Posts Tagged ‘Carole King’

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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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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