Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

CLICK BELOW TO GO TO ELVIS PRESLEY

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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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