Originally posted July 27, 2009:
Who were the Toppers? Who was Maxine Starr? And who were the Inmates?
Good questions all, because those are the artists on the three 45s that I pulled out of the mystery box this morning. Yes, it’s time for another Grab Bag!
The Toppers were a 1950s R&B vocal group. And either they or their producers – or perhaps both – had a penchant for risqué material, keeping in mind that what seems slightly risqué in 2009 could very likely have been near the acceptable edge in 1959 or earlier.
How do we know that? One of the songs that All Music Guide credits the Toppers with recording is “(I Love to Play Your Piano) Let Me Bang Your Box,” a ditty that shows up on two CD anthologies of bawdy R&B.
That penchant for naughtiness is one of the few bits of useful information about the Toppers at All-Music Guide. The names of the group members are not listed. There are a few credits from recordings currently included on CDs, and one of those CDs gives us a hint about the group’s origins. That CD is Mama Don't Like It! 1950-1956, a collection of recordings by Smiley Lewis, a New Orleans artist. That’s not proof, but it’s a large hint that the Toppers were based in New Orleans as well.
That previously mentioned penchant for naughty titles also seems to account for the title of one of the sides I found in my mystery box: “It Was Twice As Big As I Thought It Was.” What was twice as big? Well, it isn’t what folks might think, but that’s the point of a risqué song title. The song itself is mild, and the mystery is solved in the final verse. The other side of the record – Decca 30297 – is a tidy little calypso tune called “Pots and Pans.”
“It Was Twice As Big . . .” was written by Tommie Connor and Jack Jordan, while “Pots and Pans” came from Diane Lampert and John Gluck, Jr. Both sides of the record were directed (produced, in today’s parlance, I imagine) by Jack Pleis. And that’s all the label can tell us.
So when was the record released? There’s no clear indication. One of the difficulties with 45s of this vintage – mid- to late 1950s or so – is that the labels rarely have copyright or issue dates on them. Those folks who are label design mavens could likely look at the records and know about when the record came out. But I am not one of those, so I have to rely on brute force and Google.
Just the name of the group and the title “It Was Twice As Big . . .” finds several copies of the record for sale. Adding “Jack Pleis” to the mix gets a few listings, but also begins to include the word “toppers” in the phrase “chart toppers.”
But Googling just “Decca 30297” by itself brings us some information. At a music forum at Mombu.com, we learn from a poster named Roger Ford that Decca 30297 “dates from 1957.”
Ford continues: “Doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in Billboard so here’s two clues that help date it more accurately: Kitty Wells’ “Change Of Heart” on Decca 30288 was reviewed in [Billboard] May 6, 1957. And “Pots And Pans,” which was the “A” side, was released in England (with a different flip taken from an earlier Toppers record) in June 1957. I'd say it was an April 1957 release.”
So here you go:
“Pots and Pans” by the Toppers
“It Was Twice As Big As I Thought It Was” by the Toppers
Decca 30297 
Next up is Maxine Starr and her rock ’n’ roll version of “(I’ll Be With You In) Apple Blossom Time)” backed by “Love Is” on New-Hits records. The record label was kind enough to include A- and B-side information on the label, but interestingly enough, a Web search brings up – among very little else – a U.K. based record shop called Rare Northern Soul that’s offering the record for sale based on the B-side, “Love Is.”
I’m guessing, simply from the sound and style, that the record was issued in the early 1960s. But throwing the catalog number into the Web search brings no more information. The record exists, the ’Net tells me, and is for sale a number of places. There’s nothing at All Music Guide. And a ’Net search for Maxine Starr alone brings up a great number of results; some of them might be the Maxine Starr on the record, but I don’t know.
“(I’ll Be With You In) Apple Blossom Time)” was, of course, an old song by the time Maxine Starr recorded it. The best known version might have been the one recorded by the Andrews Sisters for Decca in 1940, and the song itself – written by Albert Von Tilzer and Neville Fleeson – dates to 1920, so Googling the title and writers won’t help us much with a record from what seems to be the early 1960s. But the B-side, “Love Is,” might not be as widely recorded a song, so we might glean something from Googling the song’s writers, Ralph Romano and Joe Burke. Well, we learn that the two men co-wrote the book Elbo Elf, but that’s all. And there’s no producer credit on the record label.
So we don’t know a lot about this one, not even a recording date. But I’m going to guess around 1962, just on a hunch.
“(I’ll Be With You In) Apple Blossom Time)” by Maxine Starr
“Love Is” by Maxine Starr
New-Hits 3009 [ca. 1962]
Our third 45 for today is of a more recent vintage. In fact, the label tells us all the basic information. A group called the Inmates released “(I Thought I Heard A) Heartbeat” and “Show You My Way” on the Polydor label in 1980. So is there more information out there?
Well, yes, a little bit. The band’s entry at All-Music Guide is a little slender, but we learn that the members of the British group were Bill Hurley, Ben Donnelly, Peter Gunn, Barry Masters, Tony Oliver and Jim Russell. And the tracks on the 45 in question – both written by Russell – show up on the group’s 1980 album, Shot in the Dark.
But the single didn’t go anywhere: The Inmates’ only presence on the charts was for a cover of the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” which went to No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980. At the same time, the group’s first album, First Offence, went to No. 49 on the Billboard album chart. That first album was originally released in 1979 on Radar and later came out on Polydor, just as Shot in the Dark would be in 1980.
But even if the single didn’t get any attention when it came out, it’s a decent new wave/pub rock single.
“(I Thought I Heard A) Heartbeat” by the Inmates
“Show You My Way” by the Inmates
Polydor 2152