Thursday, July 28, 2016

SHG: Marty Robbins: "A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation"

Marty Robbins: “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”
Entered the chart on: 4/27/1957
Peaked on: 6/3/1957
Weeks at #2: 1 week
Song at #1: “Love Letters in the Sand” by Pat Boone

For the record, I was singing “A white sport coat and a pink crustacean” along with this long before I knew there was a Jimmy Buffett album by that title. So there!

So the story goes, Mitch Miller, feeling a bit guilty about cheating up and coming Arizona country singer Marty Robbins out of a #1 hit by giving his debut tune—“Singing the Blues”—to white-bread Guy Mitchell to sing, lent Robbins musical director Ray Conniff and his orchestra for this one tune as a peace offering. The result was an almost-chart-topper.

My grandparents, being Grapes of Wrath people, were huge country music fans, so I heard lots of Marty Robbins while visiting them. I had somehow forgotten that this song was his, though. Is it because of the Conniff? Johnnie Ray certainly didn’t fare well against his orchestral accompaniment, but Marty was performing his own song. Time to refresh my memory of this one, so let’s see how he fares.

Marty is one of those singers that’s absolutely infuriating to someone like me who struggles with his singing. He makes hitting the high notes sound so easy. He was also blessed with a very pleasing upper register, lacking in the piercing, strident quality that makes, say, Slim Whitman so offensive to many listeners.

That’s not so much of an issue with this tune, it doesn’t show off his high range to the degree that some of his other hits do. Still, he hits all the notes very precisely without sounding “technical.” Or like “your dad singing,” as some have accused Perry Como of resembling. And he delivers the bittersweet message of the tune, a man stood up by his date, without becoming mawkish or histrionic.

This definitely sounds a lot less country than I’m used to from Robbins. This is more of a rock-inflected pop song, very in step with the times, with some pleasing but not overwhelming electric guitar. The bit half-way through, where the male backing chorus take over the melody, comes across as a bit corny, almost like the tune turns into something out of a Victorian operetta all of a sudden. I guess Conniff couldn’t resist leaving his smudgy fingerprints on this somehow.

This was Marty’s biggest hit until he stayed true to his artistic vision and made the album he always wanted to: an album of old-time cowboy and gunfighter tunes. The result was a #1, career-defining song that people still know and love to this day.

I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Rating: 4

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

SHG: The Diamonds: "Little Darlin'"

The Diamonds: “Little Darlin’”
Entered the chart on: 3/16/1957
Peaked on: 4/6/1957
Weeks at #2: 8 weeks
Songs at #1: “Round and Round” by Perry Como and “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley

This song has to have been recorded as a joke. It has to be.

I mean, every aspect of this recording is just absurd. Even before the vocals begin, we’re met with clanking Latin percussion and a flamboyant harp flourish. What are we to make of this?

I thought we had left whitewashing back in ’55. I do have to say, this is a long way from the Crew-Cuts turning the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” into a cure for insomnia. It’s helpful to compare the comparatively restrained original version by the Gladiolas. Gladiolas’ lead singer Maurice Williams (also the song’s composer) does indeed impart some rather silly vocal mannerisms (“My love-a, I was wrong-a”) but compared to David Troy’s delivery on the cover, it’s no comparison.

Troy goes absolutely bonkers on this song, hooting and barking and leaping into sudden falsetto bursts. Even when listening to my parents’ copy of this record, I thought his performance was absolutely hilarious. I get the feeling he was spoofing the Platters’ lead singer Tony Williams (not to be confused with the jazz drummer), compare Stan Freberg’s parody of Williams on his version of “The Great Pretender*.”

It was almost a stroke of genius to give the spoken part in the middle to bass singer Bill Reed (it was recited by Williams on the original). It’s in keeping with the silly mood of the song and it’s just one more touch of distinction in a series of attention-grabbing moments. Appropriately, considering who had the top spot, we’re definitely in Type #1 territory in the “strategies for white-washing R&B hits.”

And...dare I say it? Not only is this version on a par with the original, it may in fact surpass it! Well, who’d have thunk it? A white-washed version that’s better than the original? Yes, it’s true, there’s a reason this has endured. You remember this one because it demands your attention. Not only does everyone sing well, but they’re enthused by their performances and put their all into it. I suppose you could compare it to Blue Swede’s “ooga-chaka” rendition of “Hooked on a Feeling” stealing the spotlight from B. J. Thomas’ serious original. I wouldn’t go there, though, as I find Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” to be an abomination.

This, on the other hand, I find enjoyable from start to finish. I make no apologies for my rating.

Besides, the Gladiolas did OK. They changed their name to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and wound up topping the charts a few years down the road with the classic “Stay.”

Rating: 5

*re-imagined as a skit in which Williams argues with a beatnik pianist, who objects to how boring the part he has to play is.

SHG: Tommy Sands: "Teen-Age Crush"

Tommy Sands: “Teen-Age Crush”
Entered the chart on: 2/23/1957
Peaked on: 3/16/1957
Weeks at #2: 2 weeks
Song at #1: “Young Love” by Tab Hunter

So, my current review schedule has me binging on 50s music. Artists I’ve long appreciated but forgotten about: LaVern Baker, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and so on. A recent whim dug up this oddity* from my parents’ record collection. It always creeped me out a bit; why should a bouncy, uptempo piano-shuffle instrumental have this unearthly, wordless soprano choir delivering the melody? And then that infectious rock & roll sax solo comes out of freaking nowhere! What a weird song! It’s no wonder it wasn’t a bigger hit (peaking at #38)!

By now I hear you asking, “Mike, are you stalling because you don’t want to review this edition’s song?” Maybe. Maybe because it’s sung by an actor who’s mainly remembered today for appearing opposite Annette Funicello in the Disney musical Babes in Toyland. Or for his failed marriage to Nancy Sinatra. Or because it’s called “Teen-Age Crush.” Anyway, the edition in my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Hits has a check-mark in pencil next to it, which means I have heard this song before, but I have no memory of it. Rateyourmusic reviewer “Paddlesteamer” quotes a Youtube comment on this song: “I didn’t like this song back in ’57 and after listening to it again I still don’t.” Bodes well, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s get this over with...


Listening to him over-sing, over-enunciate and generally make me cringe is not a pleasant experience. He just has this over-loaded kind of voice that is just off-putting to listen to. Think someone without vocal training trying to imitate Anthony Newley and you get an idea of his voice. The instrumental track is your typical rock-imitative pop song of the era, with the insistent plink-plink-plink piano and “ah-ahhh” backing vocal support**.

It’s funny, it’s like people didn’t realize that teenagers were a thing that existed until 1956 or so, and that it was an audience that could be pandered to. This is exploitation, pure and simple. As bad as I know this is, I only know it’s going to get worse as the really crass and embarrassing “youth oriented” stuff begins to surface. I see Bobby Rydell and Paul Anka in my near future and I am not looking forward to it!

I should look on the bright side. I could be reviewing this single’s B-side, “Hep Dee Hootie (Cutie Wootie).” Or Tab Hunter’s “Young Love,” for that matter. What a toxic top 2 this is!

Rating: 0

*in case the link doesn’t work, the tune is “Cha-Hua-Hua” by the Pets.
**I see that’s the Jordanaires on backing vocals, they who were heard to much better effect on many of Patsy Cline’s big hits.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

SHG: Fats Domino: "Blueberry Hill"

Fats Domino: “Blueberry Hill”
Entered the chart on: 10/13/1956
Peaked on: 1/19/1957
Weeks at #2: 3 weeks
Song at #1: “Singing the Blues” by Guy Mitchell

And finally, we make it to 1957. Sorry for the delay in getting back to reviewing the #2s but I’ve been busy cooking recipes from dusty old ads and posting cartoons inspired by the Dingley Tariff. Such is life.

Fats already had a string of classic singles under his belt when he was cruelly cheated out of a #1 hit by Pat Boone and those clowns at Dot Records back in ’55. This enduring classic is as close as he’d ever have to a number one hit. And here it sits in pole position behind Guy Mitchell’s watering down of a classic Marty Robbins song. Such is life.

Allow me to say right out of the gate that I’m extremely envious of Fats Domino and performers like him. The ease with which he applies his distinctive piano style to a song WHILE singing is a real skill. Love that intro he bangs out at the start that says, “Fats is here!” I mean, it’s a pretty basic 12-bar blues, but his piano playing and thick, meaty voice make the tune.

Appropriate that this should come right after Elvis bumping and grinding his way through “Love Me.” The sexual connotation of this song, too, cannot be denied. It’s pretty obvious when he sings that he “found his thrill,” he’s talking about sex. Why else would the opening line be used as a G-rated euphemism for Richie Cunningham getting a teenage boner on 1970s family-hour TV? The 50s old guard must have been up in arms.

Fats keeps it tasteful though, even poetic. “The wind in the willow played love’s sweet melody”? You could imagine Prince scribbling down notes as he listened to this.

I really can’t deny this one’s classic status. I could listen to stuff like this all day.

Rating: 5

Mike Makes Thrifty Tetrazzini

All you need are a ton of substitutions and quotation marks!

Mike Makes Macaroni & Cheese Pizza

I neglected to post this! I’m a bad blogger:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

SHG: Elvis Presley: "Love Me"

Elvis Presley: “Love Me”
Entered the chart on: 11/24/1956
Peaked on: 12/29/1956
Weeks at #2: 3 weeks
Song at #1: “Singing the Blues” by Guy Mitchell

The last song to peak at #2 in 1956 (but not the last #2 song to enter the chart in 1956), and it’s fitting that it’s from the man who spent the entirety of September and October in the top spot. I do hope I don’t need to tell you who Elvis Presley is, but we’ll get into some of the cultural and social ramifications of him and this song soon enough.

This isn’t one of his better-known songs. It isn’t unknown, by any means, but it isn’t one of the songs one thinks of immediately when Elvis’ name is brought up. Maybe it ought to be better-known. It was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of the genius songwriting teams of early rock & roll. Note that Elvis only had his first hit in March of that year, and this was his tenth entry in the Top 40, half of those were #1 hits.

This is a ballad, but even this stands apart from the male ballads heretofore enjoying popularity. Listening to Elvis’ delivery, there’s an undeniably sexual undertone to his voice. You can sense the passion in every note he sings. You really get why young girls went crazy for him, and why their parents were scared of him. Elvis was the kind of guy who would get your daughter pregnant.

The obvious comparison here would be to Carl Perkins. Both Carl and Elvis were nurtured by Sam Phillips over at Sun Records. But while Carl continued to slum it over at Sun, Elvis graduated to RCA, where he enjoyed much bigger production values. Playing this (or any of Elvis’ early singles for RCA) back-to-back with “Blue Suede Shoes” is interesting, to compare the stripped-down Sun treatment to the big-budget treatment with a big vocal chorus on “Love Me.” You don’t even need to compare it to another artist, though, just listen to one of Elvis’ early sides for Sun, then compare it to this.

I didn’t used to like Elvis. My mom liked Elvis, so I always felt it was “her” music. Now, with both Elvis and Mom passed on, listening to his music evokes bittersweet memories. I definitely appreciate his talent a lot more now than I did then. And listening to this with fresh ears, I get it!

Rating: 5

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SHG: Johnnie Ray: "Just Walking in the Rain"

Johnnie Ray: “Just Walking in the Rain”
Entered the chart on: 9/8/1956
Peaked on: 10/13/1956
Weeks at #2: 1 week
Songs at #1: “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley

This is an interesting top 2, artist-wise, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Poor old Johnnie Ray. A big, beloved singing star in the 50s, nowadays reduced to a passing mention in a one-hit wonder by a bunch of English boys play-acting at being Irish folkies until they got bored and moved onto their next image change. Johnnie deserves better, as he’s arguably the most fascinating male solo singer of the 1950s.

Johnnie was undeniably an oddity in 50s pop music with his rich, impassioned vocal delivery. His odd, androgynous voice confused listeners at first; many when they first heard him on the radio pictured a large, black woman, not a slender, white man. Some have claimed him to be a big influence on rock & roll, though to these ears the real inheritors of his pioneering style were the dramatic male balladeers of the 60s, singers like Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney.

It’s helpful to listen to both sides of his breakthrough single. The A-side, “Cry,” is quintessential Johnnie, and boils down his appeal nicely in three minutes. Interesting perhaps more historically than musically is the self-penned B-side, “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” This might be one of the most confessional songs of its era, its lyrics overflowing with subtext.

You see, Johnnie was gay. As in “couldn’t hide it if he tried” gay.

Columbia tried to keep him in the closet, but Johnnie’s effeminate mannerisms couldn’t be covered up. Frank Sinatra carried on a very public (and obviously more than a bit homophobic) hate campaign against Johnnie. But he had many friends as well as enemies, Frankie Laine and SHG alumnus Doris Day were Johnnie boosters, and fellow SHG alumni the Four Lads backed Johnnie on his early singles. He helped give (the also underrated and sadly forgotten) Timi Yuro* her first break. Elvis Presley counted Johnnie as an early influence, as did later stars such as David Bowie. And that’s not even counting the legions of (mostly female) fans he commanded at the time.

Got all that? Good. Because I really dislike this song.

Ugh! Where to begin? Johnnie is just the wrong singer for a song like this. The lyrics are the usual heartbreak theme that Johnnie has done a good job of milking for years. But Ray Conniff does an awful job of trying to turn this into a Pat Boone song, with drippy backing vocals, an annoying whistling hook and inappropriate ukulele accompaniment. It’s like he was trying to sabotage the song, or at least try to make him more acceptable for the squeaky-clean, increasingly conservative tastes of grown-up audiences as the 50s progressed. Johnnie tries, but he can’t save what’s essentially a pretty poor song.

I’d say “go ahead and listen to ‘Cry’ instead,” which would be good sooth, but pretty much any of Johnnie’s songs would be preferable. The follow-up hit, “You Don’t Owe Me a Thing,” is infinitely better as is its B-side, the gorgeous “Look Homeward, Angel.” This isn’t the first time a singer I like has released a song I hate (I’ve mentioned Kay Starr’s “Rock and Roll Waltz” in passing; don’t get me started, it’ll turn into a rant) and it won’t be the last (ask my opinion on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” some time).

Rating: 2

*their duet on a rendition of Frankie Laine’s “I Believe” must be heard to be believed; both singers are in fine form.

SHG: Bill Doggett: "Honky Tonk"

Bill Doggett: “Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)”
Entered the chart on: 8/25/1956
Peaked on: 10/6/1956
Weeks at #2: 3 weeks
Songs at #1: “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley

Why I prefer 1956 to 1955: diversity. Even that big chunk of female soloists we hit a couple of editions back had variety, from Cathy Carr’s traditional romantic ballad, Doris Day’s sprightly lullaby and Patti Page’s country-flavored mood piece. And now we have a second instrumental in a row, but I don’t expect it to be anything at all like “Canadian Sunset.” The reason? Keyboardist Bill Doggett was a jazz musician, sideman for Ella Fitzgerald and the like. And in two parts? I’m actually looking forward to this one! Don’t disappoint me, Bill!

I like how Bill gives a lot of space to his sidemen. His organ’s there, softly comping in the background, but the guitar plucks out that shuffle rhythm as the saxophones carry the head melody. Then the guitarist wails and we get a sax solo. Frustratingly, it fades out in the middle of it. “Parts 1 & 2” my ass! You’re ripping me off, King Records! I now need to seek out the extended album mix, as I’m sure Bill has an organ solo lurking there.

Crummy single edits aside, this is the closest thing to real rock & roll we’ve had since Carl Perkins’ tune. It’s structured like a jazz piece, though: head/solos/head. Only it fades out in the middle of the “solos” bit and we never get that head repeat. Which composer was it that would be irked if someone played an incomplete scale on the piano, and would need to get up from whatever he was doing, stroll over to the piano and finish it? Mendelssohn? Am I getting off topic now? In any case, the single edit reminds me of that.

All that aside, I enjoyed this immensely and would gladly listen to it again.

Rating: 4

Sunday, July 17, 2016

SHG: Hugo Winterhalter (feat. Eddie Heywood): "Canadian Sunset"

Hugo Winterhalter: “Canadian Sunset”
Entered the chart on: 7/28/1956
Peaked on: 9/29/1956
Weeks at #2: 2 weeks
Song at #1: “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley

Thus far, 1956 has been a vast improvement over 1955 on all fronts. Three superb female-sung tunes, an early rock & roll classic, and even the Four Lads tune was tolerable. I’m just waiting for someone to ruin it. This is an instrumental from RCA Victor’s musical director, written by pianist Eddie Heywood as a vehicle for a solo for himself, it looks like. Well, let’s see what we have here.

So...where in Canada is this? Banff? Algonquin Park? Mont-Tremblant? Canada’s a big place!

OK, I was expecting something a lot more unbearable, à la “Melody of Love,” but the softly swinging saxophones and the slight “cinematic” (more like “travelogue,” but it was the 50s) feel make this a lot more easy to take. The piano makes me think of Ferrante & Teicher (post-prepared piano period, alas) and the screeching strings that tend to be all over recordings like this threaten to ruin it.

I’m trying to put these dreamy, easy-listening instrumentals in some kind of context. I have this picture in my head of some grizzled Spanish-American War veteran hobbling over to the Wurlitzer, dropping a nickel in, selecting C1 on the hit parade, popping a Sen-Sen into his mouth, then holding out a hand to his beloved and asking her, “Care for a dance, m’dear?”

Can you think of a more plausible explanation?

Rating: 3

SHG: Patti Page: "Allegheny Moon"

Patti Page: “Allegheny Moon”
Entered the chart on: 6/16/1956
Peaked on: 8/25/1956
Weeks at #2: 2 weeks
Songs at #1: “My Prayer” by the Platters

Except for Freda Lipschitz, Joni James and [shudder] Margie, 1955 had been pretty much a sausagefest. And here we are in 1956, with three female soloists in a row. How do these things happen?

I’ve mentioned the former Clara Ann Fowler already in passing, as the most popular female soloist before rock & roll was on everyone’s mind, alongside the #1 male soloist, Perry Como. Why these two, you might ask? Simple, they both had prominent musical variety TV shows at the time.

If you know Ms. Page at all today, it’s probably for her 1950 smash hit “Tennessee Waltz.” Either that, or the noxious novelty hit “Doggie in the Window.” Hopefully for the former and not the latter. So, let’s check this one out.

OK, thus far we’ve had three female-sung tunes in a row, and they’ve all been quite excellent. Patti was from Oklahoma, so it makes sense that her songs would have a country tinge. It’s definitely country-flavored, nobody would mistake this for Patsy Cline, for example. But her voice is rich! You could practically drown in it!

The “shine, shine, shine” hook grabs you and draws you into the loping waltz-time rhythm, but I think Vic Schoen, who orchestrated this, deserves a lot of credit. Patti gets some solid support from her male chorus, and there’s a haunting harmonica solo in the middle eight.

Like “Ivory Tower,” I liked this a lot more than I expected to! This one’s long on atmosphere, which I didn’t expect. I was all ready to dismiss Patti as a dated relic, but after listening to this, I kind of want to go back in time and kick my past self for being so dismissive.

I’m sighing with delight now. Very pretty song!

Rating: 4

Saturday, July 16, 2016

SHG: Doris Day: "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué será, será)"

Doris Day: “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué será, será)”
Entered the chart on: 7/7/1956
Peaked on: 8/11/1956
Weeks at #2: 3 weeks
Songs at #1: “I Almost Lost My Mind” by Pat Boone and “My Prayer” by the Platters

Hmmm...that Pat Boone song at #1 is making me want to listen to Ivory Joe Hunter. Come to think of it, most Pat Boone songs make me want to listen to something else.

I first knew Doris Day not as a singer, but as an actress, via her 60s romantic comedies like Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. These films kind of get short-shrift these days but they deserve a bit of credit for presenting Doris as an independent, sexually active and successful working woman in the days before feminism. And there was a bit of witty dialogue there, not to mention good chemistry with her male leads, as long as we’re talking about Rock Hudson when we say “male leads” (Such films rather jumped the shark with the Rod Taylor co-starring The Glass Bottom Boat, and the less said about Caprice the better!).

Sure, they weren’t without their flaws (see the latter-day spoof Down With Love for a funny take-off of both their flaws and their charms), but they weren’t bad. But the point I’m trying to make is, I didn’t even know that Doris had a whole other career as a singer, and that said career was actually her first (somehow ignoring the fact that the theme song to Send Me No Flowers* was sung by her).

Actually, pity the case of poor Doris Day. She’d had a stellar career as a singer, starting with her classic lead vocal performance on Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey,” yet it seems the only song people wanted her to sing was this one cutesy bilingual children’s song. It even wound up as the theme to her 1960s TV series (which at least gave Denver Pyle some work). Never mind the question as to why Doris Kappelhoff’s German immigrant mother should suddenly start spouting Spanish aphorisms.

It helps to listen to “Sentimental Journey” for comparison. For those baffled by Doris Day’s appeal, listen to that song, and think of what a revelation a knockout blonde with a lustrous voice murmuring sweet nothings into your ear must have been in 1945. Tastes by 1956, at least grown-up tastes, were a lot more sentimental.

It also helps to have context for this song. It was originally from a film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, to be specific. Now, Hitch was no dummy. If he had an actress who could sing in his film, damn it, she was going to sing!

That said, he was also not the sort to put random, pointless musical numbers into his film. This is the lullaby Day’s character sings to her son (played by child actor Christopher Olsen, big brother of The Brady Bunch star Susan Olsen). Without giving away spoilers (in case you haven’t seen the movie yet), the song becomes a plot point. Chew on that for a while when you’re remembering Ned Flanders singing this tune on The Simpsons, or the many ironic uses since.

Maybe it’s that that’s having me sense that there’s a bit of subtext that belies Day’s sunny performance on the recorded version that cuts past the sparkly orchestration, led by that jaunty mandolin hook. Day knew how to insert subtext into her singing, just ask those who claim there’s a gay subtext to her performance of “Secret Love,” her hit from the musical Calamity Jane. It’s precisely her ability to insert subtext into a song that got her acting gigs in the first place.

By the way, this song won an Oscar. So there must be something to it, even if you think it’s corny.

But...yes, I prefer “Sentimental Journey.”

Rating: 4

*“Send Me No Flowers” was an early Burt Bacharach composition. He’d also written songs for a couple of other SHG alumni: Nat “King” Cole and Cathy Carr, as well as artists I’ll be covering later such as Brook Benton, Marty Robbins and, of course, his preferred male interpreter Gene Pitney.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

SHG: Cathy Carr: "Ivory Tower"

Cathy Carr: “Ivory Tower”
Entered the chart on: 4/7/1956
Peaked on: 5/26/1956
Weeks at #2: 1 week
Song at #1: “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley

I’m becoming a bit gun-shy regarding “whitewashing.” When I saw that R&B vocal group Otis Williams and His Charms sang a version of this, naturally I assumed theirs was the original. But no, theirs was a cover. This was composed by trombonist Jack Fulton with songwriter Lois Steele, and given to struggling ex-big band singer Cathy Carr to sing. Well, it’s new to me, so let’s see what we have here...

I take back what I said about Joni James. Here is the real precursor to Connie Francis. Cathy, too was an Italian-American, born in the Bronx. Unlike Joni James, Cathy has a sumptuous voice, rich with vibrato, with a real feeling of sorrow in there. Maybe I’m reading a bit into it, with the knowledge that Cathy didn’t have a happy life, probably as this was her only major hit.

More of that eighth-note vamping style of piano that was very in vogue at the time. Dan Belloc’s orchestration includes a prominent accordion hook. But really, it’s Cathy selling the song that makes this sweet, romantic ballad. It’s just a damn shame that someone who sings as well as this didn’t have more of a career, but them’s the breaks, I guess.

Oh! And I see that Gale Storm did a version of this as well! Nope, not gonna go there! I’ll just assume it sucks and move on! And look, My Little Margie also mangled “Dark Moon,” the beautiful country song originally by Bonnie Guitar! To what end? Bonnie Guitar was also on Dot Records! Did Gale Storm just have it out for the listening public, and sought out to ruin songs from every genre in a concentrated attempt to get people to hate music?

Oh well, rant over! At least this version of this song is good. Well done, Cathy!

Rating: 4

SHG: Carl Perkins: "Blue Suede Shoes"

Carl Perkins: “Blue Suede Shoes”
Entered the chart on: 3/10/1956
Peaked on: 4/7/1956
Weeks at #2: 4 weeks
Song at #1: “The Poor People of Paris” by Les Baxter

Hey! The first song I’ve actually heard before doing this! I’m excited to refresh my memory of this one, so let’s get started.

And yes, the first real rock & roll number. Though this is by a white artist, it does not qualify as “whitewashing.” For you see, the “sophisticates” objections to rock & roll weren’t only racial. There was an element of class snobbery there as well. Perkins hails from Tennessee, and can’t hide his rural Southern accent, nor does he attempt to. It seems disenfranchised folks of all races excelled at rock & roll.

This is, of course, a Sun Records production courtesy of the legendary Sam Phillips. He was the man responsible for giving Elvis Presley his start. Elvis, of course, was quick to cover this song and made it his own (indeed, I originally heard Elvis’ version and heavily associate the song with him). But while Elvis certainly does a credible (read: excellent) version of this, Carl just owns it! As he ought to, it’s his song! (Trivia time: that’s Perkins’ brothers Jay and Clayton on rhythm guitar and bass.)

Considering I just got done reviewing a Four Lads tune, I can only imagine how this raw, ragged, stripped-down thing (it’s just guitar, bass and drums) must have sounded in comparison. This was really something very, very different.

No wonder the old guard were scared.

Rating: 5

SHG: The Four Lads: "No, Not Much!"

The Four Lads: “No, Not Much!”
Entered the chart on: 1/28/1956
Peaked on: 3/3/1956
Weeks at #2: 4 weeks
Songs at #1: “Rock and Roll Waltz” by Kay Starr and “The Poor People of Paris” by Les Baxter

Another year, another Four Lads song. 1956 is shaping up to be a lot more interesting than 1955 was, so let’s get this out of the way tout de suite, shall we? (See what I did there? A little gratuitous French for the Canadian artist I’m covering. Can-con!)

Oh, I get it, the “No, Not Much!” is ironic. He’s saying that he really would like it if his beloved would do all these things. It’s like the 50s version of “I’m Not in Love” without the bitter aftertaste. “Like a ten-cent soda doesn’t really cost a dime” is a very period-specific reference, that’s for sure.

For whatever reason, this is working for me in a way “Moments to Remember” didn’t. Yes, the song is sentimental as hell, and their voices are whiter than bleached notebook paper, but it clicks for me. “Moments to Remember” sounded clunky to me with the wailing soprano and the silly narration. This flows along nicely, buoyed by Ray Ellis’ lush orchestration. That rousing orchestral intro definitely made me stand at attention, and I think that lured me into the song.

It may well be the key to this song being such a big hit. As much as the corny stuff from “Moments to Remember” felt embarrassing, it was attention-grabbing, too. And I see Ellis was responsible for the arrangement and conducting of that song, too. The man knows his stuff with regards to making a song memorable, I must give him that.

Rating: 3

Sunday, July 10, 2016

SHG: Gale Storm: "I Hear You Knocking"

Gale Storm: “I Hear You Knocking” Entered the chart on: 10/22/1955 Peaked on: 12/24/1955 Weeks at #2: 3 weeks Songs at #1: “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford and “Memories Are Made of This” by Dean Martin

Not gonna lie, I went back and listened to “A Blossom Fell” again after doing “Moments to Remember.” To cleanse the aural palate, you see. I knew what was coming...

Also went and listened to the original blues version by Smiley Lewis, which did not chart. For context, you see. I won’t make the same mistake I did with “Ko Ko Mo.” I was previously familiar only with Dave Edmunds’ version, like most people my age. His version has a different feel than Smiley’s (based around Edmunds’ guitar instead of the eighth-note piano chords and skronking sax that was popular on 50s R&B recordings) but he is faithful to the spirit of the original tune.

Something tells me I’m not going to get that from this version. So let’s get this over with, shall we?


Right, thus far in this review series, I have noticed three categories of these “whitewashed” covers:

1. Treat it like a silly novelty song (the Perry Como strategy)
2. Make a half-hearted attempt at copying the original version (the Freda Lipschitz approach)
3. Remove anything that was good about the original song and replace it with things that make you want to individually slap everyone involved with this travesty silly (Pat Boone’s general plan of action)

I’ll let you figure out which category this falls into by providing you with these three tidbits of information:

1. It was produced by Billy Vaughn (responsible for all those Pat Boone atrocities)
2. It was released on Dot Records (home to, you guessed it, Pat Boone)
3. It was sung by TV’s My Little Margie*.

I’m actually a bit shocked that something that was nominally made by “professionals” sounds so slip-shod. I’m immediately taken by the sloppy piano playing right out of the gate. Obviously, nobody involved had anything resembling respect for the original artist’s work. That and/or they knew they were backing a TV star play-acting at being a singer, someone who knew nothing about phrasing or intonation, so they didn’t feel the need to put, you know, effort into their performances.

Seriously, I know this woman was a popular star at the time, but who thought it was a good idea to stick her in front of an orchestra and put a microphone somewhere within range of her thin, nasal voice? It took all my force of will not to lunge for the “STOP” button, so unpleasant a vocalist is she to listen to. People actually bought this record? WHY?

Oh, and I see she has a version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” among her discography! No, not even going there! Even my Mom, a former member of Pat Boone’s fan club, owned the Frankie Lymon original, thank you very much.

So...that was 1955. Started off silly, ended tragically, but hey, at least it produced one masterpiece.

I think I’ll listen to “A Blossom Fell” a third time. Then I’ll drill a hole in my head and try to remove the part that remembers what Gale Storm’s singing voice sounds like.

Rating: 0

*For those too young to remember, My Little Margie is a 50s sitcom which has been so discredited over the years, not even the most desperate-for-content “nostalgia” networks will touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

SHG: The Four Lads: "Moments to Remember"

The Four Lads: “Moments to Remember”
Entered the chart on: 9/3/1955
Peaked on: 11/12/1955
Weeks at #2: 6 weeks
Songs at #1: “Autumn Leaves” by Roger Williams and “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

So, after the breath-taking masterpiece that is “A Blossom Fell,” any follow-up couldn’t help but be a disappointment. Bracing myself for a letdown here.

What is up with all the imported Can-Con back in the 50s? The Crew-Cuts, the Diamonds and now the Four Lads. Did US record companies just want to import talent from a country where the performers were guaranteed to be white? Or is that just me being my usual cynical self?

If you know the Four Lads for anything these days, it’s for their 1953 novelty hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” later covered-up by trendy indie rockers They Might Be Giants. Looking at their discography, it seems as though a lot of their early hits were novelty tunes, since we also have “Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree” (cringe) and “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea” (huh?).

Trivia about “Moments to Remember,” it was originally offered to Perry Como, but he turned it down. Bodes well, doesn’t it? So lets examine the case of the song that wasn’t good enough for the singer of “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)”:

One of those lads sounds awfully ladylike. Yes, I know, it’s guest singer Lois Winters. Get off my back!

Eh, this is the kind of sentimentality that hasn’t aged well for me. The lads’ squeaky-clean harmonies aren’t helping any. The spoken-word bit by guest narrator Pat Kirby (who thought this was a good idea? I’m beginning to see why Perry turned this down.) in the middle eight is all kinds of cheesy, though its suggestion of drive-in sex was kind of daring for a tune of this ilk, from this era. I guess they were kind of going for a rousing sing-along feel with this, considering they elected to keep the arrangement simple (is that a ukulele I hear?).

This isn’t doing it for me, I’m afraid. This is the kind of music the rock & rollers were rebelling against. And frankly, I can understand why.

Rating: 2

Thursday, July 7, 2016

SHG: Nat "King" Cole: "A Blossom Fell"

Nat “King” Cole: “A Blossom Fell”
Entered the chart on: 5/7/1955
Peaked on: 6/18/1955
Weeks at #2: 1 week
Song at #1: “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado & His Orchestra

What a relief it is not to be writing “Sincerely” in the #1 spot!

What a relief to have an artist who’s not whitewashing a black person’s hit, too! Mind you, Nat was one of those “black singers that it’s acceptable for white folks to like.” But don’t make that mean he’s worth your scorn. I’m familiar with some of his songs (though not this one), and he’s the real deal.

Wow! This is in a different world from everything I’ve heard so far! We’re barely a minute in, and just listening to his delivery of these lyrics almost has me in tears! He’s that good! There’s a nice, tasty trombone solo in the middle eight (Nelson Riddle conducted the orchestra for this baby, and it’s obvious he’s an old pro, too). But this is all about Nat’s voice, which is smooth as silk, gliding over the notes with ease, and oozing sincerity from every pore.

This one goes onto the “listen again” list.

I’m getting misty-eyed again!

Rating: 5

SHG: Joni James: "How Important Can It Be?"

Joni James: “How Important Can It Be?” Entered the chart on: 2/19/1955 Peaked on: 3/26/1955 Weeks at #2: 1 week Song at #1: “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters

It must have come as a breath of fresh air to the old guard to have a traditional female-sung ballad returning to the charts. That said, there’s a reason you remember, say, Doris Day or Connie Francis (to name two future artists I’ll be covering soon) and not Joni.

Joni is Italian-American, like Connie, and I guess you could say she’s her precursor. Definitely an old school singer of the “sing the notes on the right pitch but don’t get too excited” variety. I really can’t say much more about this than “it’s nice.” It’s professional and bland. Forgettable. I just listened to it and I already can’t remember how it goes. It sounds like a whole bunch of other songs just like this.

This is another artist I have a bit of a history with, as my grandparents owned a later single by her, “I Still Get a Thrill,” which was not a hit. I have a vague memory of the melody hook of that one but like this, it’s forgettable.

The Ray Charles Singers, who were on that Perry Como song, sang on this as well.

Rating: 2

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

SHG: Johnny Maddox: "The Crazy Otto"

Johnny Maddox & the Rhythm Masters: “The Crazy Otto”
Entered the chart on: 2/5/1955
Peaked on: 3/19/1955
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters

“Sincerely” looks unstoppable. To date, this is the third song stalled by the McGuire Sisters’ long stay at #1. For all that, I had to go out of my way to refresh my memory of it. I’d never have heard it at all had I not seen Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, in which the song is a plot point.

I like to put songs I review into some kind of context, but this is just baffling. On the face of it, we have Maddox banging on a woefully out-of-tune upright piano backed by his combo, playing a medley of old saloon-type tunes popularized by Fritz “Crazy Otto” Schulz-Reichel. Why? Had Crazy Otto died recently? No, he was still very much alive and churning out popular albums (he had a #1 album on the charts when this was released).

As near as I can guess, they were just doing what the “whitewashers” were doing, capitalizing on someone else’s success by cashing in with a quickie sound-alike release.

I don’t know, if you’re not allergic to off-key piano playing, this is not bad. Kind of fun in a nostalgic kind of way. We’re looking through two layers of nostalgia with this, as they were already evoking another time and place with this recording. Sounds like something that would be played in an old Straw Hat Pizza, or the like.

I kind of want to put it on at one of those internet jukeboxes at a latter-day pizza place, just to see what peoples’ reactions would be.

Rating: 3

SHG: Georgia Gibbs: "Tweedle Dee"

Georgia Gibbs: “Tweedle Dee”
Entered the charts on: 1/29/1955
Peaked on: 5/12/1955
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters

So, let’s talk about “whitewashing.”

I know, we’ve already been here with Perry Como’s “rock & roll song.” But I didn’t expect to come back to this well again so soon. So, since this song strikes a personal chord with me, I thought I’d talk about my personal experience with this phenomenon.

You see, as a kid, I liked that early rock & roll stuff. You know, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, that kind of thing. So, when my mother came home from her folks’ house with an armload of records she bought during her youth, I was thrilled to see “Tutti Frutti” among the discs. I was so excited to see the song title, I didn’t even take the time to closely examine the label before sticking it on the record player.

My reaction was something along the lines of: “Hey, this isn’t Little Richard! This sucks! Who is this loser and why is he ruining my day?”

Yeah, turns out Mom had the Pat Boone version and not the original. [makes retching noises]

“Tweedle Dee” was one of the first early rock & roll songs by a female singer I was familiar with. Speaking of the original by LaVern Baker here, of course. I can’t remember the record I heard it on, one of those “early records of the rock & roll era” records that advertised on TV, the title of which I have forgotten. Supposedly, Ms. Baker wasn’t too fond of rock & roll and only flirted with the genre to earn money. If she had her way, she’d stick to jazz. That said, she tackles the tune with aplomb, her raunchy contralto suiting the song very well.

In retrospect, it’s an extremely silly song, which appealed to me as a kid. It’s easy to see why this was popular among young people of the day.

I was quite disappointed in reading the Whitburn book for the first time, noticing that the original only rose as high as #14, trumped by a cover version by somebody named Georgia Gibbs, whose version rose all the way to #2.

Her Nibs, Miss Gibbs (as she was referred to at the time) seems to have been a victim of a kind of whitewashing herself. Her real name was Freda Lipschitz. I’m pretty sure some record company suit told her that was “too Jewish” and asked her to change it to something more palatable to Middle America.

Eh, this isn’t working for me. She’s trying for the brassy feel of the original, as much as she dares to (or her producers will allow) but it all just winds up sounding like a children’s song in her hands. She’s given no help from her lame male backing singers or the twinkly Glenn Osser orchestration. I was all ready to pile all the blame on this song’s failure on her, but I can’t really. She’s the only good thing about it. I kind of want to hear her other output now (but not her follow-up to this, her version of “The Wallflower” originally by Etta James and the Peaches. That went all the way to #1, and is a complete massacre of the original).

I’d like to conclude this review with this anecdote I found on a RateYourMusic review:

Georgia Gibbs scored the bigger hit with her version of "Tweedle Dee", for which Baker unsuccessfully attempted to sue her. When LaVern was flying to Australia, she took out flight insurance at the airport and sent it to Gibbs with a note: "You need this more than I do because if anything happens to me, you're out of business."

And you young kids thought Nicki Minaj invented this kind of thing?

Rating: 2

Sunday, July 3, 2016

SHG: Billy Vaughn: "Melody of Love"

Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra: “Melody of Love”
Entered chart on: 12/11/1954
Peaked on: 3/19/1955
Weeks at #2: 1

Here we go! An artist I have a history with! After a visit to her parents, Mom came home with a box of their records, including the La Paloma LP and the follow-up to this: “The Shifting, Whispering Sands.”

I wish I was reviewing that instead; an epic six minutes in which stentorian narrator Ken Nordine describes skulls bleaching in the desert sun. Vaughn’s syrupy choir-fueled orchestrations somehow make the whole thing that much creepier. On account of Nordine’s unsettling “what to do in case of emergency” narration, you could easily interpret this as subtext for a post-nuclear end-of-world scenario, not literally about the Southwestern desert.

This was played on the radio? In 1955?

I understand La Paloma is a lot more typical of Vaughn’s style, white-bread renditions of traditional Latin folk and dance tunes featuring his distinctive close-formation alto saxophones. The title song from the album was a huge hit in Europe and extremely influential on the German Schlager scene, reason enough to dislike Vaughn. Apparently the arrangement to ABBA’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” (one of their corniest and lamest early hits, in my opinion) was inspired by “La Paloma.”

Vaughn was, of course, the musical director of Dot Records, and responsible for the production and orchestration of its roster of artists, including all those cringeworthy Pat Boone records, more reason to dislike him. He was also responsible for the bizarre and inexplicable recording career of veteran actor Walter Brennan. If you ask me, “Old Rivers” is several measures creepier than “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” and it isn’t even trying to be.

However, I will venture to keep an open mind while listening to “Melody of Love”...

This is a slow waltz. Really slow. Like really slow. Like “wading through syrup” slow. I don’t know if my ears are deceiving me, but it sounds like there’s a banjo playing the rhythm in the background. It could just be audio artifacts in the recording, it’s probably a piano. All those dreamy strings are drowning it out. That pinched-embouchure saxophone does cut through, so good call on that from an arrangement standpoint.

I’m guessing this is the sort of thing that Gramps used to slow-dance to. Fine, if that’s what you want, but I can think of better. There were a bunch of vocal covers (including one by Frank Sinatra, who we’ll discuss in a future installment) of this but it was Billy’s instrumental (his first single, fact fans) that charted highest.

But yeah, probably not going to listen to this again. I’ll go for “The Shifting, Whispering Sands (Parts 1 & 2)” if I need another Billy Vaughn fix.

Rating: 1

SHG: Perry Como: "Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)"

Perry Como: “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)”
Entered chart on: 2/5/1955
Peaked on: 2/19/1955
Weeks at #2: 3

I remember thumbing through my father’s junior high school yearbook, and they mentioned the class’ favorite singers. The #1 female singer was Patti Page (don’t worry, we’ll get to her) and the top male vocalist was Perry Como. It was a different time. By the time I was conscious, Eugene Levy was parodying Perry Como as Mr. Relaxation, performing a lobotomized rendition of “I Will Survive” while lying flat on the stage, barely able to stay awake.

Mean? Sure. Deserved? Eh, I don’t know. I’m not really au fait with the works of Mr. Como. Like I said, it was a different time. When I was conscious, Three Dog Night and Olivia Newton John were at the top of the charts. I’m not saying it was necessarily better...

Well, this is a lot more swingin’ than I expected! Swingin’ saxophones (one of which takes a solo in the middle eight) and BONGOS! Oh, the bongos! I was not expecting that! There’s also some crazy backing vocals on this. Well, the male vocals aren’t so crazy, but the female vocals... I swear one of them does this Yma Sumac grunt at one point! Those girls are enjoying themselves way too much!

I can’t help but notice that the Ray Charles Singers are responsible for the irrepressible backing vocal performance on this, which along with those fantastic bongos, make the tune. Yes, I know it’s not that Ray Charles (we’ll be covering him later, please be patient) but I thought it was worth mentioning.

This is, of course, our first instance of “whitewashing.” The original version of this song was performed by its composers, Gene and Eunice. For whatever reason, cover versions of it soon flooded the market, with Perry’s version topping the charts. RCA billed it as his “rock & roll” song, quite laughable with the aid of 20/20 hindsight but I’m sure that wasn’t the perception at the time. Realistically, they took a boilerplate R&B song and turned it into something like a mutant version of big-band swing. I’ve read reviews comparing this version to Spike Jones, and I can definitely hear that.

Compare this to the king of whitewashing, Dot Records’ poster-boy Pat Boone. It may not be rock, but Perry can at least loosen up and give a sprightly performance for the length of a two-and-a-half minute tune before going back to plying his trade of dreary, somber ballads. Pat could never remove the stick from his butt long enough to deliver a credible performance of an uptempo song.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to! I get that we’re all supposed to hate all that white-bread pre-rock stuff, but this is actually really lively and fun, Perry’s getting into the spirit of it, the backing vocals are off the charts and oh, have I mentioned how I love those bongos?

Rating: 3

Second Hand Goods: Introduction

Welcome to a new feature! I said I’m going to do it, and I’m doing it! I call it Second Hand Goods, and it’s a (text) review series of all the songs that peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts from 1955 to the present. Lots of people have done reviews of #1 songs, but has anyone done #2 hits before? I’m sure if it’s been done, you’ll let me know.

I’ve cobbled together my chart info from various sources, but I’m mainly using Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Hits as my source. Note that there were various charts running simultaneously up until roughly 1958, and Whitburn seemed to reason that the chart with the highest position was the “official” position. If you disagree with the songs I’m doing for these early ones, take it up with him. I also don’t have the exact info for when these songs peaked on the charts, so if you want to know which #1 songs these were sitting behind, you’re on your own!

I’m going over the later entries with a fine-toothed comb, hoping I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m sure if there’s any mistakes or oversights, you’ll be quick to point them out!

I’m considering doing a 0-5 rating of each song after I review it. We’ll see how that pans out.

Here goes nothing! Hope you enjoy following along with me on this journey!