Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gene Pitney

It was one random afternoon when I should have been working, and I was scrounging through the LPs at Comic World when I was delighted to find all three volumes of Gene Pitney’s Big 16. No, it did not take three LPs to encompass 16 songs. No. Each LP had 16 songs on its own. So one could argue that the series should have been entitled Gene Pitney’s Big 48. My best guess, though, is that nobody planned this out. So we have to live with the anomaly.

But my delight was real. I already had an LP called Gene Pitney’s 16 Greatest Hits, the 16 tracks of which corresponded to none of the Big 16 volumes exactly, and which, in fact, had one track that was on none, believe it or not, and I had some pre-recorded cassette that had Louisiana Mama, so now I had the makings of a stupendous collections. And that’s what I assembled, using a more or less random sequencing algorithm (I closed my eyes and pointed).

Three of his top 100 singles are missing here – one is I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night, a duet with George Jones, one is That Girl Belongs To Yesterday, an obscure Jagger-Richards composition, and the last is She Let’s Her Hair Down (Early In The Morning), a song better known by The Tokens. I’ve got all three somewhere else, just for the record. I should get to it around 2025.

Gene Pitney:

Billy You’re My Friend – Not any more, apparently. She’s A Heartbreaker, which was a hit in the summer of 1968, was Pitney’s last stab at top 40 success. This was his follow up, and bears the mark of its time, replete with tempo changes, a middle eight with a piano credenza worthy of Franz Liszt, and an arrangement that’s an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of Richard Harris’ McArthur Park, one of the most despised records of all time. All that was missing was believable human drama. This tale of romantic betrayal by one’s “best friend” was sadly juvenile for all the effort that went into this. From the fall of 1968.
Yesterday’s Hero – The intro sounds like he’s declaring war on his own ego. Behind it is the tale of psychological insecurity, adequacy by association. It’s all too familiar, but sooner or later it would catch up with him, one way or another. From the spring of 1964.
Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa – This may be the most over-the-top tale of infidelity in all of pop music, and that’s some accomplishment. Not only does a one-night stand turn into a lifetime commitment, but Gene walks away from a perfectly good (we have no reason to believe otherwise) relationship, for some floozy he met in a roadside diner. “One day away from your arms,” he sings. How many days from her legs? From the fall of 1963.
Only Love Can Break A Heart – I have heard that the best way to cure a hangover is to have more of what caused it. That’s kind of the message here, though transposed to a romantic context. Indeed, “only love can mend it again.” There’s much to be said for time, but this isn’t the place for self-help books. This syrupy ballad was Pitney’s highest placing single, reaching number 2 in the fall of 1962.
Not Responsible – There is something vaguely threatening about this I-can’t-control-myself declaration. But Gene’s take sounds positively tame compared to Tom Jones’.
Teardrop By Teardrop – Heartbreak and tears, they go together like peanut butter and jam…
Donna Means Heartbreak – How to depersonalize the disintegration of a relationship.
Aladdin’s Lamp – Aladdin himself is there in the background. Listen Gene, wishful thinking will never replace action. Get on or something…
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – Over the top frontier drama, this was the theme from the movie, but Pitney’s vocal’s were not used. It’s the fiddle that gives it just a touch of authenticity, and he pulls this off surprisingly well, considering how unsuited his voice is for westerns. From the summer of 1962.
Keep Telling Yourself – A song about self-delusion.
Mecca – They live on opposite sides of the street, but she may as well be in Mecca. I don’t know, even then they had commercial flights to Mecca, no? A song about obstacles. The mid-eastern touches are kitschy and utterly charming. From the spring of 1963.
Town Without Pity – Here he’s encroaching on Del Shannon territory, just a touch of paranoia. One wonders what everyone is so up in arms about. From the winter of 1962.
Tower Tall – A song about promises. Good luck.
Cry Your Eyes Out – A revenge song, and not the song by Les Emmerson.
True Love Never Runs Smooth – No it doesn’t, but he is willing to go the limit. It’s worth “the heartache and the pain we share” he says, but the heartache and the pain isn’t what you share, it’s what you endure alone. Still, at least he isn’t wearing rose-coloured glasses. From the summer of 1963.
Take Me Tonight – Considering the title and the subject matter, this is quite lame. Unbridled lust isn’t what Gene does best I guess.
Half Heaven, Half Heartache – He’s got the girl he wants, but she is still hung up on the other guy. I feel your pain Gene, but give it time, and if things don’t get better, give her the heave-ho. The pain in his voice as he soars on the chorus is the embodiment of how it feels not to be able to change things. From the winter of 1963.
I Wanna Love My Life Away – Sounds like a plan. No need for mortgages, job interviews, hospital visits, summer camp, in-laws, etc. Just love love love. Go for it. This one-man-band performance was Gene’s first hit. It barely cracked the top 40 in the winter of 1961.
If I Didn’t Have A Dime – A song about serendipity. There she was, the girl of his dreams, “ruby lips and golden hair, beside the jukebox.” Sounds a bit sleazy to me but it’s not my trip. Wistful stuff. From the fall of 1962, the flip side of Only Love Can Break A Heart.
It Hurts To Be In Love – Another song about pain and unrequited love. A great drummer and a marching rhythm help it along. From the fall of 1964.
Oh Annie Oh – Gene goes folk. Light that bonfire…
Today’s Teardrops – This is chirpy; Paul Anka couldn’t have done it better.
Fool Killer – Not The Mose Allison song. It’s supposed to have a moral I suppose but the concept falls apart with the concept of “fool.”
Laurie – Not the Dickie Lee song, but, oddly, both songs are about a dead girl. This is meant to be wistful, but it’s just a bit morbid.
Backstage (I’m Lonely) – Another song about the lonely life of the pop star. This one is a bit mundane, Gene merely pining for his girl, with the added attraction of acknowledgement of his star status. I wonder if the crowds in real life were as big as they were in the song. From the fall of 1966.
She’s A Heartbreaker – Gene updated. The sound is modernized, bringing our hero into the late 60s, even giving him a bit of a soul edge, but the lyrics are typical evil woman stuff. From the summer of 1968.
Little Betty Falling Star – Romance meets astronomy, and they both lose.
Brandy Is My True Love’s Name – And Brandy is a heck of a drink. Gene brings all the folk authenticity one can possibly stand to this ode to alcohol.
I’m Gonna Be Strong – Because showing that you care, showing that you’re sad, showing that this is hard for you, that’s all evidence of weakness. Clearly. From the winter of 1964/65.
Hello Mary Lou – His best records were written by others, while his songs were best recorded by others. Hello Mary Lou was probably the best remembered song by Ricky Nelson, and Loggins & Messina and The Statler Brothers had their various cracks at it as well.
I Love You More Today – A slight country flavour informs this tale of love that gets better every day. So yesterday wasn’t so hot?
Half The Laughter, Twice The Tears – And here we find Gene trying hard to get into that slight-soulful mid 60s groove, and not quite getting there...
Lyda Sue – A humorous look at self destruction. Ha ha ha.
Every Breath I Take – Phil Spector produced this, just before he launched his own record company, and I wonder if anyone else could have made such a massive monument out of a song this slight – vocal chorus that sounds like the Vienna Mens’ Chorus with sock hop fever, a string section that could be the strings of the NY Philharmonic after they had a few too many, and a drummer (probably Hal Blaine) to remind us of how serious this is – Pitney never made another record like this and neither did Spector, and thank goodness, the world couldn’t stand it. Make no mistake though, this is pure genius. It was too much for most people though; it didn’t get higher than number 42 on Billboard, just before Pitney hit the big time with Town Without Pity. From the fall of 1961.
I Laughed So Hard I Cried – Yet another take on the crying clown theme.
I Must Be Seeing Things – Yet another betrayed-by-a-best-friend drama, this may be the strangest of all. He spots his girl with his BFF (of course), manages to catch every word of their bizarre conversation, while they don’t see him. He is, of course, eating his heart out. From the winter of 1965.
Just One Smile – As Gene struggles with the reality of a broken relationship, he still hopes for that bandaid that will salvage it. The emotion is all too real, and so is the hopelessness that’s just under the surface. BST covered this on their first album, the one with Al Kooper. From the winter of 1967.
Rags To Riches – Gene’s rocked up arrangement of this Tony Bennett hit works surprisingly well.
Born To Lose – Known by Tennessee Ernie Ford and by Ray Charles, Gene’s recording of this works better than I’d expect. Much of the credit goes to tasteful arrangement, which starts with muted acoustic guitar, bass, and drum, and which the piano then the chorus then electric guitar enter one by one...
Last Chance To Turn Around – This one has Gene screaming and yelling about how he’ll show her. Meanwhile I wonder why he won’t have another chance to turn around. Is he driving into the ocean? From the summer of ’65.
Amor Mio – Gene sings love to a Mexican beauty - a song that cops the rhythm and chord structure straight from La Bamba.
Looking Through The Eyes Of Love – In the eyes of the world he’s a useless loser; in the eyes of his lover he’s the greatest hero. Ok. I’ll buy that. But what is he in his own eyes? That image, looking through the eyes of love, played out very strangely in my 8 year old mind when this was a hit in the summer of 1965.
Remind Her Of Me – I think of her all the time. I want her to think of me, remember how happy we were. How the heck does he know she isn’t?
I Can’t Stop Loving You – Written and originally recorded by Don Gibson, and a major hit for Ray Charles, Gene’s version is unlike either.
I’m Afraid To Go Home – A real song that tackles the real trauma of the ravages of war. It is specifically about the Civil War but the message is universal. With this one Gene proves once and for all that he’s a contender.
Stay – Not the Maurice Williams song. Don’t go…
On The Street Where You Live – Originally from My Fair Lady and a hit for Vic Damone, if this weren’t so hokey it might be one of the best songs about falling in love. Alas…
There’s No Livin’ Without Your Lovin’ – A journeyman love song, and a minor hit later for Peter & Gordon.
Princess In Rags – One of those minor subcategory of pop song – the poor girl rich boy saga (or vice versa). The Four Seasons had a good time with it (Rag Doll, Dawn) and so did Billy Joe Royal (Down In The Boondocks) and so did Roy Orbison (Working For The Man), and so even did Jay & The Americans (Only In America). This is somewhat unusual in that there doesn’t seem to be any opposition to the union. Go Gene. From the winter of ’65 / 66.
Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers had presumably not yet gotten hold of this when Gene did his take, and his take is unlike any other, with orchestration reminiscent of Ravel himself, with special kudos to the harpist. I still prefer the totally syrupy but irresistible original by Les Baxter, and this doesn't have the sheer drama of the Spector production, but this is ok.
Close To My Heart – Another journeyman trip.
I Really Don’t Want To Know – Oh yes you do Gene, yes you do. I must have 2 dozen versions of this in my collections, and there are hundreds out there. The hit versions were by Les Paul & Mary Ford, Tommy Edwards, Ronnie Dove, and Elvis Presley. The rest is commentary. Go forth and learn…
All The Way – Frank Sinatra recorded this, as did Neil Sedaka and many other respectable performers, and so the potential lewdness in the title / lyrics gets swept away. Gene doesn’t bring it back out.
Louisiana Mama – This ode to a Cajun beauty was Gene’s follow-up to his debut, but it managed to avoid the charts altogether. Admittedly, it’s dippy…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Johnny Maestro

What happened to Johnny Maestro between 1961 and 1968? The Best Of Johnny Maestro, where my collection comes from, has only 3 tracks he recorded as a solo artist, all three from 1961, and all 3 chart hits. Before that he sang bel canto doo-wop with The Crests, and in the late 60s / early 70s he was lead singer of Brooklyn Bridge, Buddah Records’ answer to Gary Puckett & The Union Gap (as if an answer were required). And those missing years? No idea, nothing comes up in the usual sources, and I can’t find any unusual sources.

And whatever happened to him, it’s too bad, because he was good. He held his own among the best of the teen idols of his day, and for the most part he could sing circles around Bobby Vee or Bobby Rydell. So I’ll keep checking Amazon for Johnny Maestro: The Missing Years, but I’m not holding my breath…

Johnny Maestro:

Model Girl – Model as in Christie Brinkley? Model as in plastic glue-it-yourself airplane? More like model as in “role model.” She can’t possibly live up to the hype, but while those strings are playing and his voice is soaring the fantasy is just too real. From the spring of 1961. “When I saw you walking down the street…”
What A Surprise – This is as silly as Model Girl is fanciful, but when I hear Johnny sing I forgive him everything. I have to wonder what would have happened had he just given up and gone home… From the summer of 1961.
Mr. Happiness – We’re getting a bit mundane here and it showed in the results; the song didn’t get higher than number 57 on Billboard, and it was his last hit before he resurfaced with The Brooklyn Bridge. From the summer of 1961, a bit later than What A Surprise.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Kokomo The fact that Kokomo was Jimmy Wisner, and that Jimmy Wisner had a successful career as an all-around music guy (jazz musician, songwriter, producer, arranger, etc.) seems strangely irrelevant. His alter-ego is what lives on in the hearts and minds of anyone who became enamoured of his irreverent take on the classics that’s embodied on his one and only hit.


Asia Minor – Cute title, but the song has nought to do with Asia. It is a rock and roll adaptation of the main theme of the first movement of Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor (get it?). This kind of thing was a minor (no pun intended) subgenre of pop music for a while (B. Bumble & The Stingers etc), and it somehow seems to take all the pomp out of those 70s progressive rock groups like Yes and ELP and even Exception who made a career of merging (or attempting to merge, depending on one’s opinion of their success) rock music with classical forms, and sometimes with classical music itself. ELP spent an entire LP torturing Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, but here this guy had it all figured out in 3 minutes. From the spring of 1961.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Echoes

Another group with no biographical information whatsoever. The Wikipedia entry is about a different group entirely. I have to admit, it’s not easy to google “Echoes” and come up with anything useful. The group actually had a follow-up to Baby Blue, but it didn’t get past number 88 and that was it.

The Echoes:

Baby Blue – For all its adolescent gloss, this isn’t just a straightforward love song. Here we have the phenomenon of characterization, our hero establishing his loved one’s identity with the epithet described by the song title. No other name will do. Can you say “pigeonhole?” From the spring of 1961.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cathy Jean & The Roommates

Cathy Jean & The Roommates have the distinction of having no Wikipedia entry. They do have an entry in, but there is no biographical information there. I had to resort to to find out that Cathy Jean’s surname was Giordano. She was 15 when she recorded her one and only hit with The Roommates, and they weren’t much older. The article says that the parts were recorded separately, so the she never actually met the group, but the photos say otherwise. It is fairly certain, thought, that they were not actually roommates at any time…

Cathy Jean & The Roommates:

Please Love Me Forever – Listen to the adolescent inflection on the vowels of “forever.” This is archetypal adolescent turnaround-chord-pattern music, with a helium voiced singer singing of story-book love. From the spring of ’61, their only hit, though The Roommates (sans Cathy) scored small time with Glory Of Love. It was a hit later for Bobby Vinton.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Marcels

The Marcels I admit it. I got a lot of my rock and roll education from a Sha Na Na album. The LP was called The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, and I picked it up in Fargo, ND. I was about 15, and I was unfamiliar with the majority of the songs on the 4 sides. Over the years, I got to know the originals, one by one.

What became obvious after a while was how the group took so many songs from (slightly) different time periods, of different styles, and rendered them all in the same Sha Na Na style, using the same common denominator. Hearing the originals meant hearing the song without the layer of camp with which the group covered everything.

Blue Moon was the exception. It was the one song that the group did not have to do anything with, because all the camp was there to begin with. The Marcels were not the first doo-wop “comedy” group – The Coasters beat them to it by almost a decade – but they were certainly the first nationally famous group that poked fun at the genre as a genre. And they did it by taking Tin Pan Alley favourites and arranging them in a style that represents doo-wop in excelsis.

The Marcels:

Blue Moon – By Rogers & Hart, the song is almost sacred in its place in American popular culture. The Marcels ripped the sacredness to shreds and got themselves a number 1 hit. Elvis Presley’s cover, recorded for Sun Records at the dawn of his career, was a lot more subtle in its sacrilege, and Bob Dylan’s recording on Self Portrait was almost totally straight. The Cowboy Junkies’ version on The Trinity Sessions has a sanctity of its own. From the spring of 1961.
Heartaches – “Here we go again!” they yell off the top, and indeed they do. Still, the novelty was wearing off; but, even so, this cover of a 1931 Tin Pan Alley standard was top 10 fare. I have versions by The Ames Brothers and Patsy Cline. From the winter of 61 / 62.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Carla Thomas

“You are near the end of your life!” So said my 24 year old co-worker, in all innocence. Thanks.

Well I hope he’s wrong. But to him I guess I’m old. And the thing about getting older is that there are parts of our personality that change, that mature, that get wiser. But the trick is to balance that with a perpetual sense of youthfulness where such is needed; we don’t want to become old fogies. We want to retain a sense of adventure, a sense of delight, a sense of humour, those characteristics that some of us lose as we get older, and others of us work very hard to maintain.

Carla Thomas was a soul singer who had 15 hits on the pop charts (20 if you count duets) between 1961 and 1969. She recorded for Stax and had an incredibly powerful voice the tone of which sat in a kind of odd place between the adolescent fantasy of Cathy Jean (of the Roommates) or Kathy Young (of the Innocents) and, say, Aretha or Etta James – not quite adolescent, not quite adult. It’s that odd emotional tone of hers that may have prevented her from being a bigger star; only four of the aforesaid 20 hits made the top 40, and 2 of those were with Otis Redding.

This collection consists of all the Carla Thomas tracks, and all the Carla & Rufus tracks, from The Complete Singles 1959 - 1968, a collection of recordings released on Stax – Volt, which is odd because not all her hits are here. Some of the tracks included were actually released on Atlantic. I can’t make head or tail of it.

Rufus, by the way, was her father, Rufus Thomas, who was a Memphis DJ and recording artist, best known perhaps for Walking The Dog and Do The Funky Chicken.

“How old are you?” he asked after considering the matter. “54” I told him and he, well, he conceded. “That’s not too old.” Thanks. I’ll just go listen to some Carla Thomas now…

Carla Thomas:

‘Cause I Love You – Rufus & Carla. Just some sporting give and take to get her career off the ground. This is more Rufus than Carla and it’s all she can do to keep up with her rough sounding father.
Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) – Her consummate performance. She puts on that adolescent fantasy voice and runs with it, and this is the perfect vehicle. Nobody, of course, could stand on the pedestal she creates here (“he has everything a girl could want;” now what would that be exactly?) but so what? We are entitled to this type of thing once in a while, so long as we don’t make a lifetime habit of it. Her first and biggest record, from the spring of 1961.
A Love Of My Own – Gee Whiz redux, but there’s no guy. Trying to put yourself in the context of the world, mountains and streams and that kind of thing. It’s a bit of a stretch; maybe that’s why it wasn’t a hit.
(Mama, Mama) Wish Me Good Luck – “Remember the boy back home?” she asks, “All he ever did was make me moan.” Well, that could mean all sorts of things. But it’s not good in Carla’s world. Put this in that list of Mother-daughter songs (Mama Said etc.) where the bond is a healthy one.
I Kinda Think He Does – Carla’s ballad style applied to a something that’s somewhere between infatuation and wishful thinking, with just a pinch of denial.
I’ll Bring It On Home To You – An answer song to Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me, in which our heroine dismisses his declarations of self-sacrifice as being entirely unnecessary. From the fall of 1962.
What A Fool I’ve Been – She wants her man back and she’s willing to eat dust. Not clear here exactly what makes her a “fool;” we suspect nothing. From the summer of 1963.
Gee Whiz It’s Christmas – Stax’s contribution to the season. Carla writes a letter to her loved one. All in the spirit.
That’s Really Some Good – Rufus & Carla. More of that sniping. She really came into her own when she went head to head with Otis Redding. From the summer of 1964.
Night Time Is The Right Time – Rufus & Carla. Up to now I’ve held my peace, but the father and daughter team getting down and dirty, well, there’s something not right. A cover of the Ray Charles song. From the summer of 1964, the flip of That’s Really Some Good.
How Do You Quit (Someone You Love) – It looks easy from the outside. But walking away isn’t just about the person from whom you are walking away. It’s about leaving your life, your routine, your place of comfort (emotional if not physical), your future, your dreams. The whole shape of your life changes radically. And here she is into that zone where reality is too hard to deal with, even though his infidelity is staring her in the face. There is too much truth in this for 3 minute R&B song that didn’t even make the pop charts…
Stop! Look What You’re Doin’ – It was The Supremes that took this concept to number 1. Carla’s version didn’t get past 92, but it was the more real of the two. From the summer of 1965.
When You Move You Lose – Rufus & Carla. Finally Carla gets the upper hand. And we finally here that Stax funk kickin’ in…
Comfort Me – So many songs about thrills, and excitement, and the rush of new love, but here we have another side of the equation.
Birds And Bees – Rufus & Carla. A cover a The Birds And The Bees by Jewel Akens.
Let Me Be Good To You – It’s not about what you can do for me, it’s about what I can do for you. From the spring of 1966.
B-A-B-Y – This wasn’t among Carla’s most powerful performances, but for some reason this was her mid-60s hit. From the fall of 1966.
The Complete SinglesAll I Want For Christmas Is You – An old theme, and the style his lets up on the Stax sound that’s come to dominate her records, but it doesn’t quite scale back as far as her early 60s ballads. And I don’t know how the guy could resist… http
Something Good (Is Going To Happen To You) – This song about good karma was a hit in the winter of 1967.
When Tomorrow Comes – An update of Will You Love Me Tomorrow. I think that the protagonists are a bit older. A minor hit in the spring of 1967.
I’ll Always Have Faith In You – The secularization of pure gospel. From the summer of 1967.
Pick Up The Pieces – How much damage can you do before the relationship becomes unsalvageable? From the summer of 1967. Not the AWB song.
A Dime A Dozen – “Don’t hold my love cheap.” A song about self-esteem.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Adam Wade

I was listening to that Myrtle Beach station again, and I knew that I’d be posting this so I requested Adam Wade, but I don’t know if they played it because I was on my lunch for an hour of the 2 hour request show.

But I think I’m starting the get it, the whole “beach music” thing. As I sit and listen to it all day, it becomes its own world, a world that is as much about what it excludes as what it includes, it’s a mind-set, and it’s certainly not something that I can explain more than that.

There’s no question that Adam Wade fits right in. Wikipeida compares his style to Johnny Mathis but don’t believe it; he had a heck of a lot more soul than that. I doubt they play Mathis in Myrtle Beach.

The man had 11 hits on the pop charts, all but one during 1960 and 1961 (a cover of Crying In The Chapel turned up in 1965) and I don’t have a very good collection, with only one of his hits and a couple other random tracks.

Adam Wade:

Rain From The Sky – Where else would rain come from? Another song about crying.
Take Good Care Of Her – Pop music is rife with songs of jealousy that pretends not to be jealousy. Well, wait, no it’s not exactly jealousy; it’s beyond, it’s out and out resentment, but it masquerades as generosity of spirit. You won her, I lost her, I wish you the best, take care of her. There is an arrogance in the sentiment, a sense of proprietorship, misplaced magnanimity, that gives the lie to the whole thing. From the spring of 1961.
Around The World – A cover of the 50s hit by everybody.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

April, 1961

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