Originally posted July 3, 2009:
The other day, when pondering the years between Buddy Holly’s death and the arrival in the United States of the Beatles (1959-64), I wrote “ . . . it wasn’t quite the desert that some writers have claimed it to be,” which is probably as good an example as you’ll ever find of praising with faint damns. That praise should have been louder.
(A confession: I borrowed that phrase – “praising with faint damns” – after recalling it this morning and then finding out it came from a 1980 headline in Time magazine, though I suppose it might have originated earlier. I only wish I were that clever.)
A reader dropped a note about those years, 1959 to 1964, reminding me of a genre I’d not mentioned: rock instrumentals, leading to surf instrumentals. He didn’t mention any performers’ names, but he didn’t have to; as I read his note, I thought instantly of the Ventures and of Dick Dale. And if I wanted to think a little harder, I could come up with many others. And in the course of thinking about that era over the past few days, I realized that I’d given short shrift – actually no shrift at all – to the wonderful era of American pop that sprang from the Brill Building and places like it. And that includes the early work of Phil Spector and his acolytes.
Add in the early stirrings of Motown and Stax, and it was a far better era than I often think it was.
And there lies the key word: “think.” I don’t remember that era, at least not musically. From the time the Beatles arrived here in the U.S. in early 1964, rock and pop surrounded me. As I’ve said before, I didn’t really listen to Top 40 at the time, but my sister, my peers and their siblings did. From 1964 onward, the sounds of pop and rock and soul and R&B were an inescapable portion of my environment, even if I didn’t pay much attention.
So when I think about, say, “This Diamond Ring” (which popped up in today’s random selection), I remember hearing it. I remember kids dancing to it at South Junior High. I recall who liked it and who didn’t. I was there. But when – to pull one out of the hat – the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (the No. 2 record for the entire year of 1961) shows up, it’s different. I know I’ve read a fair amount about the song: I think it’s a Gerry Goffin/Carole King song. (It is, but I had to grab a reference book to make sure of it, and to make certain I had his first name right.) I know that Dave Marsh wrote an interesting essay about the record in The Heart of Rock & Soul, which I probably would refer to if I wrote about the record. But I don’t know how it felt to hear it coming out of the radio as I hung out in Rick’s basement or in our kitchen or in my bedroom. I wasn’t there.
When I began digging into record collecting, I unintentionally set 1964 as my starting date for pop and rock, because that’s what I remembered. When I got interested in blues, I dug back through the early 1960s and into the 1950s and the years before that. Then I started digging into early rock & roll, the 1950s stuff that evolved from R&B and its cousin, the jump blues. And then I followed rock & roll along the evolutionary path as far as Buddy Holly and 1959. Most of what I have from the years from 1959 to 1964 is blues, deep R&B and instrumental pop, things that didn’t frequently make the Top 40.
The same thing happened when I got my first modern computer in early 2000 and began to collect mp3s. I was aware that I was ignoring much of the popular music from those five years as I borrowed CDs from the library and from friends and ripped them to put into my collection. As I began that collection, I had, of course, no inkling that I would eventually be writing a blog about (mostly) music from the 1960s and the 1970s. Would I have altered my collecting patterns had I known?
Maybe not. I’ve been writing this blog for nearly thirty months now, and I still don’t have a great deal of pop-rock and popular R&B from those years. I’ve got some, and I’ll likely get more. But I doubt if it’s ever going to be a time period whose Top 40 music I love the way I do the music of the years that follow it. And I doubt I’ll ever be as comfortable writing about the Top 40 music of those early years as I am writing about the sounds of the years that came after. I wasn’t there.
The numbers of mp3s I currently have from the years of the 1960s tell the tale a lot more succinctly:
A Random Selection from the 1960s
1960: “Bye Bye Baby” by Mary Wells, Motown 1003
1961: “Spoonful” by Etta James & Harvey Fuqua, Chess 1771
1962: “In My Time of Dyin’” by Bob Dylan from Bob Dylan
1963: “Beyond the Surf” by Jack Nitzsche from The Lonely Surfer
1964: “Java Jones” by Donna Lynn from Java Jones/My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut
1965: “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Liberty 55756
1966: “(I’m A) Road Runner” by Junior Walker & the All Stars, Soul 35015
1967: “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by the Hombres, Verve Forecast 5058
1968: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Three Dog Night, Dunhill/ABC 4177
1969: “Rag Mama Rag” (alternate vocal take) from The Band
“Bye Bye Baby” was obviously one of Mary Wells’ very early singles. It didn’t dent the Top 40, but in August of 1961, her single “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” [Motown 1011], went to No. 33. After that, she had eleven more singles in the Top 40, including the classic “My Guy,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 in 1964. “Bye Bye Baby” is a good single, especially in the last thirty seconds, when Wells takes off.
“Spoonful,” a cover of Willie Dixon’s great blues done so memorably by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960 [Chess 1762], features a great performance by Etta James and Harvey Fuqua, but listen to the backing track. It’s like 1950s R&B combined with the horns from an early 1960’s Frank Sinatra session. I find the horn arrangement to be very distracting. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the history of the R&B charts, so I don’t know how well the record did. It’s interesting, but man, those horns do bother me.
The Dylan track is from his first album, when he was still trying to be Woody Guthrie. Neither the record nor the jacket credited the songwriter, with the liner notes saying that the first time Dylan sang “In My Time of Dyin’” was during the recording session. The index at All-Music Guide generally lists the tune as “traditional,” although a CD titled Inside The Blues by Mare Edstrom lists Blind Willie Johnson as the songwriter. I’d be interested to know more about that. In any event, Dylan rapidly outgrew his Guthrie disguise, and Bob Dylan was Dylan’s last album of mostly covers until 1970’s odd Self Portrait.
Speaking of surf music, as I did above, “Beyond The Surf” is a superb track from Jack Nitzsche’s only solo album. I don’t know if the album’s jacket listed the credits, as I got this through an mp3 exchange, but I’d put good money on the drummer being Hal Blaine. Nitzsche, of course, was part of Phil Spector’s crew, and he worked as a session player, producer and general expert with multitudes of pop and rock musicians over the course of a forty-year career.
Until I ran into it a couple years ago at The Record Robot, I had no idea there had ever been a vocal version of Allen Toussaint’s tune “Java.” The tune was a Top 10 hit as an instrumental in early 1964 for Al Hirt; it went to No. 4. As for Donna Lynn, the only things I know about her, I learned when The Record Robot shared her album: “She was in a Broadway show with Maureen O’Hara called ‘Christine’, and was then, for some reason chosen to be the face, voice and name behind these novelty songs. All by the age of 14.”
Of the four singles that cover the years 1965-1968 in this list, probably the best is the Junior Walker, which went to No. 20, the fourth in a series of twelve Top 40 singles. “(I’m A) Road Runner” is good, but I’m not sure Walker ever did better than 1965’s “Shotgun,” his first hit.
Even discounting the memories of a junior high dance, “This Diamond Ring” still has a geeky charm. Being the son of Jerry Lewis without question eased the road for Gary Lewis on his way to a No. 1 hit. Forty-some years later, though, the record still sounds good coming out of a radio speaker once in a while. It can, however, be an earworm of the highest rank.
The Hombres’ “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” has to be one of the oddest singles of an era that had many. It was the Memphis-based group’s only hit, going to No. 12 in the autumn of 1967. Still weird but also still fun.
There are Otis Redding fans who still cringe at the thought of Three Dog Night covering “Try A Little Tenderness.” I agree that Redding’s version is far superior. It also did a little better in the charts: Otis’ version went to No. 25 in 1967, while TDN’s version reached No. 29. My thought has always been: If hearing Three Dog Night’s version and some ensuing disparaging comments from R&B lovers got even one kid to go find Redding’s version – and I know that it did just that for at least one kid – then it’s okay. So just call TDN’s version a gateway record. (Incidentally, Redding’s version was a cover, too; the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits notes that the song was a No. 6 hit for Ted Lewis in 1933.)
The alternate version of “Rag Mama Rag” was included on an expanded CD edition of The Band. It’s kind of fun to hear something so familiar sound so different.