought. 

Resources

 

I’ve used two biographies for the bulk of the information here — Buddy Holly: Learning the Game, by Spencer Leigh, and Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly by Philip Norman. I also used  Beverly Mendheim’s book on Ritchie Valens.

There are many collections of Buddy Holly’s work available, but many of them are very shoddy, with instrumental overdubs recorded over demos after his death. The best compilation I am aware of is The Memorial Collection, which contains almost everything he issued in his life, as he issued it (for some reason two cover versions are missing) along with the undubbed acoustic recordings that were messed with and released after his death.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

Before I begin, this episode will deal with both accidental bereavement and miscarriage, so if you think those subjects might be traumatising, you may want to skip this one.

Today, we’re going to look at a record that holds a sad place in rock and roll’s history, because it’s the record that is often credited as “the first posthumous rock and roll hit”.

Now, that’s not strictly true — as we’ve talked about before in this podcast, there is rarely, if ever, a “first” anything at all, and indeed we’ve already looked at an earlier posthumous hit when we talked about “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. But it is a very sad fact that “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” by Buddy Holly ended up becoming the first of several posthumous hit records that Holly had, and that there would be many more posthumous hit records by other performers after him than there had been before him.

Buddy Holly’s death is something that hangs over every attempt to tell his story. More than any other musician of his generation, his death has entered rock and roll mythology. Even if you don’t know Holly’s music, you probably know two things about him — that he wore glasses, and that he died in a plane crash. You’re likely also to know that Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in the same crash, even if you don’t know any of the songs that either of those two artists recorded.

Normally, when you’re telling a story, you’d leave that to the end, but in the case of Holly it overshadows his life so much that there’s absolutely no point trying to build up any suspense — not to mention that there’s something distasteful about turning a real person’s tragic death into entertainment. I hope I’ve not done so in episodes where other people have died, but it’s even more important not to do so here.

Because while the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper is always portrayed as an accident, the cause of their death has its roots in exploitation of young, vulnerable, people, and a pressure to work no matter what.

So today, we’re going to look at how “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” became Buddy Holly’s last single:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”]

People often talk about how Buddy Holly’s career was short, but what they don’t mention is that his chart career was even shorter. Holly’s first chart single, “That’ll Be the Day”, was released in May 1957. His last top thirty single during his lifetime, “Think it Over”, was released in May 1958. By the time he went on the Winter Dance Party, the tour that led to his death, in January 1959, he had gone many months without a hit, and his most recent record, “Heartbeat”, had only reached number eighty-two. He’d lost every important professional relationship in his life, and had split from the group that had made him famous. To see how this happened, we need to pick up where we left off with him last time.

You’ll remember that when we left the Crickets, they’d released “That’ll Be the Day”, and it hadn’t yet become a hit, and they’d also released “Words of Love” as a Buddy Holly solo single. While there were different names on them, the same people would make the records, whether it was a solo or group record — Buddy Holly on vocals and lead guitar, Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar, Jerry Allison on drums, Joe Mauldin on bass, and producer Norman Petty and his wife sometimes adding keyboards. They didn’t distinguish between “Buddy Holly” and “Crickets” material when recording — rather they separated it out later. The more straight-ahead rock and roll records would have backing vocals overdubbed on them, usually by a vocal group called the Picks, and would be released as Crickets records, while the more experimental ones would be left with only Holly’s vocal on, and would be released as solo records.

(There were no records released as by “Buddy Holly and the Crickets” at the time, because the whole idea of the split was that DJs would play two records instead of one if they appeared to be by different artists).

And they were recording *a lot*. Two days after “That’ll be the Day” was released, on the twenty-seventh of May 1957, they recorded “Everyday” and “Not Fade Away”. Between then and the first of July they recorded “Tell Me How”, “Oh Boy”, “Listen to Me”, “I’m Going to Love You Too”, and cover versions of Fats Domino’s “Valley of Tears” and Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy”. Remember, this was all before they’d had a single hit — “That’ll Be the Day” and “Words of Love” still hadn’t charted.

This is quite an astonishing outpouring of songs, but the big leap forward came on the second of July, when they made a second attempt at a song they’d attempted to record back in late 1956, and had been playing in their stage show since then. The song had originally been titled “Cindy Lou”, after Buddy’s niece, but Jerry Allison had recently started dating a girl named Peggy Sue Gerrison, and they decided to change the lyrics to be about her.

The song had also originally been played as a Latin-flavoured number, but when they were warming up, Allison started playing a fast paradiddle on his snare drum. Holly decided that they were going to change the tempo of the song and have Allison play that part all the way through, though this meant that Allison had to go out and play in the hallway rather than in the main studio, because the noise from his drums was too loud in the studio itself.

The final touch came when Petty decided, on the song’s intro, to put the drums through the echo chamber and keep flicking the switch on the echo from “on” to “off”, so it sounded like there were two drummers playing:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “Peggy Sue”]

Someone else was flicking a switch, too — Niki Sullivan was already starting to regret joining the Crickets, because there really wasn’t room for his rhythm guitar on most of the songs they were playing. And on “Peggy Sue” he ended up not playing at all. On that song, Buddy had to switch between two pickups — one for when he was singing, and another to give his guitar a different tone during the solo. But he was playing so fast that he couldn’t move his hand to the switch, and in those days there were no foot pedals one could use for the same sort of effect. So Niki Sullivan became Holly’s foot pedal. He knelt beside Holly and waited for the point when the solo was about to start, and flicked the switch on his guitar. When the solo came to an end again, Sullivan flicked the switch again and it went back to the original sound.

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “Peggy Sue”]

It’s a really strange sounding record, if you start to pay attention to it. Other than during the solo, Holly’s guitar is so quiet that you can hear the plectrum as loudly as you can hear the notes. He just keeps up a ram-a-ram-a quaver downstrum throughout the whole song, which sounds simple until you try to play it, at which point you realise that you start feeling like your arm’s going to fall off about a quarter of the way through. And there’s just that, those drums (playing a part which must be similarly physically demanding) with their weird echo, and Holly’s voice. In theory, Joe Mauldin’s bass is also in there, but it’s there at almost homeopathic levels. It’s a record that is entirely carried by the voice, the drums, and the guitar solo.

Of course, Niki Sullivan wasn’t happy about being relegated to guitar-switch-flicker, and there were other tensions within the group as well. Holly was having an affair with a married woman at the time — and Jerry Allison, who was Holly’s best friend as well as his bandmate, was also in love with her, though not in a relationship with her, and so Holly had to keep his affair hidden from his best friend. And not only that, but Allison and Sullivan were starting to have problems with each other, too.

To help defuse the situation, Holly’s brother Larry took him on holiday, to go fishing in Colorado. But even there, the stress of the current situation was showing — Buddy spent much of the trip worried about the lack of success of “That’ll Be the Day”, and obsessing over a new record by a new singer, Paul Anka, that had gone to number one:

[Excerpt: Paul Anka, “Diana”]

Holly was insistent that he could do better than that, and that his records were at least as good. But so far they were doing nothing at all on the charts.

But then a strange thing happened. “That’ll Be the Day” started getting picked up by black radio stations. It turned out that there had been another group called the Crickets — a black doo-wop group from about five years earlier, led by a singer called Dean Barlow, who had specialised in smooth Ink Spots-style ballads:

[Excerpt The Crickets featuring Dean Barlow, “Be Faithful”]

People at black radio stations had assumed that this new group called the Crickets was the same one, and had then discovered that “That’ll Be the Day” was really rather good. The group even got booked on an otherwise all-black tour headlined by Clyde McPhatter and Otis Rush, booked by people who hadn’t realised they were white. Before going on the tour, they formally arranged to have Norman Petty be their manager as well as their producer.

They were a success on the tour, though when it reached the Harlem Apollo, which had notoriously hostile audiences, the group had to reconfigure their sets, as the audiences didn’t like any of Holly’s original material except “That’ll Be the Day”, but did like the group’s cover versions of R&B records like “Bo Diddley”:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “Bo Diddley (Undubbed Version)”]

Some have said that the Crickets were the first white act to play the Apollo. That’s not the case — Bobby Darin had played there before them, and I think so had the jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and maybe one or two others. But it was still a rarity, and the Crickets had to work hard to win the audience around.

After they finished that tour, they moved on to a residency at the Brooklyn Paramount, on an Alan Freed show that also featured Little Richard and Larry Williams — who the Crickets met for the first time when they walked into the dressing room to find Richard and Williams engaged in a threesome with Richard’s girlfriend.

During that engagement at the Paramount, the tensions within the group reached boiling point. Niki Sullivan, who was in an awful mood because he was trying to quit smoking, revealed the truth about Holly’s affair to Allison, and the group got in a fist-fight. According to Sullivan — who seems not to have always been the most reliable of interviewees — Sullivan gave Jerry Allison a black eye, and then straight away they had to go to the rooftop to take the photo for the group’s first album, The “Chirping” Crickets. Sullivan says that while the photo was retouched to hide the black eye, it’s still visible, though I can’t see it myself.

After this, they went into a three-month tour on a giant package of stars featuring Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, the Bobbettes, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, and many more. By this point, both “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” had risen up the charts — “That’ll Be the Day” eventually went to number one, while “Peggy Sue” hit number three — and the next Crickets single, “Oh Boy!” was also charting.

“Oh Boy!” had originally been written by an acquaintance of the band, Sonny West, who had recorded his own version as “All My Love” a short while earlier:

[Excerpt: Sonny West, “All My Love”]

Glen Hardin, the piano player on that track, would later join a lineup of the Crickets in the sixties (and later still would be Elvis’ piano player and arranger in the seventies). Holly would later also cover another of West’s songs, “Rave On”.

The Crickets’ version of “Oh Boy!” was recorded at a faster tempo, and became another major hit, their last top ten:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, “Oh Boy!”]

Around the time that came out, Eddie Cochran joined the tour, and like the Everly Brothers he became fast friends with the group. The group also made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Holly, Mauldin, and Allison enthusiastically performing “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue”, and Sullivan enthusiastically miming and playing an unplugged guitar.

Sullivan was becoming more and more sidelined in the group, and when they returned to Lubbock at the end of the tour — during which he’d ended up breaking down and crying — he decided he was going to quit the group.

Sullivan tried to have a solo career, releasing “It’s All Over” on Dot Records:

[Excerpt: Niki Sullivan, “It’s All Over”]

But he had no success, and ended up working in electronics, and in later years also making money from the Buddy Holly nostalgia industry. He’d only toured as a member of the group for a total of ninety days, though he’d been playing with them in the studio for a few months before that, and he’d played on a total of twenty-seven of the thirty-two songs that Holly or the Crickets would release in Holly’s lifetime.

While he’d been promised an equal share of the group’s income — and Petty had also promised Sullivan, like all the other Crickets, that he would pay 10% of his income to his church — Sullivan got into endless battles with Petty over seeing the group’s accounts, which Petty wouldn’t show him, and eventually settled for getting just $1000, ten percent of the recording royalties just for the single “That’ll Be the Day”, and co-writing royalties on one song, “I’m Going to Love You Too”. His church didn’t get a cent.

Meanwhile, Petty was busy trying to widen the rifts in the group. He decided that while the records would still be released as either “Buddy Holly” or “the Crickets”, as a live act they would from now on be billed as “Buddy Holly and the Crickets”, a singer and his backing group, and that while Mauldin and Allison would continue to get twenty-five percent of the money each, Holly would be on fifty percent. This was an easy decision, since Petty was handling all the money and only giving the group pocket money rather than giving them their actual shares of the money they’d earned.

The group spent all of 1958 touring, visiting Hawaii, Australia, the UK, and all over the US, including the famous last ever Alan Freed tour that we looked at recently in episodes on Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. They got in another guitarist, Tommy Allsup, who took over the lead role while Buddy played rhythm, and who joined them on tour, though he wasn’t an official member of the group. The first recording Allsup played on was “It’s So Easy”:

[Excerpt: The Crickets, “It’s So Easy”]

But the group’s records were selling less and less well. Holly was getting worried, and there was another factor that came into play. On a visit to New York, stopping in to visit their publisher in the Brill Building, all three of the Crickets became attracted to the receptionist, a Puerto Rican woman named Maria Elena Santiago who was a few years older than them. They all started to joke about which of them would ask her out, and Holly eventually did so.

It turned out that while Maria Elena was twenty-five, she’d never yet been on a date, and she had to ask the permission of her aunt, who she lived with, and who was also the head of the Latin-American division of the publishing company. The aunt rang round every business contact she had, satisfied herself that Buddy was a nice boy, and gave her blessing for the date.

The next day, she was giving her blessing for the two to marry — Buddy proposed on the very first date. They eventually went on a joint honeymoon with Jerry Allison and Peggy Sue.

But Maria Elena was someone who worked in the music industry, and was a little bit older, and she started saying things to Buddy like “You need to get a proper accounting of the money that’s owed you”, and “You should be getting paid”. This strained his relationship with Petty, who didn’t want any woman of colour butting her nose in and getting involved in his business.

Buddy moved to a flat in Greenwich Village with Maria Elena, but for the moment he was still working with Petty, even after Petty used some extremely misogynistic slurs I’m not going to repeat here against his new wife. But he was worried about his lack of hits, and they tried a few different variations on the formula. The Crickets recorded one song, a cover version of a song they’d learned on the Australian tour, with Jerry Allison singing lead. It was released under the name “Ivan” — Allison’s middle name — and became a minor hit:

[Excerpt: Ivan, “Real Wild Child”]

They tried more and more different things, like getting King Curtis in to play saxophone on “Reminiscing”, and on one occasion dispensing with the Crickets entirely and having Buddy cut a Bobby Darin song, “Early in the Morning”, with other musicians. They were stockpiling recordings much faster than they could release them, but the releases weren’t doing well at all. “It’s So Easy” didn’t even reach the top one hundred.