CHRIS MONTEZ – CAROLE KING – BOBBY “BORIS” PICKETT & THE CRYPT KICKERS – STAX RECORDS – BOOKER T AND THE MGs – RUFUS THOMAS – OTIS REDDING – AND OF COURSE, ELVIS PRESLEY

by Robert Seoane

THE MISSILES, AND HITS, OF OCTOBER

For thirteen days in 1962, between October 16th and 28th, the world was bracing itself for a possible nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Kennedy Administration discovered that the USSR was responsible for the buildup of medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba just 90 miles away from American shores, President John F. Kennedy delivered an ultimatum: dismantle the missiles or face war.

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” –President John F. Kennedy, October 16, 1962

As Russian bluster clashed with American determination, the world held its breath. Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, expecting another US invasion at any moment after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, encouraged Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to launch an attack. Kruschev wasn’t so sure, and delivered a personal letter to Kennedy on October 26th. Attorney General Robert Kennedy described the letter as “very long and emotional”. Kruschev proposed that the United States take away the Jupiter missiles aimed at the USSR in Turkey and Italy, which ironically enough were nearly obsolete anyway, and the USSR would take away the missiles aimed at the US in Cuba. They also asked for one more thing. To never invade Cuba again.

“I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear.” –Nikita Kruschev

By the 28th, the two leaders arrived at an agreement. The United States withdrew the Italian and Turkish missiles, and Kennedy promised that the United States would never attempt to invade Cuba again. Kruschev dismantled the missiles and returned them to the USSR.

Admittedly, the American and Soviet governments did indeed avoid nuclear conflict, but the approximation this world had to a nuclear winter was not just prevented by the highest echelons of government. Nuclear annihilation was deterred at one point by one Soviet commander with common sense.

On October 27, a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear missiles was discovered near American shores. A small depth charge was deployed by a U.S. Navy missile near the sub trying to signal it to come up, but the submarine was down too deep to have the ability to signal to the Navy ship, so they assumed war had begun. The personnel in the Soviet sub immediately prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. The decision to launch had to be made unanimously by the three commanding officers on the submarine. The Captain and the political officer authorized the launch, but Second Officer Vasili Arkhipov refused. As a result, the torpedo never launched. Yes, it took one man to prevent the world from blowing up, and had he not made that decision, we could very well not be here reading this blog today.

In the meantime, life went on as usual. Except for regular news broadcasts on the crisis, all other media ignored the event. Rock ‘n’ roll music, still, its infancy in 1962, was completely apolitical. The only political commentary heard in song came from folk music. Political folk songs were heard on the radio in the 1930’s and 1940’s by folk groups like the Weavers to protest World War Two. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan recorded his original work in 1963 that folk music returned to political commentary, and it wasn’t until 1965 that Dylan single-handedly melded folk protest with rock ‘n’ roll simply by walking on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar in hand, much to the horror of folk purists. That day alone marked the advent of political commentary in rock music and opened the door to many a protest song during the Vietnam War and many other causes. But in October of 1962, the top songs on the charts were mostly fluff, comprised of dance music, love tunes and a timeless “novelty” song.

 

LET’S DANCE – CHRIS MONTEZ


Chris Montez

Still years away from Carlos Santana’s fusion of Latin rhythms with rock music, there was barely a smattering of Hispanic-American musicians playing rock ‘n’ roll in 1962. The first and most famous of them all at the time was Ritchie Valens, but his sudden, shocking death at age nineteen with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in the infamous plane crash on February 4, 1959, halted any further blending of the two genres. It wasn’t until the early part of the Sixties that another Hispanic musician managed to make it to the higher echelons of the Billboard Pop chart with a song of his own, a fun little rock ‘n’ roll ditty called “Let’s Dance.”

Ezekiel Christopher Montañez was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Hawthorne, the same hometown as the Beach Boys. Born of Mexican immigrants, Chris was raised in a musical family, often singing falsetto on Mexican “rancheras” with his brothers as a pastime. They taught him to play guitar, and by the time he reached his junior year in Hawthorne High School, he had formed his own band. Inspired by Richie Valens, Chris shortened his last name from Montañez to Montez, just like Valens shortened his from Valenzuela, and with his high school group, they managed to record a few of Chris’ own original songs.

A representative from a local label named Monogram Records heard the recordings and released “All You Had To Do Was Tell Me” a slow, steamy burner ideal for slow dancing at the high school hop. It became a local hit but didn’t make a dent in the national charts.

In 1962, Montez recorded his first and only national Top Ten hit. It was an insanely catchy song that begins with a war drum-like percussion before an organ comes in to fill in Montez’ vocals. It was one of the first records to showcase an organ, a musical instrument that would become ubiquitous in many classic Sixties recordings. Like so many other songs of the day, its simple lyrics enumerate the dance crazes that were sweeping through teenage America at the time.

“Hey baby, won’t you take a chance? Say that you’ll let me have this dance, well, let’s dance, well, let’s dance… We’ll do the twist, the stomp, the mashed potato too, any old dance that you wanna do but let’s dance, well, let’s dance…” –Chris Montez, “Let’s Dance”

“Let’s Dance” is also featured in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) to showcase John Belushi’s character instigating a food fight in the University cafeteria.

The song made it to Number Four in the Billboard Pop chart on October 6, 1962, and Number Two in the UK. The success of the song made Montez a headliner and he toured for the next year with Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, the Platters and Smokey Robinson. In a tour of Liverpool in 1963 with co-headliner Tommy Roe, Montez’ opening act were the Beatles.

“Who are these guys The Beatles? I try to keep up with the British scene, but I don’t know their work.” –Chris Montez

Unlike that opening act, Chris Montez never cracked the Top Ten again. His early music didn’t much reflect his Hispanic roots either. When he signed with A&M Records in 1965, he was determined to capture his earlier success by singing rock ‘n’ roll songs, but A&M label owner Herb Alpert suggested he tone down his style to sing soft ballads instead. The result was a recording originally sung by Petula Clark, called “Call Me” that, although only reached Number 22 in the Pop chart, made it to Number Two in the Easy Listening chart and has become more popular over the ensuing years, having been used in many movies, most notably, Harrison Ford’s “Frantic”.

Chris Montez’ popularity waned throughout the rest of the Sixties. By 1972, he finally tapped into his Latin roots and began to record songs in Spanish, which did quite well internationally, but never managed to break through in the United States. He recorded his final album in 1983, “Cartas de Amor”, exclusively Spanish-language material.

As of 2017, 74-year-old Chris Montez continues to tour occasionally in the US and the UK as part of the Solid Silver 60s show, a nostalgia tour showcasing various performers from the decade that was to change music forever.

 

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IT MIGHT AS WELL RAIN UNTIL SEPTEMBER – CAROLE KING


Carole King

By 1962, Carol Joan Klein had changed her name to Carole King and was already a songwriter with a few Number One hits under her belt. The Shirelles became the first girl group in the rock ‘n’ roll era to make it to Number One with King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” on January 1961. The song was written along with her husband Gerry Goffin when they both worked for famed record producer Don Kirshner in New York’s Brill Building, where young, up-and-coming talented artists such as Neil Sedaka and Burt Bacharach, along with King, were writing for Kirshner to supplement the pop stars of the day with original material.

Each week, Kirschner would hold a meeting to listen to all his songwriters’ newest compositions, and the best songs would be assigned to any of a long list of recording artists in need of material. King and Goffin had already composed “The Loco-Motion” a dance song written for their babysitter, who would record the song under the name Little Eva and make it to Number One Pop on August 25, 1962, and “Chains” for Little Eva’s backup vocalists called the Cookies who took it to Number 17 on December 29, 1962, and was later covered definitively by the Beatles on their debut album “Please Please Me” in 1963.

During that time, King had written another song that Kirshner liked called “It Might As Well Rain Until September”. Kirshner gave King’s song to Bobby Vee, who had had a hit the year before with another King Number One, “Take Good Care of my Baby”. Carole recorded a demo version of the song for Vee, but Kirshner liked her demo recording so much that he decided to release it as a single. Other Kirshner artists, particularly Sedaka, were both songwriters and performers of their own work, so releasing the demo with King performing it was nothing new, but because it was a demo and never intended for release as a proper single, there is no master tape but only an acetate, and therefore the quality of the song is inferior. Still, “…September” managed to climb to Number 22 on October 6, 1962. In the meantime, Bobby Vee buried his recording of the song in his 1963 album and didn’t release it as a single because King’s version was already out.

“IMAWRUS” was Carole King’s first self-performed single. She wouldn’t record herself again until nine years later, in 1971, when she released her landmark solo album “Tapestry” and paved the way for future female songwriters to do the same.

Part of the reason it took Carole King nine years to record her own songs again can be traced back to her 1962 singing debut on TV’s American Bandstand when she first performed “It Might As Well Rain Until September”. King never fancied herself to be a pop star. She considered herself much too plain looking and boring for that. Besides, she already had two kids to take care of and had no interest in going on tour for the record, so going on TV was her best alternative.

King lip-synced the song just like everyone else did on the show, but because it was a demo, it sounded muffled. At the end of the program, the studio audience graded her performance as being the poorest that week and gave her a 42 rating out of 100. Although the record sold well, the disappointing reaction to her AB appearance could have had a lot to do with King’s reticence to record her own voice again. But the audience could very well have also been responding to the poor quality of what they were hearing and because of that, gave the overall performance a bad rating.

It’s a good thing for music fans everywhere that she ultimately overcame her initial setback because “Tapestry” is a fine album, filled with classics such as “I Feel The Earth Move”, It’s Too Late”, “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, and her own, slowed-down version of the song that first made her a songwriter to be reckoned with, the way she meant to have it performed, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”.

 

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THE MONSTER MASH – BOBBY “BORIS” PICKETT

Riding the tide of Sixties dance songs was a novelty record that’s still heard to this day, particularly around Halloween. Its popularity made a career out of one Robert George Pickett, the tune’s author, whose abilities to imitate the voices of Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff and Dracula’s Bela Lugosi, made famous by their respective Universal movie releases in the 1930’s and 40’s, made for an affectionately funny nod to the macabre world of the undead.

Pickett, a horror movie fan since childhood, was a struggling actor by day and lead vocalist for a band called the Cordials by night. One evening, he decided to satirize the Diamonds hit single “Little Darlin’” by singing it like Boris Karloff. The audience loved it, and fellow band member Leonard Capizzi noticed. Capizzi urged Bobby to capitalize on the impersonation. In May 1962, they sat down to write a novelty song incorporating Bobby Pickett’s talent for mimic. Much like rock ‘n’ roll itself, Pickett and Capizzi took two different genres, horror movie monsters and the current dance crazes, the Twist and the Mashed Potato, and blended them together. Due in large part to alliteration, they chose the Mashed Potato as opposed to the Twist to spinoff a dance reserved for creatures of the night, and called it “The Monster Mash”.

“I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight. For my monster from his slab began to rise and suddenly to my surprise he did the mash, he did the monster mash, the monster mash, it was a graveyard smash, he did the mash, it caught on in a flash, he did the mash, he did the monster mash…” – Monster Mash – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt Kickers

Every major record label passed on the song except for one producer by the name of Gary S. Paxton. Paxton had already scored a Number One Pop novelty hit in 1960 called “Alley-Oop” with his group, the Hollywood Argyles. He also had modest chart success in 1959 with a Top Twenty single called “It Was I” when he was part of a singing duo named Skip and Flip. When Paxton heard Pickett perform “Monster Mash”, he saw another novelty hit, so he agreed to produce and engineer the recording. Paxton quickly put together a backup band that included twenty-year-old pianist and future star in his own right, Leon Russell, and called them the Crypt Kickers. “The Monster Mash” was released through Paxton’s Garpax Records on August 25, 1962.

Paxton added special effects to the recording, reminiscent of the old Universal horror movies. The single opens with what sounds like a creaky coffin lid slowly opening, but is actually the sound of a nail being pulled out of a wooden board. The sound of a cauldron bubbling was simply Paxton blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of water, and the rattling chains were actual chains being dropped on the studio floor. Amidst it all, Bobby spoke/sang the tune in his best Karloff impersonation, and gave us a smattering of his Lugosi impersonation for good measure.

“Out from his coffin, Drac’s voice did ring, seems he was troubled by just one thing, he opened the lid and shook his fist and said ‘Whatever happened to the Transylvania Twist?’”

“The Monster Mash” remained in the Number One position on Billboard’s pop chart from October 13th through October 27th, 1962, smack dab in the midst of the aforementioned Cuban Missile Crisis, and soon became a million seller. That wouldn’t be the end of the song’s chart success, however. In fact, it was only the beginning of a cottage industry that would sustain Pickett for the rest of his life. “Monster Mash” was re-released in August, 1970 and again in May, 1973 where it climbed to Number Ten and sold another million records. It was then released that same year for the first time in the UK where it reached Number Three, having been censored back in 1962 because it was deemed “too morbid”. It re-entered the UK charts again in 2008 where it climbed up to Number 60.

To capitalize on “Monster Mash”, Pickett recorded a follow-up Christmas single called “Monster’s Holiday”, reaching Number 30 during the 1962 holiday season. An album filled with monster-themed novelty tunes like “Me and My Mummy” and “Irresistible Igor” soon followed. The album had to be called “The Original Monster Mash” to distinguish it from another version of “Monster Mash” that had been quickly recorded by a singer named John Zacherle for the Cameo-Parkway record label.

In 1967, Pickett took his song concept to the stage and wrote a musical play with TV author Sheldon Allman called “I’m Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night”, which was produced in a smattering of local theaters around the US, then followed it up a few years later with another musical called “Frankenstein Unbound”. In 1995, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, who had just written “Toy Story” for Disney, produced a movie version of “Frankenstein Unbound” and called it various titles, including “Frankenstein Sings” and “Monster Mash: The Movie”, starring Pickett himself.

When Rap music became popular in the Eighties, Pickett recorded “Monster Rap” in 1983, a worthy successor to “Monster Mash”, and found cult popularity on a national radio show hosted by a DJ named Barry Hansen, better known as Dr.Demento, whose show can still be heard online.

In 1993, Pickett wrote yet another “…Mash” spinoff and called it “It’s Alive” which also played regularly on Dr. Demento’s radio show.

He dusted off his novelty songwriting pen yet again in 2005 when he wrote “Climate Mash” in protest of the American government’s inaction towards global warming. That same year, Pickett released his autobiography called “Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood”.

“Monster Mash” has been re-recorded and sampled by other artists throughout the years, from the Canadian arena rock group Rush, incorporating bits of it in their instrumental track, “Limbo” off their 1996 album, “Test for Echo” to the Misfits, a horror punk band who released a music video of them performing “Monster Mash” live in 1997, then recorded it twice, in 1999 for release as a single and again in 2003 for their album “Project 1950”.

Bobby Pickett died on April 25, 2007 of leukemia at age 69. The Dr. Demento show paid tribute to him two weeks later on May 13 with a retrospective of his work. Although most of his songs are only known by a small cult following, his “Monster Mash” has become the most played song during Halloween. It’s interesting to note that the two fads the song was inspired from, Universal monster movies and Sixties dance fads, are now lost in the cobwebs of nostalgia, but their offshoot child, “The Monster Mash” lives on.

 

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STAX RECORDS AND THE BIRTH OF MEMPHIS SOUL

The refurbished Capitol Theater located at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee became Stax Records in 1961.

Besides Detroit’s special brand of R&B coming out of Motown Records, there was another city that came to the fore in 1962 playing host to a unique sound that was to become known as Memphis Soul. It was comprised of music legends that could have otherwise been ignored had it not been for one record label in particular that was born out of Memphis thanks to a forward-thinking pair of siblings named Jim and Estelle.

Until then, Memphis had been not only known for its C&W music but also for pioneering rock ‘n’ roll in the Fifties, thanks to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and his golden boy, Elvis Presley. But it took a handful of young producers and entrepreneurs to lead the way during the subsequent decade in defining and releasing classic soul records that represented the new Memphis sound of the Sixties through a record label called Stax. Stax Records would become one of the most popular soul music record labels during the Sixties and Seventies, second only to Motown in sales with its raw, gritty, un-Motown-like sound. The two competitor labels paralleled themselves even in slogans. While Motown dubbed their headquarters the all-encompassing “Hitsville USA”, Stax retorted with their more urban “Soulsville USA”.

Undiscovered until the label’s advent, renowned musical legends soon blossomed over the ensuing years. People like Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, the Box Tops, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Dramatics, The Bar-Kays, Delaney & Bonnie, the Delfonics, Eddie Floyd, the Spinners, Joe Tex, Rufus Thomas, and his daughter Carla, all got their start with Stax, and it all began when a twenty-seven-year-old young man decided to indulge himself in his love for music.


Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton

Inspired by Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips, Tennessean Jim Stewart wanted to start a record label, so in 1957 he founded Satellite Records in Memphis. Over the next two years, the label’s recording output would consist of country & western and rockabilly music. In 1959, he hired a twenty-one-year-old recording engineer named Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman to be Satellite Record’s staff producer.


Chips Moman

Moman, not content with just recording C&W artists, introduced Stewart to R&B music and suggested he scout local R&B talent to record, whetting Stewart’s interest in this uniquely ethnic but delightfully catchy new sound. By the summer of that same year, Satellite Records would release its first R&B single called “Fool In Love”, written by Moman and performed by their first, newly discovered doo-wop group called the Veltones.

The early Satellite recordings were sub-par and Stewart knew this, but he needed money to buy his own recording equipment. Like him, his sister, bank clerk Estelle Axton, was also a music lover. Wanting to become totally self-sufficient and improve the quality of his recording output, Stewart asked his sister to invest in Satellite Records with him by helping him purchase recording equipment for the label. Estelle persuaded her husband to mortgage their home and they used the funds to purchase an Ampex 300 tape recorder for $2500 (approximately $21,000 in 2017 dollars). By 1959, Estelle quit her job and the siblings joined forces. Moman helped them find the former Capitol Theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis and together they turned it into a recording studio. The stage was the control room and the auditorium was converted into studio space. The size and various floor levels of the auditorium were left intact, creating interesting acoustics and adding a unique sound to the recordings.

“The studio wasn’t designed like studios are today,” Cropper recalls. “I mean, we took this old theatre and pulled the seats out of it. We had to go and hammer all of the screws down into the concrete before we could put carpet down. And we were all there helping to do that, making burlap baffles and so on, without any knowledge at all of what we were doing.” –Steve Cropper

One of the first jobs at hand for the fledgling record label was to find session musicians who could play C&W as well as R&B to back up their artists in the recording studio. Estelle’s son and Jim’s nephew, Charles “Packy” Axton had that ability. Packy was an aspiring tenor sax musician who played in a high school group named the Royal Spades. Besides Packy, the Royal Spades consisted of Wayne Jackson on trumpet, Jerry Lee Smith on keyboards, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and legendary guitarist, then seventeen-year-old Steve Cropper. In 1958, Estelle and Jim offered the Royal Spades the opportunity to play back up for their artists as session musicians for Satellite Records. The teenage boys eagerly agreed and worked for them from that moment forward in various incarnations. It wasn’t always harmonious however, as Packy had a penchant for alcohol and could become overbearing. During one session, he actually came to blows with his guitarist Cropper, who briefly quit the band after the fight. Packy’s alcoholism never abated after that incident, and he ultimately died in January of 1974 at age 32 of cirrhosis of the liver.


The Royal Spades; left to right, Don Nix, Steve Cropper, Packy Axton, Duck Dunn, Terry Johnson, Ronnie Doots and Wayne Jackson

In order to make ends meet as they struggled to record hits, Estelle and Jim turned the Capitol Theater’s foyer into a record store, which would ultimately prove more valuable than just being a center of profit at the time. Estelle stocked the store with the best in R&B records of the day, inadvertently expanding her knowledge of the competition and influencing the music Stax recorded, and encouraged young folk attracted to her inventory to use the store as a meeting place while they listened to their favorite songs. She would often play the acetates of their own latest recordings for the store visitors to gauge the song’s popularity. Sixteen-year-old Booker T. Jones was a frequent visitor, and he would often spend hours there listening to records and chatting with Estelle and Cropper, who Estelle hired to work at the store part time.

“She just loved music, loved people. She was always bringing us up there (the record shop), having us listen to records. She kept us in touch with the music industry. I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton. She encouraged the entire Stax roster from her little perch behind the counter.”–Booker T. Jones

 

RUFUS THOMAS


Second row, from left, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, unknown man, Andrew Jackson. Front row, from left, unknown couple, Cara & Rufus Thomas, Janis Joplin and Sam Andrew

“Rufus Thomas embodied the spirit of Memphis music perhaps more than any other artist, and from the early 1940s until his death… occupied many important roles in the local scene.” –The Mississippi Blues Commission

One of the first African-American artists to record in the new Stax studio was Rufus Thomas, with his daughter Carla sharing lead and her brother Marvell on keyboards on an R&B wailer called “’Cause I Love You”.

Booker T. Jones began his musical career there playing baritone sax on the recording. The record caught the ear of Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler. The song gave Stewart the opportunity to work out a deal with Atlantic Records to distribute Satellite’s output nationally. One of the artists Atlantic wanted Stax to keep as part of their agreement was Rufus Thomas’ daughter, Carla who had a hit in 1961 with her debut single, “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes).”

Rufus Thomas enjoyed a long career with Stax, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies, with popular novelty singles like “Walking the Dog” (1963) and “Do the Funky Chicken” (1969).

 

BOOKER T & THE MGs

Stewart attributed his new-found love for R&B music as being “a blind man who suddenly gained his sight.” From then on, Jim and Estelle agreed to record exclusively R&B music, but they had an image problem, since for the last four years, Satellite Records was known as a C&W record label. He and Estelle soon realized that they needed to re-invent themselves. By September of 1961 they had changed the name of the record label from Satellite to Stax Records, deriving “Stax” from a portmanteau of their surnames, Stewart and Axton. From then on, with Moman sharing the helm, Stax Records would come to define Memphis Soul.


Booker T & the MGs; from left to right, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Al Jackson

Witnessing all this change, the label’s young session musicians wanted to also record a single of their own. Packy bugged his mom for years, along with the rest of the group, until Estelle ultimately agreed in 1961, but on the condition that they changed what she considered to be a dreadful name, “The Royal Spades”, to the Mar-Keys, referring to the old Capitol Theater’s marquee outside Stax. They agreed to the name change if it meant recording a song on their own. The result, “Last Night”, was written by Packy Axton, Chips Moman, Floyd Newman, Gilbert Caple and Jerry Lee Smith. The instrumental would climb to Number Three Pop and Number Two R&B on the national Billboard charts that year. The young group was thrilled and it marked the beginning of a varied musical career for them.

“Jerry Lee ‘Smoochy’ Smith came up with the piano riff that was played on organ. Since [producer Chips] Moman didn’t want a guitar on it for whatever reason, I wound up playing the hold-down on the organ on the root note. It hurts me in the Mar-Keys history when people say I wasn’t in the Mar-Keys because there’s no guitar on ‘Last Night’ but I have to differ with them.” –Steve Cropper

By 1962, shake-ups within the label had already begun. Moman left Stax towards the end of the year before due to a disagreement over song royalties. Stewart then turned to Cropper, who admired the young man’s maturity and talent, and offered him Moman’s vacated position as A&R director. Cropper immediately took to the job, working as writer, producer and session lead guitarist for scores of Stax singles. In one of his first recording sessions under this new configuration, Steve was backing former Sun Records artist Billie Lee Riley on a song with Booker T. Jones on keyboards, bassist Lewis Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson. During downtime, the four session musicians would play around with a bluesy organ riff. Jim Stewart was in the control room at the time and liked what he heard, so he suggested they record the riff. Soon after that, they laid down another instrumental track and before they knew it, they had themselves an impromptu single.

GREEN ONIONS – BOOKER T & THE MGs

The resulting recordings were titled “Behave Yourself” and the profoundly funky “Green Onions”. Stewart wanted to release “Behave Yourself” as the A-side of the single but Cropper begged to differ. DJs who had heard the two tracks mostly agreed that “Green Onions” had a subversive rhythm that got under your skin and never let go, so Jim relented and released it as the A-side of Booker T & the MGs’ debut single.

“We were all real excited about this thing. The next morning I called Scotty Moore over at Sun and I said: ‘We got a hot one, can you make me a dub on it?’ So I ran over and he says, ‘Man, that’s funky!’ Then I took the dub over to Reuben Washington at WLOK and he just threw it on live, played it four times in a row. And I’m tellin’ you, the phones lit up.” –Steve Cropper

With Booker T. Jones handling the insanely funky keyboard, Steve Cropper adding his tasty, brief bursts of Fender Telecaster licks to the mix and Steinberg’s steadily unnerving bass, the sudden new group had to scramble for a name once the song hit the airwaves and settled on Booker T & The MGs. By September of 1962, “Green Onions” had climbed to its peak Number Three position on Billboard’s Pop chart.

Booker T. & The MGs would go on to be considered the Greatest Backing Band in the History of Soul, cooking up the funkiest rhythms for the artists they backed during their tenure at Stax. By 1964, Donald “Duck” Dunn replaced Steinberg on bass and along with the rest of the group, played on songs such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood”, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Sam & Dave’s “Hold on I’m Coming” among scores more.

“I like to pat ourselves on the back. When you hear Booker T & the MGs, you can pick one instrument and there’s a separation there. It’s not cluttered. It’s just like it was written, but it was all done off the top of the head. It was just a lucky marriage of us four, I think.” –Donald “Duck” Dunn

 

OTIS REDDING


Otis Redding

A promo man for Stax’ distribution label, Atlantic Records, by the name of Joe Galkin was so taken by “Green Onions” that he made it a point to send his Macon-based Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers to the Stax recording studios to record with Booker T & the MGs, who were soon get the distinction of being the best backing band in the South. The session unfortunately, proved unproductive. At the end of it all, with hours of recording time spent and nothing to show for it, they begrudgingly allowed one of the members of the group, a 21-year-old singer/songwriter named Otis Ray Redding, to lay down a ballad he had written called “These Arms of Mine”.

“The cat sang about two lines and everybody’s eyes just went like this – Jesus Christ, this guy’s incredible!” –Steve Cropper

THESE ARMS OF MINE – OTIS REDDING

“These Arms Of Mine” was released through Stax’ subsidiary label, Volt, in October 1962 and charted the following year, ultimately selling over 800,000 copies and becoming Stax’ most popular record to date. It marked the beginning of the first chapter of the Stax Records legacy, the Otis Redding period, when the rising star would lead the label to unparalleled success until Redding’s tragic plane crash in 1967 ground everything to a halt.

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RAY CHARLES – MOTOWN: MARVIN GAYE – MARY WELLS – THE TEMPTATIONS – THE SUPREMES – THE MIRACLES – LITTLE STEVIE WONDER – JOHN LEE HOOKER

by Robert Seoane

RAY CHARLES

You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.” -Ray Charles

Ray Charles took pop music to the next level in 1962 when he released his landmark, although clumsily titled album, “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music”. By blending two genres, Charles became the soul equivalent to Elvis. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll because he best knew how to sing blues songs in his own rock ‘n’ roll-tinged C&W style. Ray Charles, on the other hand, knew how to sing C&W tunes in his own style, by incorporating blues, jazz, R&B and big band to his recordings, particularly those in “MSIC&WM”. Nobody had ever heard country songs sung quite this way before.

Ray Charles was one of the first pop musicians to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His song “I Got a Woman”, released in 1955, is considered one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs ever composed, and was given the stamp of acceptance when Elvis recorded it the following year. Charles’ subsequent musical output ran the gamut in styles, from R&B with one of 1959’s biggest hits, “What’d I Say” to the following year’s gospel-tinged recording of the 1930 classic, “Georgia”. His tastes and musical experimentation covered a wide variety of musical genres.

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Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, only because his mother Aretha Williams got pregnant with Ray by Bailey Robinson in Greenville, Florida, and the boy’s family needed to banish her temporarily to another town because the two weren’t married. Retha was a teenage orphaned sharecropper who lived with the Robinsons. She returned to Greenville after Ray was born, but Bailey Robinson wasn’t keen on maintaining a family and ultimately abandoned them by leaving Greenville and taking another wife, all but ignoring Retha and his children until his death when Ray was 10 years old.

Retha moved to St. Augustine with 5-year-old Ray and his three-year-old brother George in 1936. Ray‘s childhood was subsequently one of deep poverty and enduring terrible tragedies. At age 5, he helplessly watched his brother drown in a washtub after his mother left him alone for a moment. It would be one of the last images he would ever see before losing his sight to glaucoma, and it became a memory that would haunt him for the rest of his life. By age 7, Ray Charles Robinson was completely blind.

Retha, still trying to cope with the death of her son George, refused to treat Ray any differently despite his handicap. She was tough on him, taught him to fend for himself by giving him chores and allowing him to walk through the neighborhood without help. “I’m not going to be here forever”, she would tell her young son.


Ray Charles, second from left, with his mother Retha

Retha saw Ray’s natural musical talent so she enrolled him into St. Augustine’s School for the Deaf and Blind where he studied piano, saxophone and clarinet as well as classical music. He learned to read music in braille, playing pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His personal preferences were more mainstream however. The music he grew up with and dearly loved was gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and country.

Becoming self-sufficient was good training for the young blind boy, because his mother’s words proved prophetic. Charles’ mother died when he was 14, effectively leaving Ray alone in the world. He was taken in by a family who had been friends with her and together, they moved to Jacksonville. Ray felt lost without his mother and soon began to dabble with drugs, particularly heroin, to relieve the pain of loss he had to endure daily.

Three years after his mother’s death, seventeen-year-old Ray Charles Robinson decided to go on the road and be a musician. He dropped his last name and called himself Ray Charles to distinguish himself from boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and played piano for bands in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. It was during this time that he started to wear sunglasses, a specific type made by designer Billy Stickles, to conceal his eyes onstage.

His reputation soon grew as he started to write arrangements for other artists like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Emanon”, but despite this steady rise of acknowledgement, Charles struggled, sometimes having no money to eat for days. In 1948, he decided to focus on his ambition to have his own band and perform his own music. The only way he could attain that, he figured, was to move to a big city where he’d be more likely to gain larger fame and success. A friend of his named Gossie McKee was planning to move to Seattle, Washington so Ray decided to tag along, where they would form a band together. In Seattle, he met a fifteen-year-old boy who would become one of his closest friends, Quincy Jones.


The McSon Trio; Ray Charles, keyboards, Gossie McKee, guitar and Milton Garrett, bass.

Charles’ band with McKee was named the McSon Trio (“Mc” from McKee and “Son” from Robinson) when they added Milton Garrett on bass. They played the morning shift, from 1AM to 5AM every night at a place called the Rocking Chair. Jack Lauderdale of Down Beat Records heard them there one morning and offered to record them the very next day. The result of that recording session were two songs, “Confession Blues” and “I Love You, I Love You”. Ray Charles’ first vinyl recordings misspelled the band’s name, calling them the Maxin Trio, and had him billed as R.C. Robinson. “Confession Blues” was Charles’ first Top Ten R&B hit, reaching Number Two in the US R&B chart in 1949. It would be the first of six single releases for Down Beat.

Charles was able to land himself his own recording contract in the meantime and for the next four years, the McSon Trio would record for Down Beat and the Ray Charles Trio would record for Swing Time Records. The Ray Charles Trio released 14 singles through Swing Time, and two songs made it into the R&B Top Ten, the blues classic “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” at Number Five in 1951 and an early rock ‘n’ roller, “Kissa Me Baby” at Number Eight in 1952.

During this period, his career grew steadily. He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and there, became musical director for blues artist Lowell Fulson, where he caught the ear of a young Turkish man who had emigrated with his father and brother to the United States when he was twelve and was now a record producer and label owner.


Ahmet Ertegun

“I began to discover a little bit about the situation of black people in America and experienced immediate empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination, because, although Turks were never slaves, they were regarded as enemies within Europe because of their Muslim beliefs.” –Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun’s love for R&B music led him to Ray Charles. Co-owner of Atlantic Records with Jerry Wexler, Ertegun bought Charles’ contract from Swing Time after the label folded for $2500 (about $22,500.00 in 2017 dollars). It was during his years with Atlantic that Charles enjoyed his biggest success in the R&B chart with 17 Top Ten singles from 1952 to 1960, including the rock ‘n’ roll standard “I Got A Woman”. He barely made a dent in the Pop Billboard charts however, except for his biggest success at Atlantic, “What’d I Say” which peaked at Number Six.

By 1960, Ray Charles had become one of the few African-Americans to have successfully crossed over to be accepted by the mainstream white audience. He signed with ABC Records that same year after negotiating one of those most lucrative recording contracts in the music business up until then. The contract stipulated an annual $50,000 ($400,000 in 2017 dollars) advance, higher royalties than what he was receiving at Atlantic, and most importantly of all, complete artistic control, along with eventual ownership of all his recordings. It was at ABC where he would gain his biggest audience, and where he would do the opposite of what most artists do, abandon writing his own compositions and deciding to focus instead on interpreting other songwriters’ work.

It was little wonder why Ray Charles had been nicknamed “The Genius” by Atlantic, when he released his first ground breaking albums “The Genius of Ray Charles” (1959), “The Genius Sings the Blues” (1961) and “The Genius After Hours” (1961). ABC Records continued describing him in the same way with his debut album for the label “The Genius Hits the Road” (1960) and an all-instrumental album released by subsidiary label Impulse!, “Genius + Soul = Jazz”(1961).

His first single with ABC, “Georgia” was written by Stuart Gorell and Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. It had been covered by many artists since, but Ray Charles’s version is the definitive one. He received two Grammys for his classic interpretation of the song, and his version ultimately became Georgia’s state song in 1979. His next big hit, “Hit the Road Jack” (1961), was written by Percy Mayfield. Charles received a Grammy for that song too.

That same year, Charles began touring with a big band, a far cry from the trio ensemble he had been used to performing in all his career. His taste for drugs hadn’t abated though, and he was briefly arrested when police found heroin after a questionable search of his dressing room. Luckily for Charles, the case was dismissed because the police had performed the search without a proper warrant. Although this was a flagrant violation of Charles’ civil rights, it wasn’t a set-up, but a real heroin addiction. Despite the growing monkey on his back, Charles’ muse was as refined as ever, entering a new phase in his musical experimentation. Ray asked his producer Sid Feller to research country standards through the largest country music publishers in the nation. Feller ultimately sent Charles in Los Angeles 250 songs from publishers such as Acuff-Rose who owned the Hank Williams library.

The musical experimentation Charles wanted to do for his fifth studio album for ABC was a controversial decision, receiving negative commentary by critics as well as his peers over the unusual direction a black soul singer wanted to take. But Charles’ artistic control gave the label no other choice other than to trust his instinct, and it’s a good thing they did, for the sake of today’s popular music.

In “Modern Sounds…” Charles took traditional country songs and interpreted them using contemporary, state-of-the-art production. Ray had complete control. He distributed voice-and-piano demos to his jazz arrangers Gerald Wilson and Gil Fuller, and orchestral arranger Marty Paich, and at times even dictated specific parts to all 18 backing musicians individually.

Ray Charles’ philosophy seems second nature today, but during the mid-Twentieth Century, America had been saturated with decades of mostly white-washed, cleaned up entertainment. Mixing C&W with R&B would prove to be a profoundly influential formula that was almost immediately accepted by a large and varied audience, and would mark the beginning of further experimentation by other artists over the ensuing decades.

“[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’ That’s the way you say it. Where in Tin Pan Alley will say, ‘Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.’ That’s cleaned up now, you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is.” –Ray Charles

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music became the most successful album by a black artist at the time, and immensely popular in the Pop, R&B and C&W charts. It shipped 500,000 copies in the first three months after release, earning a gold record and comparable to only Elvis Presley in sales clout. On June 23, 1962, it replaced the West Side Story soundtrack from the Number One position on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart. The album was also nominated for a Grammy as Album of the Year, but shortsightedly lost over a comedy album called “The First Family” by comedian Vaughan Meader that poked fun at the Kennedy family. Notwithstanding the lapse in the Grammy Award committee’s vision, “Modern Sounds…” was so successful that only a few months later, in September, 1962, a sequel to the album, titled “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music Vol. 2” was released to equal critical and popular success. The following are the highlights from both albums.

MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC – RAY CHARLES

BYE BYE LOVE – THE RAY CHARLES

The opening track was a country-inflected rock ‘n’ roll tune that was made first popular by the Everly Brothers in 1957. Charles turns it into a big band jazz piece with contemporary flourishes rooted in R&B along with Charles’ brilliant piano playing, encased in a Forties big-band arrangement.

I CAN’T STOP LOVING YOU – RAY CHARLES

The first single off the “Modern Sounds…” album was a popular country tune first written by C&W singer/songwriter Don Gibson in 1957. It was released as a b-side the following year along with a tune called “Oh, Lonesome Me”, also recorded by Charles for release in the sequel to this album, Gibson’s version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” got just as much airplay as “Oh, Lonesome Me” when first released, so much so that the single became a double-A sided hit.

Four years later, Ray Charles recorded it and made it all his own. It reached the Number One spot in Billboard’s Pop, R&B and Country chart, as well as topping the charts in the UK as well. Charles’ version is a heartfelt performance and feels more contemporary than its predecessor, despite the traditional vocals. Gone is Gibson’s twangy country guitar, replaced by Charles’ piano. After so many hits in the Fifties, Ray Charles managed to top himself once again with this beautiful recording. In 1972, Charles performed it on the Dick Cavett Show and dedicated to his girlfriend, existent or not, along with his background singers, The Raelettes.

YOU DON’T KNOW ME – RAY CHARLES

The second track of the album was also the second song released as a single. It was written by Cindy Walker particularly for singer Eddy Arnold as gratitude for inspiring her to write the song in the first place. Singer Jerry Vale however, got hold of it first and released his own version two months before Arnold’s in 1956. Vale’s version charted higher than Arnold’s too, making it to Number 14 on Billboard’s Pop chart. Arnold’s version didn’t make it into the Pop chart, but did manage to reach Number Ten on Billboard’s C&W chart.

As the story goes, Eddy Arnold suggested the title “You Don’t Know Me” to Walker, explaining the concept behind it and suggesting she think about it before attempting to write it. “The song just started singing. It sort of wrote itself…”, Walker said.

The song is inherently a very pretty one, but again, Ray Charles’ sings the definitive version. His version of “You Don’t Know Me” reached Number Two on Billboard’s Pop chart in 1962.

I LOVE YOU SO MUCH IT HURTS – RAY CHARLES

Ray Charles’ version of Floyd Tillman’s 1948 “I Love You So Much It Hurts” is beautifully interpreted with a traditional lush orchestration backing Ray Charles’ heartfelt, soulful baritone. His vocal delivery makes you feel the sweet pain of his love, encompassed in lazy violins and angelic background vocals.

The most popular, original version of this song was recorded in 1949 by Jimmy Wakely. His interpretation is indeed rooted in traditional C&W folk. It’s a mono recording with only guitar and a small instrumental backing. It doesn’t stand a chance when comparing it to Ray Charles’ version.

YOU WIN AGAIN – RAY CHARLES

Charles chose two Hank Williams songs to record for “Modern Sounds Vol 1”. You can hear the country longing in the melody as Ray sings “You Win Again”, but Charles’ vocal inflection is so uniquely his, drawn out and from the heart, that he does indeed manage to beautifully display the timelessness of the melody.

The song, written in 1952, is about a man who lost the love of his life. Hank Williams recorded it the day after his divorce was final with Audrey Sheppard. Williams originally titled his composition “I Lose Again”, but at the insistence of his producer Fred Rose, he reversed it.

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’ – RAY CHARLES

As in the opening track, Charles ends on a high and returns to his big band style on the closing track of the album, allowing himself to truly dance all over the keys in an extended piano solo that showcases his amazing piano-playing prowess, ending the album with the listener wanting more.

Written in 1951, “Hey, Good Lookin’” is probably one of Williams’ best known songs. Besides Charles’ recording, the song has been ubiquitous since its release in everything from variety shows to TV commercials. Williams wrote it in twenty minutes during a plane ride, intending to give it to a friend of his, Jimmy Dickens, who needed a hit. But after writing it, he recorded it for himself and telling Dickens jokingly that “this song’s too good for you.”

 

MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC VOL. 2 – RAY CHARLES

YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE – RAY CHARLES

The first track on the “Modern Sounds…” sequel album, “Vol. 2”, was also the first single off it, released in the Fall of 1962. His version sounds nothing like the original, more so than any of the other tracks in the first album. It’s rooted in a blend of blues, big band and R&B, with a staccato beat that changes the entire sound of the tune. It’s unmistakable Ray Charles, and as the opening track, promises more surprising experimentation with other traditional songs.

“You Are My Sunshine” is also one of the oldest songs among Charles’ selections, written in 1939 by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell. It also became Louisiana’s state song by virtue of the fact that co-writer Davis was once governor of that state. Originally a country song, it’s been played and recorded so many times by so many other artists that it‘s incorporated practically every music style there is, from Bing Crosby’s crooned version to Charles’ soul jazz to Lawrence Welk’s lush orchestration and many others in between. We’re still waiting for the hip-hop version.

OH, LONESOME ME – RAY CHARLES

Charles returns to big band jazz on “Oh, Lonesome Me” with a wailing sax solo. The genre suits the song well, originally written by Don Gibson, who also wrote “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

The country version also contains the bouncy, happy feeling of Charles’ rendition, despite the fact that the lyrics are about a man whose woman walked out on him. Charles replaced the country guitar with a brass arrangement.

TAKE THESE CHAINS FROM MY HEART – RAY CHARLES

“Take These Chains from My Heart” opened side two of “Vol. 2” and was also the second single off this album to enter the Billboard charts. It made it Number Three C&W, Number Seven R&B and Number Eight Pop in 1963.

It was originally written by Fred Rose and Hy Heath for Hank Williams as one of his final recordings in 1952. It was a posthumous Number One country hit for Williams in 1953 after he died suddenly on New Year’s Day.

YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART – RAY CHARLES

Ray Charles released “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as a single after “You Are My Sunshine” but it only made it into the Top Ten in the C&W chart at Number Seven, while reaching Number 29 Pop and Number 23 R&B.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart” was also taken from the Hank Williams songbook, and is considered a country standard. The fact that Ray Charles recorded this song with an R&B feel bridges the two genres together like no other song can. Williams wrote this song about his own wife Audrey during a turbulent time in their relationship. The single was released on January 1, 1953, the day Williams died at age 29 from a mixture of sedatives and alcohol. The song became an instant nationwide hit.

“Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Vols. 1 & 2” was Ray Charles’ pinnacle, both creatively and commercially. After this album, he only scored two more singles during his career in the Billboard Pop Top Ten with “Busted” (#4) in 1964 and “It’s Crying Time” (#6) in 1966. His next two albums, “Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul” (#2, 1963) and “Sweet & Sour Tears” (#9, 1964) were the last two albums of his to make it to the Top Ten LP chart until forty years later in 2004 with Ray Charles’ final studio album, “Genius Loves Company”. During the interim, Charles battled and successfully conquered his drug addiction, and enjoyed a long career recording and performing around the world.

One of Ray’s most notable recordings occurred in 1986 with Billy Joel. Joel and Charles shared lead piano and vocals on “Baby Grand”, one of the songs from Joel’s album “The Bridge”. Ray Charles contacted Billy Joel soon after Joel’s daughter’s birth, Alexa Ray, to express his appreciation for naming her after him. On the phone, Charles suggested they do a song together. The song, written overnight by Billy Joel, perfectly captures the music Ray Charles has lovingly interpreted for the world, bluesy and soulful, and all about an instrument they both shared, the piano.

“Ray Charles was my hero when I was growing up. As big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles.” –Billy Joel

Ray Charles Robinson died on June 10th of that year at age 73 and left behind a musical legacy that shaped popular music to this day.

 

MOTOWN

In 1962, the Motown family began to coalesce. Motown’s founder Berry Gordy made William “Smokey” Robinson Vice-President of Motown Records. Together, they groomed a growing stable of musical artists, writing songs and overseeing the production of all their recordings. Smokey not only wrote for other artists; he also led his own band, the Miracles, who had already scored a Number One R&B hit (Number Two Pop), Motown’s first, in 1960 with “Shop Around”.

As talented as they were, the two were spreading themselves thin. Gordy knew they needed more songs, so he sought out young, up and coming talent within their own walls to assist in writing pop hits. It wasn’t a difficult task to find them, primarily because African-American talent had heard what was going on in Detroit, so they flocked to the Motown headquarters building, dubbed “Hitsville U.S.A.”, seeking fame and fortune. In fact on most days, these musicians and artists would spend their days on Hitsville USA’s front lawn, tossing a football or otherwise chatting on the stair steps as they wait for an opportunity to record even a background vocal.

 

HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND


From left, Lamont Dozier, Eddie and Brian Holland

“Yes, it was a job, but we loved the job. We really did sit there and work all day at coming up with this song, that melody.” –Brian Holland (rockhall.com)

Eddie Holland had been working with Berry since the Motown label was founded in 1959. Groomed to be a recording artist, Holland released several singles between 1959 and 1964, with a song called “Jamie” being the only single of his to break the Billboard’s Top Thirty. Because he suffered from stage fright however, performing live proved not to be for him.

Eddie’s brother Brian was brought on board shortly thereafter as a staff songwriter. He had successfully co-penned the Marvelettes’ chart-topping “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961, giving him the clout and respectability he needed to get Gordy’s attention.

Brian also tried performing, joining Motown groups called the Fidalatones, then the Satintones and finally as part of a background vocal quartet called the Rayber Voices from 1960 to 1962 before calling his singing career quits. Brian, like his brother, also felt he belonged behind the scenes as a songwriter and began collaborating with fellow staff songwriter, Lamont Dozier, who had been a recording artist for Berry’s sister, Anna Gordy’s “Anna” label before joining Motown.

In 1962, brother Eddie gravitated towards Brian and Lamont Dozier and the three began to write songs together. Gordy watched their talent develop and the following year, asked them to write for the struggling Supremes. The result was “Where Did Our Love Go”, the first huge hit for HDH and the famed girl group. Soon, Gordy had HDH write for other Motown artists. Ultimately, the trio were responsible for writing many of Motown’s biggest hits, such as “Heatwave”, “Can I Get A Witness”, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love”, “I Can’t Help Myself”, “It’s the Same Old Song”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”… virtually every Motown classic smash hit of the Sixties. Besides the Supremes, their songs were recorded by Motown’s biggest stars including Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and the Temptations. The team, known professionally as Holland-Dozier-Holland, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson realized that it wasn’t enough to release records to radio and hope they catch the pop ear. In 1962, they decided to put together their first tour outside the usual Detroit appearances, so they booked gigs throughout the Eastern and Southern parts of the United States and dubbed the tour “the Motortown Revue”. One evening’s performance of the revue typically included the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, the Contours and the Marvelletes. Most of them hadn’t racked up any chart hits yet but the tour was designed to make them known to a broader market.

 

MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. would finally come to his own in 1962, despite the fact that he was being called “the least likely hit maker” within his own label, particularly because the kind of music Marvin wanted to record were old standards that were totally out of touch with the burgeoning Motown sound.

THE SOULFUL MOODS OF MARVIN GAYE – MARVIN GAYE’S DEBUT LP

Gaye had already released his debut album in the Summer of 1961, but “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” didn’t get much attention. Gordy and Gaye had clashed in terms of the musical direction of the record. Gordy wanted him to sing catchy pop songs for the teen radio listening audience, but Gaye saw himself more as a crooner a la Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles or Frank Sinatra. In the end, Gordy relented and allowed Gaye to record songs that were made popular by the likes of Sinatra, and some written by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Gaye added nothing new to his interpretations of these old classics, and the production was pretty uninspired throughout the whole album. “Soulful Moods…” was mostly made up of slow ballads, with maybe two more uptempo pop songs as a compromise to Gordy. In the end, Gordy was proven right, as the album never entered the Billboard Pop Album chart.

LET YOUR CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE – MARVIN GAYE

Gaye’s first single from the album, ”Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” was written by Gordy specifically for Marvin, but it also failed to become a hit. It was a slow, well-sung, bluesy number that appealed to Gaye but apparently, not anyone else. The only notoriety the record can claim is that it was Marvin’s first record with his last name spelled the way he would always be known. Just before the single was to be released, Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname, reasoning that Sam Cooke had done the same thing, not only because he was being teased as to the homosexual association of his “Gay” surname, but also because he wanted to distance himself as much as possible from his domineering, abusive father.

BEECHWOOD 4-5789 – THE MARVELETTES

As 1962 dawned, Gaye busied himself recording and performing as well as writing songs for other Motown artists, many times joining them as a session musician, playing drums for the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder and the Marvelettes’ performances and recordings. Gaye wrote “Beechwood 4-5789” with William “Mickey” Stevenson and Berry Gordy’s brother George for the Marvelettes, which managed to climb to Number 17 in Billboard’s Pop chart and Number Seven R&B in the Autumn of 1962.

Gaye continued to record singles as a solo artist, but bristled at the idea of having to go to grooming class at John Roberts Powers School for Social Grace in Detroit as Berry had instructed him to do. He later regretted the decision to not attend and realized he needed to start trying it their way. He began to take advice from those in the label who saw him perform, particularly changing his habit of closing his eyes when he sang because it appeared to the audience that he was sleeping. Slowly but surely, his stubbornness gave way and he came around to recording the type of music Gordy felt would make him a success.

The first two singles Gaye released in 1962, “Sandman” and “Soldier’s Plea”, also failed to enter the Pop or R&B chart. It took his fourth single release “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, to finally introduce Marvin Gaye into the charts as a solo artist. “…Fellow” was a Top Ten Billboard R&B hit, reaching Number Eight. It also managed to break the Pop Hot 100 by climbing up to Number 46 in the Summer of 1962.

STUBBORN KIND OF FELLOW – MARVIN GAYE

Co-written by Gaye, George Gordy and Stevenson, the title of his breakthrough hit was quite appropriate in describing Gaye’s demeanor, but the song itself was an R&B pop song, not an old creaky standard, and a good one at that. Gaye had realized finally that if he wanted to be a successful crossover artist, he would have to start singing R&B. Marvin had to force himself to learn to accept advice from those in the know, particularly Berry Gordy.

“Berry heard me playing (“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”) …on the piano. He came over and he said something to the effect of, ‘I like that melody but can you do something else with it.’ That was my first power encounter with him. I remember he wanted me to change some chords. I had a brief argument with him as to why I thought it should remain the way I wrote it. In any event, I changed things his way.” – Marvin Gaye

Martha Reeves of the Vandellas sang background in “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” as Gaye delivered the song with a strong growl, desperately trying to separate himself from the crooning talents he had displayed on his failed debut album. His heartfelt “say, yeah, yeah, yeah” open and hook sets the mood for a strong blues pop number. Released on July 23, 1962, Gaye was pleased to see that he had finally cracked the R&B Top Ten chart at Number Eight, but was disappointed that it didn’t make it into the Pop Top Forty, climbing only as high as Number 46. Encouraged by the acceptance he was receiving singing R&B, his next single would chart even higher for him.

HITCH HIKE – MARVIN GAYE

Co-written with Stevenson and Clarence Paul, “Hitch Hike” would take Marvin Gaye into the Pop Top Forty, reaching Number 30. The record also climbed to just short of the Top Ten R&B at Number 12. The dynamic song inspired a dance that Gaye would showcase when performing the song on TV shows of the day such as American Bandstand and the T.A.M.I. Show, where he would extend his thumb in a hitchhiking motion as he danced. Again, Reeves and her Vandellas provided the background vocals.

Gaye went on tour with the rest of the Motown artists in their first Motortown Revue in October of 1962, where he would showcase his two hit singles as part of his repertoire. The tour covered the “chitlin’ circuit” a swath down the Eastern and Southern coast of the United States where it was acceptable for “negro” musicians to play in racially segregated areas. He was also busy recording his second album, titled after his first hit single, “That Stubborn Kind of Fellow”. The album included the title song as well as his other singles “Hitch Hike” and “Soldier’s Plea”. All the other tracks were either co-written by Gaye or his songwriting partner Mickey Stevenson.

Gaye had ultimately abandoned his idea of jazz standards. It was the right move if he wanted to be famous. The second track on Side One of his second album would be his next single, to be released in early 1963. It was called “Pride and Joy” and it would be his first record to enter Billboard’s Pop Top Ten. Despite his stubborn personality, Gaye ultimately listened, and as a result, went from being considered Motown’s “least likely hit-maker” to one of the labels most legendary artists who set a new standard in 1971 when he released his landmark album “What’s Going On”. But throughout the Sixties, he would steadily climb in popularity, becoming one of Motown’s most profitable and famous artists.

 

MARY WELLS

Motown was beginning to chart consistently in 1962. Besides Gaye’s two solo hits and the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” both of which made it into the Top Forty, Motown Vice-President and Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson wrote “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary Wells. Reminiscent of another 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion” by Carole King, the record made it to Number Eight Billboard Pop and Number Two R&B.

Soon after, Robinson wrote “You Beat Me To the Punch” for Wells and that did similarly in the Pop chart, climbing to Number Nine. It did however, manage to make it to the top in the R&B chart, giving Wells her first Number One R&B single. It also gave Motown its first Grammy nomination for Wells’ song in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.

Mary Wells’ third single, also written by Robinson, was “Two Lovers”, a rather risqué song for 1962 with lyrics suggesting polygamy until the song reveals in the end that her two lovers are the same person.

“Darling, Well, don’tcha know that I can tell whenever I look at you, that you think that I’m untrue ’cause I said that I love two, but I really, really do ’cause you’re a split personality and in reality, both of them are you.” “Two Lovers” – Mary Wells

It became her most successful single to date, reaching Number Seven Pop and, like her previous single, also climbed to Number One R&B. Having two consecutive R&B Number One singles and three Pop Top Tens, along with the Grammy nomination, gave Wells clout within the label, becoming the first female solo singer to have accomplished such a feat.

Motown had their first A-list pop star in Mary Wells. “Two Lovers” sold over a million copies and earned a Gold record. Her second album, “The One Who Really Loves You” was released in 1962 and also entered Billboard Top Ten Album chart, reaching Number Eight. As a result of this success, Wells was the headlining artist in Motown’s Motortown Revue.

Although she was on top of the world at this point, Wells was still two years away from recording the biggest single of her career, “My Guy”.

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JAMES BROWN AND THE MASHED POTATO – LITTLE EVA AND THE LOCO-MOTION – THE ORLONS AND THE WAH-WATUSI – DEE DEE SHARP – THE AMAZING ISLEY BROTHERS

by Robert Seoane

A new type of dance called the Twist swept the planet in 1960. It was the first touchless dance ever and was introduced to the world by the song of the same name. The original version of “The Twist” was written by Hank Ballard, recorded with his Midnighters in 1958 and released the following year to an indifferent public.

Two years later however, music entrepreneur Dick Clark took the song and recorded an identical version with sound-alike singer Chubby Checker. Thanks to the promotional help of Clark’s TV show American Bandstand, Chubby Checker’s “Twist” launched a dance craze that would spawn a tsunami of Sixties dances to come.

At first, befuddled parents shook their heads as they watched their teenaged children dancing in place opposite their partner without even holding each other’s hand, but the Twist fad soon spread throughout the world like wildfire. It was easy to do, even if you didn’t know how to dance, and anyone could do it regardless of age. Celebrities were seen twisting in posh clubs around the world. Teens twisted to every rock ‘n’ roll song on the radio. You could even twist by yourself at home.

Its popularity was buoyed by the steady stream of subsequent Twist singles that were released between 1960 and 1962. Checker released four more Twist singles in those two years: “Twistin’ U.S.A.”, ”Let’s Twist Again”, “Slow Twistin’”, and “Twistin’ ‘round the World”. Other classic Twist songs released during that time were Sam Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away”, Joey Dee & The Starlighters’ “Peppermint Twist” and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist & Shout”, later recorded by the Beatles on February 11, 1963 as the closing number of their debut album “Please Please Me”.

Other dances were starting to evolve, all of them inspired by the Twist in that you could dance without having to hold your partner, like the Mashed Potato, the Watusi, the Loco-Motion, the Frug, the Swim, the Monkey, the Jerk, the Pony, the Alligator, the Fly, the Dog, Walking the Dog, the Chicken, the Funky Chicken, the Hitchhike, the Shake, the Yo-Yo …and on and on. Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances”, released in the summer of ‘63 listed many of these dance fads in its lyrics.

By 1962, two years after it first became a hit, the Twist still ruled as the mother of all dance fads. So much so that the Number One 1960 Chubby Checker hit made it to Number One a second time on January 13, 1962, and stayed there for two weeks, one week longer than its debut release. Other dance songs that became hits in 1962 were Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion”, “The Wah-Watusi” by a one hit wonder group called the Orlons and “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp.

THE MASHED POTATO

The Mashed Potato was a dance that had been around as long as the Twist, In fact, the first Mashed Potato songs had already been recorded before Sharp’s 1962 version by the man who invented the dance, one of the most influential R&B artists of the rock ‘n’ roll era, called the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, nicknamed “The Godfather of Soul”, Mr. James Joseph Brown.

 

JAMES BROWN


Mr. Dynamite, James Brown

“(In 1960), I received a call from James Brown while he was in Miami with his new backup band, the J.B.’s. He informed me he was having a problem with Syd Nathan at King Records. Syd refused to let Brown record with the J.B.’s. Always believing in Brown and standing by him, I suggested we record him and his backup band under a pseudonym. I had seen Brown at Ernie Busker’s Palms of Hallandale nightclub doing a dance he called “The James Brown Mashed Potatoes.” At Criteria the next day we decided to cut an instrumental track and title it “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes.”
One of the repeated lines was for someone to shout “Mashed Potatoes” and Brown volunteered. At the last minute, I decided it was too risky using Brown’s very recognizable voice and turned to him and said, ‘You can’t do that! I can’t use your voice on this record because Nathan will be on our ass. We have to leave your voice off and strictly make this an instrumental.’ I still liked the idea of someone shouting “Mashed Potatoes”, but I had to use someone else. Brown agreed, so I contacted one of Miami’s top black radio DJ personalities by the name of Carlton “King” Coleman and dubbed his voice on top of the recording. If you listen to the record very carefully, you can still hear Brown’s voice in the background. I released the song through my own Dade label under the name of Nat Kendrick and The Swans. Kendrick was Brown’s drummer at the time and the J.B.’s temporarily became The Swans. The single became a smash hit after peaking at #8 on the national R&B charts while reaching #84 on the Billboard Hot 100.” –Henry Stone, Dade Records owner source: (henrystonemusic.com)

“I would be telling a lie if I said I would be a world star without the help of men like Mr. Nathan. He was the first one willing to take a chance on me.” -James Brown


King Records owner, Syd Nathan

Syd Nathan did not like James Brown. He thought he was a terrible singer. In 1956, talent scout Ralph Bass signed Brown and his group the Famous Flames to Nathan’s Federal label, a subsidiary to his main label, King Records. Bass recorded James Brown and the Famous Flames’ debut single, “Please, Please, Please”. When Syd Nathan heard it, he reacted in his usual manner: yelling and screaming at Bass for being stupid enough to sign this group.

“That’s the worse piece of crap I’ve heard in my life. It’s someone stuttering on a record only saying one word …”. –Syd Nathan


James Brown and the Famous Flames debut studio album, “Please, Please, Please” (1959)

“Please, Please, Please” certainly didn’t sound like anything being heard on the radio at the time, but to Nathan’s surprise, the record found an audience, particularly because James Brown already had a fan following that went wild for his stage performances. During “Please, Please, Please”, he would suddenly get on his knees, engulfed in musical rapture. One of the Flames would then come to his side to pat him on the back and help him up, while another Flame draped a cape over him. Both of them would then attempt to escort Brown offstage, only to have Brown shrug off the cape in a resurgence of uncontrolled ecstasy, slowly return to the mic, screaming his heart out, and fall to his knees once again to repeat the process all over… as many as four more times.

“Please, Please, Please” only made it to Number 105 on the Billboard Pop chart but it reached Number Six in Billboard’s R&B chart. That gave Nathan brief pause, but he still didn’t think this James Brown fella would ever amount to anything, even after his next five single releases through Federal Records all made it into the charts, with one song “Try Me”, reaching Number 48 Billboard Pop, and Number One R&B, and “Think” breaking the Billboard Top Forty at Number 33 and climbing to Number Seven R&B.

James Brown and the Famous Flames also released their first two studio albums in 1959, each named after their first two singles. Curiously, the albums did not feature the group on the cover. Nathan chose instead to use white models, apparently to mask the color of the group so he could market the music to a more mainstream public.


James Brown and the Famous Flames’ second studio album “Try Me!” (1959), was a collection of singles b-sides and outtakes from their debut album.

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When Syd Nathan first formed King Records in 1943, he only released Country & Western music, but Nathan soon realized that African-American teenagers danced to their own, totally different soundtrack comprised of African-American artists. Nathan referred to the genre he discovered as race records.

“We saw a need. Why should we go into all those towns and only sell to the hillbilly accounts? Why can’t we sell a few more while we’re there? So we got in the race business.” –Syd Nathan

Nathan was as stubborn as a mule and ran his company in a dictatorial manner, but despite his total inability to recognize original talent like James Brown, he was unwittingly influential in the development of rock ‘n roll music by integrating C&W with R&B. Once he had a good number of both R&B and C&W musical artists signed to his labels, Nathan would give his country artists R&B songs to record and country songs for the R&B artists to record. This inadvertent cross-pollination of genres wasn’t as much a grand musical experiment of his as it was a way of maximizing the revenue of his song publishing.

When Nathan found out that Brown was recording for Dade, he wisely relented and moved Brown to the main label, King Records, allowing him to record more instrumentals like “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes” and gradually taking James Brown’s ability to sell records more seriously. In response, seeing that he hit a dance nerve with his fans, Brown recorded a sequel called “Mashed Potatoes USA.”

The lyrics to “Mashed Potatoes USA” were similar to an earlier single of Brown’s called “Night Train”, in that it was essentially a promotion of his current tour. In “Mashed Potatoes USA,” James Brown claims his intention to bring the dance to the entire country, with shout outs to the cities he would be performing in the rest of the year.

Here I am and I’m back again, I’m doing mashed potatoes, I’m gonna start by going to New York City with your number one, I’m going to Boston, ow… I’m going to Buffalo straight down the road, gonna stop in Cleveland, Ohio…” “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” – James Brown & the Famous Flames

It got to Number 82 Pop and barely missed the R&B Top Twenty at Number 21 in 1962, but by then it had fulfilled its purpose as the Mashed Potato dance fad spread around the world.

In Brown’s earlier single, “Night Train”, all he does is yell out cities up and down the Eastern Coast, from Miami to Washington, DC.

“And don’t forget New Orleans, the home of the Blues…” “Night Train” – James Brown

“Night Train” managed to crack the Billboard Pop Top Forty at Number 35 and was the Famous Flames’ biggest R&B hit of 1962, reaching Number Five. It’s a song with a history, originally recorded as a 12 bar instrumental standard in 1951 by Jimmy Forrest, who took the instrumental’s opening riff from Duke Ellington’s “Happy-go-Lucky Local” when Forrest played in the band. Brown took the song, added his lyrics and funked it up before anyone knew what funk even was.

Besides his success with the Mashed Potato dance and “Night Train”, James Brown’s musical output between 1960 and 1962 was on the rise both creatively and popularly, despite his continuing battles with Nathan. Once they had been moved to King Records, James Brown and the Famous Flames began recording their third studio album for Nathan. Neither Brown nor the group as a whole were showcased on this cover either. This time around, Nathan put a white baby on the cover in a pose that made the infant look like he was deep in thought.

Although most of the tracks on the Famous Flames’ first three albums were either written or co-written by Brown, for the most part, they were an assortment of Fifties-style compositions with strong similarities to Little Richard, along with a respectable collection of heartfelt blues wails. Brown’s passion was evident, especially when he was onstage, but he was still a few years away from developing the Funk R&B genre he invented. His singing style offered a rougher, more passionate version of the soul music that was first popularized by Sam Cooke’s contrasting smooth vocal. Brown’s unique voice would ultimately earn him the “Godfather of Soul” moniker.

His dancing style had developed much earlier. Original and totally his own, James Brown’s moves were like nothing ever seen before. Bathed in sweat and screaming his heart out is the epitome of Funk, and funnily enough, the word itself is derived from the strong odor one emanates after an intense performance.

The only other dancer of the rock ‘n’ roll era who could keep up with James Brown in dancing skills was Michael Jackson, who confessed more than once that James Brown was a deep influence in his dance style. You can see future Jackson moves in Brown’s performances.

THINK – JAMES BROWN

“Think” was the first single released from the 1960 “Think!” album in May of that year, and was also the first James Brown song that sounded like a true pre-cursor of the Funk that was to come. Coincidentally enough, Brown didn’t write it. The composition was originally recorded by the Five Royales in 1957. When comparing the two recordings, the difference is like day and night. Brown’s musical arrangement is totally different and much more dynamic, belting out the words with his own unique passion. The Royales’ version boasts a nice electric guitar and a brief sax solo but remains rooted in Fifties doo-wop.

James Brown released eight more singles with the Famous Flames after “Think” during 1960 and 1961. Five of those made it into the Billboard R&B Top Ten but none of them cracked the Pop Top Forty. Looking for a hit, Brown wanted to capture his live events on record, since it was his stage performances that were making him a star. He felt a studio recording wasn’t doing his work justice because he wasn’t getting the insane audience reaction he received when he was onstage. He approached Syd Nathan with the idea, and in his usual negative manner, Nathan steadfastly refused, claiming that live albums never made money. Stubborn as always when it came to his musical instincts, Brown decided to fund a recording of an upcoming event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on October 15, 1962, with his own money. Nathan scoffed, saying that every track on the live recording had already been released as a studio single, but Brown persisted and Nathan finally relented. “Live at the Apollo” turned out to be the album that put James Brown on the map. Released the following June, it became a million seller and reached Number Two on the Billboard Top LP chart. In 1963, Brown’s career would take off.

 

DEE DEE SHARP

Also in 1962, sixteen-year-old Dione LaRue scored a Billboard Number Three Pop hit with Chubby Checker called “Slow Twistin’”, although she wasn’t credited. Thanks to that song’s success, LaRue was given the opportunity to record another single as a solo artist, so she changed her name to Dee Dee Sharp.

MASHED POTATO TIME – DEE DEE SHARP

“Mashed Potato Time”, based on James Brown’s dance, made it to the Number Two position on Billboard’s Pop chart on May 5, 1962. Part of its success, besides riding on the coattails of the dance fad, was the fact that it sounded a lot like an earlier Number One hit from a few months earlier, “Please Mr. Postman”, and Sharp sounded very much like the Marvellettes’ lead singer Gladys Horton. The song even alludes to the earlier Motown hit in its lyrics.

“Now everybody is doin’ fine, they dance alone or in a big boss line, and they discovered it’s the most, man the day they did it to Please Mr. Postman. Mashed Potato, wait a minute, wait a minute, Mashed Potato, deliver de letter…” Mashed Potato Time – Dee Dee Sharp

GRAVY (FOR MY MASHED POTATOES) – DEE DEE SHARP

Sharp’s next single would continue to ride the surf of the Mashed Potato’s popularity simply by adding gravy. Similar in style to her prior hit, “Gravy…” managed to crack the Billboard Pop Top Ten at Number Nine on July 14, 1962.

 

THE WATUSI

“Watusi” is the name of a 1959 adventure film that served as a sequel to a popular 1950 movie called “King Solomon’s Mines” and is also loosely based on the novel of the same name. In the film, the African tribe known as the Tutsi tribe, also called Watusis and known for their spectacular solo dances, are the backdrop for a Fifties action adventure film where two Americans travel to Africa in search of King Solomon’s treasure, killing African people and animal wildlife during the whole film in order to find it.

Two years after the movie’s release, the Watusi dance had its own record, thanks to a group called the Vibrations, who scored minor hits throughout their career in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Their version of “The Watusi” reached Number 25 Billboard Pop in 1961.

The most popular record of the Watusi, however, was recorded by a group called the Orlons called “The Wah-Watusi”. It reached Number Two on Billboard’s Pop chart during the summer of 1962, and was re-recorded the following year by groups such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Chubby Checker, Annette Funicello and the Isley Brothers.

The Watusi dance fad had nothing to do with any of the dances of the actual Watusi tribe. The name for the dance was chosen instead only because it was in the public consciousness thanks to the film. The dance was embraced by the Establishment because it was relatively tame, and was even showcased on an old fogey’s program of the time called the Lawrence Welk Show.

 

THE LOCO-MOTION

Eva Narcissus Boyd was Carole King and husband Gerry Goffin’s sixteen-year-old babysitter when they discovered her singing talent. They grew to like Eva very much, inquiring about her life and amused by the way she danced when listening to one of the many great pop songs on the radio at the time, some of whom her employers actually wrote. Inspired by her dancing, King and Goffin wrote a song that would become a Number One smash hit in 1962 and give birth to yet another Sixties dance fad.

King and Goffin’s boss Don Kirshner liked “The Loco-Motion” and released it. The single managed to sell over one million copies, reaching the Number One Billboard chart position on August 25, 1962.

Little Eva never had a bigger hit than “The Loco-Motion”, but she did have a singing career that spanned the rest of her life until she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in 2003 at age 59.

Twelve years later, a rock group called Grand Funk was struggling for a hit after they dropped “Railroad” from their name. They re-made “The Loco-Motion” and the song returned to the top of the Pop charts on May 2nd, 1974.

Despite the ever growing list of dance fads and their accompanying songs, the song that carries the distinction of being the most enduring twist song of all time as well as one of the most famous songs in rock ‘n’ roll history is “Twist and Shout”. It’s a song that’s mostly associated with the Beatles, but it was actually written in 1961 by two songwriters named Phil Medley and Bill Berns. From there, it was recorded by a group called the Top Notes, then by the Isley Brothers before the Beatles took it and made it their own.

 

TWIST AND SHOUT

The Top Notes played it much faster than the Isley Brothers did on their recording. The TN’s version was a frantic rock ‘n’ roll song with an equally frantic sax solo played by the legendary King Curtis. This first version of “Twist & Shout” was produced by Phil Spector on February 23, 1961, when he worked for Atlantic Records, years before he invented his “Wall of Sound” recording technique. The original recording is almost unrecognizable from the known version, arranged by the Isley Brothers and then copied almost exactly by the Beatles.

The Top Notes’ single didn’t break the Billboard charts but the Isley Brothers’ version did, reaching Number 17 Billboard Pop on August 11, 1962. When adapting the tune, the brothers used the same musical arrangement but slowed-down for their version of “Twist and Shout” that Ritchie Valens used in 1958 for his adaptation of a traditional Mexican mariachi tune called “La Bamba” into a rock ‘n’ roll song.

The Isley Brothers’ version replaces the Top Notes’ sax solo with a horn section that repeats as a rising crescendo of “aaahhhs” overtake it, then bringing it back to the main part. The Beatles’ version mimics the Isley Brothers intact, but they replace the horns for their guitars and deliver rock ‘n’ roll screams that are essentially a blueprint for myriad joyful rock ‘n’ roll screams to come.

Many people have always believed that the Beatles had written “Twist and Shout”. It closes their 1963 debut album “Please Please Me”, but that album was basically a recording of the Beatles’ setlist when they played at the Cavern Club in their hometown of Liverpool back then, along with Beatle-written songs peppered throughout the album.

The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” showcases John Lennon’s voice, by then hoarse from having recorded the entire album with the other three in one 13-hour period. It was a vocal style he would successfully emulate during their live performances, and it was this unique performance captured on record that takes the song to the heights of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

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THE BEACH BOYS – THE FOUR SEASONS – BOY SINGERS: GENE PITNEY – BOBBY VINTON – BRYAN HYLAND – GENE CHANDLER – GIRL GROUPS: THE CRYSTALS – ONE HIT WONDERS: BRUCE CHANNEL – SHELLEY FABARES

by Robert Seoane

Chuck Berry went to jail in February of 1962 and took Fifties rock ’n’ roll with him. Questionable allegations dogged the 33-year-old rock ‘n’ roll pioneer regarding whether he had sexual relations with a 14-year-old Apache waitress named Janice Escalante. But no evidence was found until he transported her across state lines to work as a hat check girl in his new club, violating the Mann Act. The Mann Act forbids transporting “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” This law was for people of all ages, resulting in being used at times to criminalize adults having consensual sex. The Mann Act was altered in 1986 to read “any person” over “woman or girl” and changed the wording to “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense”. It’s still on the books today.

Berry stood trial for two weeks in March 1960 and was found guilty, facing a $5000 fine and a five-year stint in prison. Berry’s lawyers appealed and a second trial was set in May of ‘61. He was found guilty again, but this time was sentenced to three years in prison. After a second appeal failed, Berry started serving his time the following February. He was locked up for a year and a half.

By 1962, Rock ‘n’ Roll music had been tamed and silenced by the White Establishment who, as offensive as it sounds, believed that scary rock ‘n’ roll was an evil coming from the depths of “nigra”, “primitive”, or “jungle” music, with the sole purpose of perverting their children into doing all sorts of unimaginable interracial atrocities they could conjure in their minds. Little Richard was now a Reverend and preaching the gospel. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was destroyed after he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Elvis’ musical output, although still churning out slick hits, didn’t have the rough edges of his Fifties rock ‘n’ roll output, and Buddy Holly was dead.

Rock ‘n’ roll music in 1962 was as dull and neutered as a paper doll, having been transformed into bland pop by the White Establishment, and still two years away from a healthy dose of new blood that America was to receive from an island called Great Britain.


Mick and Keith, both holding photos, in September 1962

In 1962, many of the legendary British acts of the Sixties were at the starting line of their careers, still struggling and developing their talent.

The Beatles were already veterans in the club circuit with their almost daily performances of rock ‘n’ roll standards in Hamburg and Liverpool.
• 20-year-old Brian Jones, founder of a group he called The Rollin’ Stones, had put an ad in the paper looking for musicians to form a new band after having performed as Elmo Lewis in a group he formed called The Roosters. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards answered that ad.
• 16-year-old Jimmy Page was in a group called the Crusaders, still six years away from meeting Robert Plant to form Led Zeppelin.


Jimmy Page blending in with the background, 1962

The Who were called the Detours and were two years away from bringing drummer Keith Moon into the band.


Missing ingredient to the Who, drummer Keith Moon, with Mark Twain & The Strangers in 1962

The Kinks were called the Ray Davies Quintet, and had a 17-year-old Rod Stewart perform briefly with them as lead vocalist.
Pink Floyd was three years away from forming, with 16-year-old Syd Barrett in a band called Geoff Mott & the Mottoes, and childhood friend Roger Waters, three years his elder, coming by often to hear them play.


Syd Barrett , 1962

• Besides busking on the streets with his already amazing guitar prowess at age 16, Eric Clapton was performing in pubs with his friend Paul Jones,


Eric Clapton, 1962

• …and 15-year-old David Jones, not yet named David Bowie, was forming his first group, the Konrads, available for high school dance parties and weddings.


David Jones, the future David Bowie, 1962

In contrast, future American superstars of the Sixties hadn’t yet launched their musical careers, either still in school or serving the military and uninspired by the music of the moment. In many cases, it would take their British counterparts to come over to the USA and show them how it was done, as the Brits offered a totally new, matured, confident and joyful rock sound, derived from the American blues artists that were popularly being ignored in America for Elvis clones. To put it simply, rock ‘n’ roll was still two years away from puberty.


Bob Dylan, 1962

In 1962, the only three indications of what was to come could be found on records originating from three distinct places:

• New York, from a young man that went by the name of Bob Dylan,
• California, from a trio of brothers and their cousin along with a high school pal who had been called the Beach Boys,
• …and Detroit, from a new label called Motown who was developing much of the best R&B talent of the 20th Century.

But none of them sounded like the raw, untamed rock ‘n’ roll that originally sparked its popularity, even as the Beach Boys emulated the Everly Brothers’ pitch perfect melodies. Instead, they each pointed at three new, separate directions, catching fire from the spark of rock ‘n’ roll, with their own distinctive and unique voices and poised to produce music that would last to this day.

Other icons of rock ‘n’ roll were still years away from their own rightful places in rock.

 “There’s nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks, then when you go to jump school … you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting.” –Jimmy Hendrix in a letter to his father from the Army; Nov. 1962


Jimmy Hendrix, 1961-1962

“He has no interest whatsoever in the Army … It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.” -Hendrix’ platoon sergeant, James C. Spears’ final report on Hendrix.

James Marshall Hendrix greeted 1962 enlisted in the army, and spending the time there trying to figure out how he could get the hell out. On June 29, 1962, Jimmy was granted an honorable discharge on the basis of unsuitability by Captain Gilbert Batchman.

Jim Morrison was studying at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Grateful Dead founders Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh met in 1962 at a bohemian party in San Francisco’s Menlo Park.
Simon and Garfunkel were one of the few with experience, having had a brief career in the Fifties as Tom & Jerry. But in 1962, Paul Simon was at Queens College City University of New York and Art Garfunkel was attending Columbia.

Besides the rising popularity of folk music due in large part to the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez, the pop songs on the radio in 1962 were a blend of doo-wop and sugary pop. Everybody sounded safe, especially the most popular new artists of that year.

 

THE BEACH BOYS


Below: Dennis Wilson; from left, clockwise: Al Jardine, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson

“I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy.” – Brian Wilson

The first big rock ‘n’ roll tsunami since Elvis came in the form of five white guys with angelic voices and a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The Everly Brothers plus three. With exquisite harmonies and leader Brian Wilson’s prolific songwriting ability that improved with every new single release, the Beach Boys would become the biggest rock ‘n’ roll group in the country by 1963, complementing the current twist dance craze with irresistible songs that sparked a surfing craze, then a hot-rod craze. The Beach Boys music epitomized the California teenager to the rest of the world, and they came around just when rock ‘n’ roll desperately needed a jolt of youthful exuberance.

The Beach Boys influence didn’t only just extend to the public with celebrations of the materials of youth, they also served as a profound influence on many of their fellow musicians of the time. Their landmark album and the peak of their recording creativity all came together in their 11th studio album “Pet Sounds” (1966). When Beatle Paul McCartney first heard that album, his competitive edge sharpened.

“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs… Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” –Paul McCartney

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The Beach Boys welcomed 1962 playing on New Year’s Eve at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance Party in Long Beach, California, where they were paid $300 (approximately $2300 in 2016 dollars). Murry Wilson, their manager and father to Brian, Carl and Dennis, booked the gig for them, following Ike & Tina Turner at the show. Their debut single “Surfin”, released just a month before, was already a hit in Southern California, reaching Number Three on the local charts and even managed to enter the national Billboard Pop chart to climb to Number 75, having moved 40,000 copies around the country.

“(My father, Murry Wilson) deserves credit for getting us off the ground … he hounded us mercilessly … [but] also worked hard himself.” – Brian Wilson

Murry was certainly dedicated to the success of his sons’ band. Three days before the New Year’s Eve gig, he bought Brian an electric bass guitar and an amplifier, causing a reorganization within the group. Al Jardine was playing bass at the time, so he moved to rhythm guitar and let Brian play bass. Murry encouraged and believed in them, but his controlling nature got the best of him over the years. He was harboring a buried resentment that he was a failed musician and his children were about to reap the rewards of success and fame that he had always longed for. He was living vicariously through them and attempted to keep control of their careers through manipulation and criticism.


Torrance High School performance; Torrance, Ca., March, 1962

SURFIN’ SAFARI – THE BEACH BOYS

During the first month of the year, fellow Beach Boys Brian Wilson and cousin Mike Love worked laboriously on writing a follow-up single to “Surfin’”. The “Beach Boys” name was selected by the label Murry had signed them to, Candix Records, over their chosen name, the Pendletones. Wilson and Love stuck to keeping the “beach” theme incorporated into their songs in most of their early work, unwittingly inventing California rock as they wrote. Mike was primarily the lyricist, mostly because Brian wasn’t good at lyrics, his mind being constantly engaged in musical ideas that only he could hear.

The fruit of their labor was a song called “Surfin’ Safari”. On February 8th, 1962, and paying for it with their own coin, the Beach Boys recorded a demo version of the song at World-Pacific Studios along with other compositions, including one that Brian had penned alone the year before, loosely based on the Belmonts’ version of the Disney song from “Pinocchio”, “When You Wish Upon A Star”. That song was “Surfer Girl”.

“They’re anglin’ in Laguna in Cerro Azul, they’re kicking out in Dohini too. I tell you surfing’s runnin’ wild, it’s getting bigger every day from Hawaii to the shores of Peru.
Come on baby wait and see, yes I’m gonna take you surfin’, surfin’ safari with me. Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how, come on a safari with me…” Surfin’ Safari – The Beach Boys

Despite their initial local success with “Surfin’”, there was doubt within the group as to the odds that they could make a living being rock stars. A few days after the ”Surfin’ Safari” recording session, Al Jardine left the group, deciding to focus on his studies to become a dentist. But Jardine couldn’t stay away for long and he would occasionally join them in live performances. He was replaced primarily for recording sessions by the Wilsons’ childhood friend and next-door neighbor David Marks, who used to join the the boys in the sing-a-longs Brian would organize and record on his treasured reel-to-reel tape recorder that his dad had bought him for his sixteenth birthday. David would play with them during all of 1962 until Jardine returned to the group the following year, this time for good. Marks wasn’t completely forgotten though; he re-joined the Beach Boys in 1997 to tour with them for two years, and then again in 2012.

They went back into the studios on April 19th, this time with David Marks instead of Jardine, and recorded two new songs, “Lonely Sea” and “409”, as well as re-recording “Surfin’ Safari”, with Mike Love singing lead and Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson all singing backup.

THE LONELY SEA – THE BEACH BOYS

“The Lonely Sea” was written by Gary Usher and Brian Wilson. Usher was happening along the neighborhood one fine evening in 1962 when he heard the Beach Boys practicing in their garage. Brian and Gary soon became fast friends and wrote this song together. Brian insisted they drive to the beach to record the surf on his reel-to-reel tape recorder and incorporate it into the intro of the song.


Gary Usher

It’s a slow, haunting ballad that’s benefited by Brian Wilson’s dreamlike vocalization and the Beach Boys’ harmonies, and it carried elements of other transcendent Beach Boys ballads to come. This one however, with its short spoken monologue in the middle, just misses the mark. It was never released as a single, instead placed as one of the tracks on their second album, “Surfin’ USA” a year after it was recorded, on March 25th, 1963.

It was also showcased in a 1965 beach comedy movie called “The Girls On the Beach” where the Beach Boys perform the tune along with the title song of the movie and “Little Honda”. They were joined in the film with early Sixties pop star Lesley Gore, who’s big hit was “It’s My Party” (1963). Also in the movie were the Crickets, still attempting to exist six years after Buddy Holly’s demise.

Gary Usher and Brian Wilson were to write nine other songs together, including the beautiful “In My Room”, but father Murry didn’t like Usher and constantly harangued Brian, discouraging him from working with the boy and even attempting to persuade Brian to drop him as a friend.

409 – THE BEACH BOYS


1962 Bubbletop Chevy Impala with 409 block engine

Written by Brian Wilson, Gary Usher and Mike Love, “409” is a precursor to their 1964 hit “Fun, Fun, Fun”, with similarities in its structure. It was the B-side of the single release “Surfin’ Safari”, and was also one of the tracks in their debut album of the same name. Because hot-rod cars were synonymous with teenagers and the Southern California beach scene, the song neatly fit into the Beach Boys identity.

“409” sparked a brief hot-rod music craze that would later be picked up by copycat group Jan and Dean with songs like “Drag City” (1963), which sounds a lot like “409”, along with “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Little Old Lady from Pasadena”, both 1964 Top Ten hits. Ronny and the Daytonas also made it into the Pop Top Ten with “Little GTO”, reaching Number Four in 1964 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart.

George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973) was set in 1962. Teenagers then drove their hot rod cars on weekends cruising the scene, and doing the occasional chinese firedrills (getting out of the car at a red light and running around the car in front of you before the light turns green).

Cruising has dwindled over the decades. In 2016, the youth of America are driving less and waiting longer to get their driver’s license. Social media has replaced the need for cruising.

In May of 1962, Candix declared bankruptcy. The record label was having major cash flow problems that Murry didn’t know about. Infuriated, he set out to find another label for his kids’ group. He took the recordings they had done and set out to knock on doors. He went to Dot Records and got rejected. The same thing happened when he contacted Liberty Records. It was the third record label, Capitol, when Murry met a young man who was looking for a new sound.


Capitol Records’ Producer Nik Venet and some of the artists he produced (Bobby Darin’s name is misspelled)

“I signed them to Capitol Records. It was a master purchase. They brought the first record ready-made. They had a minor release earlier on an independent label, a local chart record, I think it was ‘Surfin’.’ The father had brought a master of the second record. He wanted to make a new deal. He wanted to sell the master and was asking $100, a small royalty. He didn’t want very much . . . a very humble man. –Nik Venet, Capitol Records

Young up-and-coming entrepreneur Nik Venet signed the Beach Boys to a seven-year contract with Capitol Records, and released the recordings the group had done on their own of “Surfin’ Safari” with “409” as its B-side on June 4th, 1962. That same week, Billboard wrote about the song and praised Mike Love’s vocals, announcing that the song had hit potential. It managed to crack the Pop Top Twenty, reaching Number 14 on Billboard’s national Pop chart. Because of this initial promising success, Capitol Records approved the recording of an entire album.

“We bought the master. Gave him $300 for it and made him a good royalty deal. He wanted to give us the publishing and I had to advise them to open a small company with the boys, with the group, split it between them and keep the publishing.” –Nik Venet

Nikolas Kostantinos Venetoulis started to work for Capitol Records in 1958 when he was 21 years old as Nik Venet. Besides discovering the Beach Boys, he’s either discovered or recorded many of the biggest artists of the 50s and 60s in a varied array of musical genres, including Nat “King” Cole, Stan Getz, Glen Campbell, Jim Croce, King Curtis, Bobby Darin, the Kingston Trio, The Lettermen, Fred Neil, Ricky Nelson, Lou Rawls, Linda Ronstadt, Sam Cooke, Wayne Newton, Gene Vincent, Bobby Womack and Frank Zappa. He was also Executive Producer of Mel Brooks’ and Carl Reiner’s “2000-Year-Old Man” recording.

SURFIN’ SAFARI – THE ALBUM

“The group is mainly comprised of people from Hawthorne, California, named Wilson … there’s Brian, Dennis, Carl, and their Dad, Murry Wilson, a long-time songwriter who acts as manager for the outfit. Then there’s the boys’ talented cousin, Mike Love … who sings both the lead tenor and deep bass parts in their unusual vocal arrangements. … [and] young David Marks, a neighbor of the Wilsons who plays a driving rhythm guitar. Brian, the oldest of the Wilson boys, is the group’s leader and vocal arranger. Carl is the very accomplished lead guitarist, while brother Dennis sings and plays the drums. None of them, incidentally, had any formal training, but they all grew up in an atmosphere where music was a regular part of their lives.” — excerpt taken from the album’s original liner notes

Beach music, created by the Beach Boys in 1962, quickly became the music teenagers wanted to dance to. It was a totally new sound, a perfect alternative from the doo-wop that had been commanding the airwaves since the mid-Fifties, and best of all, you could still twist to it. It was the soundtrack to many Sixties summers, heard on little transistor radios on the beach. They sounded fresh and exciting, even as the Beach Boys’ early songs also retained the spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll with their Chuck Berry-like guitar licks, sometimes outright stealing entire signatures from the Berry songbook, and their amazing Everly Brothers’ style harmonizing.

Their harmonies were the group’s signature sound and can be directly attributed to Brian Wilson. Their pitch perfect vocals were perfected over the years whenever teenage Brian used his prize possession, his reel-to-reel tape recorder, to record himself with his brothers and other family members singing traditional songs, honing their talent and perfecting their harmonies. They had hit on a sound that would prove timelessly popular, to the point that Beach Boys music is now inextricably woven into American culture.


The photo session for the album cover was taken in Paradise Cove, north of Malibu, by in-house Capitol photographer Ken Veeder

The Beach Boys’ debut album “Surfin’ Safari” was released in October of 1962. Although Venet is credited as producer, Brian had a lot of input in the production, at times producing entire tracks mostly by himself. His contract had stipulated that he would be in charge of production, even though he doesn’t get the credit on the album. Brian was a perfectionist in every detail of production, even down to where it was recorded. Capitol Records recording studios were large and spacious because they were used to recording orchestras, but a small rock ensemble needed a smaller room. He convinced the label to let them record in an outside, smaller studio by saying they would pay for the production. They also gave Capitol all the rights to the songs. What they asked for in return was a higher royalty rate on their record sales. They got it.

The album “Surfin’ Safari” is a heaping helping of the first explosive strains of California rock ‘n’ roll. The surfing theme would snowball over the next three years with groups such as the aforementioned Jan and Dean, but by 1963, everyone was dancing and listening to the new sound coming from California in the form of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” album. It was designed to be a dance party record, with nary a ballad to be heard anywhere, filled with nothing but rock ‘n’ roll dance tracks celebrating the life of a California teenager. It was meant to be heard on the beach while twisting on the sand with friends. The album peaked at Number 32 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart and would stay in the charts for 37 weeks, over eight months.

COUNTY FAIR – THE BEACH BOYS

Brian wrote nine of the twelve songs contained in the album and co-wrote some with Gary and Mike, venturing out of the beach theme for some of them. The second track of the album following “Surfin’ Safari” and the second song Gary and Brian wrote together, was “County Fair”, about a teenage couple going on a date to the fair, complete with a spoken monologue repeated twice in the song where the girl encourages her date at a fair to ring the bell on a high-striker game. It was similar in pace to the title track and would land on the b-side of their next single.

TEN LITTLE INDIANS – THE BEACH BOYS

“Ten Little Indians” is a rock ‘n roll variation of the old children’s song. The song opens with the stereotype war whoops that was perpetuated by countless “cowboys and Indians” Hollywood movies still popular in 1962, then settles into a familiar rock ‘n’ roll beat. The original “Ten Little Indians” can be traced all the way back to 1868, written by Septimus Winner for a minstrel show. The modernized Beach Boys version was written by Brian, Gary and Mike and released as the A-side of their follow-up single to ”Surfin’ Safari”, backed by the aforementioned “County Fair”. The single climbed up to Number 49 in the Billboard pop chart, but was more popular in the Midwest, reaching the Top 30 in Philadelphia, Chicago and Pittsburgh and making it into the Top Ten at Number Nine in Minneapolis.

CHUG A LUG – THE BEACH BOYS

The next track maintains the relentless dancing beat as they sing about chugging down root beer, a sly reference to alcohol while still retaining the teenage innocence that the times demanded be displayed to the general public. Naming the members of the band in the song, including Gary Usher, and double entendres abound in the lyrics.

Here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug-a-lug… Gary likes a girl’s tight black pants, Larry knows he doesn’t stand a chance, Carl says hurry up and order it quick, Dave gets out to chase that chick, Dennis wonders what’s under the hood, a big chrome tach and it sounds real good, I go down to the root beer stand and drink up all that I can…” Chug-a-Lug – The Beach Boys

LITTLE GIRL, (YOU’RE MY LITTLE MISS AMERICA) – THE BEACH BOYS

“Little Girl” is one of three songs from the album not written by any of the Beach Boys. It’s a doo-wop cover song written by Vincent Catalano and Herb Alpert. Sung sweetly by drummer Dennis Wilson, Brian played with the form of the original song quite a bit until he came up with a version that would carry the Beach Boys sound. It’s said that Brian completely produced this track without Venet’s help.

“409”, the b-side to the “Surfin’ Safari” single that the group had recorded on their own, closed the Side A and their very first single, “Surfin’” opened Side B. The next track, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” was an attempt to write about the catch phrases of the day. Other tracks on the second side are “Cuckoo Clock”, a tune who’s refrain would go “cuckoo, cuckoo, go away silly bird”. At this point, it sounded like they were running out of things to write about. The remaining three songs on the album more than made up for it.

SUMMERTIME BLUES – THE BEACH BOYS

The Beach Boys’ version of Gene Vincent’s classic song is a faithful interpretation of the original, played with a good shot of California rock ‘n’ roll, but the next track is one of the highlights of the album.

MOON DAWG – THE BEACH BOYS

“Moon Dawg” is considered the first surf rock song ever recorded, just not by the Beach Boys. Written by singer-songwriter Derry Weaver, he recorded “Moon Dawg” in 1959 with his group the Gamblers. The song was produced by Venet when he worked at World Pacific Records and he recommended it to the Beach Boys to record. It’s only fitting that they did put this down on vinyl because it’s the first of its kind, and passes the torch from the Gamblers, who struggled from 1959 to 1961 trying in vain to enter the Billboard Top Pop 100, to the Beach Boys, the group that would define and popularize the surf guitar sound.

Starting with a steady drum roll courtesy of Dennis, it settles into a rock ‘n’ roll beat accompanied by Brian’s bass. Enter the background ahh-vocals, then a slick sounding Berry-like guitar lick with actual howling as background vocal… and you got yourself a classic, led by a Chuck Berry/Duane Eddy-like guitar twang.

THE SHIFT – THE BEACH BOYS


Famous Sixties super-model Twiggy in a typical Sixties shift dress

A shift was a one-piece, sleeveless woman’s dress without a waist seam, allowing the woman to “shift” around comfortably when wearing it. Still worn today, it originated in the 1920s with the flapper dress designed by Coco Chanel, then became popular again throughout the Sixties with new colorful patterns, evolving into the Sun dress in the Seventies. The Beach Boys’ last track on their first album was called “The Shift” and it celebrated how much they liked to see a girl wearing them.

“Check out the chick with the new dress on (Wearin’ a shift and it looks real fine)
They call it a shift and it comes on strong (Wearin’ a shift and it looks real fine)
When she’s got it on, well she can’t do no wrong (Wearin’ a shift, wearin’ a shift)
(Turns me on now) (get a shift now)” The Shift – The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys sound would grow and develop into more complex music as the Sixties progressed and they took their fans on their musical journey with them. By the end of the Sixties, they were the top selling American band for albums and singles according to Billboard and Nielsen/SoundScan. They’re also the American group with the most Top Forty Billboard Pop hits, having had 36 singles charting from 1962 through 1988, with “Kokomo”, their very last single to enter the Top Forty making it all the way to Number One. Although not written by Brian Wilson, but by John Phillips of the Mamas and the papas, Scott Mackenzie who had a hit with “San Francisco” in 1967, and Mike Love. It was a fitting final bow to America’s rock ‘n’ roll band.

 

BOY SINGERS


GE Transistor radio with top ring handle, Model P-850C, Circa 1962

While the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were pointing towards two different directions in popular music, AM radio in 1962 sounded much the same as it had been since Elvis was drafted into the Army. Doo-wop was still king and so was the heartthrob of the moment. Boy singers were cropping up as fast as the record labels could put them on record and release them to cash in. Here are a few of the more memorable and popular in 1962.

 

GENE PITNEY


Gene Pitney

There was a new type of boy singer sprouting up in 1962. They followed the Roy Orbison vein of romantic pop ballads but with less rock ‘n’ roll and more orchestration. Gone was the rock ‘n’ roll Elvis look-alike, replaced by an old fashioned crooner with a young face. One of the most popular boy singers of that year was Gene Francis Alan Pitney. He charted four singles in the Billboard Pop Top Ten between 1962 and 1964. The torchy ballad “Town Without Pity” would be the song to launch his career. It was also the title song to a 1962 Hollywood movie of the same name with ‘A’ movie star of the day, Kirk Douglas. The song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin along with the rest of the film score, would go on to win a Golden Globe and earn an Academy Award nomination, where Pitney sang it during the 1962 broadcast. The song launched Pitney’s career, climbing up to Number 13 on Billboard’s Pop chart on January 27, 1962.

Pitney would go on to write songs like “Rubber Ball” and “Hello Mary Lou” for fellow boy singers Bobby Vee and Ricky Nelson, respectively, and “He’s A Rebel” for girl group The Crystals, all of them Top Ten hits. As a solo artist, he hit the Top Ten with the single that followed “TWP”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song named after another movie of the day with then-big stars James Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin as Valance. The Pitney song wouldn’t make it into the film because of a contractual dispute, but on June 16, 1962, it climbed to Number Four in the Billboard Pop Top Ten chart without any help from the movie. It’s a country-inflected cowboy song with a galloping tempo, telling the tale like the one in the film. A new sheriff is in town and he aims to stop that rascal Liberty Valance in his tracks, for the sake of all the womenfolk and all that’s good in this country. Catchy song, too.

His next single “Only Love Can Break A Heart” was also a Bacharach-David composition, and became Pitney’s highest charting song, reaching Number Two on November 3rd, 1962. It’s schmaltz-o-rama, sounding a lot like Bobby Vinton, another boy singer of the day that drowns his ballads with lush orchestration. This one is no different. Pitney hits the high notes with passion though, and the song does have a haunting melody that tends to hold one sway.

In 1963, Pitney got three more singles into the Top Twenty, including “24 Hours From Tulsa”, an insanely catchy Bacharach-David tune that should have charted much higher than Number 17 on December 7, 1963. Although it wasn’t a chart hit, Pitney is known most for “24HFT”.

He wouldn’t make it into the Top ten again until October 3rd, 1964 with his Number Four hit, “It Hurts To Be In Love” by Howard Greenfield and Helen Miller, who, like Bacharach and David, also hailed from the “Brlll Building” songwriting stable.

In this recording, Pitney’s musical backing drastically changed. Gone was the lush orchestration, replaced by a rock ‘n’ roll beat and distinct drums. Thanks to the sudden onslaught of new rock ‘n’ roll music ushered in by the Beatles in 1964, the boy crooner was practically gone from the charts. This was Pitney’s way of staying competitive. The song is alright too, complete with a catchy middle that transcends into a satisfying hook and carries the melody along.

Except for one more Top Ten song called “I’m Gonna Be Strong” that reached Number Nine on December 12, 1964, Pitney’s radio listening audience dwindled steadily until he regularly languished closer towards the bottom of the Top 100 for the rest of the Sixties. One of the reasons for his growing scarcity on the radio after 1964 can be found in this particular song. It’s a nice ballad in the Roy Orbison style, starting out spare and soft and ending in a huge crescendo.

Pitney did a lot better over at the UK, Europe and Australia, managing to chart well up until 1974. He continued touring throughout the rest of his career. For his musical contributions and his distinctive singing style, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

On April 5th, 1996, Pitney was found dead of a heart attack in his hotel room after his performance in St. David’s Hall in Cardiff, Wales. He was 66 years old.

 

BOBBY VINTON


Bobby Vinton

At the same time that Gene Pitney was charting with schmaltzy pop ballads, Stanley Robert “Bobby” Vinton was busy buying one thousand copies of his own debut single “Roses Are Red (My Love)”, from the label he was signed to, Epic Records, and then hiring a woman to deliver a copy of the song along with a dozen red roses to every Pop DJ in the area. It apparently worked because by the Summer of 1962, Bobby Vinton had become a pop star. The record made it to Billboard’s Number One on July 14th, as well as reaching Number One in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and The Philippines.

Vinton scored three more classic schmaltz ballads each subsequent year. In 1963, he released “Blue Velvet”, a song originally covered by Tony Bennett in 1951. Vinton’s version remains the most popular, having made it to Billboard Number One spot on September 21, 1963 and staying there for three weeks.

“Blue Velvet” was also the inspiration for David Lynch’s 1986 movie of the same name, and was showcased in the film in a very creepy way.

Bobby Vinton’s third and last Number One hit holds a special distinction. It made it to the top spot on January 4th, 1964 and stayed there for four weeks, only to be toppled by a song called “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by a four man group called the Beatles, newcomers from England, who would literally change and direct rock music through the rest of the Twentieth Century. It was a passing of the torch, from the Establishment-rooted pop heartthrob to a sound brimming with youthful excitement and optimism, complete with British accents.

Vinton’s last Number One was “Mr. Lonely”, reaching the top position on December 12th, 1964. It’s one of his signature songs, delivering the lyrics as if he was about to cry. Coincidentally enough, Gene Pitney also peaked on that same day with his final Top Ten, “I’m Gonna Be Strong”. It was almost as if once the year ends, the old would be ushered out to be replaced by the new.

Vinton had a totally of nine Top Ten Hits including his four Number Ones sporadically through the rest of the Sixties and Seventies along with several other records that managed to enter the Top Forty. He even managed to have a half-hour hit TV series on ABC from 1975 to 1978 called The Bobby Vinton Show. Since then he dabbled in an acting career on several TV dramas and movies, including two John Wayne films.

Bobby Vinton is 81 years old as of 2016 and still lives with his wife who he’s been married to since 1962. His son Robert, one of his five children, followed acting as well and plays his father Bobby in a small role in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990).

 

BRIAN HYLAND

The boy singer of the summer of 1962 was 18-year-old Brian Hyland, who was coming off a Number One song two summers earlier called “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini”. It was a dreadful novelty song, devoid of anything worthwhile to listen to more than once, if that long, but on August 12, 1960, it was the Number One Pop song of the land for a week.

Much of the success of the song has a lot to do with what Hyland is singing about. The bikini had been introduced fourteen years earlier in 1946 by French designer Louis Reard. Reard named his design after the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, where seven nuclear bomb tests were conducted between 1946 and 1958. By 1960, Reard’s bikini was using less fabric than ever before, and Hyland’s novelty song capitalized on the theme to incredulous success.

Hyland’s only other Top Ten Pop hit was a remake of a 1960 song by a group called the Four Voices. The song went nowhere so, liking the melody, Hyland gave it a try. “Sealed With A Kiss” peaked at Number Three Pop on July 28th, 1962 and remains a a truly pretty Sixties “bubble gum pop” classic.

“Though we gotta say goodbye for the summer, baby, I promise you this. I’ll send you all my love every day in a letter, sealed with a kiss.” Sealed With A Kiss – Brian Hyland

Fellow early Sixties boy singer Bobby Vinton recorded “Sealed With A Kiss’ exactly ten years later where it peaked at Number 19 on August 19th, 1972. The song endures today in its timeless melody, which goes to show that even if it comes from pop music knows as “bubble gum”, a genre derided as toothless and “not really rock ‘n’ roll”, then you can make the same argument over the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and countless other ballads where the rock ‘n’ roll beat don’t necessarily dominate or even exist, but the heart of the song is deeply rooted in the spirit of innovation that rock ‘n’ roll forever carries.

 

THE DUKE OF EARL, GENE CHANDLER


Gene Chandler

Whenever they were booked to sing somewhere, the R&B group the Dukays would do vocal exercises to limber up their vocal chords, many times repeating “do, do, do…” Dukays member Eugene Dixon would incorporate fellow member Earl Edwards‘ first name as a joke during their exercises and would start to vocalize, “do, do, do, duke of earl…”

Soon, Dixon and Edwards got together and turned that into a full blown song with the assistance of their mentor Bernice Williams. They recorded it with the Dukays but their record label, Epic, passed on it, offering to release the song from their contract with them so Dixon could record it as a solo artist. Dixon took them up on that offer and launched his solo career after changing his name. Dixon’s favorite actor of the time was Jeff Chandler, so he took the actor’s name and shortened his own first name from Eugene to Gene.

The label released “Duke Of Earl” by Gene Chandler in late 1961, debuted in the Billboard Hot 100 on January 13, 1962 and quickly rose to Number One in the Pop and R&B charts by February 17th. “Duke Of Earl” stayed at Number One for three weeks in the USA and for fifteen weeks in the Top Forty.

Many cover versions of the song have been recorded since. “Duke Of Earl” has been selected by the Grammy and the Rock & Roll Hall of fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It would be one of the last doo-wop songs to make it to the Top spot on the national Pop charts, but it’s deeply rooted in Fifties rock ‘n’ roll and sung with a heartfelt earnest by Chandler. Although Chandler would continue to record and chart singles in the Hot 100, he never made it into the Top Ten or matched the success of his first song.

Gene Chandler would tour off that one song for decades, at one point calling himself after the song that landed him a niche in rock ‘n’ roll history, the Duke of Earl. &8 years old as of 2016, he occasionally still performs in Las Vegas, Chicago and Europe.

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THE MIRACLES – MARY WELLS – MARVIN GAYE – THE TEMPTATIONS – THE SUPREMES – LITTLE STEVIE WONDER – THE MARVELLETTES – FOLK MUSIC AND THE BIRTH OF DYLAN

by Robert Seoane

MOTOWN

1961 was a formative year for Motown Records. Founder Berry Gordy spent much of his time in Detroit’s nightclubs and talent shows in search of young, up and coming musical artists to record. He saw his record label as a Hit Factory and called it such, where rookie artists would be transformed into pop superstars through classes covering everything from etiquette and poise to dancing and vocal training. They were all fitted in suits and gowns and made to look polished and cool. Once they underwent the transformation, they would record incredible songs written by Motown’s stable of brilliant songwriters, and backing up their releases with touring and TV appearances on programs like American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, the only television outlets for rock ‘n’ roll at the time, and performing in synchronized dance moves, perfect harmonies and serious threads.


Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records

Gordy’s Hit Factory would prove to be just that. By 1966, Motown would have three to five singles in the Pop & R&B Top Ten for several weeks at a time and always had new singles climbing the charts getting ready to replace them. By the end of the decade, Motown was not only responsible for many of the most beautiful pop songs of all time, but also developed legendary musical stars that in time would become pop culture icons. Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson… names that will forever be remembered as some of the best musical talent ever produced during the 20th Century.

 

THE MIRACLES

The record label was on sure footing as 1961 dawned, having just had their first Top Ten hit the previous year with The Miracles’ single “Shop Around”, reaching Number Two Pop. It proved to be so popular that it was re-released again in early ’61.

In June of ‘61, the Miracles released their first album, titled “Hi… We’re The Miracles”. It was also the first album ever released by Motown. It received good reviews and was a largely influential work to the formation of the nascent Sixties R&B/Pop Motown sound.

Four other singles were released in 1961 by the Miracles that would also be included in their second and third albums but none of them achieved very high chart success, with only a song called “What’s So Good About Goodbye” being the only one to crack the Top Forty that year, climbing to Number 35. Their best music was still to come.

Despite its lackluster chart success, “WSGAG” served as an inspirational muse to the Beatles, who wrote “Ask Me Why” for their 1963 debut album “Please Please Me”, patterning their composition to the Miracles song.

It was the Miracles’ lead singer Smokey Robinson who wrote “Shop Around” and would continue to write hits for his group throughout the Sixties like “Going to a Go-Go” “The Tracks Of My Tears” “Ooh Baby, Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”, “I Second That Emotion” and “Tears of a Clown”, ultimately recording 26 Top Forty hits with the Miracles through the rest of the decade. As the Motown artist roster grew, Smokey wrote compositions for many of them, such as “My Guy” for Mary Wells, “My Girl”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “Get Ready” for The Temptations, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye and many more. During most of the Sixties, Smokey Robinson was Motown’s main songwriter and would ultimately become the record label’s Vice-President. Berry Gordy’s legacy is inextricably intertwined with the talent of Smokey Robinson.

 

MARY WELLS


Mary Esther Wells

During one of Berry Gordy’s talent seeking forays through Detroit nightclubs, a 17-year-old girl named Mary Esther Wells was performing at the Twenty Grand Club when she spotted the young mogul. Mary was a fan of singer Jackie Wilson and she knew Berry Gordy had written songs for him, like one of Wilson’s biggest hits “Lonely Teardrops”. She also knew that Gordy was apt to drop into the Twenty Grand from time to time, so she had written a song for Wilson that she wanted to present to Gordy for whenever he came in. She must have blessed her luck when she saw him and built up the nerve to approach him and pitch her self-penned song, “Bye Bye Baby”. What she didn’t know was that Berry had severed his ties with Wilson’s manager in order to start his own label, so he no longer wrote for him. But Berry liked her singing, so he suggested that she record it herself for his subsidiary label, Tamla. Gordy was one of the first record moguls who came up with the idea of having more than one record label. DJs of the day would not play too many songs from the same label. To get around that, simply create a new label with another name.

Mary Wells was a smart, talented girl despite her struggle as a child. Born to an absentee father and a mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Mary contracted spinal meningitis when she was two years old and had to struggle with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. Once she recovered, she had to learn to walk again as her sight and hearing were gradually restored. By the time she was 12 years old, Mary joined her mother cleaning homes just to put food on the table.

“Misery is Detroit linoleum in January—with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span.” –Mary Wells

Having graduated from Detroit’s Northwestern High School at age 17, Mary at first wanted to be a scientist, but music was really her first love. She sang in church choirs as a child and as soon as she graduated from high school, found work singing in local Detroit nightclubs like the Twenty Grand Club.

BYE BYE BABY – MARY WELLS

Berry Gordy recorded and produced Mary Wells’ first self-penned song in late 1960, releasing it in time for the Christmas season. He had her perform it in the studio over twenty-six times before he settled on a take he liked. There were only four lines of the lyric she had written so far when she walked into the studio so she expanded on the words as they recorded. It was released in December 1960 and peaked at Number Eight in Billboard’s R&B chart and Number 45 Pop. Being Motown’s first recorded release from a female singer, Wells was to become known as the Queen of Motown.

Her interpretation of “Bye Bye Baby” is a more full-throated performance than her subsequent records. You can practically hear Jackie Wilson blowing the roof off if he had ever recorded it. It’s a classically Sixties-produced rockin’ blues number that oozes feeling and soul. Wells is giving it her all, betraying a slightly rough, scratchy voice, obviously acquired after so many takes, that adds truthful grittiness to the song.

I DON’T WANT TO TAKE A CHANCE – MARY WELLS

Her second single, released in early 1961, did better than her debut, cracking the Top Forty Pop Billboard chart by climbing up to Number 33. Gordy apparently gave her voice a chance to rest this time because gone is the raspiness of “Bye Bye Baby”. It’s not as much of a soulful tune but still retains the authentic Motown sound being developed with each record release. Gordy wrote this one for her along with William “Mickey” Stevenson.

Mickey Stevenson had been with Gordy and Motown since 1959, only months after it was first founded. He headed the A&R Department during Motown’s biggest years until he left to work for MGM in 1967. Among his accomplishments while at Motown was forming an in-house studio band to provide back-up for recordings, dubbing the group of musicians the Funk Brothers. He co-wrote and produced classics such as “Dancing In The Street” for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” for Stevie Wonder, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” for Marvin Gaye and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” for Jimmy Ruffin.

STRANGE LOVE – MARY WELLS

Mary Wells’ third single was also co-written by Stevenson, this time with George Gordy, Berry’s brother. The song fell short of good, being just a slow, plaintive ballad with not a very memorable melody.

Released in mid-1961, it failed to enter the Top One Hundred, frustrating Berry Gordy’s ambitions to make her a star. Focusing on a Number One hit, Gordy asked Smokey to write something for her. They took the rest of 1961 to re-think, re-polish and re-introduce Mary to the public for 1962, with a trio of singles that would lift her into the Top Ten.


Hitsville USA is now the Motown Museum

Hitsville USA was the name of Motown headquarters, housing its administrative offices and recording studios. It was literally a converted house that Gordy bought in 1959, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Within seven years, Gordy will have purchased seven more houses in the neighborhood for his record company.

Gordy and his family lived in the second floor while the first floor was abuzz with young, eager musicians either working or just hanging out in the hopes that they’d have an opportunity to audition or, better yet… record a single. It was opened 22 hours a day, closing from 8 to 10AM for maintenance. Martha Reeves was Motown’s receptionist in 1961. Outside Hitsville USA, in its neatly manicured lawn, artists would lounge around tossing a football, harmonizing or just getting to know one another.

In the meantime, other Motown artists were kept busy recording singles for release throughout 1961 such as Jimmy Ruffin, The Contours and Barrett Strong, who all released songs to middling success that year. Lesser artists were also being groomed that never really took off, with names like the Satintones, Littla Iva & her Band, Henry Lumpkin, Debbie Dean, The Golden Harmoneers, The Twistin’ Kings and Popcorn & the Mohawks. All of them attempted to swim but ultimately sunk into oblivion. There were however, a handful of other artists already being groomed in 1961 that would take Motown up to the highest reaches of success.

 

MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. to Alberta Gay (née Cooper), a mother who was a domestic worker and, Rev. Marvin Gay, Sr., a father who was a total asshole masquerading as a church minister. Being one of six children, Gaye suffered severe beatings from his father from age seven and well into his teen years. As he grew up, his father took to throwing the teenager out of the house, all for the most trivial of reasons. Marvin admitted in later years that he would have killed himself if it wasn’t for his mother’s consolation. Music was also a soothing balm for the boy, singing in the choir of his father’s church since he was three and developing a lasting love for music, ultimately mastering the piano and the drums as a child.

Gaye’s relationship with his father never fully evolved, even during his success as a pop singer. It tragically culminated on April 1st in 1984 when Marvin intervened in an argument between his mother and father. As Marvin consoled his mother, his father shot him to death at point blank range, once in the shoulder and once in the heart. Marvin Gaye would only get to live 44 years.

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After being discharged from the United Sates Air Force at age 17 for not following orders according to his sergeant, young Marvin set out to form a vocal quartet called the Marquees with his best friend Reese Palmer. Marvin didn’t like the military and later admitted to have faked mental illness to get out. Focusing on his love of music through his newly formed group, the Marquees enjoyed relative success working in local clubs throughout the D.C. area with Bo Diddley, ultimately recording their one and only single “Wyatt Earp” for Okeh Records, a fun doo-wop novelty song with all kinds of amusing vocalizations and a pretty tasty little guitar solo.

Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows heard “Wyatt Earp” and hired them based on that recording to replace his group, re-naming them the New Moonglows. They also received steady work as session singers, recording back-up on Chuck Berry classics such as “Back In The USA” and “Almost Grown”.

The group was short-lived however. They disbanded in 1960 and Marvin signed a solo contract with Fuqua. Together, they moved to Detroit where Fuqua was able to get him a job as a session musician at Tri-Phi Records. That December, Fuqua and Gaye were invited to a party at Motown’s Hitsville USA studios. Gaye was introduced to Gordy. As the evening wore on, Gaye loosened up and sat at the piano. Gordy was impressed at his prowess on the keys. Approaching Fuqua, he offered to buy Gaye’s contract from him. In the end, Fuqua astutely agreed to sell Gordy only part of his interest. By the dawn of 1961, Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname, primarily to distance himself from his father, and signed with Motown’s subsidiary, Tamla.

Like all great artists, most of them stubbornly know what they want. Gaye had a distinct vision of how he wanted to be perceived that Berry Gordy did not share. Gaye wanted to be an adult alternative to the youthful market that Motown was catering to. It caused friction between artist and producer, the first of many future battles with the headstrong Marvin. Gaye wanted his debut to sound like a “Frank Sinatra-styled pop album”, pointing to his own heroes, Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles as examples of pop artists with an adult oriented, mellow sound, but Gordy wanted him to record R&B. Ultimately, they compromised and produced “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” as the artist’s LP debut, with an assortment of Broadway and jazz tunes, plus three R&B songs tacked on to appease Gordy. It was released on June 8, 1961 and would be the second album to be ever released by Motown after The Miracles’ debut album just a few days before.

LET YOUR CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE – MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Gaye’s debut single was exactly the style the singer wanted to sing in and Berry Gordy was probably shaking his head in despair. It isn’t a very exciting debut for an artist who would go on to become a musical legend.

Rooted in gospel blues, “LYCBYG” gets under your skin after repeated play, until you realize how incredibly awesome this song really is. It’s a precursor to the Marvin Gaye that would record the smoldering seductions of “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing”.

The record was released on May 25, 1961, a few weeks before the release of the aforementioned album that contained it. It was a local hit in the Detroit area but it didn’t enter any of the U.S. Billboard charts. It would still be a year before Marvin Gaye would start recording the hit singles that would launch his career.

 

THE ORIGIN OF THE TEMPTATIONS

The origin of the five Temptations sprouted from two different vocal groups. All five members of the vocal quintet ultimately met in Detroit, but each of them were born in southern towns before moving to the Motor City at various times of their lives.

OTIS WILLIAMS AND THE SIBERIANS

Otis Miles, Jr
. was born in Texarkana, Kansas to Otis Miles and Hazel Louise Williams. His mother left for Detroit, Michigan to get married, leaving her son behind to be raised by both his grandmothers. When Otis was ten, Hazel asked for her son to come live with her and his stepfather in Detroit, which he unhesitatingly agreed to do. As he grew up there, Otis developed an interest in music and singing, until during his high school days he decided to form a musical group with himself as the lead singer. He took his mother’s maiden name for his stage name, enlisted his high school mates Elbridge “Al” Bryant and baritone Melvin Franklin and called his group Otis Williams and the Siberians. Together, they developed their act and sang at high school dances, talent shows and street corners.

OTIS WILLIAMS AND THE DISTANTS, THE PRIMES AND THE PRIMETTES

During one particular talent show they were competing in, after their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews changed their name to Otis Williams and the Distants, one of their competitors were a new musical trio that had recently arrived into Detroit from Birmingham, Alabama. They were Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Kell Osborne, also known as the Primes. With them were Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diane Ross, who also went by Diana, as it was mistakenly written that way on her birth certificate. That trio would go on to become one of the biggest girl groups of all time as the Supremes. They had been discovered by Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins after having met them through Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who both had met Ballard in 1958. Jenkins envisioned them as a sister group to the Primes so he called them the Primettes.

Otis Williams observed the Primes onstage that night and was blown away by Eddie’s tenor vocal and the precision dancing of Paul Williams and Kell Osborne as they sang back-up. Otis realized just by watching them that his own group could use more of the Primes’ professional polish.

The musical bug bit both Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks when they were fifteen and they formed a doo-wop quartet in 1955 called the Cavaliers with two other schoolmates, Kell Osborne and Willy Waller. Waller left the group in 1957, turning the Cavaliers into a trio. The three left Birmingham in 1958 for Cleveland, Ohio to make it in the music business. There, they met their future manager, Milton Jenkins, who convinced them to move to Detroit. Once they moved, Jenkins suggested they change their name to the Primes.

It was during one of those talent shows in Detroit when, freshly dropped by their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews, Otis Williams and the Distants got their golden opportunity. Both Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were in attendance the night they performed. After the show, Otis managed to meet Gordy, who told him he had enjoyed their performance and agreed to hear them audition at Motown. Otis and Melvin Franklin were ecstatic, but two other members, Mooch Harrell and Richard Street, wanted to leave the group, particularly because when Matthews dropped them, she also kept their name, so they no longer had permission to use it. The two saw it as the end of their union and left Williams, Franklin and Al Bryant in need of some new members just before the Motown audition.

A stroke of luck towards the forming of a future super group occurred when the Primes broke up at around the same time Otis and his group were splintering. Kell Osborne had decided to pack it in and return to Birmingham. Eddie and Paul now found themselves a member short. Williams and Franklin heard of their break up and contacted Kendricks, asking him if he would like to join their still-unnamed group. Eddie agreed, but under the condition that Paul Williams could also join them. The newly formed group now consisted of Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin, formerly of the Distants, with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, formerly of the Primes. Together, they renamed themselves the Elgins.

THE ELGINS

The Elgins’ audition was scheduled for March, 1961. The five had been rehearsing every day for that moment since they agreed to join forces, incorporating Paul Williams’ unique dance moves into their performance, complete with hand gestures to convey the lyrics. Their dancing style would become a precursor to the moves of many subsequent artists, and not just with Motown. In this classic style, the lead singer is up front and the two or three background vocalists are either to the lead’s right or left, doing a carefully choreographed set of moves as they sing background. Sometimes they all stood shoulder to shoulder, their hands crossed behind them, and suddenly go into a synchronized choreography. Their moves were thrilling, sexy, witty and precise.

THE TEMPTATIONS

After the audition, Gordy readily agreed to sign them to a record contract for one of his Motown labels, Miracle Records. There was one minor problem, however. Gordy had discovered that the name “Elgins” was already being used by another local group. They were told to come up with a new name, so the five sat down on the front porch steps of Hitsville USA to think up a new name for themselves. After a while, they got up and returned inside, going over to Gordy’s office to announce the name for their group, The Temptations.

OH. MOTHER OF MINE – THE TEMPTATIONS

The quintet’s debut single was written by Otis Williams and Motown songwriter Mickey Robinson. Otis agreed to give the song to Paul Williams to sing lead while tenor Eddie Kendricks handled the bridge. The back-up musicians were Motown’s session band, the Funk Brothers. The song showcased their vocal chops but not much more. It was released in the dead of summer, July 1961, and couldn’t manage to crack Billboard’s Hot 100.

CHECK YOURSELF – THE TEMPTATIONS

Their second single release didn’t do much better. This one was co-written by Berry Gordy with Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Al Bryant. The song starts like the “Ten Commandments of Love”, where one of the band members, in this case Franklin, speaks the line that Otis Williams echoes singing it. It then shifts into a a rumba-tinged pop beat with Paul Williams carrying the rest of the tune.

“Check Yourself” was released on November 7, 1961 and also suffered from poor sales. Gordy decided to dissolve the short-lived Miracle record label he had launched as a result. It seems that the public was confusing the name of the label with the group, the Miracles. Also, their slogan, “If it’s a hit, it’s a Miracle” didn’t help sales any.

By the end of 1961, Gordy will have founded another label imprint, Gordy Records, to release songs by the Temptations and other groups. Gordy’s knack for opening numerous subsidiary labels was a clever one indeed. It gave his groups an easier conduit into the public radio waves. By 1962, the Temptations would start to place records on the pop and R&B Top Forty charts, thanks largely to Gordy’s different labels. It was a positive step forward into their illustrious career.

The Temptations enjoyed moments of fame and success that not many people ever get to experience. But when you aim high, the fall also becomes much greater and the Temptations were not immune to this. The group splintered slowly over the years. Al Bryant quit in 1964, right before they got their first Top Ten hit, and was replaced with David Ruffin. Ruffin got too big for his britches, wanting lead billing over the rest of the Temptations, and was ultimately fired in 1968 for missing too many dates due to his growing drug addiction. He would later die of a cocaine overdose at age fifty in 1991. Paul Williams succumbed to alcoholism due to the depression he developed because of having sickle-cell anemia. His drinking ultimately led to his inability to perform. He was replaced by Richard Street in 1971 but still got paid his one-fifth share of the earnings. Two years later, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-four following an argument with his girlfriend, and was found with a shot to the head in his car parked in a back alley. Both Melvin Franklin and Eddie Kendricks died at the age of fifty-two; the former battled health problems most of his life until February 17, 1995, when he suffered a series of seizures that left him in a coma, only to die six days later. The latter had succumbed to cancer on October 5th, 1992.

As of the writing of this in 2016, 74-year-old Otis Williams remains the only surviving member of the original Temptations.

But at the pinnacle of their career, they left us with unforgettable music like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “(You Know) I’m Losing You”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Cloud Nine”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” with the Supremes, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Can’t Get Next To You”, “Ball Of Confusion”, “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”; songs that will live on for decades, if not centuries to come, and video recordings of their TV performances that will forever serve as a historic glimpse into the sound of Sixties R&B, defined in large part by Motown.

THE SUPREMES

Florence Glenda Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ernestine Earle Ross, who went by the name Diane, the name her mother intended to give her at birth until a typo on her birth certificate changed that notion, all grew up together in the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, owned by the city and built for “working poor” families, requiring at least one parent be employed in order to live there.

Each of the girls had good singing voices. Flo took vocal lessons while going to Northeastern High School. She met fellow schoolmate Mary, who had a lower vocal range than the other two, at the school’s talent show where they became good friends. Mary in turn knew Diane, who went to Cass Technical High School, a college preparatory charter school that specialized in design. Young Diane was all set on becoming a fashion designer after graduation, indifferent to her vocal talent, a voice that would stop Berry Gordy on his tracks when the trio came over to audition for Motown.

The career of the Supremes was closely intertwined with that of the Temptations during the beginning of their careers. They practically opened and closed the decade of the Sixties together with multiple hits as well. It all started in 1958 when fifteen-year-old Florence Ballard met Temptations’ members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams when they were still known as the Primes. The Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins had heard Flo and Paul Williams’ girlfriend, Betty McGlown, sing. It inspired him to form a sister band for the Primes. In 1959, Flo enlisted her friend Mary. Both Paul Williams and Mary knew Diane so she was also asked to join. Paul’s girlfriend Betty rounded out the group to a quartet and Jenkins dubbed them the Primettes.

The Primettes would perform Ray Charles and Drifters songs at talent shows and sock hops, all of them taking turns as lead singer, as well as joining the Primes for several numbers. Coincidentally enough, Diane had grown up next door to Smokey Robinson before moving to the projects, on Belmont Road in the North End section of Detroit near Highland Park. Diane approached Smokey for the Primettes and invited him to a talent show in Winslow, Ontario so he could hear them and then decide whether they should audition for Motown. Sure enough, after the performance Smokey arranged an audition with Gordy for the girls to sing a capella.

“All three girls had qualities so unique I’d often think: ‘If they could make us feel the way we do, what could they do to the world at large?’ –“To Be Loved”, Berry Gordy’s autobiography

Berry was impressed with their harmonies but most of all with Diane’s voice. On the day of their audition in early 1960, the girls were practicing while they waited for his arrival. Diane was singing lead on “There Goes My Baby” when Berry heard them. Her voice “stopped him on his tracks” as he put it. Gordy found Diane’s voice to have crossover potential. To make sure, he asked the girls to sing it again. After they finished, Gordy asked their age. Each of them were fifteen except for Betty who was two years older. Gordy didn’t like the idea of working with minors so he asked them to come back when they graduated high school.

TEARS OF SORROW/PRETTY BABY – THE PRIMETTES

Undaunted, they managed to record a single for a tiny, newly formed record label called Lupine Records in March 1960. Unfortunately, the single that contained “Tears of Sorrow” and “Pretty Baby” as its b-side went nowhere on the charts.

Released in August 1960, Diane takes the lead vocal duties on the A-side for the Primettes’ first and only record single. Flo takes over as lead vocalist for the b-side, “Pretty Baby”. The songs have nothing special about them, but Diane, Flo and Mary remained committed to succeed. Betty McGlown however, left the group after the single’s dismal debut, having broken up with Paul Williams and becoming engaged to someone else, looking forward to life as a housewife. She was soon replaced by Barbara Martin.

Determined to get Gordy to at least let them record background vocals or even hand claps for other artists’ recordings, the four girls would camp out every day after school on the lawn of Hitsville U.S.A. Eventually, they got in through the door and did background work for singles by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. The girls became endearing to Gordy, who appreciated not only their eagerness to record but also their lovely voices. On January 15, 1961, Gordy relented despite their young age and offered the girls a recording contract, but first he insisted that they change the name of their group. He gave Flo, the unofficial leader of the group, a list of names to choose from; names like the Darleens, the Sweet Ps and the Melodees. She chose the Supremes. Diane didn’t like the name at first because she thought it sounded too much like a moniker for a male singing group, but she ultimately agreed.

I WANT A GUY – THE SUPREMES

Recorded in December of 1960 and released on March 9th, 1961, the girls’ first single as the Supremes was written by Berry Gordy and Motown songwriters Freddie Gorman and Eddie Holland. Gorman was going to enjoy success as a songwriter with another single released later that year recorded by the Marvellettes called “Please Mr. Postman”. This song would also be the first of many singles written for the Supremes by Eddie Holland and his future songwriting team, his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier. Still going by the name Diane Ross, she once again takes over the lead vocals.

Much to their disappointment, this record also did not enter the Billboard chart. Just like their previous release as the Primettes, the song also has an old-fashioned doo-wop sound to it, rooted more in the Fifties than offering something different for the new decade.

BUTTERED POPCORN – THE SUPREMES

Gordy was willing to experiment with the group in order to find the formula that would take them over the top, so he took a few months to write the next song for them. Co-written with Motown songwriter Barney Ales, “Buttered Popcorn”, had a thinly disguised allusion to sex running through the lyrics

“And I asked him, ‘What was happenin’ in the world today?’ He said, “more butter, more butter, more butter, more”. My baby likes (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn), oh yeah, oh he likes it salty (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn) and greasy and sticky and gooey (Buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn)…” Buttered Popcorn – The Supremes

Berry Gordy would present all the recordings that were made each week by their various artists and run them through the Quality Control department. There, they would take a vote as to which songs they thought would be a success. “Buttered Popcorn” received a resounding thumbs-up from Quality Control, but Gordy wasn’t convinced, mainly because he felt that Florence Ballard, who sings the lead in this single for the first and only time in the trio’s history, had a voice that was too soulful for crossover appeal, unlike Diane’s voice, that couldn’t be pegged as coming from an African-American. Gordy wanted to release a song written by Smokey Robinson called “Who’s Loving You”, sung by Diane, as the A-side of the single instead.

 

 

“Who’s Loving You” had already been recorded by Robinson with his group the Miracles the previous year, and would also be recorded not only by the Supremes but also the Temptations and many more non-Motown artists over the years, from Terence Trent Darby to Michael Bublé to the Jackson Five who had the most success with it. Twelve-year-old singer Shaheen Jafargholi also performed the song at Michael Jackson’s public memorial service in July 2009. It’s a slow doo-wop ballad with a nice enough melody but didn’t necessarily have an unforgettable appeal. As Berry Gordy would ask in many Quality Control meetings when rating a new recording: “If you were on your last dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?” Personally, after listening to this song, I’ll go for a roast beef and swiss on whole wheat.

Berry Gordy was certainly correct about the appeal of Ross’ voice to the crossover public, namely the white folks. As for whether “Who’s Loving You” should have been the A-side of the single instead of “Buttered Popcorn” is a matter of taste. Personally, I side with the guys in Quality Control. Yes, Flo Ballard’s voice is distinctly African-American but it’s also a strong and soulfully melodic one, the melody is instantly catchy and the lyrics are wickedly fun. Soon, this resistance against anything non-white from the general (white) public would erode and disappear, but in 1961, music considered black, race or R&B still had a hard time finding wide national airplay. Popular culture was still years away from accepting a juggernaut voice like Aretha Franklin. Before rock ‘n’ roll there was Ella Fitzgerald who’s perfect voice could not be ignored, but that was pretty much about it when it came to black female pop singers, although the general public didn’t seem to mind male soul vocals as much with Louis Armstrong in the 20s and 30s, Nat “King” Cole in the 40s and 50s and the breakthrough appeal of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” in 1955. But instead of waiting for society to come around, Gordy was smart enough to get in sneakily, not necessarily fooling the public but taking the potential discrimination out of the song by not calling attention to the ethnicity of the voice and focusing on the melody instead. In the long run, it worked.

In the end, Gordy and the QC Department agreed to release the Supremes’ second single as a double A side. What ensued was a disaster of confusing proportions that in the end was all for naught.

Local radio stations in Detroit played both sides of the single regularly, but upon listening to “Buttered Popcorn” on a little tinny AM transistor or car radio (state-of-the-art audio technology for 1961), it sounded muddy. They quickly withdrew the single and re-recorded “BP” only to re-release it. Fortunately, the radio stations continued giving it airplay in Detroit, but it wasn’t taking off nationally. Part of the problem was that the re-released, better recorded version of “Buttered Popcorn” wasn’t being promoted. Someone had pointed out the double entendre of the lyrics and Gordy used this as a reason to promote the b-side instead. In the end, the single never cracked any of the Billboard charts, despite it being a regional hit in various parts of the country.

Two failed singles were a major frustration for Gordy, who believed correctly that these girls had the potential to deliver mega-hits. He made some key changes, starting with Diane’s name. Gordy felt Diana, the name that was incorrectly written on her birth certificate, was a better stage name. He also made the decision to make her the lead singer and relegate the other three to back-up on single releases. This undoubtedly irked the other three, so Gordy promised them that they would have songs to sing lead on their record albums. They would also be given the opportunity to sing lead on a few tunes whenever they were performing a show live.

It would be two long years before they started to even crack the Top Forty. By December of 1961, they were recording tracks for their debut album “Meet The Supremes”, that wouldn’t be released until the end of ’62. Barbara Martin quit after they recorded their next single in early ‘62, leaving the group down to a trio for the rest of their career. It wouldn’t be until 1964 when they finally reached the coveted Number One Pop position with the timeless “Where Did Our Love Go”, which sold two million copies upon its release. Soon, they would be churning out incredible hit after incredible hit, “Baby Love”, Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, “Someday We’ll Be Together”, all written by the songwriting partnership of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They had found their formula.

Today, they are considered the best girl group of all time. Girl groups poured out in the dozens over the decades after the Supremes, culminating with Destiny’s Child, the only other female vocal group worthy of their legacy. During the Sixties, the Supremes were the most popular group in the world after the Beatles and America’s favorite vocal group, with twelve Number One Pop singles, 33 singles in the Pop Top Forty, twelve Top Ten Pop and Five Number One albums. Once they hit Number One with “Where did Our Love Go”, they would go on to hit the top spot four more times in a row with each single release, a record for consecutive Number Ones by an American vocal group. This was an insurmountable feat in the wake of the British Invasion led by the Beatles, also occurring in ’64. The Supremes offered an alternative to British rock ‘n’ roll that fit a huge niche.

Berry Gordy always gave special attention to the Supremes throughout their career. Although they went through the Motown Process, receiving instructions in dance, etiquette and singing, they had already arrived into the Motown fold with their own outfits and dance moves, having been touring and singing as the Primettes already. Rumors abounded over the years suggesting a dalliance between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, a notion that would never be acknowledged until 1994 in Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved”, where he first admits publicly that Ross’ eldest daughter Rhonda is his.

The Supremes remained the same trio until 1967, when Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Flo, who started the trio, had become increasingly resentful at Gordy for having made Diana Ross the main star, and the last straw was when Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ballard resorted to drink and her alcoholism ultimately overcame her, becoming increasingly unreliable, missing live performances or performing drunkenly. Her final appearance live with the Supremes occurred when she unbuttoned her outfit and exposed her stomach to the crowd. She was released by Motown in 1968, married her boyfriend and recorded several unsuccessful albums. On February 20, 1976, she entered the hospital complaining of numbness in her extremities. She died the next morning of coronary thrombosis. Florence Ballard was thirty-two years old.

Intent on making Diana Ross not just a musical artist but a film star as well, she eventually left the Supremes in 1970 and basically sounded the group’s death knell. Ross continued a very successful solo career that extended into the Eighties with hit single after hit single. She also made popular films like “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), where she plays Billie Holliday, and “Mahogany” (1975), in which she sings the title song, taking the single to Number One and receiving an Academy Award nomination.

Mary Wilson continued with the Supremes with Birdsong and Ross’ replacement, Jean Terrell. They had managed to chart seven Top Forty singles and two Top Tens between 1970 and 1973 after Ross’ departure. Mary was now sharing lead vocals with Terrell on some of the songs sung by Diana. But the remaining two positions in the Supremes became a revolving door, with both Birdsong and Terrell leaving and Birdsong temporarily re-joining the group. Despite the group’s waning success, their tours still performed to large crowds, largely due to Mary Wilson being the only remaining original Supreme. Wilson left the group in 1977. After some deliberation about considering a replacement, the Supremes officially disbanded.

Mary Wilson and Diana Ross are still alive as of this writing in 2016, both of them 72 years old. Tragedy befell Wilson in 1994 when she was injured in a car accident where her 14-year-old son Rafael was killed.

Diana Ross continues touring. In 2016 she will be taking her In The Name Of Love tour through the United States and Canada. She received her first ever Grammy Award in 2012 for Lifetime Achievement.

 

LITTLE STEVIE WONDER

Lula Mae Hardaway’s baby wanted to be born already, even though he was still six weeks away from his expected delivery. Upon birth, he was immediately placed in an oxygen-rich incubator, but to the infant’s tragic detriment, the environment caused the retinas of both his eyes to detach. It was a condition known as retinopathy of pre-maturity, and it meant permanent blindness.

Being born blind and poor pretty much limits one’s options in life, and being black in 20th century America, Saginaw, Michigan to be exact, didn’t help either. Fortunately for Stevland Hardaway Judkins however, besides being born blind, he was also born a musical genius.

Stevie was raised in a loving family and a devoted mother who was wise enough to allow his son to pursue his musical abilities to its limits, teaching him to refuse to allow his blindness to be an obstacle from anything. It’s been said that Stevie’s musical genius has had much to do with his blindness because it forced him to develop keener aural abilities than the average person in order to help him hear his way through the world. That may have something to do with the music of his mind. It seems to come from a mental landscape of his inner world, filled with sounds and rhythms nobody else hears until he distills them into great songs. His hits are many, too numerous to only mention a few because not mentioning others would be an injustice.

When Stevland was four years old, his mother left his father, Calvin Judkins, and moved her six children to Detroit. Lulu detected a good voice in four-year-old Stevie and had him sing at church. As he grew up, he developed an interest and talent in the harmonica, drums and piano. Regardless of whether his blindness caused him to become more finely attuned to sound or not, it was evident to Lulu that little Stevie was a born musician. As a child, he would play his harmonica and sing on street corners with a friend named John.

One of 11-year-old Stevie’s other friends during that time in 1961 was a boy who lived in the neighborhood around his age named Gerald White. White would invite Stevie to his home where the wonder boy would play his harmonica to entertain Gerald and his siblings. Gerald’s uncle Ronnie White, who happened to be co-founder of the group the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, was around one evening when little Stevie was over. When Ronnie heard the kid blowing on his harp, he was blown away. Ronnie and Smokey used to sing together as 11-year-olds, so Ronnie related to children with musical abilities. Without giving it another thought, Ronnie set up a meeting with Berry Gordy for Stevie and his mother at Motown.

Also present at the audition with Gordy was Clarence Paul, a man who would not only become Stevie’s producer during his teenage years, but also the man who gave him his stage name. As Gordy beheld the boy’s voice and versatility on percussion, he appreciated the talent, but was not yet bowled over. But when Stevie whipped out his harmonica and started to wail on it, Gordy thought twice. He produced a recording contract to Motown subsidiary Tamla Records for him that very day. In the contract, they stipulated that they would hold all the earnings of future recordings in a trust until he became 21 years old. In the meantime, he and his mother Lulu’s living expenses would be paid in full until then. Stevie would also receive a weekly stipend of $2.50, which comes to just under twenty bucks in 2016.

Everyone that day agreed that little Stevie was a wonder. Clarence Paul picked up on that and suggested he should be billed from then on as Little Stevie Wonder.

 

THE MARVELETTES

“They never really respected us. Berry Gordy lost the Marvelette name in a gambling game once, that’s how much they cared about us. We were just nothing to them.” -Gladys Horton

As 1961, drew to a close, Motown had still not come out with a Number One Pop song, and it wasn’t because Gordy wasn’t hard at work trying to find the right sound for each of his labels’ acquisitions. He could never have realized back then that with just the signing of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder, fame and fortune were around the corner, and so was the eternal legacy of timeless music Motown would deliver to the world. But in 1961, it was all still a big struggle. Motown was busy at work producing albums for the Supremes and little Stevie as well as trying to find the right songs for the Temptations and Gaye, among all their other lesser known artists. One of them was another girl group they had developed who surprised everyone at Motown as 1961 drew to a close by delivering the label’s second Number One single.

The first girl group to ever hit Number One in Billboard’s Pop chart were the Shirelles, who scored with Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in January of 1961, so it’s rather fitting that Motown would deliver the second girl group to hit Number One in December, bookending the year with two classic songs, the latter of which was re-recorded by the Beatles, thereby legitimatizing the Motown sound as rock ‘n’ roll.

Like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the Marvellettes began as high school girls getting together to form a vocal group. The Shirelles met in Passaic High School in New Jersey, most of the Supremes formed at Northeastern High School in Detroit, and the Marvelletes all went to Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb just west of Detroit. Unlike the previous two girl group peers who never had more than four members initially, the Marvelletes began as a quintet.

Fifteen-year-old Gladys Horton was a member of Inkster High’s glee club in the fall of 1960 when she came up with the inspiration to form a girl group within the club. She approached four other members she had become friendly with, sixteen-year-olds Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and recently graduated, seventeen-year-old Georgia Dobbins.

The first item on their agenda was to choose a name for themselves. After long deliberation and thought on the notion, they realized that first they needed to learn how to sing before worrying about a name, so they decided to call themselves the Casinyets because as they realized at the time, they can’t sing yet.

Fate intervened at the dawn of 1961 when Inkster High threw a talent show and the first three prizes were an audition at Motown Records. After having rehearsed their singing abilities for the last few month, the Casinyets mustered enough confidence to rename themselves the Marvels and signed up. They sang songs by the Chantels and the Shirelles and ultimately won, although there’s speculation as to where they placed. Gladys Horton insists they won first prize. Regardless, getting an audition at Motown was a big deal indeed.

“Anyway we won first prize, but until we got to Motown, it still hadn’t reached my mind how important it was. We met Berry Gordy and the Miracles, and it was then I realized the potential of this meeting. We began to picture ourselves like the Supremes, who were the company’s girl group.” -Gladys Horton

For some reason, the Marvellettes received short shrift from the record label since the get-go. On April 1961, they met with songwriters Brian Holland and Robert Bateman to sing some of their repertoire to them, including the Chantels’ “He’s Gone” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On A Sunday”. Holland and Bateman liked them enough to schedule a second audition with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. They were lauded for their vocal abilities, but Gordy told them they needed to come up with original material, which was a bit surprising since Motown had a stable of songwriters dedicated to doing just that for their other artists. Nevertheless, Georgia Dobbins in particular, dedicated herself to coming back with a hit song. She approached a songwriting friend by the name of William Garnett for help.

Garnett played her an unfinished blues song he was writing called “Please Mr. Postman”, about a forlorn lover waiting for the mail to come to see if his loved one had sent him a letter yet. Garnett gave Dobbins the song under the condition that his name appear on the credits should it be recorded. Dobbins, having never written a song before, took it and reworked it from blues to teenage doo-wop, then changed the lyrics from a male narrator to a female. Dobbins then presented fellow Marvellette Gladys Horton with a rock ‘n’ roll classic.

PLEASE MR. POSTMAN – THE MARVELETTES

Fate intervened once again when Dobbins dropped from the group due to family pressure. Her mother was ill and her father berated her for not being at her side, pursuing a silly career singing instead and urging her to quit. She caved in and left the group. Looking back to their fellow classmates, the girls contacted recent Inkster graduate Wanda Young, who became a permanent member of the band by the time they had to present their song to Motown.

Upon listening to the composition, Gordy accepted them into the Motown family but first changed their names from the Marvels to the Marvellettes. He then took the song and gave it to Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Fred Gorman, who moonlighted as a mailman coincidentally enough, to re-work it yet again.

“I’ve been standin’ here waitin’ Mister Postman so patiently for just a card, or just a letter, sayin’ he’s returnin’ home to me… (Mister Postman) Mister Postman, look and see… (Oh yeah) if there’s a letter in your bag for me… (Please, Please Mister Postman) why’s it takin’ such a long time… (Oh yeah) for me to hear from that boy of mine –Please Mr. Postman – The Marvellettes

By the time they appeared in this TV segment in 1965, the Marvellettes had gone from a quintet to a girl group trio.

Gladys Horton sings lead on this song with the Motown band the Funk Brothers backing the trio and with Marvin Gaye on drums. It was recorded in July of 1961 and released on August 21st. By that December, they became Motown’s first artists to reach the coveted Number One Spot on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts.

Gordy was pleasantly surprised, not expecting the first single from this new group to make it all the way to the top. The Supremes especially took the Marvellettes’ success to heart because they were the girl group who were expected to come out with the hits. A rivalry soon emerged between them, but the Supremes needn’t had worried. Holland-Dozier-Holland had written “Baby Love” for the Marvellettes, but incredibly enough Gladys Horton turned it down, so the songwriting team gave their composition to the Supremes instead in 1964. It shot up the charts just like “Where Did Our Love Go” and became the girls’ second Number One single in a row, while the Marvellettes’ output throughout the rest of the Sixties was to pale in comparison.

“The first number one came too easy for us. We weren’t pretty city girls from the projects like Motown’s other girl group, the Supremes. We had no experience of life at all. We were naive little country girls, and we didn’t know how to handle the situation. We had no idea how to behave, we didn’t know what to wear. we didn’t even know how to put make up. We learnt as we went along, of course, but it was very hard at first.”   -Gladys Horton

The Beatles, still three years away from global success as the most influential rock band of all time, knew a good song when they heard one and dug into the Motown treasure chest of hits more than once to record for their second album. Besides “Please Mr. Postman”, the group also recorded Barrett Strong’s “Money” and Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” all for their second British release, “With The Beatles” in late 1963. Listening to them shows you how much muscle these R&B songs truly have and should prove once and for all that R&B is synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, like siblings, simply because they were both born from the blues.

The Marvellettes’ subsequent releases through the rest of the Sixties were hit or miss, mostly misses. Riding on the crest of their sudden success with their first and only Number One, they rush recorded the “Please Mr. Postman” album and released it on November 20th, 1961, but it didn’t even enter Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. The cover was a drawing of a mailbox with cobwebs and a tiny mailman walking towards it. The Marvellettes were nowhere to be seen on the cover art simply because it wasn’t customary to showcase black rock ‘n’ roll artists until 1963. Next, Gordy decided to pair them up with the latest dance craze of the time, the Twist, so the follow-up single to “Please Mr. Postman” was “Twistin’ Postman”.

TWISTIN’ POSTMAN – THE MARVELLETTES

“Sitting by the window, feeling sad and blue, all because I haven’t heard from you , and then my mama said ‘Look! Look! Here comes the postman twistin’ down the avenue! He’s got a letter in his hand and I know it has to be for you.’ He’s got the mail sack twisted ’round his back ‘cause he’s a twistin’ postman…” Twistin’ Postman – The Marvellettes

The concept was a lame attempt to cash in on a dance craze, but the beat is what mattered in early rock ‘n’ roll, so one can forgive this really bad idea for a song as long as you can dance to it. That’s why we had disco.

Released on December 6, 1961, “Twistin’ Postman’s” danceable beat managed to propel it into the Top 40, landing at Number 34 Pop and Number 13 R&B; not a very exciting follow-up to a Number One song. As in PMP, Gladys Horton sang lead.

Aside from constant touring, which was where the real money was being made, the Marvellettes released two albums in 1962 but without chart success. They did manage two Top Twenty hits that year however; “Playboy” reaching Number Seven Pop and Four R&B, and “Beechwood 4-5789” rose up to Number 17 Pop and Seven R&B. The latter was written by Marvin Gaye, who also worked on the album as percussionist and producer along with Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Mickey Stevenson. Its title was derived from the fact that back in those days of rotary phones, every number had a telephone exchange name that corresponded with the first two letters of that name. In this case, Beechwood’s was BE, so the number dialed would be 234-5789.

The Marvellettes would not enter the Top Ten again for another five long years until they made a minor comeback in 1966 with Smokey Robinson’s “Don’t Mess With Bill”, reaching Number Seven Pop and Number Three R&B. Their line-up had changed to a trio by 1965. Juanita Clark could no longer handle the constant touring. Georgeanna Tillman developed leukemia and lupus.

“There was pressure on the group. Juanita had a nervous breakdown and had to leave. She had made a silly remark on Dick Clark’s show and everyone in the company was constantly teasing her about it. She really took it to heart and became very depressed. She was only 16. Georgeanna had to leave due to ill health. She was always very tired; there was something wrong with her and the doctor advised her to get off the road.” -Gladys Horton

Their sound had changed drastically in that time. Gone was the doo-wop of their early hits, replaced with a smoother soul resembling the output Motown was delivering at the time with the Supremes, Temptations and the Four Tops. It had a nice groove sung by Wanda Young, who had a more laid-back voice than Gladys Horton.

Although they still managed to score a couple more Top Twenty hits in 1967, the Marvellettes pretty much ended when lead singer and leader of the group Gladys Horton left to get married, replaced by Anne Bogan. They released a single in 1978 that didn’t crack the Top Forty and after a handful of other unnoticed releases up until 1971, faded away into pop obscurity. Georganna was the first to go at age 35 in 1980 when she finally succumbed to her illness, and Gladys died at age 65 in 2011 after a series of strokes and declining health. As of this writing in 2016, the other three original members, Katherine Anderson, Wanda Rogers and Juanita Cowart remain alive, as does Horton’s replacement Ann Bogan and the original writer of their biggest hit, Georgia Dobbins.

 

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THE BEATLES – LEE DORSEY – THE BEACH BOYS – KEITH MEETS MICK

by Robert Seoane

THE BEATLES


The Beatles in 1961; with Paul McCartney trying to look tough, John Lennon, Pete Best and George Harrison

 

BEING A SHORT DIVERSION ON THE DUBIOUS ORIGINS OF BEATLES

“Once upon a time there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type. When they were together, they all wondered what for after all, what for? So all of a sudden they all grew guitars and formed a noise. Funnily enough, no one was interested, least of all the three little men. Soooo…. on discovering a fourth little even littler man called Stuart Sutcliffe running about them, they said, quote ‘Sonny get a bass guitar and you will be alright,’ and he did, but he wasn’t alright because he couldn’t play it. So they sat on him with comfort till he could play. Still there was no beat, and a kindly old, aged man said, quote, ‘thou hast not drums!’ We had no drums! they coffed. So a series of drums came and went and came. Suddenly, in Scotland, touring with Johnny Gentle, the group (called The Beatles called) discovered they had not a very nice sound – because they had no amplifiers. They got some. Many people ask what are Beatles? why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’. – Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.” – John Lennon, Mersey Beat

John Lennon wrote that rather fantastical explanation of the origin of his fledgling group for a local magazine called Mersey Beat. It appeared on Page Two of its first issue, a tongue-in-cheek work of witty prose that predated Lennon’s experimentation with words in his books of nonsense verse, “In His Own Write” (1964) and “A Spaniard in the Works” (1965), not to mention the evolution of his songwriting as a Beatle.

Mersey Beat Magazine was founded on July 6, 1961, by Bill Harry, one of John Lennon’s friends from Liverpool Art College. It was published every fortnight, just like today’s Rolling Stone Magazine, and it covered all the news of the local musical acts in town. They gave special preference to the Beatles not just because of his friendship with John, but because the group was quite popular, keeping very busy playing regularly in and around Liverpool throughout 1961 after coming back from Hamburg, Germany. Lennon was also a contributor to the rag, hence the above writing, one of several he wrote at the time.

Part of the reason for the need of a local musical newspaper was the sudden proliferation of British bands springing up not just in Liverpool but its neighboring areas as well. Over 350 groups were playing nightly at clubs and concert halls throughout Merseyside; competition was fierce. As a result, the circulation of Mersey Beat’s first issue reached 5,000, but by the time Harry dispatched photographers and journalists to nearby Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle to cover those town’s burgeoning rock ’n’ roll groups, its readership swelled to 75,000 pairs of eyes.

John Lennon’s involvement with the magazine was criticized when practically every issue had something to say about the Beatles, to the point that critics cracked it should be renamed Mersey Beatles instead. But for all intents and purposes, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best were working rock ‘n’ roll musicians.

“There would always be a bunch of groups on, maybe five, and we’d follow somebody and do our bit. They liked us because we were kind of rough and we’d had a lot of practice in Germany. They couldn’t believe it. There were all these acts going ‘dum de dum’ and suddenly, we’d come on jumping and stomping. Wild men in leather suits.” –George Harrison

Their musical chops had vastly improved during their three-month stay in Hamburg, but then George was deported for being underage and Paul and Pete were deported the following day for burning a condom onto the wall of their dressing room. John stayed in Hamburg by himself, playing with other groups of musicians, but he too decided to go home after 10 days. He arrived in Liverpool on December 10th, 1960 and spent the first week alone without contacting the other three.

“When I did get home, I was so fed up I didn’t bother to contact the others… I just withdrew to think whether it was worth going on with. You see part of me is a monk and part of me is a performing flea. Knowing when to stop is survival for me. Anyway, after a while, I got to thinking that we ought to cash in on the Liverpool beat scene. Things were really thriving and it seemed a pity to waste the experience we’d got, playing all those hours every night in Hamburg.” –John Lennon


Mona Best, Pete’s mother and owner of the Casbah Club

The group ultimately reunited, as we all know, and started to perform in various clubs and halls, including drummer Pete Best’s mother Mona’s Casbah Club and a Christmas Eve performance at the Grosvenor Ballroom in Wallasey, but it was their performance at the Litherland Town Hall on December 27th that cemented their reputation as a popular Liverpool band, playing to their largest audience ever. Much like the fateful night on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the audience went crazy at Litherland. It was one of the first moments of burgeoning Beatlemania. The evening’s promoter at Litherland, Brian Kelly, was so impressed by the audience reaction that he hired the group to perform in 36 different halls from that day through March 11th.

“We all wore black that we had picked up in Hamburg. All the Liverpool girls were saying ‘Are you from Germany?’” –Paul McCartney

“Suddenly, we were a wow. Mind you, 70% of the audience thought we were a German wow. They said ‘Christ, they speak good English!’ which we did, of course, being English.” –John Lennon

Because their bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe had just recently quit the band to stay in Hamburg with his fiancée, Astrid Kirchherr, Paul McCartney became the band’s official bass player, beginning on the night when they appeared again in Litherland, January 5, 1961. In attendance watching the show was Richard Starkey, who went by the name Ringo Starr as a performer. Ringo and the Beatles had become friends the previous year, in 1960, when the group first played in Hamburg. He had just returned to Liverpool as well from playing in Hamburg with another Liverpudlian group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Ringo had sat in with the Beatles to play drums a few times when Pete wasn’t available for one reason or other. John, Paul, and George realized how much better a drummer Ringo was than Pete as soon as he sat down at the drum kit, but Starr was committed to the Hurricanes and there was no real pressing need to get rid of Best, except that not only was he not a very good drummer, he wasn’t as sociable as the other three either, having a tendency to keep to himself and skipping out on most photo opportunities and sessions.


From left, Paul, Ringo, Beatles’ roadie Neil Aspinall, George, and an unknown girl. The person standing, left, may very well be Stu because of the scarf he seems to be wearing.

“It was when they came back from Hamburg that the Beatles needed transport to get them to the Cavern and other places. They were using cabs at the time and all the money they were earning was going to the cab drivers. I had a van and needed the money so Pete told the others that I would drive them ‘round. I did that for £1 a night, which wasn’t bad.” –Neil Aspinall, President; Apple Records

“We’d play places and people would throw pennies at us. To disarm them we’d stop playing and pick up all the coins. We thought, ‘That’ll teach ‘em. They won’t keep throwing now.’ We had pockets full of pennies.” –Paul McCartney

The lads were paid a grand total of £7.50 that night, which is 165 Euros in 2016, or just about $185 USD. Backstage that night, 17-year-old music fan Dave Fershaw, another young entrepreneur who was putting on music events on and around town, liked them so much he booked them for several more shows in different venues, which they also played throughout the year. In January alone they played twenty bookings and on four different occasions played in two different locations on the same night.


from left, Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon, an unknown friend, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Pete Best

Stu returned to Liverpool from Hamburg on January 20th. That night, he went to see the Beatles play in Lathom Hall. At the end of the night, John and Stu got into some kind of drunken scuffle with a group of other young drunks, perhaps for John shooting off his mouth as he was always prone to do and as depicted in the film “Backbeat” (1994). Legend has it that the rumble caused Stu Sutcliffe to get kicked in the head. Some, like Stu Sutcliffe’s sister, have suggested that it was John Lennon who kicked him in the head. Sutcliffe’s sister has claimed to have Stu’s diary where there is proof that this is so, but she has not herself backed her claim up with this or any other evidence.

In February, the Beatles started booking lunchtime and evening gigs in the Cavern. The Cavern’s attitude to them had changed drastically from the first time the group played there as the Quarrymen.

A man by the name of Al Sytner opened the Cavern in 1957 after he came back from Paris having been to several nightclubs there that were housed in cellars and old underground bombing shelters. Sytner went to look for a place just like that in Liverpool and found a cellar on 10 Mathew Street that would do quite nicely. He named it the Cavern and he made it a jazz club. When the Quarrymen played in 1958 before George and Pete, they were allowed to play skiffle, but not rock ‘n’ roll. Sytner felt that neither his crowd nor he could tolerate that kind of music. Of course, John Lennon wouldn’t have that and launched into Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” after playing a set of standard skiffle tunes. Sytner pushed his way to the front of the stage and handed Lennon a note with “Cut out the bloody rock & roll” scrawled on it.


The Beatles performing in the Cavern Club; 1961

Sytner sold the Cavern to Ray McFall in 1959. McFall broadened the Cavern audience by establishing beat nights in which rock & roll groups like Rory Storm and the Hurricanes could come and play. On February 9th, 1961, the Beatles played together as John, Paul, George and Pete for the first time.

“We used to play lunchtime dates. We’d get up and go down to the Cavern and play from noon ’til about two. It was very casual. We’d have our tea and sandwiches and cigarettes on stage, sing a couple of tunes and tell a few jokes.” –George Harrison

Stu Sutcliffe had left the Beatles not just to stay in Hamburg but primarily because his first love was art and painting, not music. Still, he maintained his close friendship with the group, particularly John. When he returned to Liverpool on January 20th, it was to nurse a case of tonsillitis. Once he got better, he planned to apply for an Art Teacher’s Diploma course at the Liverpool College of Art but was ultimately turned down, so he applied at the Hamburg College of Art where he was accepted.

Preparing to return to Hamburg and Astrid to begin his studies in June, Stu left for Germany on March 15, 1961. During that time before he began school, Stu and Astrid managed to get the Beatles a booking at the Top Ten Club for 30 nights straight starting April 1st. The owner of the club took it upon himself to work out the group’s deportation issues so they can return to Germany. On March 27th, John, Paul, George and Pete set off back to Hamburg.

“I’d become eighteen when we went (to Hamburg) the second time… When we went back we were playing at the Top Ten and living above the club, a really grubby little room with five bunk beds. In the next room was a little old lady known as Mutti. She was pretty stinky. She used to keep the toilets clean. They were really bad up there.” –George Harrison

“We tried our ‘Beatle’ hairstyle in Hamburg this time. It was all part of trying to pull people in. ‘Come in, we’re very good rock ‘n’ roll’.” –Paul McCartney

“That was the last time I cut anybody’s hair.” –John Lennon


Jürgen Vollmer

Upon their arrival, an acquaintance they made when they had played at the Kaiserkeller the previous October contacted them. His name was Jürgen Vollmer and he was a 21-year-old photography student. Looking to expand his photographic portfolio. Vollmer had walked the “backyards” of Hamburg for mysterious looking locations and found an interesting doorway at Jagerpassage 1, Wohlwillstrasse 2. “It would be great to have a rock ‘n’ roller in there,” he thought, so he contacted the Beatles and asked them if they’d be interested in having photos taken of them.

One day in April, Jürgen took the Beatles to that doorway and asked John, “you just lean there and look arrogant like you always do.” He then asked the other three Beatles to walk past him. Pete Best was unsurprisingly not in attendance but Stu Sutcliffe was there.


Stu Sutcliffe

In the famous photograph that later adorned the cover of John Lennon’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1975) album, Paul, Stu and George were crossing as John leaned at the doorway. The three were purposely out of focus except for their shoes. In order to get that effect, Jürgen had them cross the frame a dozen times.

May Pang, John Lennon’s girlfriend at the time of his estrangement to Yoko Ono, contacted Vollmer one day in 1974, twelve years after those photos were taken. Vollmer by then had been working in New York as a magazine art director. She asked Vollmer to meet John with the photos. Vollmer went to the recording studio where John was cutting the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” album with several enlargements of the photos he had taken that day in April. John chose the one he liked best and asked him to design the cover as a gatefold. John thought the finished design was “beautiful” as he put it, but the cover was redesigned just before the album’s release by Capitol Records’ Art Director Roy Kohara, who eliminated the gatefold idea and just made it a single sleeve, and enlarging the photo to exclude the other Beatles in-focus shoes, much to Vollmer’s disappointment.

The Top Ten Club was owned by Peter Eckhorn. Eckhorn paid each of The Beatles 35DM (£3) per day, which translates to about 66 Euros, or $74 USD in 2016. The group was required to play from 7PM until 2AM each weekday and until 3AM on weekends with a 15-minute break after each hour. They proved so popular that Eckhorn booked them for the month of May and then June as well, totaling a 92-night stretch, their longest residency at any musical venue to that date, and playing every single night without any days off.


The Top Ten Club

“(Our friends) Astrid (Kirscherr) and Klaus (Voorman) were very influential. I remember we went in the swimming baths once and my hair was down from the water and they said ‘No, leave it, it’s good.’ I didn’t have my Vaseline anyway and I was thinking, ‘Well, these people are cool, if they think it’s good, I’ll leave it like this.’ They gave me that confidence and when it dried off it dried naturally down, which later became ‘the look’.” – George Harrison

 

TONY SHERIDAN


Singer/Guitarist Tony Sheridan

“It was great playing with Tony Sheridan. I was there in 1962 backing him with Roy Young and Lou Walters on bass. It was all very exciting. Tony was really volatile. If anyone in the club was talking to his girl he’d be punching and kicking all over the place, while we’d just keep on jamming. Then he’d come back and join us, covered in blood if he’d lost. But he was a really good player.” –Ringo Starr


Ringo backing Tony Sheridan

Dozens of British musical artists traveled to Hamburg regularly to perform to an eager and growing fan base. Besides Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, there were vocalists like guitarist Tony Sheridan, a dark-haired British lad with a quick temper and a voice like Elvis. Sheridan played at the Kaiserkeller in late 1960 at the same time the Beatles performed there. When the group returned to play at the Top Ten Club the following year, they found that Sheridan had been booked there also.


Paul holding the mic for a guest singer who came from the audience

It was a loose environment among the fellow musicians at the Top Ten. Sheridan joined the Beatles on stage regularly to play guitar and sometimes sing lead. In return, the group would back Sheridan up during his own performances.


From left, George, John and Tony Sheridan

 

BERT KAEMPFERT


German songwriter and orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert

One Spring night in 1961, Berthold Heinrich Kaempfert ventured towards Hamburg’s notorious red light district, the Reeperbahn, and into to the Top Ten Club. He came in on a night Tony Sheridan was performing his act with John, Paul, George, and Pete backing him. He had heard there were many popular rock ‘n’ roll groups playing in that seedy area and he was looking for a group to record. Kaempfert was an ambitious orchestra leader and songwriter who just had a song at Number One in the US in January for three weeks called “Wonderland By Night”. He would go on to write a handful of other hits like “Strangers In The Night”, a 1966 Number One hit for Frank Sinatra, “Danke Schoen”, made well-known by Wayne Newton, and “L-O-V-E”, one of Nat King Cole’s signature recordings.

That night at the Top Ten, Kaempfert set his sights on Sheridan, not really paying much attention to the scruffy young boys playing behind him, and eventually signed him to a recording contract.


Tony Sheridan and Stu Sutcliffe; photo by Astrid Kirscherr

Kaempfert soon got to work and auditioned bands in the area to back his new artist for an upcoming recording session. Sheridan suggested the Beatles back him up, so Kaempfert agreed to audition them as well. In the end, the tracks that made up Tony Sheridan’s debut album included six with the Beatles backing him up and four with another group. Kaempfert didn’t like the Beatles’ name, so he decided to name Sheridan’s backing band as the Beat Brothers, regardless of which band had backed him.

“When that offer came we thought it would be easy. The Germans had such shitty records. Ours were bound to be better. We did five of our own numbers but they didn’t like them. They preferred thing like ‘My Bonnie’. It’s just Tony Sheridan singing with us banging in the background. It’s terrible, it could be anybody.” –John Lennon


Paul and John always trying to look their best

Two additional tracks that come closest to Beatle songs are “Ain’t She Sweet”, where John Lennon takes over the lead vocal, and “Cry For A Shadow”, a so-so instrumental and the only songwriting collaboration between John Lennon and George Harrison.

On June 22nd and 23rd, 1961, Sheridan and the Beatles went to Hamburg’s Friedrich-Ebert-Halle to record in the gymnasium with Tony Sheridan. The songs they recorded are listed below and are only those songs Sheridan recorded with the Beatles.


This photo was one Astrid Kirscherr took but with Stu Sutcliffe cropped out.

 

MY BONNIE – TONY SHERIDAN AND THE BEATLES

“Bert Kaempfert said ‘We gotta play something that the Germans know’, because the kids learned it at school, you know.” – Tony Sheridan

 


The first pressing of “My Bonnie”, October 23, 1961

The first track they laid down would prove to be the song that would launch the Beatles’ recording career because of the interest it generated by a handful of fans, three to be exact, who requested the record in a Liverpool record store. It was the lead single to be released from the batch of songs they recorded during these sessions, and it became a moderate German hit. For the first professional recording with the Beatles, it’s a glimpse at the group’s tight musical chops.

“My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” is a traditional Scottish folk song that was written sometime in the mid-Eighteenth century. Legend has it that it was a political song, written about Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, an heir to the British throne and a leader of the Jacobite movement to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James II, his father, and his heirs, to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. In 1745, he led a failed uprising to take the throne of Great Britain and was forced to flee across the sea to Scotland. Charles Stuart was often referred to as The Young Pretender or The Young Chevalier (“The Young Knight”) but most of all as Bonnie Prince Charlie. So when the Bonnie Prince fled over the ocean to Scotland, Jacobites mourned his defeat and the end of the Jacobite movement with a mournful song.

“My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea, my bonnie lies over the ocean, oh’, bring back my bonnie to me…” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”

In time, the ballad became popular around the world, having become a children’s song by the 20th Century. The word “bonnie” can also be interpreted as a pretty girl, thus becoming a timeless love song of longing.

The first notable thing about this recording besides Tony Sheridan’s arrangement is its incredibly crisp stereophonic sound. The instruments and vocals are neatly and distinctly separated, cradled in a tight drum bed courtesy of Pete Best, who shows no evidence of not being able to carry a beat. There’s a wicked lead guitar solo delivered by 18-year-old George Harrison that boasts how much he had learned playing all that time in the Hamburg and Liverpool clubs. John Lennon played the rhythm guitar as usual and Paul McCartney having taken Stu Sutcliffe’s place, played bass. Sutcliffe was present at these recordings and was happy to relinquish the instrument over to Paul, especially because he never felt truly comfortable with it.

The song begins the way everyone recognizes the familiar tune, in A, as a soft slow, melody with Sheridan’s competent vocal over the Beatles’ baritone humming. Suddenly there’s a pause, then George peels off five quick licks before the tune begins in earnest. Sheridan delivers a solid vocal performance while the Beatles scream and clap their hands much like they would continue to do in the early catalog of music they would go on to record in 1964.

“My Bonnie” was first released only in Germany in October 1961. It peaked at Number 32 in the national chart published in Der Musikmarkt, Number 11 in the German jukebox charts, and Number Four in a local Hamburg chart. It was a truly good rock ‘n’ roll record, worthy of several listens, even today.

 

THE SAINTS – TONY SHERIDAN AND THE BEATLES

“When the Saints Go Marching In” is a traditional gospel church song that originates from “When the Saints Are Marching In”, composed in 1896 as a stately Christian hymn to be played during religious processions. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong came around and modernized it for the 1930s that it turned into a classic jazz number closely identified with New Orleans.

Tony Sheridan and the Beatles’ version of “The Saints” credit Katharine Purvis and James Milton Black, composers of the 1896 song, as the songwriters. Updated to rock ‘n’ roll ears, Sheridan delivers the vocals to this version very much like Elvis, even beginning the tune with the “welluhelluhelluh…” Presley stutter. George’s guitar solo runs closely to Chuck Berry’s rock n’ roll style, but the most interesting part of the song is Paul’s bass in the intro.

McCartney’s bass can be appreciated during those first few seconds of “The Saints” because it’s out in the open and not buried under Best’s drumming, so you can listen to the melodic lick Paul chooses to play, a style that would become his contribution to the bass guitar in rock ‘n’ roll history. Instead of just accompanying the drums with a beat that mimics the percussion, McCartney chooses an always changing, always interesting musical line between the beats. McCartney’s unique use of the bass was a first, and it would open new musical directions that would blossom throughout rock music for the rest of the Sixties and beyond.

“The Saints” was released along with “My Bonnie” as the flipside of the record, and it gave the Beatles an opportunity to acquire a larger audience. German teenagers who had heard of them or had seen them play in those Hamburg clubs scooped up the single. Soon, it would find its way into Liverpool through word of mouth.

 

CRY FOR A SHADOW – THE BEATLES

“Cry For A Shadow” can be considered the very first recording with John, Paul and George if you don’t count those primitive tracks they laid down of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and McCartney’s “In Spite of All The Danger” in 1958, when they had scraped together their money to go record by themselves. ‘CFAS’ is an instrumental composition and the only one written as a collaboration between John Lennon and George Harrison. George came up with the intro and the guitar line running throughout and John contributed the rhythm section.

The title “Cry For A Shadow”, as well as the instrumental itself, was an imitation of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll group of the day in Britain, the Shadows, who used to back British Fifties pop mega star Cliff Richard in those days. The Shadows’ lead guitarist Hank Marvin was known to have played guitar similarly, and George Harrison copied it in “Cry For A Shadow” with Lennon and McCartney’s yelling during portions of the song just like the Shadows’ bass guitarist Terence “Jet” Harris’. The original title of the song was going to be “Beatle Bop”, but due to the similarity in musical style to the Shadows, the group decided to credit the band they were imitating.

 

WHY (CAN’T YOU LOVE ME AGAIN) – TONY SHERIDAN AND THE BEATLES

“Why” was co-written by Tony Sheridan. It’s a decent melody with a great stereo sound, with the distinct and crisp separation that makes it a pleasure to listen to, particularly in headphones. It’s rather astonishing to hear how good an audio recording can be for 1961, far surpassing many other stereophonic releases of the day from the USA.

Sheridan’s vocal is assured and reminiscent of Elvis again, as is the whole song very much rooted in Fifties rock ‘n’ roll. What’s interesting is George’ Harrisons little guitar fills in the beginning between each lyrical line, sounding very much like future fills in “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “Here Comes The Sun”. It’s also funny to hear the Beatles vocalizing once again as background baritones, including their signature hand clapping they would do in many subsequent early Beatles recordings.

“Why” was meant to be released as the follow-up single to “My Bonnie”, backed by “Cry For A Shadow”, but it never came about. It would ultimately be released as part of an EP (Extended Play, usually containing a total of two songs per side) in 1963 with “My Bonnie” and “The Saints”, calling the record “Tony Sheridan with the Beatles”.

 

OTHER TRACKS FROM SHERIDAN AND THE BEATLES

The songs take a downward turn with Sheridan’s annoyingly persistent Elvis soundalike on “Nobody’s Child”, featuring the Beatles’ uninspired accompaniment. It almost sounds like they’ve all taken a tea break as George bravely sips and picks while Pete lazily drums along.

Same goes for “Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby”, despite a nice but brief guitar solo from George, with Sheridan continuing to insist on ripping off the Elvis sound. One notable mention is the use of the word ‘goddamn’ in “TOSIOMB”, probably a first for a rock ‘n’ roll song to use a curse word, predating John Lennon’s use of the word ‘fuck’ in “Working Class Hero” by nine years.

You’d think Tony Sheridan was auditioning for Elvis Presley’s job with his version of ”Sweet Georgie Brown”, made famous as the theme song for exhibition comedy basketball team The Harlem Globetrotters. The song is a jazz standard first written in 1925. The Beatles’ background vocals are the most distinctive here. Those who are familiar with their voices can actually pick out Paul, George, and John in various moments. As the song picks up the tempo, a snazzy piano is added to the mix and makes the song one of the highlights of the recording session.

A different, more fun version of “SGB” was re-recorded by Sheridan and the Beatles in 1963. In this one, at a time when the Beatles had become the biggest group in England, Sheridan references their long hair and rising popularity.

“In Liverpool, she even dared to criticize the Beatles’ hair, with their whole fan club standing there, meet Sweet Georgia Brown” –Tony Sheridan

 

AIN’T SHE SWEET – THE BEATLES

“Gene Vincent’s recording of ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ is very mellow and high-pitched and I used to do it like that, but the Germans said, ‘Harder, harder’ – they all wanted it a bit more like a march, so we ended up doing a harder version.” –John Lennon

The Beatles were allowed to record another song showcasing just themselves, and this time it was John Lennon’s turn to step up to the microphone.

“Ain’t She Sweet” was written in 1927 and was typical of the music of the decade known as the Roaring Twenties. The Beatles apparently chose it to record in the spirit of Kaempfert’s suggestion to play songs people know and then modernize them with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The result is what can be considered the closest it can get to a Beatles record in 1961. The only difference was the drummer, as Ringo had still not replaced Pete Best.

John Lennon’s vocals are front and center and unmistakably his. The recording, however, would not surface again until after the group was known worldwide in 1964. Both John Lennon and Tony Sheridan have asserted at different times that the Beatles had recorded much more on their own during those two days then what ultimately surfaced, but there is no record of any other songs produced other than the aforementioned ones.

After their recording debut in Germany, the Beatles returned to their hometown of Liverpool, England on July 2nd, 1961, having completed their stay at the Top Ten Club and leaving their ex-bandmate Stu Sutcliffe to marry Astrid. If ever there existed a storybook romance, this was it. The couple was happy and in love. Stu however, started to suffer excruciating headaches ever since he had returned from Hamburg. At times he would even black out. Stu assumed it was due to his overwork and mostly ignored it.

Four days after the Beatles’ arrival home, the first issue of Mersey Beat appeared on the newsstands. The magazine would prove to be the catalyst that set them off into worldwide fame by spreading the word about them throughout Liverpool and its neighboring towns.


The Beatles and their fans at St. John’s Hall

Taking eleven days to catch their breaths, they resume playing in Liverpool venues on July 13th at St. John’s Hall and play practically every night through the rest of the year, alternating between Mona Best’s Casbah Coffee Club and the Cavern, sprinkled with appearances throughout Liverpool’s Halls, from Litherland to Holyoake and Blair.

In the book “The Outliers”, author Malcolm Gladwell points to the Beatles as an example of outliers. The book explains that you not only have to have exceptional talent to succeed; there are always other important factors that must come to play in order to achieve the type of fame the Beatles ultimately reached. In the group‘s case, one of their advantages were their thousands of hours performing almost every night, sometimes twice in a day, and in Hamburg, also nightly for eight hour stretches. In fact, from the time they first ventured to Hamburg in late 1960 through their worldwide popularity by 1964, they logged over ten thousand hours of playing, amounting to 416 days, the standard from which most “outliers” have practiced in their own craft before they achieved notoriety. In the book, Gladwell breaks down the times they performed In Hamburg between 1960 and 1962 and came to a very rational conclusion.

“All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.” – from “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell


“When we got back to Liverpool it was all ‘Eh, your hair’s gone funny.’ – ‘No, this is the new style.’” –Paul McCartney

 

BRIAN EPSTEIN

“On Saturday, 28th October 1961, I was asked by a young boy for a record by a group called The Beatles. It had always been our policy in records to look after whatever request was made. I wrote on a pad, ‘”My Bonnie”, The Beatles. Check on Monday.’

I had never given a thought to any of the Liverpool beat groups then up and coming in cellar clubs. They were not part of my life because I was out of the age group and also because I had been too busy. The name ‘Beatle’ meant nothing to me, though I vaguely recalled seeing it on a poster advertising a dance at New Brighton Tower and I remember thinking it was an odd and purposeless spelling.

Before I had time to check on Monday, two girls came in the store and they too asked for a disc by this group. This, contrary to legend, was the sum total of demand for the Beatles’ disc at this time in Liverpool. But I was sure there was something very significant in three queries for one unknown disc in two days.

I talked to contacts and found what I hadn’t realized, that The Beatles were, in fact, a Liverpool group, that they had just returned from playing clubs in the steamy, seedy end of Hamburg. A girl I know said, ‘The Beatles? They’re the greatest. They’re at the Cavern this week.’” –Brian Epstein

Bill Harry walked into NEMS with an armful of his newspaper, Mersey Beat. As the publisher of Liverpool’s first music rag, he wanted to have it visible in the city’s largest music store. The North End Music Store, NEMS, was that place.

Harry introduced himself to NEMS’ manager, Brian Samuel Epstein and proudly handed him a copy of the first issue of Mersey Beat. Epstein leafed through the magazine and briefly read on Page 2 the origin of the Beatles that John wrote. He had seen pictures of the group in posters around Liverpool and asked Harry about them. Harry replied that they were the most popular band in town and they played a few blocks away from his store at the Cavern Club, did he know it? Epstein nodded and promptly forgot them. Focusing on the “Mersey Beat” paper, he saw the potential it had to promote his store. By the end of their meeting, Epstein had agreed to display Mersey Beat at the front of his store, and starting with the next issue on August 3rd, 1961, began to write a column for the paper called “Stop the World – And Listen To Everything In It”. In return, he would place ads promoting NEMS.

Sometime later, on October 28th, 1961, teenage rock ‘n’ roll fan Raymond Jones walked into NEMS Record Store and asked for a copy of the single “My Bonnie” by the Beatles. Epstein instructed his assistant Alistair Taylor to put it on the list of records to order for sale in the store.

Taylor had a difficult time finding the record. There was no group of any kind called The Beatles that he could find. At one point, he did find a record called “My Bonnie” but it was published by the German division of Polydor. Not only that, the artists listed on the record was Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. He ordered copies anyway since it was the closest he got to finding a record with that name.

Epstein then asked Taylor to arrange for both of them to go see the Beatles play at the Cavern the following week. Taylor discovered that the Beatles performed during lunchtime as well as dinner. On November 9, 1961, Epstein and Taylor went to the Beatles’ lunchtime concert. Epstein beheld the queue of teenagers waiting to go in and glided past them, having been able to gain VIP access.

Once everyone was inside and settled, DJ Bob Wooler made a casual comment to the crowd about the VIPs that had come to visit that day.

“We have someone rather famous in the audience today. Mr. Brian Epstein, the owner of NEMS …”

Once the Beatles took the stage, Brian Epstein was mesmerized. On stage were four tough looking boys in black leather and jeans, sloppy during their performance, at times abruptly stopping a song they were playing to play one that someone in the crowd yelled out as a request.

“They were a scruffy crowd in leather, and they were not very tidy and not very clean. They smoked as they played and they ate and talked and pretended to hit each other.” –Brian Epstein

It should be noted here that Brian Epstein was a closeted homosexual. Like much of the rest of the world in 1961, homosexuality in the United Kingdom was seen as not only a mental issue, but also an illegal act.

Epstein agonized over his sexuality all his life as he indulged in his secretive world, resorting to public lavatories after hours and sometimes returning home beaten and bloodied. He would also cruise the London clubs dressed in a US Army officer’s suit. Although he went to the Army, he was never an officer. One night, he was arrested by the military police for impersonating an officer at the Army Navy Club located on Piccadilly. In order to avoid a court martial, Epstein agreed to see an army psychiatrist. It was there where his homosexuality was discovered. Ten months later, he was discharged from the Army for being emotionally and mentally unfit.”

It’s safe to assume that Epstein’s had more than just a platonic attraction to the young boys playing rock ‘n’ roll before him.

“I was immediately struck by their music, their beat and their sense of humour on stage – and, even afterward, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that, really, it all started” –Brian Epstein

After the Beatles’ set, Epstein and Taylor visited the group backstage in a dressing room that he later described “as big as a broom cupboard”. They all recognized him, having been to buy records at NEMS many times before.

“And what brings Mr. Epstein here?” George asked in his subtly sarcastic way.
“We just popped in to say hello,” replied Brian. “I enjoyed your performance,” he added and introduced Taylor to them as his assistant. After a few minor pleasantries, Epstein and Taylor left.

“At that age, we were very impressed by anyone in a suit or with a car. And Brian was impressed with us. He liked our sense of humour and our music and he liked our look… black leather.” –Paul McCartney

Later on, having lunch at Peacock’s restaurant in Hackins Hay, Epstein asked Taylor what he thought of what they just witnessed.

“I thought they were absolutely awful,” Taylor replied as he ate, but then admitted that there was something remarkable about him.

This made Brian smile. It wasn’t just he who felt it. It wasn’t just the teenage fans who acknowledged it. Even his assistant, who didn’t even like them, felt there was something there.

Brian ate quietly for most of his lunch. “I think they’re tremendous,” he finally said. “Do you think I should manage them?”

“He had wanted us to sign up. But I believe he came a number of times before he actually decided to be our manager.” –George Harrison

Over the next three weeks in November 1961, Brian Epstein went to the Cavern for lunch to watch the Beatles play. As he warmed up to their music and style, he did some inquiries and found out the group’s last manager was a man named Alan Williams. Epstein called Williams to ask if he still had any ties to the group. Williams responded that there were no longer any ties between the Beatles and himself, but advised Epstein “not to touch them with a fucking barge pole” because the group had refused to pay a percentage of their winnings to a club in Hamburg over a dispute. This didn’t deter Epstein and after one of their sets, he once again went backstage to ask the Beatles if they would like to meet with him at NEMS in the near future for a conversation about their music.

“He looked efficient and rich. That’s all I remember. He tried to manage us but he couldn’t get through to us. It lasted about a week. We said, ‘We’re not having you.’ ” –John Lennon

On December 3rd, 1961, John Lennon and George Harrison arrived at NEMS for the meeting. Pete Best was late and so was Paul McCartney, irking Epstein.

“He may be late, but he’ll be very clean,” George said, referring to Paul. John decided to bring Cavern DJ Bob Wooler with them to find out what the DJ thought of Epstein.
“This is me dad.” Said John to Brian as he introduced Wooler.

After Paul and Pete finally arrived, Brian asked the group if they had a manager. They shook their collectively shaggy heads no.

“It seems to me that with everything going on, someone ought to be looking after you”, Brian replied.

The meeting was short. Brian invited them to two more meetings on the 6th and then again on the 10th of December, where he presented them with a twelve-page document typed on lined paper. It was a detailed contract indicating his desire to manage the Beatles for the next five years, until 1967. Ironically, this is the year Epstein would die.


The Beatles’ signatures, along with Paul and George’s fathers’, on Brian Epstein’s contract

“So one evening we went down to the NEMS shop. It was very awe-inspiring, being led into this big record shop after hours with no one there. It felt like a cathedral. We went upstairs to Brian’s office to make the deal. I was talking to him, trying to beat him down, knowing the game. Trying to get the manager to take a low percentage. And the others tried as well, but he stuck at a figure of 25%. He told us ‘That’ll do. Now I’ll be your manager,’ and we agreed. With my Dad’s advice, I remember Dad had said to get a Jewish manager – it all fitted and Brian Epstein became our manager.” –Paul McCartney

Because Paul, George, and Pete were still under twenty years old, they needed approval from their parents to sign the contract. George’s parents were agreeable to the idea as well as Paul’s father, but with a warning from Jim McCartney to his son to always keep an eye on the finances. Pete’s mother Mona liked Brian, found him very professional and was impressed by his wealth. Lennon’s Aunt Mimi was totally against the idea, feeling that John was just wasting his time playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band. But John was already 21 and of age, so he ignored her altogether.

“We were in a daydream ‘til he came along. We’d no idea what we were doing. Seeing our marching orders on paper made it all official.” =John Lennon

The Beatles wouldn’t sign that contract before the end of 1961 but Brian went to work anyway, traveling to London the following day to promote his new band to various large record companies; Columbia, Pye, Phillips, Oriole, and Decca. Because of his stature in the music business as an important retailer selling to a significant portion of Great Britain, all these record companies agreed to meet with him, and all of them passed on the group, thanking Mr. Epstein for coming. Only one person, Mike Smith of Decca Records, decided to go see the Beatles play live.

On December 13, 1961, Smith traveled to Liverpool and went to the Cavern Club with Epstein. After the performance, Smith agreed to hold an audition of the Beatles at Decca on the first day of the New Year. On New Year’s Eve 1961, Beatles roadie Neil Aspinall drove them and Brian to London. Neil lost his way and the trip took longer than ten hours. They arrived in London at 10PM on December 31st, “just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain”, as John Lennon remarked regarding the moment.

“We changed the hairstyles and clothes of the world, including America – they were a very square and sorry lot when we went over.” –John Lennon

Unbeknownst to the Beatles, Stu Sutcliffe had collapsed during a class at Hamburg Art College in late 1961 and was taken home. He went to school the next day and didn’t give it another thought. Astrid Kirscherr’s mother suggested he go see the doctor as his condition grew worse, suffering regular debilitating headaches and a sudden sensitivity to light. The doctor ran a series of tests but found nothing out of the ordinary.

 

 

LEE DORSEY


Lee Dorsey

Part of the reason the Beatles composed such timeless songs is because they loved rock ‘n’ roll music. Even while they played every night in Hamburg and clubs in and around Liverpool, they had their ears tuned to the radio, listening to all the biggest artists of the day. It’s that appreciation for their peers that made them so good at what they did.


John Lennon with 12-year old son Julian on Drums, playing a short “Ya-Ya”

Irving Lee Dorsey was one of those artists whom the Beatles emulated. Born in New Orleans, he was a childhood friend of Fats Domino until his family moved to Portland, Oregon when he was 10. After serving during World War II, he returned home to become a reasonably good lightweight boxer in the early Fifties named Kid Chocolate. Apparently tired of having his face bashed in, Dorsey retired from boxing in 1955 and returned to his hometown where he opened an auto repair business. But music was always deep in his heart and he had a reasonably good voice, so to satisfy his muse, Lee Dorsey would moonlight by singing in nightclubs. One night in 1960, A&R man Marshall Sehorn walked into one of the clubs Dorsey was singing in and liked what he heard enough to secure him a recording contract with Fury Records, owned by New York record producer Bobby Robinson.

 

YA-YA – LEE DORSEY

Socializing within the inner circle of New Orleans musicians, Dorsey met A&R man and record producer for Minit and Instant Records, Allen Toussaint at a party. Twenty-two-year-old Toussaint and thirty-seven-year-old Dorsey became fast friends and soon were recording music together. Dorsey had already recorded a string of unsuccessful singles since 1958 with Fury, until one day, he was inspired to write “Ya-Ya” with Clarence Lewis and Morgan Robinson after watching a group of children singing nursery rhymes. He took it to Toussaint and he recorded Dorsey’s first Top Ten Pop hit, reaching Number Seven on Billboard’s US Pop chart and Number One in the R&B chart.

“Ya-Ya” has been covered by many other artists over the years, most notably by John Lennon when he released his “Rock & Roll” (1975) album due to a contractual obligation to Morris Levy. Lennon had promised to record a bunch of old rock ‘n’ roll songs owned by Levy. “Ya-Ya” was one of them. Lennon played the song with a stronger, faster edge, while still acknowledging the playfulness of the lyrics with the musical arrangement.

 

DO-RE-MI – LEE DORSEY

After a follow-up single similar to “Ya-Ya called “Do-Re-Mi” that stalled at Number 27 Pop and Number 22 R&B, Dorsey released an LP titled “Ya-Ya” in 1962 that didn’t do very well either. He quickly fell from the charts for four years. During that interim, he returned to his auto repair business. In the meantime, Toussaint was drafted and served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965.

 

WORKING IN THE COAL MINE – LEE DORSEY

When Toussaint returned, he got Dorsey back into the music biz by asking him to record “Ride A Pony” in 1965. That and a couple of other recordings put Lee back in the charts during the mid-Sixties. He didn’t enter the Top Ten again until 1966 with “Working In the Coal Mine”, written and arranged by Toussaint for Dorsey.

“Working In the Coal Mine” is a song about suffering, not the type of blues lament for a lost love, but of a man breaking his back working down in a coal mine wondering how long his torture will last.

“Five o’clock in the mornin’, I’m already up and gone, Lord I am so tired, how long can this go on? That I’m workin’ in a coal mine, goin’ down, down, down, workin’ in a coal mine, whoops, about to slip down. ‘Cause I make all the money, hauling coal by the ton, but when Saturday goes around I’m too tired for havin’ fun…” Working in the Coal Mine – Lee Dorsey

Toussaint “…Coal Mine” has an instantly catchy beat, and Dorsey’s version climbed to Number Eight Pop and Number Five R&B. It was also his first single to enter the Top Ten in the UK, reaching Number Eight as well.

“WITCM” has also been covered by various artists, most notably by the pioneer industrial alternative rock group Devo, who released their own version in 1981 as part of the animated movie “Heavy Metal”. The single only made it up to Number 43 but its groundbreaking techno sound seems more appropriate for the song’s theme.

Just like before, Dorsey released a follow-up single also produced by Toussaint called “Holy Cow”. It only made it to Number 23. Dorsey also managed to release two LPs in 1966, “Ride Your Pony” and “The New Lee Dorsey”, then dropped from the charts once again, only appearing a few more times in 1967 and 1969 with songs in the bottom portion of the Hot 100.

 

YES WE CAN – LEE DORSEY

In 1970, Toussaint produced Dorsey’s next album “Yes We Can”, whose title song was a Number 11 Pop hit for the Pointer Sisters in 1973 as “Yes We Can Can”.

Among other covers include a version recorded by Toussaint himself in his later years.

Lee Dorsey recorded and performed sporadically after that, ultimately going on tour in the 1980s with James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1980, he toured the US, opening for the Clash.

On December 1st, 1986, Lee Dorsey succumbed to emphysema at age 61. His young mentor Toussaint went on to work on several musical projects well into the 21st century until he died a legend on November 10, 2015.

 

 

THE BEACH BOYS


The Beach Boys in 1961. From left, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson.

Murry Wilson was a bitter man. He was a songwriter and piano player who longed to be famous but never achieved the recognition he felt he deserved. Coming from a poor background, he struggled all his life, and when his first son Brian was born, he had to take a job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company to make ends meet. Things didn’t go well there. He lost an eye in an industrial accident to add to his struggle. For release, he turned to songwriting and achieved moderate success with a few songs he wrote, like “Two-Step Side-Step”, which was performed by Lawrence Welk’s orchestra on his radio show in 1952, and “I’ll Hide My Tears”, recorded by the doo-wop group the Jets at about the same time.

“[My father] had talent, he sure did. He was a talented man. He had some music in him … My favorite song of his was one called ‘His Little Darling and You’. It was a ballad.” –Brian Wilson

The Wilsons moved from their hometown of Inglewood, California to Hawthorne when Brian was two years old. Musical talent ran in the Wilson family. Little Brian was already developing a remarkable musical mind. As a baby, he could sing the lyrics to “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along” after Murry sang him the first two stanzas. Music touched Brian very deeply. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” deeply moved him when he first heard it as a child. Realizing he had a musical prodigy on his hands, Murry encouraged Brian to explore his talent and was given a toy accordion as a child. When Brian was seven, Murry placed him in a church choir, where he was soon chosen to sing lead using his gorgeous falsetto, a voice that could reach wonderful high notes that would become the soundtrack for many Sixties summers.


The Beach Boys (left); Murry Wilson (right).

A strict disciplinarian to his sons Brian, Carl and Dennis, Murry Wilson let his frustrations out on them in the form of physical punishment, often beating them for minor infractions of family rules. He mostly humiliated Carl verbally but took to beating Dennis and Brian for self-perceived infractions. As the story goes, Murry Wilson once took a 2×4 and hit Brian in the head with it. They say that blow caused greatly diminished hearing in Brian’s right ear, although others suggest the loss of hearing may have had another cause.

Always a sensitive child, his father’s treatment of him affected Brian deeply. It would contribute to mental breakdowns later in life. Murry didn’t stop being an asshole after his sons grew up either. Although he helped them land a recording contract and essentially launched the Beach Boys’ career, Murry Wilson commandeered the group instead of managed them, declaring himself their manager and expecting no resistance. As the group’s success grew, Murry began to harbor a deep resentment of Brian’s talent, to the point that in 1966, at the height of the Beach Boys’ success, Murry Wilson sold the rights to all their songs for $700,000 (about $5.2 million today) without consulting Brian, who had written them all.

Murry Wilson’s own words betray his incredible dickishness towards his son Brian by portraying himself as a victim and putting Brian down every chance he can get. In an excruciatingly long letter written by Murry to Brian on May 8, 1965, his jealousy and painfully cruel parental manipulation is evident in every paragraph, such as these two:

“…In other words, Brian, the whole concept of my teaching my sons honesty in business was to try to make good men out of all of you, and I can’t begin to remember the hundreds of times I was interfered with by my wife when I tried to make you all see the point I was trying to make; but I do know one thing, I can hold up my head in Hollywood and all over the world in the music as well as machinery business and you can’t. No matter how many hit songs you write or how many hundreds of thousands of dollars you may earn, you will find when you finish this short cycle of Beach Boy success that you didn’t do it honestly and for this reason, you are going to suffer remorse. I have been trying to fight you on every act of what I thought was not honest to protect you from yourself some five or seven years later; because I knew that when competition hit you between the eyes that you would not be able to cope with this vicious competition, regardless of how talented you are, because you got so much much too fast and the fact that you used your own father and then threw him away when you thought you didn’t need him will come back into your mind over and over again.

I didn’t mind so terribly much when you left our home to get an apartment, but the fact that you were ready to hit me in front of Gary Usher, when my wife and I were trying to get rid of Gary Usher and his evil influence on our family, did cause much hurt because you left fighting against your own family for the benefit of Mr. Usher and to his purposes and to your own selfish purposes and which you and Gary were scheming out. You may have forgotten how Gary told you I was a square and didn’t know what I was doing and that you didn’t have to listen to me, besides countless other derogatory remarks made by other people such as Bob Norman, Jan Berry, and the whole bunch. You would rather take the word of anyone against your father because you were taught to do this in your very early years as a young boy, hearing your mother tell me I was wrong in front of you, so I do understand what has caused some of your thinking.” –Murry Wilson

 

************

Brian, Carl, and Dennis spent many evenings harmonizing in the bedroom they shared together. Brian would break down the background harmonies of songs by vocal groups like The Four Freshmen and teach them to his brothers to sing along. He would also break down the songs note by note on the piano, which he played obsessively every day after school. Soon, he started to involve other family members to harmonize with him like his mother, his cousin Mike Love and his sister, as well as any friend of theirs who’d be around and wanted to join in. Like his father, Brian too taught himself to play the piano and write songs, so when he received a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder on June 20, 1958, his sixteenth birthday, that’s all he needed to indulge in his insatiable musical curiosity. Among the songs he recorded harmonizing with assorted members of his family back then was “Sloop John B”, a traditional Bahamian folk song that the Beach Boys would record in 1966 and release as a single.

Soon, Brian and cousin Mike ventured out to the spotlight together and enlisted two high school friends to play at dances for Hawthorne High School. Brian at the time was a popular student; he played baseball, ran cross-country and was even quarterback of the Hawthorne High football team. There, he met fellow football player Al Jardine, who had already played guitar in a band called The Islanders. Al would watch Brian, Carl and Mike perform at all those high school dances.

In September 1960, Brian enrolled at El Camino College where Al was also attending. The two often got together and spent their time in the college’s music room working through harmonic ideas together. Al loved folk music, having mastered the guitar and banjo pretty well. Soon, the two spoke about forming a group together. Brian invited Al over to his home to discuss it with his two brothers and his cousin Mike Love. Al tried to get them to be a folk group but Brian and all the others preferred rock ‘n’ roll. Love suggested the name The Pendletones for the group, a combination of the word “pendleton” which was the name of a woolen shirt that was popular at the time, and “tone” a musical term, much like the Beatles had done with “beat” and “beetles”. The group unanimously agreed.

The next step was to write songs. Everyone looked at Brian for that, even though cousin Mike could also write, but they didn’t know what to write about. They wanted to sing about something other than all love songs. Dennis, the only surfer in the family, suggested the sport as a theme. They all agreed, knowing that surfing was big, especially in Southern California. Brian worked with Mike on writing the song that would start them off on their career. Together, they came up with “Surfin’, a mix of doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll sung with the harmonies that would soon make them famous.

The Wilson brothers’ parents, Murry and Audree had decided to spend a vacation in Mexico City over the Labor Day weekend in 1961 and left them with emergency money for the days they would be away. Having just finished writing “Surfin’”, Brian spent all that money on renting amplifiers, a microphone and a stand-up bass for Jardine to play. The fledgling group spent two days straight rehearsing the song so when his parents returned, they could audition the song to his father.

At first, Murry said nothing, berating Brian instead for having spent the emergency money on such nonsense. But after stewing and mulling over it a while, he realized his boys were good and was duly impressed at their songwriting talent as well as their entrepreneurship, although he would never admit to it. That’s when Murry proclaimed himself their manager and told them that if they wanted to have a real record, they should begin rehearsing in earnest while he finds them a record label. Brian set out to write in earnest. One of his first songs he ever wrote was a melody loosely based on “When You Wish Upon A Star”. It would be recorded two years later as one of the Beach Boys’ most beautiful tunes, a Number One song called “Surfer Girl”.

The Pendletones followed Murry Wilson’s instructions and soon Murry introduced the group to his own music publisher, Hite Morgan. In the fall of 1961, they auditioned for Morgan and played two songs. The first one was a ballad that had been sung by the Four Freshmen called “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring”. Morgan was duly unimpressed. The second song they performed for him was their original composition “Surfin’”. Although Morgan didn’t really like the sound, he recognized that the boys had hit on two very popular themes: rock ‘n’ roll and surfing. Morgan made some calls and soon arranged a recording session for them to release their song on Candix Records.

 

SURFIN’ – THE BEACH BOYS

“Now the dawn is breaking and we really gotta go, but we’ll be back here very soon that you better know, yeah my surfer knots are rising and my board is losing wax, but that won’t stop me, baby ‘cause you know I’m coming back…” Surfin’ – The Beach Boys

The Pendletones recorded two surfing songs at Keen Recording Studio in October 1961. Murry took the demos to Herb Newman, owner of Candix and Era Records. Upon listening to “Surfin” and the song that would become the record’s b-side, “Luau”, Murry Wilson was able to land for his children something he was never able to acquire for himself, a recording contract.

The group was signed to Candix Records on December 8, 1961, and they promptly recorded professional versions of the two songs. When the records were pressed and the first box was sent to the Pendletones, they eagerly ripped open the box to see their first record for themselves. Much to their surprise, their band name had been changed from the Pendletones to the Beach Boys. Someone in the record label had decided that the group’s name had little to do with what they were singing about and thought a name more closely associated with the theme would be more appropriate. Originally, the record label intended to change the group’s name to The Surfers, but Russ Regan, who worked for Era Records as a promoter, informed them there was already a group with that name. Regan, who would later go on to become President of 20th Century Fox Records, suggested the name change.

And thus, the Beach Boys were born.

 

 

KEITH MEETS MICK

“You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles, but one mornin’ on Dartford Stn…I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me… anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger and…is the greatest R&B singer this side of the Atlantic and I don’t mean maybe. ” -18-year-old Keith Richards’ letter to his Aunt Patty


Keith Richards as a child

That pretty much sums up their first meeting, although it’s been largely told the other way around, that Mick was carrying blues records and Keith was carrying his guitar. The quote above is taken from a letter confirmed to be written by Keith Richards’, so I’m inclined to believe the evidence. The fact that Richards doesn’t mention if he was carrying a guitar or not doesn’t mean he didn’t, so I’m assuming he did, or else Mick wouldn’t have asked him to join his group.


A teenage Mick Jagger

Keith Richards was 17 when he met the 18-year-old Michael “Mick” Philip Jagger on the morning of October 17, 1961, at Dartford Station in Kent. Mick was on his way to the London School of Economics and Keith, carrying his Hofner cutaway electric guitar, was headed to Sidcup Art College when they recognized each other as having been classmates at Wentworth Primary School. As they boarded the train together, they spoke of the music they loved. Mick was indeed heavily into blues music and Keith was a rock ‘n’ roller. By the end of their trip, Keith had agreed to join Mick’s band, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. That band was short-lived, gratefully, because that name had to go, but Mick and Keith remained friends, bound by their mutual love of music. They decided to work together in finding another band to play in. It would be the following year, 1962, when Mick answered an ad in Jazz News, a Soho club information sheet from another young musician by the name of Brian Jones who was inviting musicians to audition to form a new R&B group.


Brian Jones

 

…TO BE CONTINUED IN THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL 1962

THE TOKENS – ELVIS PRESLEY – BOBBY VEE – BARRY MANN & CYNTHIA WEIL

by Robert Seoane

 

SOLOMON LINDA AND
THE EVOLUTION OF THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT

Zulu music was all the rage in 1930’s Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the popular local groups at the time was the Evening Birds, headed by falsetto singer Solomon Ntsele, which he later changed to “Linda”, his clan name.


South African Postage Stamp honoring Solomon Linda, illustrated by Hendrik Gericke

In 1939, Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds were signed to the Gallo Record Company. Linda had already been working at Gallo packaging records when he and his group were discovered by the company’s talent scout, Griffith Motsieloa. Motsieloa took the group to record label owner, Italian immigrant Eric Gallo. At the time, Gallo’s recording studio was the only one in Sub-Sahara Africa. Gallo allowed them to record a few of their songs one particular day, produced by Motsieloa, and during their impromptu jams, Linda sang a very high sustained note that descended into a bed of male vocals rhythmically repeating “Uyembubeh”. Then, right before the recording fades out, Linda’s falsetto goes into an impromptu melody that would evolve thirty years later into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, a 1961 hit record for a group called The Tokens.

Linda and the group called the impromptu recording “Mbube”, which means “lion” in Zulu. It may possibly be the first recording ever with a male falsetto as lead. Men didn’t sing falsetto then, leaving that task up to the female vocalist. But Solomon Linda’s tenor voice had the capacity to reach highs otherwise unheard of on record until then.

The Evening Birds were also groundbreakers in the use of four bass vocals, practically eliminating the need for musical instruments, singing the sounds that normally would come out of a musical instrument a capella.

“Mbube” was released by Gallo Records in 1939 and eventually went on to sell over 100,000 copies in South Africa. Linda and the Evening Birds continued their live appearances and dressed in fancy pin-striped suits during each performance in an effort to suggest a sophisticated air about them. Although they were successful in South Africa, Linda sold the rights to his music, including “Mbube”, to Gallo for a measly 10 shillings ($2 USD at the time), relinquishing all rights to his songs.

The Evening Birds stayed together until 1948 but Linda continued to record solo after that, having gained wide popularity in South Africa thanks to “Mbube”. Eventually, the song made it overseas in the early 1950s and into the hands of musicologist Alan Lomax who found the recording intriguing. He played the 78 rpm record to his friend Pete Seeger, he of the most popular folk group at the time in America, The Weavers. Seeger liked it and retitled it “Wimoweh” because that’s what he thought the “Uyembubeh” refrain was saying. They recorded their own version of it in 1952, without alerting Solomon Linda or anyone else who may have had the rights to the original tune should they be getting some deserved royalties for its success. “Wimoweh” became a Top Twenty hit in the USA in 1952 and from that point, it would slowly be added into the fabric of America’s popular music.

Right about halfway through the Weavers’ live recording, that melodic line that Linda had come up with before the fade out in “Mbube” and would later become the main melody in the Tokens’ version, is sung by Weavers’ tenor, Seeger.

In the Weavers original 1952 recording, Seeger starts by explaining their discovery of the song, admitting it came from South Africa. He incorrectly claims that the crux of the song was in the word “Wimoweh” instead of “Mbube” that meant “lion” in Zulu.

That same year in ’52, Jimmy Dorsey recorded a sped up, jazzed version of “Wimoweh”, with an amazing horn solo that feels the song from a whole different, danceable direction.

Three years later, the Weavers re-recorded a live version of “Wimoweh” in Carnegie Hall in 1955 and released it in 1957, making it even more popular in America. Judging by the audience response as the Weavers begin to sing the familiar melody, it had already become a well-known tune from a popular group of the time. When looking at the song credits on that album however, there is no songwriting credit. Instead of Solomon Linda’s name. it’s listed as “traditional”.

Over the ensuing years, it was covered internationally by artists such as Peruvian singer Yma Sumac who, with her deep-voiced and amazing falsetto-jazz, big band rendition, put Linda’s melody front and center.

Other artists who covered the compositions include South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, whose cover is the most faithful to Solomon Linda’s original “Mbube” version, sung lovingly and proudly in Zulu.

The Kingston Trio recorded their own version of “Wimoweh” in 1959 and was faithful to the Weavers’ interpretation. It was the last track of Side One in their second album, “The Hungry I”, when the Trio’s popularity knew no bounds. In the live version of their recording, vocalist Dave Guard explains that in English, the Zulu lyrics were saying “the lion is sleeping, the lion is sleeping.”

As a result, everyone in the country had the “Wimoweh” melody ingrained in their brains, and as records were sold and an assortment of different versions were recorded, not a penny went to Linda, or Gallo who owned the rights.

Enter the Tokens, a record company musical group from Brooklyn, New York. The group was a result of an evolution of musicians that began in 1955 as the Linc-Tones. In the beginning, one of its original members was Neil Sedaka.

Lead vocalist Jay Siegel joined the Linc-Tones when original member Eddie Rabkin left the group. Along with Sedaka, Siegel and the rest of the group recorded their first single “While I Dream” in 1956. The following year, Sedaka and the other founding member Cynthia Zolotin left the group. The only two left were Siegel and the only remaining founding member of the Linc-Tones, Hank Medress.

Siegel and Medress decided to continue together, so they recruited two additional members and changed their name to the quite random “Darrell & The Oxfords”. The newly evolved group recorded and released “Picture In My Wallet” in 1957.

By 1960, after running through a gamut of band members and band names, they settled on the Tokens. They also had included a 13-year-old genius. Mitch Margo was a multi-instrumentalist and his older brother Phil, five years his senior, was a baritone.

Signed to Warwick Records, the Tokens released their first single, “Tonight I Fell In Love” in early 1961. It was a respectable debut, climbing up to Number 15 on the Billboard Pop chart that year. It gave them enough popularity and success to land a spot on television on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”. As a result, the Tokens suddenly became in demand and soon they were offered the opportunity to record a newly written song called ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

It occurred to two RCA record producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, that no English language lyrics had ever been written for “Wimoweh”, so they hired Julliard trained lyricist and arranger George David Weiss to write a rough translation of the Zulu lyrics. Similar to Sumac’s version, Weiss highlighted the “in the jungle “musical line to become the melody of the song. The result was a set of compelling lyrics that has ever since replaced “Wimoweh” in the national consciousness.

“In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…
Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh
Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight…
Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh
Hush my darling, don’t fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight…
Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, Wimoweh…
– The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens

The result was stunning. A pop song that sounded totally different from anything else on the radio. It made it to Number One on December 12, 1961 and stayed there for three weeks where it went on to sell more than a million copies.

Solomon Linda was acutely aware of the phenomenon his song had become on the other side of the world and probably bristled at the fact that not only did he not own the song anymore, even if he had, those who had used it to much success were not even aware of his existence. By 1962, Linda was impoverished, without any money and suffering from a kidney insufficiency that would soon cost him his life. Indeed, on October 8, 1962, Solomon Linda died of renal failure at age 53. The family couldn’t afford to buy him a tombstone and one wasn’t constructed for 18 years.

But there was hope for the Linda family still, albeit a long wait to set things straight. Johannesburg, being colonized by the United Kingdom at the time of Linda’s birth, was under British law, which stated that after twenty-five years after the death of a composer who sold his music, that music would automatically revert back to the composer or the rightful heirs. His heirs however weren’t aware of this and by 1987 “Mbube” had spawned a small industry that had generated millions of dollars since its first recording in 1939.


Walt Disney’s “The Lion King” (1994)

Things began to turn around in the year 2000 when author Rian Malan wrote an article for Rolling Stone Magazine about Solomon Linda’s story. In the article, Malan pointed out that “The Lion Seeps Tonight” had earned $15 million USD just for being used in Walt Disney’s classic animated film “The Lion King” alone. Enough public interest was raised after the publication of the article to interest filmmaker Francois Verster. Verster and Malan cooperated in making a documentary called “A Lion’s Trail”, which aired on PBS in 2002. The doc laid out the entire injustice done to Solomon Linda with the international success of a song that was born from his impromptu melody.

The documentary had armed Solomon Linda’s heirs with enough irrefutable evidence to make their case to not only Gallo Records, who owned the song when Linda sold it for 10 shillings way back when, but also to the South African government. With their support, Linda’s heirs sued the Walt Disney Company for royalties due them for the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in “The Lion King” (1994) movie and stage musical still playing in 2016 on Broadway.

The Walt Disney Company cooperated and helped Linda’s heirs reach a settlement with Abilene Music, the company that owned worldwide rights for the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for an undisclosed sum in 2006. The settlement included all worldwide royalties owed to them retroactive to 1987 when the song should have been rightfully transferred to Linda’s heirs, as well as all future royalties for its worldwide use. From then on, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” will always be acknowledged as derived from “Mbube” and Solomon Linda will always be listed as co-composer on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, along with Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss and Albert Stanton.

A trust was formed to administer the copyright of “Mbube” and to receive payments due on their behalf from the worldwide use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. At long last, sixty-seven years after it was first recorded, Solomon Linda was properly acknowledged.

Even today, the Tokens still tour as (original lead vocalist) Jay Siegel’s Tokens with their hit song as the centerpiece of their show. The group’s website has a list of upcoming booked dates for 2016 that goes into January 2017. Former founding member Jay Traynor was with the group up until his death on January 2, 2014 at age 70.

“Everyone knows “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. It doesn’t matter where we go, where we perform. From kids that are 3 years old to people who are 80 years old, they know the song. Dignitaries know the song, the Presidents of the United States… I think its one of the most recognizable melodies in the world, and its still hard for me to believe that a kid from Brooklyn made musical history.” – Jay Siegel, lead singer; The Tokens

 

ELVIS PRESLEY

On January 8, 1961, Elvis Presley kissed his rock ’n’ roll ass goodbye. He signed a five-picture deal with Hall Wallis, promising to star in one crummy movie musical a year for five years. And so he did, between extended bouts of indiscriminate partying with his growing collection of hangers-on that would soon be known as the Memphis Mafia.

His musical career was still going strong in 1961, although any aural semblance of the rock ‘n’ roll Elvis before his Army days was becoming increasingly rare. Looking back, 1961 would prove to become the last big year of the first phase of his career, as the big bang that begat the comet that was Elvis was commencing to implode. 1961 would also be the last year that Elvis would release a worthy output of quality singles, with each subsequent year proving less and less popular in terms of chart success for the King.

Elvis’ focus on making movies from that point on would mark the turning point of his inevitable slide into irrelevance. In the long run, although he spent the Sixties sidelined by the musical upheaval brought on by the British Invasion of rock & roll that would suddenly begin in 1964 when the Beatles took the charts over, Elvis’ fame and popularity would remain unaffected despite the mediocre output of movies and music throughout the rest of his career. His movies managed to all turn a profit at the box office and, despite the fact that he barely made a dent in the Pop charts during that period, he still had a loyal hardcore fan base that bought anything and everything he released.

A year after having left the Army, with critics poison-penning predictions that he would never regain the popularity he lost during his absence, the Elvis Presley of 1961 was at the peak of his fame. He was no longer a threat to the Establishment, or even a symbol of rebellion to his young peers. Presley manager Col. Tom Parker had successfully molded Elvis into a palatable product for the whole world to worship, and wholesome enough to be embraced even by adult society. Elvis Presley had traded his rock ‘n’ roll soul for the love of the world.

Other milestones that come to mark the end of this phase of his career also occurred in 1961. It would be the last year the King would perform on-stage until 1968 when he appeared in a comeback special on NBC, and it would also be the last year he would have a Number One single until his brief pop chart resurgence eight years later in 1969.

In January he had wrapped up the filming of his latest movie “Wild In The Country” and was presented a plaque on the 8th, his 26th birthday, that read “Happy Birthday, King Karate”, a reference to his growing interest in the martial art.

After “Wild In The Country” wrapped production, he returned to his home in Tupelo, Mississippi, not just to see his father but also to admire the Elvis Presley Youth Center in which he had invested $14,000 four years earlier. Upon his arrival on February 1, he discovered that the youth center did not exist and neither did the money he had invested. Three days later, his cousin Junior Smith died, overcome by alcohol addiction. Elvis’ return home was not what he had expected, so he must’ve been relieved when he got a call to return to re-shoot the ending of “Wild In The Country”. The movie’s original ending had fared poorly among a group of test audiences, so Elvis rushed back to his more comfortable celebrity lifestyle in Hollywood. He had outgrown his hometown.

 

SURRENDER – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis Presley released one of the biggest hits of his career on February 7, 1961, eventually becoming one of the best selling singles of all time. Indeed, “Surrender” was similar to his early work in quality and no reason to think that Presley’s music was going to lose its luster. The song was an adaptation of a 1902 Neapolitan ballad by Ernesto De Curtis called “Torna A Sorrento” (“Come Back to Sorrento”). The song was adapted for Presley by famed songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who had written many hits for several pop stars of the day during that period, including Dion’s hit “A Teenager In Love” and several songs for the Drifters such as “This Magic Moment” and “Save The Last Dance For Me”.

On September 12, 1995, Luciano Pavarotti joined rocker Meat Loaf on stage at an event to benefit the children of Bosnia, and together they melded the English and Italian lyrics of this classic composition in a nice tribute to the song and its modernized version.

Pomus and Shuman had already delivered a string of hits for the Drifters in the last two years before turning their attention to writing material for Elvis, ultimately composing 25 songs for him in all, including their adaptation of “Surrender”.

“Surrender” entered the Billboard Hot 100 Pop chart for the week ending February 20, 1961 at Number 24. Exactly one month later, it would be residing on the top spot and stay at Number One for two weeks.

On February 25, 1961, Elvis’ ego was further assuaged when Tennessee governor Buford Ellison declared Elvis Presley Day in Memphis. At the luncheon, RCA Records presented Elvis with a diamond gold watch for selling over 75 million records since he burst into the spotlight five short years before. Later that evening, he performed one of his final live concerts at a private event to an admiring throng in Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium. The whole event was moved to Graceland later that night with an after-party, one in a string of many that would become commonplace in his home.

 

I FEEL SO BAD – ELVIS PRESLEY

On March 12, 1961, Elvis entered the studio for the first time since the previous November to record songs for his next album, scheduled to be released in the summer. Among the tracks laid down was “I Feel So Bad”. It was originally set to be included in the album, but Elvis felt the song would make a good single, overruling his manager Col. Tom Parker’s white-bread suggestion to release the maudlin title song “Wild In The Country” from his upcoming movie.

Elvis began filming his ninth movie “Blue Hawaii” at the same time that “Surrender” made it to Number One on March 20th. Five days later, Elvis donned his famous gold lamé suit and walked onstage for the last time in seven years. It happened at Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena to help raise funds to complete a memorial for the USS Arizona, destroyed by bombs on December 7th, 1941. Col. Parker had suggested to Elvis that he perform there while filming in Hawaii. The raising of the funds to build the memorial had stalled in the last three years since the fundraising began and was falling short of the goal.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Colonel involved Elvis in a patriotic cause. In April of 1961, Parker wrote an official letter to his friend, then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, offering Elvis Presley’s participation to any patriotic event.

In 1961, people paid between $3 and $100 for a live concert ticket. In 2016 USD, that translates to between $25 and $800. In the end, they concert raised $62,000, or just under half a million in 2016 USD. As a result, the Memorial, straddling the battleship’s sunken hull, was able to finally open to the public on Memorial Day the following year: May 30, 1962, thanks in large part to Elvis. Today, it still remains a popular Hawaiian attraction.

The summer of 1961 had already been completely planned out between Hollywood and his record company, RCA, to be the Summer of Elvis.

“I Feel So Bad” entered the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Chart at Number 43 on the week ending May 15, 1961 and made it to Number Five by June 1st. That same month, Elvis released his thirteenth studio album, “Something For Everybody”. And on June 15th, his ninth movie,“Wild In The Country” was released.

 

WILD IN THE COUNTRY (MOVIE) – ELVIS PRESLEY

Judging by the movie trailer, there’s nothing wild about Elvis or anything else in this sorry excuse for a movie. “Mild In The Country” would have been a more appropriate title, proven in the promo for the film when the narrator announces “Wild they called him; wild he sang…”, then they cut to Elvis and Hope Lange in a car cheerily singing “marching off to get married this husky, dusky day”. Elvis hated most of the songs he recorded for his movies, each set worse than the previous batch, but for some reason he never exerted his power as the biggest pop star since Sinatra to control his musical output.

“Wild In The Country”, although it had songs, was Elvis’ last attempt at being regarded a serious actor before he succumbed to the musical comedies that would dominate his filmic output throughout the rest of the Sixties. He might have had a better shot at being taken seriously had the dramatic scripts been any more interesting, but the story development on all his films, much like the dreadfully boring ballads, was mostly formulaic, general-audience friendly and ultimately unimaginative. The result was a bad movie with bad songs and a waste of Elvis Presley’s born talent.

Elvis had three leading ladies in “Wild In The Country”. There was a cute short-haired brunette named Millie Perkins, who made her acting debut at age 21 when she played Anne Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959). His second leading lady was Hope Lange, a wholesome girl-next-door type and popular actress of the time. His third and sexiest leading lady was blonde bombshell of the moment, 18-year-old Tuesday Weld. Weld owed the start of her career to rock ‘n’ roll, having starred in Alan Freed’s “Rock, Rock, Rock” back in 1956 at the age of 13.

It was only fitting that Weld would be Elvis’ leading lady on and off the movie set. They dated briefly, but the relationship was frowned upon by the good Colonel. He warned him that Weld’s youth and vivacity would be bad for his career. The obedient Presley then attempted to shift his focus on Lange, but she was in the midst of a divorce with her husband and not in any shape to take on a relationship, especially with the most desired sex symbol of the time.

 

SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY – ELVIS PRESLEY

The picture chosen for the cover of his latest studio album showed how much he had changed. Gone was the pompadour, or the singing wild child portrayed in his 1956 debut album, replaced by a neat, trimmed down, clean-cut young man. He had filled out physically as well, looking less like the skinny 21-year-old boy of 1956 and more like the self-assured, confident 26 year old he had become. The picture of his smiling visage chosen for the cover stood in direct contrast to the raw, open mouthed yell photo of that debut album, when the only thing on the cover besides his wailing self playing guitar was his name. This album cover looked as prepackaged as it gets.

“Something For Everybody” was a collection of instantly forgettable mediocrity. The entire first side of the vinyl 33 1/3 rpm record were slow ballads, as though RCA Records had forgotten that Elvis Presley was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The second side was more up-tempo, filled with re-hauled rock ‘n’ roll songs that mostly sound like earlier, bigger hits. None of them are really even worth mentioning. It should be noted however that this didn’t dissuade the public from buying the album and making it the Number One seller of the Summer of ’61.

Elvis had completed his second movie of the year before the end of the season. He would become accustomed to starring in approximately 3 movies every year. On July 6th, he traveled to Crystal River, Florida to film his next scheduled movie production, “Follow That Dream”.

 

MARIE’S THE NAME (HIS LATEST FLAME)/LITTLE SISTER – ELVIS PRESLEY

Songwriting duo Pomus and Shuman were in the thick of writing songs for Elvis when they churned out the King’s next single, “Marie’s the Name (His Latest Flame)”.

Recorded with a Bo Diddley beat, the single was released in August and had a peculiar run on Billboard’s Pop chart. Where the vast majority of singles competing for the top spot on the coveted Billboard Hot 100 chart took over four weeks to crack through the Top Forty, “MTN(HLF)” entered the Top Forty at Number 32 during the first week of September, jumped the following week to Number 22, then reached its peak the next week to Number Four. Just as quickly, the single tumbled from Four to Ten to 26 where it then sank away like stone. It was a flash in the pan, a manufactured victim of a market clamoring for Elvis product that was consuming his music faster he could make it.

“MTN (HLF)” was originally recorded by Del Shannon and had been released on his “Runaway” album that same year, but it was buried among the album’s tracks and forgotten about until Elvis recorded it.

Although “Little Sister”, also written by Pomus and Shuman, was intended to be the B-side of the aforementioned, it managed to enter the Top Forty a week earlier than it’s A-side and stayed on the charts longer, ultimately reaching Number Five on the Billboard chart then falling out of the Top Ten on the same week “MTN (HLF)” made it to Number Four.

On December 8, 1970, Elvis performed a medley with “Little Sister” and, in a nod to his rivals the Beatles, “Get Back”, during a midnight performance in Las Vegas.

While the two sides of his hit single were competing with each other on the charts, Elvis took the month of September off and spent it in Las Vegas, where he proceeded to make it his mission to bed as many Las Vegas showgirls as he could, sometimes more than one at a time, in lavish parties that he threw regularly with his Memphis Mafia pals.

Upon his return to Graceland in October, Presley picks himself up a pet chimp and calls him Scatter, letting him run rampant throughout the estate, making the King’s wide expanse of land Scatter’s home.

 

BLUE HAWAII (ALBUM) – ELVIS PRESLEY

On October 20, Elvis released his fourteenth studio album, the soundtrack to his movie “Blue Hawaii”, although the movie wasn’t to be released until one month later.

Astoundingly, given its weak collection of songs, “Blue Hawaii” is the second most successful album of the Sixties on the US Top Pop Albums chart after the soundtrack to West Side Story. It spent twenty weeks at Number One and 39 weeks in the US Pop Albums Top Forty chart. It was certified triple platinum on July 30, 2002 when it surpassed total sales of three million copies.

One of the reasons for the album’s incredible popularity is because it contains one of Elvis’ best loved ballads. The remaining tracks however, are mediocre at best, with the usual blend of ballads, retreads of older compositions and one weak attempt at a rock ‘n’ roll single. The album is sprinkled with Hawaiian themed tunes, and for some reason they chose to delve into the vaults for old compositions for Elvis to sing instead of composing all new material.

 

BLUE HAWAII (SONG) – ELVIS PRESLEY

The title song of the movie was taken from a 1937 Bing Crosby vehicle called “Waikiki Wedding”, written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, a Hollywood songwriting duo who composed, among other early 20th century hits, ”Thanks For The Memories” which later became the theme song for mid-twentieth century American comedian Bob Hope.

“Blue Hawaii” has been sung many times by singers such as Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Willie Nelson, but Elvis Presley’s version remains the most popular one. Due to its many recorded renditions and no doubt to the original movie as well, “Blue Hawaii” has become one of that state’s theme songs.

 

ALMOST ALWAYS TRUE – ELVIS PRESLEY

One of the oldest melodies on the album comes from a French-Canadian children’s song called “Alouette” written in 1878. Exported to France over the ensuing decades, it was picked up by American soldiers in World War I when they fought to defend the country, then brought it home and introduced it to their children. In “Blue Hawaii”, Elvis sings a supposedly witty tune sung to the melody of “Alouette”.

As to why they chose this melody for Elvis to sing with English language lyrics that has nothing to do with the original song is anybody’s guess.

 

ALOHA OE – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis joins his Hawaiian buddies on a kayak in the movie to sing what is probably the most closely associated melody to the islands, “Aloha Oe” (English translation: “Farewell to Thee”). Written by Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom, ”Aloha Oe” is a lament for the loss of her country when she was arrested and imprisoned in an upstairs bedroom of the Iolani Palace in 1895 after the Counter Revolution failed to return Hawaii to her rule. Besides being monarch, Lili’uokalani was also a prolific songwriter, and was given only pencil and paper to entertain herself while incarcerated. She managed to have “Aloha Oe” and another handful of compositions smuggled to the United States, where it became a well-known song and forever linked to the future 50th state. Elvis pays brief homage to it in the movie.

 

NO MORE – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis continues his aural journey through cultures with the following track. This time, he sings English language lyrics to a popular Spanish song titled “La Paloma”, originally written in 1863, making it the oldest melody in the album. Again, one wonders why Elvis was recording songs from the 19th century when he’s supposed to be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Despite that quandary, “No More” is a pretty melody, and Elvis sings it beautifully, displaying his vocal range by reaching the high notes of the song effortlessly.

“La Paloma” was originally written by a Spaniard named Sebastián Iradier who was inspired to write it after traveling to Cuba. He died in obscurity two years after he had written it, completely unaware that his composition will have been performed and recorded in many different languages and styles for the ensuing 150+ years. Besides taking root in Mexico, “La Paloma” was also very popular in Hawaii, among other parts of the world, hence the reason for the inclusion of this song in the movie. It seems that the producers of the film wanted to make “Blue Hawaii” a travelogue of the music and scenery of the location the movie was set in with Elvis as your genial host.

 

MOONLIGHT SWIM – ELVIS PRESLEY

Side One’s closing track is a remake of a 1957 record by actor Anthony Perkins that only made it to Number 24 in Billboard’s Pop chart that year. In the movie, Elvis is accompanied by female vocals. In the movie, he and five girls no less, travel down a long, lonely road singing the song.

 

KU-UI-PO – ELVIS PRESLEY

The second side of the album is mostly composed of material specifically written for the movie, except for the final track. It opens with “Ku-Ui-Po” (Hawaiian for “sweetheart”), an uninteresting ballad that sets the stage for another tedious journey through musical cultures and genres.

 

ITO EATS – ELVIS PRESLEY

“Ito Eats” is a calypso song, a popular genre at the time, and is placed in the movie to obviously capitalize on the craze begun by Harry Belafonte and “Day-O” back in 1957. There’s no other reason it should be in the movie, except for a brief “comic” routine about his friend Ito and his big appetite.

“Ito eats like teeth are out of style…” Ito Eats – Elvis Presley

 

SLICIN’ SAND – ELVIS PRESLEY

“Slicin’ Sand” is just one of only two of the fourteen tracks that can be called a rock ‘n’ roll song, albeit not a very good one. It’s a by-the-numbers composition, where songwriters Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett basically re-write Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”, a classic rock ‘n’ roll song that Elvis had recorded and was closely associated to. The choreography in the movie though, showcased Elvis’ talents as a dancer, something that had been a controversial element that had made him such a threat just five years earlier.

The next three tracks, as well as the previous two, were all written by Tepper and Bennett. These were the first five of forty-three songs the duo would write for Elvis, mostly for his movies. These three subsequent tracks were all derived from other songs. “Hawaiian Sunset”, complete with Hawaiian xylophone and slide guitar, is reminiscent of “Aloha Oe”.

“Beach Boy Blues” is written in standard blues form and is an album highlight, joining Elvis once again to the type of music he was born to sing.

“Island of Love” is yet another Hawaiian themed song. In the movie, Elvis sings them with his five girls again, not in a car this time but on horseback.

 

HAWAIIAN WEDDING SONG – ELVIS PRESLEY

The last song on the album and close of the movie, “Hawaii Wedding Song” is another creaker, dating way back to 1926. It was part of an operetta titled “Prince of Hawaii” written by Charles E King. The lyrics were written in English by composers Dick Manning and Al Hoffman, the latter whose most well known song is the nonsense tune “Mairsy Doats”.

Elvis sings this song at the end of the movie as he gets hitched Hawaiian-style, floating down a river in a raft with his bride and kissing her as the music crescendos and the credits roll. It was a happily-ever-after that was expected from an Elvis movie, but had no resemblance to rock ‘n’ roll.

 

CAN’T HELP FALLING IN LOVE/ROCK-A-HULA BABY – ELVIS PRESLEY

“Can’t Help Falling In Love” is the biggest hit single that ever came out of an Elvis movie. It’s gone platinum, having sold well over a million singles since its debut on Billboard’s Pop chart on December 3, 1961, and has since been recorded by many artists, including UB40, who took the song once again to the top of the charts thirty-one years later in 1993.

It was written by the songwriting duo Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, known as “Hugo & Luigi” within the business, along with Julliard-trained songwriter George David Weiss. Hugo & Luigi had hired Weiss to write English-language lyrics and modernize the 1952 Weavers’ song “Wimoweh”, which was taken from the 1939 African song “Mbube”, written by Solomon Linda. Hugo & Luigi had it re-written and released it as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, given to record to a teen group called the Tokens. “Lion” rocketed to Number One in the Billboard chart in November 1961 despite the fact that it was originally supposed to be a B-side to another song designated to be the hit single. Apparently, as they all worked together on “Lion”, all three composed “Can’t Help Falling In Love” for Elvis and his movie. Hugo & Luigi had already written for Elvis earlier that year for his previous film “Wild In The Country”, composing the title tune.

Two of Elvis’ biggest hits in the Sixties had been been derived from Italian opera” “It’s Now Or Never” (“O, Sole Mio”) and “Surrender” (“Torna A Surriento”). For “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, they “borrowed” a French song that had been well-known since the 19th century. The melody is based on “Plaisir d’amour” (“The Pleasure Of Love”), a classical French love song written in 1784 by Jean-Paul-Egide Martini (1741–1816).

“Can’t Help Falling In Love” is probably Elvis Presley’s most famous, most beautiful ballad, having endured all these decades and still holding its own today, probably because the 230+ year old melody is obviously timeless. Updated versions have been showcased in TV shows and movies, most recently “Coyote Ugly” (2000) and “Lilo & Stitch” (2002).

Elvis knew the song was special, too. He usually sang it as the final song at most of his live appearances. Most notably, Elvis sang it at the end of his comeback NBC special in 1968 and in 1973 during the historic live global telecast “Aloha From Hawaii”.

On January 28, 1962 “Can’t Help Falling In Love” made it to its highest position on the Billboard National Pop chart at Number Two and stayed there for a week.

The B-side was a so-so rocker called “Rock A Hula Baby”. It attempted to mix Hawaiian folk with rock ‘n’ roll. Although the song falls short of Presley’s Fifties catalog, it was a lively jumpin’ song and a perfect alternative to the single’s A-Side, albeit derivative of his earlier recordings.

“Rock A Hula Baby” entered the Billboard Pop chart on November 28, 1961 and reached its peak at Number 23 on the first week of January 1962. The segment when Elvis sings the song in “Blue Hawaii” is a highlight of the movie as he swivels his hips and gives the viewer all the Elvis moves that made him famous.

The song was co-written by “The Mad Professor” as Elvis used to call him, Ben Weisman, who wrote more songs for Elvis than anyone else, with frequent collaborator Fred Wise along with Dolores Fuller. Fuller’s claim to dubious fame, besides having penned a few songs for the King, was her brief romance with the man considered to be the worst movie director of all time, Ed Wood. Tim Burton made a film about his life starring Johnny Depp in 1994 with Sarah Jessica Parker playing Dolores Fuller. Fuller also appeared in some of Wood’s classic turkeys like “Glen or Glenda” (1953), which also starred the cross-dressing Wood.

 

BLUE HAWAII (THE FILM)

“Blue Hawaii” premiered on November 22, 1961. Despite mixed reviews from film critics, the movie managed to be the 10th most profitable film of the year. One of Elvis’ notable co-stars in the movie was the 35-year-old British actor Angela Lansbury, star of the TV show “Murder, She Wrote” from 1984 to 1996, who played his loud-mouthed countrified mother, comically transforming herself into the character. Lansbury got her start at age eighteen when she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in “Gaslight” (1944) where she portrayed a very sexy femme fatale.

“I was obviously awed by being in ‘The Presence’, but he was an awfully nice, young man in those days… very caring person. And she was such a funny character. The whole reaction to her son who didn’t understand at all. He loved it, he thought it was terribly funny.” –Angela Lansbury

“Blue Hawaii” would be the first of three Elvis movies filmed in Hawaii, the islands turning into one of his favorite destinations. He would return the following year to make “Girls, Girls, Girls” (1962) and then again for “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” in 1966. Actress Juliet Prowse, who was his leading lady in “GI Blues”, had been asked to appear with him again in “Blue Hawaii” but her demands were such that they passed her over for Joan Blackman, an actress who vanished from the radar soon after this movie.

When Elvis arrived to film the movie in March 1961, Hal Wallis had found him so pale that he ordered him to tan up as quickly as possible and got him a tanning lamp.

The movie had been originally called “Hawaii Beach Boy” before Wallis changed it to “Blue Hawaii”. After three weeks of shooting, they returned to Los Angeles and the Paramount studios to film interior scenes that didn’t require Hawaiian scenery. Between takes, Elvis displayed the karate techniques he was learning to an attentive cast and crew, sometimes ending up with swollen hands and fingers from his demonstrations. At night, he threw lavish parties and the actresses in the film were warned to stop attending because the following day they would come in looking like hell.

Elvis was already filming his next movie “Kid Galahad” in Idyllwild, California at the same time that “Blue Hawaii” was playing in the theaters. He wrapped up shooting “KG” on December 20, 1961 and decided to skip returning to Graceland for the holidays and flying to Las Vegas with his Memphis Mafia instead. He didn’t want to spend Christmas with his father Vernon’s new wife, Dee because he felt she was married to his father for the money. By December 28th, Vernon Presley moved out of Graceland with Dee and her three children to a new home in Memphis.

As 1961 came to a close, Elvis found himself surrounded by sycophants and starlets that all wanted a piece of him and he didn’t mind giving them a piece as long as he got one too. Although he was enjoying every minute of it and indulging on his fame and popularity, he always had Priscilla Beaulieu in the back of his mind. Although he had had little contact with the girl he met back in Germany during his stint in the Army, he regarded her as the girl waiting for him to come home. It would be another six or so months before they saw each other again, but even after that, being the most sought after sex symbol in the world, Elvis was still years away from asking for her hand in marriage.

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THE SHIRELLES – CAROLE KING – DEL SHANNON – THE MARCELS – ERNIE K. DOE – BOBBY LEWIS – THE REGENTS – BEN E. KING – GARY US BONDS – ETTA JAMES

by Robert Seoane

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed.”
–John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.

The first year of the decade began with a promise from a young President. His message was universal and timeless, despite the fact that his own time left on earth was close to ending. In his Inaugural Address lives too, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll; a style of music invented by this new generation of Americans born in this century that Kennedy spoke about.

Rock ‘n’ roll at the dawn of 1961 was a watered down beat, still years away from a recharge that by now it so desperately needed. In 1961, this excitement for the future was embodied in the country’s young President and rock ‘n’ roll was just the soundtrack heard on everyone’s portable transistor or car AM radio, and in glorious monophonic sound no less. The music was becoming the foundation for a revolutionary youth movement, developing looser styles and delivering them to the older generation, ultimately to worldwide acceptance.

New dance crazes popped up soon after the Twist exploded into global consciousness just the year before. In 1961, an R&B group called the Vibrations recorded the first in a string of songs about the next dance craze, “The Watusi”.

Soon, rock ‘n’ roll artists of the day like Chubby Checker, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and the Isley Brothers recorded their own versions of “The Wah-Watusi”.

In 1961, rock ‘n’ roll was still establishing its sound, developing their groups and staking out new musical genres, still testing the shaky ground that would outrageously blossom in the years to come once the British Musical Invasion exploded in 1964. By ‘66, conventional wisdom dropped the “roll” and just called it rock. Rock music then continued to branch out further, into different sub-genres, led and demonstrated by the musical experimentation of the Beatles, the poetry of Bob Dylan and the uncensored funk of James Brown. The trunk and branches of the tree had grown strong. By 1970, the leaves would begin to sprout.

But I get ahead of myself.

 

THE SHIRELLES

“The Shirelles had a ‘sound’, a word that people from the Sixties vocal-group era use with a lot of reverence. Shirley Alston Reeves, who did most of the group’s lead vocals, wasn’t a gospel shouter like Arlene Smith of the Chantels. Shirley was more sentimental and street. When she said, ‘Baby, it’s you,’ you thought, ‘Baby, it is me.’” -Paul Schaffer; Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time

Since 1955, the year when rock ‘n’ roll burst into the world scene, the new musical genre had been the realm of men only. That ended in 1961 when three young high school girls got together to form the basis for scores of girl groups to come.

The Shirelles hold the distinction of being the first successful all-girl group in rock ‘n’ roll history. There had been a handful of other lesser known variations before, but the Shirelles cemented their reputation in 1961 when their single “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” made it to Number One in Billboard’s Pop chart, the first rock ‘’n roll girl group to do so.

Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee were high school friends at Passaic High in New Jersey when they won a talent show in 1957, calling themselves the Poquellos. Still minors, they were at first reluctant to sign on to any record label that would want them for an act, but by the following year, they relented. Their fellow classmate, Mary Jane Greenberg, who heard them at the talent show, was responsible for the launch of their career. Mary Jane’s mother Florence happened to own a record label named Tiara, and Mary Jane insisted that her mother listen to her three high school friends. She did, and immediately recognized their talent for blending their voices together and their penchant for doo-wop and pop.

Florence Greenberg believed in the quartet and became their manager for the long haul. Once under contract with Greenberg and touring on a regular basis, they changed their name to the Shirelles, coming up with it by taking the lead vocalist’s first name, Shirley, and adding an “elle” suffix, much like a lot of other popular groups at the time, such as the Chantels.


I MET HIM ON A SUNDAY – THE SHIRELLES

“They wrote their very first hit, ‘I Met Him on a Sunday,’ themselves, when they were still high school students in New Jersey. It was on this song that the group combined doo-wop with very accessible pop melodies.” -Paul Schaffer; Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time

Their first single did well enough in the local area where the record was distributed in, so Tiara licensed it to Decca for national release. It made it up to Number 49 in Billboard’s Pop chart.

The Shirelles’ doo-wop sing-a-long in this tune, “Doo ronday ronday ronday papa doo…”, established their distinctive sound; a strong female lead vocal backed by three background vocals that harmonize the doo-wop hook. That formula soon became a blueprint for Sixties girl groups to come, such as the Chiffons, the Crystals, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Marvelletes, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, the Supremes, right on down the alphabet to the Velvelettes.

“I Met Him On A Sunday” was written by all four Shirelles for the talent show at their high school in Passaic, New Jersey that got them a record contract. It’s ultimately just a simple, repetitive melody, similar to something children would sing while playing patty cake. Still, once they were signed to Greenberg, it was the first song they committed to vinyl and ultimately, it gave the Shirelles national footing by 1958, however small.

Tiara Records was sold to Decca that same year along with the Shirelles’ contract for $4,000 (approximately $32,500 in 2015 dollars) and Greenberg stayed on as their manager, consistently booking them to establish their name as they struggled for recognition. The meager success of their first single was helpful in getting them booked to bigger venues.

DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE – THE SHIRELLES

Their second single was a remake of a song recorded in 1957 by the 5 Royales. The Shirelles’ version didn’t do much better on the charts than the original upon its first release, not climbing any higher than Number 83 in Billboard’s Pop chart. Decca quickly gave up on them, labeled them a one-hit act, and returned their contract back to Greenberg. Certain that it was a hit, Greenberg re-released the song that same year through her new label, Scepter Records, but it again stalled, this time at Number 89. It would be another two years before it would be released again to make a serious dent in the charts.

TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT – THE SHIRELLES

Their third single did much better than the first two. Produced by “16 Candles” songwriter, Luther Dixon and co-written by him and Shirley Owens, “Tonight’s the Night” climbed to Number 39 in the Billboard Pop chart and Number 14 R&B. The song’s success, having cracked the coveted Pop Top Forty in late 1960, gave the Shirelles a bigger boost in their ability to draw a crowd, and Greenberg found she could start booking them as supporting acts for bigger names such as Little Richard and Etta James. Still barely out of their teens, the Shirelles’ parents consented to touring only if a designated person would oversee them. Both Etta James and Ruth Brown, legendary singers and older peers to the young quartet, saw to it that the young girls were chaperoned regularly while they were all on tour.

Like “I Met Him On A Sunday”, “Tonight’s the Night” holds the distinction of having been co-written by Shirley Owens, the lead performer of the group, something pretty much unheard of in the dawn of the Sixties by anyone, let alone a member of an all girl group.

The song’s lyrical content was controversial in that it spoke of a young’s woman’s excited expectancy of losing her virginity. Some radio stations went as far as to ban the playing of the record outright because of such a scandalous topic for 1961.

“You said you’re gonna make me feel all aglow, well I don’t know, well I don’t know right now, I might love you so, I might love you so much you may break my heart, I may want you so much and all my dream been torn apart.” Tonight’s the Night – The Shirelles

Laced with the Shirelles’ unmistakable doo-wop style, “Tonight’s the Night” got them that much closer to national recognition, but it would be the following single that not only would shoot them into stardom but also cement their position in rock ‘n’ roll history.

WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW/BOYS – THE SHIRELLES

After Buddy Holly’s untimely and tragic demise, rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop acts were mostly made up of artists who needed songs written for them by professional songwriters. As a result, these songwriters churned song after song out daily, like link sausages to an ocean of acts thirsting for material. The Shirelles would have their first Number One hit thanks to one of these songwriters.

Determined to make the act a success, Florence Greenberg contacted record producer Don Kirshner for assistance in selecting the next single for the Shirelles. Don Kirshner’s legacy for forming the sound of early Sixties rock ‘n’ roll looms large. Based in New York’s famed Brill Building, Kirshner ran a hit factory that included legendary songwriters who were just at the start of their brilliant musical careers. Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weill, Barry Mann, Burt Bacharach and Hal David all passed through the Brill Building in New York City, still standing on 49th Street and Broadway. Each of these future legendary composers was paired up in a room with a piano, churning out song after song to compete with the other composers in the adjacent rooms. At the end of the day, they would perform their compositions to Kirshner and he would select the one he liked best to present to a current recording artist in need of material.

Goffin and King, as well as Weill and Mann, were two teams who wrote together and eventually married; both couples becoming close friends at the same time that they were competitive rivals. When Kirshner approached them both to write a song for the Shirelles, King and Goffin’s “Tomorrow” was chosen to present to the group.

King auditioned the song for the Shirelles. The original version was slower than the final Shirelles recording, and she played it for them on piano, much like the version in Carole King’s landmark album “Tapestry” (1971). Upon first listen, Shirley Owens didn’t like it, saying it sounded too country to fit the Shirelles’ sound, so King and Goffin added a string arrangement to the melody and sped up the tempo. Owens gave it another listen and changed her mind. Lengthening the title to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, then later to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, the Shirelles finally had the first career hit they had coveted all these years. Ironically, the song’s lyrics also dealt with the subject of having sex, much like their previous single, “Tonight’s the Night”, and as a result also got banned from airplay at some radio stations, but it wouldn’t be enough to tamp down the song’s staying power, simply due to the sheer loveliness of the tune and sweetness of the words.

“Is this a lasting treasure or just a moment’s pleasure? Can I believe the magic of your sighs? Will you still love me tomorrow?” Will You Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” has a special place in rock ‘n’ roll history, especially after Carole King included it in “Tapestry” and returning it to its melancholy roots.

BOYS – THE SHIRELLES

“Ringo always used to do a song in the show. Back then he had ‘Boys’. It was a little embarrassing because it went, ‘I’m talking about boys – yeah, yeah – boys’. It was a Shirelles hit and they were girls singing it, but we never thought we should call it Girls, just because Ringo was a boy. We just sang it the way they’d sung it and never considered any implications.” –Paul McCartney; Beatles Anthology

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’s” B-side, “Boys”, also holds a special distinction. It was given the seal of Rock Royalty approval when the Beatles selected it for their debut album “Please Please Me” in 1963. It was the first song by the group to showcase drummer Ringo Starr as lead vocalist, a chore Ringo was usually given once per album. “Boys” was selected for Ringo’s lead vocal debut primarily because ex-Beatle drummer Pete Best also used to sing it during their live performances.

“Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do ‘Boys’, which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth — you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.” –Paul McCartney; Rolling Stone

The Beatles’ version of the song replaces the Shirelles’ sax solo with George Harrison’s plucky guitar, introduced by a hearty “Alright, George” from Ringo. The song has much more urgency than the Shirelles’ version, with the British group turning a mid-tempo classic into a raucous rocker.

After the sudden success of their last single, Greenberg released “Dedicated To The One I Love” a third time and her long-time hunch was proven right. The song was a hit, climbing to Billboard’s Number Three Pop and Number Two R&B. The song was remade in 1967 by the Mamas and the Papas with Michelle Phillips singing lead vocal. It made it up to Billboard’s Number Two Pop, thanks to the group’s arrangement of the song, showcasing their harmonies and asserting the song’s reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll classic.

MAMA SAID – THE SHIRELLES

The Shirelles were at the height of their success when their next Top Ten single, “Mama Said”, was released. It’s a fun, catchy song with lyrics that became a colloquialism not long after the record’s release.

“And then she said someone will look at me like I’m looking at you one day, then I might find I don’t want it any old way, so I don’t worry ’cause…
…Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, my mama said.”
Mama Said – The Shirelles

Written by Luther Dixon and Willie Denson, “Mama Said” reached Number Four Billboard Pop in the Spring of 1962. Even today, you’ll hear it occasionally played on films, commercials and TV series, and not necessarily reminiscent of its time, but as a still potent commentary on life.


BABY IT’S YOU – THE SHIRELLES

The Shirelles’ next Top Ten single was written by future MOR Sixties composer, Burt Bacharach. It seems that Shirelles’ manager Florence Greenberg went back to the music factory that gave the group their first hit and asked Don “The Man With the Golden Ear” Kirschner for another nugget.

In 1957,Kirshner introduced composer Bacharach to Hal David, the young lyricist who would join Bacharach as songwriting partner for the rest of their mutual careers. Together, the duo went on to collect six Grammys. Bacharach also won an additional three Academy Awards, two of them for best score and best song from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Ironically enough, the lyrics of “Baby, It’s You” weren’t written by Hal David but by his brother Mack. It was one of the first compositions by Bacharach and a complete departure from the music he would later write. This was a torchy rock ‘n roll ballad.

“Many, many, many nights roll by. I sit alone at home and cry over you. What can I do? I can’t help myself. ‘Cause baby it’s you (sha-la-la-la la-ah). Baby it’s you…”
Baby, It’s You – The Shirelles

Luther Dixon produced the composition for the Shirelles and credited himself on the song as well, calling himself Barney Williams on the label along with Bacharach and David. It made Billboard Pop at Number Eight and got to Number Three in Billboard’s R&B chart in late 1961. The song was tailor-made for the Shirelles, particularly because of the doo-wop background vocals.

In early 1962, the Shirelles released their fourth album and called it “Baby, It’s You” to capitalize on the song’s popularity. The album did fairly well, rising only up to Number 59 in Billboard’s Album chart. It was the first of only two of their albums to even make a mark on the chart. A collection of songs that were mostly forgettable, it did contain two other songs that made the charts, “Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me)” and “Soldier Boy”.

In 1963, the Beatles recorded their debut album Please Please Me and chose “Baby, it’s You” to be one of the tracks. As they did with all the other songs the Beatles ever covered, they would either match it in quality or surpass it. In this case, the Beatles recorded the definitive version of the song, with John Lennon’s earnest vocals delivering the lyrics from the heart and Paul and George accompanying him in a very tongue-in-cheek manner with the ‘sha-la-las’.

SOLDIER BOY – THE SHIRELLES

Co-written by their favorite songwriter Luther Dixon and manager Florence Greenberg, “Soldier Boy” was the Shirelles’ second and final Number One hit, released in 1962.

By ’62, The United States had not seen armed conflict since the Korean War that ended nine years earlier. We weren’t at war with anyone, but there was beginning to be an involvement in Vietnam. Despite this lack of warfare, “Soldier Boy” still managed to become a hit. As a melody, the song is pleasant enough, although more evocative of an era than a stand-alone recording. The lyrics are exceedingly devotional, with an elementary corniness to it, and the organ playing in the background during the unimaginative guitar solo betrays its age. Yet it does have the quality of longing inherent in the recording that’s undeniable, not to mention the fact that there will always be someone who has lost a soldier boy and this song may provide some, if little, solace. For those two reasons, “Soldier Boy” is deserving of a niche in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Soldier boy, oh, my little soldier boy, I’ll be true to you. You were my first love and you’ll be my last love. I will never make you blue, I’ll be true to you…” Soldier Boy – The Shirelles

By 1962, the Shirelles were riding high on their success, appearing often as guests of famed DJ Murray the K on his “All Star Rock Shows” radio broadcast from WINS in New York City. In 1963, lead singer Shirley Owens and Doris Coley temporarily left the band due to a sudden epidemic of marriage. Then unknown singer, Dionne Warwick subbed for them during that time. Later that year, the original Shirelles sang in a hit comedy film of the era called “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”.

In early 1963 they released the song that would prove to be their last Top Ten Single.

FOOLISH LITTLE GIRL – THE SHIRELLES

“Foolish Little Girl” miraculously made it to Number 4 Pop and Number Nine R&B. The song is mediocre at best, and sounded the death knell for the group’s life on the national music charts.

By 1961, most of the black artists that were considered dangerous by White Establishment were gone from the airwaves. Little Richard had given up the “devil rock ‘n’ roll” to become a preacher. Chuck Berry was in jail for three years, guilty of transporting an underage female across state lines, a violation of the Mann Act. Even white rock ‘n’ roll acts with black influence had been either eliminated or watered down considerably. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career went south fast when it was revealed that he was married to his thirteen-year-old cousin. Even Elvis had returned from the Army with a totally revamped, cleaned up image, and over a dozen sound-alikes and lookalikes had sprung up during his stay in the Army. The following handful of singles by artists who had a brief fling with the spotlight were some of the musical highlights of 1961.

 

DEL SHANNON

Charles Weedon Westover took his stage name, Del Shannon, from both a local wrestler and a shortened version of his favorite car, the Cadillac Coupe DeVille. He and keyboardist Max Crook, who had developed a precursor to the synthesizer that Crook called a Musitron, wrote a handful of songs together and recorded a demo that Crook played for Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik of Talent Records in Detroit, Michigan. One of those songs recorded that put Crook’s Musitron to good use, was a tune called “Little Runaway”.

Westover and Crook were signed to become recording artists and composer to the Bigtop record label in 1960. It was Balk who suggested changing Westover’s name to Del Shannon. On January 21, 1961, the day after President Kennedy was inaugurated, Shannon and Crook re-recorded “Runaway” using the Musitron as the lead instrument. It was released the following month. By April, it reached Number One in Billboard’s Pop chart.

Showcased in the film “American Grafitti”, “Runaway” has a more Fifties feel to it, despite having been recorded and released in 1961.

Del Shannon never duplicated that early success again in his career. In the Seventies, like many musicians, he battled alcoholism as his star faded. Suffering from depression, Shannon committed suicide on February 8, 1990, killing himself with a .22 caliber rifle in his home. He was 55 years old.

 

BLUE MOON – RICHARD RODGERS AND LORENZ HART

The song “Blue Moon” has a long and varied trajectory that began when it was first written in the 1930s and reached its peak three decades later when rock ‘n’ roll dug its claws into it and made it into one of its own.

Despite doo-wop’s inevitable decline after a very popular ride hitching onto the rock ‘n’ roll beat since its inception in 1955, it left not with a whimper but with a bang with a few choice tunes, such as the aforementioned “Runaway” by Del Shannon. The other shot across the bow of rock ‘n’ roll history however, was the Marcels’ “Blue Moon”.

The music for “Blue Moon” was originally written in 1934 by famed film and theater composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It premiered in the movie “Manhattan Melodrama” that same year as the title song, with stars of the day William Powell and Myrna Loy. Although the melody was the same, the lyrics were totally different.

After the film’s release, Jack Robbins, head of MGM Studios’ publishing company, heard the commercial potential of the theme music of the movie, but he felt it needed a new title and more romantic lyrics. Hart had already changed the lyrics to that song more than once before and was reluctant to tackle it again, but ultimately he did.

“Blue moon/you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart/without a love of my own”. –Lorenz Hart

Hart chose the title “Blue Moon” because of the American term once in a blue moon, implying that the love he was singing about was a rare thing. In 1935, female singer Connie Boswell was the first to popularize it as a commercial record.

“Blue Moon” continued its journey through the American psyche when Billy Eckstine recorded it in 1949, peaking at Number 21 in March of that year.

It was Elvis Presley who pulled it into the rock ‘n’ roll genre when he recorded it for his debut album in 1956. His version was soft and spare, showcasing mainly Elvis’ vocal.

The Marcels’ took the famous doo-wop open of their version of “Blue Moon” from another song they performed in their act and sped it up, modernizing the tune for its day and making the composition their own with their thoroughly original take on it. Today, it’s another one of those tunes considered to be a typical Fifties song, even though it was recorded and released in 1961, proving that the pop music at that time hadn’t progressed much since the death of Buddy Holly two years earlier.

The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” made it to Number One for three weeks in the Billboard Pop chart and Number one R&B as well, sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold disc. It’s featured in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll”.

A version similar to the Marcels, but looser and sloppier sounding, was also released by a group called the Classics at around the same time, but that version stalled at Number 50 on the Billboard Pop chart.

Since its conception, “Blue Moon” has been performed and recorded by the likes of Benny Goodman, Julie London, Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, The Mavericks, Cowboy Junkies and many more. It’s been showcased in television and in films like Grease (1978) and Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” (1989).

The song has held its own in the 21st century as well. A rap version of “Blue Moon” plays during the opening credits of the abysmal film “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” (2002) with Eddie Murphy. Although this version copies The Marcels’, there’s a rap in the middle of the tune performed by Art Hodge and 40 Watt Hype, a one hit wonder whose career wasn’t helped much performing this song in a film considered to be one of the worst ever made.

The latest popular recording of “Blue Moon” occurred in 2011 when lead guitarist Noel Gallagher quit the group Oasis two years earlier, leaving the rest of the group, including his brother Liam, to continue the band without him. They renamed themselves Beady Eye and recorded “Blue Moon” as one of the tracks from their debut album. Their recording of the tune was meant as a tribute to Manchester City Football Club’s new 2011/2012 kit in England. It seems that Manchester City fans had been singing “Blue Moon” at matches for years during games, belting it out with gusto as if it were a heroic anthem. Gallagher sings it more like the Elvis recording.

“’Blue Moon’ is a top tune and has been City’s song for as long as I can remember. It’s been covered by loads of people but the only good one until now was the one Elvis did. I hope the fans buzz off our version and sing along to it at the stadium.” –Liam Gallagher

“Blue Moon” is one of those songs that will probably continue to be played, sung and remembered around the world for generations to come, largely because it has already been permanently woven into the pop culture fabric, with a helpful boost from Rock ‘n’ Roll.


MOTHER-IN-LAW – ERNIE K. DOE

Ernest Kador Jr.’s claim to rock ‘n’ roll history was this song, that made it to Number One for one week in the Billboard Pop on May 22, 1961. It’s a humorous look at the bane of every husband’s existence, the mother-in-law.

“Satan should be her name, to me they’re ‘bout the same. Every time I open my mouth, she steps in, tries to put me out, how could she stoop so low… mother in law…” Mother-in-Law –Ernie K. Doe

The comical demonization of the mother-in-law goes back to film and particularly television, when Fifties sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners used the idea of a visit from the mother-in-law as a fountain of comedic annoyance.

“Mother-In-Law” was written by Alan Toussaint, a legendary “behind the scenes” songwriter and record producer that wrote many hits in the Sixties and Seventies, including “I Like It Like That”, by the Beatles’ first copycat band the Dave Clark Five in 1965, “Working In The Coal Mine” (1966) recorded by Lee Dorsey and “Southern Nights” made popular by Glen Campbell in 1975. As producer, he worked with Dr. John on “Right Place, Wrong Time” (1973) and Patti Labelle on “Lady Marmalade” (1975). He played guitar in Paul McCartney’s “Venus & Mars” album that same year when the ex-Beatle produced his album in New Orleans, Toussaint’s hometown.

Toussaint was still touring at age 77 and was scheduled to play alongside old friend Paul Simon on December 8, 2015 at a benefit concert in New Orleans when he died of a heart attack in Madrid, Spain less than a month earlier, on November 10, following a performance that evening.

Like Toussaint, Kador was also born in New Orleans. In 1954, he changed his last name to the sound-alike moniker with an imaginary middle name “K.Doe” and became a member of the group the Blue Diamonds. A year later, he began to record solo albums, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that “Mother In Law” would become his one and only Number One Song.

It almost didn’t get recorded either. After take after unsuccessful take, writer Toussaint crumpled up the music and stormed out, giving up on the tune Doe was attempting to record. Fortunately, back-up singer Willie Hopper persuaded Doe to stay and try again, ultimately convincing him that it was a good song. Apparently, he was right.

 

TOSSIN’ & TURNIN’ – BOBBY LEWIS

“Tossin’ & Turnin” is one of those classic rock ‘n’ roll songs that define the genre. It can be found in probably every oldies compilation of that era, as it was also one of the biggest hits of all time in rock ‘n’ roll history. When it came out on April 24 1961, it climbed steadily but slowly for twelve weeks until it hit Number One in the Billboard chart on the Fourth of July. There it spent another seven weeks, one of only six songs released during the Sixties that stayed in that position for that length of time or longer. It was the soundtrack for the Spring and Summer of ’61. Billboard also named it the Number One song of that year, as well as the 27th biggest song of all time that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, having sold in excess of three million copies.

“Jumped outta bed, turned on the light, I pulled down the shade, went to the kitchen for a bite. Rolled up the shade, turned out the light, I jumped back into bed, it was the middle of the night.” Tossin’ & Turnin’ – Bobby Lewis

The artist who recorded the song, came upon it by happenstance. Bobby Lewis’ childhood was anything but normal. He was brought up in an orphanage in Indianapolis. By age six he was playing the piano. He moved to Detroit, Michigan and into a foster home at age 12, only to run away and back to Indianapolis two years later. There, he started working at carnivals. Soon, he took a gig singing with the Leo Hines Orchestra.

He went out on his own throughout the Fifties and did a lot of touring. He managed to cut a record called “Mumble Blues” and tour with big stars of the time like Jackie Wilson, making a name for himself at the same time. His career peak occurred in 1960 when he played at the Apollo in New York City. On the bill with him was a singer-songwriter named Ritchie Adams. Ritchie had written “Tossin’ & Turnin’” with another struggling singer/songwriter named Malou Rene. Adams was associated with a small, independent record label named Beltone. When Lewis went to visit the Beltone offices in Manhattan, they urged Lewis to record the song. Adams played guitar on the record.

Beltone put a Bobby Lewis album together quickly to ride on the coattails of “T&T’s” success. Lewis had one more Top Ten hit after that, also in 1961 and from that album, called “One Track Mind”, an unmemorable tune that climbed to Number Nine. After that, Bobby Lewis fell into obscurity. As of the writing of this in 2015, he is still alive and is 82 years old.

 

BARBARA ANN – THE REGENTS

The Regents were one of a shrinking handful of doo-wop groups touring in the late Fifties and early Sixties. One of its members, Fred Fassert, wrote “Barbara Ann” for his sister, Barbara Anne Fassert. They recorded it in 1958, but it wasn’t released for three years, until 1961, where it climbed to Number 13 on the Billboard Pop chart.

Its doo-wop style is more closely associated to the Fifties, so it remains a Fifties classic despite its 1961 release. What took it over the top however, was the Beach Boys’ remake of it. The Beach Boys recorded it four years later on September 23, 1965 for their “Beach Boys Party” album, where it was released as the lead single. The Beach Boys’ version made it to Number Two Billboard Pop.

Dean Torrance, half of the Beach Boys’ copycat band Jan & Dean, sang lead vocal along with Brian Wilson on this recording. They recorded it very loosely, and added party songs in the background to give it an overall “party animal” feel. The result is a great rock ‘n’ roll song.

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JOHNNY BURNETTE – MAURICE WILLIAMS AND THE ZODIACS – THE VENTURES – ROY ORBISON – THE EVERLY BROTHERS

By Robert Seoane

ONE HIT WONDERS

YOU’RE SIXTEEN – JOHNNY BURNETTE

“Well, you come on like a dream, peaches and cream, lips like strawberry wine, you’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine” You’re Sixteen – Johnny Burnette

“You’re Sixteen” is a rock ‘n’ roll classic written by two brothers known for composing Walt Disney songs. Richard and Robert Sherman began their career together in the early Fifties, They struggled to get heard until 1958 when they sold a song called “Tall Paul” to then-Mouseketeer of the TV show “The Mickey Mouse Club”, Annette Funicello. Annette was the most popular Mouseketeer on the show, particularly because she was the only pre-pubescent on the show sprouting boobs, much to the delight of fellow pre-pubescent male viewers.

The song was brought to the attention to the father of Mickey Mouse himself, Walt Disney. Disney wanted to develop Funicello as a star because of her popularity and was delighted to see the record climb into the Top Ten in 1958.

The doors opened up for the Sherman Brothers after the success of “Tall Paul”. Walt Disney started to hire them, but they were also able to write rock ‘n’ roll songs. In 1960, they sold one of their biggest hits, “You’re Sixteen” to rockabilly musician Johnny Burnette.

Johnny Burnette was a rockabilly musician who had a group with his brother Dorsey and a friend named Paul Burlison called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. The group ultimately broke up but, just like the Sherman Brothers, the Dorsey Brothers also wrote songs that they peddled to the stars. Their first success at that arrived when they literally parked themselves in front of then mega pop star Ricky Nelson’s mansion and waited for him to come home so they could play him their songs. It worked. Nelson liked what he heard and wound up recording many of their songs. But it was a song written by another pair of brothers that would give Johnny Burnette a permanent footnote in rock ’n’ roll history.

You’re my baby, you’re my pet, we fell in love on the night we met, you touched my hand, my heart went pop, ooh, when we kissed, I could not stop.” You’re Sixteen – Johnny Burnette

It was the perfect song because it addressed the very market that listened to rock ‘n’ roll, the teenage girl and the teenage boy with a crush.

“You’re Sixteen” was Burnette’s seventh attempt at a hit single once he went solo. The record was released on October 8, 1960, and climbed to Number Eight on the Billboard Pop Chart and Number Three in the UK, earning him a gold record.

The authors of “YS”, Robert and Richard Sherman, went on to write classic movie songs for Walt Disney’s most acclaimed films of the Sixties and Seventies, including “Mary Poppins” (for which they won two Academy Awards), “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, “The Jungle Book”, “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Aristocats”. Johnny Burnette on the other hand, faded into obscurity, recording music that essentially went nowhere on the charts.

On August 14, 1964, Johnny Burnette drowned after his unlit fishing boat was struck in the middle of the night by a cabin cruiser that hadn’t seen it. He was 30 years old.

“You’re Sixteen” had a revival in the Seventies when George Lucas included the song on the soundtrack to his classic film, “American Graffiti” (1973). Ringo Starr also recorded it that year and took it to Number One in February of 1974. That’s Paul McCartney on that recording assisting with a vocal solo mixed with what sounds like a kazoo.

“You walked out of my dreams, into my car, now you’re my angel divine. You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” “You’re Sixteen” – Ringo Starr

 

STAY – MAURICE WILLIAMS & THE ZODIACS

The doo-wop genre was still popular in 1960, even though it was destined to be fading into the mist of time within the next two years. When rock ‘n’ roll first exploded in 1956, doo-wop glommed itself onto the new musical movement and dominated the charts throughout much of the rest of the Fifties.

Maurice Williams is one of the earliest songwriters to blend doo-wop into rock ‘n’ roll when he wrote “Little Darlin’” in 1957. Although Williams recorded it with his group at the time, the Gladiolas, the single went nowhere. It was the version recorded by the Diamonds that cracked the Top Ten and made it up to Number Two that same year. Although it was the usual practice of the music industry at the time to have white musical artists record songs by African American talent, in this case, the Diamonds’ version is the better one, due largely to its production and arrangement in comparison to the Gladiolas’ version.

Williams and his band changed their name to the Zodiacs after coming across a car bearing that name. During a recording session of new releases, he dug up a song he wrote in 1953 at age 15. It was based on a time when he didn’t want a girl to go home one night. Maurice and the band never took the song seriously until a ten-year-old girl reacted to it positively when she heard their demo of the tune. The band’s producers played the demo to Al Silver of Herald Records, who wanted to re-record it with the group to improve the quality but also to replace the phrase “let’s have another smoke” to “have another dance”.

“Stay just a little bit longer… please, please tell me you’re going to… well, if your daddy don’t mind, and if your mommy don’t mind if we have another dance, yeah one more time…” Stay- Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs

The song’s instant appeal is what’s made it endure. Zodiac tenor Shane Gaston’s falsetto lifts the song to grand heights of melodic beauty. “Stay” is the shortest rock ‘n’ roll song ever to have reached the Number One Position on the Billboard Pop chart, clocking in just under two minutes. It stayed at Number One during the week of November 21, 1960, just two weeks after the United States had elected John F. Kennedy to the Presidency.

“Stay” was remade several times. It was one of the Hollies’ first singles, released in the UK in December of ’63 and was also redone by the Four Seasons and the Dave Clark Five the following year. A different version of “Stay” was recorded in 1977 by Jackson Browne when he closed his classic album “Running On Empty” with a live medley that started with Browne’s own “The Load Out” and segued into “Stay”, turning the song into a long farewell.

“Now the promoter don’t mind, and the roadies don’t mind, if we take a little time and we leave it all behind and sing one more song…” Stay – Jackson Browne

Aside from other covers by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper up to its latest recorded incarnation by Dreamhaus in 2014, it was also showcased in 1987’s” Dirty Dancing”, giving it a new boost on its popularity at the time.

 

WALK, DON’T RUN – THE VENTURES

The future of guitar based rock ‘n’ roll groups was in its infancy still, particularly after the death of Buddy Holly the year before. The Ventures was an instrumental rock ‘n’ roll guitar group who recorded one of the most familiar guitar licks in rock ‘n’ roll history, originally written by Jazz guitarist Johnny Smith In 1954. This guitar lick felt indicative of its time, besides happening to also be catchy as hell.

The Ventures certainly were successful, still holding the record today in 2015 as the best-selling instrumental band of all time, with over 100 million records sold. Their guitar twang was so distinctive of many rock songs that were yet to be written, that the Ventures has earned the nickname “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands”. Curiously, they’re still revered in Japan, where they continue to perform regularly.

“Walk, Don’t Run” is essentially a contrafact, which is a jazz term that means laying an original melody on a familiar harmonic structure. In this case, the harmonic structure was that of a jazz standard called “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise”, a composition written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II and recorded by many of the jazz greats of the 20th century. Upon listening to the two compositions one after the other, you can pick up the sound of that structure, yet still, the melodies of the two songs are really nothing alike.

The Ventures heard the Chet Atkins’ version of “Walk, Don’t Run”, released on his “Hi-Fi In Focus” (1957) album, and they knew they could turn that composition into a killer rock ‘n’ roll instrumental. And so they did. The resulting sound emanating from The Ventures’ electric guitars sounded so perfect and tailor made for those souped up musical instruments, that it practically weaponized the melody, thereby turning it into a rock ‘n’ roll classic overnight, as well as a springboard to literally thousands of rock ‘n’ roll songs to follow.

 

ROY ORBISON

“(Roy Orbison was) …a timid, shy kid who seemed to be rather befuddled by the whole music scene. I remember the way he sang then — softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him. – Boudleaux Bryant, songwriter; “Bye Bye Love”

Roy Kelton Orbison was a gentleman. Besides having an amazing voice, he was rock ‘n’ roll’s nicest guy, a true Southern gentleman in every sense of the word. He was never known to curse. When recording with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 after repeatedly flubbing a lyric, the worst obscenity he could muster was “mercy”.

What set Roy Orbison apart from the rest of his rock ‘n’ roll peers was his vocal range. He could go from baritone to tenor, with musical scholars suggesting that he had up to a three- or four-octave range. His songs, unlike the rock ‘n’ rollers of the day, weren’t as much testosterone-laden screamfests as much as they were operatic vulnerability. His nicknames, “The Big O” and “The Caruso of Rock” didn’t really encompass his overall talents as a guitarist and songwriter. But his legacy loomed large, so much so that he became good friends with all the Beatles during their mutual 1964 tour and 14 years later, joined George Harrison in their 1988 supergroup with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne called The Travelling Wilburys.

Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas to two hard working parents who struggled mightily to put food on their table during the Great Depression. Although little Roy wanted a harmonica, his father, Orbie Lee Orbison, gave him a guitar when he was only six years old because he saw in his son a burgeoning musical talent. Little Roy learned quickly, picking up the classic country standards like “You Are My Sunshine”. He sang it to his parents’ friends during social gatherings at night so he could hang with the adults and not go to bed early.

Orbison’s biggest musical influence was country music. Within a few years, he was entering and winning amateur musical contests. By 1951, when the family moved to Wink, Texas, young Roy formed his own country band called the Wink Westerners. The WW’s were musically ambitious, and integrated big band music with their country fare, including classic Big Band standards such as Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” into their repertoire to great success. By the end of 1954, the Wink Westerners had become a proper band with steady gigs, even though Roy was still in high school.

It all changed for Roy Orbison, like so many other musical legends of the rock ‘n’ roll era before him, when he saw Elvis for the first time on stage in 1955. Soon after, the Wink Westerners had their own local thirty-minute TV show every Saturday at 4:30 PM on KOSA-TV in Odessa, Texas. Two of their guests on one show were none other than Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Cash and Orbison became friendly and suggested to the young kid to go see Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records and the man who discovered Presley and Cash along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. among others. When Orbison contacted Phillips however, he was met with some disappointment.

“Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company.” – Sam Phillips

Orbison and his fellow band mates decided to change the band’s name to “The Teen Kings” after seeing Elvis. It was their new direction towards playing rock ‘n’ roll music and away from country music standards.

OOBY DOOBY – ROY ORBISON AND THE TEEN KINGS

Local entrepreneur Weldon Rogers approached Roy to record him and his group for Rogers’ new record label Je-Wel, owned with Chester “C.C.” Oliver. Roy had two friends, Dick Penner and Wade Moore, who had written a song called “Ooby Dooby”. On March 4, 1956, Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings recorded this composition as well as the Clovers’ “Trying To Get To You” and released them as their first single on March 19.

Roy took a copy of the record that very first day to a well-known record dealer in Odessa he knew called Cecil “Poppa” Hollifield. Poppa liked the song and took it from him. A few days later he phoned Roy to tell him that he had played the song to his associate Sam Phillips and Sam indicated that he wanted The Teen Kings to come to Memphis and record for Sun Records.

On March 26, 1956, Orbison and the group arrived at Sun Records and recorded a handful of songs, including a new version of “Ooby Dooby”. “Ooby Dooby” is a by-the-numbers typical rock ‘n’ roll song. Phillips was a demanding sort and made many retakes until he was satisfied, much to Orbison’s annoyance.

“Ooby Dooby” made it to Number 59 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the summer of 1956. Roy and his group had soon acquired a manager and was booked on a short tour of movie drive-ins around the South where they played before the feature attraction.

TRYING TO GET TO YOU – ROY ORBISON/ELVIS PRESLEY

When listening to both versions of this song back to back, you realize the supremacy of Elvis Presley’s voice. Roy Orbison was still years away from reaching his creative peak, but Elvis had it on the first song he recorded.

ROY:

ELVIS:

“Trying To Get To You” was Ooby Dooby’s b-side, which was re-recorded at Sun Records under the direction of Sam Phillips. The following single didn’t chart however and Roy started to try his hand at songwriting. By the end of 1956, the Teen Kings will have broken up, leaving Orbison to stay in Memphis to launch his career as a solo artist. Just turned 21, Roy asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to stay with him in Memphis. Her parents agreed under the condition that she have her own bedroom while they stayed together. I’m sure that worked out real well.

CLAUDETTE – THE EVERLY BROTHERS


Roy and Claudette Frady Orbison

Roy Orbison married Claudette Frady the following year in 1957. A beautiful girl, nobody believed that a shy, average-looking “Joe” like Roy could land such a woman. One of the first songs he ever wrote was a rockabilly love song named after his wife.

Roy left Sun Records in 1958. He spent eight months not recording for Sun prior to his leaving the label, and started to explore his songwriting abilities. His songwriting partner appeared to him one day when Joe Melson, an acquaintance of Orbison’s, tapped on his car window. Soon, Orbison and Melson began to write music together.

As Orbison’s reputation grew with Melson’s contribution as co-songwriter, they began to work for Acuff-Rose, a songwriting firm that focused on selling country music to recording artists. They were able to sell Orbison’s song “Claudette” to one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll acts of the time, The Everly Brothers. It was released as the b-side to the Brothers’ classic “All I Have to Do Is Dream” in the Spring of 1958. The A-Side made it to Billboard’s Hot 100 Top spot for three weeks and “Claudette” managed to get to Number 30. Orbison continued to churn out compositions for Acuff-Rose and was able to sell them to the likes of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson.

Orbison’s own recordings weren’t faring too well during the Fifties. None of the other three released singles from Sun charted. Wesley Rose of the songwriting firm Roy worked for introduced Orbison to Fred Foster, a record producer who had just opened his own label called Monument Records. It was Fred Foster who would mold the Roy Orbison sound and simultaneously invent the rock ballad genre with him.

Roy Orbison’s his first three singles with them also went nowhere fast. His fourth single, “Uptown” finally managed to crack the Hot 100 at Number 72, which was interesting because the recording employed strings, as Orbison preferred, instead of the usual fiddle instrumentation that Nashville was used to.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the new decade when Roy Orbison finally recorded his first classic and shot up to the top echelons of rock ‘n’ roll.

ONLY THE LONELY – ROY ORBISON

“I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Only the Lonely’, it kind of turned into a good voice.” Roy Orbison

“Only The Lonely” was the first hit that came out of the songwriting collaboration between Roy Orbison and Joe Melson. It’s in this song where Roy Orbison first displays his incredibly unique vocal talent, a talent that immediately set him apart from all the other rock ‘n’ roll stars of the day. The composition was originally given to Elvis Presley to refuse, and when he did, Orbison and his producer went to work. Fred Foster’s production quality with its spare guitar, delicate piano and steady drum beat guiding it, sounds good still today, but it’s Orbison’s ability to reach those high notes that tug at your heartstrings, with background vocals that softly sing nonsense with a sweet, melancholy air. Orbison’s recording engineer Bill Porter tried a new approach to the recording and close-miked the background vocals, leaving them front and center with Orbison’s lead while the suave instrumentation faded into the background. It worked.

“Only the lonely (Dum dum dum, dumby doo wah) Know the way I feel tonight
(Ooh yay, yay, yay, yeah) Only the lonely (Dum dum dum, dumby doo wah)
Know this feeling ain’t right (Dum dum dum, dumby doo wah)” Only the Lonely – Roy Orbison

The song’s operatic style was unheard of for rock ‘n’ roll in 1960. Only Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now Or Never” released the same year rivaled it. But “Only The Lonely’s” laid-back rockabilly style and Orbison’s voice marks it as a milestone for being the first rock ballad ever recorded. The most operatic point of the song, when Orbison’s voice reaches a high point that delivers the hopeful hurt of the lyrics, comes in towards the last thirty seconds.

“Maybe tomorrow, a new romance, no more sorrow but that’s the chance, you’ve got to take, if your lonely heart breaks, only the lonely…” Only The Lonely – Roy Orbison

“Only The Lonely” shot up to Number Two in The Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in the late Spring of 1960 and also entered Billboard’s R&B chart at Number 14, a feat that only a handful of rock ‘n’ roll artists have accomplished, Elvis Presley being the first to do it. It did manage to hit Number One across the pond in the United Kingdom in October of 1960 where it stayed there for two weeks.

Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to Orbison in the lyrics of his 1975 classic, “Thunder Road”.

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways, like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only, don’t turn me home again I just can’t face myself alone again…” Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Orbison’s next two singles after “…Lonely” were less successful, probably because they mimicked the “OTL” style with similar operatic highs and lows and a different set of nonsense lyrics for the background vocals. It wouldn’t be until the following year, in the Spring of 1961, when Orbison would have his first Number One song. He continued to experiment with other rhythms and styles in his music but there was one constant: Orbison sang of longing and emotional pain.

RUNNING SCARED/LOVE HURTS – ROY ORBISON

“Running Scared” was Roy Orbison’s first Number One and the first of a steady string of Top Forty hits through 1964. He turned rock ‘n’ roll on its nose by using Ravel’s “Bolero” as the rhythm for his song, written by him and songwriting partner Melson. The song had no chorus. It slowly builds and centers around Orbison’s vocal abilities as his voice rises with the drama of the song, cementing his place as the pioneer in operatic ballads. From then on, Orbison’s compositions with Melson were to continue to be innovative compositions with a style that didn’t exist until they developed it.

“Just runnin’ scared, feelin’ low, runnin’ scared, you love him so, just runnin’ scared, afraid to lose, if he came back which one would you choose?” Running Scared – Roy Orbison

Orbison had trouble with the final high note of the song. Normally a soft-voiced singer, he was forced to deliver the ending louder than the booming orchestra behind him. He abandoned the attempt to end the song in a falsetto and delivered the ending in A instead, stunning those in the studio so much that even the orchestra stopped playing.

“Some fools dream of happiness, blissfulness, togetherness, some fools, fool themselves I guess but they’re not fooling me, I know it isn’t true, know it isn’t true, love is just a lie, made to make you blue, love hurts…” Love Hurts – Roy Orbison

Its b-side “Love Hurts” was written by Boudleaux Bryant and first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960. Roy Orbison’s version was released as a single in 1961. The song gained an entirely new popularity when it was recorded in 1975 by one hit wonder Nazareth, who took it to Number Eight in the Billboard charts. Nazareth’s was clearly the better version of the composition.

CRYING – ROY ORBISON

“(‘Crying’ is) …a rock bolero [with] blaring strings, hammered tympani, a ghostly chorus, the gentle strum of a guitar, [and] a hint of marimba.” –Rock critic Dave Marsh

“Crying” is easily one of the most beautiful and heartfelt rock ballads ever recorded. Orbison’s voice makes you feel the pain of the protagonist’s love with his soft, plaintive singing that steadily rises as the instrumentation builds and surrounds Orbison’s powerful final delivery until the entire song comes to a sudden halt with an echo that seals the experience forever in your heart.

“I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while, but I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight as you stopped to say hello, aww you wished me well, you couldn’t tell that I’d been cry-i-i-i-ng over you, cry-i-i-i-ng over you…” Crying – Roy Orbison

By now, Orbison and Melson were learning how to write tunes that would showcase Roy’s voice, and Fred Foster’s production had quickly become formula, while still allowing Orbison to push the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll by continuing to record singles that were essentially mini-arias. “Crying” was released in the summer of 1961 and climbed to Number Two in the Billboard Hot 100 in October. Billboard Magazine listed “Crying” as the Number Four song of 1961.

In 1987, Orbison re-recorded “Crying” with k.d. lang for a motion picture titled “Hiding Out”. Its resulting music video captures a pair of well-matched singers delivering a beautiful song soulfully.

DREAM BABY – ROY ORBISON

Orbison returns to his rockabilly roots with “Dream Baby”. Although the musical style changed, its theme was along the same vein that ran through all his songs, the theme of unrequited love. A catchy classic, it made it to Number Four on Billboard’s Pop chart in 1962 and expanded his repertoire to remind fans that, despite his operatic style, he was still a rock ‘n’ roller at heart.

“I love you and I’m dreaming of you but that won’t do, dream baby, make me stop my dreamin’, you can make my dreams come true… sweet dream baby, how long must I dream…” Dream Baby – Roy Orbison

Orbison went through a few important milestones in his life in 1962 as he enjoyed the peak of his success. His second son was born that year. At the same time, his songwriting relationship with Joe Melson was beginning to deteriorate, primarily due to Melson’s chomping-at-the-bit desire to carve out a solo career of his own. Orbison toured Australia in 1962 as well. An Australian DJ introduced Orbison onstage calling him “The Big O”, referring to not only his last name but his grandiose musical finales. The nickname stuck for the rest of his career.

IN DREAMS – ROY ORBISON

“When you were trying to make a girl fall in love with you, it took roses, the Ferris wheel, and Roy Orbison.” -Tom Waits

By 1963, Roy Orbison was an international success. He released seven more singles after “Dream Baby”, five of them which entered the Top Forty and one, “In Dreams” that made it to Number Seven in Billboard’s Pop chart in February of 1963.

“In Dreams” would prove to be Orbison’s most personally important song because its success gave him an opportunity to tour England. Wesley Rose accepted an invitation for Roy to tour throughout the UK in 1963 with a then-unknown group who had suddenly become very popular across the pond called The Beatles. Orbison accepted the invitation and when he arrived in England, was stunned to see how popular this British group was. Once backstage, Orbison rhetorically asked, “What’s a Beatle, anyway?” John Lennon, who happened to be standing behind him, tapped his shoulder and said, “I am.”

Orbison and The Beatles got along extremely well, particularly with George Harrison, particularly because they greatly admired the southern gentleman’s musical abilities. Roy Orbison was so popular back then that, on the first night on the sold out tour, he had to perform fourteen encores before the Beatles were even allowed on stage. The four marveled at how Orbison could elicit such thunderous applause without having budged an inch on stage since he went on. Later that year he would go on to tour Australia with the Beach Boys and the still unknown Rolling Stones.

While the international acclaim turned him into a pop sensation, his marriage suffered. His wife Claudette had stayed behind in the tour through the UK and as a result had an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Orbison remedied that soon enough by bringing her along for the rest of the tour.

It was also at about this time that Roy Orbison began to develop his own look. His style continued the tradition of Buddy Holly’s bespectacled hipness with thick corrective glasses that can only be labeled today as “geek chic”. This helped him to come out from the dark as his physical presence wasn’t anywhere to be seen in music pop fan magazines or even on his own singles. Besides the fact that Roy Orbison was not particularly photogenic, his shyness and the fact that he had no publicist, kept him away from the limelight. Then one night while on tour, Roy forgot his thick, black-rimmed glasses on an airplane and was forced to wear his prescription sunglasses onstage instead. Orbison liked wearing the sunglasses because it shaded him from the glaring lights and hid his shyness from the audience as well. At the same time, it gave him a persona in the sense that his nerdiness fit the woes of his music as the lonely outsider who nobody loves. His penchant for wearing sunglasses on stage made some people mistake him for blind. Soon, he also began to wear dark clothing onstage. This, along with his songs of desperation gave him a mysterious edge that ultimately became his image.

In 1986, “In Dreams” was included in the soundtrack of David Lynch’s macabre film “Blue Velvet”. In the movie, the song is lip-synced by actor Dean Stockwell as he holds a light shaped like a microphone to his face, giving him a sick glow that’s accentuated by the song’s surreal orchestral feel. The song’s inclusion in the film reignited Orbison’s career. He re-released “In Dreams’ in 1987. A few months later, old friend George Harrison asked Roy if he would like to become a member of a little group George was forming with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne called The Traveling Wilburys.

MEAN WOMAN BLUES/BLUE BAYOU – ROY ORBISON

“Mean Woman Blues” is a rock ‘n’ roll classic written by Claude Demetrius and first recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957 for his film, “Loving You”. It was also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis and appeared on the flipside of his 1957 “Great Balls Of Fire”. Orbison delivers it well, in his own style, which is very much unlike the aforementioned two. Besides the fact that Orbison may have just wanted to record it, his ballads were becoming his standard fare. “Mean Woman Blues” did manage to make it all the way to Number Five in the summer of 1963, but the real gem was on the flipside.

“Blue Bayou” only made it to Number 29 in 1963, but its lack of popularity has nothing to do with its beauty. Soft and plaintive, he sang of a longing that only he could convey with his voice so well. “Blue Bayou” was the final songwriting collaboration between Roy Orbison and Joe Melson. Melson left for a solo career that would ultimately prove disappointing.

“I’m going back someday, come what may to blue bayou, where the folks are fun and the world is mine on blue bayou, where those fishing boats with their sails afloat if I could only see that familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes, how happy I’d be.” Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison

Linda Ronstadt remade the song and released it in 1977, where it climbed to Number Three in the Billboard Hot 100. It would become her signature song..

PRETTY PAPER – ROY ORBISON

Pretty Paper was a song written by Willie Nelson and recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963 as a Christmas release. Nelson had been signed to the same record label as Orbison in 1963, Monument Records. When he played his song to Fred Foster, Foster immediately thought of Roy. The song, about a street vendor who sold pencils and paper for the holidays, came about after Willie saw an actual vendor whose legs had been amputated, hawking the same wares as the song to the passers-by, continually repeating ‘pretty paper’. In 2013, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram identified the inspiration for that song to be a man by the name of Frank Brierton.

Orbison’s version of the song made it to Number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Willie Nelson recorded his own version a year later.

IT’S OVER – ROY ORBISON

Roy Orbison released his umpteenth rock ballad in the Spring of 1964 with “It’s Over”, written by Roy Orbison and his new songwriting partner, Rick Dees. Although it reached Number Nine on the Billboard Pop chart, it was not a good song, certainly not matching up with the classics he had already recorded. Still, he knew his formula and he had developed a niche in the rock ‘n’ roll legend with his operatic style, a style that would grow into the legendary ballads of rock from Led Zeppelin to the heavy metal hair bands of the 80s and their pumped-up power ballads.

OH, PRETTY WOMAN – ROY ORBISON

Despite a not very large portfolio of work, Roy Orbison’s early music has been covered by other artists to great success, sometimes to even greater success than the originals. Soit’s no wonder that Orbison’s biggest hit by far was also the breakout hit of a legendary rock band.

As legend has it, Orbison and Dees were working on a song together when Orbison’s wife Claudette walked in to announce that she was driving over to Nashville to do some shopping. Rpy asked her if she had enough money, to which Dees responded:

“Pretty woman never needs any money.”

The phrase ‘pretty woman’ stuck, and it happened to fit lyrically into a wicked little guitar lick they were developing. In less than an hour, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was recorded. The song made it to Number One in the August of 1964 for three weeks, in the midst of Beatlemania where every other tune on the radio was by a British band. In fact, Roy Orbison was the only American artist to have a Number One song during twenty-two month period from August 1963 through June 1964, not once but twice, with “It’s Over” and “Oh, Pretty Woman”.

“Pretty woman, walkin’ down the street, pretty woman the kind I like to meet, pretty woman… I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth, no one could look as good as you… mercy…” “Oh, Pretty Woman” – Roy Orbison

The word mercy in the song was a nod to Roy’s everyday way of speaking, as it was the worst curse word he ever uttered. The ad-libbed growl in the recording was taken from recalling a Bob Hope movie where he had heard the comic do it. But the driving source of the song and the thing that makes it such a great fucking record is, quite simply, the guitar lick.

The song got a massive rejuvenating jolt in 1982 with Van Halen’s version from their “Diver Down” album. Although their version just missed the Top Ten at Number 12, it cemented the reputation of the group, showcasing Eddie Van Halen’s incredible guitar, a sound that hadn’t been heard since Hendrix at the time, brother Alex Van Halen’s incessant spot-on drumming and David Lee Roth’s charmingly abrasive personality. The music video for Van Halen’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was one of the first music videos to get airplay on the one-year-old MTV. It was a very cheaply made looking video involving a tied up woman and two dwarves, and the fledgling music television channel played it incessantly as it was only just a few of the music videos available at the time.

Orbison’s song was further cemented into global pop culture in 1990 with the release of the mutli-million dollar box office comedy “Pretty Woman” with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Orbison’s song was showcased in the film as its centerpiece as well as title. Directed by Garry Marshall of “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley”, “Pretty Woman” is one of the most financially successful romantic comedies of all time, having made up to $463 million.

DIFFICULT YEARS

Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” sold seven million records and would be not only the biggest hit of Orbison’s career but also his last. Just like that, none of his singles would ever make it to the top again, with his highest charting single not even able to crack the Top Twenty just a year later.

Personal misfortune dogged Orbison throughout the Sixties. He and Claudette divorced in 1964 due to her infidelity, only to remarry a few months later. However, on June 6, 1966, Claudette Orbison was killed in a motorcycle accident as she and Roy were riding back home in Bristol, Tennessee. It was a devastating blow to have lost his beautiful wife at only twenty-four years of age. Then, two years later in 1968, his home in Hendersonville burned down while he was on tour. His two eldest sons, aged ten and six, perished in the fire. Only his three-year-old survived after Orbison’s parents managed to take the infant out of the house.

32-year-old Orbison remarried on March 25, 1969, to another beautiful young German girl, 18-year-old Barbara Jakobs. They remained married the rest of his life and they had two children together.

Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Orbison dedicated himself to touring and releasing unsuccessful recordings. On January 18, 1978, 42-year-old Roy Orbison underwent open heart surgery due to years of heavy smoking. After his recovery, his career seemed to come full circle by collaborating with current artists of the day. He was invited to play “Hotel California” onstage one night with the Eagles in 1980. Later that same year, he recorded the unmemorable “That Loving You Feeling Again” with Emmylou Harris. Despite its mediocrity and the poor showing on the charts, “That Loving You Feeling Again” went on to win a Grammy in 1981. Other than those two instances, Orbison’s career remained under the radar until the release of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”.

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THE TWIST – HANK BALLARD & THE MIDNIGHTERS – CHUBBY CHECKER – JOEY DEE & THE STARLITERS – THE BEAT GENERATION – THE BEATNIK – FROM JOHNNY AND THE MOONDOGS TO THE BEATLES – FOLK MUSIC – THE KINGSTON TRIO – JOAN BAEZ

 

THE TWIST

“Come on baby, let’s do the twist, come on baby, let’s do the twist, take me by my little hand and go like this…” “The Twist” – Chubby Checker

It was the first touchless dance, the perfect move for the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era. All you had to do was shake. It didn’t matter what rock ‘n’ roll song was playing as long as it had a rhythm. You swiveled your hips back and forth, twisting your body at the waist while moving your arms left to right to the beat. You didn’t hold your partner or even take their hand, a concept that was unheard of in 1960. You just… twisted.

The Twist served in defining as well as bridging the Generation Gap, a gap that had been developing ever since Elvis swiveled his hips, by creating the first worldwide dance craze of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Parents shook their heads at the new dance style… then tried it out for themselves. It transcended age, spread around the world, and inspired future dances through the Sixties like the Frug, the Watusi, the Jerk, the Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Monkey and the Funky Chicken. The Twist is the granddaddy of them all, the dance craze responsible for literally shaking up civilized society.

 

HANK BALLARD & THE MIDNIGHTERS

John Henry Kendricks wrote and recorded “The Twist”, releasing it in 1959 as a B-side under his stage name Hank Ballard with his group the Midnighters. The Midnighters had choreographed a move they considered suitable for the song for their live performances, but it was a stylized dance, much like grooving to the music instead of dancing. Soon, the song became the high point of their show and their choreography morphed into the dance that shook the world.

“The dance was not originated by the Midnighters. The twist dance was originated by some women out there in the audience… so we just picked that up. The dance was created really by the people.” Lawson Smith – The Midnighters

The concept of the song came about during the time when Ballard, along with Midnighters’ guitarist Cal Green and the rest of the group, toured with gospel groups. One particular gospel member, Brother Joe Wallace of The Sensational Nightingales, explained to them the idea for the song. Because of its suggestiveness, Wallace couldn’t very well introduce it into the world of gospel music, so he passed the idea on to them. This got Ballad and Green to thinking. Having already written a song together called “Is Your Love For Real”, they decided to drop the lyrics and re-write new ones about the dance Wallace had described.

“My Daddy is sleepin’ and Mama ain’t around, yeah Daddy’s just sleepin’ and Mama ain’t around, we’re gonna twistin’, twistin’, twistin’, ’til we tear the house down…” – The Twist – Hank Ballard and the Midnighters

Ballard’s original version of The Twist only made it to Number 16 on Billboard’s R&B chart and Number 28 Pop in 1959. It was then quickly forgotten until Dick Clark heard it. Clark was the host of “American Bandstand”, the only rock ‘n’ roll variety show on TV at the time. Much speculation came about as to why Clark didn’t showcase Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on his show.

“He didn’t want to use the Hank Ballard record because he didn’t have control of (the song). He also felt Hank was too black. With Chubby, he had much lighter skin. He had the boy-next-door look. He was just a teenager.” Jim Dawson; “The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World, (1995).

Another reason given for HB&TM to have been overlooked by Clark was simply because Clark wasn’t able to book the group due to scheduling conflicts, although some members of the Midnighters’ say Clark just didn’t bother with them.

“He (Dick Clark) refused to let us be on his show… and he started promoting Chubby Checker.” -Lawson Smith, The Midnighters

“History was made the day Chubby Checker went on Bandstand with ‘The Twist’… and it was all because of Dick Clark.” – Ernest Evans aka Chubby Checker

 

CHUBBY CHECKER

Ernest Evans was a gifted singer and dancer. When he was eight years old, he sang on the street corners of South Philadelphia with a harmony group. As a teenager, he’d entertain the customers of the markets he worked for with his imitations of the rock ‘n’ roll artists of the day, including his personal favorite, Fats Domino. His boss at the Produce Market nicknamed him Chubby due to his portly countenance, and his other boss, Henry Colt at the Fresh Farm Poultry store, was impressed enough to talk to a connection about having Chubby meet Dick Clark.

“I was 16 years old when I first met Dick. It was about two years before we did ’The Twist.’ I was in the studio with him. He was doing a Christmas project, and I was at the piano doing a Fats Domino impression.” – Ernest Evans aka Chubby Checker

Dick Clark’s wife Barbara attended the recording and after listening to him, Barbara asked him his name.

“Well, my friends call me Chubby.” Evans said.

“As in Checker?” she asked jokingly, and inadvertently gave Evans his stage name: Chubby Checker as a ‘twist’ on Fats Domino.

It was Clark’s decision to have Chubby record the Twist, primarily due to his voice, which was similar to Ballard’s, so much so that when Hank Ballard first heard Checker’s version on the radio, he thought it was his own recording. Clark also genuinely liked Chubby, having had him appear on “AB” once before to perform his debut single, a novelty hit called “The Class”, so Clark offered Checker the opportunity to record ‘The Twist” as his second single. Checker danced the Twist like he invented it, and thanks to the power of television, Chubby Checker was the symbol for the dance and its instructor as well, teaching the world how to move, forever identifying himself with it, and turning the song into a worldwide smash.

On July 18, 1960, Chubby Checker introduced his version of the Twist at the Rainbow Club in Wildwood, New Jersey. Three weeks later on August 6, he made his worldwide television debut on “American Bandstand” and the dance craze that would kick off a tsunami of dance crazes was born.

The single was a certified smash hit. It made it to Number One on September 19, 1960 and stayed there for one week. But that wasn’t the end of the Twist once it fell off the top position. It only became more popular as the months wore on, becoming ubiquitous worldwide, heard regularly on the radio, in clubs, even in conversation, as a thing of shock and fun. Soon, it spread from the teen market to the parents, and not just in America but all over global civilized society, right on up to the elite, sophisticated class that included the celebrities of the day, who were delighted by the Twist as much as everyone else. The Twist had broken through barriers, just like Elvis.

LET’S TWIST AGAIN – CHUBBY CHECKER

Chubby Checker was compelled to record other Twist songs and released his second biggest hit after the original, called “Let’s Twist Again”, the following year in the summer of 1961. The song was as good as the original that spawned it. It reached Number Two in the UK and Number Eight in the US Pop and won a Grammy for Best Rock & Roll Recording in 1962.

“Come on, let’s twist again like we did last summer, yeah, let’s twist again like we did last year, do you remember when things were really hummin’? Yeah, let’s twist again, twistin’ time is here…” Let’s Twist Again – Chubby Checker

The growing momentum since Chubby Checker’s release of “The Twist” and the glut of Twist songs flooding the market convinced the record company to release the original song once again, sixteen months after its debut, on January 13, 1962, where it made it to Number One a second time, this time for two weeks. As of this writing, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker still holds the record for being the only single to be released twice and to hit Number One both times, except for Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” released twenty years earlier.

 

THE PEPPERMINT TWIST – JOEY DEE & THE STARLITERS

After Checker’s “Twist” in ’62 dropped from the Number One position, the need to fill the void of another Twist song was immediately fulfilled by Joey Dee and the Starliters when “The Peppermint Twist” replaced Checker’s “Twist” at the Number One Pop position on January 27, staying there for three weeks.

The name of the song was due to the fact that Joey Dee and the Starliters was the house band for the Peppermint Lounge, located on 128 West 45th Street in New York City. They already had a few minor hits since 1958, so they were originally booked to just do a weekend gig. That first night however, two celebrities of the day, actress Merle Oberon and Prince Serge Oblinski, were spotted by the press and written about in the next morning’s paper. The Peppermint Lounge became the hottest ticket, literally overnight. Lines were snaking around the block and celebrities such as John Wayne, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Shirley MacLaine, Liberace, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and even First Lady Jackie Kennedy made an appearance, cementing the Starliters’ stay at the club.

The Peppermint Lounge was also one of the pioneering nightclubs that employed go-go girls, dancers in simulated outfits and exotic situations, often wearing next to nothing and found in cages or dance pods around the club. A year into the group’s stay, Joey Dee wrote “The Peppermint Twist” with producer Henry Glover. The song ultimately sold a million copies.

TWISTING THE NIGHT AWAY – SAM COOKE

Sam Cooke saw the value in the popularity of the Twist so he wrote and recorded “Twisting The Night Away” on December 18, 1961 and released it while Chubby Checker’s “Twist” was reigning over the chart the second time around on January 9, 1962.

TWIST AND SHOUT

“Twist and Shout” was written in 1961 by Phil Medley (not Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers) and Bert Barnes (later credited as Bert Russell). It was originally called “Shake It Up, Baby”, and it was given to young up and coming record producer Phil Spector to record with a group called the Topnotes. Russell felt Spector ruined the song with his over the top production style so he gave it to the Isley Brothers to re-record it the way he heard it in his head.

The song’s title was changed to “Twist & Shout”, probably to jump on the dance craze bandwagon. It became the Isley Brothers’ first hit since ‘Shout’ in 1959, cracking the Top 20 at Number 17 on the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two on the R&B chart during the summer of 1962.

Several months later, on February 11, 1963, the Beatles recorded “Twist & Shout” as the last cut on their debut album “Please Please Me”. It had been a long recording session. The young group had laid down all eleven songs that were to be on the album over one ten hour night. John Lennon’s voice was hoarse by the time they got around to “Twist & Shout”, the last recording of the night, and his hoarseness is clearly heard on the recording, making it so much more of a rocker than the Isley Brothers’ version. ”Twist & Shout” is probably the Beatles’ biggest hit that wasn’t written by them, and a curious connection between the most influential band of the rock era and the most influential dance. Both broke barriers and both swung open the doors to a world of change for a world on the cusp of a social revolution.

On November 4th, 1963, The Beatles played the Royal Command Performance in London, England with the Queen and the entire Royal Family in attendance. Their last song was “Twist & Shout” and John Lennon introduced it with a now famous quote that made fun of the royalty in attendance.

“For our last number I’d like to ask your help. The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.” – John Lennon

The Twist became the standard Sixties dance even after the Beatles came to American shores and a slew of dances followed. The “touchless” dance style would reign for the rest of the decade and wouldn’t be replaced by anything radically different until the disco craze of the Seventies.

 

THE BEAT

There have only been a handful of words and phrases that have encompassed the vastness of rock ‘n’ roll. The phrase “rollin’ stone” for example, has been around since Muddy Waters first recorded the classic blues song in 1950, then carried on in spirit a dozen years later when member British musician Brian Jones spotted the Muddy Waters record on the floor and quickly named his band “The Rollin’ Stones” when asked their name over the phone. The term was also used in Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rollin’ Stone” (1965), quite possibly one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written, and in the Temptations’ groundbreaking soul classic “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” (1972). It even wound up being the banner of “Rolling Stone”, a prestigious rock ‘n’ roll magazine that’s been around since 1967 and is still going strong today. The term’s actual meaning of a rambler who never settles down is a large part of the rock ‘n’ roller’s romanticized image.

But there is also a word that has become equally synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, and it has roots in the Forties, born from a group of eccentric bohemian writers that literally laid down the blueprint for the sexual, social and cultural revolution of the Sixties. The word is, quite simply, also what the music is essentially comprised of: a beat.

 

THE BEAT GENERATION

The Beat Generation were a group of authors who published books during the 1950s that subversively shaped the culture of post World War II American society with precepts that became an integral part of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit; the quest for spirituality, the rejection of materialism, sexual orientation and experimentation and the use of psychedelic drugs.

These precepts were drawn from the esoteric books and magazine articles written by these eccentric few and went on to inspire a powerful cultural revolution that would spawn the Beatnik by 1960 as the natural progeny of the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouak, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Boroughs, Herbert Huncke, John Clennon Holmes and Lucien Carr were young authors and poets who first met in 1944 as students in the campus of Columbia University in New York City. They were the refuse of society; closet homosexuals, ex-convicts, murderers and drug addicts who happened to also be brilliant writers. Jack Kerouak coined the phrase “Beat Generation” as a way of describing his non-conformist circle of peers. His meaning for the phrase had nothing to do with a rhythmic beat however. It was rather a slang that meant ‘downtrodden’, or members of the bottom rung of society.

“The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word “beat” spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.”– Jack Kerouac

 

THE BEATNIK

On April 2, 1958, Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik”, meant as a derogatory term, in an article he wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about the youth of the day and their lifestyle, which was mirrored in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical and scandalous works of fiction. Caen picked up the “nik” suffix from the pages of world news and the steady stream of stories regarding the USSR’s Sputnik space program. Soon, the word ‘beatnik’ was picked up to describe the rebellious youth of the day who roamed the streets of Greenwich Village in distinct wardrobe that separated them from everyone else.

“Beat Generation” sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each other’s wives.” –Joyce Johnson, “Minor Characters”

Madison Avenue picked up on the new trend and soon used it to sell records, mostly folk music.

“The term (beatnik) caught on because it could mean anything. It could even be exploited in the affluent wake of the decade’s extraordinary technological inventions. Almost immediately, for example, advertisements by “hip” record companies in New York used the idea of the Beat Generation to sell their new long playing vinyl records.” – Ann Charters, Jack Kerouac’s biographer

The demise of the Beatnik was brought about by the media’s manipulation of the stereotype, right down to the sandals and bongo drums. Half a decade later, the Beatnik would dissolve into history and give way to the hippie movement and the Sixties counterculture. Rock ‘n’ roll music changed to rock music by 1967 and the Beatnik vanished, but the term beat didn’t. Coincidentally, with no allusion to the Beat Generation at all, the word lived on to hang another suffix onto: Beatle.

 

FROM JOHNNY & THE MOONDOGS TO THE BEATLES


Stuart Ferguson Victor Sutcliffe
was a 19 year old, Scottish art student attending the Liverpool College of Art when he got evicted from his flat in early 1960 for not paying his rent. He moved in with his classmate Margaret Chapman into a larger place that had the nerve to call itself Hillary Mansions, located at 3 Gambier Terrace in Liverpool. It consisted of three rooms, three mattresses and three light bulbs. Since there was only two of them and they needed one more roommate to help with the rent, Stu’s close friend John Lennon moved in to occupy the third mattress.

John was more committed than ever to form a professional rock ‘n’ roll band. He found the perfect songwriting partner in Paul McCartney, who shared the same ambition, and Paul’s friend George Harrison complemented them well. George was the youngest of the three and underage, but he added a solid lead guitar to the songs they covered, and as they grew to know each other better and rehearse together steadily over the weeks that turned into months, they honed their talents into a nice, tight sound. Still, there were two things missing that without them, they couldn’t call themselves a proper rock ‘n’ roll band. Their first and foremost dilemma was that they still didn’t have a permanent drummer and it was difficult to get gigs without one. Paul used to explain to the club owners, “the rhythm’s in the guitars…” but it did no good. No drums. No gig.

They also hadn’t settled on a name for the band yet. The Quarrymen name suited John for his local Liverpool band, only because the original members were all students of Quarry Bank High School where John attended too. But now, John, Paul and George, the diehard members of the band, remained after all the others that passed through in the search for the right band mates fell off one by one. The trio had their sights set on becoming a legitimate rock ‘n’ roll band with the potential to tour outside Liverpool, maybe even all the way to London, and they needed a legitimate rock ‘n’ roll name.

“Stuart was in the band now. He wasn’t really a very good musician. In fact, he wasn’t a musician at all until we talked him into buying a bass.” – George Harrison, The Beatles Anthology

Stu joined the still unnamed band at the end of 1959, despite the fact that he didn’t know how to play a musical instrument. Stu was an artist, and John was mighty impressed by his peer’s immense talent. Stu and John stayed up at night talking about art, and many times the conversation veered towards the fate of the band. Stu felt uncomfortable about playing, especially when the other three would start yelling at him every time he got it wrong. He was more of a painter than a musician, and sometimes he felt forced by John to play in the band and relented only out of friendship.

Tension existed between Paul and Stu as well. Being an annoying perfectionist even way back then, Paul realized the only reason Stu was in the band was because he was John’s friend. Paul already felt a little resentment that John liked to hang out with Stu more than with him, especially because they were starting to write songs together. He knew that if they really wanted to succeed, they would have to strive for perfection, and Stu wasn’t adding anything to the band musically, although his looks did attract a female following.

“Stuart and I once actually had a fight on stage. I thought I’d beat him hands down because he was littler than me. But he was strong and we got locked in a sort of death-grip, on stage during the set. It was terrible. We must have called each other something one too many times: ‘Oh, you…’ – ‘You calling me that?’ Then we were locked and neither of us wanted to go any further and all the others were shouting, ‘Stop it, you two!’ – ‘I’ll stop it if he will.’” – Paul McCartney

Stu’s brooding look and thin frame carried a smooth featured face, and his manner of “teddy boy” attitude was accentuated with a wardrobe of tight, straight legged black leather pants, leather jacket, t-shirt and sunglasses. It made him look cutting edge for the times. John, Paul and George also adopted this tough guy look, originally inspired by Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” (1952) and today more associated with gay culture than anything else. But back then, they were all trying to look tough and the only one who could pull it off well was John. The worst attempt at the teddy boy look was Paul, whose baby face betrayed his real “tea and crumpets” demeanor.

“We did have some arguments, me and Stu, but actually I just wanted us to be a really cracking band, and Stu – being a cracking artist – held us back a little bit, not too much. If ever it came to the push, when there was someone in there watching us I’d feel, ‘Oh, I hope Stu doesn’t blow it.’ I could trust the rest of us; that was it. Stuart would tend to turn away a little so as not to be too obvious about what key he was in, in case it wasn’t our key.” – Paul McCartney

As they struggled to find the right name, their lack of a drummer was a bigger problem, because it prevented them from getting good gigs like the upcoming Eddie Cochran concert at the Liverpool Stadium. But Cochran had to replaced at the last minute with Gene Vincent after being killed in a car accident on April 17, 1960. Vincent was also a passenger in that car but he had survived.


Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with drummer Ringo Starr

That show in Liverpool Stadium was promoted by Larry Parnes and Alan Williams. Parnes at the time was manager for a not very popular pop star called Johnny Gentle, who recorded two singles and an EP (Extended Play, consisting of only four songs) that didn’t go anywhere. The acts for that night besides Vincent were Gerry & The Pacemakers, and local Liverpool acts Cass & the Cassanovas and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Parnes and Williams met the still embryonic rock n roll group when they were auditioning local bands for the show. In the end, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes got the gig. Next to these scruffy beginners with the funny name, RS&H were a much more polished band, and it was particularly distinguished in having a rock steady drummer holding the beat.

“It was held in the stadium where Pete best’s dad, Johnny, used to promote boxing. Ringo was in that show with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. We weren’t big enough to play, we didn’t even have a drummer, and I remember thinking how we’d got to get our band together because the Hurricanes all had suits and dance steps; a proper routine. It was semi-professional. It looked impressive from where we were sitting.” – George Harrison, The Beatles Anthology

As Stu and John busied themselves painting the walls of their flat yellow and black, they spent their evenings trying to find a good name for the band. They followed a trail of past band names and used Buddy Holly’s Crickets as a starting point. They liked the name of Holly’s group because the word ‘cricket’ had two meanings. Besides the chirpy insects, the name also had a musical connotation. It was Stu who suggested another insect: the beetle. John liked that (ironically enough, Buddy Holly had also considered ‘beetles’ as a possible name for his band before he ultimately decided on the Crickets).

But even at that point, they still weren’t sure of any name so they continued to try new ones on for size. When they appeared on Carroll Levis’ “TV Star Search”, a popular talent show in Britain, they billed themselves as Johnny & The Moondogs.

“The Spring of 1960, John and I went down to a pub in Reading… At the end of the week, we played at the pub as the Nerk Twins.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology

One Saturday night, on April 23, 1960, John and Paul traveled to Reading, Berkshire and played live as a duo the only time in their lives. They called themselves The Nerk Twins on the spot, apparently not having given it much thought. The audience in the pub that drunken first night consisted of a grand total of three customers. They played country standards and rock ‘n’ roll songs like “Be-Bop-A-Lula” that night and reprised them the following afternoon for their lunch crowd, which didn’t have too much more clientele as the night before.

The two landed the gig because the wife of the pub’s landlord, Mike Robbins, was Paul’s cousin.

“It was the Easter school holidays and John and I had hitchhiked down from Liverpool to help out in the pub,’ Paul McCartney recalled. ‘We generally dossed around for a week and worked behind the bar. Then Mike said that me and John should play there on the Saturday night. So we made our own posters and put them up in the pub: ‘Saturday Night – Live Appearance – The Nerk Twins’. It was the smallest gig I’ve ever done. We were only playing to a roomful, a small, throbbing roomful.” Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology

Although that week long ago proved uneventful then, it was actually an important lesson learned by Paul in the world of professional show business.

“My cousin (Mike Robbins) used to tread the boards – he was a bit showbizzy. He’d been an entertainments manager hosting talent contests at Butlins and he’d been on the radio. He asked us what song we were going to open with and we said Be Bop A Lula. He told us, ‘No, it’s too slow. This is a pub on a Saturday night, you need to open with something fast and instrumental. What else have you got?’ We said, ‘Well, we do The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise’ – I played the melody and John did the rhythm – so we played him that and he said, ‘Perfect, start with that, then do Be Bop A Lula.’ This was our introduction to showbiz wisdom here and I would remember his advice years later when we were organizing The Beatles’ shows.” –Paul McCartney

After John and Paul returned from the Nerk Twins’ simultaneous debut and farewell shows, they were able to land a spot in a show in a little club cellar that had been organized by musician/entrepreneur Brian Cass. In the meantime, Stu had recently suggested playing around with the word ‘beetles’ as a band name and changing it to ‘Beatals’ but it didn’t sit right with John. John came up with a different spelling that would also have a double meaning just like the Crickets; bugs with a beat.


Gambier Terrace-Liverpool, England

“One April evening in 1960, walking along Gambier Terrace, by Liverpool Cathedral John and Stuart announced, ‘Hey, we want to call the band The Beatles. We thought, ‘Hmmm… bit creepy isn’t it?” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology

It was at the club Cass got them booked in where they first presented themselves as the Beatles. Cass hated the name. Since John was the founder and therefore leader of the group, Cass suggested, among other variations, Long John and the Pieces of Silver. An argument ensued.

“He said, ‘what’s your name?’ We had just thought of the Beatles so we thought we would try this out at the audition. Cass said, ‘Beatles? What’s that? It doesn’t mean anything.’ Everyone hated the name, fans and promoters alike. He asked John’s name. John, who was pretty much at that time the lead singer, said ‘John Lennon’. ‘Right, Big John… Long John… OK, Long John Silver’. So we compromised and had Long John and the Silver Beetles. We would do anything for a job, so that’s what we became.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology

The Beatles were to drop the whole ‘Long John’ stuff and decided to just call themselves the Silver Beetles. During the summer of 1960, Parnes booked the Silver Beetles on a tour through Scotland backing the artist he managed, Johnny Gentle.

“I became Paul Ramon, which I thought was suitably exotic. I remember the Scottish girls saying, ‘Is that his real name?’… Stuart became Stuart De Stael after the painter, George became Carl Harrison after Carl Perkins (our big idol, who had written ‘Blue Suede Shoes’). John was Long John… So here we were, suddenly with the first of Larry’s untempestuous acts and a tour of Scotland, when I should have been doing my GCE exams.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology

By the time they came back from the tour, John had once again tinkered with the name and changed the ‘e’ in ‘beetles’ to an ‘a’. By July, they were officially calling themselves the Silver Beatles.

It was during this time that Alan Williams became the Silver Beatles’ manager. Besides promoting rock ‘n’ roll shows, Williams owned a former watch repair shop on 21 Slater Street in Liverpool. He converted the shop into a coffee bar and called it the Jacaranda, after a flowering tree, opening the place on September 1958. John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe, then students of the Liverpool Art College, and Paul McCartney of the Liverpool Institute, were frequent customers, having already met him within the local gig circuit.

John approached Williams to get him to hire them to play in his club. He took a liking to him and hired John and Stu to paint a mural for the Ladies’ room instead. After a while, Williams relented and allowed the Beatles to play in the Jac. Soon, he was finding other venues for the group to play in. The problem was that they still had no drummer, but when Williams found out about a club in Hamburg, Germany looking for a rock ‘n’ roll group, it was time to get serious and find a permanent percussionist.

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