Friday, September 30, 2016
Chris Kenner: “I Like It Like That, Part 1”
Entered the chart on: 7/3/1961
Peaked on: 7/31/1961
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis
So, after two very “meh” R&B tunes and a talented artist at his worst*, I’m ready to be entertained again. Can Chris Kenner turn that around?
I will tell you this, it probably helps not to know about this guy going in. His life would make the most depressing Todd in the Shadows episode ever. “He died of a heart-attack at the age of 46 while serving his prison sentence for statutory rape” doesn’t exactly cast sunbeams on your day.
So...not exactly the nicest guy in the world. But we’re not here to censure people for their moral standing, we’re here to review songs. After all, if people only listened to music produced by people of high moral values and good character, nobody would ever listen to Richard Wagner. Last I checked, they were still producing festivals in the guy’s honor.
Back on the subject of Chris Kenner...there’s a part 2? Hell, I’m listening to both parts! I don’t want to suffer that “Honky Tonk” disappointment all over again! Which won’t happen, because I’ve already heard this song before.
Right, this song has always confused me. “The name of the place is ‘I Like It Like That’?” Is that the actual name of a club in New Orleans or something? I’ve said before that I don’t really care for spoken word stuff before, but the refrain is so infectious and Kenner’s performance is so involving, I’m willing to cut him some slack. Plus this tune hooked me from the start with that rousing piano intro.
Speaking of “rousing piano intros,” is that Allen Freaking Toussaint? I think it is! Allow me to add that I am so glad I chose to listen to Part 2 as well. First off, as with “Honky Tonk,” Part 1 cuts off abruptly...at a paltry one minute and 55 seconds. Second, we’re offered splendid sax and piano solos on the flip. It’s functionally an instrumental, with just the backing vocalists doing their thing (Chris must have gone outside for a smoke break) as Allen and the mysterious sax player wail away.
Have I mentioned that I could just listen to Allen Toussaint’s piano playing all day?
A good selection to get your party jumping.
*Suit at Mercury Records circa 1961: “Say, Brook, did you see Calvin and the Colonel last night? Funny stuff! You ought to write a song like that!”
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Brook Benton: “The Boll Weevil Song”
Entered the chart on: 6/5/1961
Peaked on: 7/10/1961
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis
Allow me to preface this by saying that Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’” is one of the most underrated rock & roll records of the early 60s.
Speaking of underrated, here’s Brook Benton. He charted an amazing 22 hits on the top 40 between 1959 and 1970 and virtually nobody ever talks about him anymore. Even more than Sam Cooke, he is the true inheritor of Nat “King” Cole’s crown; his early singles could practically be clones of Cole ballads. He didn’t do as much uptempo material as Sam, but he could excel when called on to do so (see “Hotel Happiness”). And he even did a series of duets with jazz legend Dinah Washington.
If anyone talks about him anymore, it’s usually in regards to his last hit: a rendition of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” which hit the top 5 in early 1970. But his highest charting hit was this. And it’s a freaking novelty song! That’s just typical of our luck here at Second Hand Goods.
So, we start off with what sounds like a country song, with some very Floyd Cramer-ish piano. And then...ugh! This is a spoken-word number, isn’t it? Yep, the only Brook Benton song I’ll be covering won’t even feature Brook Benton doing what he does best. Well, we get the “Gotta have a home” refrain but that’s, like, 5% of the “song.” The rest is Brook just narrating this whimsical story about a boll weevil moving into a cotton farm, bringing his whole family along and basically making a nuisance of himself for the poor farmer.
As near as I can tell, this was loved by the same people that loved Disney’s Song of the South. It features the same Southern dialect storytelling style and, frankly, comes across as a bit stereotypical and embarrassing today.
Oh well, Brook Benton has 21 other hits to choose from. I’d rather be listening to any of them.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Dee Clark: “Raindrops”
Entered the chart on: 5/22/1961
Peaked on: 6/26/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Quarter to Three” by U. S. Bonds
I’m at a loss on how to start this review. Clark is another one of those artists like Lloyd Price who’d been kicking around in some form or other since the early 50s who just had to bide his time until popular tastes caught up with him. This was his biggest hit...and his last top 40 entry. It’s also the first song here at Second Hand Goods on the legendary Vee Jay label. I know I’ve heard this before, but I’m not remembering it clearly except as an excerpt of the hook in one of those K-Tel or Sessions ads.
Might as well get on with the review, since I’m running out of stuff to talk about.
CRASH! Rain and thunder sound effects...are these the first sound effects since...when was that that we last had sound effects on SHG? Could someone click on the “sound effects” tag and tell me?
“It must be raindrops, because men ain’t supposed to cry.” Oh, Dee, did you learn nothing from Rosey Greer? Right, it’s 1961, a decade too soon for Free to Be, You and Me. This is another song of heartbreak, along the lines of “Greenfields” or “Only the Lonely.” But for whatever reason, this isn’t doing it for me. The production is fine, there’s certainly a lot of money lavished into the lush string arrangement here. And I like how Dee lets the soul overtake him during the emotional chorus (even if I take exception to its dated sentiment). But in general, his voice is a little too clinical for my tastes. We’re not quite in Johnny Tillotson territory, but we’re edging awfully close.
For period R&B, you can do a lot better. Meh.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Shep & the Limelites: “Daddy’s Home”
Entered the chart on: 4/10/1961
Peaked on: 5/29/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Travellin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson
And so, here we have our first “Answer Song.” My bible, the Whitburn book, informs me that this song was written in response to the Heartbeats’ “A Thousand Miles Away,” a song I’ve never heard, and a song I think few modern listeners have, considering it didn’t crack the top 40 and never shows up on oldies playlists.
On to the subject of the “Answer Song,” it’s a bit of a dead horse trope. It was a big deal in the 50s and 60s, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” begat Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House,” the Shirelles “Mama Said” begat Jan Bradley’s “Mama Didn’t Lie,” Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain” begat Jo Ann Campbell’s “(I’m the Girl On) Wolverton Mountain.” And so on and so forth. In retrospect, it seems a rather silly conceit, not to mention a lazy songwriting device. “What’s popular right now? ‘Please Help Me I’m Falling’? OK, I can bang something out. ‘(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too.’ Bang! It’s a hit!”
I guess the last we got of the “Answer Songs” was that whole “Roxanne, Roxanne” business in the late 80s, which has to be the only song that begat not only an Answer Artist in Roxanne Shanté, but an Answer Artist to the Answer Artist in The Real Roxanne. I never knew what the big deal was, and to be honest, I couldn’t hum you any of the Roxanne songs even if you paid me.
Back on the subject of Shep & the Limelites, technically “Daddy’s Home” is the sequel to “A Thousand Miles Away” and not an “answer song” since James “Shep” Sheppard was the lead singer of both groups, and co-wrote both songs. I had their name wrong all these years. I had thought it was the Limeliters, but no, the record label ensures me it’s Limelites, with no “R.” So shall we get on with the review?
Ooo...more vibes! They were one of my favorite featured instruments on “He’ll Have to Go,” and they add a lovely, glassy sound to this. The “rat-a-tat” backing vocals are a nice touch, too. Before they get to the bridge, it sounds like the sax player runs out of breath. Made me giggle!
Now for the negative side, this kind of doo-wop was rather old hat by ’61 and while the singing is excellent (Shep nails the “I’m not a thousand miles away” at the end in particular), the song doesn’t completely involve me. The “Daddy’s home to stay” refrain is the only really memorable thing about it.
So...a bit of a throwaway, in a gloriously pretty package.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Jørgen Ingmann & His Guitar: “Apache”
Entered the chart on: 2/20/61
Peaked on: 3/3/61
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Pony Time” by Chubby Checker
Here’s the last of the instrumentals I promised you. We shan’t get another until ’62, so we better savor it.
Jørgen Ingmann was part of a miniature explosion of Danish instrumentalists on the pop charts in the early 60s, along pianist Bent Fabric (“Alley Cat”) and trombonist Kai Winding (“More*”). Ingmann is better known abroad for “Dansevise,” the Eurovision-winning tune from 1963 featuring his wife Grethe playing the Mary Ford to his Les Paul.
While this song is heavily linked with Ingmann, especially in Scandinavia, it’s actually a cover. Burt Weedon did the original. The Shadows, roughly the UK answer to the Ventures and Cliff Richard’s backing band, did the second version, a UK chart-topper in the summer of 1960. Having only heard Ingmann’s version (and the cheesy 70s cover by Danish keyboardist Tommy Seebach), I shall duly preface my review with a listen to Weedon’s and the Shadows’ versions.
OK, the Shadows’ version is excellent, but very much in the Ventures mould. Not so fond of Weedon’s show-offy version, which seems to lose the melody in lots of showboating. As for Ingmann’s version, they’re not kidding with the “and his guitar” business. I wasn’t far off the mark with the Les Paul comparison earlier, this is just multiple tracks of Ingmann’s guitar and nothing else.
Not just because it’s the one I’m most familiar with, but this version is winning out for me. I’m a huge fan of the echo effects on this one, a touch of outer-space as befits the astronaut craze of the times. There’s something utterly enigmatic about the stark “layers of guitar only” arrangement of this that draws me into the melody.
A stunner, and by far the best instrumental I have reviewed thus far.
*This was the theme to the controversial Italian documentary Mondo Cane, from the brief American craze for European cinema, on account of the more permissive values (read: more prurient content) compared to Hollywood, which was still clinging to the tattered remains of the Hays Code.
The Miracles: “Shop Around”
Entered the chart on: 12/31/1960
Peaked on: 2/20/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk
I know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t Mike promise us a whole bunch of instrumental hits in a row?” Well, you’re close, except for the “in a row” part. If it helps, the (deservedly) forgotten Lawrence Welk tune in the #1 spot is an instrumental.
You’re probably also thinking, “wasn’t ‘Shop Around’ a #1 hit?” And...no it wasn’t. For some reason I was remembering it was...when covered by the Captain & Tennille. But...no, apparently that was wrong too. Good. I don’t think I’d want to live in such a world. It’s bad enough that James Taylor’s wilted-lettuce rendition of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” charted one spot higher than Marvin Gaye’s.
That’s Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, of course. This is from before the “Smokey Robinson and the” prefix was added in ’65. It’s so old, Smokey’s sister Claudette is still in the group (she’d quit in ’64, leaving the Miracles resolutely male ever since). It’s also the first song by them to hit the charts, and the first song on the fabled Motown label to be a major chart hit.
No question who the star of the show is. The opening is just Smokey by himself before the other Miracles join in and the song kicks in the octane. If you’re familiar with Smokey for his later reputation as a smooth balladeer (we’ll get there much later), his rousing performance of this tune will probably take you by surprise. I’m extremely impressed by some of the high notes he hits in this! Add him to the list of singers whose range I’m extremely envious of, alongside Marty Robbins and Roy Orbison.
I have to wonder what mother would advise her son, “you’re young, go ahead and play the field! Mess around with as many girls as you like!” but perhaps I’m over-thinking it. Smokey hadn’t crafted his poetic style yet, this was very much in the tenor of the times. For what it is, an energetic soul tune with a unique message, it’s very good.
Friday, September 23, 2016
Ferrante & Teicher: “Exodus”
Entered the chart on: 11/28/1960
Peaked on: 1/23/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Wonderland by Night” by Bert Kämpfert
Here’s proof that instrumentals were the flavor of the month: both of the top 2 are instrumentals! I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually heard “Wonderland by Night” and if I have, I wouldn’t know it by name. I suppose that’s the peril of instrumental songs; how do you know what you’re listening to without the DJ to tell you what it is? Nowadays, with Shazam and its ilk, we’re pretty spoiled in that regard.
When I was very wee, I was actually a Ferrante & Teicher fan, thrilling to their extravagant twin-piano pyrotechnics on TV appearances and listening to their Greatest Hits on albums my parents owned. Even at the age of eight, I rather knew there was something deeply un-cool about liking them, and hid my fandom from my friends.
Little did I know they’d receive a hipster re-appraisal during the “lounge-core” era of the 1990s. Mind you, that was for their very early sides at Westminster, when they were doing Space Age prepared piano music, such fans considered them to have “jumped the shark” once they became Liberace-esque superstars at United Artists. Though even with the very early “prepared piano” stuff, we’re not exactly talking John Cage and David Tudor here. Even there, they were offering up renditions of the likes of “Tico Tico” and “Tea for Two.”
So, here we have a movie theme, which is what all their chart hits were (this is the follow-up to their two-pianos version of the theme from The Apartment). Exodus was a film by Otto Preminger, back when he was still a respected filmmaker, before the likes of Hurry Sundown, Skidoo and [shudder] Rosebud turned him into a laughingstock. So it pays to check out the original Ernest Gold orchestration before I listen to the Ferrante & Teicher arrangement. Which I shall now do.
Hmm...sounds like Ferrante & Teicher cloned Ernest Gold’s original arrangement of the intro, all big brass and strings, then shook things up in the rest of the track to spotlight their flashy piano playing. The original was bombastic movie music, spirited and very loud. Ferrante & Teicher’s rendition captures the feel of the original, just alters the arrangement to fit their pianos in and make it front and center. Hands down, this is the loudest orchestration we’ve had since “Don’t You Know.” Of course, for the big finale, they do that tinkly, descending semi-glissando thing (well, what would you call it?) which was their trademark.
People will argue until they’re blue in the face over which version is better, but it’s “push” as far as I’m concerned. As with Floyd Cramer’s tune, this one is just fine.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Floyd Cramer: “Last Date”
Entered the chart on: 10/24/1960
Peaked on: 11/28/1960
Weeks at #2: 4
Song at #1: “Are You Lonesome To-Night” by Elvis Presley
A little warning, this is the first of a big chunk of instrumental songs that hit the charts in 1961. Actually, I gave you a heads-up on that during the Ventures review. Here’s the first one and it’s from pianist Floyd Cramer, who’s been on hundreds of country hits. In fact, he played on the Johnny Tillotson song I just reviewed. Is that the first time that’s happened on Second Hand Goods, where a session musician on one hit winds up as the soloist on the next one?
Anyway, Cramer earned a reputation for a technique he called “slide piano,” using a lot of grace notes to make it sound as though the notes are gliding into one another. Oh, you’ll hear what I mean when you listen to it.
It’s hard to explain the appeal of this one. Floyd Cramer has had more exciting tunes than this one (listen to the follow-up, “On the Rebound”), but there’s something about the lazy afternoon feel of this one. It’s a slow tempo but it doesn’t drag. I suppose you could call this a “ballad” if it had words to it. It’s rather “sitting on a porch swing sipping a mint julep” music to my ears.
It’s not drowning in the string arrangement, which is a relief. The strings come in and enhance the melody without swamping it, which they totally could if left to their own devices. Unsurprisingly, this is, like “He’ll Have to Go,” another “Countrypolitan” Chet Atkins production.
Obviously, this tune resonated with lots of people, since cover versions of it proliferated, including one by SHG veterans the Ventures*. Another SHG veteran, Joni James, did a vocal interpretation saddled with the cumbersome alternate title “(My) Last Date (With You).” It was her last entry into the Billboard Top 40.
For an easy-listening instrumental, it’s actually pretty easy to listen to. Sometimes, that’s all I ask.
*my parents owned the album that had their cover on it, Another Smash! I’ve always wondered what silent movie the cover still came from. For some reason, I remembered it as being from a Three Stooges short, but it seems I was mistaken.
Johnny Tillotson: “Poetry in Motion” Entered the chart on: 10/24/1960 Peaked on: 11/14/1960 Weeks at #2: 1 Song at #1: “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles
Florida native Johnny Tillotson eventually earned his name as a country singer. I say “eventually” because somebody at Cadence Records got the “brilliant” idea to sell the young singer out of the gate as the Dixieland answer to the Philadelphia scene (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, et al). That may have shifted some units in the short run but it’s pretty much worthless to us now. I should always worry when I get three or four highly-rated songs in a row.
Oh my God, could his voice be any more affected and precious? It’s like he received the direction, “You’re not enunciating enough! Emphasize ev-er-y syl-la-ble clear-ly!” “Ad-o-er”? Ugh!
Everything about this song is just twee beyond belief. Even the saxophone enunciates! And what’s with the wailing female backing singer? Did she get lost on the way to the Paul Anka session?
Eh...it’s not horrible like “Puppy Love” but it sounds like something square parents would cook up that they think their kids might like. I definitely don’t ever need to hear it again.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Sam Cooke: “Chain Gang”
Entered the chart on: 8/29/1960
Peaked on: 10/3/1960
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis and “Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne
Looking at the above hurts. Nobody should have to suffer the indignity of being blocked from the top spot by the leap-frogging “Mr. Custer,” possibly the most tasteless and execrable of 60s novelty songs, and believe me, there’s some serious competition for that trophy. Least of all Sam Cooke, who’s actually pretty likable.
Maybe I’m just talking out my butthole, as I frequently am, but I see Sam Cooke as one of the inheritors of Nat “King” Cole’s legacy. But whereas Nat sang ballads because it paid more than the instrumental piano jazz at which he also excelled, Sam sounds like he’d be more comfortable singing ballads, but sang whatever his producers threw his way, frequently some bordering-on-vapid teen-oriented uptempo material like the trendy “Twistin’ the Night Away” and the high-school themed “Wonderful World.” He elevated such material with commitment and superlative singing, one of those vocalist who could sing proverbial entries out of the phone book and make it sound good.
And then there’s this song which, at least as regards lyrical content, might just be the strangest song we’ve come across thus far at Second Hand Goods.
I’d say the vast majority of songs we’ve reviewed thus far tend to fall into the categories of “It’s wonderful to be in love” or “It sucks not to be in love,” or some variation thereof. And then there’s “Chain Gang.” Do note that said chain gang, unlike the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” is not a metaphor. It’s just a song about the sound of the men working on the chain gang. All right, I’ve heard Cooke did intend this as a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle.
Whatever it was, Glenn Osser went all out with the arrangement, with the anvil clinking, the grunting hook and the bass singer offering counterpoint to Sam’s soaring lead. It sure must have resonated with a lot of listeners in any case. Regardless of whether the theme was metaphorical or not, Cooke sells it. His voice is so supple and express it he could pretty much sell me anything and I’d buy it.
This isn’t knocking “You Send Me” off the top of my Sam Cooke favorites, but it’s still a damn classic. Splendid.
Monday, September 19, 2016
The Ventures: “Walk—Don’t Run”
Entered the chart on: 7/25/1960
Peaked on: 8/29/1960
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley
It’s funny, this is the first instrumental I’ve reviewed since “Raunchy” all the way back in 1957. “Funny” because I’m looking ahead, and I see three instrumentals (more or less) in quick succession in my near future. Funny because I’m looking at the plentitude of instrumentals that charted in 1961. But more on that later.
It’s also funny that the Ventures, the most successful and influential of instrumental rock bands possibly of all-time, are hardly ever talked about these days. Imitators like Dick Dale receive gushing praise from hipster lips all the time, but hardly anyone mentions the originators of the surf-guitar sound anymore. And I have to wonder why that is?
For the record, this originated as a 1956 jazz guitar tune by Johnny Smith. It had also previously been done by country guitarist and musical arranger Chet Atkins (the man behind the memorably subtle orchestration of Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go”), on whom the Ventures apparently based their version.
I have to say, there’s a certain something about the Ventures’ rendition of this that just clicks with me the way the Johnny Smith and Chet Atkins versions don’t. The melody is there and present in all three versions, but why does the Ventures version seem so much better to me? I guess the other two are competent, but rather typical. The Johnny Smith version follows a steady “head-solos-head” form that was typical of 1950s jazz, while the Chet Atkins tune could be any instrumental track off of a “guitarist plays popular songs” album of the day.
The Ventures version has a certain je ne sais quoi about it. Maybe it’s that drum fill that opens the tune, making you stand at attention. Maybe it’s that spiky guitar tone that’s present on both lead and rhythm guitars. For whatever reason, it really works for this song and it’s memorable melody. Bob Bogle’s handling of the melody is very fluid, and he knows just when to bend a note and how to do so to make the most of it.
Apparently this song influenced a ton of young, budding musicians to pick up guitars and form bands of their own. And you know, I can hear that. Timeless stuff.
Roy Orbison: “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)” Entered the chart on: 7/25/1960 Peaked on: 7/25/1960 Weeks at #2: 1 Song at #1: “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee
Up until 1964, the 60s has this reputation for being a vast wasteland, a barren boneyard populated by anti-rock teen idols, dumb dance fads and toxic novelty songs. That reputation isn’t entirely without some basis in fact, the one-two punch of Bobby Rydell and [shudder] Paul Anka should be proof enough of that, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. There was some real, enduring talent born in this period. Enter Roy Orbison.
Orbison, like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins before him, gestated at Sun Records as a would-be rockabilly star. Those early sides have their critical admirers but they didn’t earn him much in the way of commercial success. My guess is someone at Monument Records said, “a kid with this vocal range is wasted on this uptempo stuff. Give him some ballads to sing, something that shows off that golden voice of his!” Which begat his first foray into the Billboard Top 40: “Only the Lonely.”
Slight aside, this is another one from my parents’ record collection. So let’s re-visit this golden oldie:
Starts off fairly typical intro, plinky piano with some of those syllabic male backing vocals that were so popular at the time. And then Roy starts singing. I ask you, is there a singer out there who is as immediately compelling as Roy Orbison? Once he opens his voice to sing, “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight,” I sit up at rapt attention. I mean, we’ve had good, even great, singers on Second Hand Goods, but Roy just has this magical combination of tone, phrasing, range, precision and emotional connection that has me saying, “I want to hear where he’s going with this.”
Heartbreak must have been the flavor of the month. Right after “Greenfields” we immediately get another, “I’m blue because my woman left me” song. But the way this was constructed, all around Roy’s silver-plated vocal cords, makes it a monument of pop mastery. Bob Moore’s orchestration deserves a bit of credit here, the way the strings add pounding accents in the “There goes my baby...” verse is nice touch. And when he returns to that verse a second time, and hits those high notes in the line “That’s the chance you’ve got to take,” it’s one of those “icy chills up and down my spine” moments that’s all too rare in popular music.
Well, only two reviews after “Puppy Love,” and I think I’ve broken the scale in the other direction. I don’t know if there’s a rating high enough for this. Stunning beauty; it demands to be heard.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Brothers Four: “Greenfields”
Entered the chart on: 3/21/1960
Peaked on: 4/18/1960
Weeks at #2: 4
Songs at #1: “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith and “Stuck on You” by Elvis Presley
I usually only do two of these, three tops, at a time, but I kind of want to keep doing these until the songs start getting good again. I couldn’t let Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love,” which is unquestionably the worst song I have covered so far on this feature, be the last of these I listened to today. I know the light is at the end of the tunnel (wait till you see which song I’ll be covering after this one), in the meantime, here’s another song I’ve never heard before, the first since Della Reese’s “Don’t You Know”
The Brothers Four aren’t brothers by blood, they’re fraternity brothers, formed at the University of Washington. The idea of a frat-boy group isn’t exactly lighting my fire, I must say. Actually, this seems to be part of the nascent folk boom, proof that this was in fact the 60s and not the 70s. I’m not exactly expecting Bob Dylan here, though. So, let the references to A Mighty Wind commence!
Well, I can appreciate the fingerstyle guitar arpeggios that open this, being a former classical guitar student myself. And you have to say, their vocal harmonies are pretty damn sweet.
For a second, I thought the green fields of the title were literal. The fields were green, now they’re brown. I wondered, could this be a very prescient protest of the mounting fears of pollution and its effects on nature? Well, no. The green fields of the title are a metaphor. The song’s protagonist is heart-broken that his love has left him, and now he’s left feeling barren and dried out like dead grass.
This was...unexpected. I mean, “He’ll Have to Go” wasn’t exactly sunny and cheery, but this one is absolutely melancholic. But it captures a mood and does so well. After the last four or five songs, I’m trying to figure out how this one fits in, and I’m drawing a blank. But it actually come as a breath of fresh air.
But then, after “Puppy Love,” what wouldn’t?
Paul Anka: “Puppy Love”
Entered the chart on: 3/7/1960
Peaked on: 4/4/1960
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith
I have been dreading this one.
Actually, I do have a funny story about this one. But not about the original, about the cover by Donny Osmond (Demons in Hell, why would anyone want to cover this monstrosity? Oh, right, it’s the Osmonds. Mike Curb was in charge of them in the 70s, and the man had execrable taste!). I don’t know which of us did it, and I don’t remember how we came across it, but either friend-of-the-show David Perkins or I came across a Real Media/Quicktime snippet of bootleg audio of an audience recording from an Osmond brothers show from circa 1973. Donny’s rendition of “Puppy Love” went a little something like this:
“And they called it...”
[the rest of the song is drowned out by the fortissimo, rodent-like screeching of hundreds of adolescent girls]
I have to wonder if girls reacted to Paul Anka’s original in that manner. And how hormones could possibly suppress the “good taste” indicator so strongly.
[bangs head against desk repeatedly]
We’re back to this then? “They tell us we’re too young to know what real love is...blah blah blah.” At least Bobby Rydell’s song, lame as it was, tried. This is just saccharine, swathed in treacly strings and those hideous “angels in Heaven” choral vocals.
Let’s not even get started on Anka’s vocal performance here, which borders on the comical before spilling over straight into tragedy. He’s so histrionic in his delivery—sobbing, stuttering, whimpering pitifully in a ludicrously exaggerated fashion—I have a hard time believing this isn’t some kind of put-on. Who thought any of this was a good idea?
So quintessentially appalling, I think I might have broken my own rating scale.
Rating: 0 [obviously]
Bobby Rydell: “Wild One”
Entered the chart on: 2/8/1960
Peaked on: 3/28/1960
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith
And so, we’re back to the phony rock teen-idols of the so-called Philadelphia Scene. To be fair to Bobby, he was definitely preferable to the likes of Frankie “I’m plugging my nose to sound more like a teenager with adenoids” Avalon or [shudder] Fabian. Bobby had some actual singing ability, which probably explains why the top brass at Cameo-Parkway paired him up with songs like Domenico Modugno’s classic “Volare.” They wanted you to be sure you knew he could really sing!
But...yeah. That’s damning with faint praise. It’s like saying that getting a poison-oak rash on your arm isn’t as bad as getting one on your eyes. And he still has about as much to do with rock & roll as an accordion.
Sorry, you can doll this up with as much chunky electric guitar and twist-club saxophone, but you can’t fool me. Bobby’s Vegas lounge performer ethos completely swamps any attempt at me taking this seriously as “rock & roll.” Well, that and the shrill female backing chorus, no member of which sounds to be over the age of fifteen.
The “Wild One” of the title is his intended lady love, who he wishes to “be wild about me!” Eh...I’m running out of things to say about this. It doesn’t sound like a “real” song, rather like a song that would appear on a TV show performed by some second-string run-of-the-mill session singer play-acting at being somebody famous and beloved. Somewhat apropos for the future star of Bye Bye Birdie. You could picture Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show or Linda Williams on Make Room for Daddy twisting to this but real people?
I think they’d prefer Ricky Nelson. Oh, the irony.
Jim Reeves: “He’ll Have to Go”
Entered the chart on: 1/11/1960
Peaked on: 3/7/1960
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the foam...”
Is this the first honest, real, unadulterated country song we’ve reviewed here at Second Hand Goods? I wouldn’t count “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” as that was transparently Marty Robbins trying very hard to appeal to a mainstream pop audience, i.e.: “See? Not everyone from Arizona is a gun-toting reprobate!” “The All-American Boy” I also wouldn’t call a country song, despite being performed by a country singer. And “Just Walking in the Rain” may have started life as a country song, but it was anything but by the time Johnnie Ray got to it. Dammit, Ray Conniff!
So, yes, Jim Reeves gives us our first full, uncut taste of Country & Western here at Second Hand Goods. This was a record I know from my grandparents’ collection, they were way into classic country (being Oklahoma natives), though I recall it being rather crooner-ish for country. I also know the cover by English sophisti-poppers Prefab Sprout, it appears as a bonus track on the CD release of their 1985 opus Two Wheels Good*.
But I digress. It’s the original which concerns us here.
I think you could call this “countrypolitan.” How can I guess? Chet Atkins arranging and producing it probably has something to do with that. How many country records do you know that feature a vibraphone? Wait, is this the first instance of vibes on Second Hand Goods? I think it just might be!
The arrangement here is actually really very soft and delicate. Brushed drums, backing chorus is almost at a whisper, gently strummed guitar, it’s all there and it’s all pushed in the background, rather fitting for a song meant to evoke an intimate telephone conversation about a man asking his beloved to choose between him and the other man she’s currently spending the evening with.
As previously implied, the arrangement is kept secondary to Reeves’ honeyed baritone voice, which fairly oozes out of the speakers like molasses. He’s a very precise singer, rolling over each syllable with an intense deliberation. I prefer a little more expression from my singers, but I have to admit the man had some serious vocal chops.
While this is not my preferred style, I have to admire the craftsmanship that went into this. It’s very well-done. Kind of like a museum piece; look at it, appreciate it and move on.
*the US title of Steve McQueen. Apparently, the actor’s estate threatened a lawsuit unless Kitchenware/Epic changed the title of the album. They also abbreviated the bouncy album-opener “Faron Young” to just “Faron” to be on the safe side (and speaking of classic country, the tune’s lyrics reference Young’s “It’s Four in the Morning”).
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Jimmy Jones: “Handy Man”
Entered the chart on: 1/18/1960
Peaked on: 2/29/1960
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith
And so, we make a clean break from the 50s. The first song to peak at #2 also entered the chart that year (It was not, however, the first #2 hit to enter the chart in 1960. For that, wait for the next entry).
Jimmy Jones, who might just have the most generic name in pop music history, is one of those rare beasts: the two-hit wonder. This song and its #3 follow-up “Good Timin’” (You know, “TOCK-a TOCK-a TOCK-a TOCK-a!”?) comprise the entirety of his pop chart legacy. And he shares something in common with the Impalas, as he was likewise on the Cub label. Let’s check out Cub’s other #2 hit artist:
Well, there’s a falsetto that could peel paint off the walls! And how did I never notice the background whistling before? Very unusual, certainly not something you hear often. Actually, back on the subject of his voice, he’s actually really in control of that falsetto. It’s not shrill, the register change doesn’t seem jarring, it’s all really smooth. I’m actually impressed! And there’s a nice guitar solo in the middle eight to boot.
After years of being subjected to James Taylor’s bland, lobotomized version it’s a bit of a revelation just how superior the original is. There’s quite a lot of spark and excitement to this. I really like it!
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Della Reese: “Don’t You Know”
Entered the chart on: 10/5/1959
Peaked on: 11/30/1959
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin
And we end the 50s as we began it: with a song I’ve never heard before.
I know Della of course, but as an actress, not a singer. She was part of my childhood, appearing on the now-rarely-seen Chico and the Man and guest-starring frequently on Sanford and Son, not to mention a ton of other TV shows.
Reading up on this tune has been interesting to say the least. Adapted from an aria from Puccini’s La bohème, you say? I’m intrigued! That would make this the first pop music adaptation of a classical piece to appear on this feature. I thought I would need to wait for a certain tune from the mid-60s for that! Oh, you’ll see!
Whoa! That’s the most forceful orchestration I’ve heard on this feature in a while! I know “There Goes My Baby” has a string orchestration, too, but this string section doesn’t f$&% around! The single crows “A Hugo & Luigi Production,” so I guess they’re responsible for the screaming strings, bombastic brass and pounding tympani. There’s nothing subtle about this.
In all, this is a throwback to the pre-rock sound from before. It really sits oddly among all those rock & roll records, I have to say. And her voice is powerful—damn, it would just about have to be to compete with that blaring orchestra—but it certainly has nothing to do with rock or R&B. Her voice is loaded with melodrama, and reminds me of divas from across the pond like Shirley Bassey and Dorothy Squires. I can understand this being a hit over in the UK more than here.
That said, you really have to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this, Della’s singing ability, and the power of her voice. Majestic is the word for this one.
Paul Anka: “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”
Entered the chart on: 9/14/1959
Peaked on: 10/5/1959
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin
I’ve been dealing out a lot of fours and fives in this series of late. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Ladies and gentlemen, that day has arrived.
You see, I knew I’d have to talk about the “teen idols” sooner or later. Tommy Sands was just the tip of the iceberg. That Frankie Avalon tune sitting in the top spot during the Coasters’ entry was the sword of Damocles hanging over this feature until now. 1959 was the year the dam burst and the opportunists flooded the market with a bunch of non-threatening pretty boys designed to make teen girls swoon. In general, they had nothing to do with rock & roll; more a throwback to the old crooner days, minus the quality control. Many of them (I’m looking at you, Fabian) couldn’t even sing; it was all faked by a laborious technique of “punching” in every note and hoping he’d hit it right eventually. Being the producer and/or engineer of one of these sessions must have been a thankless task.
And then we have Canadian import Paul Anka. Paul had a leg-up on the competition in that he could play the piano and wrote his own material. Mind you, that didn’t mean that material was any good. This was the man, after all, that would bring us “You’re Having My Baby,” one of the most cringe-worthy MOR horrors the 70s ever wrought. And yes, that song hit #1. The man has a lot to answer for.
O sweet Zeus, make it stop! The tremolo guitar, the angelic female backing vocals, Anka’s overwrought voice, the cheesy punching of the word “baby,” it’s all too much. He’s certainly no Fats Domino at the ivories, either, his playing, apart from a flamboyant glissando leading into the Eurovision-style key-change at the end, it’s all steady “plink plink plink” with no variation from beginning to end. Before, I was thinking, “well, at least it’s one of his more tolerable songs.” I was wrong. This is worse than I had remembered. Don’t make yourself suffer like I did. Rating: 0
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Phil Phillips: “Sea of Love”
Entered the chart on: 7/20/1959
Peaked on: 8/24/1959
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “The Three Bells” by the Browns
I don’t recognize the song at #1. Should I even bother to listen to it? For context, you understand.
I definitely recognize “Sea of Love,” which is another one-hit wonder, alongside the Impalas in the Class of ’59. Lots of these short-run artists struggle for years to have a second hit (see: Cathy Carr) without success, but Phil only had a couple of other singles to his credit. Not sure what’s happening there, but let’s examine the case of “Sea of Love” just the same...
Ooh...Phil’s voice is like honey! I could listen to a voice like that every day. The backing vocals are by a vocal group by the Twilights and they’re nice, as is the seesaw piano part which forms the base of the instrumental backing. This sounds like it came from earlier on in the 50s, based on the very stripped-down arrangement compared to the last few tunes I reviewed. It’s piano, vocals, and not much else.
Lyrically, it isn’t anything super spectacular. “La la la, I love you,” that sort of thing. But the piano arrangement is memorable and...damn! I could listen to Phil’s voice all day long.
Again, I’m regretting that he was only a one-hit wonder. What a voice!
The Drifters: “There Goes My Baby”
Entered the chart on: 6/29/1959
Peaked on: 8/17/1959
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “A Big Hunk o’ Love” by Elvis Presley
Have we reached the apex of “malt-shop music” with this? It’s certainly one of those songs I’ve always enjoyed, and I had forgotten that Ben E. King was the singer on this one. More significantly, in the continued roll-out of rock/R&B numbers with higher production values of 1959, this is apparently the first “rock” record to feature a string section. This made it a game-changer, it seems Phil Spector was specifically inspired by this record.
So...I haven’t even re-listened to this and I’m already jittery with anticipation. Don’t disappoint me, now!
Well, I’d forgotten about that odd vocal intro. And then...[cascade of strings] “There goes my baby!...” It goes without saying that Ben E. King’s voice is flawless; spirited and confident and enchanting. There’s an undeniable vulnerability to his performance that makes this song personal.
The backing vocals and the string arrangement are what set this apart. That vocal intro recurs at odd points in the song, helping boost the lead, while the string part goes into a sort of bolero rhythm at one point. It’s easy to see how a lot of people were inspired by this. I rather hear this as a precursor to the Motown sound, with acts like the Temptations and the Four Tops obviously basing elements of their sound on this.
And it’s easy to hear why. This is truly inspired.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
Lloyd Price: “Personality”
Entered the chart on: 5/11/1959
Peaked on: 6/15/1959
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton
Lloyd Price, now there’s a name you don’t hear much anymore! I don’t know why, he was an R&B legend with singles going all the way back to 1952 and already one number one hit to his name by this point. And that was with a song about a man who goes around shooting people!
That song (“Stagger Lee”) and this were both arranged for Price’s own orchestra by ABC-Paramount’s Don Costa. And I guess this song must have left a mark on people, as Price was hereafter dubbed “Mr. Personality.” So let’s re-acquaint ourselves with this one:
Hmm...I sense a pattern forming with these 1959 rock releases. Someone like Price, who once had to starve in cheap digs, was now afforded high-budget production values the likes of which were lavished only on white-bread artists like Perry Como and Joni James. We’ve come a long way since “Blue Suede Shoes” in three short years. Rock & roll was now big business, so we have full-on productions with horns, choruses and slick sound. That’s Costa’s doing.
But all this would be worthless were it saddled with a second-rate performer performing a lackluster song. Fortunately, such is not the case here. I really like the lyrics to this one: apparently the protagonist’s friends are down on his lady love, but not him. Why? Because she has personality! What a refreshing sentiment! I had forgotten about the “over and over” hook, so it’s interesting that this song has two hooks, not just one.
I also love the way Price just belts this song. I mean, man, he really sells it. I hadn’t really listened to this song analytically before, but not only does he have a very strong voice, but a powerful vocal presence. That’s really something to be cherished.
Better than “The Battle of New Orleans” any day of the week.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Bobby Darin: “Dream Lover”
Entered the chart on: 5/4/1959
Peaked on: 6/8/1959
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton
Lots of folks forget that Bobby Darin started out as a rock & roller. I mean, nobody would confuse him with Jerry Lee Lewis, but I think that “Splish Splash” was definitely a credible stab at the genre (and it’s obvious he was really trying to emulate JLL, so let’s give him an A for effort).
This one was from that era, too. In fact, right on the cusp of that era, as we’ll soon find out.
The first thing that strikes me is the quality and smoothness of Bobby’s voice. There’s a little “catch” in it, though, that lets you know he’s feeling the lyric. Call me cynical, but I relate better to songs like this, about a lonely man wishing for someone to warm his bedside, than in songs that espouse how good it feels to be in love. For the record, I do believe this pre-dated Bobby’s romance to popular starlet Sandra Dee.
I guess because rock & roll was now Big Business, the arrangements were getting bigger too. Yes, the spiky electric guitar is there plucking along, but like with the Impalas song we have a full orchestration with a big mixed-voice choir backing him. The producer also added a smidgen of reverb to Bobby’s voice which isn’t strictly necessary, but is nonetheless a nice touch.
This is a very good song, but you could kind of already hear that Bobby felt that he was outgrowing this kind of thing. He graduated from this song to transform himself into an old-school song stylist à la Tony Bennett. Apparently, in an interview after his performance of this very song on American Bandstand, Dick Clark came out and told Bobby he thought he’d lost his mind when he said that the next song he’d be doing would be an old and already much-covered standard from Kurt Weill’s A Threepenny Opera.
Obviously Bobby had the last laugh, as that song topped the charts for nine straight weeks and acted as the second wind for his music career. That is, until 1966 when he picked up an acoustic guitar and re-invented himself as a folk troubadour, with an affecting rendition of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Bobby Darin, pop music’s original chameleon. Move over, David Bowie.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
The Impalas: “Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)”
Entered the chart on: 4/13/1959
Peaked on: 5/11/1959
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez and “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison
Another one from my parents’ record collection! And I think this is the first one from the consolidated chart to be stuck at #2 behind two different #1 hits. The single (on MGM’s short-lived Cub subsidiary) “helpfully” contains the annotation “With Vocal Accompaniment.” Thanks for that, Cub, but aren’t the Impalas a vocal group? Despite having spun this on my crappy old GE Show ’n Tell record player (I now call it the Record Killer™) numerous times, I’m having difficulty remembering it clearly. Good sign or bad sign?
You can put the Impalas in the same box as the Crests in that they’re another multi-racial vocal group from Brooklyn. I wouldn’t put this on the same level as “Sixteen Candles,” which was simply stunning on every level from Johnny Maestro’s vocal on down. But this is a solid slab of peak-period doo-wop. Joe “Speedo” Frazier does a more than credible job singing lead, his voice having a youthful, innocent tone that has a touch of boyish irreverence to it (the repeated “Uh-oh!”). The song comes close to novelty song status without ever crossing the border.
Thanks to Leroy Holmes and his orchestra, this one has a fuller, more produced sound than a lot of rock & roll tunes of its era. And I think this might be the first trombone solo we’ve covered at Second Hand Goods since “A Blossom Fell” way back in ’55.
So, a good tune, indicative of its era, without being a classic. Worth listening to.
Elvis Presley: “A Fool Such as I”
Entered the chart on: 3/30/1959
Peaked on: 4/27/1959
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Come Softly to Me” by the Fleetwoods
Step 2 in the taming of your Elvis: have him sing some unapologetically sentimental ballads. Before you know it, he’ll be singing English-language adaptations of “O sole mio” and making cheesy movie musicals in Hawaii.
Technically, the full title of this is “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I,” but I didn’t feel like typing out the whole thing with the parenthetical subtitle over and over. You get that, right? Actually, it’s clearly been a long time since I’ve heard this, as the arrangement is way more rock & roll than I’d remembered. This song is actually a cover version, the original version by Hank Snow hit the country charts way back in 1953.
The loping guitar part gives this one a nice swing and the Jordanaires provide ample support on backing vocals (as with “Charlie Brown,” the bass singer gets a solo singing the title hook). Elvis is, as usual, good, but he seems to have tamed the wildness a bit here. This was the result of a quickie recording session made in the middle of his army service, and it seems a bit rushed and substandard as a result.
So, not bad, but not spectacular. Decent Elvis is better than no Elvis, I suppose, but he’s shown better elsewhere. It’s no “Love Me,” that’s for sure.
The Coasters: “Charlie Brown”
Entered the chart on: 2/9/1959
Peaked on: 3/9/1959
Weeks at #2: 3 weeks
Song at #1: “Venus” by Frankie Avalon
Talk about “the day the music died.” Check out what’s in the #1 spot. It didn’t take long for the fake-rock opportunists to move in!
But never mind about that. We’re here to discuss what hit #2, which if nothing else, saves me the agony of reviewing the execrable Frankie Avalon. And it’s easy to dismiss the Coasters as a novelty act, the Harlem Globetrotters of doo-wop, if you will. But that would be selling them short on being a first-rate vocal group with great songwriting (courtesy of the inimitable Leiber/Stoller, who already gave us Elvis’ spectacular early ballad “Love Me” on this feature). I loved this tune as a kid, let’s see if it holds up...
When I was a kid, I thought this was about the Charlie Brown, i.e.: Charles Schulz’s oft-harangued character. It would explain the solo refrain for bass singer “Dub” Jones: “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?” It seems not to be the case, though. This Charlie Brown shares the name of the comic strip character, but has a completely different personality. This Charlie Brown is a rebellious teen, an irreverent class clown who’s frequently in trouble for being such a merry prankster.
No wonder this song was such a big hit. Not only is the subject matter unique and attention-grabbing, but so is the vocal arrangement, with not only Jones’ repeated solo line, but also the brief appearance by David Seville’s Chipmunks* on background vocals. The sax hook is also completely infectious. When listening to this for this review, I was thinking, “Oh please, give this guy a solo!” Fortunately, my wish was granted. Never doubt Leiber/Stoller.
If all novelty songs were this good, maybe I wouldn’t be so down on them in general.
*I know David Seville had nothing to do with this recording, they were just using the same trick of monkeying with the tape-speed. I’m guessing Leiber/Stoller heard “Witch Doctor” on the radio and decided to use the same gimmick, albeit mercifully not for the length of a record.
Monday, September 5, 2016
Ritchie Valens: “Donna”
Entered the chart on: 12/15/1958
Peaked on: 2/23/1959
Weeks at #2: 2 weeks
Song at #1: “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
Suddenly, this feature becomes a lot less fun, and a lot more tragic.
And I don’t mean tragic in the “so bad it’s horrible” way (Believe me, we’ll get to Paul Anka in time, and I am not looking forward to it!). I mean actual tragedy, of the “talent taken from us too soon” variety. I think the only thing that could make this hurt more would be to have Buddy Holly in the top spot.
For those of you, presumably quite young, twisting your faces in confusion, do please research Richard Valenzuela, rock music pioneer and Hispanic icon, and learn of his tragic end and what it meant to popular music. Because it was a distinct dividing line. Popular music was not the same after the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy, Richie and the Bopper.
And for the record, the B-side of this single, a piece of infectious Spanish-language rock & roll called “La Bamba,” also charted, saving poor Richie the indignity of one-hit wonder status.
How did I forget that this song is in 6/8 time? And how nice the guitar accompaniment is (is that Richie himself*?)? Listening to Richie’s plaintive voice on this song (an ode to his real-life girlfriend, Donna Ludwig, fact fans) really hammers home the tragedy of his short life. In a just world, he would have lived long enough to produce a whole slew of sweet rock ballads of this quality. But as we are well aware, this world is anything but just.
Even divorced of its backstory, there’s something extremely touching about this ballad. Richie’s voice, while on the thin side, oozes sincerity and emotion, and sells the sorrow of lost love very well. And I just can’t get over the guitar playing on this one, it’s just so sweet and arranged to perfection.
Absolutely a delight. Such a shame we were robbed of more like this.
*Yes, it is, along with Rene Hall, Irving Ashby and the legendary Carol Kaye. Is there any record she didn’t play on?