Saturday, October 29, 2016
The Newbeats: “Bread and Butter” Entered the chart on: 8/22/64 Peaked on: 9/19/64 Weeks at #2: 2 Songs at #1: “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison
This is typical of our luck here at Second Hand Goods. First of all, we must have had half a dozen hits by the Four Seasons parked in the #1 spot in past reviews. Trust us to get one of the cheap imitations to review instead of the real thing! Also, look at those songs in the #1 spot this time! I’d rather be reviewing those! Who wouldn’t?
Well, I always thought this was a New York band. I thought the backing singers had a New York accent, a la the Royal Teens in “Short Shorts” (another song I wish I was listening to instead of this one). On closer examination, their Southern accents (they’re from Nashville) are readily apparent.
It’s the lead vocal that makes this such a chore to listen to. I guess people in 1964 had a stronger tolerance for the shrill. His voice is just so grating. People who complain about the Bee Gees should be strapped down and forced to listen to this until they scream for mercy. I reckon about two times ought to do it.
I wish I could say this has a saving grace but...nope. The lyrics are inane fluff and the song is just the same repetitious four-note vamp throughout. Tiresome.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Johnny Rivers: “Memphis”
Entered the chart on: 6/13/64
Peaked on: 7/11/64
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys and “Rag Doll” by the Four Seasons
Here’s a song that’s already been around the block a few times. It’s of course a Chuck Berry song, released back in ’59, but weirdly was only a hit in the UK. (#6 on the British pop charts). The version I’m most familiar with is the 1963 instrumental version by guitarist Lonnie Mack, which cracked the top 5. This was another record from my parents’ collection, and one I wore the grooves out of listening to as a kid.
Which brings us to Johnny Rivers. While he was an Italian-American born in New York (real surname: Ramistella), his family moved to Baton Rouge when he was very young, so his Southern Delta accent isn’t a pose, unlike some later artists I’ll be covering. Apparently, he was persona non grata with Elvis Presley on account of this song. Elvis wanted to cover this using this arrangement, but Johnny got there first and had a huge hit with it.
Well, I daresay I think the Beatles are the ones to thank for something like this making it back on the charts. Real rock & roll, the likes of which hasn’t been heard in quite a while. À la the Kingsmen, we get background chatter to give it a spontaneous feel. Other than that, there’s not a lot to it. Guitars and drums. Like I said, real rock & roll.
Johnny does credit to the Chuck Berry original. He has a twang to his voice and, as I said before, it doesn’t seem phony. There isn’t really a lot more to say about this. A solid, old-school rock & roll number.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Millie Small: “My Boy Lollipop”
Entered the chart on: 6/6/64
Peaked on: 7/4/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys
We’re going into what appears to be a lull in the Beatles’ popularity. It must have been a relief to the Beatles’ hate squad to see an old-school musical song by someone from the old guard (namely jazz legend Louie Armstrong* with the title song from Hello Dolly) topping the charts after that first rush of Beatlemania.
It turned out not to be the case. What really happened was that Capitol grabbed the reins of control over the Beatles catalogue, and began metering out their releases at a more moderate pace. So Beatles songs continued to top the charts for the rest of the year, and the decade, proving this was no mere fad like the Twist had been.
That said, let’s examine the case of the first artist on Second Hand Goods from a third-world country. Namely, an eighteen-year-old girl from Jamaica named Millie Small (née Millicent Smith). It wouldn’t be the first time Antillean music would make it to the U.S. pop charts. Cuban bandleaders like Perez Prado had topped the charts multiple times in the 50s, and then there was the calypso craze (spearheaded by Harry Belafonte and his “Banana Boat Song”) that came and went. This is the first time “ska” ever appeared on the charts, and unlike the “Banana Boat Song,” it wasn’t the beginning of a trend. In fact, poor Millie never scored a second hit**.
Well, I have a hard time believing she’s eighteen. Based on this, if you’d told me she was eight years old, I’d have a hard time refuting that claim. She has this voice that sounds like her ovaries never dropped. An “acquired taste,” I guess.
For sure the arrangement is what sells this song even if you don’t like Millie’s “little girl” voice. Those horn blasts are impossible to resist. There’s also an extremely raunchy harmonica part, which blasts into a solo in the middle eight that is by far my favorite feature of this song. I heard somewhere that it’s actually a young Rod Stewart blowing the mouth harp on this tune. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a funny bit of trivia if so.
So...enjoyable, but based on this I can’t imagine her having a lasting career.
*I have been known, on occasion, to offer up my own impression of Louie Armstrong singing the Schaeffer Beer jingle. It’s probably not something I should be doing, but there you are. **technically she did, as the follow-up single “Sweet William” was a top 40 hit. But peaking at #40 is not an unqualified success by any standard. Maybe when I finish this feature I’ll do songs that peaked at #40.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
The Beatles: “Do You Want to Know a Secret”
Entered the chart on: 4/11/64
Peaked on: 5/9/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong
Oh look, the top two on my negative ninth birthday!
You see, every once in a while, the Beatles thought they ought to throw George a bone and give him a substandard tune to sing, something not good enough for #1, but OK for #2. When I was starting out with my pop music charts exploration (i.e.: after acquiring my first copy of the Whitburn book), I noticed this was one of the Beatles early hits I had not heard. I originally hypothesized they couldn’t all be winners, and most albums need their filler. But are there hidden depths here that I missed on first listening? Let’s find out...
I have to admit, that ringing guitar intro is beautiful. George Martin’s doing, I imagine. I’m surprised how much George (Harrison, not Martin) is flying solo on this tune. Not until we get to the second refrain do we get Paul and John offering reverbed “doo-wah-doo” backing harmonies. There’s also some unidentified cracking percussion instrument (a “whip”?) turning up about half-way through, during the bridge. I imagine that’s also George Martin’s doing.
Well, I can certainly appreciate the craft that went into this, but I’m still not really feeling it. I reiterate: they can’t all be winners. George Martin does a lovely job with the production, making it sleek and shiny as a chrome fender but the song itself? Meh. Boilerplate Beatles.
The Beatles: “Twist and Shout”
Entered the chart on: 3/21/64
Peaked on: 4/4/64
Weeks at #2: 4
Song at #1: “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Beatles
The Beatles’ debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show created a craze heretofore unseen in popular music. Not even Elvis Presley’s iconic debut caused such a commotion. Of course, a big part of the Beatles’ absolute dominance of the pop charts has to do with the backlog of material they’d accrued; they may have debuted with their then-current single, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but they had already been a “thing” in the UK since ’62.
Obviously, the pop music industry, being then as now a den of crass opportunists, rushed to fill the void. Numerous labels—namely Capitol, Swan, Vee-Jay, Tollie* and Atco—all wound up releasing Beatles singles at once. On top of that, MGM blew the dust off of one of the recordings by lounge singer Tony Sheridan featuring the Beatles as the backing band (a rendition of the moldy oldie “My Bonnie”) and that, likewise, charted during this period.
Not wishing to be left out, those clowns at London International assembled a group of girls dubbed the Carefrees, exhumed “We Love You Conrad” from the [stifles laughter] “rock” musical Bye Bye Birdie and thanks to the magic of Mad Libs™ style name substitution, released the result as “We Love You Beatles.” This too hit the charts, despite being utterly worthless.
With all that said, it’s odd that the first Beatles song I should review is a cover, albeit a beloved one. Little known, the Isley Brothers’ version on which the Beatles so obviously based their version is not the original. That honor goes to the Top Notes, whose version was produced by none other than Phil Spector. I have not heard that version, so I need to educate myself...
I have to tell you, after being familiar with later versions, hearing the Top Notes version is...weird. It has a completely different feel, despite being full of the rock energy that the later versions also have. Reportedly, Bert Berns (who co-wrote the song with Bill “Righteous Brothers” Medley) hated what Spector did with his tune, so he helmed the Isley Brothers version himself.
And with all that said, let us finally get round to the serious business of examining Beatlemania in action.
John Lennon owns this version. His voice on this is kind of like a blown-out speaker, and it totally works for the tune, riding over the top of his and George’s rubber-band-y guitars. And we of course get Paul McCartney’s “woo” in the background, on loan from Little Richard (a fact Little Richard would be glad to point out to you, whether you asked him to do so or not). The harmonized “aahs,” the crack of Ringo’s drums, John’s cat-like scream near the end, it’s all just so perfect.
You really get what a revelation the Beatles must have been listening to this, and you only really understand it when doing a feature like the one I’ve been doing. With a few exceptions (see: Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’”) “black music” began going in a direction other than rock & roll, and there were few white artists still doing an effective job of it. We’ve seen Dion and the Kingsmen and, of course, Elvis**, but little in the way of real rock & roll outside of that. To have four kids with funny haircuts from Liverpool going for the spirit of Buddy Holly and absolutely nailing it must have been magical.
Pop music would never be the same. And I mean that in the best way possible.
*All right, Tollie was a subsidiary of Vee-Jay, albeit one that seemed to exist solely to capitalize on the Beatles success. That’s not strictly true, but it sure feels like it. Incidentally, one of the last singles released by Tollie was Jimmy Cross’ infamous “I Want My Baby Back.”
**Well, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney had some fine uptempo rockers as well, but we only covered their ballads here at Second Hand Goods.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Lesley Gore: “You Don’t Own Me”
Entered the chart on: 1/11/1964
Peaked on: 2/1/1964
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles
I really don’t think you could ask for a more symbolic representation of Pop Music’s Changing of the Guard than just a glance of that top 2. Lesley Gore basically handed the baton to the Beatles, allowing them to lead the charge for the rest of the decade.
Not that Lesley Gore had trouble racking up hits after this. The likes of Connie Francis and Frankie Avalon would never visit the charts again, but Lesley was still a star on the rise.
The “girl group” sound was still big business in early ’64. Lesley was sort of a one-girl reduction of the style, only instead of the Angels’ tales of being in love with the “bad boy,” her early singles were all mini-dramas on teenage romance.
And then there’s this, her fourth single and second biggest hit, the one where she asked producer Quincy Jones (yes, that Quincy Jones!) to provide her with something she could sink her teeth into. And damn if he didn’t come up with the goods!
Much has been made of the lyrics of this song, a powerful statement of female independence. I could point out that two men wrote it but I really don’t want to burst your bubble. Besides, this is really good! It drags you in immediately with the dramatic three-note guitar hook laid over the staccato piano chord pattern.
Really, this is all about Lesley. She really proves she’s no lightweight here, singing-wise. There’s no less than two key changes, and she really goes for the jugular with her vocal in the refrain. And did I mention she was only seventeen when she sang this? Wow!
It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to say something like this was inevitable from the future hostess of PBS’ LGBT affairs program In the Life but at the time, this must have had jaws on the floor. Who would have guessed that the cute girl next door who sang about who had who’s class ring had hidden depths? Speaking of hidden depths, there’s some Lesley Gore albums that collectors know about that the general public don’t: 1972’s Someplace Else Now (her stab at the nascent “singer-songwriter” genre) and 1976’s Love Me by Name (her reunion with Quincy Jones, a very sophisticated adult pop-soul album).
In the meantime, there’s this, perhaps the shiniest gold nugget in her 60s discography.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
The Kingsmen: “Louie Louie”
Entered the chart on: 11/30/63
Peaked on: 12/14/63
Weeks at #2: 6
Songs at #1: “Dominique” by the Singing Nun and “There! I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton
And so we say farewell to 1963 with this song. Spoiler alert for people unfamiliar with popular music history: we’ll be saying goodbye to a lot of things in 1964. Remember those consistent hitmakers up to this point? Most of them will be long gone by next year. You’ll see why ere long.
In the meantime...what more is there to say about this, perhaps the quintessential “garage rock” anthem? I will say that the fact that it stalled at Number Two for six freaking weeks behind two of the most white-bread pieces of crap is extremely suspicious. You see, there was a rumour that there was all sorts of filthy sailor talk and pornographic poesy lurking under the murky production and Jack Ely’s marble-mouthed delivery. It wasn’t true, of course, but it apparently required an FBI investigation, of all things, to get to the bottom of things. They could have just listened to Richard Berry’s original and saved a lot of time and taxpayer money!
In any case, the rumour help build the song’s legend, and went on to make it the most-covered song of all time.
I’ve talked about iconic riffs before, but I don’t think anything can top that electric piano intro to this. After years of increasing slickness in rock & roll, we’re back in Sun Records territory with this. This literally sounds like it was recorded in someone’s garage, the vocal mic sounds like it’s four feet away*, while the drums sound like they’re at the other end of the room.
The high point of this is undeniably the guitar solo, which somehow I completely forget about every time I listen to it. I don’t know why, the stinging tone the guitarist uses absolutely slayed me this time. The sludgy production is part of the song’s charm; the band’s energy and excitement comes through even though it sounds like it was recorded on a cheap Montgomery Ward’s tape recorder.
This is one of those records like “Walk—Don’t Run” and “Be My Baby” that inspired lots of people to pick up instruments and form bands. There weren’t a lot of songs that sounded like this before, but there were tons after.
Village Stompers: “Washington Square”
Entered the chart on: 10/5/63
Peaked on: 11/23/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale & Grace
So...it seems that we here in the States weren’t completely barren of Dixieland jazz in the 60s. Here we have a homegrown group; though as you can tell from their name and the title of their one big hit, they hail from New York and not N’awlins. They’re considered to be adjacent to the folk boom we’ve already been examining with some earlier hits this year, and called their style “folk jazz.”
There’s a check-mark next to this entry in my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Hits, but I can’t say I remember what this sounds like. Time to give myself a little reminder...
Starting with a ragged, almost out-of-tune electric guitar part, we get the lead played on a banjo. This is not what I expected at all! It’s almost like something out of an Ennio Morricone western soundtrack! It doesn’t really start sounding Dixieland until two-thirds of the way through, when the piano and drums finally join in, and the horns, which had been softly crescendoing in the background for a while, finally start blasting fortissimo notes.
I don’t know what it is about these 60s instrumentals, but they have something that really appeals to me. I get the feeling that if I was alive in 1963, I would have owned this record. Simple, yet highly appealing.
Monday, October 17, 2016
The Ronettes: “Be My Baby” Entered the chart on: 9/14/63 Peaked on: 10/12/63 Weeks at #2: 3 Song at #1: “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs
1963 really was the golden age of the “girl group” sound. Not only the Jaynetts, but you may have noticed tunes by the Angels, the Chiffons and the Crystals lurking in the top spot of past review subjects.
This one’s a Phil Spector production, the first to appear in Second Hand Goods. He co-wrote the tune with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who I believe also make their debut appearances on this feature. There’s a lot of superlatives attached to this tune, even more so than “Sally Go Round the Roses,” so it has quite a lot to live up to. Not that I have any doubts, I love this song! And like “There Goes My Baby” from four years earlier, it caused many to step up their game (not least, the previously-alluded-to Brian Wilson).
Now, before we begin the proper review, some of you are probably asking yourself why music of this era sounds the way it does. That’s because the main way these pop songs were disseminated was via the transistor radio. Phil Spector and his contemporaries were trying to make music that sounded good coming from a 2-inch speaker.
Ah yes, that much-imitated drum-handclap hook. With castanets adding accents! Exquisite! Jack Nitzsche, another pop music genius, arranged this, and it’s really superb. There’s a cello solo in the middle eight that kind of gets me right here.
I held back in talking about Veronica “Ronnie” Spector’s voice, which is an absolute treasure. She has this aching sob in her voice that makes listening to her an utterly compelling experience. The Ronettes didn’t have a huge amount of hits (this was undeniably their biggest), but Ronnie wound up being highly influential largely on the basis of this one song (Hell, Eddie Money coaxed her out of retirement to reference it in his “Take Me Home Tonight”). The backing harmonies are likewise sumptuously gorgeous, and it’s almost Mellotron-like in the way the backing singers meld with the strings, forming a kind of “additive synthesis” unison timbre.
That’s the magic of Phil Spector’s so-called “Wall of Sound.”
Pop perfection, it demands to be heard.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
The Jaynetts: “Sally Go Round the Roses”
Entered the chart on: 9/7/63
Peaked on: 9/28/63
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton
So...we’ve had folk revival. We haven’t had “girl group” yet, but that’s about to change, and how! Here we have girl group in the guise of folk revival. Or is it the other way round? In any case, this was not an adaptation of an old folk song, but it was made to sound like one, done in the then-popular “girl group” style. They must have had some measure of success in that regard, as folk artists such as Pentangle, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Tim Buckley adopted the song as their own.
The more I read up on this, the more I am fascinated by it. The Wikipedia article on the song makes producer Artie Butler out to be a sort of Brian Wilson-esque pop genius, with “Sally...” as his personal “Good Vibrations.” Reportedly, $60,000 was lavished onto the production, and no less than twenty singers performed on the disc. Staggering if true.
This is what I like about this feature. It gets me not only to listen to songs I never would have listened to before (hello, “A Blossom Fell”) but also to sit down and really listen to songs I’d heretofore neglected. Is it shameful that I am actually more familiar with Fanny’s 1975 remake than the original tune? Well, only one way to find out.
This one starts with a piano-led instrumental track, with the voices emanating out of what sounds like a long tunnel. Listening to this, I can believe twenty girls sang on it! This probably has the most striking use of dynamics I’ve heard in any song on Second Hand Goods thus far. No idea who it is singing lead but she sure does a good job of belting out at just the right point (“No, the roses won’t tell your secrets!”)
The backing track is almost hypnotic, raga-like. Is that a harmonium I hear adding accents? Some kind of crude electronic organ? In any case, that $60,000 shows in the striking production on this one. This is a lot more enigmatic and atmospheric than I am used to from records of this era, especially those aimed at the audience this is aiming for (i.e.: twist-crazed teenagers).
Really a gem of 60s pop. I am flabbergasted.
Allan Sherman: “Hello Mudduh! Hello Faddah! (A Letter From Camp)”
Entered the chart on: 8/10/63
Peaked on: 8/24/63
Weeks at #2: 3
Songs at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder and “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels
“You know, it is so sad! All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons!”
Perhaps I should explain.
You see, the melody to this song is not original. We’re in “based on classical” territory again. This is from the “Dance of the Hours” mini-ballet sequence from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda. Over in the UK, this melody was transformed into the hit ballad “Like I Do” by Welsh songbird Maureen Evans. On our side of the pond, we used the same melody as the basis of a silly comedy routine about a kid’s miserable experience at summer camp.
Like our friends over in the UK, I’ve always found summer camp to be a strange and foreign concept. My summers were spent with my family, going on camping trips or weekend jaunts to the beach. “Summer camp” was this thing I only saw in the movies or on TV. And the kids always seemed to be having a dreadful time. I thought “summer camp” must be for parents who didn’t like their kids, and I felt a bit sorry for kids who were subjected to it.
But enough about me. What does Mr. Sherman have to say?
This is almost a bait-and-switch. The first 15 seconds lure you into thinking this is a straight classical adaptation. Then Allan comes in with his smoke-ravaged voice, and an overly enthusiastic audience reacts to his rendition of this child’s tale of woe. He hits all the targets and then some, escalating from poison-ivy rashes and food poisoning to alligator-infested lakes, malaria and a search party to find lost campers. Not all the references have aged as well; I didn’t “get” the reference to Ulysses that the audience found so hilarious (We are talking James Joyce, right?).
And after all this, we get the surprise that the kid’s only been at camp a day as he composes his letter. Followed by the “twist” ending in which the rain clears up, he sees how much fun the other kids are having, and exhorts his parents to “kindly disregard” his letter. Wait, did he send it or not?
Good Lord, I am over-analyzing a goofy novelty song!
Well, it’s entertaining. Slight, but entertaining. It’s a comedy routine, what more do you want?
But seriously, could someone explain the Ulysses reference to me? Please?
Friday, October 14, 2016
Peter, Paul & Mary: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Entered the chart on: 7/13/63
Peaked on: 8/17/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder
This is what I meant about “the next song that I cover by [PPM]” being “more significant.” Specifically, this is the first Bob Dylan song to hit the charts. Now, that’s Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan, a claim I would not have been able to make a week ago, except in jest (A friend’s comment: “Go home, Nobel Prize, you’re drunk!”). Bob will be charting tunes himself ere long, as you’ll soon see, but Peter, Paul & Mary saw the significance of his work enough to wish to interpret it themselves.
Of course, I need to refresh my memory of Bob’s original before I tackle the PPM cover, thus I’ll do so right now...
Right, Bob’s original is...more produced than I expected. In that there’s multi-tracking: Bob is backed by two acoustic guitars, one in each channel. I’m just assuming Bob played both parts. And there’s a touch of reverb on his voice, presumably to beef it up. Let’s be fair, especially at this early stage, Bob’s voice was thin, nasal and reedy at best. But there’s a raw honesty there that does a fine job of putting across the lyrics. It’s a beautiful song, and that shines through. Let’s see what PPM do with it:
This is interesting. There’s two guitars here, too, but the instrumental arrangement is different. And they’re singing in harmony from the start, adding an almost imperceptible bit of reverb half-way through the first verse. Mary drops out for the first refrain, leaving the men singing it alone, then sings the start of the second verse solo before they join in on harmonies. And she sings the second and third chorus repeats solo.
So, while everyone else battles it out for which version is superior (“Your version is overly fussy and lame!” cry the Dylan purists. “Your version is poorly-sung and amateurish!” cry his detractors), I’m going to call “push” on this one. There’s lots to recommend both versions. There’s nothing wrong with covering someone else’s song if you have respect for the original, and yet put your unique stamp on it.
That’s precisely what this does.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
The Surfaris: “Wipe Out”
Entered the chart on: 7/6/63
Peaked on: 8/10/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder
All right! We’re really in the 60s now! Well, maybe it isn’t the “Summer of Love” 60s that people are getting their undies damp for (I’ll say it now: these are songs from the AM dial. Prepare to be disappointed.) but, hey! Folk-revival followed by surf-rock! The detritus of the 50s this ain’t!
Now, I’m sure people are going to point out that “we’ve already had surf-rock” with the Ventures. I’d argue that, like the “proto-folk-revival” of the Brothers Four, the Ventures were “proto-surf-rock.” This is the real deal. I mean, the title references surfing and they have “surf” in their name! How much more surf-y can you get?
Mind you, despite being born and raised in California, and even spending summer vacations on the beach at Santa Cruz, I was never part of the surf culture. I think the closest I come to it is owning the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, and there aren’t even any songs about surfing on that one!
That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy surf-rock. I mean, come on, I’m not Mexican, but I love me a good enchilada. So let’s dig into this enchilada:
We haven’t even started yet and I already have to laugh. This was released on Dot Records. Ah, they’ve come a long way since throwing hideous whitewashed remakes of R&B classics from the likes of Pat Boone and Gale Storm! Speaking of laughing, how about that iconic, yet creepy, spoken intro to this?
Wow, did they put everything through the spring reverb on this? The intro, the guitar, the bass, the drums, it sounds like they did! This won’t win any prizes for complexity, the up-down guitar melody seems to be playing in solid eighth notes. Really, the drummer is the star of the show here, getting some spotlight fills, though I think he’s at his most interesting when the rest of the band comes back in, getting all cymbal-splashy on us.
Though really, I think simplicity is this song’s strength. At a mere two minutes and fifteen seconds, this song would wear out its welcome if it were any longer. As it is, it sticks in the mind in an appealing way. Toe-tapping fun.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Peter, Paul & Mary: “Puff the Magic Dragon”
Entered the chart on: 3/30/63
Peaked on: 5/11/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Will Follow Him” by Peggy March
Here’s what I meant about the “real” 60s starting in ’63. As in the “peace and love” 60s that people are familiar with, as opposed to the “twisting fad” 60s or the “teenybopper idol” 60s. To think it would all stem from a whimsical children’s song.
Mind you, this isn’t the first we’ve seen of the folk boom. We heard the first squeakings of it way back in 1960 when the Brothers Four brought “Greenfields” to the cusp of the top of the charts. But Peter, Paul & Mary were the ones who really ushered it in, and opened the floodgates. The next song I cover by them is perhaps more significant (being a cover of a song by a soon-to-be major artist) but this is where the 60s as we knew it really began.
I have a history with this song, which extends beyond seeing eccentric Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry performing her 20-minute confessional opus “Oh My My” in concert, a song that weaves this song into it. This song is part of my childhood, and I’m sure must have come up in my elementary school music curriculum at one point. I definitely remember seeing the animated special based on the song on TV, and remembering that like Snoopy Come Home, it made me weepy. The thought of abandoning the childhood wonder of imagination seemed extremely sad to me. Give me a break, I was eight, and a sensitive child.
Well, one could definitely not question their intent on being folk revivalists. After a sea of songs slathered in string orchestrations and electric guitars, the simple arrangement here featuring a single acoustic guitar stands in stark contrast. Paul Stookey’s voice rings out clear as a crystal bell, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers’ harmonies chiming along in the refrain.
It’s extremely simple, not much to talk about except for the wistful storyline of the song, which reads like a children’s fantasy story with an uncommonly downbeat ending (Think Charlotte’s Web, if you need a comparison). It still tugs at my heart-strings after all these years. And while it’s sad, there’s a reality to the message: you have to put away your childhood toys and grow up sometime. Maybe some of those stunted man-children surrounded by comic books and plastic junk their parents bought them back in the 80s need to hear this.
As for the “alternate” interpretation, I won’t even dignify it with a response. Paul Stookey has gone on record time and time again to say that there was no “secret, hidden” message in this song, and I, for one, believe him.
I’m generally not a fan of children’s music, but there’s something about this one. I don’t know what it is, but it appeals to me. Maybe there’s a sentimental side to this old curmudgeon.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Andy Williams: “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”
Entered the chart on: 3/23/63
Peaked on: 4/13/63
Weeks at #2: 4
Songs at #1: “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons and “I Will Follow Him” by Peggy March
It’s 1963, and we’re only now getting to Andy Williams? Have we hit a time-warp?
People have described Perry Como as being “like your dad singing,” well, that’s precisely how Andy Williams strikes me. Well, perhaps not my dad specifically, he was a terrible singer. But somebody’s dad. And at least Perry Como injected some personality into his singing, and had his Italian heritage to draw upon. All Andy had was a naturally pitch-controlled voice and a collection of conservative sweater vests. He was like the Ward Cleaver of popular music.
While all the other 50s relics kind of faded away, Andy kept on racking up hits into the early 70s. For some reason, his brand of easy listening balladry resonated with people enough to keep buying his records despite the fact that Frank Sinatra he was not. Well, hipsters have glommed onto him a bit on account of the scandalous behavior of his one-time wife, questionably talented chanteuse Claudine Longet. But let us not forget: this is the same man who unleashed the Osmond family on the world.
And yet, I can never count anyone out on this feature. I promised to keep an open mind and I have done so (believe me, I’ll never make fun of Patti Page ever again). And this tune was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, so it must have something going for it. Let’s hope so...
Well, this is more uptempo than I expected. I was anticipating a slushy ballad, but was met with percussive guitar stabs. I guess technically this is a ballad, but it’s awfully uptempo for a song about a guy having trouble dealing with lost love. There’s strings and choir there, but they’re fairly muted and low key. It’s mainly about that guitar and percussion.
The production makes the most of Andy’s voice, double-tracking so he’s harmonizing with himself. He does need some beef there because we’re clearly not going to get a Tony Bennett-level performance out of him, so we need something to keep the listener’s interest.
So, as it turns out, Andy is (rather predictably) the least interesting part of this tune. But it is, nonetheless, interesting. Kudos to producer Robert Mersey for bringing out the best in this record.
Skeeter Davis: “The End of the World”
Entered the chart on: 2/16/63
Peaked on: 3/23/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & the Romantics
Mary Francis Pennick, known professionally as Skeeter Davis, has already had a bit of a hand in Second Hand Goods, having written lyrics for Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” which she sang the first vocal version of. Another SHG alumna, Joni James, also covered the Davis version and had her last Top 40 chart entry with it.
This is a very incestuous entry, speaking in #2 hits terms.
Anyway, I remember this song as being very overwrought. Let’s see if it lives up to my memory of it.
Well, her voice is less whiny than I recall. This song lays it on pretty thick, though. Lyricist Sylvia Dee reportedly drew on sorrow from the death of her father for inspiration. Which comes across as a bit heavy for a song about heartbreak. I mean, as a poor, lonely soul who’s never known love (see the “You Don’t Know Me” review), I imagine being dumped can feel pretty apocalyptic, but still, the glurge-y string orchestration (Chet Atkins again) and see-saw piano arpeggios (almost certainly Floyd Cramer yet again) make this feel awfully manipulative.
And let’s not even get into the spoken word couplet someone insisted on talking Skeeter into putting in there. The whole thing comes across as a cake made entirely of icing, and that’s just not a dish I want to devour.
I feel like someone’s trying too hard to make me feel a certain way, and I hate that!
Monday, October 10, 2016
Dion: “Ruby Baby”
Entered the chart on: 1/26/63
Peaked on: 2/23/63
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Hey, Paula” by Paul & Paula and “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons
So...we’ve made it to 1963 unscathed. I’m biding my time until 1964—savvy readers of this feature ought to know what happens then. In the meantime, some interesting developments in ’63 mean it’s shaping up to finally really feel like the 60s, instead of the dregs of the late 50s. Which is fine for me; as much as I enjoyed watching the movie Hairspray*, it’s not a place I’d want to live.
So...we’re back to Dion. Of the Italian-American pretty boys that were in vogue at the time, he is by far my favorite, questionably sexist lyrical content aside. Unlike Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and the Bobbys, Dion had actual rock & roll credibility, as well as a dynamite singing voice.
That said, I’m not conjuring up a memory of this one in my head. Which is odd, since it’s technically his second-biggest hit**. Clearly I need a refresher course, so let’s get to it!
OK, the Leiber-Stoller credit on the label (his first for Columbia after years with Laurie) gives me hope. As does the stark intro of just guitar chords. Dion’s voice enters, so slinky and loaded with soul. This is almost a throwback to Sun Records rockabilly stuff. I just adore how off-the-cuff Dion’s performance is here, all the casual asides he throws out in between phrases add to the appeal of this one.
Wow! How did I forget this was a thing? Why bother with Tame Elvis when Dion was more in the spirit of those early Elvis sides in ’63 than Elvis was anymore?
Shame on me for forgetting about this! This has to be the best classic rock & roll styled number I’ve covered on Second Hand Goods in a while!
Rating: 5 *the John Waters original, not the musical abomination, thank you. **after “Runaround Sue,” his only #1. As you’ll recall “The Wanderer” went to #2 as well, but only spent one week there.
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Chubby Checker: “Limbo Rock”
Entered the chart on: 9/29/62
Peaked on: 12/22/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Telstar” by the Tornadoes
I was going to try a stalling tactic for this review, but there’s no way around it. Let’s just jump in with both feet and get it over with.
Mind you, Chubby Checker, despite his derivative name (and the fact that he’s of average girth), is not a man without talent. He had a strong voice and an uncanny talent for mimicry; listen to his now-forgotten debut hit, “The Class.” Cameo-Parkway used that talent for...um...ripping off Hank Ballard (the original singer of “The Twist,” whose rendition Mr. Checker’s twice #1 version blatantly carbon-copies). Checker blames Cameo-Parkway for ruining his career, making him a laughingstock. I’ll side with the man here, as I’ve heard some of his post C-P singles where it’s revealed, in his heart of hearts, he really wanted to be...Jimi Hendrix? And damn if he didn’t almost pull it off!
In other words, they took a man with scads of potential, and squandered his talents on faddish dance-craze records. I feel no regret for what I’m about to do.
I’ll be perfectly honest: this doesn’t even feel like a “real” song. This is what I call “functional” music. It’s like the Hokey Pokey, or the Chicken Dance. Something a wedding DJ puts on to get kids and grandparents alike out on the dance floor. Chubby tries to enliven this with the laughter, the spoken word breaks (“How low can you go?” Oh, the irony!), but I’m having none of it. The handclaps almost got me into it. Almost. But not quite.
The faux-calypso style, apparently inspired by half an hour of listening to a Harry Belafonte record, feels phoned in. It’s just so repetitive! And the unison sax/whistle repeat of that melody one more time certainly isn’t helping.
I can’t imagine anyone listening to this one on purpose. Obnoxious.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Elvis Presley: “Return to Sender”
Entered the chart on: 10/27/62
Peaked on: 11/17/62
Weeks at #2: 5
Song at #1: “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons
So, you’ve tamed your Wild Elvis, now what do you do with him? If you’re Colonel Tom Parker, you’ll have him star in a series of progressively more embarrassing movie musicals until they stop being profitable/Elvis realizes they’re making him look like a dork, decides he’s had enough and exerts his will to exact some damage control on his flagging career.
This tune’s from Girls! Girls! Girls! which is about...honestly, does it really matter? I’m convinced the scripts for Elvis movies were written Mad Libs™-style; you know: “In this film, Elvis plays a [GLAMOUROUS PROFESSION] in [EXOTIC LOCALE], where he falls for a gorgeous young woman played by [CURRENTLY HOT HOLLYWOOD STARLET]. But she resists his charms, until she hears him sing [SONG WRITTEN FOR FILM].” And so on and so forth.
But we’re not here to review Elvis’ filmography (thank the Gods), we’re here to review a song. And this time it’s an uptempo number and not a dreary ballad.
Oh my, is that a baritone sax opening this? I already like this better than that Blue Hawaii sleeping pill!And you sure don’t hear guitar this clean on rock songs anymore! I’d comment on the dated postal reference in the lyrics but, hey, think of that Lady Gaga/Beyoncé feature-length ad for Samsung and how silly
Make no mistake, this is Tame Elvis. You could easily imagine the likes of the Bobbys (Vee, Rydell, et al) singing this. But it’s Elvis. Elvis does his usual Elvis magic to lift average material above the norm. Elvis makes this song not suck.
Friday, October 7, 2016
Gene Pitney: “Only Love Can Break a Heart”
Entered the chart on: 9/29/62
Peaked on: 11/3/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals
This is why I was excited for 1962: a hat-trick of absolutely spectacular male soloists all with consecutive songs peaking at #2 in the autumn. Here we have Gene Pitney, and if Roy Orbison had any kind of competition for most potent male balladeer of the early 60s, it had to have been from Gene. Clearly it was a mutual admiration society, since Roy sang at least one song Gene wrote: “Today’s Teardrops.” In fact, before he made it as a soloist, Gene made his bread and butter as a songwriter, having written hits for a couple of other Second Hand Goods’ alumni: “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson and “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee. Oh, and “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals! Is this the first instance on SHG where the top 2 are by different artists, yet written by the same person?
Not only was he a versatile vocalist and superior songwriter, but he was multi-talented as an instrumentalist as well, playing and singing everything on his debut hit “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away.” But it’s his expressive tenor voice that he’s best remembered for. He could sometimes border on campy melodrama (see his rendition of the title song from Town Without Pity, one of his most enduring hits) but he was always a captivating listen. He was Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s preferred male interpreter of their material. This song is one of theirs. This has a lot of potential to live up to.
Man, this song doesn’t mess around! A swath of strings and we’re right into the refrain. I imagine Bacharach wanted to hammer in the most memorable and catchy bit of this because, like a lot of his tunes, it’s really oddly constructed. The verses are of differing lengths with melodies and rhythms that jump all over the place. It’s precisely that weirdness that makes Bacharach’s songs memorable. Part of Pitney’s appeal to him is that he—like their preferred female soloist, Dionne Warwick—is able to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of his songs and make it sound natural.
Whoever’s playing the guitar on this deserves an award for making it sound very smooth. None of the changes seem jarring or out-of-place. There’s also a nice whistling hook near the start that’s repeated at the end. Pitney doesn’t go for melodrama here, if anything, he’s under-selling the lyric. But God, that voice is to die for.
Not your usual romantic ballad, by any stretch of the imagination. You could write a term paper on this.
Nat “King” Cole: “Ramblin’ Rose”
Entered the chart on: 8/18/62
Peaked on: 9/22/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Sherry” by the Four Seasons
For those of you who have been following Second Hand Goods from the very beginning, you’ll remember that I have a history with Nat “King” Cole. Namely, that he was the first recipient of a five-star award on this feature, and with a song I’d never even heard before: the exquisite ballad “A Blossom Fell.”
Full disclosure time: I’ve never heard this before, either, his last top 5 entry before his tragic death in 1965. To be fair, most of his best-known, most enduring hits (“Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa” et al) pre-date the rock era. So it’s not inconceivable that I’ve never heard this before: until starting this feature, I’d never heard any song of his newer than 1954. After “A Blossom Fell,” I have high hopes for this one. Don’t let me down, Nat...
You know, I think I might have been mistaken. This sounds awfully familiar. I must have heard this somewhere at some point. I looked at the songwriting credit and thought, “This was written by the Sherman Brothers?” Well, yes and no. It was written by a pair of brothers with the surname Sherman, but not those Sherman Brothers. Got that?
It’s hard not to bop your head along to this. It’s got a bouncy rhythm that carries you along with it, with the guitar leading the way. It sounds awfully old-school for 1962, but then it’s Nat, so would you expect any less? It’s obvious he’d been smoking like a chimney at this point, but I could still listen to that voice of his all day long.
In a way, this is is Nat’s way of keeping up with the Joneses. Or at least the Brook Bentons (he pilfered his musical director, Belford Hendricks) and the Ray Charleses (the orchestration with the massive mixed-voice choir seems to be on loan from “I Can’t Stop Loving You”). This one’s all about that infectious singalong refrain. Nat, being an old pro, knows this, and before the final chorus repeat commands, “One more time, everybody!”
Admit it, you were singing along, too.
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Ray Charles: “You Don’t Know Me”
Entered the chart on: 8/4/62
Peaked on: 9/8/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Sheila” by Tommy Roe
Ah, Ray Charles. People who say that the early 60s was a wasteland for popular music probably need to be reminded that Ray Charles was in his prime during this period. And if anyone has a bad word to say about Ray Charles, kindly smack them in the back of the head for me.
If this is the song I think it is, it’s a good one. But I associate Ray Charles with original material, and this one’s a cover. Originally sung by country singer Eddy Arnold in 1959, it was subsequently done by Jerry Vale before Ray Charles got his pipes and ivories all over it. So, in the grand tradition of Second Hand Goods, I shall duly consult those versions before sampling Ray Charles’ interpretation.
A short little prelude before the main feature: this is the song I think it is. Eddy Arnold’s version is very good in the Jim Reeves mould. Maybe a bit better, actually. Not feeling Jerry Vale’s version, his voice is fine, but a bit overly polite, to say nothing of Percy Faith’s saccharine orchestration. But I really love this song. It’s really a heart-breaking number, all about a man who’s too shy to let his beloved know how he really feels.
Honestly, why would I relate to such a song?
Right, I think we have a record-breaker. I’ve previously said that it takes 57 seconds for Nat “King” Cole’s voice to have its effect on the listener. With Ray Charles I think that’s zero seconds. He opens his mouth to sing, and I’m immediately an emotional wreck. It’s such exquisite torture! He really knows how to squeeze every drop of pathos from this lyric. It’s funny, he has this sunny, jolly personality, then he proceeds to sing one of the saddest songs you’ve ever heard.
I have to say, I’m not especially fond of Marty Paich’s arrangement. The pillowy strings and old-fashioned choir probably even beat Percy Faith’s orchestration on Jerry Vale’s version in the sticky-as-molasses department. But I suppose it’s not too different from “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and other such Ray Charles hit ballads of this era.
That said, I’m glad someone put this lead sheet in front of Ray and told him to sing it. This is the definitive version of this tune. I’ve always associated this song with him, and believe me, there’s a reason. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard this version before, I’ve just seen TV performances and the like of him singing it at his piano.
Sorrow has never been quite so enjoyable.
The Orlons: “The Wah-Watusi”
Entered the chart on: 6/23/62
Peaked on: 7/21/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Roses Are Red” by Bobby Vinton
Well, I expected I’d need to go back to the Cameo-Parkway dance-craze well eventually, but so soon? And from a group named for a synthetic fabric, no less! The Orlons are actually historically important, not for this song, but for a 1963 follow-up single called “South Street,” which was the first chart hit to use the term “hippies.”
As I’ve already made abundantly clear in my Dee Dee Sharp review, these 60s dance fads are an utter cipher to me. How is the Watusi any different from the Frug? This is all cultural knowledge that hasn’t been passed on to my generation, and has been swept away like thistledown in the wind. I think all this would have been utterly forgotten if there weren’t people like me to chronicle such things.
And again, I’m focusing on the instrumental track. I love the way the piano part bounces around and ties the whole thing together. And whoever the drummer is that played on this is amazing! Some of the fills he lays down here are just too tasty to be believed. Simon Phillips, eat your heart out.
The male Orlon, Stephen Caldwell, gets some cute little solo interjections, but really this is all about lead singer Rosetta Hightower. As much as I liked Dee Dee Sharp’s voice in the last edition, I love Rosetta’s here! She’s both clear and oh so full of soul. Even more than the good things I already mentioned, she makes this worth listening to.
The lyrics? Bah! Your usual dance fad inanity. It doesn’t warrant deep analysis. Nor should it. This should be enjoyed in the spirit it was intended: ephemeral fun.
Dee Dee Sharp: “Mashed Potato Time”
Entered the chart on: 3/17/62
Peaked on: 5/5/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Soldier Boy” by the Shirelles
Waiting for the other shoe to drop and someone to complain about my rating system; i.e.: how could I give a 5 to “Midnight in Moscow” and only 2 to an Elvis “classic.” Hey, it’s my blog, my rules! Deal with it!
Dee Dee Sharp is another Cameo-Parkway artist, something like the distaff version of Chubby Checker. Her main task was to get the kids jazzed about new dance crazes, like a large portion of the Cameo-Parkway artist roster.
All these dance crazes seem like arcane knowledge these days, but they were clearly big business at the time. In addition to the Mashed Potato and the Twist, there was the Watusi (wait for it...), the Monkey, the Swim, the Cinnamon Cinder (“It’s a ver-uh nahss day-uns!”) and, perhaps most notoriously of all, the Frug.
The Frug was frequently the subject of hack comedians back in the day, largely on the basis of “frug” being an Inherently Funny Word. Was there even a song to go along with it? But I digress...
Dee Dee is giving me Little Eva vibes. But the song is extremely familiar to me. It basically sounds like a re-write of “Please, Mr. Postman.” Which they actually have the nerve to name-drop two-thirds of the way through. Complete with reiterating the “Wait a minute, wait a minute” hook. Were they basically acknowledging how formulaic all this is? Give me a break!
That said, Dee Dee is sassy and good, and I like her backing vocalists (“It’s the latest, it’s the greatest...Mashed Potatooooooooo!”). And we get the requisite sax solo in the middle eight. So it does everything you want it to.
But I really can’t imagine having a burning need to hear this these days when “Please, Mr. Postman” is right there.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen: “Midnight in Moscow”
Entered the chart on: 2/17/62
Peaked on: 3/17/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel
Oh, honestly! Were we really so starved for talent over here that we had to import our Dixieland jazz from across the Atlantic Ocean? Actually, I do believe Kenny is in fact the first British act we’ve covered here at Second Hand Goods (at least directly, there was David Rose conducting the orchestra for Connie Francis on “My Happiness”).
This is another record from my parents’ collection. I was obsessed by this song as a kid, though I can’t say particularly why. Something about it intrigued and fascinated the junior version of me. Let’s see if it holds up.
All right, for those following along at home and wondering why this is called “Midnight in Moscow,” it’s adapted from an old Russian folk song. And I was absolutely not kidding about the Dixieland jazz thing. The accompaniment is drums and a freaking banjo! The rest is horns, horns, horns! Kenny and his trumpet lead the charge but we also get a muted trombone (which gets a solo and a raunchy glissando in the final head repeat, which has someone in the band yelling with delight!) and some wailing clarinet.
I have to say, for whatever reason, this still does it for me. It sounds utterly bizarre amidst all the R&B, early rock and dance craze records that surrounded it, and maybe that’s what appeals to me so much. Whatever, it’s fun, and I make no apologies for my enjoyment.
Dion: “The Wanderer”
Entered the chart on: 12/18/61
Peaked on: 2/24/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler
I was wondering when I’d get around to Dion, who rose from the ranks of Italian-American street-corner doo-wop groups in the Bronx (The Belmonts, in this case) to the top of the singles charts. He started questionably (as a soloist, at any rate) with “Lonely Teenager” but there’s no doubt that he had some serious pipes, and could really deliver the goods when presented with A-material. I get the feeling, unless my memory’s failing me, that the lyrics to this one are questionable for other reasons, but we’ll get to that.
Yeah...the lyrics to this one are pretty sleazy, about a serial love-maker who’s probably looking for a nasty case of V.D. if he keeps up this behavior. That said, there’s something oddly irresistible about this one, the shuffle beat, the sax solo and Dion’s raunchy vocal lead, which captures the mood of the song perfectly.
Others have pointed out the double-standard of this song following up “Runaround Sue.” The protagonist of this song is the male equivalent of Sue, but while there’s all sorts of finger-wagging towards Sue and her wanton ways, the subject of “The Wanderer” is deemed “cool.” Yes, it’s incredibly sexist. I still highly enjoy both songs.
A product of its time, sure, but an enjoyable one all the same. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must.
Elvis Presley: “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Entered the chart on: 12/18/61
Peaked on: 2/3/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters
We’ve entered 1962, and I can’t help but notice that Elvis has completed his final metamorphosis into Tame Elvis. You’ll notice this was from Blue Hawaii, one in a long line of cheesy Elvis flicks, and the same one that featured the much-mocked “Ito Eats.”
You know, when I was a kid, I really disliked Elvis. Probably a bit of mild rebellion, as Elvis was Mom’s favorite. Then again, it might be me associating him with tunes like this, which I’ve never really liked. I distinctly remember the Blue Hawaii soundtrack in a stack of Mom’s records.
I was going to say “Elvis is the best part of this,” but while Elvis usually is the best part of any Elvis record, there’s other stuff of worth here. The up-down piano arpeggio that weaves through the entire track does a good job of tying it all together (is that Floyd Cramer? Possibly Elvis himself?). The Jordanaires are back and wonderful as usual on backing vocals. There’s also a sweet, slinky guitar hook during the B verse that grabs the listener. And do I detect a ukulele in the background? It’s from Blue Hawaii after all.
A lesser producer would have just swamped the whole thing in a treacly string orchestration, but fortunately that doesn’t happen. The production on this record is flawless, as is, typically, Elvis’ singing performance. The problem with this is the song itself. I’ve always found it to be bland, sentimental mush designed to appeal to weepy teenaged girls. Yuck.
At least it’s well-done, and Elvis gives it his all as usual, but that can’t save the song from the junk pile.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Bobby Vee: “Run to Him”
Entered the chart on: 9/18/1961
Peaked on: 12/25/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens
Bobby Vee, if I ever think of him at all...actually, let me stop right here. I tend not to think of him at all. He’s never struck me as anyone’s favorite. I can’t imagine legions of raving, screaming, stomping Bobby Vee fans showering him with adulation. He seems like someone who had chart hits mainly to fulfill some kind of quota. The sort of artist where you ask someone about him, they respond with, “Eh, he’s all right I guess.”
Which isn’t to say that his output was completely without worth (he had a decent singing voice and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was well-crafted, if not quite a masterpiece) but the mere mention of his name doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse.
Now, in my copy of the Whitburn Book, I’ve placed check-marks next to all the songs I’ve heard. This isn’t completely helpful, as there’s no context for it. It doesn’t explain where and under what circumstances I heard it. My guess would be that I was listening to some charts-obsessed oldies radio personality, a Dick Bartley or Casey Kasem presentation, probably. More pertinent for our purposes, just because I’ve heard a song doesn’t mean I’ll remember it years later, and that’s definitely the case with “Run to Him.” Not conjuring up memories of any kind of melody based on the title. So let’s “refresh” my “memory” of this one...
The loping rhythm of this almost makes me feel of an old cowboy song, but the swaths of strings and the drippy Johnny Mann Singers tell us we’re solidly in Bobby Rydell territory. That said, this might be the first teen-idol song I’ve heard done with any sort of competence. Yes, it’s sugary-sweet as hell, but it’s at least well-produced and well-written (Gerry Goffin co-wrote it). Yes, I’ll probably forget it as soon as it’s done playing (again) but Bobby’s singing voice is quite spiffy. No punched notes, no overwrought teenage melodrama, just a sweet melody performed well. The chord and key changes on this are actually surprisingly sophisticated for a tune made to appeal to teenaged girls.
Not in love with this, but I appreciate that it’s not just a quickie done with zero effort and hustled out the door to earn a quick buck. Like most of what I’ve heard from him, perfectly adequate.
Monday, October 3, 2016
The Dovells: “Bristol Stomp”
Entered the chart on: 9/18/1961
Peaked on: 10/23/1961
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Runaround Sue” by Dion
Not to obsess, but after listening to “Crying,” I went ahead and re-familiarized myself with Don McLean’s version and k. d. lang’s also for good measure*. And you know what? Both versions are very, very good! Neither is quite as spectacular as the original, at first, but both are performed by first-rate singers with reverence to the source material, yet who make the song their own. Isn’t that what good cover songs do?
Something tells me I’ll be referring back to this text in the near future.
Anyway, the Dovells. Is this the first “dance craze” record we’ve covered at Second Hand Goods? Was there really a dance to go with this song? Or did they just want to get their home-town some air-time on national, public radio. No idea if it’s actually true, but I understand the BBC banned this tune**, considering its lyric too salacious. “Bristols,” you see, is a slang term for women’s breasts.
Methinks someone at the BBC has a dirtier mind than any of us. What did they think this song was about? The mind boggles...
Oh yes, this is a Cameo-Parkway joint, so I think that’s a big, fat “yes” on the “is this a dance craze song or not?” Cameo-Parkway were the crassest of the early “youth-oriented” labels; they had no shame in jumping on any trend that came down the pike and exploiting it with ruthless abandon.
The thing that sticks in my mind about this, more than the insistent “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol, etc.” backing vocal litany, is that jaunty guitar strumming accompaniment. Trust me to notice something about the instrumental track!
I guess we’re in “white people trying to sound black” territory again, which explains Len Barry’s wailing lead vocal on this. I don’t dislike it, but he’s kind of all over the place, missing notes right and left. Is it just me? Maybe it is, because obviously a lot of people bought this record.
I don’t know, maybe I’d like it better if they used a different take, but I bet Cameo-Parkway wanted to rush-release this and get it out the door as quick as possible to exploit the ever-fickle teenage taste. Because that’s the Cameo-Parkway way.
*Still haven’t worked up the nerve to check out the rendition by Dutch Schlager singer Gerard Joling. I’m still burned by the time I heard what Wayne Newton did to “In Dreams.”
**It did become a hit, albeit belatedly, for the UK nostalgia group the Late Show in 1979.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
Roy Orbison: “Crying”
Entered the chart on: 8/28/1961
Peaked on: 10/9/1961
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles
And here we have the light at the end of the tunnel I spoke of earlier. After “Only the Lonely,” I was certainly eager to review more Roy Orbison songs. Sadly, this is the last one. Happily, it’s another tune I love.
Full disclosure time, and I’m showing my age here, but I heard Don McLean’s cover before I even knew it was a Roy Orbison song. Similarly, I had heard (and loved) Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” long, long before Roy’s. I think that’s testament to Roy’s talent that so many other talented people were inspired by him.
Dare I compare this with the Dick & Deedee song from the last edition? That one had a fantastic snare drum hook, this one opens with an equally splendid tom-tom hook. And is that a celeste I hear? Bob Moore’s orchestration is, typically, just lovely. As with his chart-topping “Running Scared,” this one builds solidly from start to finish.
Damn, Roy, is it impossible for you not to knock one out of the park? And has there ever been anyone who ever made heartbreak so compelling? The man’s voice was a force of nature, nobody else could hit those high notes in the last refrain and still sound smooth as a pane of glass. Nobody else could tug at your heart-strings with the touch of sorrow in his voice.
I’m just going to bask in this moment of bliss. Don’t mind me!
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Dick & Dee Dee: “The Mountain’s High”
Entered the chart on: 8/28/1961
Peaked on: 9/25/1961
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Take Good Care of My Baby” by Bobby Vee
I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know something good is coming on the horizon. Gifted with foresight, I also know that 1962 has much better songs. In the meantime, let’s take a look at “The Mountain’s High,” an oldie you don’t really hear much anymore. Methinks there might be a reason for that. Only one way to find out.
[makes sour lemon face]
Right, I get what they’re going for. Whitewashing isn’t cool anymore. It’s 1961, and sounding like you’re black is cool. I think this might be our first instance of “blue-eyed soul.” I would have preferred the Righteous Brothers, but I got Dick & Deedee. Them’s the breaks, I suppose.
The best thing about this is that “rat-a-tat” snare drum hook. The worst thing about this is definitely Dick & Deedee themselves. Dick sounds strained most of the time while Deedee is so insufferably shrill. If I had a dog, no doubt he’d be howling in agony at this, begging me to turn it off.
And then Deedee starts making cuckoo bird noises at the end, for no real good reason. Deedee, Martha Reeves you are not.
Well, that’s enough of that then. Time to put on some Mary Wells and cleanse the palate. And the brain.