A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

By Andrew Hickey

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Tim N
 Mar 3, 2021
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Description

Andrew Hickey presents a history of rock and roll in five hundred songs.

Episode Date
Episode 115: "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals
49:51

Episode one hundred and fifteen of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals, at the way the US and UK music scenes were influencing each other in 1964, and at the fraught question of attribution when reworking older songs. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Memphis" by Johnny Rivers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Erratum

A couple of times I mispronounce Hoagy Lands' surname as Land.

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Information on the Animals comes largely from Animal Tracks  by Sean Egan.

The two-CD set The Complete Animals isn't actually their complete recordings -- for that you'd also need to buy the Decca recordings -- but it is everything they recorded with Mickie Most, including all the big hits discussed in this episode.

For the information on Dylan's first album, I used The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald, the fascinating and funny autobiography of Dylan's mentor in his Greenwich Village period.

I also referred to Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan, a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography; Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon; and Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.

Transcript

Today we're going to look at a song that, more than any other song we've looked at so far, shows how the influence between British and American music was working in the early 1960s. A song about New Orleans that may have its roots in English folk music, that became an Appalachian country song, performed by a blues band from the North of England, who learned it from a Minnesotan folk singer based in New York. We're going to look at "House of the Rising Sun", and the career of the Animals:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun"]

The story of the Animals, like so many of the British bands of this time period, starts at art school, when two teenagers named Eric Burdon and John Steel met each other.

The school they met each other at was in Newcastle, and this is important for how the band came together. If you're not familiar with the geography of Great Britain, Newcastle is one of the largest cities, but it's a very isolated city.

Britain has a number of large cities. The biggest, of course, is London, which is about as big as the next five added together. Now, there's a saying that one of the big differences between Britain and America is that in America a hundred years is a long time, and in Britain a hundred miles is a long way, so take that into account when I talk about everything else here.

Most of the area around London is empty of other big cities, and the nearest other big city to it is Birmingham, a hundred miles north-west of it. About seventy miles north of that, give or take, you hit Manchester, and Manchester is in the middle of a chain of large cities -- Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield, and the slightly smaller Bradford, are more or less in a row, and the furthest distance between two adjacent cities is about thirty-five miles.

But then Newcastle is another hundred miles north of Leeds, the closest of those cities to it. And then it's another hundred miles or so further north before you hit the major Scottish cities, which cluster together like the ones near Manchester do.

This means Newcastle is, for a major city, incredibly isolated. Britain's culture is extraordinarily London-centric, but if you're in Liverpool or Manchester there are a number of other nearby cities. A band from Manchester can play a gig in Liverpool and make the last train home, and vice versa. This allows for the creation of regional scenes, centred on one city but with cross-fertilisation from others.

Now, again, I am talking about a major city here, not some remote village, but it means that Newcastle in the sixties was in something of the same position as Seattle was, as we talked about in the episode on "Louie, Louie" -- a place where bands would play in their own immediate area and not travel outside it. A journey to Leeds, particularly in the time we're talking about when the motorway system was only just starting, would be a major trip, let alone travelling further afield. Local bands would play in Newcastle, and in large nearby towns like Gateshead, Sunderland, and Middlesborough, but not visit other cities.

This meant that there was also a limited pool of good musicians to perform with, and so if you wanted to be in a band, you couldn't be that picky about who you got on with, so long as they could play.

Steel and Burdon, when they met at art school, were both jazz fanatics, and they quickly formed a trad jazz band. The band initially featured them on trumpet and trombone, but when rock and roll and skiffle hit the band changed its lineup to one based around guitars. Steel shifted to drums, while Burdon stopped playing an instrument and became the lead singer. Burdon's tastes at the time were oriented towards the jazzier side of R&B, people like Ray Charles, and he also particularly loved blues shouters like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. He tried hard to emulate Turner, and one of the songs that's often mentioned as being in the repertoire of these early groups is "Roll 'Em Pete", the Big Joe Turner song we talked about back in episode two:

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Roll 'em Pete"]

The jazz group that Burdon and Steel formed was called the Pagan Jazz Men, and when they switched instruments they became instead The Pagans R&B Band. The group was rounded out by Blackie Sanderson and Jimmy Crawford, but soon got a fifth member when a member from another band on an early bill asked if he could sit in with them for a couple of numbers. Alan Price was the rhythm guitarist in that band, but joined in on piano, and instantly gelled with the group, playing Jerry Lee Lewis style piano.

The other members would always later say that they didn't like Price either as a person or for his taste in music -- both Burdon and Steel regarded Price's tastes as rather pedestrian when compared to their own, hipper, tastes, saying he always regarded himself as something of a lounge player, while Burdon was an R&B and blues person and Steel liked blues and jazz.

But they all played well together, and in Newcastle there wasn't that much choice about which musicians you could play with, and so they stayed together for a while, as the Pagans evolved into the Kansas City Five or the Kansas City Seven, depending on the occasional presence of two brass players. The Kansas City group played mostly jump blues, which was the area of music where Burdon and Steel's tastes intersected -- musicians they've cited as ones they covered were Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, and Big Joe Turner.

But then the group collapsed, as Price didn't turn up to a gig -- he'd been poached by a pop covers band, the Kon-Tors, whose bass player, Chas Chandler, had been impressed with him when Chandler had sat in at a couple of Kansas City Five rehearsals. Steel got a gig playing lounge music, just to keep paying the bills, and Burdon would occasionally sit in with various other musicians. But a few members of the Kon-Tors got a side gig, performing as the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo as the resident band at a local venue called the Club A Go-Go, which was the venue where visiting London jazzmen and touring American blues players would perform when they came to Newcastle. Burdon started sitting in with them, and then they invited Steel to replace their drummer, and in September 1963 the Alan Price Rhythm And Blues Combo settled on a lineup of Burdon on vocals, Price on piano, Steel on drums, Chandler on bass, and new member Hilton Valentine, who joined at the same time as Steel, on guitar.

Valentine was notably more experienced than the other members, and had previously performed in a rock and roll group called the Wildcats -- not the same band who backed Marty Wilde -- and had even recorded an album with them, though I've been unable to track down any copies of the album. At this point all the group members now had different sensibilities -- Valentine was a rocker and skiffle fan, while Chandler was into more mainstream pop music, though the other members emphasised in interviews that he liked *good* pop music like the Beatles, not the lesser pop music.

The new lineup was so good that a mere eight days after they first performed together, they went into a recording studio to record an EP, which they put out themselves and sold at their gigs. Apparently five hundred copies of the EP were sold. As well as playing piano on the tracks, Price also played melodica, which he used in the same way that blues musicians would normally use the harmonica:

[Excerpt: The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo, "Pretty Thing"]

This kind of instrumental experimentation would soon further emphasise the split between Price and Burdon, as Price would get a Vox organ rather than cart a piano between gigs, while Burdon disliked the sound of the organ, even though it became one of the defining sounds of the group. That sound can be heard on a live recording of them a couple of months later, backing the great American blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson II at the Club A Go Go:

[Excerpt: Sonny Boy Williamson II and the Animals, “Fattening Frogs For Snakes”]

One person who definitely *didn't* dislike the sound of the electric organ was Graham Bond, the Hammond organ player with Alexis Korner's band who we mentioned briefly back in the episode on the Rolling Stones. Bond and a few other members of the Korner group had quit, and formed their own group, the Graham Bond Organisation, which had originally featured a guitarist named John McLaughlin, but by this point consisted of Bond, saxophone player Dick Heckstall-Smith, and the rhythm section Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. They wouldn't make an album until 1965, but live recordings of them from around this time exist, though in relatively poor quality:

[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, "Wade in the Water"]

The Graham Bond Organisation played at the Club A Go Go, and soon Bond was raving back in London about this group from Newcastle he'd heard. Arrangements were quickly made for them to play in London. By this time, the Rolling Stones had outgrown the small club venues they'd been playing, and a new band called the Yardbirds were playing all the Stones' old venues. A trade was agreed -- the Yardbirds would play all the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo's normal gigs for a couple of weeks, and the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo would play the Yardbirds'.

Or rather, the Animals would. None of the members of the group could ever agree on how they got their new name, and not all of them liked it, but when they played those gigs in London in December 1963, just three months after getting together, that was how they were billed. And it was as the Animals that they were signed by Mickie Most.

Mickie Most was one of the new breed of independent producers that were cropping up in London, following in Joe Meek's footsteps, like Andrew Oldham. Most had started out as a singer in a duo called The Most Brothers, which is where he got his stage name. The Most Brothers had only released one single:

[Excerpt: The Most Brothers, "Whole Lotta Woman"]

But then Most had moved to South Africa, where he'd had eleven number one hits with cover versions of American rock singles, backed by a band called the Playboys:

[Excerpt: Mickie Most and the Playboys, "Johnny B Goode"]

He'd returned to the UK in 1963, and been less successful here as a performer, and so he decided to move into production, and the Animals were his first signing. He signed them up and started licensing their records to EMI, and in January 1964 the Animals moved down to London.

There has been a lot of suggestion over the years that the Animals resented Mickie Most pushing them in a more pop direction, but their first single was an inspired compromise between the group's blues purism and Most's pop instincts. The song they recorded dates back at least to 1935, when the State Street Boys, a group that featured Big Bill Broonzy, recorded "Don't Tear My Clothes":

[Excerpt: The State Street Boys, "Don't Tear My Clothes"]

That song got picked up and adapted by a lot of other blues singers, like Blind Boy Fuller, who recorded it as "Mama Let Me Lay It On You" in 1938:

[Excerpt: Blind Boy Fuller, "Mama Let Me Lay it On You"]

That had in turn been picked up by the Reverend Gary Davis, who came up with his own arrangement of the song:

[Excerpt: Rev. Gary Davis, "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You"]

Eric von Schmidt, a folk singer in Massachusetts, had learned that song from Davis, and Bob Dylan had in turn learned it from von Schmidt, and included it on his first album as "Baby Let Me Follow You Down":

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down"]

The Animals knew the song from that version, which they loved, but Most had come across it in a different way. He'd heard a version which had been inspired by Dylan, but had been radically reworked. Bert Berns had produced a single on Atlantic for a soul singer called Hoagy Lands, and on the B-side had been a new arrangement of the song, retitled "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" and adapted by Berns and Wes Farrell, a songwriter who had written for the Shirelles. Land's version had started with an intro in which Lands is clearly imitating Sam Cooke:

[Excerpt: Hoagy Lands, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand"]

But after that intro, which seems to be totally original to Berns and Farrell, Lands' track goes into a very upbeat Twist-flavoured song, with a unique guitar riff and Latin feel, both of them very much in the style of Berns' other songs, but clearly an adaptation of Dylan's version of the old song:

[Excerpt: Hoagy Lands, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand"]

Most had picked up that record on a trip to America, and decided that the Animals should record a version of the song based on that record. Hilton Valentine would later claim that this record, whose title and artist he could never remember (and it's quite possible that Most never even told the band who the record was by) was not very similar at all to the Animals' version, and that they'd just kicked around the song and come up with their own version, but listening to it, it is *very* obviously modelled on Lands' version. They cut out Lands' intro, and restored a lot of Dylan's lyric, but musically it's Lands all the way. The track starts like this:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "Baby Let Me Take You Home"]

Both have a breakdown section with spoken lyrics over a staccato backing, though the two sets of lyrics are different -- compare the Animals:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "Baby Let Me Take You Home"]

and Lands:

[Excerpt: Hoagy Lands, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand"]

And both have the typical Bert Berns call and response ending -- Lands:

[Excerpt: Hoagy Lands, "Baby Let me Hold Your Hand"]

And the Animals:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "Baby Let Me Take You Home"]

So whatever Valentine's later claims, the track very much was modelled on the earlier record, but it's still one of the strongest remodellings of an American R&B record by a British group in this time period, and an astonishingly accomplished record, which made number twenty-one.

The Animals' second single was another song that had been recorded on Dylan's first album. "House of the Rising Sun" has been argued by some, though I think it's a tenuous argument, to originally date to the seventeenth century English folk song "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard":

[Excerpt: Martin Carthy, "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard"]

What we do know is that the song was circulating in Appalachia in the early years of the twentieth century, and it's that version that was first recorded in 1933, under the name "Rising Sun Blues", by Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster:

[Excerpt: Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster, "Rising Sun Blues"]

The song has been described as about several things -- about alcoholism, about sex work, about gambling -- depending on the precise version. It's often thought, for example, that the song was always sung by women and was about a brothel, but there are lots of variants of it, sung by both men and women, before it reached its most famous form.

Dave van Ronk, who put the song into the form by which it became best known, believed at first that it was a song about a brothel, but he later decided that it was probably about the New Orleans Women's Prison, which in his accounting used to have a carving of a rising sun over the doorway. Van Ronk's version traces back originally to a field recording Alan Lomax had made in 1938 of a woman named Georgia Turner, from Kentucky:

[Excerpt: Georgia Turner, "Rising Sun Blues"]

Van Ronk had learned the song from a record by Hally Wood, a friend of the Lomaxes, who had recorded a version based on Turner's in 1953:

[Excerpt: Hally Wood, "House of the Rising Sun"]

Van Ronk took Wood's version of Turner's version of the song, and rearranged it, changing the chords around, adding something that changed the whole song. He introduced a descending bassline, mostly in semitones, which as van Ronk put it is "a common enough progression in jazz, but unusual among folksingers". It's actually something you'd get a fair bit in baroque music as well, and van Ronk introducing this into the song is probably what eventually led to things like Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" ripping off Bach doing essentially the same thing.

What van Ronk did was a simple trick. You play a descending scale, mostly in semitones, while holding the same chord shape which creates a lot of interesting chords. The bass line he played is basically this:

[demonstrates]

And he held an A minor shape over that bassline, giving a chord sequence Am, Am over G, Am over F#, F.

[demonstrates]

This is a trick that's used in hundreds and hundreds of songs later in the sixties and onward -- everything from "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks to "Go Now" by the Moody Blues to "Forever" by the Beach Boys -- but it was something that at this point belonged in the realms of art music and jazz more than in folk, blues, or rock and roll.

Of course, it sounds rather better when he did it:

[Excerpt, Dave van Ronk, "House of the Rising Sun"]

"House of the Rising Sun" soon became the highlight of van Ronk's live act, and his most requested song.

Dylan took van Ronk's arrangement, but he wasn't as sophisticated a musician as van Ronk, so he simplified the chords. Rather than the dissonant chords van Ronk had, he played standard rock chords that fit van Ronk's bassline, so instead of Am over G he played C with a G in the bass, and instead of Am over F# he played D with an F# in the bass. So van Ronk had:

[demonstrates]

While Dylan had:

[demonstrates]

The movement of the chords now follows the movement of the bassline. It's simpler, but it's all from van Ronk's arrangement idea. Dylan recorded his version of van Ronk's version for his first album:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "House of the Rising Sun"]

As van Ronk later told the story (though I'm going to edit out one expletive here for the sake of getting past the adult content rating on Apple):

"One evening in 1962, I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in. He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterioso about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze, his lady. I pumped him for information, but he was vague. Everything was going fine and, “Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?’”

[expletive]. “Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks. Can’t it wait until your next album?”

A long pause. “Uh-oh.”

I did not like the sound of that. “What exactly do you mean, ‘Uh-oh’?”

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve already recorded it.”

“You did what?!” I flew into a Donald Duck rage, and I fear I may have said something unkind that could be heard over in Chelsea."

van Ronk and Dylan fell out for a couple of weeks, though they later reconciled, and van Ronk said of Dylan's performance "it was essentially my arrangement, but Bobby’s reading had all the nuance and subtlety of a Neanderthal with a stone hand ax, and I took comfort thereby."

van Ronk did record his version, as we heard, but he soon stopped playing the song live because he got sick of people telling him to "play that Dylan song".

The Animals learned the song from the Dylan record, and decided to introduce it to their set on their first national tour, supporting Chuck Berry. All the other acts were only doing rock and roll and R&B, and they thought a folk song might be a way to make them stand out -- and it instantly became the highlight of their act. 

The way all the members except Alan Price tell the story, the main instigators of the arrangement were Eric Burdon, the only member of the group who had been familiar with the song before hearing the Dylan album, and Hilton Valentine, who came up with the arpeggiated guitar part. Their arrangement followed Dylan's rearrangement of van Ronk's rearrangement, except they dropped the scalar bassline altogether, so for example instead of a D with an F# in the bass they just play a plain open D chord -- the F# that van Ronk introduced is still in there, as the third, but the descending line is now just implied by the chords, not explicitly stated in the bass, where Chas Chandler just played root notes.

In the middle of the tour, the group were called back into the studio to record their follow-up single, and they had what seemed like it might be a great opportunity. The TV show Ready Steady Go! wanted the Animals to record a version of the old Ray Charles song "Talking 'Bout You", to use as their theme. The group travelled down from Liverpool after playing a show there, and went into the studio in London at three o'clock in the morning, before heading to Southampton for the next night's show. But they needed to record a B-side first, of course, and so before getting round to the main business of the session they knocked off a quick one-take performance of their new live showstopper:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun"]

On hearing the playback, everyone was suddenly convinced that that, not "Talking 'Bout You", should be the A-side. But there was a problem. The record was four minutes and twenty seconds long, and you just didn't ever release a record that long. The rule was generally that songs didn't last longer than three minutes, because radio stations wouldn't play them, but Most was eventually persuaded by Chas Chandler that the track needed to go out as it was, with no edits.

It did, but when it went out, it had only one name on as the arranger -- which when you're recording a public domain song makes you effectively the songwriter. According to all the members other than Price, the group's manager, Mike Jeffrey, who was close to Price, had "explained" to them that you needed to just put one name down on the credits, but not to worry, as they would all get a share of the songwriting money. According to Price, meanwhile, he was the sole arranger. Whatever the truth, Price was the only one who ever got any songwriting royalties for their version of the song, which went to number one in the UK and the US. although the version released as a single in the US was cut down to three minutes with some brutal edits, particularly to the organ solo:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun (US edit)"]

None of the group liked what was done to the US single edit, and the proper version was soon released as an album track everywhere

The Animals' version was a big enough hit that it inspired Dylan's new producer Tom Wilson to do an experiment. In late 1964 he hired session musicians to overdub a new electric backing onto an outtake version of "House of the Rising Sun" from the sessions from Dylan's first album, to see what it would sound like:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "House of the Rising Sun (1964 electric version)"]

That wasn't released at the time, it was just an experiment Wilson tried, but it would have ramifications we'll be seeing throughout the rest of the podcast.

Incidentally, Dave van Ronk had the last laugh at Dylan, who had to drop the song from his own sets because people kept asking him if he'd stolen it from the Animals.

The Animals' next single, "I'm Crying", was their first and only self-written A-side, written by Price and Burdon. It was a decent record and made the top ten in the UK and the top twenty in the US, but Price and Burdon were never going to become another Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards -- they just didn't like each other by this point.

The record after that, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", was written by the jazz songwriters Benny Benjamin and Horace Ott, and had originally been recorded by Nina Simone in an orchestral version that owed quite a bit to Burt Bacharach:

[Excerpt: Nina Simone, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"]

The Animals' version really suffers in comparison to that. I was going to say something about how their reinterpretation is as valid in its own way as Simone's original and stands up against it, but actually listening to them back to back as I was writing this, rather than separately as I always previously had, I changed my mind because I really don't think it does. It's a great record, and it's deservedly considered a classic single, but compared to Simone's version, it's lightweight, rushed, and callow:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"]

Simone was apparently furious at the Animals' recording, which they didn't understand given that she hadn't written the original, and according to John Steel she and Burdon later had a huge screaming row about the record. In Steel's version, Simone eventually grudgingly admitted that they weren't "so bad for a bunch of white boys", but that doesn't sound to me like the attitude Simone would take. But Steel was there and I wasn't...

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was followed by a more minor single, a cover of Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me", which would be the last single by the group to feature Alan Price. On the twenty-eighth of April 1965, the group were about to leave on a European tour. Chas Chandler, who shared a flat with Price, woke Price up and then got in the shower. When he got out of the shower, Price wasn't in the flat, and Chandler wouldn't see Price again for eighteen months.

Chandler believed until his death that while he was in the shower, Price's first royalty cheque for arranging "House of the Rising Sun" had arrived, and Price had decided then and there that he wasn't going to share the money as agreed. The group quickly rushed to find a fill-in keyboard player for the tour, and nineteen-year-old Mick Gallagher was with them for a couple of weeks before being permanently replaced by Dave Rowberry. Gallagher would later go on to be the keyboard player with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, as well as playing on several tracks by the Clash.

Price, meanwhile, went on to have a number of solo hits over the next few years, starting with a version of "I Put A Spell On You", in an arrangement which the other Animals later claimed had originally been worked up as an Animals track:

[Excerpt: The Alan Price Set, "I Put A Spell On You"]

Price would go on to make many great solo records, introducing the songs of Randy Newman to a wider audience, and performing in a jazz-influenced R&B style very similar to Mose Allison.

The Animals' first record with their new keyboard player was their greatest single. "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" had been written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and had originally been intended for the Righteous Brothers, but they'd decided to have Mann record it himself:

[Excerpt: Barry Mann, "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"]

But before that version was released, the Animals had heard Mann's piano demo of the song and cut their own version, and Mann's was left on the shelf.

What the Animals did to the song horrified Cynthia Weill, who considered it the worst record of one of her songs ever -- though one suspects that's partly because it sabotaged the chances for her husband's single -- but to my mind they vastly improved on the song. They tightened the melody up a lot, getting rid of a lot of interjections. They reworked big chunks of the lyric, for example changing "Oh girl, now you're young and oh so pretty, staying here would be a crime, because you'll just grow old before your time" to "Now my girl, you're so young and pretty, and one thing I know is true, you'll be dead before your time is due", and making subtler changes like changing "if it's the last thing that we do" to "if it's the last thing we ever do", improving the scansion. They kept the general sense of the lyrics, but changed more of the actual words than they kept -- and to my ears, at least, every change they made was an improvement.

And most importantly, they excised the overlong bridge altogether. I can see what Mann and Weill were trying to do with the bridge -- Righteous Brothers songs would often have a call and response section, building to a climax, where Bill Medley's low voice and Bobby Hatfield's high one would alternate and then come together. But that would normally come in the middle, building towards the last chorus. Here it comes between every verse and chorus, and completely destroys the song's momentum -- it just sounds like noodling:

[Excerpt: Barry Mann, "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"]

The Animals' version, by contrast, is a masterpiece of dynamics, of slow builds and climaxes and dropping back down again. It's one of the few times I've wished I could just drop the entire record in, rather than excerpting a section, because it depends so much for its effect on the way the whole structure of the track works together:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"]

From a creators' rights perspective, I entirely agree with Cynthia Weill that the group shouldn't have messed with her song. But from a listener's point of view, I have to say that they turned a decent song into a great one, and one of the greatest singles of all time

"We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" was followed by another lesser but listenable single, "It's My Life", which seemed to reinforce a pattern of a great Animals single being followed by a merely OK one. But that was the point at which the Animals and Most would part company -- the group were getting sick of Most's attempts to make them more poppy.

They signed to a new label, Decca, and got a new producer, Tom Wilson, the man who we heard earlier experimenting with Dylan's sound, but the group started to fall apart. After their next single, "Inside -- Looking Out", a prison work song collected by the Lomaxes, and the album Animalisms, John Steel left the group, tired of not getting any money, and went to work in a shop.

The album after Animalisms, confusingly titled Animalism, was also mostly produced by Wilson, and didn't even feature the musicians in the band on two of the tracks, which Wilson farmed out to a protege of his, Frank Zappa, to produce. Those two tracks featured Zappa on guitar and members of the Wrecking Crew, with only Burdon from the actual group:

[Excerpt: The Animals, "All Night Long"]

Soon the group would split up, and would discover that their management had thoroughly ripped them off -- there had been a scheme to bank their money in the Bahamas for tax reasons, in a bank which mysteriously disappeared off the face of the Earth. Burdon would form a new group, known first as the New Animals and later as Eric Burdon and the Animals, who would have some success but not on the same level. There were a handful of reunions of the original lineup of the group between 1968 and the early eighties, but they last played together in 1983.

Burdon continues to tour the US as Eric Burdon and the Animals. Alan Price continues to perform successfully as a solo artist. We'll be picking up with Chas Chandler later, when he moves from bass playing into management, so you'll hear more about him in future episodes.

John Steel, Dave Rowberry, and Hilton Valentine reformed a version of the Animals in the 1990s, originally with Jim Rodford, formerly of the Kinks and Argent, on bass. Valentine left that group in 2001, and Rowberry died in 2003. Steel now tours the UK as "The Animals and Friends", with Mick Gallagher, who had replaced Price briefly in 1965, on keyboards. I've seen them live twice and they put on an excellent show -- though the second time, one woman behind me did indignantly say, as the singer started, "That's not Eric Clapton!", before starting to sing along happily...

And Hilton Valentine moved to the US and played briefly with Burdon's Animals after quitting Steel's, before returning to his first love, skiffle. He died exactly four weeks ago today, and will be missed.

Feb 27, 2021
Episode 114: "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie
47:11

This week's episode looks at "My Boy Lollipop" and the origins of ska music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "If You Wanna Be Happy" by Jimmy Soul.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

As usual, I have created a Mixcloud playlist containing every song heard in this episode -- a content warning applies for the song "Bloodshot Eyes" by Wynonie Harris.

The information about ska in general mostly comes from Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley, with some also from Reggae and Caribbean Music by Dave Thompson.

Biographical information on Millie Small is largely from this article in Record Collector, plus a paywalled interview with Goldmine magazine (which I won't link to because of the paywall).

Millie's early recordings with Owen Gray and Coxsone Dodd can be found on this compilation, along with a good selection of other recordings Dodd produced, while this compilation gives a good overview of her recordings for Island and Fontana.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Erratum

I refer to "Barbara Gaye" when I should say "Barbie Gaye"

Transcript

Today, we're going to take our first look at a form of music that would go on to have an almost incalculable influence on the music of the seventies, eighties, and later, but which at the time we're looking at was largely regarded as a novelty music, at least in Britain and America. We're going to look at the birth of ska, and at the first ska record to break big outside of Jamaica. We're going to look at "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie:

[Excerpt: Millie, "My Boy Lollipop"]

Most of the music we've looked at so far in the podcast has been from either America or Britain, and I'm afraid that that's going to remain largely the case -- while there has been great music made in every country in the world, American and British musicians have tended to be so parochial, and have dominated the music industry so much, that relatively little of that music has made itself felt widely enough to have any kind of impact on the wider history of rock music, much to rock's detriment.

But every so often something from outside the British Isles or North America manages to penetrate even the closed ears of Anglo-American musicians, and today we're going to look at one of those records.

Now, before we start this, this episode is, by necessity, going to be dealing in broad generalisations -- I'm trying to give as much information about Jamaica's musical culture in one episode as I've given about America's in a hundred, so I am going to have to elide a lot of details. Some of those details will come up in future episodes, as we deal with more Jamaican artists, but be aware that I'm missing stuff out.

The thing that needs to be understood about the Jamaican music culture of the fifties and early sixties is that it developed in conditions of absolute poverty. Much of the music we looked at in the first year or so of the podcast came from extremely impoverished communities, of course, but even given how utterly, soul-crushingly, poor many people in the Deep South were, or the miserable conditions that people in Liverpool and London lived in while Britain was rebuilding itself after the war, those people were living in rich countries, and so still had access to some things that were not available to the poor people of poorer countries.

So in Jamaica in the 1950s, almost nobody had access to any kind of record player or radio themselves. You wouldn't even *know* anyone who had one, unlike in the states where if you were very poor you might not have one yourself, but your better-off cousin might let you come round and listen to the radio  at their house. So music was, by necessity, a communal experience. 

Jamaican music, or at least the music in Kingston, the biggest city in Jamaica, was organised around  sound systems -- big public open-air systems run by DJs, playing records for dancing. These had originally started in shops as a way of getting customers in, but soon became so popular that people started doing them on their own. These sound systems played music that was very different from the music played on the radio, which was aimed mostly at people rich enough to own radios, which at that time mostly meant white British people -- in the fifties, Jamaica was still part of the British Empire, and there was an extraordinary gap between the music the white British colonial class liked and the music that the rest of the population liked. 

The music that the Jamaican population *made* was mostly a genre called mento. Now, this is somewhere where my ignorance of this music compared to other musics comes into play a bit. There seem to have been two genres referred to as mento. One of them, rural mento, was based around instruments like the banjo, and a home-made bass instrument called a "rhumba box", and had a resemblance to a lot of American country music or British skiffle -- this form of mento is often still called "country music" in Jamaica itself:

[Excerpt: The Hiltonaires, "Matilda"]

There was another variant of mento, urban mento, which dropped the acoustic and home-made instruments and replaced them with the same sort of instruments that R&B or jazz bands used. Everything I read about urban mento says that it's a different genre from calypso music, which generally comes from Trinidad and Tobago rather than Jamaica, but nothing explains what that difference is, other than the location. Mento musicians would also call their music calypso in order to sell it to people like me who don't know the difference, and so you would get mento groups called things like Count Lasher and His Calypsonians, Lord Lebby and the Jamaica Calypsonians, and Count Owen and His Calypsonians, songs called things like "Hoola Hoop Calypso", and mentions of calypso in the lyrics.

I am fairly familiar with calypso music -- people like the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Melody, Roaring Lion, and so on -- and I honestly can't hear any difference between calypso proper and mento records like this one, by Lord Power and Trenton Spence:

[Excerpt: Lord Power and Trenton Spence, "Strip Tease"]

But I'll defer to the experts in these genres and accept that there's a difference I'm not hearing. Mento was primarily a music for live performance, at least at first -- there were very few recording facilities in Jamaica, and to the extent that records were made at all there, they were mostly done in very small runs to sell to tourists, who wanted a souvenir to take home.

The music that the first sound systems played would include some mento records, and they would also play a fair number of latin-flavoured records. But the bulk of what they played was music for dancing, imported from America, made by Black American musicians, many of them the same musicians we looked at in the early months of this podcast. Louis Jordan was a big favourite, as was Wynonie Harris -- the biggest hit in the early years of the sound systems was Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes". I'm going to excerpt that here, because it was an important record in the evolution of Jamaican music, but be warned that the song trivialises intimate partner violence in a way that many people might find disturbing. If you might be upset by that, skip forward exactly thirty seconds now:

[Excerpt: Wynonie Harris, "Bloodshot Eyes"]

The other artists who get repeatedly named in the histories of the early sound systems along with Jordan and Harris are Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair -- a musician we've not talked about in the podcast, but who made New Orleans R&B music in the same style as Domino and Price, and for slow-dancing the Moonglows and Jesse Belvin. They would also play jazz -- Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan were particular favourites.

These records weren't widely available in Jamaica -- indeed, *no* records were really widely available . They found their way into Jamaica through merchant seamen, who would often be tasked by sound men with getting hold of new and exciting records, and paid with rum or marijuana. The "sound man" was the term used for the DJs who ran these sound systems, and they were performers as much as they were people who played records -- they would talk and get the crowds going, they would invent dance steps and perform them, and they would also use the few bits of technology they had to alter the sound -- usually by adding bass or echo. Their reputation was built by finding the most obscure records, but ones which the crowds would love. Every sound man worth his salt had a collection of records that nobody else had -- if you were playing the same records that someone else had, you were a loser. As soon as a sound man got hold of a record, he'd scratch out all the identifying copy on the label and replace it with a new title, so that none of his rivals could get hold of their own copies.

The rivalry between sound men could be serious -- it started out just as friendly competition, with each man trying to build a bigger and louder system and draw a bigger crowd, but when the former policeman turned gangster Duke Reid started up his Trojan sound system, intimidating rivals with guns soon became par for the course. Reid had actually started out in music as an R&B radio DJ -- one of the few in Jamaica -- presenting a show whose theme song, Tab Smith's "My Mother's Eyes", would become permanently identified with Reid:

[Excerpt: Tab Smith, "My Mother's Eyes"]

Reid's Trojan was one of the two biggest sound systems in Kingston, the other being Downbeat, run by Coxsone Dodd. Dodd's system became so popular that he ended up having five different sound systems, all playing in different areas of the city every night, with the ones he didn't perform at himself being run by assistants who later became big names in the Jamaican music world themselves, like Prince Buster and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Buster performed a few other functions for Dodd as well -- one important one being that he  knew enough about R&B that he could go to Duke Reid's shows, listen to the records he was playing, and figure out what they must be -- he could recognise the different production styles of the different R&B labels well enough that he could use that, plus the lyrics, to work out the probable title and label of a record Reid was playing. Dodd would then get a merchant seaman to bring a copy of that record back from America, get a local record pressing plant to press up a bunch of copies of it, and sell it to the other sound men, thus destroying Reid's edge.

Eventually Prince Buster left Dodd and set up his own rival sound system, at which point the rivalry became a three-way one. Dodd knew about technology, and had the most powerful sound system with the best amps. Prince Buster was the best showman, who knew what the people wanted and gave it to them, and Duke Reid was connected and powerful enough that he could use intimidation to keep a grip on power, but he also had good enough musical instincts that his shows were genuinely popular in their own right. People started to see their favourite sound systems in the same way they see sports teams or political parties -- as marks of identity that were worth getting into serious fights over. Supporters of one system would regularly attack supporters of another, and who your favourite sound system was *really mattered*.

But there was a problem. While these systems were playing a handful of mento records, they were mostly relying on American records, and this had two problems. The most obvious was that if a record was available publicly, eventually someone else would find it. Coxsone Dodd managed to use one record, "Later For Gator" by Willis "Gatortail" Jackson, at every show for seven years, renaming it "Coxsone Hop":

[Excerpt: Willis "Gatortail" Jackson, "Later For Gator"]

But eventually word got out that Duke Reid had tracked the song down and would play it at a dance. Dodd went along, and was allowed in unmolested -- Reid wanted Dodd to know he'd been beaten. 

Now, here I'm going to quote something Prince Buster said, and we hit a problem we're likely to hit again when it comes to Jamaica. Buster spoke Jamaican Patois, a creole language that is mutually intelligible with, but different from, standard English. When quoting him, or any other Patois speaker, I have a choice of three different options, all bad. I could translate his words into standard English, thus misrepresenting him; I could read his words directly in my own accent, which has the problem that it can sound patronising, or like I'm mocking his language, because so much of Patois is to do with the way the words are pronounced; or I could attempt to approximate his own accent -- which would probably come off as incredibly racist. As the least bad option of the three, I'm choosing the middle one here, and reading in my own accent, but I want people to be aware that this is not intended as mockery, and that I have at least given this some thought:

"So we wait. Then as the clock struck midnight we hear “Baaap… bap da dap da dap, daaaa da daap!” And we see a bunch of them down from the dancehall coming up with the green bush. I was at the counter with Coxsone, he have a glass in him hand, he drop it and just collapse, sliding down the bar. I had to brace him against the bar, then get Phantom to give me a hand. The psychological impact had knocked him out. Nobody never hit him."

There was a second problem with using American records, as well -- American musical tastes were starting to change, and Jamaican ones weren't. Jamaican audiences wanted Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, and Gene & Eunice, but the Americans wanted Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Bobby Darin. For a while, the sound men were able to just keep finding more and more obscure old R&B and jump band records, but there was a finite supply of these, and they couldn't keep doing it forever.

The solution eventually became obvious -- they needed Jamaican R&B. And thankfully there was a ready supply. Every week, there was a big talent contest in Kingston, and the winners would get five pounds -- a lot of money in that time and place. Many of the winners would then go to a disc-cutting service, one of those places that would record a single copy of a song for you, and use their prize money to record themselves. They could then sell that record to one of the sound men, who would be sure that nobody else would have a copy of it.

At first, the only sound men they could sell to were the less successful ones, who didn't have good connections with American records. A local record was clearly not as good as an American one, and so the big sound systems wouldn't touch it, but it was better than nothing, and some of the small sound systems would find that the local records were a success for them, and eventually the bigger systems would start using the small ones as a test audience -- if a local record went down well at a small system, one of the big operators would get in touch with the sound man of that system and buy the record from him.

One of the big examples of this was "Lollipop Girl", a song by Derrick Harriott and Claudie Sang. They recorded that, with just a piano backing, and sold their only copy to a small sound system owner. It went down so well that the small sound man traded his copy with Coxsone Dodd for an American record -- and it went down so well when Dodd played it that Duke Reid bribed one of Dodd's assistants to get hold of Dodd's copy long enough to get a copy made for himself. When Dodd and Reid played a sound clash -- a show where they went head to head to see who could win a crowd over -- and Reid played his own copy of "Lollipop Girl", Dodd pulled a gun on Reid, and it was only the fact that the clash was next door to the police station that kept the two men from killing each other.

Reid eventually wore out his copy of "Lollipop Girl", he played it so much, and so he did the only sensible thing -- he went into the record business himself, and took Harriott into the studio, along with a bunch of musicians from the local big bands, and cut a new version of it with a full band backing Harriott. As well as playing this on his sound system, Reid released it as a record:

[Excerpt: Derrick Harriott, "Lollipop Girl"]

Reid didn't make many more records at this point, but both Coxsone Dodd and Prince Buster started up their own labels, and started hiring local singers, plus people from a small pool of players who became the go-to session musicians for any record made in Jamaica at the time, like trombone player Rico Rodriguez and guitarist Ernest Ranglin.

During the late 1950s, a new form of music developed from these recordings, which would become known as ska, and there are three records which are generally considered to be milestones in its development. The first was produced by a white businessman, Edward Seaga, who is now more famous for becoming the Prime Minister of Jamaica in the 1980s. At the time, though, Seaga had the idea to incorporate a little bit of a mento rhythm into an R&B record he was producing. In most music, if you have a four-four rhythm, you can divide it into eight on-beats and off-beats, and you normally stress the on-beats, so you stress "ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and". In mento, though, you'd often have a banjo stress the off-beats, so the stresses would be "one AND two AND three AND four AND".

Seaga had the guitarist on "Manny Oh" by Higgs and Wilson do this, on a track that was otherwise a straightforward New Orleans style R&B song with a tresillo bassline. The change in stresses is almost imperceptible to modern ears, but it made the record sound uniquely Jamaican to its audience:

[Excerpt: Higgs and Wilson, "Manny Oh"]

The next record in the sequence was produced by Dodd, and is generally considered the first real ska record. There are a few different stories about where the term "ska" came from, but one of the more believable is that it came from Dodd directing Ernest Ranglin, who was the arranger for the record, to stress the off-beat more, saying "play it ska... ska... ska..."

Where "Manny Oh" had been a Jamaican sounding R&B record, "Easy Snappin'" is definitely a blues-influenced ska record:

[Excerpt: Theo Beckford, "Easy Snappin'"]

But Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, at this point, still saw the music they were making as a substitute for American R&B. Prince Buster, on the other hand, by this point was a full-fledged Black nationalist, and wanted to make a purely Jamaican music. Buster was, in particular, an adherent of the Rastafari religion, and he brought in five drummers from the Rasta Nyabinghi tradition, most notably Count Ossie, who became the single most influential drummer in Jamaica, to record on the Folkes brothers single "Oh Carolina", incorporating the rhythms of Rasta sacred music into Jamaican R&B for the first time:

[Excerpt: The Folkes Brothers, "Oh Carolina"]

1962 was a turning point in Jamaican music in a variety of ways. Most obviously, it was the year that Jamaica became independent from the British Empire, and was able to take control of its own destiny. But it was also the year that saw the first recordings of a fourteen-year-old girl who would become ska's first international star.

Millie Small had started performing at the age of twelve, when she won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, the single biggest talent contest in Kingston. But it was two years later that she came to the attention of Coxsone Dodd, who was very interested in her because her voice sounded spookily like that of Shirley, from the duo Shirley and Lee.

We mentioned Shirley and Lee briefly back in the episode on "Ko Ko Mo", but they were a New Orleans R&B duo who had a string of hits in the early and mid fifties, recorded at Cosimo Matassa's studio, pairing Leonard Lee's baritone voice with Shirley Goodman's soprano. Their early records had been knock-offs of the sound that Little Esther had created with Johnny Otis and his male vocalists -- for example Shirley and Lee's "Sweethearts":

[Excerpt: Shirley and Lee, "Sweethearts"]

bears a very strong resemblance to "Double-Crossing Blues":

[Excerpt: Little Esther, Johnny Otis, and the Robins, "Double-Crossing Blues"]

But they'd soon developed a more New Orleans style, with records like "Feel So Good" showing some of the Caribbean influence that many records from the area had:

[Excerpt: Shirley and Lee, "Feel So Good"]

Shirley and Lee only had minor chart success in the US, but spawned a host of imitators, including Gene and Eunice and Mickey and Sylvia, both of whom we looked at in the early months of the podcast, and Ike and Tina Turner who will be coming up later. Like much New Orleans R&B, Shirley and Lee were hugely popular among the sound system listeners, and Coxsone Dodd thought that Mille's voice sounded enough like Shirley's that it would be worth setting her up as part of his own Shirley and Lee soundalike duo, pairing her with a more established singer, Owen Gray, to record songs like "Sit and Cry", a song which combined the vocal sound of Shirley and Lee with the melody of "The Twist":

[Excerpt: Owen and Millie, "Sit and Cry"]

After Gray decided to continue performing on his own, Millie was instead teamed with another performer, Roy Panton, and "We'll Meet" by Roy and Millie went to number one in Jamaica:

[Excerpt: Roy and Millie, "We'll Meet"]

Meanwhile, in the UK, there was a growing interest in music from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica. Until very recently, Britain had been a very white country -- there have always been Black people in the UK, especially in port towns, but there had been very few. As of 1950, there were only about twenty thousand people of colour living in the UK. But starting in 1948, there had been a massive wave of immigration from other parts of what was then still the British Empire, as the government encouraged people to come here to help rebuild the country after the war. By 1961 there were nearly two hundred thousand Black people in Britain, almost all of them from the Caribbean. 

Those people obviously wanted to hear the music of their own culture, and one man in particular was giving it to them.

Chris Blackwell was a remarkably privileged man. His father had been one of the heirs to the Crosse and Blackwell fortune, and young Chris had been educated at Harrow, but when not in school he had spent much of his youth in Jamaica. His mother, Blanche, lived in Jamaica, where she was a muse to many men -- Noel Coward based a character on her, in a play he wrote in 1956 but which was considered so scandalous that it wasn't performed in public until 2012. Blanche attended the premiere of that play, when she was ninety-nine years old. She had an affair with Errol Flynn, and was also Ian Fleming's mistress -- Fleming would go to his Jamaican villa, GoldenEye, every year to write, leaving his wife at home (where she was having her own affairs, with the Labour MPs Hugh Gaitskell and Roy Jenkins), and would hook up with Blanche while he was there -- according to several sources, Fleming based the characters of Pussy Galore and Honeychile Ryder on Blanche. After Fleming's death, his wife instructed the villa's manager that it could be rented to literally anyone except Blanche Blackwell, but in the mid-1970s it was bought by Bob Marley, who in turn sold it to Chris Blackwell.

Chris Blackwell had developed a fascination with Rasta culture after having crashed his boat while sailing, and being rescued by some Rasta fishermen, and he had decided that his goal was to promote Jamaican culture to the world. He'd started his own labels, Island Records, in 1959, using his parents' money, and had soon produced a Jamaican number one, "Boogie in My Bones", by Laurel Aitken:

[Excerpt: Laurel Aitken, "Boogie in My Bones"]

But music was still something of a hobby with Blackwell, to the point that he nearly quit it altogether in 1962. He'd been given a job as a gopher on the first James Bond film, Dr. No, thanks to his family connections, and had also had a cameo role in the film. Harry Saltzman, the producer, offered him a job, but Blackwell went to a fortune teller who told him to stick with music, and he did.

Soon after that, he moved back to England, where he continued running Island Records, this time as a distributor of Jamaican records. The label would occasionally record some tracks of its own, but it made its money from releasing Jamaican records, which Blackwell would hand-sell to local record shops around immigrant communities in London, Manchester, and Birmingham.

Island was not the biggest of the labels releasing Jamaican music in Britain at the time -- there was another label, Blue Beat, which got most of the big records, and which was so popular that in Britain "bluebeat" became a common term for ska, used to describe the whole genre, in the same way as Motown might be. And ska was becoming popular enough that there was also local ska being made, by Jamaican musicians living in Britain, and it was starting to chart. The first ska record to hit the charts in Britain was a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song, "King of Kings", performed by Ezz Reco and the Launchers:

[Excerpt: Ezz Reco and the Launchers, "King of Kings"]

That made the lower reaches of the top forty, and soon after came "Mockingbird Hill", a ska remake of an old Les Paul and Mary Ford hit, recorded by the Migil Five, a white British R&B group whose main claim to fame was that one of them was Charlie Watts' uncle, and Watts had occasionally filled in on drums for them before joining the Rolling Stones:

[Excerpt: Migil Five, "Mockingbird Hill"]

That made the top ten. Ska was becoming the in sound in Britain, to the point that in March 1964, the same month that "Mockingbird Hill" was released, the Beatles made a brief detour into ska in the instrumental break to "I Call Your Name":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "I Call Your Name"]

And it was into this atmosphere that Chris Blackwell decided to introduce Millie. Her early records had been selling well enough for him that in 1963 he had decided to call Millie's mother and promise her that if her daughter came over to the UK, he would be able to make her into a star. Rather than release her records on Island, which didn't have any wide distribution, he decided to license them to Fontana, a mid-sized British label.

Millie's first British single, "Don't You Know", was released in late 1963, and was standard British pop music of the time, with little to distinguish it, and so unsurprisingly it wasn't a hit:

[Excerpt: Millie, "Don't You Know"]

But the second single was something different. For that, Blackwell remembered a song that had been popular among the sound systems a few years earlier; an American record by a white singer named Barbara Gaye. Up to this point, Gaye's biggest claim to fame had been that Ellie Greenwich had liked this record enough that she'd briefly performed under the stage name Ellie Gaye, before deciding against that.

"My Boy Lollipop" had been written by Robert Spencer of the Cadillacs, the doo-wop group whose biggest hit had been "Speedoo":

[Excerpt: The Cadillacs, "Speedoo"]

Spencer had written “My Boy Lollipop”, but lost the rights to it in a card game -- and then Morris Levy bought the rights from the winner for a hundred dollars. Levy changed the songwriting credit to feature a mob acquaintance of his, Johnny Roberts, and then passed the song to Gaetano Vastola, another mobster, who had it recorded by Gaye, a teenage girl he managed, with the backing provided by the normal New York R&B session players, like Big Al Sears and Panama Francis:

[Excerpt: Barbie Gaye, "My Boy Lollipop"]

That hadn't been a hit when it was released in 1956, but it had later been picked up by the Jamaican sound men, partly because of its resemblance to the ska style, and Blackwell had a tape recording of it. Blackwell got Ernest Ranglin, who had also worked on Dr. No, and who had moved over to the UK at the same time as Blackwell, to come up with an arrangement, and Ranglin hired a local band to perform the instrumental backing. That band, Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions, had previously been known as the Moontrekkers, and had worked with Joe Meek, recording "Night of the Vampire":

[Excerpt: The Moontrekkers, "Night of the Vampire"]

Ranglin replaced the saxophone solo from the original record with a harmonica solo, to fit the current fad for the harmonica in the British charts, and there is some dispute about who played it, but Millie always insisted that it was the Five Dimensions' harmonica player, Rod Stewart, though Stewart denies it:

[Excerpt: Millie, "My Boy Lollipop"]

"My Boy Lollipop" came out in early 1964 and became a massive hit, reaching number two on the charts both in the UK and the US, and Millie was now a star. She got her own UK TV special, as well as appearing on Around The Beatles, a special starring the Beatles and produced by Jack Good. She was romantically linked to Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon. Her next single, though, "Sweet William", only made number thirty, as the brief first wave of interest in ska among the white public subsided:

[Excerpt: Millie, "Sweet William"]

Over the next few years, there were many attempts made to get her back in the charts, but the last thing that came near was a remake of "Bloodshot Eyes", without the intimate partner violence references, which made number forty-eight on the UK charts at the end of 1965:

[Excerpt: Millie, "Bloodshot Eyes"]

She was also teamed with other artists in an attempt to replicate her success as a duet act. She recorded with Jimmy Cliff:

[Excerpt: Millie and Jimmy Cliff, "Hey Boy, Hey Girl"]

and Jackie Edwards:

[Excerpt: Jackie and Millie, "Pledging My Love"]

and she was also teamed with a rock group Blackwell had discovered, and who would soon become big stars themselves with versions of songs by Edwards, on a cover version of Ike and Tina Turner's "I'm Blue (the Gong Gong Song)":

[Excerpt: The Spencer Davis Group, "I'm Blue (The Gong Gong Song)"]

But the Spencer Davis Group didn't revive her fortunes, and she moved on to a succession of smaller labels, with her final recordings coming in the early 1970s, when she recorded the track "Enoch Power", in response to the racism stirred up by the right-wing politician Enoch Powell:

[Excerpt: Millie Small, "Enoch Power"]

Millie spent much of the next few decades in poverty. There was talk of a comeback in the early eighties, after the British ska revival group Bad Manners had a top ten hit with a gender-flipped remake of "My Boy Lollipop":

[Excerpt: Bad Manners, "My Girl Lollipop"]

But she never performed again after the early seventies, and other than one brief interview in 2016 she kept her life private. She was given multiple honours by the people of Jamaica, including being made a Commander in the Order of Distinction, but never really got any financial benefit from her enormous chart success, or from being the first Jamaican artist to make an impact on Britain and America. She died last year, aged seventy-two.

Feb 18, 2021
Episode 113: "Needles and Pins" by The Searchers
46:32

This week's episode looks at "Needles and Pins", and the story of the second-greatest band to come out of Liverpool in the sixties, The Searchers. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a sixteen-minute bonus episode available, on "Farmer John" by Don and Dewey.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many recordings by the Searchers. 

My two main resources for this episode have been the autobiographies of members of the group -- Frank Allen's The Searchers and Me and Mike Pender's The Search For Myself. 

All the Searchers tracks and Tony Jackson or Chris Curtis solo recordings excerpted here, except the live excerpt of "What'd I Say", can be found on this box set, which is out of print as a physical box, but still available digitally. For those who want a good budget alternative, though, this double-CD set contains fifty Searchers tracks, including all their hits, for under three pounds.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Last week we had a look at the biggest group ever to come out of Liverpool, and indeed the biggest group ever to play rock and roll music. But the Beatles weren't the only influential band on the Merseybeat scene, and while we won't have much chance to look at Merseybeat in general, we should at least briefly touch on the other bands from the scene. So today we're going to look at a band who developed a distinctive sound that would go on to be massively influential, even though they're rarely cited as an influence in the way some of their contemporaries are. We're going to look at The Searchers, and "Needles and Pins":

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Needles and Pins"]

The story of the early origins of the Searchers is, like everything about the Searchers, the subject of a great deal of dispute. The two surviving original members of the group, John McNally and Mike Pender, haven't spoken to each other in thirty-six years, and didn't get on for many years before that, and there have been several legal disputes between them over the years. As a result, literally everything about the group's history has become a battlefield in their ongoing arguments.

According to a book by Frank Allen, the group's bass player from 1964 on and someone who took McNally's side in the split and subsequent legal problems, McNally formed a skiffle group, which Mike Pender later joined, and was later joined first by Tony Jackson and then by a drummer then known as Chris Crummey, but who changed his name to the more euphonic Chris Curtis. 

According to Pender, he never liked skiffle, never played skiffle, and "if McNally had a skiffle group, it must have been before I met him". He is very insistent on this point -- he liked country music, and later rock and roll, but never liked skiffle. According to him, he and McNally got together and formed a group that was definitely absolutely not in any way a skiffle group and wasn't led by McNally but was formed by both of them. That group split up, and then Pender became friends with Tony Jackson -- and he's very insistent that he became friends with Jackson during  a period when he didn't know McNally -- and the group reformed around the three of them, when McNally and Pender got back in touch.

The origin of the group's name is similarly disputed. Everyone agrees that it came from the John Wayne film The Searchers -- the same film which had inspired the group's hero Buddy Holly to write "That'll Be The Day" -- but there is disagreement as to whose idea the name was. Pender claims that it was his idea, while McNally says that the name was coined by a singer named "Big Ron", who sang with the band for a bit before disappearing into obscurity.

Big Ron's replacement was a singer named Billy Beck, who at the time he was with the Searchers used the stage name Johnny Sandon (though he later reverted to his birth name). The group performed as Johnny Sandon and The Searchers for two years, before Sandon quit the group to join the Remo Four, a group that was managed by Brian Epstein. Sandon made some records with the Remo Four in 1963, but they went nowhere, but they'll give some idea of how Sandon sounded:

[Excerpt: Johnny Sandon and the Remo Four, "Lies"]

The Remo Four later moved on to back Tommy Quickly, who we heard last week singing a song the Beatles wrote for him.

With Sandon out of the picture, the group had no lead singer or frontman, and were in trouble -- they were known around Liverpool as Johnny Sandon's backing group, not as a group in their own right. They started splitting the lead vocals between themselves, but with Tony Jackson taking most of them. And, in a move which made them stand out, Chris Curtis moved his drum kit to the front line, started playing standing up, and became the group's front-man and second lead singer.

Even at this point, though, there seemed to be cracks in the group. The Searchers were the most clean-living of the Liverpool bands -- they were all devout Catholics who would go to Mass every Sunday without fail, and seem to have never indulged in most of the vices that pretty much every other rock star indulged in. But Curtis and Jackson were far less so than Pender and McNally -- Jackson in particular was a very heavy drinker and known to get very aggressive when drunk, while Curtis was known as eccentric in other ways -- he seems to have had some sort of mental illness, though no-one's ever spoken about a diagnosis -- the Beatles apparently referred to him as "Mad Henry".

Curtis and Jackson didn't get on with each other, and while Jackson started out as a close friend of Pender's, the two soon drifted apart, and by the time of their first recording sessions they appeared to most people to be a group of three plus one outsider, with Jackson not getting on well with any of the others.

There was also a split in the band's musical tastes, but that would be the split that would drive much of their creativity. Pender and McNally were drawn towards softer music -- country and rockabilly, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly -- while Jackson preferred harder, stomping, music. But it was Chris Curtis who took charge of the group's repertoire, and who was the group's unofficial leader. While the other band members had fairly mainstream musical tastes, it was Curtis who would seek out obscure R&B B-sides that he thought the group could make their own, by artists like The Clovers and Richie Barrett -- while many Liverpool groups played Barrett's "Some Other Guy", the Searchers would also play the B-side to that, "Tricky Dicky", a song written by Leiber and Stoller. Curtis also liked quite a bit of folk music, and would also get the group to perform songs by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The result of this combination of material and performers was that the Searchers ended up with a repertoire rooted in R&B, and a heavy rhythm section, but with strong harmony vocals inspired more by the Everlys than by the soul groups that were inspiring the other groups around Liverpool. Other than the Beatles, the Searchers were the best harmony group in Liverpool, and were the only other one to have multiple strong lead vocalists.

Like the Beatles, the Searchers went off to play at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1962. Recordings were made of their performances there, and their live version of Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothin's" later got released as a single after they became successful:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Sweet Nothin's"]

Even as every talent scout in the country seemed to be turning up in Liverpool, and even bands from nearby Manchester were getting signed up in the hope of repeating the Beatles' success, the Searchers were having no luck getting any attention from the London music industry. In part that was because of one bit of bad luck -- the day that Brian Epstein turned up to see them, with the thought of maybe managing them, Tony Jackson was drunk and fell off the stage, and Epstein decided that he was going to give them a miss.

As no talent scouts were coming to see them, they decided that they would record a demo session at the Iron Door, the club they regularly played, and send that out to A&R people. That demo session produced a full short album, which shows them at their stompiest and hardest-driving. Most of the Merseybeat bands sounded much more powerful in their earlier live performances than in the studio, and the Searchers were no exception, and it's interesting to compare the sound of these recordings to the studio ones from only a few months later:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Let's Stomp"]

The group eventually signed to Pye Records. Pye was the third or fourth biggest record label in Britain at the time, but that was a relative matter -- EMI and Decca between them had something like eighty-five percent of the market, and basically *were* the record industry in Britain at the time. Pye was chronically underfunded, and when they signed an artist who managed to have any success, they would tend to push that artist to keep producing as many singles as possible, chasing trends, rather than investing in their long-term career survival.

That said, they did have some big acts, most notably Petula Clark -- indeed the company had been formed from the merger of two other companies, one of which had been formed specifically to issue Clark's records. Clark was yet to have her big breakthrough hit in the USA, but she'd had several big hits in the UK, including the number one hit "Sailor":

[Excerpt: Petula Clark, "Sailor"]

The co-producer on that track had been Tony Hatch, a songwriter and producer who would go on to write and produce almost all of Clark's hit records. Hatch had a track record of hits -- we've heard several songs he was involved in over the course of the series. Most recently, we heard last week how "She Loves You" was inspired by "Forget Him", which Hatch wrote and produced for Bobby Rydell:

[Excerpt: Bobby Rydell, "Forget Him"]

Hatch heard the group's demo, and was impressed, and offered to sign them. The Searchers' manager at the time agreed, on one condition -- that Hatch also sign another band he managed, The Undertakers. Astonishingly, Hatch agreed, and so the Undertakers also got a record contract, and released several flop singles produced by Hatch, including this cover version of a Coasters tune:

[Excerpt: The Undertakers, "What About Us?"]

The biggest mark that the Undertakers would make on music would come many years later, when their lead singer Jackie Lomax would release a solo single, "Sour Milk Sea", which George Harrison wrote for him.

The Searchers, on the other hand, made their mark immediately. The group's first single was a cover version of a song written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, which had been a top twenty hit in the US for the Drifters a couple of years earlier:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Sweets For My Sweet"]

That had become a regular fixture in the Searchers' live set, with Tony Jackson singing lead and Chris Curtis singing the high backing vocal part in falsetto. In much the same way that the Beatles had done with "Twist and Shout", they'd flattened out the original record's Latin cha-cha-cha rhythm into a more straightforward thumping rocker for their live performances, as you can hear on their original demo version from the Iron Door sessions:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Sweets For My Sweet (live at the Iron Door)"]

As you can hear, they'd also misheard a chunk of the lyrics, and so instead of "your tasty kiss", Jackson sang "Your first sweet kiss".

In the studio, they slowed the song down very slightly, and brought up the harmony vocal from Pender on the choruses, which on the demo he seems to have been singing off-mic. The result was an obvious hit:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Sweets For My Sweet"]

That went to number one, helped by an endorsement from John Lennon, who said it was the best record to come out of Liverpool, and launched the Searchers into the very top tier of Liverpool groups, their only real competition being the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers -- and though nobody could have known it at the time, the Pacemakers' career had already peaked at this point. 

Their first album, Meet The Searchers, featured "Sweets For My Sweet", along with a selection of songs that mixed the standard repertoire of every Merseybeat band -- "Money", "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Twist and Shout", "Stand By Me", and the Everly Brothers' "Since You Broke My Heart", with more obscure songs like "Ain't Gonna Kiss Ya", by the then-unknown P.J. Proby, "Farmer John" by Don and Dewey, which hadn't yet become a garage-rock standard (and indeed seems to have become so largely because of the Searchers' version), and a cover of "Love Potion #9", a song that Leiber and Stoller had written for the Clovers, which was not released as a single in the UK, but later became their biggest hit in the US (and a quick content note for this one -- the lyric contains a word for Romani people which many of those people regard as a slur):

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Love Potion #9"]

Their second single was an attempt to repeat the "Sweets For My Sweet" formula, and was written by Tony Hatch, although the group didn't know that at the time. Hatch, like many producers of the time, was used to getting his artists to record his own songs, written under pseudonyms so the record label didn't necessarily realise this was what he was doing. In this case he brought the group a song that he claimed had been written by one "Fred Nightingale", and which he thought would be perfect for them. The song in question, "Sugar and Spice", was a blatant rip-off of "Sweets For My Sweet", and recorded in a near-identical arrangement:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Sugar and Spice"]

The group weren't keen on the song, and got very angry later on when they realised that Tony Hatch had lied to them about its origins, but the record was almost as big a hit as the first one, peaking at number two on the charts.

But it was their third single that was the group's international breakthrough, and which both established a whole new musical style and caused the first big rift in the group.

The song chosen for that third single was one they learned in Hamburg, from Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, a London group who had recorded a few singles with Joe Meek, like "You Got What I Like":

[Excerpt: Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, "You Got What I Like"]

The Rebel Rousers had picked up on a record by Jackie DeShannon, a singer-songwriter who had started up a writing partnership with Sharon Sheeley, the writer who had been Eddie Cochran's girlfriend and in the fatal car crash with him. The record they'd started covering live, though, was not one that DeShannon was the credited songwriter on. "Needles and Pins" was credited to two other writers, both of them associated with Phil Spector. 

Sonny Bono was a young songwriter who had written songs at Specialty Records for people like Sam Cooke, Larry Williams, and Don and Dewey, and his most famous song up to this point was "She Said Yeah", the B-side to Williams' "Bad Boy":

[Excerpt: Larry Williams, "She Said Yeah"]

After working at Specialty, he'd gone on to work as Phil Spector's assistant, doing most of the hands-on work in the studio while Spector sat in the control room. While working with Spector he'd got to know Jack Nitzsche, who did most of the arrangements for Spector, and who had also had hits on his own like "The Lonely Surfer":

[Excerpt: Jack Nitzsche, "The Lonely Surfer"]

Bono and Nitzsche are the credited writers on "Needles and Pins", but Jackie DeShannon insists that she co-wrote the song with them, but her name was left off the credits. I tend to believe her -- both Nitzsche and Bono were, like their boss, abusive misogynist egomaniacs, and it's easy to see them leaving her name off the credits. Either way, DeShannon recorded the song in early 1963, backed by members of the Wrecking Crew, and it scraped into the lower reaches of the US Hot One Hundred, though it actually made number one in Canada:

[Excerpt: Jackie DeShannon, "Needles and Pins"]

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers had been covering that song, and Chris Curtis picked up on it as an obvious hit. The group reshaped the song, and fixed the main flaw with DeShannon's original. 

There's really only about ninety seconds' worth of actual song in "Needles and Pins", and DeShannon's version ends with a minute or so of vamping -- it sounds like it's still a written lyric, but it's full of placeholders where entire lines are "whoa-oh", the kind of thing that someone like Otis Redding could make sound great, but that didn't really work for her record.

The Searchers tightened the song up and altered its dynamics -- instead of the middle eight leading to a long freeform section, they started the song with Mike Pender singing solo, and then on the middle eight they added a high harmony from Curtis, then just repeated the first verse and chorus, in the new key of C sharp, with Curtis harmonising this time:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Needles and Pins" (middle eight on)]

The addition of the harmony gives the song some much-needed dynamic variation not present in DeShannon's version, while repeating the original verse after the key change, and adding in Curtis' high harmony, gives it an obsessive quality. The protagonist here is spiralling – he keeps thinking the same things over and over, at a higher and higher pitch, getting more and more desperate. It's a simple change, but one that improves the song immensely.

Incidentally, one thing I should note here because it's not something I normally do -- in these excerpts of the Searchers' version of "Needles and Pins", I'm actually modifying the recording slightly. The mix used for the original single version of the song, which is what I'm excerpting here, is marred by an incredibly squeaky bass pedal on Chris Curtis' drumkit, which isn't particularly audible if you're listening to it on early sixties equipment, which had little dynamic range, but which on modern digital copies of the track overpowers everything else, to the point that the record sounds like that Monty Python sketch where someone plays a tune by hitting mice with hammers.

Here's a couple of seconds of the unmodified track, so you can see what I mean:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Needles and Pins"]

Most hits compilations have a stereo mix of the song, and have EQ'd it so that the squeaky bass pedal isn't noticeable, but I try wherever possible to use the mixes that people were actually listening to at the time, so I've compromised and used the mono mix but got rid of the squeaky frequencies, so you can hear the music I'm talking about rather than being distracted by the squeaks.

Anyway, leaving the issue of nobody telling Chris Curtis to oil his pedals aside, the change in the structure of the song turned it from something a little baggy and aimless into a tight two-and-a-half minute pop song, but the other major change they made was emphasising the riff, and in doing so they inadvertently invented a whole new genre of music. 

The riff in DeShannon's version is there, but it's just one element -- an acoustic guitar strumming through the chords. It's a good, simple, play-in-a-day riff -- you basically hold a chord down and then move a single finger at a time and you can get that riff -- and it's the backbone of the song, but there's also a piano, and horns, and the Blossoms singing:

[Excerpt: Jackie DeShannon, "Needles and Pins"]

But what the Searchers did was to take the riff and play it simultaneously on two electric guitars, and then added reverb. They also played the first part of the song in A, rather than the key of C which DeShannon's version starts in, which allowed the open strings to ring out more. The result came out sounding like an electric twelve-string, and soon both they and the Beatles would be regularly using twelve-string Rickenbackers to get the same sound:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Needles and Pins"]

That record is the root of jangle-pop and folk-rock. That combination of jangling, reverb-heavy, trebly guitars and Everly Brothers inspired harmonies is one that leads directly to the Byrds, Love, Big Star, Tom Petty, REM, the Smiths, and the Bangles, among many others. While the Beatles were overall obviously the more influential group by a long way, "Needles and Pins" has a reasonable claim to be the most influential single track from the Merseybeat era.

It went to number one in the UK, and became the group's breakthrough hit in the US, reaching number sixteen. The follow-up, "Don't Throw Your Love Away", a cover of a B-side by the Orlons, again featuring Pender on lead vocals and Curtis on harmonies, also made number one in the UK and the US top twenty, giving them a third number one out of four singles. But the next single, "Someday We're Gonna Love Again", a cover of a Barbara Lewis song, only made number eleven, and caused journalists to worry if the Searchers had lost their touch. There was even some talk in the newspapers that Mike Pender might leave the group and start a solo career, which he denied.

As it turned out, one of the group's members was going to leave, but it wasn't Mike Pender. Tony Jackson had sung lead on the first two singles, and on the majority of the tracks on the first album, and he thus regarded himself as the group's lead singer. With Pender taking over the lead on the more recent hit singles, Jackson was being edged aside. By the third album, It's The Searchers, which included "Needles and Pins", Jackson was the only group member not to get a solo lead vocal -- even John McNally got one, while Jackson's only lead was an Everlys style close harmony with Mike Pender. Everything else was being sung by Pender or Curtis.

Jackson was also getting involved in personality conflicts with the other band members -- at one point it actually got to the point that he and Pender had a fistfight on stage.

Jackson was also not entirely keen on the group's move towards more melodic material. It's important to remember that the Searchers had started out as an aggressive, loud, R&B band, and they still often sounded like that on stage -- listen for example to their performance of "What'd I Say" at the NME poll-winners' party in April 1964, with Chris Curtis on lead vocals clearly showing why he had a reputation for eccentricity:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "What'd I Say (live)"]

The combination of these musical differences and his feelings about having his place usurped meant that Jackson was increasingly getting annoyed at the other three band members. Eventually he left the group -- whether he was fired or quit depends on which version of the story you read -- and was replaced by Frank Allen of Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. 

Jackson didn't take this replacement well, and publicly went round telling people that he had been pushed out of the band so that Curtis could get his boyfriend into the band, and there are some innuendoes to this effect in Mike Pender's autobiography -- although Allen denies that he and Curtis were in a relationship, and says that he doesn't actually know what Curtis' sexuality was, because they never discussed that kind of thing, and presumably Allen would know better than anyone else whether he was in a relationship with Curtis. 

Curtis is widely described as having been gay or bi by his contemporaries, but if he was he never came out publicly, possibly due to his strong religious views. There's some suggestion, indeed, that one reason Jackson ended up out of the band was that he blackmailed the band, saying that he would publicly out Curtis if he didn't get more lead vocals.

Whatever the truth, Jackson left the group, and his first solo single, "Bye Bye Baby", made number thirty-eight on the charts:

[Excerpt: Tony Jackson and the Vibrations, "Bye Bye Baby"]

However, his later singles had no success -- he was soon rerecording "Love Potion Number Nine" in the hope that that would be a UK chart success as it had been in the US:

[Excerpt: Tony Jackson and the Vibrations, "Love Potion Number Nine"]

Meanwhile, Allen was fitting in well with his new group, and it appeared at first that the group's run of hits would carry on uninterrupted without Jackson. The first single by the new lineup, "When You Walk In The Room", was a cover of another Jackie DeShannon song, this time written by DeShannon on her own, and originally released as a B-side:

[Excerpt: Jackie DeShannon, "When You Walk In The Room"]

The Searchers rearranged that, once again emphasising the riff from DeShannon's original, and by this time playing it on real twelve-strings, and adding extra compression to them. Their version featured a joint lead vocal by Pender and Allen:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "When You Walk In the Room"]

Do you think the Byrds might have heard that?

That went to number three on the charts. The next single was less successful, only making number thirteen, but was interesting in other ways -- from the start, as well as their R&B covers, Curtis had been adding folk songs to the group's repertoire, and there'd been one or two covers of songs like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" on their albums, but "What Have They Done to the Rain?" was the first one to become a single. 

It was written by Malvina Reynolds, who was a socialist activist who only became a songwriter in her early fifties, and who also wrote "Morningtown Ride" and "Little Boxes". "What Have They Done to The Rain?" was a song written to oppose nuclear weapons testing, and Curtis had learned it from a Joan Baez album. Even though it wasn't as big a success as some of their other hits, given how utterly different it was from their normal style, and how controversial the subject was, getting it into the top twenty at all seems quite an achievement.

[Excerpt: The Searchers, “What Have They Done To The Rain?”]

Their next single, "Goodbye My Love", was their last top ten hit, and the next few singles only made the top forty, even when the Rolling Stones gave them "Take It Or Leave It". The other group members started to get annoyed at Curtis, who they thought had lost his touch at picking songs, and whose behaviour had become increasingly erratic. Eventually, on an Australian tour, they took his supply of uppers and downers, which he had been using as much to self-medicate as for enjoyment as far as I can tell, and flushed them down the toilet. When they got back to the UK, Curtis was out of the group.

Their first single after Curtis' departure, "Have You Ever Loved Somebody", was given to them by the Hollies, who had originally written it as an Everly Brothers album track:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Have You Ever Loved Somebody"]

Unfortunately for the Searchers, Chris Curtis had also heard the song, decided it was a likely hit, and had produced a rival version for Paul and Barry Ryan, which got rushed out to compete with it:

[Excerpt: Paul and Barry Ryan, "Have You Ever Loved Somebody"]

Neither single made the top forty, and the Searchers would never have a hit single again. Nor would Curtis. Curtis only released one solo single, "Aggravation", a cover of a Joe South song:

[Excerpt: Chris Curtis, "Aggravation"]

The musicians on that included Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Joe Moretti, but it didn't chart. Curtis then tried to form a band, which he named Roundabout, based on the concept that musicians could hop on or hop off at any point, with Curtis as the only constant member. The guitarist and keyboard player quickly decided that it would be more convenient for them if Curtis was the one to hop off, and without Curtis Jon Lord and Richie Blackmore went on to form Deep Purple.

The Searchers didn't put out another album for six years after Curtis left. They kept putting out singles on various labels, but nothing came close to charting. Their one album between 1966 and 1979 was a collection of rerecordings of their old hits, in 1972. But then in 1979 Seymour Stein, the owner of Sire Records, a label which was having success with groups like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Pretenders, was inspired by the Ramones covering "Needles and Pins" to sign the Searchers to a two-album deal, which produced records that fit perfectly into the late seventies New Wave pop landscape, while still sounding like the Searchers:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, "Hearts in Her Eyes"]

Apparently during those sessions, Curtis, who had given up music and become a civil servant, would regularly phone the studio threatening to burn it down if he wasn't involved. Unfortunately, while those albums had some critical success, they did nothing commercially, and Sire dropped them.

By 1985, the Searchers were at breaking point. They hadn't recorded any new material in several years, and Mike Pender and John McNally weren't getting on at all -- which was a particular problem as the two of them were now the only two members based in Liverpool, and so they had to travel to and from gigs together without the other band members -- the group were so poor that McNally and Pender had one car between the two of them. One of them would drive them both to the gig, the other would drive back to Liverpool and keep the car until the next gig, when they would swap over again. No-one except them knows what conversations they had on those long drives, but apparently they weren't amicable.

Pender thought of himself as the star of the group, and he particularly resented that he had to split the money from the band three ways (the drummers the group got in after Curtis were always on a salary rather than full partners in the group). Pender decided that he could make more money by touring on his own but still doing essentially the same show, with hired backing musicians.

Pender and the other Searchers eventually reached an agreement that he could tour as "Mike Pender's Searchers", so long as he made sure that all the promotional material put every word at the same size, while the other members would continue as The Searchers with a new singer. A big chunk of the autobiographies of both Pender and Allen are taken up with the ensuing litigation, as there were suits and countersuits over matters of billing which on the outside look incredibly trivial, but which of course mattered greatly to everyone involved -- there were now two groups with near-identical names, playing the same sets, in the same venues, and so any tiny advantage that one had was a threat to the other, to the extent that at one point there was a serious danger of Pender going to prison over their contractual disputes. The group had been earning very little money anyway, comparatively, and there was a real danger that the two groups undercutting each other might lead to everyone going bankrupt.

Thankfully, that didn't happen. Pender still tours -- or at least has tour dates booked over the course of the next year -- and McNally and Allen's band continued playing regularly until 2019, and only stopped performing because of McNally's increasing ill health. Having seen both, Pender's was the better show -- McNally and Allen's lineup of the group relied rather too heavily on a rather cheesy sounding synthesiser for my tastes, while Pender stuck closer to a straight guitar/bass/drums sound -- but both kept audiences very happy for decades.

Mike Pender was made an MBE in 2020, as a reward for his services to the music industry. Tony Jackson and Chris Curtis both died in the 2000s, and John McNally and Frank Allen are now in well-deserved retirement. While Allen and Pender exchanged pleasantries and handshakes at their former bandmates' funerals, McNally and Pender wouldn't even say hello to each other, and even though McNally and Allen's band has retired, there's still a prominent notice on their website that they own the name "The Searchers" and nobody else is allowed to use it. But every time you hear a jangly twelve-string electric guitar, you're hearing a sound that was originally created by Mike Pender and John McNally playing in unison, a sound that proved to be greater than any of its constituent parts.

Feb 08, 2021
Episode 112: "She Loves You" by The Beatles
45:20

This week's episode looks at "She Loves You", the Beatles in 1963, and the start of Beatlemania in the UK. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Glad All Over" by the Dave Clark Five.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As usual, I have created a Mixcloud playlist containing every song heard in this episode (except for the excerpt of a Beatles audience screaming, and the recording of me singing, because nobody needs those.)

While there are many books on the Beatles, and I have read dozens of them,  All These Years Vol 1: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn is simply the *only* book worth reading on the Beatles' career up to the end of 1962. It is the most detailed, most accurate, biography imaginable, and the gold standard by which all other biographies of musicians should be measured. I only wish volumes two and three were available already so I could not expect my future episodes on the Beatles to be obsolete when they do come out. There are two versions of the book -- a nine-hundred page mass-market version and a 1700-page expanded edition. I recommend the latter. 

I have read literally dozens of books on the Beatles, and used bits of information from many of them, but the ones I specifically referred to while writing this episode, other than Tune In, were:

The Complete Beatles Chronicle by Mark LewisohnAll The Songs: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel GuesdonAnd The Band Begins To Play: The Definitive Guide To The Songs of The Beatles by Steve LambleyThe Beatles By Ear by Kevin MooreRevolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, and The Beatles Anthology.

 

"She Loves You" can be found on Past Masters, a 2-CD compilation of the Beatles' non-album tracks that includes the majority of their singles and B-sides. 

 

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Transcript

Today, we're going to look at a record that is one of the most crucial turning points in the history of rock music, and of popular culture as a whole, a record that took the Beatles from being a very popular pop group to being the biggest band in Britain -- and soon to be the world. We're going to look at "She Loves You" by the Beatles:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "She Loves You"]

When we left the Beatles, they had just released their first single, and seen it make the top twenty -- though we have, of course, seen them pop up in other people's stories in the course of our narrative, and we've seen how Lennon and McCartney wrote a hit for the Rolling Stones.

But while we've been looking the other way, the Beatles had become the biggest band in Britain.

Even before "Love Me Do" had been released, George Martin had realised that the Beatles had more potential than he had initially thought. He knew "Love Me Do" would be only a minor hit, but he didn't mind that -- over the sessions at which he'd worked with the group, he'd come to realise that they had real talent, and more than that, they had real charisma. 

The Beatles' second single was to be their real breakthrough. "Please Please Me" was a song that had largely been written by John, and which had two very different musical inspirations. The first was a song originally made famous by Bing Crosby in 1932, "Please":

[Excerpt: Bing Crosby, "Please"]

Lennon had always been fascinated by the pun in the opening line -- the play on the word "please" -- and wanted to do something similar himself.

The other influence is less obvious in the finished record, but makes sense once you realise it. A lot of Roy Orbison's records have a slow build up with a leap into falsetto, like "Crying":

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Crying"]

Now, I'm going to have to do something I'm a little uncomfortable with here, and which I've honestly been dreading since the start of this project two years ago -- to demonstrate the similarity between "Please Please Me" and an Orbison song, I'm going to have to actually sing. I have a terrible voice and appalling pitch, and I could easily win an award for "person who has the least vocal resemblance to Roy Orbison of anyone in existence", so this will not be a pleasant sound, but it will hopefully give you some idea of how Lennon was thinking when he was writing "Please Please Me":

[Excerpt: Me singing "Please Please Me"]

I'm sorry you had to hear that, and I hope we can all move past it together. I promise that won't be a regular feature of the podcast. But I hope it gets the basic idea across, of how the song that's so familiar now could have easily been inspired by Orbison.

Lennon had played that to George Martin very early on, but Martin had been unimpressed, thinking it a dirge. At Martin's suggestion, they took the song at a much faster tempo, and they rearranged the song so that instead of Lennon singing it solo, he and McCartney sang it as a duo with Everly Brothers style harmonies. They also changed the ascending "come on" section to be a call and response, like many of the Black vocal groups the Beatles were so influenced by, and by taking elements from a variety of sources they changed what had been a derivative piece into something totally original. For good measure, they overdubbed some harmonica from Lennon, to provide some sonic continuity with their earlier single. The result was a very obvious hit:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Please Please Me"]

After they'd finished recording that, George Martin said to them, "Gentlemen, you've just made your first number one" -- there are a number of slight variations of the wording depending on when Martin was telling the story, but it was something very close to that.

Now that the Beatles had recorded something that really displayed their talents, they were clearly on their way to becoming very big, and it was at this point that George Martin brought in the final part of the team that would lead to that success; someone who would work closely with himself, the Beatles, and Brian Epstein.

Dick James was someone who had himself had been a successful performer -- he's most famous now for having recorded the theme tune for the 1950s Robin Hood TV series:

[Excerpt: Dick James, "Robin Hood"]

That record had been produced by George Martin, as had several of James' other records, but James had recently retired from singing -- in part because he had gone prematurely bald, and didn't look right -- and had set up his own publishing company. George Martin had no great love for the people at Ardmore and Beechwood -- despite them having been the ones who had brought the Beatles to him -- and so he suggested to Brian Epstein that rather than continue with Ardmore and Beechwood, the group's next single should be published by Dick James.

In particular, he owed James a favour, because James had passed him "How Do You Do It?", and Martin hadn't yet been able to get that recorded, and he thought that giving him the publishing for another guaranteed hit would possibly make up for that, though he still intended to get "How Do You Do It?" recorded by someone.

Epstein had been unsure about this at first -- Epstein was a man who put a lot of stock in loyalty, but he ended up believing that Ardmore and Beechwood had done nothing to promote "Love Me Do" -- he possibly never realised that in fact it was them who were responsible for the record having come out at all, and that they'd had a great deal to do with its chart success. He ended up having a meeting with James, who was enthused by "Please Please Me", and wanted the song. Epstein told him he could have it, if he could prove he would be more effective at promoting the song than Ardmore and Beechwood had been with "Love Me Do". James picked up the telephone and called the producer of Thank Your Lucky Stars, one of the most popular music programmes on TV, and got the group booked for the show. He had the publishing rights.

"Please Please Me" and its B-side "Ask Me Why" were published by Dick James Music, but after that point, any songs written by the Beatles for the next few years were published by a new company, Northern Songs. The business arrangements behind this have come in for some unfair criticism over the years, because Lennon and McCartney have later said that they were under the impression that they owned the company outright, but in fact they owned forty percent of the company, with Epstein owning ten percent, and the remaining fifty percent owned by Dick James and his business partner Charles Silver. 

Obviously it's impossible to know what Lennon and McCartney were told about Northern Songs, and whether they were misled, but at the time this was very far from a bad deal. Most songwriters, even those with far more hits under their belt at the time, wrote for publishing companies owned by other people -- it was almost unheard of for them to even have a share in their own company. And at this time, it was still normal for publishing companies to actually have to work for their money, to push songs and get cover versions of them from established artists. Obviously the Beatles would change all that, and after them the job of a publisher became almost nonexistent, but nobody could have predicted how much the entire world of music was about to change, and so the deal that Lennon and McCartney got was an astonishingly good one for the time.

This is something that's also true of a lot of the business decisions that Epstein made for the group early on. The Beatles earned incalculably less than they would have if they'd got the kind of contracts that people who started even a year or so after them got -- but their contracts were still vastly superior to anything that other performers in British music at the time were getting. Remember that Larry Parnes' teen idols were on a fixed salary, as were, for example, all the members of the Dave Clark Five except Clark himself, and you can see that the assumptions that apply when you look at later acts don't apply here.

Either way, Dick James now had the publishing of what became the Beatles' first number one:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Please Please Me"]

At least, it became the Beatles' first number one as far as anyone paying attention in 1963 was concerned. But it's not their first number one according to any modern reference.

These days, the British charts are compiled by a company called the Official Charts Company. That company started, under another name, in 1969, and is run by a consortium of record companies and retailers. If you see anywhere referring to "the UK charts" after 1969, that's always what they're referring to.

In 1963, though, there were multiple singles charts in Britain, published by different magazines, and no single standard music-industry one. "Please Please Me" went to number one in the charts published by the NME and Melody Maker, two general-interest magazines whose charts were regarded by most people at the time as "the real charts", and which had huge audiences. However, it only made number two in the chart published by Record Retailer, a smaller magazine aimed at music industry professionals and the trade, rather than at the wider public.

However, because the Official Charts Company is an industry body, the people who ran it were the people Record Retailer was aimed at, and so when they provide lists of historical charts, they use the Record Retailer one for the period from 1960 through 69 (they use the NME chart for 1952 through 59). So retroactively, "Please Please Me" does not appear as a number one in the history books, but as far as anyone at the time was concerned, it was.

The record that kept "Please Please Me" off the top on the Record Retailer charts was "The Wayward Wind" by Frank Ifield:

[Excerpt: Frank Ifield, "The Wayward "Wind"]

Oddly, Ifield would himself record a version of "Please", the song that had inspired "Please Please Me", the next year:

[Excerpt: Frank Ifield, "Please"]

As a result of the success of "Please Please Me", the group were quickly brought into the studio to record an album. George Martin had originally intended to make that a live album, recorded at the Cavern, but having visited it he decided that possibly the huge amounts of condensation dripping from the ceiling might not be a good idea to mix with EMI's expensive electronic equipment. So instead, as we talked about briefly a couple of months back, the group came into Abbey Road on a rare day off from a package tour they were on, and recorded ten more songs that would, with the A- and B-sides of their first two singles, round out an album. Those tracks were a mixture of six songs that they performed regularly as part of their normal set -- covers of songs by the Cookies, the Shirelles, and Arthur Alexander, plus "Twist and Shout" and the soft pop ballad "A Taste of Honey", all of which they'd performed often enough that they could turn out creditable performances even though they all had colds, and Lennon especially was definitely the worse for wear (you can hear this in some of his vocals -- his nose is particularly congested on "There's a Place"), plus four more  recent Lennon and McCartney originals.

By the time that first album came out, Lennon and McCartney had also started expanding their songwriting ambitions, offering songs to other performers. This had always been something that McCartney, in particular, had considered as part of their long-term career path -- he knew that the average pop act only had a very small time in the spotlight, and he would talk in interviews about Lennon and McCartney becoming a songwriting team after that point. That said, the first two Lennon/McCartney songs to be released as singles by other acts -- if you don't count a version of "Love Me Do" put out by a group of anonymous session players on a budget EP of covers of hits of the day, anyway -- were both primarily Lennon songs, and were both included on the Please Please Me album.

"Misery" was written by Lennon and McCartney on a tour they were on in the early part of the year. That tour was headlined by Helen Shapiro, a sixteen-year-old whose biggest hits had been two years earlier, when she was fourteen:

[Excerpt: Helen Shapiro, "Walking Back to Happiness"]

Shapiro had also, in 1962, appeared in the film It's Trad, Dad!, which we've mentioned before, and which was  the first feature film directed by Richard Lester, who would later play a big part in the Beatles' career.

Lennon and McCartney wrote "Misery" for Shapiro, but it was turned down by her producer, Norrie Paramor, without Shapiro ever hearing it -- it's interesting to wonder if that might have been, in part, because of the strained relationship between Paramor and George Martin. In the event, the song was picked up by one of the other artists on the tour, Kenny Lynch, who recorded a version of it as a single, though it didn't have any chart success:

[Excerpt: Kenny Lynch, "Misery"]

Lennon apparently disliked that record, and would mock Lynch for having employed Bert Weedon as the session guitarist for the track, as he regarded Weedon as a laughable figure.

The other non-Beatles single of Lennon/McCartney songs that came out in early 1963 was rather more successful. Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas were another act that Brian Epstein managed and who George Martin produced. Their first single, "Do You Want To Know A Secret?" was a cover of a song mostly written by Lennon, which had been an album track on Please Please Me. Kramer's version went to number two on the charts (or number one on some charts):

[Excerpt: Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, "Do You Want To Know A Secret?"]

They also gave a song to Kramer for the B-side -- "I'll Be On My Way", which the group never recorded in the studio themselves, though they did do a version of it on a radio show, which was later released on the Live at the BBC set. In 1963 and 64 Lennon and McCartney would write a further three singles for Kramer, "I'll Keep You Satisfied", "Bad to Me", and "From a Window", all of which also became top ten hits for him. and none of which were ever recorded by the Beatles. They also gave him "I Call Your Name" as a B-side, but they later recorded that song themselves.

As well as the Rolling Stones, who we've obviously looked at a few weeks back, Lennon and McCartney also wrote hits in 1963 and early 64 for The Fourmost:

[Excerpt: The Fourmost, "I'm In Love"]

Cilla Black:

[Excerpt: Cilla Black, "It's For You"]

And Peter & Gordon:

[Excerpt: Peter & Gordon, "World Without Love"]

As well as a flop for Tommy Quickly:

[Excerpt: Tommy Quickly, "Tip of My Tongue"]

Kramer, the Fourmost, and Black were all managed by Epstein and produced by Martin, while Quickly was also managed by Epstein, and they were part of a massive shift in British music that started with "Please Please Me", and then shifted into gear with Gerry and the Pacemakers, another act managed by Epstein, who Martin also produced. Their first single was a version of "How Do You Do It?", the song that Dick James had published and that Martin had tried to get the Beatles to record:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakes, "How Do You Do It?"]

"How Do You Do It?" went to number one, and when it dropped off the top of the charts, it was replaced by the Beatles' next single. "From Me to You" was a song they wrote on the tour bus of that Helen Shapiro tour, and lyrically it was inspired by the NME's letter column, which had the header "From You To Us":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "From Me To You"]

"From Me To You" often gets dismissed when talking about the Beatles' early hits, but it has a few points worth noticing. Firstly, it's the first Beatles single to be written as a true collaboration. Both sides of the "Love Me Do" single had been written by McCartney, with Lennon helping him fix up a song he'd started and largely finished on his own. And in turn, both "Please Please Me" and its B-side were Lennon ideas, which McCartney helped him finish. "From Me to You" and its B-side "Thank You Girl" were written together, "one on one, eyeball to eyeball", to use Lennon's famous phrase, and that would be the case for the next two singles.

It's also an interesting stepping stone. The song retains the harmonica from the first two singles, which would be dropped by the next single, and it also has the octave leap into falsetto that "Please Please Me" has, on the line "If there's anything I can do", but it also has the "ooh" at the end of the middle eight leading back into the verse, a trick they'd picked up from "Twist and Shout", and an opportunity for Lennon and McCartney to shake their heads while making a high-pitched noise, a bit of stagecraft that set the audiences screaming and which turned up again in the next single.

The other notable aspect is that the song is more harmonically sophisticated than their previous work. McCartney always singles out the change to the minor of the dominant at the start of the middle eight (on the word  "arms") as being interesting:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "From Me To You"]

And that is an interesting change, and it sets up an unexpected key change to F, but I'd also note the change from G to G augmented at the end of the middle eight, on the "fied" of "satisfied". That's a very, very, Lennon chord change -- Lennon liked augmented chords in general, and he'd already used one in "Ask Me Why", but the G augmented chord in particular is one he would use over and over again.

For those who don't understand that -- chords are normally made up of three notes, the first, third, and fifth of the scale for a major chord, and the flrst, flattened third, and fifth of a scale for a minor chord. But you can get other chords that have unexpected notes in them, and those can be particularly useful if you want to change key or move between two chords that don't normally go together. All the Beatles had particular favourite odd chords they would use in this way -- Paul would often use a minor fourth instead of a major one, and John would use it occasionally too, so much so that some people refer to a minor fourth as "the Beatle chord". George, meanwhile, would often use a diminished seventh in his songwriting, especially a D diminished seventh. And John's chord was G augmented.

An augmented chord is one where the fifth note is raised a semitone, so instead of the first, third and fifth:

[demonstrates]

it's the first, third, and sharpened fifth:

[demonstrates]

In this case, John moves from G to G augmented right as they're going into the climax of the middle eight, so the top note of the chord goes higher than you'd normally expect, giving an impression of being so excited you just can't stop going up.

"From Me To You" knocked "How Do You Do It" off the top of the charts, and at this point, the British music scene had been changed irrevocably. While we've seen that, according to the Official Charts Company, the number one records in the UK for eleven of the first fourteen weeks of 1963 were by either Cliff Richard, the Shadows, or ex-members of the Shadows, with only Frank Ifield breaking their dominance, between the eleventh of April 1963 and the sixteenth of January 1964, thirty-two out of forty weeks at the top were taken up by the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas -- all acts from Liverpool, managed by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin. And two of the other acts to hit number one in that period were Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, who were a London band, but doing a Motown cover, "Do You Love Me?", in a style clearly inspired by the Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout", and The Searchers, another band from Liverpool who rose to prominence as a result of the sudden dominance of Liverpudlian acts, and who we'll be looking at next week.

The only pre-April acts to go to number one for the rest of 1963 were Frank Ifield and Elvis. In 1964 there was only Roy Orbison. There would be occasional number one hits by older acts after that -- Cliff Richard would have several more over his career -- but looking at the charts from this time it's almost as if there's a switch thrown, as if when people heard "Please Please Me", they decided "that's what we want now, that's what music should be", and as soon as there was more supply of stuff like that, as soon as the next Merseybeat single came out, they decided they were going to get that in preference to all other kinds of music.

And of course, they were choosing the Beatles over every other Merseybeat act. The Beatles were, of course, a great band, and they are still nearly sixty years later the most commercially successful band ever, but so much has focused on what happened once they hit America, and so much time has passed, that it becomes almost impossible to see clearly just how huge they became how quickly in Britain. But they dominated 1963 culturally in the UK in a way that nothing else has before or since. 

And the song that cemented that dominance was their next single, "She Loves You":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "She Loves You"]

"She Loves You" was another step forward in the group's songwriting, and in the technical aspects of their recording. The group were, at this point, still only recording on two-track machines, but Norman Smith, the engineer, and his assistant Geoff Emerick, came up with a few techniques to make the sound more interesting. In particular, Emerick decided to use separate compressors on the drums and bass, rather than putting them both through the same compressor, and to use an overhead mic on Ringo's drums, which he'd never previously used. 

But it was the songwriting itself that was, once again, of most interest. The idea for "She Loves You" came from McCartney, who was particularly inspired by a hit by one of the interchangeable Bobbies, Bobby Rydell, who was in the charts at the time with "Forget Him":

[Excerpt: Bobby Rydell, "Forget Him"]

McCartney took the idea of having a song be one side of a conversation with someone about their relationship, and decided that it would be an interesting idea to have the song be telling someone else "she loves you", rather than be about the singer's own relationships, as their previous singles had been. Everything up to that point had been centred around the first person addressing the second -- "Love ME Do", "PS I Love You", "Please Please ME", "Ask ME Why", "From ME to You", "Thank You Girl". This would be about addressing the second person about a third.

While the song was McCartney's idea, he and Lennon wrote it together, but it was Harrison who added a crucial suggestion -- he came up with the idea that the final "Yeah" at the end of the chorus should be a major sixth instead of a normal chord, and that they should end with that as well:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "She Loves You"]

George Martin was not keen on that -- while the Beatles saw it as something exciting and new, something they'd not done before, to Martin it was reminiscent of the 1940s -- both the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller would use similar tricks, and it was quite dated even then, being a standard technique of barbershop harmony. But to the Beatles, on the other hand, it didn't matter if other people had done it before, *they'd* not done it before, and while they agreed to try it both ways, Martin eventually agreed that it did sound better the way they were doing it.

"She Loves You" took, by the standards of the Beatles in 1963, an inordinately long time to record -- though by today's standards it was ridiculously quick. While they had recorded ten tracks in ten hours for the Please Please Me album, they took six hours in total to record just "She Loves You" and its B-side "I'll Get You". This is partly explained by the fact that Please Please Me consisted of songs they'd been playing every night for years, while John and Paul finished writing "She Loves You" only four days before they went into the studio to record it. The arrangement had to be shaped in the studio -- apparently it was George Martin's idea to start with the chorus -- and there are clear edits in the final version, most audibly just before and after the line "you know it's up to you/I think it's only fair"

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "She Loves You"]

For those of you who want to see if you can spot the edits, they're most audible on the original CD issue of Past Masters vol. 1 from the eighties -- the later CD versions I have (the 2009 Mono Masters CD and the 2015 reissue of the 1 compilation) have been mastered in a way that makes the edits less obvious. As far as I can tell, there are six audible edit points in the song, even though it's only two minutes twenty-one -- a clear sign that they had to do a lot of studio work to get the song into a releasable shape.

That work paid off, though. The single sold half a million advance copies before being released, quickly sold over a million, and became the biggest-selling single in British history -- there wouldn't be another single that sold more until fourteen years later, when Paul McCartney's solo single "Mull of Kintyre" overtook it.

While "Please Please Me" and "From Me To You" had been big hits, it was "She Loves You" that caught the cultural moment in the UK. The "Yeah Yeah Yeah" chorus, in particular, caught on in a way few if any cultural phenomena ever had before. The phenomenon known as Beatlemania had, by this point, started in earnest. As the Beatles started their first national tour as headliners, their audiences could no longer hear them playing -- every girl in the audience was screaming at the top of her lungs for the entire performance. 

Beatlemania is something that's impossible to explain in conventional terms. While I'm sure everyone listening to this episode has seen at least some of the footage, but for those who haven't, the only way to explain it is to hear the level of the screaming compared to the music. This is from some newsreel footage of the Beatles playing what was then the ABC in Ardwick. It's fascinating because most of the footage of Beatlemania shows gigs in the US at places like Shea Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl -- places where you get enough people that you can understand how they made that much noise. But this is a medium-sized theatre, and having been there many times myself (it's now the Manchester Apollo) I actually can't imagine how a crowd in that venue could make this much noise:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Twist and Shout", Ardwick ABC]

I won't be including that on the Mixcloud, by the way, as the noise makes it unlistenable, but the footage can easily be found on YouTube and is worth watching. 

After "She Loves You" came their second album, With The Beatles, another album very much along the same lines as the first -- a mixture of Lennon/McCartney songs and covers of records by Black American artists, this time dominated by Motown artists, with versions of "Money", "Please Mr Postman", and the Miracles' "You Really Got A Hold On Me", all with Lennon lead vocals. That went to number one on the album charts, knocking Please Please Me down to number two.

"She Loves You", meanwhile, remained at number one for a month, then dropped down into the top three, giving Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and Gerry and the Pacemakers a chance at the top spot, before it returned to number one for a couple of weeks -- the last time a record would go back to number one after dropping off the top until "Bohemian Rhapsody" went back to number one after Freddie Mercury died, nearly thirty years later.

But while all this had been going on in Britain, the Beatles had had no success at all in the USA. Capitol, the label that had the right of first refusal for EMI records in the US, had a consistent pattern of turning down almost every British record, on the grounds that there was no market in the US for foreign records. This also meant that any record that EMI tried to license to any other label, that label knew had been turned down by Capitol. So the Beatles' first singles and album were licensed by a small label, VeeJay, who mostly put out soul records but also licensed Frank Ifield's material and had a hit act in The Four Seasons. VeeJay was close to bankruptcy, though, and didn't do any promotion of the Beatles' music. "She Loves You" was put out by an even smaller label, Swan, whose biggest hit act was Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon.

But Brian Epstein and George Martin were convinced that the Beatles could break America, and the group's next single was written specifically with the American audience in mind, and recorded using the unbelievably advanced technology of four-track tape machines -- the first time they'd used anything other than two-track:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "I Want To Hold Your Hand"]

"I Want To Hold Your Hand" went to number one in the UK, of course, replacing "She Loves You" -- the only time that an artist would knock themselves off the number one spot until 1981, when John Lennon did it as a solo artist in far more tragic circumstances. At this point, the Beatles had the number one and two spots on the singles chart, the number one and two positions on the album charts, and were at numbers one, two and three on the EP chart. 

It would also be the start of Beatlemania in the USA. After the Beatles' famous appearance on the Royal Variety Performance, at the time the most prestigious booking an entertainer could get in the UK, Brian Epstein flew to New York, with a few aims in mind. He brought Billy J. Kramer with him, as he thought that Kramer had some potential as a lounge singer and could maybe get some club work in the US, but mostly he was there to try to persuade Capitol to release "I Want to Hold Your Hand", using the news coverage of Beatlemania as a reason they should pick up on it. By this time, Capitol were running out of excuses. Given the group's popularity was at a different level from any other British artist ever, they had no reason not to release "I Want to Hold Your Hand". They agreed they would put it out on January the thirteenth 1964.

[Excerpt: The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”]

Epstein also had two more meetings while he was in New York. One was with the makers of the Ed Sullivan Show -- Sullivan had been in London and been at the airport when the Beatles had arrived back from a trip abroad, and had seen the response of the crowds there. He was mildly interested in having the group on his show, and he agreed to book them. The other meeting was with Sid Bernstein, a promoter who had been in the UK and was willing to take a gamble on putting the group on at Carnegie Hall. Both of these were major, major bookings for a group who had so far had no commercial success whatsoever in the US, but by this point the Beatles were *so* big in the UK that people were willing to take a chance on them.

But it turned out that they weren't taking a chance at all. In November, a CBS journalist had done a quick "look at those wacky Brits" piece to use as a filler in the evening news, including some footage of the Beatles performing "She Loves You". That had originally been intended to be shown on November the 22nd, but with President Kennedy's murder, the news had more important things to cover. It was eventually shown, introduced by Walter Cronkite, on December the tenth. Cronkite's broadcast got the attention of his friend Ed Sullivan, who had already more or less forgotten that he'd booked this British group whose name he couldn't even remember. He phoned Cronkite and asked him about these "Bugs, or whatever they call themselves", and started actually promoting their appearance on his show.

At the same time, a fifteen-year-old girl named Marsha Albert in Maryland was very impressed with "She Loves You", after seeing the news report and wrote to a DJ called Carroll James, asking "Why can't we have this music in America?" James got a friend who worked as a flight attendant to bring him a copy of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on her next return from the UK, and started playing it on December the seventeenth. He played it a *lot*, because the audience loved it and kept calling in for more. Capitol tried to get him to stop playing the record -- they weren't planning on releasing it for another month yet! What was he doing, actually promoting this record?! 

Unfortunately for Capitol, by the time they got round to this, DJs at a couple of other stations had heard about the reaction the record was getting, and started playing their own copies as well. Capitol changed the release date, and put the record out early, on December the twenty-sixth. It sold a quarter of a million copies in the first three days. By the week of its originally scheduled release date, it was at number one on the Cashbox chart, and it would hit the same position on Billboard soon after. By the time the Beatles arrived in America for their Ed Sullivan show, it was half-way through a seven-week run at the top of the charts, and only got knocked off the top spot by "She Loves You", which was in its turn knocked off by "Can't Buy Me Love".

The Beatles had hit America, and the world of music would never be the same again.

Jan 30, 2021
Episode 111: "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas
44:51

Episode one hundred and eleven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas, and the beginnings of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

 

Resources

As usual, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

For Motown-related information in this and other Motown episodes, I've used the following resources:

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Martha and the Vandellas.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown's thirty-year history.

How Sweet It Is by Lamont Dozier and Scott B. Bomar is Dozier's autobiography, while Come and Get These Memories by Brian and Eddie Holland and Dave Thompson is the Holland brothers'.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 694 tracks released on Motown singles.

Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including Martha and the Vandellas.

And Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva  by Martha Reeves and Mark Bego is Reeves' autobiography.

And this three-CD set contains all the Vandellas' Motown singles, along with a bunch of rarities.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we're going to take a look at the career of one of the great girl groups to come out of Motown, and at the early work of the songwriting team that went on to be arguably the most important people in the definition of the Motown Sound. We're going to look at "Heatwave" by Martha and the Vandellas, and the beginning of the career of Holland, Dozier, and Holland:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Heatwave"]

By the time she started recording for Motown, Martha Reeves had already spent several years in groups around Detroit, with little success. Her singing career had started in a group called The Fascinations, which she had formed with another singer, who is variously named in different sources as Shirley Lawson and Shirley Walker. She'd quickly left that group, but after she left them, the Fascinations went on to make a string of minor hit records with Curtis Mayfield:

[Excerpt: The Fascinations, "Girls Are Out To Get You"]

But it wasn't just her professional experience, such as it was, that Reeves credited for her success -- she had also been a soloist in her high school choir, and from her accounts her real training came from her High School music teacher, Abraham Silver. In her autobiography she talks about hanging around in the park singing with other people who had been taught by the same teacher -- Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who would go on to form the Supremes, Bobby Rogers and Claudette Robinson, who were founder members of the Miracles, and Little Joe Harris, who would later become lead singer of the minor Motown act The Undisputed Truth.

She'd eventually joined another group, the Del-Phis, with three other singers -- Gloria Williams (or Williamson -- sources vary as to what her actual surname was -- it might be that Williamson was her birth name and Williams a stage name), Annette Beard, and Rosalind Ashford. The group found out early on that they didn't particularly get on with each other as people -- their personalities were all too different -- but their voices blended well and they worked well on stage. Williams or Williamson was the leader and lead singer at this point, and the rest of the DelPhis acted as her backing group.

They started performing at the amateur nights and talent contests that were such a big part of the way that Black talent got known at that time, and developed a rivalry with two other groups -- The Primes, who would later go on to be the Temptations, and The Primettes, who had named themselves after the Primes, but later became the Supremes. Those three groups more or less took it in turns to win the talent contests, and before long the Del-Phis had been signed to Checkmate Records, one of several subsidiaries of Chess, where they released one single, with Gloria on lead:

[Excerpt: The Del-Phis, "I'll Let You Know"]

The group also sang backing vocals on various other records at that time, like Mike Hanks' "When True Love Comes to Be":

[Excerpt: Mike Hanks, "When True Love Comes to Be"]

Depending on who you believe, Martha may not be on that record at all -- the Del-Phis apparently had some lineup fluctuations, with members coming and going, though the story of who was in the group when seems to be told more on the basis of who wants credit for what at any particular time than on what the truth is.

No matter who was in the group, though, they never had more than local success. While the Del-Phis were trying and failing to become big stars as a group, Martha also started performing solo, as Martha LaVelle. Only a couple of days after her first solo performance, Mickey Stevenson saw her perform and gave her his card, telling her to pop down to Hitsville for an audition as he thought she had talent.

But when she did turn up, Stevenson was annoyed at her, over a misunderstanding that turned out to be his fault. She had just come straight to the studio, assuming she could audition any time, and Stevenson hadn't explained to her that they had one day a month where they ran auditions -- he'd expected her to call him on the number on the card, not just come down.

Stevenson was busy that day, and left the office, telling Martha on his way out the door that he'd be back in a bit, and to answer the phone if it rang, leaving her alone in the office. She started answering the phone, calling herself the "A&R secretary", taking messages, and sorting out problems. She was asked to come back the next day, and worked there three weeks for no pay before getting herself put on a salary as Stevenson's secretary.

Once her foot was in the door at Motown, she also started helping out on sessions, as almost all the staff there did, adding backing vocals, handclaps, or footstomps for a five-dollar-per-session bonus. 

One of her jobs as Stevenson's secretary was to phone and book session musicians and singers,  and for one session the Andantes, Motown's normal female backing vocal group, were unavailable. Martha got the idea to call the rest of the DelPhis -- who seem like they might even have been split up at this point, depending on which source you read -- and see if they wanted to do the job instead. They had to audition for Berry Gordy, but Gordy was perfectly happy with them and signed them to Motown. Their role was mostly to be backing vocalists, but the plan was that they would also cut a few singles themselves as well. 

But Gordy didn't want to sign them as the Del-Phis -- he didn't know what the details of their contract with Checkmate were, and who actually owned the name. So they needed a new name.

At first they went with the Dominettes, but that was soon changed, before they ever made a record What happened is a matter of some dispute, because this seems to be the moment that Martha Reeves took over the group -- it may be that the fact that she was the one booking them for the sessions and so in charge of whether they got paid or not changed the power dynamics of the band -- and so different people give different accounts depending on who they want to seem most important. But the generally accepted story is that Martha suggested a name based on the street she lived on, Van Dyke Street, and Della Reese, Martha's favourite singer, who had hits like "Don't You Know?":

[Excerpt: Della Reese, "Don't You Know?"]

The group became Martha and the Vandellas -- although Rosalind Ashford, who says that the group name was not Martha's work, also says that the group weren't "Martha and the Vandellas" to start with, but just the Vandellas, and this might be the case, as at this point Gloria rather than Martha was still the lead singer.

The newly-named Vandellas were quickly put to work, mostly working on records that Mickey Stevenson produced. The first record they sang on was not credited either to the Vandellas *or* to Martha and the Vandellas, being instead credited to Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas – Mallett was a minor Motown singer who they were backing for this one record. The song was one written by Berry Gordy, as an attempt at a "Loco-Motion" clone, and was called "Camel Walk":

[Excerpt: Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas, "Camel Walk"]

More famously, there was the record that everyone talks about as being the first one to feature the Vandellas, even though it came out after "Camel Walk", one we've already talked about before, Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow":

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow"]

That became Gaye's breakout hit, and as well as singing in the studio for other artists and trying to make their own records, the Vandellas were now also Marvin Gaye's backing vocalists, and at shows like the Motortown Revue shows, as well as performing their own sets, the Vandellas would sing with Gaye as well. While they were not yet themselves stars, they had a foot on the ladder, and through working with Marvin they got to perform with all sorts of other people -- Martha was particularly impressed by the Beach Boys, who performed on the same bill as them in Detroit, and she developed a lifelong crush on Mike Love.

But while the Vandellas were Motown's go-to backing vocalists in 1962, they still wanted to make their own records. They did make one record with Gloria singing lead, "You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It)":

[Excerpt: The Vells, "You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It)"]

But that was released not as by the Vandellas, but by the Vells, because by the time it was released, the Vandellas had more or less by accident become definitively MARTHA and the Vandellas. The session that changed everything came about because Martha was still working as Mickey Stevenson's secretary. Stevenson was producing a record for Mary Wells, and he had a problem.

Stevenson had recently instituted a new system for his recordings at Motown. Up to this point, they'd been making records with everyone in the studio at the same time -- all the musicians, the lead singer, the backing vocalists, and so on. But that became increasingly difficult when the label's stars were on tour all the time, and it also meant that if the singer flubbed a note a good bass take would also be wrecked, or vice versa. It just wasn't efficient.

So, taking advantage of the ability to multitrack, Stevenson had started doing things differently. Now backing tracks would be recorded by the Funk Brothers in the studio whenever a writer-producer had something for them to record, and then the singer would come in later and overdub their vocals when it was convenient to do that. That also had other advantages -- if a singer turned out not to be right for the song, they could record another singer doing it instead, and they could reuse backing tracks, so if a song was a hit for, say, the Miracles, the Marvelettes could then use the same backing track for a cover version of it to fill out an album.

But there was a problem with this system, and that problem was the Musicians' Union. The union had a rule that if musicians were cutting a track that was intended to have a vocal, the vocalist *must* be present at the session -- like a lot of historical union rules, this seems faintly ridiculous today, but no doubt there were good reasons for it at the time. 

Motown, like most labels, were perfectly happy to break the union rules on occasion, but there was always the possibility of a surprise union inspection, and one turned up while Mickey Stevenson was cutting "I'll Have to Let Him Go". Mary Wells wasn't there, and knowing that his secretary could sing, Stevenson grabbed her and got her to go into the studio and sing the song while the musicians played. Martha decided to give the song everything she had, and Stevenson was impressed enough that he decided to give the song to her, rather than Wells, and at the same session that the Vandellas recorded the songs with Gloria on lead, they recorded new vocals to the backing track that Stevenson had recorded that day:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "I'll Have to Let Him Go"]

That was released under the Martha and the Vandellas name, and around this point Gloria left the group. Some have suggested that this was because she didn't like Martha becoming the leader, while others have said that it's just that she had a good job working for the city, and didn't want to put that at risk by becoming a full-time singer. Either way, a week after the Vandellas record came out, Motown released "You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It)" under the name The Vells. 

Neither single had any chart success, but that wouldn't be true for the next one, which wouldn't be released for another five months. But when it was finally released, it would be regarded as the beginning of the "Motown Sound". Before that record, Motown had released many extraordinary records, and we've looked at some of them. But after it, it began a domination of the American charts that would last the rest of the decade; a domination caused in large part by the team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland.

We've heard a little from the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier, separately, in previous episodes looking at Motown, but this is the point at which they go from being minor players within the Motown organisation to being the single most important team for the label's future commercial success, so we should take a proper look at them now.

Eddie Holland started working with Berry Gordy years before the start of Motown -- he was a singer who was known for having a similar sounding voice to that of Jackie Wilson, and Gordy had taken him on first as a soundalike demo singer, recording songs written for Wilson so Wilson could hear how they would sound in his voice, and later trying to mould him into a Wilson clone, starting with Holland's first single, "You":

[Excerpt: Eddie Holland, "You"]

Holland quickly found that he didn't enjoy performing on stage -- he loved singing, but he didn't like the actual experience of being on stage. However, he continued doing it, in the belief that one should not just quit a job until a better opportunity comes along. Before becoming a professional singer, Holland had sung in street-corner doo-wop groups with his younger brother Brian. Brian, unlike Eddie, didn't have a particularly great voice, but what he did have was a great musical mind -- he could instantly figure out all the harmony parts for the whole group, and had a massive talent for arrangement.

Eddie spent much of his early time working with Gordy trying to get Gordy to take his little brother seriously -- at the time,  Brian Holland was still in his early teens, and Gordy refused to believe he could be as talented as Eddie said. Eventually, though, Gordy listened to Brian and took him under his wing, pairing him with Janie Bradford to add music to Bradford's lyrics, and also teaching him to engineer. One of Brian Holland's first engineering jobs was for a song recorded by Eddie, written as a jingle for a wine company but released as a single under the name "Briant Holland" -- meaning it has often over the years been assumed to be Brian singing lead:

[Excerpt: Briant Holland, "(Where's the Joy) in Nature Boy?"]

When Motown started up, Brian had become a staffer -- indeed, he has later claimed that he was the very first person employed by Motown as a permanent staff member. While Eddie was out on the road performing, Brian was  writing, producing, and singing backing vocals on many, many records. We've already heard how he was the co-writer and producer on "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman"]

That had obviously been a massive hit, and Motown's first number one, but Brian was still definitely just one of the Motown team, and not as important a part of it as Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, or Mickey Stevenson. Meanwhile, Eddie finally had a minor hit of his own, with "Jamie", a song co-written by Barrett Strong and Mickey Stevenson, and originally recorded by Strong -- when Strong left the label, they took the backing track intended for him and had Holland record new vocals over it.

[Excerpt: Eddie Holland, "Jamie"]

That made the top thirty, which must have been galling at the time for Strong, who'd quit in part because he couldn't get a hit. But the crucial thing that lifted the Holland brothers from being just parts of the Motown machine to being the most important creative forces in the company was when Brian Holland became friendly with Anne Dozier, who worked at Motown packing records, and whose husband Lamont was a singer.

Lamont Dozier had been around musical people all his life -- at Hutchins Junior High School, he was a couple of years below Marv Johnson, the first Motown star, he knew Freda Payne, and one of his classmates was Otis Williams, later of the Temptations. But it was another junior high classmate who, as he puts it, "lit a fire under me to take some steps to get my own music heard by the world", when one of his friends asked him if he felt like coming along to church to hear another classmate sing. Dozier had no idea this classmate sang, but he went along, and as it happens, we have some recordings of that classmate singing and playing piano around that time:

[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, "There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood"]

That's fourteen-year-old Aretha Franklin, and as you can imagine, being classmates with someone who could perform like that caused Lamont Dozier to radically revise his ideas of what it was possible for him to do. He'd formed a doo-wop group called the Romeos, and they released their first single, with both sides written by Lamont, by the time he was sixteen:

[Excerpt: The Romeos, "Gone Gone Get Away"]

The Romeos' third single, "Fine Fine Fine", was picked up by Atlantic for distribution, and did well enough that Atlantic decided they wanted a follow-up, and wrote to them asking them to come into the studio. But Lamont Dozier, at sixteen, thought that he had some kind of negotiating power, and wrote back saying they weren't interested in just doing a single, they wanted to do an album. Jerry Wexler wrote back saying "fair enough, you're released from your contract", and the Romeos' brief career was over before it began.

He joined the Voice Masters, the first group signed to Anna Records, and sang on records of theirs like "Hope and Pray", the very first record ever put out by a Gordy family label:

[Excerpt: The Voice Masters, "Hope and Pray"]

And he'd continued to sing with them, as well as working for Anna Records doing odd jobs like cleaning the floors. His first solo record on Anna, released under the name Lamont Anthony, featured Robert White on guitar, James Jamerson on bass, Harvey Fuqua on piano, and Marvin Gaye on drums, and was based on the comic character "Popeye":

[Excerpt: Lamont Anthony, "Popeye the Sailor Man"]

Unfortunately, just as that record was starting to take off, King Features Syndicate, the owners of Popeye, sent a cease and desist order. Dozier went back into the studio and recut the vocal, this time singing about Benny the Skinny Man, instead of Popeye the Sailor Man:

[Excerpt: Lamont Anthony, "Benny the Skinny Man"]

But without the hook of it being about Popeye, the song flopped.

Dozier joined Motown when that became the dominant part of the Gordy family operation, and signed up as a songwriter and producer. Robert Batemen had just stopped working with Brian Holland as a production team, and when Anne Dozier suggested that Holland go and meet her husband who was just starting at Motown, Holland walked in to find Dozier working at the piano, writing a song but stuck for a middle section. Holland told him he had an idea, sat next to him at the piano, and came up with the bridge. The two instantly clicked musically -- they discovered that they almost had a musical telepathy, and Holland got Freddie Gorman, his lyricist partner at the time, to finish up the lyrics for the song while he and Dozier came up with more ideas.

That song became a Marvelettes album track, "Forever", which a few years later would be put out as a B-side, and make the top thirty in its own right:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Forever"]

Holland and Dozier quickly became a strong musical team -- Dozier had a great aptitude for coming up with riffs and hooks, both lyrical and musical, and rhythmic ideas, while Brian Holland could come up with great melodies and interesting chord changes, though both could do both. In the studio Brian would work with the drummers, while Lamont would work with the keyboard players and discuss the bass parts with James Jamerson. Their only shortfall was lyrically. They could both write lyrics -- and Lamont would often come up with a good title or hook phrase -- but they were slow at doing it. For the lyrics, they mostly worked with Freddie Gorman, and sometimes got Janie Bradford in. These teams came up with some great records, like "Contract on Love", which sounds very like a Four Seasons pastiche but also points the way to Holland and Dozier's later sound:

[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, "Contract on Love"]

Both Little Stevie Wonder and the backing vocalists on that, the Temptations, would do better things later, but that's still a solid record.

Meanwhile, Eddie Holland had had a realisation that would change the course of Motown. "Jamie" had been a hit, but he received no royalties -- he'd had a run of flop singles, so he hadn't yet earned out the production costs on his records. His first royalty statement after his hit showed him still owing Motown money. He asked his brother, who got a royalty statement at the same time, if he was in the same boat, and Brian showed him the statement for several thousand dollars that he'd made from the songs he'd written. Eddie decided that he was in the wrong job. He didn't like performing anyway, and his brother was making serious money while he was working away earning nothing.

He took nine months off from doing anything other than the bare contractual minimum, -- where before he would spend every moment at Hitsville, now he only turned up for his own sessions -- and spent that time teaching himself songwriting. He studied Smokey Robinson's writing, and he developed his own ideas about what needed to be in a lyric -- he didn't want any meaningless filler words, he wanted every word to matter. He also wanted to make sure that even if people misheard a line or two, they would be able to get the idea of the song from the other lines, so he came up with a technique he referred to as "repeat-fomation", where he would give the same piece of information two or three times, paraphrasing it. 

When the next Marvelettes album, The Marvellous Marvelettes, was being finished up by Mickey Stevenson, Motown got nervous about the album, thinking it didn't have a strong enough single on it, and so Brian Holland and Dozier were asked to come up with a new Marvelettes single in a hurry. Freddie Gorman had more or less stopped songwriting by this point, as he was spending most of his time working as a postman, and so, in need of another writing partner, they called on Eddie, who had been writing with various people. The three of them wrote and produced "Locking Up My Heart", the first single to be released with the writing credit "Holland-Dozier-Holland":

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Locking Up My Heart"]

That was a comparative flop for the Marvelettes, and the beginning of the downward slump we talked about for them in the episode on "Please Mr. Postman", but the second Holland-Dozier-Holland single, recorded ten days later, was a very different matter. That one was for Martha and the Vandellas, and became widely regarded as the start of Motown's true Golden Age -- so much so that Brian and Eddie Holland's autobiography is named after this, rather than after any of the bigger and more obvious hits they would later co-write.

The introduction to "Come and Get These Memories" isn't particularly auspicious -- the Vandellas singing the chorus:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Come and Get These Memories"]

Hearing all three of the Vandellas, all of whom have such strong, distinctive voices, sing together is if anything a bit much -- the Vandellas aren't a great harmony group in the way that some of the other Motown groups are, and they work best when everyone's singing an individual line rather than block harmonies.

But then we're instantly into the sound that Holland, Dozier, and Holland -- really Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, who took charge of the musical side of things, with Eddie concentrating on the lyrics -- would make their own. There's a lightly swung rhythm, but with a strong backbeat with handclaps and tambourine emphasising the two and four-- the same rhythmic combination that made so many of the very early rock and roll records we looked at in the first year of the podcast, but this time taken at a more sedate pace, a casual stroll rather than a sprint. There's the simple, chorded piano and guitar parts, both instruments often playing in unison and again just emphasising the rhythm rather than doing anything more complex. And there's James Jamerson's wonderful, loping bass part, doing the exact opposite of what the piano and guitar are doing.

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, “Come and Get These Memories”]

In almost every record in the rock and roll, soul, and R&B genres up to this point -- I say "almost every" because, as I've said many times before, there are always exceptions and there is never a first of anything -- the bass does one of two things: it either plods along just playing the root notes, or it plays a simple, repeated, ostinato figure throughout, acting as a backbone while the other instruments do more interesting things.

James Jamerson is the first bass player outside the jazz and classical fields to prominently, repeatedly, do something very different -- he's got the guitars and piano holding down the rhythm so steadily that he doesn't need to. He plays melodies, largely improvised, that are jumping around and going somewhere different from where you'd expect. 

"Come and Get These Memories" was largely written before Eddie's involvement, and the bulk of the lyric was Lamont Dozier's. He's said that in this instance he was inspired by country singers like Loretta Lynn, and the song's lyrical style, taking physical objects and using them as a metaphor for emotional states, certainly seems very country:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Come and Get These Memories"]

"Come and Get These Memories" made number twenty-nine on the pop charts and number six on the R&B charts. Martha and the Vandellas were finally stars.

As was the normal practice at Motown, when an artist had a hit, the writing and production team were given the chance to make the follow-up with them, and so the followup was another Holland/Dozier/Holland song, again from an idea by Lamont Dozier, as most of their collaborations with the Vandellas would be.

"Heat Wave" is another leap forward, and is quite possibly the most exciting record that Motown had put out to this point. Where "Come and Get These Memories" established the Motown sound, this one establishes the Martha and the Vandellas sound, specifically, and the style that Holland, Dozier, and Holland would apply to many of their more uptempo productions for other artists.

This is the subgenre of Motown that, when it was picked up by fans in the North of England, became known as Northern Soul -- the branch of Motown music that led directly to Disco, to Hi-NRG, to electropop, to the Stock-Aitken-Waterman hit factory of the eighties, to huge chunks of gay culture, and to almost all music made for dancing in whatever genre after this point. Where "Come and Get These Memories" is mid-tempo, "Heat Wave" races along. Where "Come and Get These Memories" swings, "Heat Wave" stomps. "Come and Get These Memories" has the drums swinging and the percussion accenting the backbeat, here the drums are accenting the backbeat while the tambourine is hitting every beat dead on, four/four. It's a rhythm which has something in common with some of the Four Seasons' contemporary hits, but it's less militaristic than those. While "Pistol" Allen's drumming starts out absolutely hard on the beat, he swings it more and more as the record goes on, trusting to the listener once that hard rhythm has been established, allowing him to lay back behind the beat just a little.

This is where my background as a white English man, who has never played music for dancing -- when I tried to be a musician myself, it was jangly guitar pop I was playing -- limits me. I have a vocabulary for chords and for melodies, but when it comes to rhythms, at a certain point my vocabulary goes away, and all I can do is say "just... *listen*" It's music that makes you need to dance, and you can either hear that or you can't -- but of course, you can:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Heat Wave"]

And Martha Reeves' voice is perfect for the song. Most female Motown singers were pop singers first and foremost -- some of them, many of them, *great* pop singers, but all with voices fundamentally suited to gentleness. Reeves was a belter. She has far more blues and gospel influence in her voice than many of the other Motown women, and she's showing it here.

"Heat Wave" made the top ten, as did the follow-up, a "Heat Wave" soundalike called "Quicksand". But the two records after that, both still Holland/Dozier/Holland records, didn't even make the top forty, and Annette left, being replaced by Betty Kelly. The new lineup of the group were passed over to Mickey Stevenson, for a record that would become the one for which they are best remembered to this day. It wasn't as important a record in the development of the Motown sound as "Come and Get These Memories" or "Heat Wave", but "Dancing in the Street" was a masterpiece. Written by Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Joe Hunter, it features Gaye on drums, but the most prominent percussive sound is Hunter, who, depending on which account you read was either thrashing a steel chain against something until his hands bled, or hitting a tire iron. 

And Martha's vocal is astonishing -- and has an edge to it. Apparently this was the second take, and she sounds a little annoyed because she absolutely nailed the vocal on the first take only to find that there'd been a problem recording it.

[Excerpt: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, "Dancing in the Street"]

That went to number two in the charts, and would be the group's cultural and commercial high point. The song also gained some notoriety two years later when, in the wake of civil rights protests that were interpreted as rioting, the song was interpreted as being a call to riot -- it was assumed that instead of being about dancing it was actually about rioting, something the Rolling Stones would pick up on later when they released "Street Fighting Man", a song that owes more than a little to the Vandellas classic.

The record after that, "Wild One", was so much of a "Dancing in the Streets" soundalike that I've seen claims that the backing track is an alternate take of the earlier song. It isn't, but it sounds like it could be. But the record after that saw them reunited with Holland/Dozier/Holland, who provided them with yet another great track, "Nowhere to Run":

[Excerpt: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, "Nowhere to Run"]

For the next few years the group would release a string of classic hits, like "Jimmy Mack" and "Honey Chile", but the rise of the Supremes, who we'll talk about in a month, meant that like the Marvelettes before them the Vandellas became less important to Motown. When Motown moved from Detroit to LA in the early seventies, Martha was one of those who decided not to make the move with the label, and the group split up, though the original lineup occasionally reunited for big events, and made some recordings for Ian Levine's Motorcity label.

Currently, there are two touring Vandellas groups. One, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, consists of Martha and two of her sisters -- including Lois, who was a late-period member of the group before they split, replacing Betty in 1967. Meanwhile "The Original Vandellas" consist of Rosalind and Annette. Gloria died in 2000, but Martha and the Vandellas are one of the very few sixties hitmaking groups where all the members of their classic lineup are still alive and performing. Martha, Rosalind, Betty, Annette, and Lois were all also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, becoming only the second all-female group to be inducted. 

The Vandellas were one of the greatest of the Motown acts, and one of the greatest of the girl groups, and their biggest hits stand up against anything that any of the other Motown acts were doing at the time. When you hear them now, even almost sixty years later, you're still hearing the sound they were in at the birth of, the sound of young America.

 

Jan 20, 2021
Episode 110: "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes
45:20

 

Episode 110 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Be My Baby", and at the career of the Ronettes and Ronnie Spector.  Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Erratum

I say Ray Peterson's version of "Tell Laura I Love Her" was an American number one. It wasn't -- it only made number seven.

 

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

A lot of resources were used for this episode.

Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara Miniskirts and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette by Ronnie Spector and Vince Waldron is Ronnie's autobiography and was the main source.

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the Brill Building scene, and provided me with the information on Barry and Greenwich.

I've referred to two biographies of Spector in this episode, Phil Spector: Out of His Head by Richard Williams and He's a Rebel by Mark Ribkowsky.

And information on the Wrecking Crew largely comes from The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman.

There are many compilations available with some of the hits Spector produced, but I recommend getting Back to Mono, a four-CD overview of his career containing all the major singles put out by Philles.

If you want something just covering Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes, The Very Best of Ronnie Spector  covers all the Ronettes hits and the best of her solo career.

And the AFM contract listing the musicians on "Be My Baby" can be found here.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we're going to take a look at the record that, more than anything, ensured Phil Spector's place in popular music history -- a record that changed the lives of several people who heard it for the better, and changed the life of its singer for the worse, and one which has the most imitated drum intro in the world. We're going to look at "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes:

[Excerpt: The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"]

Before I start this one, two things need saying. The first is that this episode, by necessity, deals with spousal abuse. As always, I will try to discuss the issue with sensitivity, and touch on it as briefly as possible, but if you worry that it might upset you, please either skip this episode, or read the transcript to see if you'll be OK listening to it. I imagine that very few people will be upset by anything I say here, but it's always a possibility.

And secondly, I'd like to apologise for this episode being so late. I had a major disruption in my personal life over Christmas -- one of those really bad life events that only happens once or twice in most people's lifetimes -- and that made it impossible for me to get any work done at all for the last couple of weeks. I'm now able to work again, and this should not be anything that affects the podcast for the rest of the year.

Anyway, enough about that, let's get on with the story.

The story of the Ronettes begins when Ronnie Bennett, a mixed-race girl from Harlem, became obsessed with the sound of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers:

[Excerpt: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"]

Ronnie became the Teenagers' biggest fan, and even managed to arrange a meeting between herself and Lymon when they were both thirteen, but had her illusions torn away when he turned up drunk and made a pass at her.

But that didn't stop her from trying her best to imitate Lymon's vocals, and forming a vocal group with several friends and relatives. That group had a male lead singer, but when they made their first appearance on one of the Harlem Apollo's talent shows, the lead singer got stage fright and couldn't start singing when he got on stage. Ronnie stepped forward and took over the lead vocal, and the group went down well enough even with the Apollo's notoriously hostile audience that a smaller group of them decided to start performing regularly together.

The group took the name Ronnie and the Relatives, and consisted of Ronnie, her sister Estelle, and their cousin Nedra Talley. They originally only performed at private parties, bar mitzvahs and the like, but they soon reached the attention of Stu Phillips at Colpix Records, a label owned by the film studio Columbia Pictures.

The first single by Ronnie and the Relatives was not a success -- "I Want a Boy" came out in August 1961 and didn't chart:

[Excerpt: Ronnie and the Relatives, "I Want a Boy"]

And nor did their second, "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead":

[Excerpt: Ronnie and the Relatives, "I'm Gonna Quit While I'm Ahead"]

Those records did apparently sell to at least one person, though, as when Ronnie met President Clinton in 1997, he asked her to sign a record, and specifically got her to sign an album of those early recordings for Colpix.

While the girls were not having any commercial success, they did manage to accidentally get themselves a regular gig at the most important nightclub in New York. They went to the Peppermint Lounge, just as the Twist craze was at its height, and as they were underage they dressed up especially well in order to make themselves look more grown up so they could get in.

Their ruse worked better than they expected. As they were all dressed the same, the club's manager assumed they were the dancers he'd booked, who hadn't shown up. He came out and told them to get on stage and start dancing, and so of course they did what he said, and started dancing to the Twist sounds of Joey Dee and the Starliters:

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, "The Peppermint Twist"]

The girls' dancing went down well, and then the band started playing "What'd I Say?", a favourite song of Ronnie's and one the group did in their own act, and Ronnie danced over to David Brigati, who was singing lead on the song, and started dancing close to him. He handed her the mic as a joke, and she took over the song. They got a regular spot at the Peppermint Lounge, dancing behind the Starliters for their whole show and joining them on vocals for a few numbers every night.

Inspired by the Bobbettes and the Marvelettes, Ronnie and Estelle's mother suggested changing the group's name. She suggested "the Rondettes", and they dropped the "d", becoming the Ronettes.

The singles they released on ColPix under the new name did no better than the others, but they were such an important part of the Peppermint Lounge that when the Lounge's owners opened a second venue in Florida, the girls went down there with the Starliters and were part of the show. 

That trip to Florida gave them two very different experiences. The first was that they got to see segregation firsthand for the first time, and they didn't like it -- especially when they, as light-skinned mixed-race women, were read as tanned white women and served in restaurants which then refused to serve their darker-skinned mothers.

But the second was far more positive. They met Murray the K, who since Alan Freed had been driven out of his job had become the most popular DJ in New York. Murray was down in Florida for a holiday, and was impressed enough by the girls' dancing that he told them if they were ever in New York and wanted a spot on one of his regular shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre they should let him know. They replied that they lived in New York and went to those shows all the time -- of course they wanted to perform on his shows. They became regular performers at the Brooklyn Fox, where they danced between the other, bigger, acts, sang backing vocals, did a song or two themselves, and took part in comedy sketches with Murray.

It was at these shows, as well, that they developed the look they would become famous with -- huge hair piled up on top of their heads, tons of mascara, and tight skirts slit to show their legs. It was a style inspired by street fashion rather than by what the other girl groups were wearing, and it made them incredibly popular with the Fox audience.

But the Ronettes, even under their new name, and even with the backing of New York's most prominent DJ, were still not selling any records. They knew they were good, and the reaction to their stage performances proved as much, so they decided that the problem must be with Colpix. And so in 1963 they made a New Year's resolution -- they were going to get Phil Spector to produce them. 

By this time, Spector was becoming very well known in the music industry as a hit maker. We already saw in the recent episode on the Crystals how he was making hits for that group and the Blossoms, but he was also making hits with studio groups like Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, who he took into the top ten with a remake of the old Disney song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah":

[Excerpt: Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah"]

and as well as the records he was putting out on Philles, he was also working as a freelance producer for people like Connie Francis, producing her top ten hit "Second-Hand Love":

[Excerpt: Connie Francis, "Second-Hand Love"]

So the Ronettes were convinced that he could make them into the stars they knew they had the potential to be. The group had no idea how to get in touch with Spector, so they tried the direct route -- Estelle called directory enquiries, got the number for Philles Records, and called and asked to be put through to Spector. She was as astonished as anyone when he agreed to talk to her -- and it turned out that he'd seen the group regularly at the Brooklyn Fox and was interested in working with them. 

At their audition for Spector, the group first performed a close-harmony version of "When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along", which they'd been taught by their singing teacher. Spector told them that he wanted to hear what they did when they were singing for themselves, not for a teacher, and so Ronnie launched into "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" 

It only took her getting to the second line of the song before Spector yelled at her to stop -- "THAT is the voice I've been looking for!"

The Ronettes' first recordings for Spector weren't actually issued as by the Ronettes at all. To start with, he had them record a version of a song by the writing team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, "Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love?", but didn't release it at the time. It was later released as by "Veronica", the name under which he released solo records by Ronnie:

[Excerpt: Veronica, "Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love?"]

But at the time, when Ronnie asked him when the record was coming out, Spector answered "Never". He explained to her that it was a good record, but it wasn't a number one, and he was still working on their first number one record.

Their next few recordings were covers of then-current dance hits, like "The Twist":

[Excerpt, "The Crystals", "The Twist"]

And "The Wah-Watusi", one of the few times that one of the other Ronettes took the lead rather than Ronnie, as Nedra sang lead:

[Excerpt, "The Crystals", "The Wah-Watusi"]

But these, and two other tracks, were released as album tracks on a Crystals album, credited to the Crystals rather than the Ronettes.

The song that eventually became the group's first hit, "Be My Baby", was mostly written by one of the many husband-and-wife songwriting teams that had developed at the Brill Building, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.

Barry had started out as a performer who occasionally wrote, putting out records like "It's Called Rock and Roll":

[Excerpt: Jeff Barry, "It's Called Rock and Roll"]

But while his performing career had gone nowhere, he'd started to have some success as a songwriter, writing "Teenage Sonata" for Sam Cooke:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "Teenage Sonata"]

And "Tell Laura I Love Her", which was recorded by several people, but the biggest hit version was the American number one by Ray Peterson:

[Excerpt: Ray Peterson, "Tell Laura I Love Her"]

Ellie Greenwich had also started as a performer, recording "Silly Isn't It?" under the name Ellie Gaye:

[Excerpt: Ellie Gaye, "Silly, Isn't It?"]

She'd become one of the most important demo singers in New York, and had also started writing songs. She'd first collaborated with Doc Pomus, cowriting songs like "This is It", which had been a flop single for Jay and the Americans:

[Excerpt: Jay and the Americans, "This is It"]

She'd then been taken on by Trio Music, Leiber and Stoller's company, where she had largely collaborated with another writer named Tony Powers. Trio had first refusal on anything the two of them wrote, and if Leiber and Stoller didn't like it, they could take the song elsewhere.

Greenwich and Powers had their biggest successes with songs that Leiber and Stoller rejected, which they sold to Aaron Schroeder. And they'd started up a collaboration with Phil Spector -- although Spector and Greenwich's first meeting had not exactly gone smoothly. He'd gone into her office to hear her play a song that she thought would be suitable for the Paris Sisters, but had kept wandering out of the office, and had kept looking at himself in a mirror and primping himself rather than listen to her song. Eventually she said to him  "Listen to me, you little prick. Did you come to look at yourself or to hear my songs?", and she didn't make that sale.

But later on, Spector became interested in a song she'd sold to Schroeder, and made an appointment to meet her and talk about her writing some stuff for him -- that second meeting, which Spector didn't realise was with someone he'd already made a bad impression on, Spector turned up four hours late.  But despite that, Greenwich and Powers wrote several songs for Spector, who was also given songwriting credit, and which became big hits in versions he produced -- "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry", a single by Darlene Love:

[Excerpt: Darlene Love, "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry"]

And "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts?", released as by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, but with Love once again on lead vocals:

[Excerpt: Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts?"]

I say that Spector was also given songwriting credit on those records, because there is some debate about how much he contributed to the songs he's credited on. Some of his co-writers have said that he would often only change a word or a phrase, and get himself cut in on an already-completed song, while others have said that he contributed a reasonable amount to the songwriting, though he was never the primary writer -- for example Barry Mann has said that Spector came up with the middle section for "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'". I tend towards the belief that Spector's contribution to the writing on those songs he's co-credited on was minimal -- in his whole career, the number of songs he wrote on his own seems to be in the single figures, while those other writers wrote dozens of hit records without any contribution from Spector -- and so when I talk about records he produced I'll tend to use phrasing like "a Goffin and King song co-credited to Phil Spector" rather than "a song by Goffin, King, and Spector", but I don't want that to give the impression that I'm certain Spector made no contribution. 

But while Greenwich and Powers were a mildly successful team, their partnership ended when Greenwich met Jeff Barry at a family Thanksgiving dinner -- Greenwich's uncle was Barry's cousin. As Greenwich later put it, when they started talking together about music and realised how much they had in common, "I went 'ooh', he went 'mmmhh', and his wife went 'I don't think I like this'". Soon their previous partnerships, both romantic and musical, were over, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich became the third of the great Brill Building husband-and-wife songwriting teams. 

Where Goffin and King had a sophisticated edge to their writing, with a hint of sexual subversion and the mingling of pain and pleasure, and Mann and Weill tried to incorporate social comment into their songs, Barry and Greenwich were happy to be silly -- they were writing songs like "Hanky Panky", "Da Doo Ron Ron",  and "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy":

[Excerpt: Ellie Greenwich "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy (demo)"]

This worked extremely well for them, to the extent that after they broke up a few years later, Barry would continue this formula with songs such as "Sugar Sugar", "Jingle Jangle" and "Bang Shang A Lang".

Barry and Greenwich's style was to jam in as many hooks as possible, maybe put in a joke or two, keep the lyrics simple, and get out in two minutes. Very few of their songs were masterpieces of songwriting, but they *were* absolutely perfect templates for masterpieces of production. It sounds like I'm damning them with faint praise, but I'm really not. There is a huge skill involved in what they were doing -- if you're writing some heartwrenching masterpiece about the human condition, people will forgive the odd lapse in craft, but if you're writing "My baby does the hanky panky", there's no margin for error, and you're not going to get forgiven if you mess it up. 

Barry and Greenwich were good enough at this that they became the go-to writers for Spector for the next couple of years. He would record songs by most of the Brill Building teams, but when you think of the classic records Spector produced, they're far more likely than not to be Barry and Greenwich songs -- of the twenty-seven Philles singles released after Barry and Greenwich started writing together, fourteen are credited to Barry/Greenwich/Spector, and other than the joke release "Let's Dance the Screw", which we talked about back in the episode on the Crystals, there's a run of eleven singles released on the label between late 1962 and early 1964 which are credited either as Greenwich/Powers/Spector or Barry/Greenwich/Spector.

And so it was naturally to Barry and Greenwich that Spector turned to write the first big hit for the Ronettes -- and he let Ronnie hear the writing session. By this time, Spector had become romantically involved with Ronnie, and he invited her into his apartment to sit in the next room and listen to them working on the song -- usually they got together in hotels rather than at Spector's home. While she was there, she found several pairs of women's shoes -- Spector hadn't told her he was married, and claimed to her when she asked that they belonged to his sister. This should probably have been a sign of things to come.

Assuming that Spector did contribute to the writing, I think it's easy to tell what he brought to “Be My Baby”. If you listen to that Connie Francis record I excerpted earlier, on which Spector is also a credited co-writer, the melody line for the line “that you don't feel the same” leading into the chorus:

[Excerpt: Connie Francis, “Second-Hand Love”]

is identical to the melody line leading into the chorus of “Be My Baby”:

[Excerpt: The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”]

So that transition between the verse and the chorus is likely his work.

After rehearsing Ronnie for several weeks in New York, Spector flew her out to LA to make the record in Gold Star Studios, where she spent three days recording the lead vocals. The backing vocals weren't provided by the other Ronettes, but rather by the Blossoms, with a few extra singers -- notably Spector's assistant Sonny Bono, and his new girlfriend Cher -- but what really made the track was not the vocals -- although the song was perfect for Ronnie -- but Hal Blaine's drum intro:

[Excerpt: The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"]

That intro was utterly simple -- Blaine was always a minimalist player, someone who would play for the song rather than play fussy fills -- but that simple part, combined with the powerful sound that the engineer Larry Levine got, was enough to make it one of the most memorable intros in rock music history. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys talks to this day about how he had to pull over to the side of the road when he first heard it on his car radio, and he would listen to the record incessantly for hours at a time.

Incidentally, since I'm talking about the musicians, a lot of sources credit Carol Kaye for playing the bass on this track, so I'm going to say something once, here, which should be taken as read whenever I'm talking about records made in LA in the sixties -- Carol Kaye is not only an unreliable source about what records she played on, she is an utterly dishonest one. For those who don't know, Ms. Kaye was one of the great bass players of the sixties, and also one of the better session guitarists. She played on hundreds of records in the sixties, including many, many, classics from the Beach Boys, Spector, Frank Zappa, and others, and she was the only woman getting regular session work in LA on a rock instrument -- there may have been session orchestral musicians who were women, but when it comes to guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, sax, and so on, she was the only one. For that, she deserves a huge amount of credit.

Unfortunately, she has never been happy only being credited for the records she actually played on, and insists she played on many, many, more. Some of this can be reasonably put down to lapses in memory more than fifty years later -- if you're playing two or three sessions a day, and you play on a bunch of Beach Boys records, then it's easy enough to misremember having played on "Surfin' USA" when maybe you played on a similar-sounding record, and there are things like her claiming to have played on "Good Vibrations", where there were multiple sessions for that track, and it happened that the takes eventually used weren't the ones where she was playing bass, but she had no way of knowing that. That's completely forgivable.

But Ms. Kaye also claims, with no evidence whatsoever on her side and a great deal of evidence against her, to have been responsible for playing almost the entire recorded works of James Jamerson, Motown's main bass player, claiming tapes were secretly shipped from Detroit to LA -- something that has been denied by every single person working at Motown, and which can be easily disproved just by listening to the tapes. She claims to have played the bass on "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees -- a track recorded in New York, by New York musicians. And whenever anyone points out the falsehoods, rather than saying "I may have made a mistake" she hurls abuse at them, and in some cases libels them on her website.

So, Carol Kaye did not play on this record, and we know that because we have the AFM session sheets, which show that the bass players on the track were Ray Pohlman and Jimmy Bond. I'll link a PDF of that sheet in the show notes. So in future, when I mention someone other than Carol Kaye playing on a song, and Wikipedia or somewhere says she played on it, bear this in mind.

Two people who did play on the record were Bill Pitman and Tommy Tedesco, and this is why the B-side, an instrumental, is named "Tedesco and Pitman". Spector was enough of a control freak that he didn't want DJs ever to play the wrong side of his singles, so he stuck instrumental jam sessions by the studio musicians -- with the songwriting credited to him rather than to them -- on the B-sides.

I don't know about you, but I actually quite like "Tedesco and Pitman", but then I've always had a soft spot for the vibraphone:

[Excerpt: "The Ronettes" (The Wrecking Crew), Tedesco and Pitman"]

"Be My Baby" was a massive hit -- it went to number one on the Cashbox chart, though only number two on the Billboard chart, and sold millions of copies.

The group were invited on to Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, but Spector wanted Ronnie to be in California to record the follow-up, so the girls' cousin Elaine filled in for her for the first couple of weeks of the tour, while Ronnie recorded another Barry, Greenwich and Spector song, "Baby I Love You":

[Excerpt: The Ronettes, "Baby I Love You"]

Ronnie didn't realise it at the time, but Spector was trying to isolate her from the other group members, and from her family. But at first this seemed to her like a sensible way of solving the problem, and she rejoined the tour after the record was made.

Soon after this, the group travelled to the UK for a brief tour in early 1964, during which they became friendly with the Beatles -- Ronnie had a brief chaste flirtation with John Lennon, and Estelle something a little more with George Harrison. They also got to know their support act on the tour, the Rolling Stones -- at least once Ronnie had had a row with Andrew Loog Oldham, as Spector had sent a telegram forbidding the Rolling Stones from spending time with the Ronettes. Once Ronnie pointed out that they were there and Spector wasn't, the two groups became very friendly -- and more than friendly, if Keith Richards' autobiography is to be believed.

On their return to the US, they continued having hits through 1964 -- nothing was as big as "Be My Baby", but they had three more top forty hits that year, with two mediocre records, "The Best Part of Breaking Up" and "Do I Love You?", co-written by the team of Pete Andreoli and Vini Poncia, and then a return to form with the magnificent "Walking in the Rain", written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill:

[Excerpt: The Ronettes Featuring Veronica, "Walking in the Rain"]

But Spector was becoming more and more erratic in his personal life, and more and more controlling. I won't go into too many details here, because we're going to see a lot more of Phil Spector over the next year or so, but he recorded many great records with the Ronettes which he refused to release, claiming they weren't quite right -- Ronnie has later realised that he was probably trying to sabotage their career so he could have her all to himself, though at the time she didn't know that. Neither of the two singles they did release in 1965 made the top fifty, and the one single they released in 1966, a return to songs by Barry and Greenwich, only made number one hundred, for one week:

[Excerpt: The Ronettes, "I Can Hear Music"]

Also in 1966, the Ronettes were invited by the Beatles to be their support act on their last ever tour, but once again Spector insisted that Ronnie couldn't go, because she needed to be in the studio, so Elaine substituted for her again, much to the Beatles' disappointment. Nothing from the studio sessions during that tour was released.

The group broke up in 1967, and the next year Ronnie married Phil Spector, who became ever more controlling and abusive. I won't go into details of the way he treated her, which you can read all about in her autobiography, but suffice to say that I was completely unsurprised when he murdered a woman in 2003. You'll probably get some idea of his behaviours when I talk about him in future episodes, but what Ronnie suffered in the years they were together was something no-one should have to go through.

By the time she managed to leave him, in June 1972, she had only released one track in years, a song that George Harrison had written for her called "Try Some, Buy Some", which Spector had recorded with her at Harrison's insistence, during a period when Spector was working with several of the ex-Beatles and trying to rebuild his own career on the back of them:

[Excerpt: Ronnie Spector, "Try Some, Buy Some"]

Neither Ronnie nor Spector were particularly keen on the track, and it was a commercial flop -- although John Lennon later said that the track had inspired his "Happy Xmas (War is Over)".

Ronnie eventually escaped from Spector's abuse -- leaving the house barefoot, as Spector had stolen her shoes so she couldn't leave -- and started to build a new life for herself, though she would struggle with alcoholism for many years. She got nothing in their divorce settlement, as Spector threatened to hire a hit man to kill her if she tried to get anything from him, and she made a living by touring the nostalgia circuit with various new lineups of Ronettes -- the others having given up on their music careers -- and while she never had another hit, she did have a recording career.

Her solo career got its proper start because of a chance meeting in New York. Her old friend John Lennon saw her on the street and called her over for a chat, and introduced her to the friend he was with, Jimmy Iovine, who was producing an album for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes. Bruce Springsteen had written a song for that band, and Iovine thought it might work well as a duet with Ronnie, and he invited her to the studio that day, and she cut the song with them:

[Excerpt: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, "You Mean So Much To Me"]

That song became one of the most popular songs on the album, and so when the Asbury Dukes toured supporting Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, they brought Ronnie along with them to sing on that song and do a couple of her own hits. That led to the E-Street Band themselves backing Ronnie on a single -- a version of Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood", a song that Joel had written with her in mind:

[Excerpt: Ronnie Spector and the E-Street Band, "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"]

However, that was a flop, and so were all her later attempts to have comebacks, though she worked with some great musicians over the years. But she was able to continue having a career as a performer, even if she never returned to stardom, and she never made much money from her hits. She did, though, sing on one more top-ten hit, singing backing vocals on Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight":

[Excerpt: Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight"]

Phil Spector continued to earn money from his ex-wife for a long time after their divorce. By 1998, when the Ronettes finally sued Spector for unpaid royalties, they had earned, between them, a total of $14,482.30 in royalties from all their hit records -- the amount that came from a single 1964 royalty payment. In court, Spector argued that he didn't owe them any more, and indeed that *they* still owed *him* money, because the cost of recording their singles meant that they had never actually earned more money than they cost. Eventually, after a series of appeals, the group members each got about half a million dollars in 2002 -- obviously a great deal of money, but a small fraction of what they actually earned.

Spector, who was on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, prevented the Ronettes from being inducted out of spite towards his ex until he was imprisoned, at which point they were finally recognised, in 2007. 

Ronnie continues to perform, and seems to have a happy life. Estelle, sadly, did not -- she suffered from anorexia and schizophrenia, spent a period of time homeless, and died in 2009. Nedra became a born-again Christian shortly after the group split up, and recorded a couple of unsuccessful albums of Christian music in the seventies, before going off to work in real estate. In September last year, it was announced that a film is going to be made of Ronnie Spector's life story.  It's nice to know that there'll be something out there telling her story with her as the protagonist, rather than as a background character in the story of her abusive husband.

Jan 09, 2021
BONUS: A Tribute to Gerry Marsden
11:32

I just heard the sad news that Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, has died today aged seventy-eight. As the latest episode of the podcast is late due to personal issues, I thought I'd make this available to the general public – this is a ten-minute Patreon bonus episode I did back in October, on Gerry and the Pacemakers, so it's here as a little tribute. He'll be missed.

----more----

Transcript

Today we're going to look at a group that were for a very short while arguably the most successful band to come out of Liverpool, one that set a record that wouldn't be broken for twenty-one years, and who deserved rather better than the reputation they've ended up with. We're going to look at Gerry and the Pacemakers, and at "How Do You Do It?":

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "How Do You Do It?"]

Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in the very early sixties, one of the bands that was most strongly competing for the title of Liverpool's best band. They were so good that before he joined the Beatles, for a while Richy Starkey was considering quitting the Hurricanes and joining them, even though it would mean switching instruments -- Gerry's brother Freddy Marsden was the Pacemakers' drummer, but they didn't have a bass player, and everyone was sure that Richy could pick it up no problem. 

The Pacemakers had been around before the Beatles, and they shared similar musical tastes, and even a similar repertoire -- the Beatles dropped "What'd I Say" from their sets because the Pacemakers were also doing it, and when Paul started to sing "Over the Rainbow" in the Beatles' sets, the Pacemakers responded by adding the old Rogers and Hammerstein song "You'll Never Walk Alone" to match it. Both bands played Hamburg backing Tony Sheridan, and both were playing songs by Arthur Alexander, Larry Williams, Richie Barrett and Carl Perkins. The main difference between the two was that the Pacemakers would have a slightly harder-edged sound -- the Pacemakers only had one real singer, Gerry, and so they couldn't do the kind of girl-group harmonies that the Beatles would do, and so they couldn't move off into the songs by the Shirelles or the Cookies that the Beatles performed, and instead had to fill out their set with bluesy songs like Little Walter's "My Babe":

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "My Babe (live)"]

There was a friendly but real rivalry between the Beatles and the Pacemakers, so much so that when Mersey Beat had a popularity poll among its readers, the Beatles bought up as many copies of the magazine as they could and filled out the poll under fake names with themselves at the top and the Pacemakers at the bottom, to make sure they won and the Pacemakers only came second (Rory Storm and the Hurricanes tried filling out the poll with themselves at the top too, but Bill Harry disqualified forty ballots written in green ink in the same handwriting, posted from the same letter box, so they came in fourth). It even looked for a while like the Pacemakers would be the very first Liverpool band to release a record -- a local promoter called Sam Leach was planning to set up his own label and record them, before they realised he was better at coming up with plans than coming up with money. The Pacemakers also had their own PA system rather than just relying on the club ones, at a time when no other band did.

Indeed, when Brian Epstein took the Decca A&R man Mike Smith to see the Beatles at the Cavern, when it looked like they would be signed to Decca, he seems to have taken Smith out for dinner before the show because the Pacemakers were the support act, and Paul McCartney was worried that if Smith saw the Pacemakers' set he might choose to sign them rather than the Beatles.

So it made sense that when Epstein was looking to sign up some more artists to a management contract, he signed the Pacemakers. And it made sense that once the Beatles had had some success, George Martin trusted Epstein enough to sign Gerry and the Pacemakers. And as there was no awkward publishing company contract to deal with like there had been with the Beatles, he could give them "How Do You Do It?", the song that he'd tried to foist on the Beatles:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "How Do You Do It?"]qqqq

Martin's ear for a hit was proved right, and the song went to number one -- and it was the first record from a Liverpool group to do so on what is now considered the "official" chart, though it was then just one of several. Unsurprisingly, the second single released was another Mitch Murray song -- one that was almost identical to "How Do You Do It?":

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "I Like It"]

 That also went to number one, as did their third single, "You'll Never Walk Alone":

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "You'll Never Walk Alone"]

That last became almost the unofficial anthem of Liverpool after the Pacemakers' release, and is to this day still sung by fans of Liverpool Football Club at every match. It also made them the first act ever to have their first three singles go to number one in the British charts, something that wouldn't be repeated until another Liverpool act, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, twenty-one years later.

After that, the group started recording songs Gerry wrote himself, and he proved to be quite good. Their first original single, "I'm the One", went to number two, just behind "Needles and Pins" by the Searchers, and was very much in the same style as their first two hits, but he also started writing a few more interesting and meditative songs, most notably "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying", which became their first and biggest hit in the US:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying"]

But the Pacemakers came along, sadly, at *just* the wrong time. As the first of the Liverpool bands other than the Beatles to get signed, they were initially pushed into the same all-round entertainer role that groups like Cliff Richard and the Shadows were in, and their early singles were light pop even as their first album was full of covers of Arthur Alexander songs like "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues". By mid-1964 the light pop style of their early singles was considered hopelessly passe when compared to groups like the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds -- all of whom were playing the same kind of material that the Pacemakers' pre-fame club sets and first album had been made up of. On the evidence of the small number of live recordings of the Pacemakers, had they been signed even a year later, they would have fit easily into that millieu, and while Gerry Marsden's friendly singing voice and persona would never have allowed him to become a menacing, rebellious figure like Mick Jagger, the group could easily have had a much longer period of success and respect than they did:

[Excerpt: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “What'd I Say (Live)”]

The Pacemakers split up in 1966, but Gerry later revived the name for tours on the nostalgia circuit. He's now retired due to health problems, but I saw him on what was his last tour a couple of years ago, and he was still good enough that you could understand why, for at least a few weeks, he had once been bigger than the Beatles.

Jan 03, 2021
Apology for Delay
00:19

This is just a quick apology for the delay with this week's episode. I had some very, very bad news in my personal life last weekend, and haven't been able to focus properly. I hope to have the next episode up in a couple of days' time, and things should be back to normal, at least as far as the schedule goes, after that.​

Jan 01, 2021
Episode 109: "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul and Mary
45:31

Episode one hundred and nine of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Blowin' in the Wind", Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, the UK folk scene and the civil rights movement. Those of you who get angry at me whenever I say anything that acknowledges the existence of racism may want to skip this one. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by the Crystals.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

 

This compilation contains all Peter, Paul and Mary's hits.

I have used *many* books for this episode, most of which I will also be using for future episodes on Dylan:

The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald is the fascinating and funny autobiography of Dylan's mentor in his Greenwich Village period, including his interactions with Albert Grossman.

Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan is a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography.

Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon is a song-by-song look at every song Dylan ever wrote, as is Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.

Heylin also wrote the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades.

I've also used Robert Shelton's No Direction Home, which is less accurate, but which is written by someone who knew Dylan.

Only one book exists on Peter, Paul, and Mary themselves, and it is a hideously overpriced coffee table book consisting mostly of photos, so I wouldn't bother with it.

 Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg has some great information on the British folk scene of the fifties and sixties.

And Singing From the Floor is an oral history of British folk clubs, including a chapter on Dylan's 1962 visit to London.

 

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Transcript

 

Today we're going to look at the first manufactured pop band we will see in this story, but not the last -- a group cynically put together by a manager to try and cash in on a fad, but one who were important enough that in a small way they helped to change history. We're going to look at the March on Washington and the civil rights movement, at Bob Dylan blossoming into a songwriter and the English folk revival, and at "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

[Excerpt: Peter, Paul and Mary, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

Albert Grossman was an unusual figure in the world of folk music. The folk revival had started out as an idealistic movement, mostly centred on Pete Seeger, and outside a few ultra-commercial acts like the Kingston Trio, most of the people involved were either doing it for the love of the music, or as a means of advancing their political goals. No doubt many of the performers on the burgeoning folk circuit were also quite keen to make money -- there are very few musicians who don't like being able to eat and have a home to live in -- but very few of the people involved were primarily motivated by increasing their income.

Grossman was a different matter. He was a businessman, and he was interested in money more than anything else -- and for that he was despised by many of the people in the Greenwich Village folk scene. But he was, nonetheless, someone who was interested in making money *from folk music* specifically. And in the late fifties and early sixties this was less of a strange idea than it might have seemed.

We talked back in the episode on "Drugstore Rock and Roll" about how rock and roll music was starting to be seen as the music of the teenager, and how "teenager" was, for the first time, becoming a marketing category into which people could be segmented.

But the thing about music that's aimed at a particular age group is that once you're out of that age group you are no longer the target audience for that music. Someone who was sixteen in 1956 was twenty in 1960, and people in their twenties don't necessarily want to be listening to music aimed at teenagers. But at the same time, those people didn't want to listen to the music that their parents were listening to.  There's no switch that gets flipped on your twentieth birthday that means that you suddenly no longer like Little Richard but instead like Rosemary Clooney.

So there was a gap in the market, for music that was more adult than rock and roll was perceived as being, but which still set itself apart from the pop music that was listened to by people in their thirties and forties.

And in the late fifties and early sixties, that gap seemed to be filled by a commercialised version of the folk revival. 

In particular, Harry Belafonte had a huge run of massive hit albums with collections of folk, calypso, and blues songs, presented in a way that was acceptable to an older, more settled audience while still preserving some of the rawness of the originals, like his version of Lead Belly's "Midnight Special", recorded in 1962 with a young Bob Dylan on harmonica:

[Excerpt: Harry Belafonte, "Midnight Special"]

Meanwhile, the Kingston Trio had been having huge hits with cleaned-up versions of old folk ballads like "Tom Dooley":

[Excerpt: The Kingston Trio, "Tom Dooley"]

So Grossman believed that there was a real market out there for something that was as clean and bright and friendly as the Kingston Trio, but with just a tiny hint of the bohemian Greenwich Village atmosphere to go with it. Something that wouldn't scare TV people and DJs, but which might seem just the tiniest bit more radical than the Kingston Trio did. Something mass-produced, but which seemed more authentic.

So Grossman decided to put together what we would now call a manufactured pop group. It would be a bit like the Kingston Trio, but ever so slightly more political, and rather than being three men, it would be two men and a woman.

Grossman had very particular ideas about what he wanted -- he wanted a waifish, beautiful woman at the centre of the group, he wanted a man who brought a sense of folk authenticity, and he wanted someone who could add a comedy element to the performances, to lighten them. 

For the woman, he chose Mary Travers, who had been around the folk scene for several years at this point, starting out with a group called the Song Swappers, who had recorded an album of union songs with Pete Seeger back in 1955:

[Excerpt: Pete Seeger and the Song Swappers, "Solidarity Forever"]

Travers was chosen in part because of her relative shyness -- she had never wanted to be a professional singer, and her introverted nature made her perfect for the image Grossman wanted -- an image that was carefully cultivated, to the point that when the group were rehearsing in Florida, Grossman insisted Travers stay inside so she wouldn't get a tan and spoil her image.

As the authentic male folk singer, Grossman chose Peter Yarrow, who was the highest profile of the three, as he had performed as a solo artist for a number of years and had appeared on TV and at the Newport Folk Festival, though he had not yet recorded. And for the comedy element, he chose Noel Stookey, who regularly performed as a comedian around Greenwich Village -- in the group's very slim autobiography, Stookey compares himself to two other comedians on that circuit, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, comparisons that were a much better look in 2009 when the book was published than they are today.

Grossman had originally wanted Dave Van Ronk to be the low harmony singer, rather than Stookey, but Van Ronk turned him down flat, wanting no part of a Greenwich Village Kingston Trio, though he later said he sometimes looked at his bank account rather wistfully.

The group's name was, apparently, inspired by a line in the old folk song "I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago", which was recorded by many people, but most famously by Elvis Presley in the 1970s:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago"]

The "Peter, Paul, and Moses" from that song became Peter, Paul and Mary -- Stookey started going by his middle name, Paul, on stage, in order to fit the group name, though he still uses Noel in his daily life.

While Peter, Paul, and Mary were the front people of the group, there were several other people who were involved in the creative process -- the group used a regular bass player, Bill Lee, the father of the filmmaker Spike Lee, who played on all their recordings, as well as many other recordings from Greenwich Village folk musicians. They also had, as their musical director, a man named Milt Okun who came up with their arrangements and helped them choose and shape the material.

Grossman shaped this team into a formidable commercial force. Almost everyone who talks about Grossman compares him to Colonel Tom Parker, and the comparison is a reasonable one. Grossman was extremely good at making money for his acts, so long as a big chunk of the money came to him. There's a story about him signing Odetta, one of the great folk artists of the period, and telling her "you can stay with your current manager, and make a hundred thousand dollars this year, and he'll take twenty percent, or you can come with me, and make a quarter of a million dollars, but I'll take fifty percent".

That was the attitude that Grossman took to everyone. He cut himself in to every contract, salami-slicing his artists' royalties at each stage. But it can't be denied that his commercial instincts were sound. Peter, Paul, and Mary's first album was a huge success. The second single from the album, their version of the old Weavers song "If I Had a Hammer", written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, went to number ten on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: Peter, Paul and Mary, "If I Had a Hammer"]

And the album itself went to number one and eventually went double-platinum -- a remarkable feat for a collection of songs that, however prettily arranged, contained a fairly uncompromising selection of music from the folk scene, with songs by Seeger, Dave van Ronk, and Rev. Gary Davis mixing with traditional songs like "This Train" and originals by Stookey and Yarrow.

Their second album was less successful at first, with its first two singles flopping. But the third, a pretty children's song by Yarrow and his friend Leonard Lipton, went to number two on the pop charts and number one on the Adult Contemporary charts:

[Excerpt: Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Puff the Magic Dragon"]

Incidentally, Leonard Lipton, who wrote that lyric, became independently wealthy from the royalties from the song, and used the leisure that gave him to pursue his passion of inventing 3D projection systems, which eventually made him an even wealthier man -- if you've seen a 3D film in the cinema in the last couple of decades, it's almost certainly been using the systems Lipton invented.

So Peter, Paul, and Mary were big stars, and having big hits. And Albert Grossman was constantly on the lookout for more material for them. And eventually he found it, and the song that was to make both him, his group, and its writer, very, very rich, in the pages of Broadside magazine.

When we left Bob Dylan, he was still primarily a performer, and not really known for his songwriting, but he had already written a handful of songs, and he was being drawn into the more political side of the folk scene. In large part this was because of his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, with whom Dylan was very deeply in love, and who was a very political person indeed. Dylan had political views, but wasn't particularly driven by them -- Rotolo very much was, and encouraged him to write songs about politics.

For much of early 1962, Dylan was being pulled in two directions at once -- he was writing songs inspired by Robert Johnson, and trying to adapt Johnson's style to fit himself, but at the same time he was writing songs like "The Death of Emmett Till", about the 1955 murder of a Black teenager which had galvanised the civil rights movement, and "The Ballad of Donald White", about a Black man on death row.

Dylan would later be very dismissive of these attempts at topicality, saying "I realize now that my reasons and motives behind it were phony, I didn’t have to write it; I was bothered by many other things that I pretended I wasn’t bothered by, in order to write this song about Emmett Till, a person I never even knew". But at the time they got him a great deal of attention in the small US folk-music scene, when they were published in magazines like Broadside and Sing Out, which collected political songs.

Most of these early songs are juvenilia, with a couple of exceptions like the rather marvellous anti-bomb song "Let Me Die in My Footsteps", but the song that changed everything for Dylan was a different matter. 

"Blowin' in the Wind" was inspired by the melody of the old nineteenth century song "No More Auction Block", a song that is often described as a "spiritual", though in fact it's a purely secular song about slavery:

[Excerpt: Odetta, "No More Auction Block"]

That song had seen something of a revival in folk circles in the late fifties, especially because part of its melody had been incorporated into another song, "We Shall Overcome", which had become an anthem of the civil rights movement when it was revived and adapted by Pete Seeger:

[Excerpt: Pete Seeger, "We Shall Overcome"]

Dylan took this melody, with its associations with the fight for the rights of Black people, and came up with new lyrics, starting with the line "How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?" He wrote two verses of the song -- the first and last verses -- in a short burst of inspiration, and a few weeks later came back to it and added another verse, the second, which incorporated allusions to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, and which is notably less inspired than those earlier verses.

In later decades, many people have looked at the lyrics to the song and seen it as the first of what would become a whole subgenre of non-protest protest songs -- they've seen the abstraction of "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" as being nice-sounding rhetoric that doesn't actually mean anything, in much the same way as something like, say, "Another Day in Paradise" or "Eve of Destruction", songs that make nonspecific complaints about nonspecific bad things.

But while "Blowin' in the Wind" is a song that has multiple meanings and can be applied to multiple situations, as most good songs can, that line was, at the time in which it was written, a very concrete question. The civil rights movement was asking for many things -- for the right to vote, for an end to segregation, for an end to police brutality, but also for basic respect and acknowledgment of Black people's shared humanity. We've already heard in a couple of past episodes Big Bill Broonzy singing "When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?":

[Excerpt: Big Bill Broonzy, "When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?"]

Because at the time, it was normal for white people to refer to Black men as "boy". As Dr. Martin Luther King said in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail", one of the greatest pieces of writing of the twentieth century, a letter in large part about how white moderates were holding Black people back with demands to be "reasonable" and let things take their time:

"when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society... when your first name becomes“ and here Dr. King uses a racial slur which I, as a white man, will not say, "and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair."

King's great letter was written in 1963, less than a year after Dylan was writing his song but before it became widely known. In the context of 1962, the demand to call a man a man was a very real political issue, not an aphorism that could go in a Hallmark card.

Dylan recorded the song in June 1962, during the sessions for his second album, which at the time was going under the working title "Bob Dylan's Blues":

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

By the time he recorded it, two major changes had happened to him. The first was that Suze Rotolo had travelled to Spain for several months, leaving him bereft -- for the next few months, his songwriting took a turn towards songs about either longing for the return of a lost love, like "Tomorrow is a Long Time", one of his most romantic songs, or about how the protagonist doesn't even need his girlfriend anyway and she can leave if she likes, see if he cares, like "Don't Think Twice It's Alright".

The other change was that Albert Grossman had become his manager, largely on the strength of "Blowin' in the Wind", which Grossman thought had huge potential. Grossman signed Dylan up, taking twenty percent of all his earnings -- including on the contract with Columbia Records Dylan already had -- and got him signed to a new publisher, Witmark Publishing, where the aptly-named Artie Mogull thought that "Blowin' in the Wind" could be marketed. Grossman took his twenty percent of Dylan's share of the songwriting money as his commission from Dylan -- and fifty percent of Witmark's share of the money as his commission from Witmark, meaning that Dylan was getting forty percent of the money for writing the songs, while Grossman was getting thirty-five percent.

Grossman immediately got involved in the recording of Dylan's second album, and started having personality clashes with John Hammond. It was apparently Grossman who suggested that Dylan "go electric" for the first time, with the late-1962 single "Mixed-Up Confusion":

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Mixed-Up Confusion"]

Neither Hammond nor Dylan liked that record, and it seemed clear for the moment that the way forward for Dylan was to continue in an acoustic folk vein.

Dylan was also starting to get inspired more by English folk music, and incorporate borrowings from English music into his songwriting. That's most apparent in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", written in September 1962. Dylan took the structure of that song from the old English ballad, "Lord Randall":

[Excerpt: Ewan MacColl, "Lord Randall"]

He reworked that structure into a song of apocalypse, again full of the Biblical imagery he'd tried in the second verse of  "Blowin' in the Wind", but this time more successfully incorporating it:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"]

His interest in English folk music was to become more important in his songwriting in the following months, as Dylan was about to travel to the UK and encounter the British folk music scene. A TV director called Philip Saville had seen Dylan performing in New York, and had decided he would be perfect for the role of a poet in a TV play he was putting on, Madhouse in Castle Street, and got Dylan flown over to perform in it.

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have told Dylan what would be involved in this, and he proved incapable of learning his lines or acting, so the show was rethought -- the role of the poet was given to David Warner, later to become one of Britain's most famous screen actors, and Dylan was cast in a new role as a singer called "Bobby", who had few or no lines but did get to sing a few songs, including "Blowin' in the Wind", which was the first time the song was heard by anyone outside of the New York folk scene.

Dylan was in London for about a month, and while he was there he immersed himself in the British folk scene.

This scene was in some ways modelled on the American scene, and had some of the same people involved, but it was very different. The initial spark for the British folk revival had come in the late 1940s, when A.L. Lloyd, a member of the Communist Party, had published a book of folk songs he'd collected, along with some Marxist analysis of how folk songs evolved.

In the early fifties, Alan Lomax, then in the UK to escape McCarthyism, put Lloyd in touch with Ewan MacColl, a songwriter and performer from Manchester, who we heard earlier singing "Lord Randall". MacColl, like Lloyd, was a Communist, but the two also shared a passion for older folk songs, and they began recording and performing together, recording traditional songs like "The Handsome Cabin Boy":

[Excerpt: Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, "The Handsome Cabin Boy"]

MacColl and Lloyd latched on to the skiffle movement, and MacColl started his own club night, Ballads and Blues, which tried to push the skifflers in the direction of performing more music based in English traditional music. This had already been happening to an extent with things like the Vipers performing "Maggie May", a song about a sex worker in Liverpool:

[Excerpt: The Vipers Skiffle Group, "Maggie May"]

But this started to happen a lot more with MacColl's encouragement. At one point in 1956, there was even a TV show hosted by Lomax and featuring a band that included Lomax, MacColl, Jim Bray, the bass player from Chris Barber's band, Shirley Collins -- a folk singer who was also Lomax's partner -- and Peggy Seeger, who was Pete Seeger's sister and who had also entered into a romantic relationship with MacColl, whose most famous song, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", was written both about and for her:

[Excerpt: Peggy Seeger, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"]

It was Seeger who instigated what became the most notable feature at the Ballads and Blues club and its successor the Singer's Club. She'd burst out laughing when she saw Long John Baldry sing "Rock Island Line", because he was attempting to sing in an American accent. As someone who had actually known Lead Belly, she found British imitations of his singing ludicrous, and soon there was a policy at the clubs that people would only sing songs that were originally sung with their normal vowel sounds. So Seeger could only sing songs from the East Coast of the US, because she didn't have the Western vowels of a Woody Guthrie, while MacColl could sing English and Scottish songs, but nothing from Wales or Ireland.

As the skiffle craze died down, it splintered into several linked scenes. We've already seen how in Liverpool and London it spawned guitar groups like the Shadows and the Beatles, while in London it also led to the electric blues scene. It also led to a folk scene that was very linked to the blues scene at first, but was separate from it, and which was far more political, centred around MacColl. That scene, like the US one, combined topical songs about political events from a far-left viewpoint with performances of traditional songs, but in the case of the British one these were mostly old sea shanties and sailors' songs, and the ancient Child Ballads, rather than Appalachian country music -- though a lot of the songs have similar roots. 

And unlike the blues scene, the folk scene spread all over the country. There were clubs in Manchester, in Liverpool (run by the group the Spinners), in Bradford, in Hull (run by the Waterson family) and most other major British cities. The musicians who played these venues were often inspired by MacColl and Lloyd, but the younger generation of musicians often looked askance at what they saw as MacColl's dogmatic approach, preferring to just make good music rather than submit it to what they saw as MacColl's ideological purity test, even as they admired his musicianship and largely agreed with his politics.

And one of these younger musicians was a guitarist named Martin Carthy, who was playing a club called the King and Queen on Goodge Street when he saw Bob Dylan walk in. He recognised Dylan from the cover of Sing Out! magazine, and invited him to get up on stage and do a few numbers. For the next few weeks, Carthy showed Dylan round the folk scene -- Dylan went down great at the venues where Carthy normally played, and at the Roundhouse, but flopped around the venues that were dominated by MacColl, as the people there seemed to think of Dylan as a sort of cut-rate Ramblin' Jack Elliot, as Elliot had been such a big part of the skiffle and folk scenes.

Carthy also taught Dylan a number of English folk songs, including "Lord Franklin":

[Excerpt: Martin Carthy, "Lord Franklin"]

and "Scarborough Fair":

[Excerpt: Martin Carthy, "Scarborough Fair"]

Dylan immediately incorporated the music he'd learned from Carthy into his songwriting, basing "Bob Dylan's Dream" on "Lord Franklin", and even more closely basing "GIrl From the North Country" on "Scarborough Fair":

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country"]

After his trip to London, Dylan went over to Europe to see if he could catch up with Suze, but she had already gone back to New York -- their letters to each other crossed in the post. On his return, they reunited at least for a while, and she posed with him for the photo for the cover of what was to be his second album. 

Dylan had thought that album completed when he left for England, but he soon discovered that there were problems with the album -- the record label didn't want to release the comedy talking blues "Talking John Birch Society Paranoid Blues", because they thought it might upset the fascists in the John Birch Society. The same thing would later make sure that Dylan never played the Ed Sullivan Show, because when he was booked onto the show he insisted on playing that song, and so they cancelled the booking.

In this case, though, it gave him an excuse to remove what he saw as the weaker songs on the album, including "Tomorrow is a Long Time", and replace them with four new songs, three of them inspired by traditional English folk songs -- "Bob Dylan's Dream",  "Girl From the North Country", and "Masters of War" which took its melody from the old folk song "Nottamun Town" popularised on the British folk circuit by an American singer, Jean Ritchie:

[Excerpt: Jean Ritchie, "Nottamun Town"]

These new recordings weren't produced by John Hammond, as the rest of the album was. Albert Grossman had been trying from the start to get total control over Dylan, and didn't want Hammond, who had been around before Grossman, involved in Dylan's career. Instead, a new producer named Tom Wilson was in charge.

Wilson was a remarkable man, but seemed an odd fit for a left-wing folk album. He was one of the few Black producers working for a major label, though he'd started out as an indie producer. He was a Harvard economics graduate, and had been president of the Young Republicans during his time there -- he remained a conservative all his life -- but he was far from conservative in his musical tastes. When he'd left university, he'd borrowed nine hundred dollars and started his own record label, Transition, which had put out some of the best experimental jazz of the fifties, produced by Wilson, including the debut albums by Sun Ra:

[Excerpt: Sun Ra, "Brainville"]

and Cecil Taylor:

[Excerpt: Cecil Taylor, "Bemsha Swing"]

Wilson later described his first impressions of Dylan: "I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane … I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. This guy played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted."

Wilson would soon play a big part in Dylan's career, but for now his job was just to get those last few tracks for the album recorded.

In the end, the final recording session for Dylan's second album was more than a year after the first one, and it came out into a very different context from when he'd started recording it.

Because while Dylan was putting the finishing touches on his second album, Peter Paul and Mary were working on their third, and they were encouraged by Grossman to record three Bob Dylan songs, since that way Grossman would make more money from them. Their version of "Blowin' in the Wind" came out as a single a few weeks after The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan came out, and sold 300,000 copies in the first week:

[Excerpt: Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

The record went to number two on the charts, and their followup, "Don't Think Twice it's Alright", another Dylan song, went top ten as well. 

"Blowin' in the Wind" became an instant standard, and was especially picked up by Black performers, as it became a civil rights anthem. Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers said later that she was astonished that a white man could write a line like "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?", saying "That's what my father experienced" -- and the Staple Singers recorded it, of course:

[Excerpt: The Staple Singers, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

as did Sam Cooke:

[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

And Stevie Wonder:

[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, "Blowin' in the Wind"]

But the song's most important performance came from Peter, Paul and Mary, performing it on a bill with Dylan, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Mahalia Jackson in August 1963, just as the song had started to descend the charts. Because those artists were the entertainment for the March on Washington, in which more than a quarter of a million people descended on Washington both to support President Kennedy's civil rights bill and to speak out and say that it wasn't going far enough. That was one of the great moments in American political history, full of incendiary speeches like the one by John Lewis:

[Excerpt: John Lewis, March on Washington speech]

But the most memorable moment at that march  came when Dr. King was giving his speech. Mahalia Jackson shouted out "Tell them about the dream, Martin", and King departed from his prepared words and instead improvised based on themes he'd used in other speeches previously, coming out with some of the most famous words ever spoken:

[Excerpt: Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream"]

The civil rights movement was more than one moment, however inspiring, and white people like myself have a tendency to reduce it just to Dr. King, and to reduce Dr. King just to those words -- which is one reason why I quoted from Letter From Birmingham Jail earlier, as that is a much less safe and canonised piece of writing. But it's still true to say that if there is a single most important moment in the history of the post-war struggle for Black rights, it was that moment, and because of "Blowin' in the Wind", both Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were minor parts of that event.

After 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary quickly became passe with the British Invasion, only having two more top ten hits, one with a novelty song in 1967 and one with "Leaving on a Jet Plane" in 1969. They split up in 1970, and around that time Yarrow was arrested and convicted for a sexual offence involving a fourteen-year-old girl, though he was later pardoned by President Carter. The group reformed in 1978 and toured the nostalgia circuit until Mary's death in 2009. The other two still occasionally perform together, as Peter and Noel Paul.

Bob Dylan, of course, went on to bigger things after "Blowin' in the Wind" suddenly made him into the voice of a generation -- a position he didn't ask for and didn't seem to want. We'll be hearing much more from him. And we'll also be hearing more about the struggle for Black civil rights, as that's a story, much like Dylan's, that continues to this day.

Dec 23, 2020
Episode 108: "I Wanna Be Your Man" by the Rolling Stones
47:05

Episode 108 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "I Wanna Be Your Man" by the Rolling Stones and how the British blues scene of the early sixties was started by a trombone player.

Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have an eight-minute bonus episode available, on "The Monkey Time" by Major Lance.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more---- Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

i used a lot of resources for this episode. Information on Chris Barber comes from Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber by Barber and Alyn Shopton.

Information on Alexis Korner comes from Alexis Korner: The Biography by Harry Shapiro.

Two resources that I've used for this and all future Stones episodes -- The Rolling Stones: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesden is an invaluable reference book, while Old Gods Almost Dead by Stephen Davis is the least inaccurate biography.

I've also used Andrew Loog Oldham's autobiography Stoned, and Keith Richards' Life, though be warned that both casually use slurs.

This compilation contains Alexis Korner's pre-1963 electric blues material, while this contains the earlier skiffle and country blues music.

The live performances by Chris Barber and various blues legends I've used here come from volumes one and two of a three-CD series of these recordings.

And this three-CD set contains the A and B sides of all the Stones' singles up to 1971.

 

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Transcript

Today we're going to look at a group who, more than any other band of the sixties, sum up what "rock music" means to most people. This is all the more surprising as when they started out they were vehemently opposed to being referred to as "rock and roll". We're going to look at the London blues scene of the early sixties, and how a music scene that was made up of people who thought of themselves as scholars of obscure music, going against commercialism ended up creating some of the most popular and commercial music ever made. We're going to look at the Rolling Stones, and at "I Wanna Be Your Man":

[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, "I Wanna Be Your Man"]

The Rolling Stones' story doesn't actually start with the Rolling Stones, and they won't be appearing until quite near the end of this episode, because to explain how they formed, I have to explain the British blues scene that they formed in.

One of the things people asked me when I first started doing the podcast was why I didn't cover people like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in the early episodes -- after all, most people now think that rock and roll started with those artists. It didn't, as I hope the last hundred or so episodes have shown. But those artists did become influential on its development, and that influence happened largely because of one man, Chris Barber.

We've seen Barber before, in a couple of episodes, but this, even more than his leading the band that brought Lonnie Donegan to fame, is where his influence on popular music really changes everything. On the face of it, Chris Barber seems like the last person in the world who one would expect to be responsible, at least indirectly, for some of the most rebellious popular music ever made. He is a trombone player from a background that is about as solidly respectable as one can imagine -- his parents were introduced to each other by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and his father, another economist, was not only offered a knighthood for his war work (he turned it down but accepted a CBE), but Clement Atlee later offered him a safe seat in Parliament if he wanted to become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But when the war started, young Chris Barber started listening to the Armed Forces Network, and became hooked on jazz. By the time the war ended, when he was fifteen, he owned records by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and more -- records that were almost impossible to find in the Britain of the 1940s.

And along with the jazz records, he was also getting hold of blues records by people like Cow Cow Davenport and Sleepy John Estes:

[Excerpt: Sleepy John Estes, "Milk Cow Blues"]

In his late teens and early twenties, Barber had become Britain's pre-eminent traditional jazz trombonist -- a position he held until he retired last year, aged eighty-nine -- but he wasn't just interested in trad jazz, but in all of American roots music, which is why he'd ended up accidentally kick-starting the skiffle craze when his guitarist recorded an old Lead Belly song as a track on a Barber album, as we looked at back in the episode on "Rock Island Line".

If that had been Barber's only contribution to British rock and roll, he would still have been important -- after all, without "Rock Island Line", it's likely that you could have counted the number of British boys who played guitar in the fifties and sixties on a single hand. But he did far more than that.

In the mid to late fifties, Barber became one of the biggest stars in British music. He didn't have a breakout chart hit until 1959, when he released "Petit Fleur", engineered by Joe Meek:

[Excerpt: Chris Barber, "Petit Fleur"]

And Barber didn't even play on that – it was a clarinet solo by his clarinettist Monty Sunshine.

But long before this big chart success he was a huge live draw and made regular appearances on TV and radio, and he was hugely appreciated among music lovers. A parallel for his status in the music world in the more modern era might be someone like, say, Radiohead -- a band who aren't releasing number one singles, but who have a devoted fanbase and are more famous than many of those acts who do have regular hits.

And that celebrity status put Barber in a position to do something that changed music forever. Because he desperately wanted to play with his American musical heroes, and he was one of the few people in Britain with the kind of built-in audience that he could bring over obscure Black musicians, some of whom had never even had a record released over here, and get them on stage with him. And he brought over, in particular, blues musicians.

Now, just as there was a split in the British jazz community between those who liked traditional Dixieland jazz and those who liked modern jazz, there was a similar split in their tastes in blues and R&B. Those who liked modern jazz -- a music that was dominated by saxophones and piano -- unsurprisingly liked modern keyboard and saxophone-based R&B. Their R&B idol was Ray Charles, whose music was the closest of the great R&B stars to modern jazz, and one stream of the British R&B movement of the sixties came from this scene -- people like the Spencer Davis Group, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and Manfred Mann all come from this modernist scene.

But the trad people, when they listened to blues, liked music that sounded primitive to them, just as they liked primitive-sounding jazz. Their tastes were very heavily influenced by Alan Lomax -- who came to the UK for a crucial period in the fifties to escape McCarthyism -- and they paralleled those of the American folk scene that Lomax was also part of, and followed the same narrative that Lomax's friend John Hammond had constructed for his Spirituals to Swing concerts, where the Delta country blues of people like Robert Johnson had been the basis for both jazz and boogie piano. This entirely false narrative became the received wisdom among the trad scene in Britain, to the extent that two of the very few people in the world who had actually heard Robert Johnson records before the release of the King of the Delta Blues Singers album were Chris Barber and his sometime guitarist and banjo player Alexis Korner. These people liked Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, and Lonnie Johnson's early recordings before his later pop success. They liked solo male performers who played guitar.

These two scenes were geographically close -- the Flamingo Club, a modern jazz club that later became the place where Georgie Fame and Chris Farlowe built their audiences, was literally across the road from the Marquee, a trad jazz club that became the centre of guitar-based R&B in the UK. And there wasn't a perfect hard-and-fast split, as we'll see -- but it's generally true that what is nowadays portrayed as a single British "blues scene" was, in its early days, two overlapping but distinct scenes, based in a pre-existing split in the jazz world.

Barber was, of course, part of the traditional jazz wing, and indeed he was so influential a part of it that his tastes shaped the tastes of the whole scene to a large extent. But Barber was not as much of a purist as someone like his former collaborator Ken Colyer, who believed that jazz had become corrupted in 1922 by the evil innovations of people like Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, who were too modern for his tastes. Barber had preferences, but he could appreciate -- and more importantly play -- music in a variety of styles.

So Barber started by bringing over Big Bill Broonzy, who John Hammond had got to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts when he'd found out Robert Johnson was dead. It was because of Barber bringing Broonzy over that Broonzy got to record with Joe Meek:

[Excerpt: Big Bill Broonzy, "When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?"]

And it was because of Barber bringing Broonzy over that Broonzy appeared on Six-Five Special, along with Tommy Steele, the Vipers, and Mike and Bernie Winters, and thus became the first blues musician that an entire generation of British musicians saw, their template for what a blues musician is. If you watch the Beatles Anthology, for example, in the sections where they talk about the music they were listening to as teenagers, Broonzy is the only blues musician specifically named. That's because of Chris Barber.

Broonzy toured with Barber several times in the fifties, before his death in 1958, but he wasn't the only one. Barber brought over many people to perform and record with him, including several we've looked at previously. Like the rock and roll stars who visited the UK at this time, these were generally people who were past their commercial peak in the US, but who were fantastic live performers. The Barber band did recording sessions with Louis Jordan:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan and the Chris Barber band, "Tain't Nobody's Business"]

And we're lucky enough that many of the Barber band's shows at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (a venue that would later host two hugely important shows we'll talk about in later episodes) were recorded and have since been released. With those recordings we can hear them backing Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

[Excerpt: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Chris Barber band, "Peace in the Valley"]

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

[Excerpt: Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and the Chris Barber band, "This Little Light of Mine"]

And others like Champion Jack Dupree and Sonny Boy Williamson. But there was one particular blues musician that Barber brought over who changed everything for British music.

Barber was a member of an organisation called the National Jazz Federation, which helped arrange transatlantic musician exchanges. You might remember that at the time there was a rule imposed by the musicians' unions in the UK and the US that the only way for an American musician to play the UK was if a British musician played the US and vice versa, and the National Jazz Federation helped set these exchanges up. Through the NJF Barber had become friendly with John Lewis, the American pianist who led the Modern Jazz Quartet, and was talking with Lewis about what other musicians he could bring over, and Lewis suggested Muddy Waters.

Barber said that would be great, but he had no idea how you'd reach Muddy Waters -- did you send a postcard to the plantation he worked on or something? Lewis laughed, and said that no, Muddy Waters had a Cadillac and an agent.

The reason for Barber's confusion was fairly straightfoward -- Barber was thinking of Waters' early recordings, which he knew because of the influence of Alan Lomax.

Lomax had discovered Muddy Waters back in 1941. He'd travelled to Clarksdale, Mississippi hoping to record Robert Johnson for the Library of Congress -- apparently he didn't know, or had forgotten, that Johnson had died a few years earlier. When he couldn't find Johnson, he'd found another musician, who had a similar style, and recorded him instead. Waters was a working musician who would play whatever people wanted to listen to -- Gene Autry songs, Glenn Miller, whatever -- but who was particularly proficient in blues, influenced by Son House, the same person who had been Johnson's biggest influence. Lomax recorded him playing acoustic blues on a plantation, and those recordings were put out by the Library of Congress:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "I Be's Troubled"]

Those Library of Congress recordings had been hugely influential among the trad and skiffle scenes -- Lonnie Donegan, in particular, had borrowed a copy from the American Embassy's record-lending library and then stolen it because he liked it so much. 

But after making those recordings, Waters had travelled up to Chicago and gone electric, forming a band with guitarist Jimmie Rodgers (not the same person as the country singer of the same name, or the 50s pop star), harmonica player Little Walter, drummer Elgin Evans, and pianist Otis Spann. 

Waters had signed to Chess Records, then still named Aristocrat, in 1947, and had started out by recording electric versions of the same material he'd been performing acoustically:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "I Can't Be Satisfied"]

But soon he'd partnered with Chess' great bass player, songwriter, and producer Willie Dixon, who wrote a string of blues classics both for Waters and for Chess' other big star Howlin' Wolf. Throughout the early fifties, Waters had a series of hits on the R&B charts with his electric blues records, like the great "Hoochie Coochie Man", which introduced one of the most copied blues riffs ever:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, "Hoochie Coochie Man"]

But by the late fifties, the hits had started to dry up. Waters was still making great records, but Chess were more interested in artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and the Moonglows, who were selling much more and were having big pop hits, not medium-sized R&B ones. So Waters and his pianist Otis Spann were eager to come over to the UK, and Barber was eager to perform with them.

Luckily, unlike many of his trad contemporaries, Barber was comfortable with electric music, and his band quickly learned Waters' current repertoire. Waters came over and played one night at a festival with a different band, made up of modern jazz players who didn't really fit his style before joining the Barber tour, and so he and Spann were a little worried on their first night with the group when they heard these Dixieland trombones and clarinets.

But as soon as the group blasted out the riff of "Hoochie Coochie Man" to introduce their guests, Waters and Spann's faces lit up -- they knew these were musicians they could play with, and they fit in with Barber's band perfectly:

[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and the Chris Barber band, "Hoochie Coochie Man"]

Not everyone watching the tour was as happy as Barber with the electric blues though -- the audiences were often bemused by the electric guitars, which they associated with rock and roll rather than the blues. Waters, like many of his contemporaries, was perfectly willing to adapt his performance to the audience, and so the next time he came over he brought his acoustic guitar and played more in the country acoustic style they expected.

The time after that he came over, though, the audiences were disappointed, because he was playing acoustic, and now they wanted and expected him to be playing electric Chicago blues. Because Muddy Waters' first UK tour had developed a fanbase for him, and that fanbase had been cultivated and grown by one man, who had started off playing in the same band as Chris Barber.

Alexis Korner had started out in the Ken Colyer band, the same band that Chris Barber had started out in, as a replacement for Lonnie Donegan when Donegan was conscripted. After Donegan had rejoined the band, they'd played together for a while, and the first ever British skiffle group lineup had been Ken and Bill Colyer, Korner, Donegan, and Barber. When the Colyers had left the group and Barber had taken it over, Korner had gone with the Colyers, mostly because he didn't like the fact that Donegan was introducing country and folk elements into skiffle, while Korner liked the blues.

As a result, Korner had sung and played on the very first ever British skiffle record, the Ken Colyer group's version of "Midnight Special":

[Excerpt: The Ken Colyer Skiffle Group, "Midnight Special"]

After that, Korner had also backed Beryl Bryden on some skiffle recordings, which also featured a harmonica player named Cyril Davies:

[Excerpt: Beryl Bryden Skiffle Group, "This Train"]

But Korner and Davies had soon got sick of skiffle as it developed -- they liked the blues music that formed its basis, but Korner had never been a fan of Lonnie Donegan's singing -- he'd even said as much in the liner notes to an album by the Barber band while both he and Donegan were still in the band -- and what Donegan saw as eclecticism, including Woody Guthrie songs and old English music-hall songs, Korner saw as watering down the music. Korner and Donegan had a war of words in the pages of Melody Maker, at that time the biggest jazz periodical in Britain. Korner started with an article headlined "Skiffle is Piffle", in which he said in part:

"It is with shame and considerable regret that I have to admit my part as one of the originators of the movement...British skiffle is, most certainly, a commercial success. But musically it rarely exceeds the mediocre and is, in general, so abysmally low that it defies proper musical judgment".

Donegan replied pointing out that Korner was playing in a skiffle group himself, and then Korner replied to that, saying that what he was doing now wasn't skiffle, it was the blues.

You can judge for yourself whether the “Blues From the Roundhouse” EP, by Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group, which featured Korner, Davies on guitar and harmonica, plus teachest bass and washboard, was skiffle or blues:

[Excerpt: Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group, "Skip to My Lou"]

But soon Korner and Davies had changed their group's name to Blues Incorporated, and were recording something that was much closer to the Delta and Chicago blues Davies in particular liked.

[Excerpt: Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated feat. Cyril Davies, "Death Letter"]

But after the initial recordings, Blues Incorporated stopped being a thing for a while, as Korner got more involved with the folk scene. At a party hosted by Ramblin' Jack Elliot, he met the folk guitarist Davey Graham, who had previously lived in the same squat as Lionel Bart, Tommy Steele's lyricist, if that gives some idea of how small and interlocked the London music scene actually was at this time, for all its factional differences.

Korner and Graham formed a guitar duo playing jazzy folk music for a while:

[Excerpt: Alexis Korner and Davey Graham, "3/4 AD"]

But in 1960, after Chris Barber had done a second tour with Muddy Waters, Barber decided that he needed to make Muddy Waters style blues a regular part of his shows. Barber had entered into a partnership with an accountant, Harold Pendleton, who was secretary of the National Jazz Federation. They co-owned a club, the Marquee, which Pendleton managed, and they were about to start up an annual jazz festival, the Richmond festival, which would eventually grow into the Reading Festival, the second-biggest rock festival in Britain.

Barber had a residency at the Marquee, and he wanted to introduce a blues segment into the shows there. He had a singer -- his wife, Ottilie Patterson, who was an excellent singer in the Bessie Smith mould -- and he got a couple of members of his band to back her on some Chicago-style blues songs in the intervals of his shows. He asked Korner to be a part of this interval band, and after a little while it was decided that Korner would form the first ever British electric blues band, which would take over those interval slots, and so Blues Incorporated was reformed, with Cyril Davies rejoining Korner.

The first time this group played together, in the first week of 1962, it was Korner on electric guitar, Davies on harmonica, and Chris Barber plus Barber's trumpet player Pat Halcox, but they soon lost the Barber band members. The group was called Blues Incorporated because they were meant to be semi-anonymous -- the idea was that people might join just for a show, or just for a few songs, and they never had the same lineup from one show to the next. For example, their classic album R&B From The Marquee, which wasn't actually recorded at the Marquee, and was produced by Jack Good, features Korner, Davies, sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith, Keith Scott on piano, Spike Heatley on bass, Graham Burbridge on drums, and Long John Baldry on vocals:

[Excerpt: Blues Incorporated, "How Long How Long Blues"]

But Burbridge wasn't their regular drummer -- that was a modern jazz player named Charlie Watts. And they had a lot of singers. Baldry was one of their regulars, as was Art Wood (who had a brother, Ronnie, who wasn't yet involved with these players). When Charlie quit the band, because it was taking up too much of his time, he was replaced with another drummer, Ginger Baker. When Spike Heatley left the band, Dick Heckstall-Smith brought in a new bass player, Jack Bruce. Sometimes a young man called Eric Clapton would get up on stage for a number or two, though he wouldn't bring his guitar, he'd just sing with them. So would a singer and harmonica player named Paul Jones, later the singer with Manfred Mann, who first travelled down to see the group with a friend of his, a guitarist named Brian Jones, no relation, who would also sit in with the band on guitar, playing Elmore James numbers under the name Elmo Lewis. A young man named Rodney Stewart would sometimes join in for a number or two.

And one time Eric Burdon hitch-hiked down from Newcastle to get a chance to sing with the group. He jumped onto the stage when it got to the point in the show that Korner asked for singers from the audience, and so did a skinny young man. Korner diplomatically suggested that they sing a duet, and they agreed on a Billy Boy Arnold number. At the end of the song Korner introduced them -- "Eric Burdon from Newcastle, this is Mick Jagger".

Mick Jagger was a middle-class student, studying at the London School of Economics, one of the most prestigious British universities. He soon became a regular guest vocalist with Blues Incorporated, appearing at almost every show. Soon after, Davies left the group -- he wanted to play strictly Chicago style blues, but Korner wanted to play other types of R&B. The final straw for Davies came when Korner brought in Graham Bond on Hammond organ -- it was bad enough that they had a saxophone player, but Hammond was a step too far.

Sometimes Jagger would bring on a guitar-playing friend for a song or two -- they'd play a Chuck Berry song, to Davies' disapproval. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had known each other at primary school, but had fallen out of touch for years. Then one day they'd bumped into each other at a train station, and Richards had noticed two albums under Jagger's arm -- one by Muddy Waters and one by Chuck Berry, both of which he'd ordered specially from Chess Records in Chicago because they weren't out in the UK yet. They'd bonded over their love for Berry and Bo Diddley, in particular, and had soon formed a band themselves, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, with a friend, Dick Taylor, and had made some home recordings of rock and roll and R&B music:

[Excerpt: Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, "Beautiful Delilah"]

Meanwhile, Brian Jones, the slide player with the Elmore James obsession, decided he wanted to create his own band, who were to be called The Rollin' Stones, named after a favourite Muddy Waters track of his. He got together with Ian Stewart, a piano player who answered an ad in Jazz News magazine. Stewart had very different musical tastes to Jones -- Jones liked Elmore James and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and especially Jimmy Reed, and very little else, just electric Chicago blues. Stewart was older, and liked boogie piano like Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and jump band R&B like Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordan, but he could see that Jones had potential. They tried to get Charlie Watts to join the band, but he refused at first, so they played with a succession of other drummers, starting with Mick Avory.

And they needed a singer, and Jones thought that Mick Jagger had genuine star potential. Jagger agreed to join, but only if his mates Dick and Keith could join the band. Jones was a little hesitant -- Mick Jagger was a real blues scholar like him, but he did have a tendency to listen to this rock and roll nonsense rather than proper blues, and Keith seemed even less of a blues purist than that. He probably even listened to Elvis. Dick, meanwhile, was an unknown quantity. But eventually Jones agreed -- though Richards remembers turning up to the first rehearsal and being astonished by Stewart's piano playing, only for Stewart to then turn around to him and say sarcastically "and you must be the Chuck Berry artist".

Their first gig was at the Marquee, in place of Blues Incorporated, who were doing a BBC session and couldn't make their regular gig. Taylor and Avory soon left, and they went through a succession of bass players and drummers, played several small gigs, and also recorded a demo, which had no success in getting them a deal:

[Excerpt: The Rollin' Stones, "You Can't Judge a Book By its Cover"]

By this point, Jones, Richards, and Jagger were all living together, in a flat which has become legendary for its squalour. Jones was managing the group (and pocketing some of the money for himself) and Jones and Richards were spending all day every day playing guitar together, developing an interlocking style in which both could switch from rhythm to lead as the song demanded.

Tony Chapman, the drummer they had at the time, brought in a friend of his, Bill Wyman, as bass player -- they didn't like him very much, he was older than the rest of them and seemed to have a bad attitude, and their initial idea was just to get him to leave his equipment with them and then nick it -- he had a really good amplifier that they wanted -- but they eventually decided to keep him in the band. 

They kept pressuring Charlie Watts to join and replace Chapman, and eventually, after talking it over with Alexis Korner's wife Bobbie, he decided to give it a shot, and joined in early 1963. Watts and Wyman quickly gelled as a rhythm section with a unique style -- Watts would play jazz-inspired shuffles, while Wyman would play fast, throbbing, quavers. The Rollin' Stones were now a six-person group, and they were good.

They got a residency at a new club run by Giorgio Gomelsky, a trad jazz promoter who was branching out into R&B. Gomelsky named his club the Crawdaddy Club, after the Bo Diddley song that the Stones ended their sets with. Soon, as well as playing the Crawdaddy every Sunday night, they were playing Ken Colyer's club, Studio 51, on the other side of London every Sunday evening, so Ian Stewart bought a van to lug all their gear around.

Gomelsky thought of himself as the group's manager, though he didn't have a formal contract, but Jones disagreed and considered himself the manager, though he never told Gomelsky this. Jones booked the group in at the IBC studios, where they cut a professional demo with Glyn Johns engineering, consisting mostly of Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed songs:

[Excerpt: The Rollin' Stones, "Diddley Daddy"]

Gomelsky started getting the group noticed. He even got the Beatles to visit the club and see the group, and the two bands hit it off -- even though John Lennon had no time for Chicago blues, he liked them as people, and would sometimes pop round to the flat where most of the group lived, once finding Mick and Keith in bed together because they didn't have any money to heat the flat.

The group's live performances were so good that the Record Mirror, which as its name suggested only normally talked about records, did an article on the group. And the magazine's editor, Peter Jones, raved about them to an acquaintance of his, Andrew Loog Oldham.

Oldham was a young man, only nineteen, but he'd already managed to get himself a variety of jobs around and with famous people, mostly by bluffing and conning them into giving him work. He'd worked for Mary Quant, the designer who'd popularised the miniskirt, and then had become a freelance publicist, working with Bob Dylan and Phil Spector on their trips to the UK, and with a succession of minor British pop stars. Most recently, he'd taken a job working with Brian Epstein as the Beatles' London press agent.

But he wanted his own Beatles, and when he visited the Crawdaddy Club, he decided he'd found them. Oldham knew nothing about R&B, didn't like it, and didn't care -- he liked pure pop music, and he wanted to be Britain's answer to Phil Spector. But he knew charisma when he saw it, and the group on stage had it. He immediately decided he was going to sign them as a manager. However, he needed a partner in order to get them bookings -- at the time in Britain you needed an agent's license to get bookings, and you needed to be twenty-one to get the license. He first offered Brian Epstein the chance to co-manage them -- even though he'd not even talked to the group about it. Epstein said he had enough on his plate already managing the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and his other Liverpool groups. At that point Oldham quit his job with Epstein and looked for another partner.

He found one in Eric Easton, an agent of the old school who had started out as a music-hall organ player before moving over to the management side and whose big clients were Bert Weedon and Mrs. Mills, and who was letting Oldham use a spare room in his office as a base. Oldham persuaded Easton to come to the Crawdaddy Club, though Easton was dubious as it meant missing Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the TV, but Easton agreed that the group had promise -- though he wanted to get rid of the singer, which Oldham talked him out of.

The two talked with Brian Jones, who agreed, as the group's leader, that they would sign with Oldham and Easton. Easton brought traditional entertainment industry experience, while Oldham brought an understanding of how to market pop groups. Jones, as the group's leader, negotiated an extra five pounds a week for himself off the top in the deal.

One piece of advice that Oldham had been given by Phil Spector and which he'd taken to heart was that rather than get a band signed to a record label directly, you should set up an independent production company and lease the tapes to the label, and that's what Oldham and Easton did. They formed a company called Impact, and went into the studio with the Stones and recorded the song they performed which they thought had the most commercial potential, a Chuck Berry song called "Come On" -- though they changed Berry's line about a "stupid jerk" to being about a "stupid guy", in order to make sure the radio would play it:

[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, "Come On"]

During the recording, Oldham, who was acting as producer, told the engineer not to mic up the piano. His plans didn't include Ian Stewart.

Neither the group nor Oldham were particularly happy with the record -- the group because they felt it was too poppy, Oldham because it wasn't poppy enough. But they took the recording to Decca Records, where Dick Rowe, the man who had turned down the Beatles, eagerly signed them. The conventional story is that Rowe signed them after being told about them by George Harrison, but the other details of the story as it's usually told -- that they were judging a talent contest in Liverpool, which is the story in most Stones biographies, or that they were appearing together on Juke Box Jury, which is what Wikipedia and articles ripped off from Wikipedia say -- are false, and so it's likely that the story is made up.

Decca wanted the Stones to rerecord the track, but after going to another studio with Easton instead of Oldham producing, the general consensus was that the first version should be released. The group got new suits for their first TV appearance, and it was when they turned up to collect the suits and found there were only five of them, not six, that Ian Stewart discovered Oldham had had him kicked out of the group, thinking he was too old and too ugly, and that six people was too many for a pop group.

Stewart was given the news by Brian Jones, and never really forgave either Jones or Oldham, but he remained loyal to the rest of the group. He became their road manager, and would continue to play piano with them on stage and in the studio for the next twenty-two years, until his death -- he just wasn't allowed in the photos or any TV appearances. 

That wasn't the only change Oldham made -- he insisted that the group be called the Rolling Stones, with a g, not Rollin'. He also changed Keith Richards' surname, dropping the s to be more like Cliff, though Richards later changed it back again.

"Come On" made number twenty-one in the charts, but the band were unsure of what to do as a follow-up single. Most of their repertoire consisted of hard blues songs, which were unlikely to have any chart success. Oldham convened the group for a rehearsal and they ran through possible songs -- nothing seemed right.

Oldham got depressed and went out for a walk, and happened to bump into John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They asked him what was up, and he explained that the group needed a song. Lennon and McCartney said they thought they could help, and came back to the rehearsal studio with Oldham. They played the Stones an idea that McCartney had been working on, which they thought might be OK for the group. The group said it would work, and Lennon and McCartney retreated to a corner, finished the song, and presented it to them.

The result became the Stones' second single, and another hit for them, this time reaching number twelve. The second single was produced by Easton, as Oldham, who is bipolar, was in a depressive phase and had gone off on holiday to try to get out of it:

[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, "I Wanna Be Your Man"]

The Beatles later recorded their own version of the song as an album track, giving it to Ringo to sing -- as Lennon said of the song, "We weren't going to give them anything great, were we?":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "I Wanna Be Your Man"]

For a B-side, the group did a song called "Stoned", which was clearly "inspired" by "Green Onions":

[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, "Stoned"]

That was credited to a group pseudonym, Nanker Phelge -- Nanker after a particular face that Jones and Richards enjoyed pulling, and Phelge after a flatmate of several of the band members, James Phelge.

As it was an original, by at least some definitions of the term original, it needed publishing, and Easton got the group signed to a publishing company with whom he had a deal, without consulting Oldham about it. When Oldham got back, he was furious, and that was the beginning of the end of Easton's time with the group.

But it was also the beginning of something else, because Oldham had had a realisation -- if you're going to make records you need songs, and you can't just expect to bump into Lennon and McCartney every time you need a new single.

No, the Rolling Stones were going to have to have some originals, and Andrew Loog Oldham was going to make them into writers. We'll see how that went in a few weeks' time, when we pick up on their career.

 

Dec 16, 2020
BONUS: I Read The NewsToday Oh Boy: The Kennedy Assassination
07:08

The third in the occasional series of ten-minute looks at topics in the news during the time we're looking at covers the Kennedy assassination. Click through for the transcript:

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Welcome to the third episode of "I Read The News Today, Oh Boy". As I explained in the previous episodes, these are ten-minute bonuses looking at news events that happened at the time we're looking at in the main episode, to provide some background on the cultural context in which the music we're looking at is being made. Today's is on something that one sort of expects everyone to know about, but the Kennedy assassination was almost sixty years ago now, and it's entirely possible that many people have only the vaguest idea of what happened, or why it is important in twentieth century history. I should also say, given that this is about someone's death, that the theme music I use for these episodes is not meant to imply that they will always be about actual good news -- I don't think Kennedy's murder was a good thing.

Obviously, there isn't much room in ten minutes to tell the full story, but here's the basics.

John F Kennedy was elected President in 1960, in a very closely-fought campaign, one of the first modern Presidential campaigns in which the TV played a big part -- in his debates with the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, people listening to the radio tended to think that Nixon had won, but people watching on TV, seeing handsome young John F Kennedy debating with a jowly man who looked much older -- though in truth Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy, thought Kennedy had won. When he was elected, aged forty-three, he became the youngest person ever elected President.

He was also the first Catholic to be elected, and this made him unpopular with a large chunk of the public. He actually had to make public statements in his campaign that he would be working for the American people, not the Pope. Kennedy eventually won the election by an extremely narrow margin -- he won the popular vote by 0.2% -- and there were widespread accusations by Republicans that he'd won by voter fraud, though these have largely been debunked.

Kennedy was, by and large, a popular President once in office. He was charismatic, intelligent, and young. He was a war hero and a Pulitzer prize winning writer (though it's later been revealed that his prize-winning book was ghostwritten by one of his speechwriters), he had a broadly popular programme of mild liberal reforms on the domestic side coupled with strong anti-communism in foreign policy. His election at the start of a new decade was widely seen as a sign of hope -- and in his inaugural speech he spoke of how "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century".

But he made enemies. In particular, he had enemies in two overlapping groups. One was the Mafia -- Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, was strongly rumoured to have ties to organised crime, and the Mafia had been supportive of Kennedy's Presidential run, but when he came to power he and his brother Robert, who became Attorney General, started a crackdown on organised crime, which the Mafia saw as a betrayal. The other group was white supremacists. Kennedy had been publicly supportive of the civil rights movement -- as most white supremacists were also anti-Catholic, it's easy to see how Kennedy would have been unpopular with them.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was in Dallas, Texas, to give a speech, and was driving through the city in an open-topped car, when he and the governor of Texas, who was travelling in the same car, were shot. Kennedy was killed. It's hard to understand now just how shocking this was to most people -- people broke down and wept in the streets, and the stock market plunged. The TV stations all went to rolling news formats, cancelling normal programming for several days, and many of the top forty radio stations switched to playing classical music until Kennedy's memorial service. Not everyone mourned, but enough people did that if there is such a thing as a national mood, for several months in late 1963 and early 64, the national mood in the US was despondent. Phil Spector's Christmas album, which we'll be looking at in a backer bonus podcast next week, was pulled from the shelves -- people didn't want happy Christmas music in 1963.

Shortly after the shooting, a former Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder. Oswald was someone who had defected to Russia at one point and later redefected, but who was still a Communist and a vocal supporter of the Cuban Castro regime, and who had previously attempted to kill a leader of the far-right John Birch Society. There was a lot of evidence against Oswald, but two days later he was shot while being transported from the police station to the jail, by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who some have said had links to organised crime, though Ruby always maintained that he was acting out of anger at Oswald's murder of Kennedy.

Because of this, and because Oswald never stood trial, there have been many conspiracy theories around the murder, some with more support than others, but none hugely convincing. Those accused have ranged from Fidel Castro, to the Mafia, to the CIA, to Kennedy's Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson. There have been various investigations of the evidence over the years, and most have come to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. But a substantial proportion of the population believed otherwise. Some have good reason for this belief -- there are bits of evidence that are contradictory and perhaps tell a different story -- but for many, it was as much about their own inability to cope with the shock of the murder, as it was any rational assessment of the evidence. Things like that just didn't happen, and there must have been a bigger reason than one man deciding to do a terrible thing.

Sadly, though, things like that do just happen. The same day that Kennedy had given his address to the nation on Civil Rights, a few months earlier, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been murdered for his activism, and over the course of the sixties we will see time and again how progressive political figures in the US got shot and killed. As we go through the sixties, we'll see a lot of great music, but sadly not very much in the way of good news.

Dec 16, 2020
Episode 107: "Surf City" by Jan and Dean
44:46

Episode 107 of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs looks at "Surf City" and the career of Jan and Dean, including a Pop Symphony, accidental conspiracy to kidnap, and a career that both started and ended with attempts to get out of being drafted. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Hey Little Cobra" by the Rip Chords.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

No Mixcloud this week, due to the number of songs by Jan and Dean.

Stephen McParland has published many, many books on the California surf and hot-rod music scenes. The Grand High Potentates of California Rock: Jan and Dean "In Perspective" 1958-1968 is the one I used most here, but I referred to several. His books can be found at https://payhip.com/CMusicBooks

I also used Dead Man's Curve and Back: The Jan and Dean Story by Mark Thomas Passmore, and Dean Torrence's autobiography Surf City

The original mono versions of the Liberty singles are only available on an out-of-print CD that goes for over £400, and many compilations have later rerecordings (often by Dean without Jan) but this has the proper recordings, albeit in stereo mixes. This compilation contains their pre-Liberty singles, including the Jan & Arnie material.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

A warning about this episode -- it features some discussion of a car crash and resulting disability and recovery, which may be upsetting to some people.

Today we're going to look at one of the most successful duos in rock and roll history, but one who have been relegated to a footnote because of their collaboration with a far more successful band, who had a similar sound to them. We're going to look at Jan and Dean, and at "Surf City":

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Surf City"]

The story of Jan and Dean begins with Jan and Arnie, and with the Barons. We discussed the Barons briefly in the episode on "LSD-25", a few months ago, but only in passing, so to recap -- the Barons were a singing group that formed at University High School in LA in the late fifties, centred around Jan Berry. Various people involved in the group's formation went on to be important parts of the LA music scene in the sixties, but by 1958 they were down to Berry and his friends Arnie Ginsburg -- not the DJ we talked about last episode, Dean Torrence, and Don Altfeld.

The group members all had a love for R&B, and hung around with various of the Black groups of the time -- Don Altfeld has talked about him and Berry being present, but not participating, for Richard Berry's recording of "Louie Louie", though his memories of the time seem confused in the interviews I've read. And Jan Berry in particular was a real music obsessive, and had what may have been the biggest R&B and rock and roll record collection in LA -- which he obtained by scamming record companies, which seems to be very in character for him. He got a letterhead made up for a fake radio station, KJAN, and wrote to every record company he could find asking for promo copies. He ended up getting six copies of every new release "to play on the radio", and would give some of the extra copies to his friends -- and others he would use as frisbees. According to Torrence, Berry would often receive two hundred new records a day, all free.

Berry had a reel-to-reel tape recorder belonging to his father -- his father, William Berry, was important in the Howard Hughes organisation, and had been in charge of the Spruce Goose project, even flying in the famous plane with Hughes, and Hughes had given him the tape recorder, which unlike almost all recording equipment available in the fifties had a primitive reverb function built in.

With that and a microphone stolen from the school auditorium, Berry started recording himself and his friends, and he'd wanted to play one of the tapes he'd made at a party, so he'd taken it to a studio to be cut as an acetate, where it had been heard by Joe Lubin of Arwin Records, who took the tape and got session musicians to overdub it:

[Excerpt: Jan and Arnie, "Jennie Lee"]

That record was released as by Jan and Arnie, rather than the Barons -- Dean Torrence was off doing six months in the army, to get out of being conscripted later. Torrence has always said that he could hear himself on the recording, and that it was one the Barons had done together, but everyone else involved has claimed that while the Barons did record a version of that song, the finished version only features Jan and Arnie's vocals. Don Altfeld didn't sing on it, because he was never allowed to sing in the Barons -- he was forced to just mouth along, which given that both Jan and Dean were known for regularly singing flat must say something about just how bad a singer he is -- though he did apparently hit a metal chair leg as percussion on the record.

"Jennie Lee" went to number three on the Cashbox chart -- number eight on Billboard -- and was a big enough hit that it set a precedent for how all the records Jan Berry would be involved in for the next few years would be made -- he would record vocals and piano in his garage, with a ton of reverb, and then the backing track would be recorded to that, usually by the same group of musicians that played on records by people like Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens, and other late-fifties LA singers -- a group centred around Ernie Freeman on piano and organ, Rene Hall on guitar, and Earl Palmer on drums. This was a completely backwards way of recording -- normally you'd have the musicians play the backing track first and then overdub the vocals on it -- but it was how they would carry on doing things for several years.

Jan and Arnie's follow-up, "Gas Money", written by Berry, Ginsburg, and Altfeld, did less well, only making number eighty-one in the charts:

[Excerpt: Jan and Arnie, "Gas Money"]

And their third single didn't chart at all. By this point, Arnie Ginsburg was getting thoroughly sick of working with Jan Berry -- pretty much without exception everyone who knew Berry in the fifties and early sixties says two things about him -- that he was the single most intelligent person they ever met, and that he was a domineering egomaniac who used anyone he could remorselessly. Jan and Arnie split up, and Arwin Records seems to have decided to stick with Arnie, rather than Jan -- though this might have been because Arnie seemed *less* likely to have hits, as Dean Torrence has later claimed that Arwin was a tax dodge -- it was owned by Marty Melcher, Doris Day's husband, and seems to have been used as much to get out of paying as much tax on the family's vast wealth as it was a real record label.

Whatever the reason, though, Arnie made one more single, as The Rituals, backed by many of the people who had played with The Barons -- Bruce Johnston, Sandy Nelson, and Dave Shostac, plus their regular collaborators Mike Deasy, Richie Polodor and Harper Cosby. It didn't chart:

[Excerpt: The Rituals, "Girl in Zanzibar"]

Dean Torrence, who had by now left the Army, saw his chance, and soon Jan and Arnie had become Jan and Dean -- after a brief phase in which it looked like they might persuade Dean to change his name in order to avoid losing the group name. They hooked up with a new management and production team, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, who had both been working at Keen Records with Sam Cooke. Kim Fowley later said that it was him who persuaded Adler to sign the duo, but Kim Fowley said a lot of things, very few of them true.

Adler and Alpert got the new duo signed to Doré Records, a small label based in LA, and their first release on the label was a cover version of a record originally by a group called the Laurels:

[Excerpt: The Laurels, "Baby Talk"]

Herb Alpert brought that song to the duo, and their version became a top ten hit, with Jan singing the low parts and Dean singing the lead:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Baby Talk"]

The hit was big enough that budget labels released soundalike cover versions of it, one of which was by a duo called Tom and Jerry, who had been one hit wonders a year earlier:

[Excerpt: Tom and Jerry, "Baby Talk"]

That cover version was unsuccessful, something Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were probably very grateful for when they reinvented themselves as sensitive folkies a couple of years later.

Around this time, Jan got his girlfriend pregnant. In order not to spoil their son's promising career -- as well as being a singer, he was also at university and planned to become a doctor -- Jan's parents adopted his son and raised the boy as their own son.

The duo went on a tour with Little Willie John, Bobby Day, and Little Richard's old backing band The Upsetters, playing to mainly Black audiences -- a tour they were booked on because almost all West Coast doo-wop at that time was from Black singers. Once the mistake was realised, a decision was made to promote the new duo's image more -- lots of photos of the very blonde, very white, duo started to be released, as a way to reassure the white audience.

The duo's film-star good looks assured them of regular coverage in the teen magazines, but they didn't have any more hits on Doré -- of the seven singles they released in the two years after "Baby Talk", none of them got to better than number fifty-three on the charts. 

Eventually the duo left Doré, and Jan released one solo single, "Tomorrow's Teardrops":

[Excerpt: Jan Berry, "Tomorrow's Teardrops"]

That was actually released as by Jan Barry, rather than Jan Berry, at a point when the duo had actually split up -- Dean was getting tired of not having any further hit records, and wanted to concentrate on his college work, while Berry was one of those people who needs to be doing several things simultaneously. Berry's new girlfriend Jill Gibson added backing vocals -- by this time he'd dumped the one he'd got pregnant -- and the song was written by Berry and Altfeld. Jan actually started his own label, Ripple Records -- named after the brand of cheap wine -- to release it, and Dean created the logo for him -- the first of many he would create over the years.

However, the duo soon reunited, and came up with a plan which would have them only touring during the summer break, and doing local performances in the LA area on those weekends when neither had any homework. Now they needed to get signed to a major label. The one they wanted was Liberty, the label that Eddie Cochran had been on, and whose owner, Si Waronker, was actually the cousin of the owners of Doré.

And they had recorded a track that they were sure would get them signed to Liberty. The Marcels had recently had a hit with their doo-wop revival of the old standard "Blue Moon":

[Excerpt: The Marcels, "Blue Moon"]

Jan had decided to make a soundalike arrangement of another song from the same period, using the same chord changes -- the old Hoagy Carmichael song "Heart and Soul":

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Heart and Soul"]

They were sure that would be a hit. But Herb Alpert wasn't -- he thought it was a dreadful record, He hated it so much, in fact, that he broke up his partnership with Lou Adler. The division of the partnership's assets was straightforward -- they owned Jan and Dean's contract, and they owned a tape recorder. Alpert got the tape recorder, and Adler got Jan and Dean.

Alpert went on to have a string of hit records as a trumpet player, starting with "The Lonely Bull" in 1962:

[Excerpt: Herb Alpert, "The Lonely Bull"]

He later formed his own record label, A&M, and never seems to have regretted losing Jan & Dean.

Jan and Dean took their tape of "Heart and Soul" to Liberty Records, who said that they did want to sign Jan and Dean, but they didn't want to release a record like that -- they told them to take it somewhere else, and then when the single was a flop, they could come back to Liberty and make some proper records.

So the duo got a two-record deal with the small label Challenge Records, on the understanding that after those two singles they would move on to Liberty. And "Heart and Soul" turned out to be a big hit, making number twenty-five on the charts:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Heart and Soul"]

Their second single on Challenge only made number one hundred and four, but by this time they knew the drill -- they'd release their first single on a new label, it would be a big hit, then everything after that would be a flop. But they were going to a new label anyway, and they were sure their first single on Liberty Records would be a huge hit, just like every time they changed labels.

The first record they put out on Liberty was a cover of another oldie, "A Sunday Kind of Love", suggested by Si Waronker's son Lenny, who we'll be hearing a lot more about in future episodes. By this point Lou Adler was working for Aldon Music as their West Coast representative, and so the track was credited as "produced by Lou Adler for Nevins-Kirshner", but Jan was given a separate arrangement credit on the record.

But despite their predictions that the single would be a hit because it was a new label, it only made number ninety-four on the charts. The follow-up, "Tennessee", was a song which had been more or less forced on them -- it was originally one of the recordings that Phil Spector produced during his short-lived contract with Liberty, for a group called the Ducanes, but when the Ducanes had made a hash of it, Liberty forced the song on Jan & Dean instead:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Tennessee"]

By this time, while Ernie Freeman was still the studio leader of the session musicians, Jan was requesting a rather larger group of musicians, and they'd started recording the backing tracks first. The musicians on "Tennessee" included Tommy Allsup and Jerry Allison of the Crickets, Earl Palmer on drums, and Glen Campbell on guitar, but even these proven hit-makers couldn't bring the song to more than number sixty-nine on the charts.

And even that was better than their next two singles, neither of which even made the Hot One Hundred -- though the fact that by this point they were reduced to recording versions of "Frosty The Snowman", and attempting to recapture their first hit with a sequel called "She's Still Talking Baby Talk" shows how desperately they were casting around for something, anything that could be a hit.

Eventually they found something that worked. A group called the Regents had recently had a hit with "Barbara Ann":

[Excerpt: The Regents, "Barbara Ann"]

The duo had cut a cover version of that for their most recent album, and they thought it had worked well, and so they wanted something else that would allow Dean to sing a falsetto lead, over a bass vocal by Jan, with a girl's name in the title. They eventually hit on an old standard from the 1940s, originally written as a favour for the songwriter's lawyer, Lee Eastman, about his then one-year-old daughter Linda (who we'll be hearing more about later in this series).

Their version of "Linda" finally gave them another hit after five flops in a row, reaching number twenty-eight in the charts:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Linda"]

Their career was on an upswing again, and then everything changed for them when they played a gig with support from a local band who had just started having hits, the Beach Boys. The story goes that the Beach Boys were booked to do their own support slot and then to back Jan and Dean on their set. The show went down well with the audience, and they wanted an encore, but Jan and Dean had run out of rehearsed songs. So they suggested that the Beach Boys play their own two singles again, and Jan and Dean would sing with them. The group were flattered that two big stars like Jan and Dean would want to perform their songs, and eagerly joined in.

Suddenly, Jan and Dean had an idea -- their next album was going to be called Jan & Dean Take Linda Surfin', but as yet they hadn't recorded any surf songs. They invited the Beach Boys to come into the studio and record new versions of their two singles for Jan & Dean's album, with Jan and Dean singing the leads:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, "Surfin'"]

The Beach Boys weren't credited for that session, as they were signed to another label, but it started a long collaboration between the two groups. In particular, the Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson became a close collaborator with Berry. And at that same session, Wilson gave Jan and Dean what would become their biggest hit.

After the recording, Jan and Dean asked Wilson if he had any new songs they might be able to do. The first one he played them, "Surfin' USA", he told them they couldn't do anything with as he wanted that for the Beach Boys themselves. But then he played them two others. The one that Jan and Dean saw most potential in was a song he'd completed, "Gonna Hustle You":

[Excerpt: Brian Wilson, "Gonna Hustle You"]

The duo wanted that as their next single, but Liberty Records flat out refused to put out something that sounded so dirty as "Gonna Hustle You". They tried rewriting it as "Get a Chance With You", but even that was too much. They put the song aside, though they'd return to it later as "The New Girl In School", which would become a minor hit for them.

Instead, they worked on a half-completed song that Wilson had started, very much in the same mould as the first two Beach Boys singles, with the provisional title "Goodie Connie Won't You Please Come Home". This song would become the first of many Jan and Dean songs for which the songwriting credit is disputed.

No-one argues with the fact that the basic idea of the song was Brian Wilson's, but Jan Berry's process was to get a lot of people to throw ideas in, sometimes working in a group, sometimes working separately and not even knowing that other people had been involved. The song is officially credited to Wilson and Berry, but Don Altfeld has also claimed he contributed to it, Dean Torrence says that he wrote about a quarter of the lyrics, and it's also been suggested that Roger Christian wrote the lyrics to the first verse.

Christian was an LA-area DJ who was obsessed with cars, and had come to Wilson's attention after he'd said on the air that the Beach Boys' "409" was a great song about a bad car. He'd started writing songs with Wilson, and he would also collaborate with both Jan Berry and Wilson's friend Gary Usher (who was a big part of this scene but hardly ever worked with Jan and Dean because he hated Jan). Almost every car song from this period, by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, or any number of studio groups, was co-written by Christian, and we'll be hearing more about him in a future episode.

This group of people -- Jan and Dean, Brian Wilson, Roger Christian, and Don Altfeld -- would write together in various combinations, and write a lot of hits, but a lot of the credits were assigned more or less randomly -- though Jan Berry was almost always credited, and Dean Torrence almost never was.

The completed song, titled "Surf City", was recorded with members of the Wrecking Crew -- the studio musicians who usually worked with Phil Spector -- performing the backing track. In this case, these were Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, Earl Palmer, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman and Billy Strange -- there were two drummers because Berry liked a big drum sound. Brian Wilson was at the session, and soon after this he started using some of those musicians himself.

While it was released as a Jan and Dean record, Dean doesn't sing on it at all -- the vocals featured Jan, three singers from another Liberty Records group called the Gents, and Brian Wilson, with Wilson and Tony Minichello of the Gents singing the falsetto parts that Dean would sing live:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Surf City"]

That went to number one, becoming Jan and Dean's only number one, and Brian Wilson's first -- much to the fury of Wilson's father Murry, who thought that Wilson's hits should only be going to the Beach Boys. Murry Wilson may well have been more bothered by the fact that the publishing for the song went to Columbia/Screen Gems, to whom Jan was signed, rather than to Sea of Tunes, the company that published Wilson's other songs, and which was owned by Murry himself.

Murry started calling Jan a "pirate", which prompted Berry to turn up to a Beach Boys session wearing a full pirate costume to taunt Murry.

From "Linda" on, Jan and Dean had ten top forty hits with ten singles -- one of the B-sides also charted, but they did miss with "Here They Come From All Over The World", the theme tune for the TAMI Show, a classic rock concert film on which Jan and Dean appeared both as singers and as the hosts. That was by far their weakest single from this period, being as it is just a list of the musicians in the show, some of them described incorrectly -- the song talks about "The Rolling Stones from Liverpool" and James Brown being "the King of the Blues".

All of these hits were made by the same team. The Wrecking Crew would play the instruments, the Gents -- now renamed the Matadors, and sometimes the Blossoms would provide backing vocals on the earlier singles. The later ones would feature the Fantastic Baggies instead of the Matadors -- two young songwriters, Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan, who were also making their own surf records. The lead would be sung by Jan, the falsetto by some combination of Brian Wilson, Dean Torrence, Tony Minichello and P.F. Sloan -- often Dean wouldn't appear at all. The singles would be written by some combination of Wilson, Berry, Altfeld and Christian, and the songs would be about the same subjects as the Beach Boys' records -- surf, cars, girls, or some combination of the three.

Sometimes the records would be just repetitions of the formula, like "Drag City", which was an attempt at a second "Surf City":

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Drag City"]

But often there would be a self-parodic element that wasn't present in the Beach Boys' singles, as in "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena", a car song written by Berry, Christian, and Altfeld, based on a series of Dodge commercials featuring a car-racing old lady:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena"]

And the grotesque "Dead Man's Curve", equal parts a serious attempt at a teen tragedy song and a parody of the genre, which took on a new meaning a few years after it was a hit:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Dead Man's Curve"]

But while 1963 and 64 saw the duo rack up an incredible run of hits, they were making enemies. Jan was so unpleasant to people by this point that even the teen mags would call him out, with Teen Scene in March 1964 running an article which read, in part, "Blast of the month goes to half of a certain group whose initials are J&D. Reason for the blast: his personality, which makes enemies faster than Carter makes pills... (It's the Jan Half)... Acting like Mr. Big Britches gets you nowhere, and your poor partner, who is one of the nicest guys on earth, shouldn't be forced to go around making apologies for your actions."

And while Torrence may have been "one of the nicest guys on Earth", not all of his friends were. In fact, in December 1963, his closest friend, Barry Keenan, was the ringleader in the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.  Keenan told Torrence about the plan in advance, and Torrence had lent Keenan a great deal of money, which Keenan used to finance the kidnapping. Torrence was accused of being a major part of the plot, though he was let off after testifying against the people who were actually involved -- he's always claimed that he thought that his friend's talking about his plan for the perfect crime was just talk, not a serious plan. Torrence had even offered suggestions, jokingly, which Keenan had incorporated -- and Keenan had left a bag containing fifty thousand dollars at Torrence's home, Torrence's share of the ransom money, which Torrence refused to keep.

However, Sinatra Sr was annoyed enough at Torrence that a lot of plans for Jan and Dean TV shows and film appearances suddenly dried up.

The lack of TV and film appearances was a particular problem as the music industry was changing under them, and surf and hot rod records weren't the in thing any more -- and Brian Wilson seems to have been less interested in working with them as well, as the Beach Boys overtook Jan and Dean in popularity. 1965 saw them trying to figure out the new, more serious, music scene, with experiments like Pop Symphony Number 1, an album of orchestral arrangements of the duo's hits by Berry (who minored in music at UCLA) and George Tipton:

[Excerpt: The Bel-Aire Pops Orchestra, "Surf City"]

The duo also tried going folk-rock, releasing an album called Folk 'n' Roll, which featured another variation on the "Surf City" and "Drag City" theme -- this one "Folk City":

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Folk City"]

That album didn't do well at all, not least because the lead-off single was a pro-war protest song, released as a Jan Berry solo single. Berry had become incensed by Buffy Saint-Marie's song "The Universal Soldier", and had written a right-wing response, "The Universal Coward":

[Excerpt: Jan Berry, "The Universal Coward"]

As you can imagine, that was not popular with the folk-rock crowd, especially coming as it did from someone who was still managing to avoid the draft by studying medicine, even as he was also a pop star.

Torrence became so irritated with Berry, and with the music they were making, during the recording of that album that he ended up going down the hall to another studio, where the Beach Boys were recording their unplugged Party! album, and sitting in with them. He suggested they do a new recording of "Barbara Ann", and he sang lead on it, uncredited:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Barbara Ann"]

That went to number two on the charts, becoming the biggest hit record that Torrence ever sang on.

Torrence was happier with the next project, though, an album spoofing the popular TV show Batman, with several comedy sketches, along with songs about the characters from the TV show:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Batman"]

But by this point, in 1966, Jan and Dean's singles were doing absolutely nothing in the charts. In March, Liberty Records dropped them. And then on April the twelfth, 1966, something happened that would end their chances of another comeback. Jan Berry had been in numerous accidents over the previous few years -- he was a thrill-seeker, and would often end up crashing cars or breaking bones.

On April the twelfth, he had an appointment at the draft board, at which he was given bad news -- depending on which account you read, he was either told that his draft deferment was coming to an end and he was going to Vietnam straight away, or that he was going to Vietnam as soon as he graduated from medical school at the end of the school year. He was furious, and he got into his car.

What happened next has been the subject of some debate. Some people say that a wheel came off his car -- and some have hinted that this was the result of some of Sinatra's friends getting revenge on Jan and Dean. Others just say he was driving carelessly, which he often did. Some have suggested that he was trying to deliberately get into a minor accident to avoid being drafted. Whatever happened, he was involved in a major accident, in which he, though luckily no-one else, was severely injured. He spent a month in a coma, and came out of it severely brain damaged. He had to relearn to read and speak, and for the rest of his life would have problems with his memory, his physical co-ordination, and his speech.

Liberty kept releasing old Jan and Dean tracks, and even got them a final top twenty hit with "Popsicle", a song from a few years earlier. Dean made a Jan and Dean album, Save For a Rainy Day, without Jan, while Jan was still recovering, as a way of trying to keep their career options open if Jan ever got better. Dean put it out on the duo's own new label, J&D, and there were plans for Columbia to pick it up and give it a wider release, but Jan refused to sign the contracts -- he was furious that Dean had made a Jan and Dean record without him, and would have nothing to do with it.

Torrence tried to have a music career anyway -- he put out a cover of the Beach Boys song "Vegetables" under the name The Laughing Gravy:

[Excerpt: The Laughing Gravy, "Vegetables"]

But he soon gave up, and became an artist, designing covers and logos for people like Harry Nilsson, Canned Heat, the Turtles, and the Beach Boys.

Jan tried making his own Jan and Dean album without Dean, even though he was unable to sing again or write yet. With a lot of help from Roger Christian, he pulled together some old half-finished songs and finished them, got in some soundalike session singers and famous friends like Glen Campbell and Davy Jones of the Monkees and put together Carnival of Sound, an album that didn't get released until 2010:

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, “Girl You're Blowing My Mind"]

In the mid-seventies, Jan and Dean got back together and started touring the nostalgia circuit, spurred by a TV movie, Dead Man's Curve, based on their lives. There seemed to be a love-hate relationship between them in later years -- they would split up and get back together, and their roles had reversed, with Dean now taking most of the leads on the shows -- Dean had to look after Jan a lot of the time, and some reports said that Jan had to relearn the words to the three songs he sang lead on every night. But with the aid of some excellent backing musicians, and with some love and tolerance from the audience for Jan's ongoing problems, they managed to regularly please crowds of thousands until a few weeks before Jan's death in 2004.

Since then, Dean has mostly performed with the Surf City All-Stars, a band that sometimes also features Al Jardine and David Marks of the Beach Boys, playing a few shows a year. He released an autobiography in 2016 -- it came out at the same time as the autobiographies of Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, ensuring that even at this late date, he would be overshadowed by his more famous colleagues.

Dec 08, 2020
Admin Note: Changing Providers
00:56
This is just a quick admin note to let you know that there might be a brief disruption to the podcast soon. Last night someone pointed out to me that the podcast's host, Podbean, has made a change and now when you visit the website on a mobile device and try to download an individual episode, you get told you must install the Podbean app. I pay for hosting so that people can access the podcast in whatever way they choose, and the open, platform-independent nature of podcasting is very important to me. So while this week's episode will go up as normal, I'm going to change providers as soon as possible, hopefully this week. That might mean that there's a little bit of disruption to the feed, and if so I apologise, but I'll do my best to minimise that. But it's very important to me that my listeners don't feel forced to download apps whose quality I can't vouch for. The next proper episode will be up in a few hours.
Dec 08, 2020
Episode 106:"Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen
55:17

Episode 106 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, and the story of how a band that had already split up accidentally had one of the biggest hits of the sixties and sparked a two-year FBI investigation.

Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have an eight-minute bonus episode available, on "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

The single biggest resource I used in this episode was Dave Marsh's book on Louie Louie.

Information on Richard Berry also came from Marv Goldberg's page, specifically his articles on the Flairs and Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns. 

This academic paper on the song is where I learned what the chord Richard Berry uses instead of the V is.

The Coasters by Bill Millar also had some information about Berry.

Love That Louie: The Louie Louie Files has the versions of the song by the Kingsmen, Berry, Rockin' Robin Roberts, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, plus many more, and also has the pre-"Louie" "Havana Moon" and "El Loco Cha Cha Cha"

The Ultimate Flairs has twenty-nine tracks by the Flairs under various names.

Yama Yama! The Modern Recordings 1954-56 contains twenty-eight tracks Richard Berry recorded for Modern Records in the mid-fifties, including the Etta James duets.

And Have "Louie" Will Travel collects Berry's post-Modern recordings, including "Louie Louie" itself.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we're going to look at what is arguably the most important three-chord rock and roll record ever made, a song written by someone who's been a bit-part player in many episodes so far, but who never had any success with it himself, and performed by a band that had split up before the record started to chart. We're going to look at how a minor LA R&B hit was picked up by garage rock bands in the Pacific Northwest and sparked a two-and-a-half-year FBI investigation, and was recorded by everyone from Barry White to Iggy Pop, from Motorhead to the Beach Boys, from Julie London to Frank Zappa. We're going to look at "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen:

 

[Excerpt: The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie"]

The story of "Louie Louie" begins with Richard Berry. We've seen Berry pop up here and there in several episodes -- most recently in the episode on the Crystals, where we looked at how he'd been involved in the early career of the Blossoms, but the only time he's been a signficant part of the story was in the episode on "The Wallflower", back in March 2019, and even there he wasn't the focus of the episode, so I should start by talking about his career. Some of this will be familiar from other episodes from a year or two ago, but here we're looking at Berry specifically.

Richard Berry was one of the many, many, great musicians of the fifties to go to Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, and was very involved in music at that school. When he arrived in the school, he had an aggressive attitude, formed by a need to defend himself -- he walked with a limp, and had first started playing music at a camp for disabled kids, and he didn't want people to think he was soft because of his disability. But as soon as he found out that you had to behave well in order to join the school a capella choir he became a changed character -- he needed to be involved in music.

And he soon was. He joined a group named The Flamingos, who were all students at Jefferson and proteges of Jesse Belvin, who was a couple of years older than them. That group consisted of Cornell Gunter on lead vocals, Gaynel Hodge on first tenor, Joe Jefferson on second tenor, Curtis Williams on baritone, and Berry on bass -- though Berry was one of those rare vocalists who could sing equally well in the bass and tenor ranges, and in every style from gritty blues to Jesse Belvin style crooning.

But as we've seen before, the membership of these groups was ever changing, and soon Curtis Williams left, first to join the Hollywood Flames, and then to join the Penguins. He was replaced, but Gunter and Berry left soon afterwards, and the remaining members of the band renamed themselves to The Platters.

Berry and Gunter joined another group, the Debonairs, which was originally led by Arthur Lee Maye, with whom Berry would make many records over the years in the off-season -- Maye was a major-league baseball player, and couldn't record in the months his main career was taking up his time. Maye soon left the group, and in 1952 The Debonairs, with a lineup of Berry, Gunter, Young Jessie, Thomas Fox and Beverly Thompson, visited John Dolphin and made their first record, for Dolphins of Hollywood. The A-side featured Gunter on lead:

[Excerpt: The Hollywood Blue Jays, "I Had a Love"]

While the B-side featured Berry:

[Excerpt: The Hollywood Blue Jays, "Tell Me You Love Me"]

The group were disappointed when the record came out to discover that it wasn't credited to the Debonairs, but instead to the Hollywood Blue Jays, a name Dolphin had also used for other groups.

The record didn't have any success, and so the group started looking for other labels that might record them. Cornell Gunter sat down with a pile of records and looked for ones with a label in LA. They decided to go with Modern Records, and ended up signed to Flair records, one of Modern's subsidiaries. The label suggested they change their name to The Flairs, and they eagerly agreed, thinking that if their band had the same name as the label, the label would be more likely to promote them.

Their first single for their new label was produced by Leiber and Stoller. One side was a remake of their first single, in better quality, with Gunter again singing lead, while the B-side was another Richard Berry song, "She Wants to Rock":

[Excerpt: The Flairs, "She Wants to Rock"]

Apparently in 1953, when that came out, the title was still considered racy enough that the DJ Hunter Hancock insisted on them going on his radio show and explaining that by "rock" they merely meant to dance, and not anything more suggestive.

Over the next couple of years, the Flairs would record and release tracks under all sorts of names -- as well as many Flairs records they also released tracks as by The Hunters:

[Excerpt: The Hunters, "Rabbit on a Log"]

as Young Jessie solo records:

[Excerpt: Young Jessie, "Lonesome Desert"]

And as the Chimes. Several of these records were produced by Ike Turner, who by this point had moved on from working with Sam Phillips and was now working for the Bihari brothers, who owned Modern Records.

Berry also released solo recordings, and recorded with a group led by Arthur Lee Maye, first as the Five Hearts (though there were only three of them at the time), then as the Rams, before the group settled down to become Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns:

[Excerpt: Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns, "Set My Heart Free"]

At one point in 1954, Berry was in three groups at the same time. He was in the Flairs, the Crowns, and the Dreamers -- the group who became the Blossoms, who we talked about two weeks ago. And on top of that he was also recording a lot of sessions both as a solo singer, and as a duo with Jenell Hawkins, who also sometimes sang with the Dreamers:

[Excerpt: Rickey and Jenelle, "Each Step"]

The reason Berry was working on so many records wasn't just that he loved singing, though he did, but because he'd learned from Jesse Belvin that it didn't matter what the contract said, you were never going to get any royalties when you made records. So he sang on as many sessions as he could, pocketed his fifty-dollar fee, and then tried to get on another session.

The Flairs eventually got sick of Berry working on so many other people's records and singing with so many groups, and so he was out of the group -- but he just formed his own new group, the Pharaohs, and carried on. The Flairs continued for years, though one at a time they left for other groups -- Thomas Fox joined the Cadets, who had a hit with "Stranded in the Jungle", and most famously, Cornell Gunter went on to join the classic lineup of the Coasters.

But Berry actually sang on a Coasters record even before Gunter. As we saw, the first Coasters album was padded out with several singles by the Robins, credited to the Coasters, and one of the sessions that Berry had sung on was the Robins' "Riot in Cell Block #9", where Leiber and Stoller had asked him to sing lead, subbing for the Robins' normal bass singer Bobby Nunn:

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Riot in Cell Block #9"]

The Bihari brothers were annoyed when they recognised Berry's voice on that record -- he was meant to be under contract to them, and even though he protested that it wasn't him, they knew better. But they got Berry to start a solo career with a sequel to "Riot", "The Big Break", which he wrote himself:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry, "The Big Break"]

And for the next few years, Berry was promoted as a solo artist, recording songs like the Little Richard knockoff "Yama Yama Pretty Mama":

[Excerpt: Richard Berry, "Yama Yama Pretty Mama"]

But of course that didn't stop him from working with everyone else he could. Most famously, he was Henry on Etta James' "The Wallflower", which we looked at eighteen months ago:

[Excerpt: Etta James and the Peaches, "The Wallflower"]

Berry collaborated with James on the sequel, "Hey! Henry", which was less successful:

[Excerpt: Etta James, "Hey! Henry"]

And he wrote "Good Rockin' Daddy" for her, which made the R&B top ten:

[Excerpt: Etta James, "Good Rockin' Daddy"]

This is all just scratching the surface. Between 1952 and the early sixties, Berry was on literally hundreds of records, under many names, and it's likely we will never accurately know all of them. A fair number of them were classics of the genre, many more were derivative hackwork -- quick knockoffs of the latest hit by Chuck Berry or Fats Domino, with the serial numbers not filed off all that well -- and more than a few managed to be derivative hackwork *and* classics of the genre.

Berry's most famous song, "Louie Louie", was both. There is nothing original about "Louie Louie", yet it had an incalculable effect on popular music history, and Berry's original version is a genuinely great record.

The song had its genesis in a piece that Berry heard played as an instrumental by a group he was singing with at a gig one night, the Rhythm Rockers. When he asked them what the song was, he found out it was "El Loco Cha Cha Cha", originally recorded by Rene Touzet. Berry loved the intro for the song, and immediately decided to rip it off:

[Excerpt: Rene Touzet, "El Loco Cha Cha Cha"]

That song is based around the same three-chord Latin groove as "La Bamba", "Twist and Shout", and roughly a million other songs, and so in keeping with the Latin feel of the song, Berry turned to another record as a model for his song. "Havana Moon" by Chuck Berry was the B-side to "You Can't Catch Me", and Richard Berry took its vocal melody, its lyrical theme of someone drinking while waiting for a ship to arrive and missing a girl who the narrator will see at the end of the boat journey, and its attempt at imitating Caribbean speech patterns by saying things like "Me stand and wait for boat to come":

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Havana Moon"]

Of course, nothing is original, and the Chuck Berry track itself was almost certainly inspired by Nat "King" Cole's "Calypso Blues":

[Excerpt: Nat "King" Cole, "Calypso Blues"]

Richard Berry took these influences, and turned them into "Louie Louie", which he originally intended to have a Latin feel. But the owners of his record label wanted something more straight-ahead R&B, so that's what they got:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, "Louie Louie"]

While Berry's inspiration had been based on the I-IV-V-IV chord sequence that you get in "La Bamba", "Louie Louie" didn't actually use that precise sequence. I'm going to get into some music-theory stuff here, which I know some of you like and some of you detest, and so if you dislike that stuff skip forward a couple of minutes.

If you take just the "Louie Louie" riff, and play it with the standard I-IV-V-IV chords, you get "Wild Thing":

[Excerpt: "Wild Thing" riff, piano]

But Berry, in his arrangement, incorporated a second melody part, a little standard motif you get in a lot of blues stuff, the fifth, sixth, flattened seventh, and sixth of the scale, repeating:

[Excerpt: motif, piano]

The problem is that the normal way to use that motif is over a single chord. Berry was using it over three chords, and the flattened seventh note clashes with the V chord -- if you're playing in C, you've got a G chord, which is the notes G, B, and D, but that little motif has a B-flat note. So you get a B and a B-flat played together, which doesn't sound great:

[Excerpt: tonal clash, piano]

Now, if you're a rock guitarist from the late sixties onwards, the way you'd resolve that problem is to play power chords -- power chords have just the root and fifth note, no third, so in this case you wouldn't be playing the B. Problem solved.

But this was the 1950s, and while there were a handful of records using power chords, when Berry was making his record in 1957, they weren't particularly common. Also, Berry was a piano player rather than a guitarist, and so he went for a different option. Instead of playing the normal V chord, he used the I chord, with a seventh -- so if you were to play it in the key of C, it would be C7 -- but he played it in the second inversion, with the dominant in the bass. So if you were playing it in the key of C, the notes would be G-Bflat-C-E. So the bass riff is still the I-IV-V-IV riff, but the chords sound like this:

[Excerpt: "Louie Louie" chords, piano]

That wouldn't be the solution that many later cover versions would use, but it worked for Berry's record, which was released as the B-side to a version of "You Are My Sunshine", and became a minor local hit:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, "Louie Louie"]

By this time, Berry had left Modern Records, and "Louie Louie" was on a small label, Flip Records. Berry was twenty-one, he'd been a professional musician since he was sixteen and was thinking of getting married, and he was making so little money from his music that he took a day job, working at a record-pressing plant, smashing returned records. When "Louie Louie" started getting played on local radio, people started giving him a hard time at work, asking why he needed that job when he had a hit record, not understanding that he was making no money from it. He ended up being treated so badly that he quit that job

And Flip Records started pressuring him to make follow-ups to "Louie Louie" rather than do anything new. He did come up with a great follow-up, "Have Love Will Travel", but that wasn't a hit:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, "Have Love Will Travel"]

He got a few big gigs for a while off the back of his local hit, but he ended up working at the docks with his father -- but he eventually had to quit that because his disability made it impossible for him to do it. In 1959, in order to pay for his wedding, he sold his songwriting rights to "Louie Louie" and several of his other songs to the owner of Flip Records, for $750 -- he wanted to hold out for a full thousand, but he ended up settling for a lower amount. From that point on, he would still get paid his BMI royalties when the song was played on the radio -- you couldn't sell those rights -- but he wouldn't receive anything from record sales or sheet music sales, or use in films, or anything like that.

But that didn't matter. A song like "Louie Louie", a three-chord B-side to a flop single from two years earlier, was hardly going to earn any real money, and seven hundred and fifty dollars was a lot of money. Berry was a working man who needed money, and anyway he was moving into soul music. "Louie Louie" was just another song he'd written, no more important than "Look Out Miss James" or "Rockin' Man", and while R&B fans in LA loved it (if you listen to the later version by the Beach Boys, or to Frank Zappa's riffs on the song, you can tell they grew up listening to Berry's original, not the later versions) it wasn't going to ever be heard outside those people.

And that would have been true, if it hadn't been for Ron Holden.

We've not talked about the Pacific Northwest's music scene in the podcast so far, but it had one of the most vibrant and interesting music scenes in the US in the late fifties and early sixties, and much of the music that gets labelled garage rock or frat rock comes from that area. The closest parallel I can think of is Liverpool -- another place where mostly-white musicians were performing their own versions of music made by Black musicians, and performing it on electric guitars. But anyone who became big from the area immediately moved somewhere else and became "an LA musician" or "a New York musician", and the scene as a whole has never really had the attention it deserves.

Ron Holden was one of the few Black musicians in that scene. In fact, he was a second-generation musician -- his father, Oscar Holden, was known as "the father of Seattle jazz", and had played with both Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Ron Holden led the most popular band in the Seattle area, the Thunderbirds, and in 1960, he had a top ten hit with a song called "Love You So":

[Excerpt: Ron Holden, "Love You So"]

He didn't have any follow-up hits, but as every musician from Seattle who had any success did, he moved away. He moved to LA, where he signed to Keen Records, where he recorded an entire album of songs written and produced by Keen's new staff producer Bruce Johnston, including "Gee, But I'm Lonesome", a song which was coincidentally also recorded around that time by Richard Berry's old collaborators the Blossoms:

[Excerpt: Ron Holden, "Gee But I'm Lonesome"]

Holden was also the MC for the Ritchie Valens Memorial Concert which was the Beach Boys' first major professional live performance.

But before he left Seattle, he had introduced "Louie Louie" to the music scene there -- he'd heard it on the radio in 1957 and worked up an arrangement with his band, and it had been a highlight of his shows. Once he left the city, so he wasn't performing the song there, all the white bands in Seattle, and in nearby Tacoma, picked up on the song and added Holden's arrangement of the song to their own sets.

Holden -- or rather his saxophone player Carlos Ward, who did the Thunderbirds' arrangements -- had made a crucial change to "Louie Louie", one that made it simpler to play on the guitar, and thus suitable for the guitar-heavy music that was starting to predominate in the Pacific Northwest. Remember that Richard Berry had that second-inversion major seventh chord in there?

[Excerpt: "Louie Louie" chords, piano]

Ward changed that chord for a simpler minor V chord, just flattening the third so there was no clash there:

[Excerpt: "Louie Louie" chords, Pacific Northwest version]

That would be how almost every version of "Louie Louie" from this point on would be performed, because it was how they played it in the Pacific Northwest, because it was how Ron Holden and the Thunderbirds played it, and few of those bands had heard Richard Berry's original record, just Ron Holden's live performances of the song.

But one band who based their version on Holden's did listen to the original record -- once Holden had brought the song to their attention. The Wailers -- who are often referred to as "the Fabulous Wailers" to distinguish them from Bob Marley's later, more famous group -- were a group from Tacoma, which had a strong instrumental guitar band scene -- most famously, the Ventures came from Tacoma, and a lot of the bands in the area sounded like that. 

In 1959, the Wailers recorded a self-penned instrumental, "Tall Cool One", which made the top forty:

[Excerpt: The Wailers, "Tall Cool One"]

They didn't have any other hits, but soon after recording that, they got in a local singer, Rockin Robin Roberts, who became one of the band's three lead singers. The group had a residence at a local venue, the Spanish Castle, and a live recording of one of their sets there, released as the "Live at the Castle" album, shows that they were a hugely exciting live band:

[Excerpt: The Fabulous Wailers, "Since You Been Gone"]

The shows at that venue were so good that several years later one of the regular audience members, Jimi Hendrix, would commemorate them in the song "Spanish Castle Magic":

[Excerpt: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Spanish Castle Magic"]

But it was their version of "Louie Louie" that became the template for almost every version that ever followed. For contractual reasons, it was released as a Rockin' Robin Roberts solo record, but it was the full Wailers playing on the track. No-one else in the Pacific Northwest knew what the lyrics were -- they'd all learned it from Ron Holden's live performances, but Roberts had actually tracked down a copy of the Richard Berry record and learned the words. Which, if you look at what happened later, is rather ironic.

Their version of the song came out on their own label, and had few sales outside their home area, but it would be one of the most influential records ever, because everyone else in the Pacific Northwest started copying their version, right down to Roberts' ad-libbed shout as they go into the guitar solo:

[Excerpt: Rockin' Robin Roberts, "Louie Louie"]

The Wailers struggled on for a few more years, but never had any more commercial success. Rockin' Robin Roberts went on to become an associate professor of biochemistry, before dying far too young in a car crash in 1967.

But while their version of "Louie Louie" wasn't a hit, a few copies made their way a couple of hours' drive south, to Oregon. Here the story becomes a little difficult, because different people had different recollections of what happened. I'm going to tell one version of the story, but there are others.

The story goes that one copy made its way into a jukebox at a club called the Pypo Club, in Seaside, Oregon, a club frequented by surfers. And one day in the early sixties -- people seem to disagree whether it was summer 1961 or 62, two local bands played that club. During the intermission, the audience danced to the music on the jukebox -- indeed, they danced to just one record on the jukebox, over and over. They just kept playing "Louie Louie" by Rockin' Robin Roberts, no other records.

Both bands immediately added the song to their sets, and it became a highlight of both band's shows.

By far the bigger of the two bands was Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Raiders actually came from Idaho, and had had a top forty hit with "Like, Long Hair" a novelty surf-rock version of a Rachmaninoff piece that Kim Fowley had produced:

[Excerpt: Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Like, Long Hair"]

But their career had stalled and they had moved to Oregon, because Revere, the group's piano player and leader, had been drafted, and while he was allowed not to serve in the military because of his Mennonite faith, he had to do community service work there for two years instead.

The Raiders were undoubtedly the best and most popular band in the Oregon area at the time, and their showmanship was on a whole other level from any other band -- they were one of the first bands to smash their instruments on stage, except they weren't smashing guitars -- Revere would buy cheap second-hand pianos and smash *those* on stage.

A local DJ, Roger Hart, had become the group's manager, and he was going to start up his own label, and he wanted them to record "Louie Louie" as the label's first single. Revere wasn't keen -- he didn't like the song much, but Roger Hart insisted. He was sure it could be the hit that would restore the Raiders to the charts. So in April 1963, Paul Revere and the Raiders went into Northwest Recorders in Portland and recorded this:

[Excerpt: Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Louie Louie"]

Hart paid for the recording session and put the single out on his small label, Sande. It was soon picked up by Columbia Records, who put it out nationally. It started to get a bit of airplay, and started rising up the charts -- it didn't break the Hot One Hundred straight away, but it was clearly heading in the right direction.

The Raiders signed to Columbia, and with Hart as their manager and occasional songwriter, and Terry Melcher as their producer, they became one of the biggest bands in the US, and had a string of hits stretching from 1965 to 1971. We won't be doing a full episode on them, but they became an integral part of the LA music scene in the sixties, and they're sure to turn up as background characters in future episodes.

But note that I said their run of hits started in 1965. Because there had been two bands playing the Pypo Club, and they had both added "Louie Louie" to their set. And they'd both recorded versions of it in the same studio, in the same week.

The Kingsmen were... not as big as the Raiders. They were a bunch of teenagers who had formed a group a few years earlier, and even on a good day they were at best the second-best band in Portland, with the Raiders far, far, ahead. The core of the group was based around the friendship of Jack Ely, the group's lead singer, and Lynn Easton, the drummer, whose parents were friends -- both families were Christian Scientists and actively involved in their local church -- and they had grown up together. Ely's parents didn't encourage the duo's music -- Ely's biological father had been a professional singer, but when the father died and Ely's mother remarried, his stepfather didn't want him to have anything to do with music -- but Easton's did, and Easton's father became the group's manager. Easton's mother even went to the local courthouse to register the group's name for them.

Easton's father was replaced as their manager by Ken Chase, the owner of the radio station where Roger Hart was the most popular DJ, and they started pressuring him to make a record with them. Eventually he did -- and he booked them into the same studio as the Raiders, the same week. Different people have different stories about which was first and which was second, but there is no doubt that they were only two days or so apart. And there's also no doubt that they were very different in terms of professionalism. 

The Kingsmen did their best to copy the Rockin' Robin Roberts version, right down to his shout of "Let's give it to them right now!" but it was shockingly amateurish. The night before, they'd done a live show which consisted of a single ninety-minute-long performance of "Louie Louie" with no breaks, and Ely's voice was shot. The mic was positioned too high for him and he had to strain his throat, and his braces were also making him slur the words. At one point early in the song, Easton clicks his drumsticks together by accident, and yells an obscenity loud enough to be captured on the tape:

[Excerpt: The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie"]

After the solo, Ely comes back in, wrongly thinks he's come in in the wrong place, and stops, leaving Easton to quickly improvise a drum fill before they pick up again:

[Excerpt: The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie"]

The difference with the Raiders can be summed up most succinctly by what happened next -- the Raiders' manager paid for their session, but when the engineer at this session asked who was paying, and the Kingsmen pointed to their manager, he said "No, I'm not. I've not got any money", and the members of the group had to dig through their pockets to get together the fifty dollars themselves.

It's incompetent teenagers, who have no idea what they're doing, and it would become one of the most important records of all time.

But when it was released... well, it was the second-best version of "Louie Louie" recorded in Portland that week, so while the Raiders were selling thousands, the Kingsmen only sold a couple of hundred copies. Jerry Dennon, the owner of the tiny label that released it, tried to get it picked up by Capitol Records, who rejected it saying it was the worst garbage they'd ever heard. He also sent it out to bigger indie labels, like Scepter, who stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it.

And that was basically the end of the Kingsmen. In August, Easton decided that he was going to stop being the drummer and be the lead singer instead -- he told Ely that Ely was going to be the drummer now. The other band members were astonished, because Easton couldn't sing and Ely couldn't play the drums, and they said that wasn't going to happen. Easton then played his trump card -- when his mother had registered the band name, she'd registered it just in his name. If they didn't do things his way, they weren't going to be in the Kingsmen any more, and he was going to find new Kingsmen to replace them. Ely and a couple of other members quit, and that was the end of the group.

And then, in October, as the Raiders' record was still slowly making some national progress, Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg heard the Kingsmen's version. This Arnie Ginsburg isn't the Arnie Ginsburg we heard about in the episode on "LSD-25", and who we'll be meeting again briefly next week. This one was a DJ in Boston, and the most popular DJ in the area. And he *hated* the record.

He hated it so much, he played it on his show, because he had a slot called The Worst Record Of The Week. He played it twice, and the next day, he had fifty calls from record shops -- customers had been coming in wanting to know where they could get "Louie Louie". Marv Schlachter at Scepter heard from the distributors how well the record was doing and picked it up for national distribution on their Wand subsidiary. In its first week on Wand, the single sold twenty-one thousand copies in Boston.

[Excerpt: The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie"]

For a few weeks, the Raiders and the Kingsmen both hung around the "bubbling under" section of the charts -- the Raiders selling and being played on the West Coast, and the Kingsmen on the East. By the ninth of November, the Kingsmen were at eighty-three in the charts, while the Raiders were at 108. By December the fourteenth, the Kingsmen were at number two, behind "Dominique" by the Singing Nun, a Belgian nun singing in French:

[Excerpt: The Singing Nun, "Dominique"]

You might think that there could not be two more different records at the top of the charts, and you'd mostly be right, but there was one thing that linked them -- the Singing Nun's song had a chorus that went "Dominique, nique, nique", and one of the reasons it had become popular was that in France, but not in Belgium where she lived, "nique" was a swear word, an expletive meaning "to fornicate", roughly the French equivalent of the word that Lynn Easton shouted when he clicked his drumsticks together.

So a big part of its initial popularity was because of people finding an obscene meaning in the lyrics that simply wasn't there.

And that was true of "Louie Louie" as well. Jack Ely had slurred the lyrics so badly that people started imagining that there must be dirty words in there, because otherwise why wouldn't he be singing it clearly? People started passing notes in schools and colleges, saying what the lyrics "really" were -- apparently you had to play the single at 33RPM to hear them properly. 

These lyrics never made any actual sense, but they were things like "We'll take her and park all alone/She's never a girl I lay at home/At night at ten I lay her again" and "on that chair I'll lay her there/I felt my boner in her hair" -- the kind of thing, in short, that kids make up all the time.

So obviously, they were reported to the FBI.

And obviously the FBI spent two years investigating the song:

[Excerpt: The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie"]

They checked it anyway, of course, and reported "A comparison was made of the recording on the tape described above as specimen K1 with the recording on the disk, submitted by the Detroit Office and described as specimen Q3 in this case and no audible differences were noted."

On the FBI website, you can read 119 pages of memos from FBI agents (with various bits blacked out for security reasons), and read about them shipping copies of "Louie Louie" to labs (under special seal, in case they'd be violating laws about transferring obscene material across state lines and breaking the very law they were investigating), listening to the record at 33, 45, and 78 RPM and trying to see if they could make out the lyrics, comparing them to the published words, to the various samizdat versions being shared by kids, and to Berry's record, and destroying the records after listening. They interviewed members of the Kingsmen and DJs, and they went to Scepter Records to get a copy of the original master tape, which they were surprised to discover was mono so left them no way of isolating the vocals.

Meanwhile they were getting letters from concerned citizens doing things like playing the single at 78 RPM, making a tape recording of that at double speed, and then slowing it down, saying "at that speed the obscene articulation is clearer".

This went on for two years. At no point does any of these highly trained FBI agents listening over and over to "Louie Louie" at different speeds appear to have heard Lynn Easton's yelled expletive, which unlike all these other things is actually on the record.

Meanwhile, the Kingsmen went on to have one more top twenty hit, with only Easton and the lead guitarist left of the original lineup, and then continued to tour playing their hit. Jack Ely toured solo playing his one hit. The most successful member of the group was Don Gallucci, the keyboard player, who formed Don and the Goodtimes, who had a minor hit with "I Could Be So Good To You":

[Excerpt: Don and the Goodtimes, "I Could Be So Good To You"]

Gallucci went on to produce Fun House for the Stooges, who would also of course later record their own version of "Louie Louie", in which they sung those dirty lyrics:

[Excerpt: the Stooges, "Louie Louie"]

But then, nearly everyone did a version of the song -- there are at least two thousand recordings of it. But, other than from radio play, Richard Berry was receiving no money from any of these. After his marriage ended, he'd quit working as a musician to raise his daughter, gone back to school, and taken a day job -- but then he'd been further disabled in an accident and had ended up on welfare, while his song was making millions for the people who'd bought it from him for seven hundred and fifty dollars. He didn't even understand why the song was popular -- the only version that sounded like the record he'd wanted to make was the one by Barry White, another ex-Jefferson High student, who'd added the Latin percussion Berry had wanted to put on before he'd been told to make it more R&B.

But in the eighties, things started to change. Some radio stations started doing all-Louie weekends, where for a whole weekend they'd just play different versions of the song, never repeating one. One of those stations invited Berry to do a live performance of the song with Jack Ely, backed by Bo Diddley's former rhythm player Lady Bo and her band:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry and Jack Ely, "Louie Louie"]

That was the first time Berry ever met the man who'd made his song famous. Soon after that, Berry's old friend Darlene Love, who had been one of the Dreamers who'd sung with Berry back in the fifties, introduced him to the man who would change his life -- Chuck Rubin. Rubin had, in the seventies, been the manager of the blues singer Wilbur Harrison, and had realised that not only was Harrison not getting any money from his old recordings, nor were many other Black musicians. He'd seen a business opportunity, and had started a company that helped get those artists what they deserved -- along with giving himself fifty percent of whatever they made. Which seems like a lot, but many people, including Berry, figured that fifty percent of a fortune was better than the hundred percent of nothing they were currently getting.

Most of these artists had signed legally valid bad deals, which meant that while they were morally entitled to something, they weren't legally entitled. But Rubin had a way of getting round that, and he did the same thing with Berry that he did with many other people. He kept starting lawsuits that put off potential business partners, and in 1986 a company wanted to use "Louie Louie" in a TV advertising campaign that would earn huge amounts of money for its owners -- but they didn't want to use a song that was tied up in litigation. If the legal problems weren't sorted, they'd just use "Wild Thing" instead. In order to make sure the commercials used "Louie Louie", the song's owner gave Berry half the publishing rights and full songwriting rights (which Berry then split with Rubin). He didn't get any back payment from what the song had already earned, but he went from getting $240 a month on welfare in 1985, to making $160,000 from "Louie Louie" in 1989 alone.

Richard Berry died in 1997, happy, respected, and wealthy. In the last decade of his life people started to explore his music again, and give him some of the credit he was due. Jack Ely continued performing "Louie Louie" until his death in 2015. Lynn Easton quit music in 1968, giving the Kingsmen's name to the lead guitarist Mike Mitchell, the only other original member still in the band. Easton died in April this year -- no-one's sure what of, as his religious beliefs meant he never saw a doctor. Mitchell's lineup of Kingsmen continued to perform until covid happened, and will presumably do so again once the pandemic is over. And somewhere out there, whenever you're listening to this, someone will be playing "duh-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh"

Dec 02, 2020
Episode 105: "Green Onions" by Booker T.and the MGs
46:12

Episode 105 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Green Onions", and how a company started by a Western Swing fiddle player ended up making the most important soul records of the sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

I used three main books when creating this episode. Two were histories of Stax -- Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax by Rob Bowman, and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon

Country Soul by Charles L Hughes is a more general overview of soul music made in Tennessee and Alabama in the sixties, but is useful as it's less likely to take statements about racial attitudes entirely at face value.

This is a good cheap compilation of Booker T and the MGs' music.

If the Erwin Records tracks here interest you, they're all available on this compilation.

The Complete Stax-Volt Singles vol. 1: 1959-1968 is a nine-CD box set containing much of the rest of the music in this episode. It's out of print physically, but the MP3 edition, while pricey, is worth it.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

And now we come to the end of the backfilling portion of the story. Since "Telstar" we've been looking at records from 1962 that came out just before "Love Me Do" -- we've essentially been in an extended flashback. This is the last of those flashback episodes, and from next week on we're moving forward into 1963.

Today we're going to look at a record by a group of musicians who would be as important to the development of music in the 1960s as any, and at the early years of Stax Records, a label that would become as important as Chess, Motown, or Sun. Today, we're looking at "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs, and how a white country fiddle player accidentally kickstarted the most important label in soul music:

[Excerpt: Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onions"]

Our story starts in Memphis, with Jim Stewart, a part-time fiddle player. Stewart was in a Western Swing band, and was hugely influenced by Bob Wills, but he wasn't making any real money from music. Instead, he was working a day job at a bank.

But he was still interested in music, and wanted to be involved in the industry. One of the gigs he'd had was in the house band at a venue where Elvis sometimes played in his early years, and he'd seen how Elvis had gone from an obscure local boy all the way to the biggest star in the world. He knew he couldn't do that himself, but he was irresistibly attracted to any field where that was *possible*.

He found his way into the industry, and into music history as a result of a tip from his barber.

The barber in question, Erwin Ellis, was another country fiddle player, but he owned his own record label, Erwin Records. Erwin Records was a tiny label -- it was so tiny that its first release, by Ellis himself, seems not to exist anywhere. Even on compilations of Erwin Records material, it's not present, which is a shame, as it would be interesting from a historical perspective to hear Ellis' own playing.

But while Ellis was unsuccessful both as a fiddle player and as a record company owner, he did manage to release a handful of rockabilly classics on Erwin Records, like Hoyt Jackson's "Enie Meanie Minie Moe":

[Excerpt: Hoyt Jackson, "Enie Meanie Minie Moe"]

and "Boppin' Wig Wam Willie" by Ray Scott, who had written "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll" for Billy Lee Riley, and who was backed by Riley's Little Green Men on this single:

[Excerpt: Ray Scott, "Boppin' Wig Wam WIllie"]

Ellis' label wasn't hugely successful, but he made some decent money from it, and he explained the realities of the music industry to Stewart as Stewart was sat in his barber's chair. He told Stewart that you didn't make money from the records themselves -- small labels didn't sell much -- but that he was making some good money from the songs.

The formula for success in the music business, Ellis explained, was that when you got a new artist through the door, you told them they could only record originals, not cover versions -- and then you made sure they signed the publishing over to you. If you sold a record, you were just selling a bit of plastic, and you'd already paid to make the bit of plastic. There was no real money in that. But if you owned the song, every time that record was played on the radio, you got a bit of money with no extra outlay -- and if you owned enough songs, then some of them might get covered by a big star, and then you'd get some real money. Hoyt Jackson, Ellis' biggest act, hadn't had any hits himself, but he'd written "It's A Little More Like Heaven (Where You Are)":

[Excerpt: Hoyt Jackson, "It's A Little More Like Heaven (Where You Are)"]

Hank Locklin had recorded a cover version of it, which had gone to number three on the country charts:

[Excerpt: Hank Locklin "It's a Little More Like Heaven"]

And Johnny Cash had rewritten it a bit, as "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven", and had also had a top five country hit with it:

[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven"]

Ellis explained to Stewart that he was still getting cheques every few months because he owned the publishing for this song that someone else had written and brought to him. If you owned the publishing for a song that became a hit, then you had a steady source of income without having to lift a finger. And people would just give you the publishing on their songs if you agreed to put a record of them out.

For someone like Stewart, who worked in a bank and knew a little bit about finance, that sounded just about perfect. He pulled together a singing DJ, a piano player, and a rhythm guitarist he knew, and they pooled their savings and raised a thousand dollars to put out a record. Stewart wrote a song -- the only song he'd ever write -- Fred Byler, the DJ, sang it, and they hired Ellis and his tape recorder to record it in Jim's wife's uncle's garage. They came up with the name Satellite Records for their label -- nobody liked it, but they couldn't think of anything better, and satellites were in the news with the recent launch of Sputnik. "Blue Roses" by Fred Byler, came out to pretty much no sales or airplay:

[Excerpt: Fred Byler, "Blue Roses"]

The next record was more interesting -- "Boppin' High School Baby" by Don Willis is a prime slice of Memphis rockabilly, though one with so much slapback echo that even Joe Meek might have said "hang on, isn't that a bit much?":

[Excerpt: Don Willis, "Boppin' High School Baby"]

That also didn't sell -- Stewart and his partners knew nothing about the music business. They didn't know how to get the records distributed to shops, and they had no money left. And then Erwin Ellis moved away and took his tape recorder with him, and Stewart's wife's uncle wanted to use his garage again and so wouldn't let them record there any more. It looked like that would be the end of Satellite Records. But then three things changed everything for Jim Stewart, and for music history.

The first of these was that Stewart's new barber was also interested in music -- he had a daughter who he thought could sing, and he had a large storage space he wasn't using, in Brunswick on the outskirts of the city. If they'd record his daughter, they could use the storage space as a studio.

The second was Chips Moman. Chips was a teenage guitarist who had been playing a friend's guitar at a drugstore in Memphis, just hanging around after work, when Warren Smith walked in. Smith was a Sun Records rockabilly artist, who'd had a minor hit with "Rock and Roll Ruby":

[Excerpt: Warren Smith, "Rock and Roll Ruby"]

Smith liked Moman's playing, and offered him a job -- Moman's initial response was "doing what?"

Moman had joined Smith's band on guitar, then played with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. He went with the Burnettes to California, where he was a session player for a time -- though I've never been able to find a list of any of the records he played on, just people saying he played at Gold Star Studios. He'd then joined Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, before being in an accident which had led him to come back to Memphis. He'd played guitar on the Don Willis session, and he'd essentially produced it, applying some of the techniques he'd learned in Californian studios. He was young, he was eager to make records, and he knew what he was doing.

And the third event was that Stewart managed to persuade his sister, Estelle Axton, to buy out his business partners. Estelle was a naturally business-minded person who also had a yearning to do something involving music, and had been doing things in little ways. For example, the people where she worked all liked music but found they were too busy to go to the record shop -- so Estelle would make a list of records they liked, go to one of the wholesalers that distributed music to record shops, buy records there for seventy-six cents, and sell them to her colleagues for a dollar.

Estelle persuaded her husband, against his better judgement, to remortgage their house, and she used the money to buy recording equipment. Moman helped them set it up in the barber's storage space, and Satellite Records started up again, restarting their numbering as if from scratch with what they were now considering their first real release -- a song that Moman had co-written, sung by a black vocal group, the Vel-Tones:

[Excerpt: The Vel-Tones, "Fool in Love"]

The record was pretty much in the style of the white pop semi-doo-wop that was charting at the time, but the singers were black, and so it had to be promoted as R&B, and Jim Stewart made visits to Black DJs like Al Bell and Rufus Thomas, and managed to get the record some airplay. It was popular enough that the record got picked up for distribution by Mercury, and actually brought Satellite a small profit.

But the label still wasn't doing well, and they were finding it difficult to persuade musicians to trek all the way out to Brunswick. And the studio space was bad in other ways -- it was right near a train track, and the noise of the trains would disrupt the sessions. And while it was free, at some point they would actually have to make a record featuring Stewart's barber's daughter, which nobody actually fancied doing. 

So they decided to move studios again, and in doing so they were inspired by another Memphis record label. Hi Records had started around the same time as Satellite, and it had had a few big hits, most notably "Smokie (Part 2)" by the Bill Black Combo, the group that Elvis' former bass player had formed when Elvis had joined the army:

[Excerpt: Bill Black Combo: "Smokie (Part 2)"]

For their studio, Hi used an old cinema -- a lot of cinemas were closing down in the late fifties, due to the combination of television and the drive-in making indoor cinemas less appealing, and because white flight to the suburbs meant that people with money no longer lived in walking distance of cinemas the way they used to.

The Satellite team found an old cinema on East McLemore Avenue, much closer to the centre of Memphis and easier for musicians to get to. That cinema had stopped showing films a year or two earlier, and there'd been a brief period where it had been used for country music performances, but the area was becoming increasingly Black, as white people moved away, and while plenty of Black people liked country music, they weren't exactly welcomed to the performances in segregated 1950s Memphis, and so the building was abandoned, and available cheap.

Meanwhile, Estelle's son Charles was trying to get into the music business, too. Before I go any further in talking about him, I should say that I've had to depart from my normal policy when talking about him. Normally, I refer to people by the name they chose to go by, but in his case he was known by a nickname which was harmless in that time and place, but later became an extremely offensive racist slur in the UK, used against people of Pakistani descent. The word didn't have those connotations in the US at the time, and he died before its use as a slur became widely known over there, but I'm just going to call him Charles.

And speaking of words which might be considered racial slurs, the band that Charles joined -- an all-white group who loved to play R&B -- was called the Royal Spades. This was supposedly because of their love of playing cards, but there's more than a suspicion that the racial connotations of the term were used deliberately, and that these white teenage boys were giggling at their naughty racial transgressiveness.

The group had originally just been a guitar/bass/drum band, but Charles Axton had approached them and suggested they should get a horn section, offering his services as a tenor player. They'd laughed when he told them he'd only been playing a couple of weeks, but once he explained that his mother and uncle owned a record label, he was in the group, and they'd expanded to have a full horn section. The group was led by guitarist Steve Cropper and also included his friend, the bass player Duck Dunn, and Cropper and Charles Axton helped with the refurbishing of the cinema into a recording studio.

The cinema had another advantage, too -- as well as the auditorium, which became the studio, it had a lobby and concession stand. Estelle Axton turned that into a record shop, which she ran herself -- with Cropper often helping out behind the counter. She instituted a policy that, unlike other record shops, people could hang around all day listening to music, without necessarily buying anything. She also brought in a loyalty card scheme -- buy nine records and get a tenth record for free -- which allowed her to track what individual customers were buying. She soon became so knowledgeable about what was selling to the Black teenagers of the area that she boasted that if you came into the shop with twenty dollars, she'd have sold you nineteen dollars' worth of records before you left -- she'd leave you with a dollar so you could pay for your transport home, to make sure you could come back with more money.

By having a record shop in the record studio itself, they knew what was selling and could make more music that sounded like that. By having a crowd around all day listening to music, they could put the new recordings on and gauge the response before pressing a single copy. Satellite Records suddenly had a market research department.

And they soon had an ally in getting them airplay. Rufus Thomas was the most important man in Black entertainment in Memphis. He was a popular DJ and comedian, he was the compere at almost every chitlin' circuit show in the area, and he was also a popular singer. He'd been the one to record the first hit on Sun Records, "Bear Cat", the answer record to "Hound Dog" we talked about way back in episode fifteen:

[Excerpt: Rufus Thomas, "Bear Cat"]

Rufus Thomas knew Jim Stewart from when Stewart had been promoting the Vel-Tones single, and so he came into the newly opened studio and suggested he cut a few tracks. If you've got a record label, and a DJ wants to make a record with you, that's a godsend -- you're guaranteed airplay, not only for that record, but for a few of your others. And if that DJ also happens to be a genuine talent who'd made hit records before, you jump at the chance.

Thomas also brought in his daughter, Carla, who happened to have an astonishing voice. 

For the first session in the new studio, they recorded a song Rufus had written, "'Cause I Love You", with a few musicians that he knew, including a bass player called Wilbur Steinberg, and with Steve Cropper sitting in on guitar and Chips Moman producing. Also in the studio was David Porter, a teenager who sang in a band with Bob Tally, the trumpet player on the session -- Porter was skipping school so he could be in a real recording studio, even though he wasn't going to be singing on the session.

When they started playing the song, Tally decided that it would sound good with a baritone sax on it. Nobody in the studio played saxophone, but then Porter remembered one of his classmates at Booker T Washington High School. This classmate was also called Booker T. -- Booker T. Jones -- and he could play everything. He played oboe, sax, trombone, double bass, guitar, and keyboards, and played them all to a professional standard.

Porter popped over to the school, walked into the classroom Jones was in, told the teacher that another teacher wanted to see Jones, pulled him out of the class, and told him he was going to make a record. They borrowed a baritone sax from the school's music room, went back to the studio, and Jones played on "'Cause I Love You" by Rufus and Carla Thomas:

[Excerpt: Rufus and Carla Thomas, "'Cause I Love You"]

"'Cause I Love You" became a local hit, and soon Jim Stewart got a call from Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, offering to start distributing it, and any future records by Rufus and Carla Thomas. Stewart didn't really know anything about the business, but when Wexler explained to Stewart that he was the producer of "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, Stewart knew that was someone he needed to work with -- he'd recently had a sort of Damascene conversion after hearing that record, and was now fully committed to his company's new R&B style. For a five thousand dollar advance, Atlantic ended up with the rights to press and distribute all future masters from Satellite.

The next single from the label was a Carla Thomas solo record, "Gee Whizz, Look at His Eyes". For that session, they booked in some string players, and Bob Tally was meant to write an arrangement for them. However, he didn't turn up to the session, and when Stewart went round to his house to find him, he discovered that Tally hadn't written the arrangement, and had been up all night playing at a gig and was in no fit state to write one. Stewart had to make the string players play from a head arrangement -- something string players normally never do -- and ended up giving them directions like "just play donuts!", meaning semibreves or whole notes, which are drawn as ovals with a hole in the middle, like a donut.

Despite this, "Gee Whizz" went to number five on the R&B charts and ten on the pop charts. Satellite Records had a real hit:

[Excerpt: Carla Thomas, "Gee Whizz, Look at His Eyes"]

Satellite were starting to build up a whole team of people they could call on. Steve Cropper was working in the record shop, so he was available whenever they needed a guitar part playing or a second keyboard adding. David Porter was working at Big Star, the grocery store across the road, and he turned out to be a talented songwriter and backing vocalist. And of course there was the band that Cropper and Charles Axton were in, which had now been renamed to the Mar-Keys, a pun on "marquis" as in the noble title, and "keys" as in keyboards, as Estelle Axton thought -- entirely correctly -- that their original name was inappropriate. They also had a pool of Black session players they could call on, mostly older people who'd been brought to them by Rufus Thomas, and there were always eager teenagers turning up wanting to do anything they could in order to make a record.

It was the Mar-Keys who finally gave Satellite the distinctive sound they were looking for. Or, at least, it was under the Mar-Keys' name that the record was released.

An instrumental, "Last Night", was recorded at several sessions run by Moman, often with different lineups of musicians. The Mar-Keys at this point consisted of Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Charles Axton, Wayne Jackson, Terry Johnson, Smoochy Smith, and Don Nix, but the lineup on the finished recording had Smith on keyboards, Axton on sax and Jackson on trumpet, with some sources saying that Cropper provided the second keyboard part while others say he only played on outtakes, not on the final version. The other four musicians were Black session players -- Lewie Steinberg, Wilbur's brother, on bass, Gilbert Caples and Floyd Newman on saxes, and Curtis Green on drums. Floyd Newman also did the spoken "Ooh, last night!" that punctuated the record:

[Excerpt: The Mar-Keys, "Last Night"]

Jim Stewart and Chips Moman were both convinced that would be a flop, as was Jerry Wexler when he heard it. But Estelle Axton believed in its potential -- and also believed in her son, who Stewart had little time for. Jim Stewart didn't want his useless nephew's band on his label at all if he could help it, but Estelle Axton wanted her son to have a hit. She got a test pressing to a DJ, who started playing it, and people started coming into the shop asking for the record.

Eventually, Stewart gave in to his sister's pressure, and agreed to release the record. There was only one problem -- when they pulled the tape out, they found that the first section of the track had somehow been erased. They had to hunt through the rubbish, looking through discarded bits of tape, until they found another take of the song that had a usable beginning they could splice in. They did a very good job -- I *think* I can hear the splice, but if it's where I think it is, it's about the cleanest editing job on analogue tape I've ever heard. If I'm right, the edit comes right in the middle of this passage:

[Excerpt: The Mar-Keys, "Last Night"]

Did you hear it?

The song's authorship has been debated over the years, because the horn part and the keyboard part were written separately. Caples and Newman, the session sax players, had come up with the horn part, and so always said they should get solo composition credit. Smoochy Smith had separately written the keyboard part, which came from something he'd been working on on his own, so he got credit too. Chips Moman had suggested combining the keyboard and horn lines, and so he got songwriting credit as well. And Charles Axton didn't contribute anything to the song other than playing on the record, but because his family owned the record label, he got credit as well.

The record became a big hit, and there are a couple of hypotheses as to why. Steve Cropper always argued that it was because you could dance the Twist to it, and so it rode the Twist craze, while others have pointed out that at one point in the record they leave a gap instead of saying "Ooh last night" as they do the rest of the way through. That gap allowed DJs to do the interjection themselves, which encouraged them to play it a lot.

It made number three on the pop charts and number two on the R&B charts, and it led to Satellite Records coming to the attention of another label, also called Satellite, in California, who offered to sell the Memphis label the rights to use the name. Jim Stewart had never liked Satellite as a name anyway, and so they quickly reissued the record with a new label, named after the first letters of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton's surnames. Stax Records was born.

The Mar-Keys immediately hit the road to promote the single -- which brought resentment from the Black session players, some of whom claim that during the session it hadn't even been intended as a Mar-Keys record, and who were annoyed that even though the record was primarily their work they weren't getting the recognition and a bunch of white boys were. 

Cropper soon got tired of the tour, quit the group and came back to Memphis -- he was annoyed partly because the other band members, being teenage boys, many of them away from home for the first time, acted like wild animals, and partly because Cropper and Charles Axton both believed themselves to be the band's leader and that the other should obey them. Cropper went back to working in the record shop, and playing on sessions at Stax.

The second Mar-Keys single was recorded by the studio musicians while the group were out on tour -- the first they even knew about it was when they saw it in the shop:

[Excerpt: The Mar-Keys, "The Morning After"]

That was much less successful, but the label was still interested in making instrumentals. They started a subsidiary label, Volt -- if you put records out with two different label names, it was more likely that radio stations would play more of your records, because it wouldn't seem like they were playing one label too much -- and the first single on it was an instrumental that Chips Moman wrote, "Burnt Biscuits", by a group consisting of Moman, Rufus Thomas' son Mavell, Lewie Steinberg, and Howard Grimes:

[Excerpt: The Triumphs, "Burnt Biscuits"]

That wasn't a hit, though Moman thought it had the potential to become as big as "Last Night". It was released under the name "the Triumphs", after the sports car Moman drove.

Shortly after that, Moman produced what would be the last classic record he'd make for Stax, when he produced "You Don't Miss Your Water" by a new singer, William Bell, who had previously been one of the backing vocalists on "Gee Whiz". That track had Mavell Thomas on piano, Lewie Steinberg on bass, Ron Capone on drums, and Booker T. Jones on organ -- by this point Booker T. was being called on a lot to play keyboards, as Floyd Newman recommended him as a reliable piano player in the hopes that if Jones was on keyboards, he wouldn't be playing baritone sax, so Newman would get more of those gigs:

[Excerpt: William Bell, "You Don't Miss Your Water"]

That was a great record, one of the defining records of the new country-soul genre along with Arthur Alexander's records, but it would be the last thing Moman would do at Stax. He'd not been getting on with Estelle Axton, and he also claims that he had been promised a third of the company, but Jim Stewart changed his mind and refused to cut him in. Everyone has a different story about what happened, but the upshot was that Moman left the company, went to Nashville for a while, and then founded his own studio, American, in another part of Memphis. Moman would become responsible for writing and producing a whole string of soul, country, and rock classics, and I'm sure we'll be hearing more from him in the next couple of years.

After Moman left, the label floundered a little bit for a few months. Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper split the production duties that Moman had had between them. Stewart had already produced several records for Carla Thomas, and Cropper was a great musician who had been spending every second he could learning how to make records, so they could cope, but they released a mixture of really good soul records that failed to hit the charts, and truly dire novelty country songs like "The Three Dogwoods" by Nick Charles, a song from the perspective of the tree that became the cross on which Jesus was crucified:

[Excerpt: Nick Charles, "The Three Dogwoods"]

That was co-written by Cropper, which shows that even the man who co-wrote "In the Midnight Hour", "Dock of the Bay" and "Knock on Wood" had his off days.

The record that would prove Stax to be capable of doing great things without Chips Moman came about by accident. Stax was still not exclusively a soul label, and it was cutting the odd country and rockabilly record, and one of the people who was going to use the studio was Billy Lee Riley. You might remember Riley from a year ago, when we looked at his "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll":

[Excerpt: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll"]

Riley was running his own label at the time, and doing various bits of session work and singing for other people. No-one's quite sure what he was using the studio for in early 1962 -- some say he was cutting a jingle, some say he cut a few actual tracks but that they were awful, and others that he turned up too drunk to record. Either way, the session ended early, and the musicians were at a loose end.

The musicians on this session were three of the regular Stax musicians -- Steve Cropper, who had just turned twenty, on guitar, Booker T. Jones, who was still a teenager, on organ, and Lewie Steinberg, a decade older than either, on bass. The fourth musician was Al Jackson, who like Steinberg was an older Black man who had cut his teeth playing jazz and R&B throughout the fifties. Booker had played with Jackson in Willie Mitchell's band, and had insisted to everyone at Stax that they needed to get this man in, as he was the best drummer Jones had ever heard.

Jackson was making money from gigging, and didn't want to waste his time playing sessions, which he thought would not be as lucrative as his regular gigs with Willie Mitchell. Eventually, Stax agreed to take him on on a salary, rather than just paying him one-off session fees, and so he became the first musician employed by Stax as a full-time player -- Cropper was already on salary, but that was for his production work and his work at the record shop.

As the session had ended rather disappointingly, the four were noodling on some blues as they had nothing better to do. Jim Stewart clicked on the talkback from the control room to tell them to go home, but then heard what they were playing, and told them to start it again so he could get it down on tape:

[Excerpt: Booker T and the MGs, "Behave Yourself"]

Stewart was happy with that track, but singles needed two sides, and so they needed to come up with something else. Cropper remembered a little musical lick he'd heard on the radio one day when he'd been driving with Booker -- they'd both been fascinated by that lick, but neither could remember anything else about the song (and to this day no-one's figured out what the song they'd heard was). They started noodling around with that lick, and shaped it into a twelve-bar instrumental:

[Excerpt: Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onions"]

That was even better than the other track, and they needed a funky name to go with such a funky track. Lewie Steinberg thought that onions were the funkiest thing he could think of, and so the track became "Green Onions". As the last instrumental they'd released with food as a title, "Burnt Biscuits", had been by the Triumphs, they thought the group name should be another sports car name, and so it came out as by Booker T and the MGs.

(They later said that MG stood either for Memphis Group or for Mixed Group, because they had both Black and white members, but the original idea was definitely the car – they just didn't want to have a trademark lawsuit on their hands).

"Green Onions" went to number one on the R&B charts and number three on the pop charts, and became the biggest thing Stax had ever recorded.

That core group became the Stax house band, playing on every session from that point on. If they recorded an instrumental on their own, it went out as by Booker T and the MGs. If they recorded an instrumental with horn players, it went out as by the Mar-Keys, and they also played backing all the singers who came through the door of Stax, and there would be a lot of them over the next few years.

There were a couple of changes -- Booker T actually went off to university soon after recording "Green Onions", so for a couple of years he could only play on weekends and during holidays -- on weekdays, the studio used another keyboard player, again suggested by Floyd Newman, who had hired a young man for his bar band when the young man could only play piano with one hand, just because he seemed to have a feel for the music. Luckily, Isaac Hayes had soon learned to play with both hands, and he fit right in while Booker was away at university.

The other change came a couple of years later, when after the MGs had had a few hits, Lewie Steinberg was replaced by Duck Dunn. Steinberg always claimed that the main reason he was dropped from the MGs was because he was Black and Steve Cropper wanted another white man. Cropper has always said it was because Duck Dunn had a harder-edged style that fit their music better than Steinberg's looser feel, but also that Dunn had been his best friend for years and he wanted to play more with him. The two Black members of the MGs have never commented publicly, as far as I can tell, on the change.

But whether with Jones or Hayes, Steinberg or Dunn, the MGs would be the foundation of Stax's records for the rest of the sixties, as well as producing a string of instrumental hits. And it was those instrumental hits that led to the arrival of the person who would make Stax a legendary label.

Joe Galkin, a record promoter to whom Jim Stewart owed a favour, was managing a local guitarist, Johnny Jenkins, and brought him into the studio to see if Stax could get him an instrumental hit, since they'd had a few of those. Jenkins did eventually release a single on Stax, but it wasn't particularly special, and didn't have any success:

[Excerpt: Johnny Jenkins, "Spunky"]

The day of Jenkins' first session was a flop, they'd not been able to get anything decent recorded, and the musicians started to pack up. But Galkin had made a deal with the singer in Jenkins' band -- if he'd drive Jenkins to the studio, since Jenkins couldn't drive, he'd try to get a record cut with him as well. Nobody was interested, but Galkin wore Jim Stewart down and he agreed to listen to this person who he just thought of as Johnny Jenkins' driver. After hearing him, Steve Cropper ran out to get Lewie Steinberg, who was packing his bass away, and tell him to bring it back into the studio. Cropper played piano, Jenkins stayed on guitar, and Booker, Al, and Lewie played their normal instruments.

Jim Stewart wasn't particularly impressed with the results, but he owed Galkin a favour, so he released the record, a fun but unoriginal Little Richard soundalike:

[Excerpt: Otis Redding, "Hey Hey Baby"]

But soon DJs flipped the record, and it was the B-side that became the hit:

[Excerpt: Otis Redding, "These Arms of Mine"]

Otis Redding would never again be thought of as just Johnny Jenkins' driver, and Stax Records was about to hit the big time.

 

Nov 24, 2020
Episode 104: "He's a Rebel" by "The Crystals"
41:44

Episode 104 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "He's a Rebel", and how a song recorded by the Blossoms was released under the name of the Crystals.  Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

A lot of resources were used for this episode.

The material on Gene Pitney mostly comes from his page on This is My Story.

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the Brill Building scene.

Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including articles on both The Crystals and the Blossoms.

I've referred to two biographies of Spector in this episode, Phil Spector: Out of His Head by Richard Williams and He's a Rebel by Mark Ribkowsky.

And information on the Wrecking Crew largely comes from The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman.

There are many compilations available with some of the hits Spector produced, but I recommend getting Back to Mono, a four-CD overview of his career containing all the major singles put out by Philles.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

A brief note -- there are some very brief mentions of domestic abuse here. Nothing I think will upset anyone, but you might want to check the transcript if you're at all unsure.

Up to this point, whenever we've looked at a girl group, it's been at one that had, to a greater or lesser extent, some control over their own career. Groups like the Marvelettes, the Chantels, and the Bobbettes all wrote their own material, at least at first, and had distinctive personalities before they ever made a record.

But today, we're going to look at a group whose identity was so subsumed in that of their producer that the record we're looking at was released under the name of a different group from the one that recorded it. We're going to look at "He's a Rebel", which was recorded by the Blossoms and released by the Crystals.

[Excerpt: “The Crystals” (The Blossoms), "He's a Rebel"]

The Crystals, from their very beginnings, were intended as a vehicle for the dreams of men, rather than for their own ambitions. Whereas the girl groups we've looked at so far all formed as groups of friends at school before they moved into professional singing, the Crystals were put together by a man named Benny Wells. Wells had a niece, Barbara Alston, who sang with a couple of her schoolfriends, Mary Thomas and Myrna Giraud. Wells put those three together with two other girls, Dee Dee Kenniebrew and Patsy Wright, to form a five-piece vocal group. Wells seems not to have had much concept of what was in the charts at the time -- the descriptions of the music he had the girls singing talk about him wanting them to sound like the Modernaires, the vocal group who sang with Glenn Miller's band in the early 1940s.

But the girls went along with Wells, and Wells had good enough ears to recognise a hit when one was brought to him -- and one was brought to him by Patsy Wright's brother-in-law, Leroy Bates. Bates had written a song called "There's No Other Like My Baby", and Wells could tell it had potential. Incidentally, some books say that the song was based on a gospel song called "There's No Other Like My Jesus", and that claim is repeated on Wikipedia, but I can't find any evidence of a song of that name other than people talking about "There's No Other Like My Baby". There is a gospel song called "There's No Other Name Like Jesus", but that has no obvious resemblance to Bates' song, and so I'm going to assume that the song was totally original.

As well as bringing the song, Bates also brought the fledgling group a name -- he had a daughter, Crystal Bates, after whom the group named themselves.

The newly-named Crystals took their song to the offices of Hill and Range Music, which as well as being a publishing company also owned Big Top Records, the label that had put out the original version of "Twist and Shout", which had so annoyed Bert Berns. And it was there that they ended up meeting up with Phil Spector.

After leaving his role at Atlantic, Spector had started working as a freelance producer, including working for Big Top. According to Spector -- a notorious liar, it's important to remember -- he worked during this time on dozens of hits for which he didn't get any credit, just to earn money. But we do know about some of the records he produced during this time. For example, there was one by a new singer called Gene Pitney. Pitney had been knocking around for years, recording for Decca as part of a duo called Jamie and Jane:

[Excerpt: Jamie and Jane, "Faithful Our Love"]

And for Blaze Records as Billy Bryan:

[Excerpt: Billy Bryan, "Going Back to My Love"]

But he'd recently signed to Musicor, a label owned by Aaron Schroeder, and had recorded a hit under his own name. Pitney had written "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away", and had taken advantage of the new multitracking technology to record his vocals six times over, creating a unique sound that took the record into the top forty:

[Excerpt: Gene Pitney, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away"]

But while that had been a hit, his second single for Musicor was a flop, and so for the third single, Musicor decided to pull out the big guns. They ran a session at which basically the whole of the Brill Building turned up. Leiber and Stoller were to produce a song they'd written for Pitney, the new hot husband-and-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were there, as was Burt Bacharach, and so were Goffin and King, who wrote the song that *Spector* was to produce for Pitney. All of them were in the control booth, and all of them were chipping in ideas. As you might expect with that many cooks, the session did not go smoothly, and to make matters worse, Pitney was suffering from a terrible cold. The session ended up costing thirteen thousand dollars, at a time when an average recording session cost five hundred dollars.

On the song Spector was producing on that session, Goffin and King's "Every Breath I Take", Pitney knew that with the cold he would be completely unable to hit the last note in full voice, and went into falsetto. Luckily, everyone thought it sounded good, and he could pretend it was deliberate, rather than the result of necessity:

[Excerpt: Gene Pitney, "Every Breath I Take"]

The record only went to number forty-two, but it resuscitated Pitney's singing career, and forged a working relationship between the two men. But soon after that, Spector had flown back to LA to work with his old friend Lester Sill. Sill and producer/songwriter, Lee Hazelwood, had been making records with the guitarist Duane Eddy, producing a string of hits like “Rebel Rouser”:

[Excerpt: Duane Eddy, "Rebel Rouser"]

But Eddy had recently signed directly to a label, rather than going through Sill and Hazelwood's company as before, and so Sill and Hazelwood had been looking for new artists, and they'd recently signed a group called the Paris Sisters to their production company. Sill had decided to get Spector in to produce the group, and Spector came up with a production that Sill was sure would be a hit, on a song called "I Love How You Love Me", written by Barry Mann with another writer called Jack Keller:

[Excerpt: The Paris Sisters, "I Love How You Love Me"]

Spector was becoming a perfectionist -- he insisted on recording the rhythm track for that record at one studio, and the string part at another, and apparently spent fifty hours on the mix -- and Sill was spending more and more time in the studio with Spector, fascinated at his attitude to the work he was doing. This led to a breakup between Sill and Hazelwood -- their business relationship was already strained, but Hazelwood got jealous of all the time that Sill was spending with Spector, and decided to split their partnership and go and produce Duane Eddy, without Sill, at Eddy's new label.

So Sill was suddenly in the market for a new business partner, and he and Spector decided that they were going to start up their own label, Philles, although by this point everyone who had ever worked with Spector was warning Sill that it was a bad idea to go into business with him.

But Spector and Sill kept their intentions secret for a while, and so when Spector met the Crystals at Hill and Range's offices, everyone at Hill and Range just assumed that he was still working for them as a freelance producer, and that the Crystals were going to be recording for Big Top.

Freddie Bienstock of Hill & Range later said, "We were very angry because we felt they were Big Top artists. He was merely supposed to produce them for us. There was no question about the fact that he was just rehearsing them for Big Top—hell, he rehearsed them for weeks in our offices. And then he just stole them right out of here. That precipitated a breach of contract with us. We were just incensed because that was a terrific group, and for him to do that shows the type of character he was. We felt he was less than ethical, and, obviously, he was then shown the door.”

Bienstock had further words for Spector too, ones I can't repeat here because of content rules about adult language, but they weren't flattering. Spector had been dating Bienstock's daughter, with Bienstock's approval, but that didn't last once Spector betrayed Bienstock.

But Spector didn't care. He had his own New York girl group, one that could compete with the Bobbettes or the Chantels or the Shirelles, and he was going to make the Crystals as big as any of them, and he wasn't going to cut Big Top in. He slowed down "There's No Other Like My Baby" and it became the first release on Philles Records, with Barbara Alston singing lead:

[Excerpt: The Crystals, "There's No Other Like My Baby"]

That record was cut late at night in June 1961. In fact it was cut on Prom Night -- three of the girls came straight to the session from their High School prom, still wearing their prom dresses. Spector wrote the B-side, a song that was originally intended to be the A-side called "Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby", but everyone quickly realised that "There's No Other Like My Baby" was the hit, and it made the top twenty.

While Spector was waiting for the money to come in on the first Philles record, he took another job, with Liberty Records, working for his friend Snuff Garrett. He got a thirty thousand dollar advance, made a single flop record with them with an unknown singer named Obrey Wilson, and then quit, keeping his thirty thousand dollars.

Once "There's No Other" made the charts, Spector took the Crystals into the studio again, to record a song by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil that he'd got from Aldon Music. Spector was becoming increasingly convinced that he'd made a mistake in partnering with Lester Sill, and he should really have been working with Don Kirshner, and he was in discussions with Kirshner which came to nothing about them having some sort of joint project.

While those discussions fell through, almost all the songs that Spector would use for the next few years would come from Aldon songwriters, and "Uptown" was a perfect example of the new kind of socially-relevant pop songwriting that had been pioneered by Goffin and King, but which Mann and Weil were now making their own. Before becoming a professional songwriter, Weil had been part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, and while she wasn't going to write anything as explicitly political as the work of Pete Seeger, she thought that songs should at least try to be about the real world.

"Uptown" was the first example of a theme which would become a major motif for the Crystals' records -- a song about a man who is looked down upon by society, but who the singer believes is better than his reputation. Mann and Weil's song combined that potent teen emotion with an inspiration Weil had had, seeing a handsome Black man pushing a hand truck in the Garment District, and realising that even though he was oppressed by his job, and "a nobody" when he was working downtown, he was still somebody when he was at home. They originally wrote the song for Tony Orlando to sing, but Spector insisted, rightly, that the song worked better with female voices, and that the Crystals should do it.

Spector took Mann and Weil's song and gave it a production that evoked the Latin feel of Leiber and Stoller's records for the Drifters:

[Excerpt: The Crystals, "Uptown"]

By the time of this second record, the Crystals had already been through one lineup change. As soon as she left school, Myrna Giraud got married, and she didn't want to perform on stage any more. She would still sing with the girls in the studio for a little while -- she's on every track of their first album, though she left altogether soon after this recording -- but she was a married woman now and didn't want to be in a group. 

The girls needed a replacement, and they also needed something else -- a lead singer. All the girls loved singing, but none of them wanted to be out in front singing lead. Luckily, Dee Dee Kenniebrew's mother was a secretary at the school attended by a fourteen-year-old gospel singer named La La Brooks, and she heard Brooks singing and invited her to join the group. Brooks soon became the group's lead vocalist on stage.

But in the studio, Spector didn't want to use her as the lead vocalist. He insisted on Barbara singing the lead on "Uptown", but in a sign of things to come, Mann and Weil weren't happy with her performance -- Spector had to change parts of the melody to accommodate her range -- and they begged Spector to rerecord the lead vocal with Little Eva singing. However, Eva became irritated with Spector's incessant demands for more takes and his micromanagement, cursed him out, and walked out of the studio.

The record was released with Barbara's original lead vocal, and while Mann and Weil weren't happy with that, listeners were, as it went to number thirteen on the charts:

[Excerpt: The Crystals, "Uptown"]

Little Eva later released her own version of the song, on the Dimension Dolls compilation we talked about in the episode on "The Loco-Motion":

[Excerpt: Little Eva, "Uptown"]

It was Little Eva who inspired the next Crystals single, as well -- as we talked about in the episode on her, she inspired a truly tasteless Goffin and King song called "He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss", which I will not be excerpting, but which was briefly released as the Crystals' third single, before being withdrawn after people objected to hearing teenage girls sing about how romantic and loving domestic abuse is.

There seems to be some suggestion that the record was released partly as a way for Spector to annoy Lester Sill, who by all accounts was furious at the release. Spector was angry at Sill over the amount of money he'd made from the Paris Sisters recordings, and decided that he was being treated unfairly and wanted to force Sill out of their partnership. Certainly the next recording by the Crystals was meant to get rid of some other business associates. Two of Philles' distributors had a contract which said they were entitled to the royalties on two Crystals singles. So the second one was a ten-minute song called "The Screw", split over two sides of a disc, which sounded like this:

[Excerpt: The Crystals, "The Screw"]

Only a handful of promotional copies of that were ever produced. One went to Lester Sill, who by this point had been bought out of his share of the company for a small fraction of what it was worth.

The last single Spector recorded for Philles while Sill was still involved with the label was another Crystals record, one that had the involvement of many people Sill had brought into Spector's orbit, and who would continue working with him long after the two men stopped working together. Spector had decided he was going to start recording in California again, and two of Sill's assistants would become regular parts of Spector's new hit-making machine.

The first of these was a composer and arranger called Jack Nitzsche, who we'll be seeing a lot more of in this podcast over the next couple of years, in some unexpected places. Nitzsche was a young songwriter, whose biggest credit up to this point was a very minor hit for Preston Epps, "Bongo, Bongo, Bongo":

[Excerpt: Preston Epps, "Bongo Bongo Bongo"]

Nitzsche would become Spector's most important collaborator, and his arrangements, as much as Spector's production, are what characterise the "Wall of Sound" for which Spector would become famous. 

The other assistant of Sill's who became important to Spector's future was a saxophone player named Steve Douglas. We've seen Douglas before, briefly, in the episode on "LSD-25" -- he played in the original lineup of Kip and the Flips, one of the groups we talked about in that episode. He'd left Kip and the Flips to join Duane Eddy's band, and it was through Eddy that he had started working with Sill, when he played on many of Eddy's hits, most famously "Peter Gunn":

[Excerpt: Duane Eddy, "Peter Gunn"]

Douglas was the union contractor for the session, and for most of the rest of Spector's sixties sessions. This is something we've not talked about previously, but when we look at records produced in LA for the next few years, in particular, it's something that will come up a lot. When a producer wanted to make records at the time, he (for they were all men) would not contact all the musicians himself. Instead, he'd get in touch with a trusted musician and say "I have a session at three o'clock. I need two guitars, bass, drums, a clarinet and a cello" (or whatever combination of instruments), and sometimes might say, "If you can get this particular player, that would be good". The musician would then find out which other musicians were available, get them into the studio, and file the forms which made sure they got paid according to union rules. The contractor, not the producer, decided who was going to play on the session.

In the case of this Crystals session, Spector already had a couple of musicians in mind -- a bass player named Ray Pohlman, and his old guitar teacher Howard Roberts, a jazz guitarist who had played on "To Know Him is to Love Him" and "I Love How You Love Me" for Spector already. But Spector wanted a *big* sound -- he wanted the rhythm instruments doubled, so there was a second bass player, Jimmy Bond, and a second guitarist, Tommy Tedesco. Along with them and Douglas were piano player Al de Lory and drummer Hal Blaine. This was the first session on which Spector used any of these musicians, and with the exception of Roberts, who hated working on Spector's sessions and soon stopped, this group put together by Douglas would become the core of what became known as "The Wrecking Crew", a loose group of musicians who would play on a large number of the hit records that would come out of LA in the sixties.

Spector also had a guaranteed hit song -- one by Gene Pitney.

While Pitney wrote few of his own records, he'd established himself a parallel career as a writer for other people. He'd written "Today's Teardrops", the B-side of Roy Orbison's hit "Blue Angel":

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Today's Teardrops"]

And had followed that up with a couple of the biggest hits of the early sixties, Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball":

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, "Rubber Ball"]

And Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou":

[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, "Hello, Mary Lou"]

Pitney had written a song, "He's a Rebel", that was very strongly inspired by "Uptown", and Aaron Schroeder, Pitney's publisher, had given the song to Spector. But Spector knew Schroeder, and knew that when he gave you a song, he was going to give it to every other producer who came knocking as well. "He's a Rebel" was definitely going to be a massive hit for someone, and he wanted it to be for the Crystals. He phoned them up and told them to come out to LA to record the song. And they said no.

The Crystals had become sick of Spector. He'd made them record songs like "He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss", he'd refused to let their lead singer sing lead, and they'd not seen any money from their two big hits. They weren't going to fly from New York to LA just because he said so.

Spector needed a new group, in LA, that he could record doing the song before someone else did it. He could use the Crystals' name -- Philles had the right to put out records by whoever they liked and call it the Crystals -- he just needed a group.

He found one in the Blossoms, a group who had connections to many of the people Spector was working with. Jack Nitzsche's wife sometimes sang with them on sessions, and they'd also sung on a Duane Eddy record that Lester Sill had worked on, "Dance With the Guitar Man", where they'd been credited as the Rebelettes:

[Excerpt: Duane Eddy, "Dance With the Guitar Man"]

The Blossoms had actually been making records in LA for nearly eight years at this point. They'd started out as the Dreamers one of the many groups who'd been discovered by Johnny Otis, back in the early fifties, and had also been part of the scene around the Penguins, one of whom went to school with some of the girls. They started out as a six-piece group, but slimmed down to a quartet after their first record, on which they were the backing group for Richard Berry:

[Excerpt: Richard Berry, "At Last"]

The first stable lineup of the Dreamers consisted of Fanita James, Gloria Jones (not the one who would later record "Tainted Love"), and the twin sisters Annette and Nanette Williams. They worked primarily with Berry, backing him on five singles in the mid fifties, and also recording songs he wrote for them under their own name, like "Do Not Forget", which actually featured another singer, Jennell Hawkins, on lead:

[Excerpt: The Dreamers, "Do Not Forget"]

They also sang backing vocals on plenty of other R&B records from people in the LA R&B scene -- for example it's them singing backing vocals, with Jesse Belvin, on Etta James' "Good Rocking Daddy":

[Excerpt: Etta James, "Good Rocking Daddy"]

The group signed to Capitol Records in 1957, but not under the name The Dreamers -- an executive there said that they all had different skin tones and it made them look like flowers, so they became the Blossoms. They were only at Capitol for a year, but during that time an important lineup change happened -- Nanette quit the group and was replaced by a singer called Darlene Wright.

From that point on The Blossoms was the main name the group went under, though they also recorded under other names, for example using the name The Playgirls to record "Gee But I'm Lonesome", a song written by Bruce Johnston, who was briefly dating Annette Williams at the time:

[Excerpt: The Playgirls, "Gee But I'm Lonesome"]

By 1961 Annette had left the group, and they were down to a trio of Fanita, Gloria, and Darlene. Their records, under whatever name, didn't do very well, but they became the first-call session singers in LA, working on records by everyone from Sam Cooke to Gene Autry. 

So it was the Blossoms who were called on in late 1962 to record "He's a Rebel", and it was Darlene Wright who earned her session fee, and no royalties, for singing the lead on a number one record:

[Excerpt: The "Crystals" (The Blossoms), "He's a Rebel"]

From that point on, the Blossoms would sing on almost every Spector session for the next three years, and Darlene, who he renamed Darlene Love, would become Spector's go-to lead vocalist for records under her own name, the Blossoms, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and the Crystals.

It was lucky for Spector that he decided to go this route rather than wait for the Crystals, not only because it introduced him to the Blossoms, but because  he'd been right about Aaron Schroeder. As Spector and Sill sat together in the studio where they were mastering the record, some musicians on a break from the studio next door wandered in, and said, "Hey man. we were just playing the same goddam song!"

Literally in the next room as Spector mastered the record, his friend Snuff Garrett was producing Vicki Carr singing "He's a Rebel":

[Excerpt: Vicki Carr, "He's a Rebel"]

Philles got their version out first, and Carr's record sank without trace, while "The Crystals" went to number one, keeping the song's writer off the top spot, as Gene Pitney sat at number two with a Bacharach and David song, "Only Love Can Break a Heart":

[Excerpt: Gene Pitney, "Only Love Can Break a Heart"]

The Crystals were shocked that Spector released a Crystals record without any of them on it, but La La Brooks had a similar enough voice to Darlene Love's that they were able to pull the song off live. They had a bit more of a problem with the follow-up, also by the Blossoms but released as the Crystals:

[Excerpt: "The Crystals"/The Blossoms, "He's Sure the Boy I Love"]

La La could sing that fine, but she had to work on the spoken part -- Darlene was from California and La La had a thick Brooklyn accent. She managed it, just about.

As La La was doing such a good job of singing Darlene Love's parts live -- and, more importantly, as she was only fifteen and so didn't complain about things like royalties -- the Crystals finally did get their way and have La La start singing the leads on their singles, starting with "Da Doo Ron Ron". The problem is, none of the other Crystals were on those records -- it was La La singing with the Blossoms, plus other session singers. Listen out for the low harmony in "Da Doo Ron Ron" and see if you recognise the voice:

[Excerpt: The Crystals, "Da Doo Ron Ron"]

Cher would later move on to bigger things than being a fill-in Crystal.

"Da Doo Ron Ron" became another big hit, making number three in the charts, and the follow-up, "Then He Kissed Me", with La La once again on lead vocals, also made the top ten, but the group were falling apart -- Spector was playing La La off against the rest of the group, just to cause trouble, and he'd also lost interest in them once he discovered another group, The Ronettes, who we'll be hearing more about in future episodes. The singles following "Then He Kissed Me" barely scraped the bottom of the Hot One Hundred, and the group left Philles in 1964. They got a payoff of five thousand dollars, in lieu of all future royalties on any of their recordings.

They had no luck having hits without Spector, and one by one the group members left, and the group split up by 1966. Mary, Barbara, and Dee Dee briefly reunited as the Crystals in 1971, and La La and Dee Dee made an album together in the eighties of remakes of the group's hits, but nothing came of any of these. Dee Dee continues to tour under the Crystals name in North America, while La La performs solo in America and under the Crystals name in Europe. Barbara, the lead singer on the group's first hits, died in 2018. Darlene Love continues to perform, but we'll hear more about her and the Blossoms in future episodes, I'm sure.

The Crystals were treated appallingly by Spector, and are not often treated much better by the fans, who see them as just interchangeable parts in a machine created by a genius. But it should be remembered that they were the ones who brought Spector the song that became the first Philles hit, that both Barbara and La La were fine singers who sang lead on classic hit records, and that Spector taking all the credit for a team effort doesn't mean he deserved it. Both the Crystals and the Blossoms deserved better than to have their identities erased in return for a flat session fee, in order to service the ego of one man.

Nov 16, 2020
BONUS: I Read The News Today Oh Boy -- The Profumo Affair
10:14

This month's ten-minute extra bonus episode on news events at the time we're looking at is on the Profumo Affair, and how a sex scandal transformed Britain. Click through to the full post to read a transcript.

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Transcript

Welcome to the second episode of "I Read the News Today, Oh Boy", the ten-minute bonus podcast I'm running monthly alongside the main podcast. In case you've forgotten from last month, in these bonus episodes I'm going to talk about aspects of the news that were happening at the same time as the music we're talking about, so you have some idea of the wider context in which the music was being made.

This month, we're going to look at the Profumo affair, which was one of the most important moments in post-War British history, not for anything that actually happened, but because of the change in cultural attitudes it created. A brief warning -- this one contains some mention of suicide, violence against women, and gun violence.

In 1963, the Conservative Party had been in power in Britain for twelve years, and as with any party in power for that long, it was starting to become unpopular. In that time there had been three different Prime Ministers -- Winston Churchill, who had returned to power in 1951 after losing the 1945 election, but who had retired before the 1955 election; Anthony Eden, who had replaced Churchill, and who had been Prime Minister during the Suez Crisis, which was the event that finally led to the realisation that Britain was no longer a major world power; and finally Harold Macmillan, an ageing, Patrician, figure who gave the impression of being an amiable but rather befuddled old man.

But the government was finally brought down by the first British sex scandal among the ruling classes ever to go public. John Profumo was a minor minister, never in the Cabinet but with a long history of ministerial roles. He was as establishment as you could get, having been educated at Harrow and Oxford, and he was technically the fifth Baron Profumo, a member of the Italian nobility, though he inherited his title during the Second World War at a time when Britain was at war with Italy, and the title was abolished soon afterwards. He had been the youngest MP to be elected in 1940, he'd gone and fought in the war and risen to the rank of Brigadier, and he was married to Valerie Hobson, an actor who had appeared in films such as Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, Great Expectations, and Kind Hearts and Coronets. 

Profumo had attended a party hosted by his friend Viscount Astor, where he'd been introduced by the society osteopath and artist Stephen Ward to Christine Keeler, a model who was twenty-seven years younger than him, and who had a very active love life. Keeler was involved with many men, and Profumo soon became one of them -- which caused problems with MI5. Because one of the other men with whom Keeler was involved was Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian spy in Britain who MI5 were trying to induce to defect, while Profumo was the Minister of War, in charge of Britain's defence. 

Profumo and Keeler's affair was quite brief, and would have been hushed up as these things usually were, except that one of Keeler's other lovers, a jazz promoter named Johnny Edgecombe, attacked another man, a singer called "Lucky" Gordon, after being told by Keeler that Gordon had assaulted her. Edgecombe became angry when Keeler refused to testify in his defence, and took a gun round to Stephen Ward's flat, where Keeler was staying, and shot five rounds into the building.

This brought Keeler to the attention not only of the police, but of the press, and the story was initially just about the shooting -- along with the excitement of the shooting itself there was also the prurient interest of a beautiful young woman with multiple lovers, and a chance for some good old-fashioned British racism, as Edgecombe and Gordon were Black.

But because of this interest, the press started sniffing around Keeler's other lovers, and discovered her connections with both Ivanov and Profumo. Up to this point, there had been a convention in the British media that one didn't attack people in power, but that had very slowly been changing over the last few years, to the point where it had become possible for the comedian Peter Cook to actually impersonate the Prime Minister on stage during the show "Beyond the Fringe":

[Excerpt: Peter Cook, "T.V.P.M"]

So the media didn't say anything explicit about it -- and even if there hadn't been questions of decorum they would probably have worried about British libel laws being used against them -- but they did start dropping subtle hints, which allowed anyone who knew the people involved but didn't know what had been happening to work it out. Least subtle of all was the satirical magazine Private Eye, owned by Peter Cook, which printed the details of the story, but just changed the names of everyone involved to things like "Miss Gaye Funloving" and "Vladimir Bolokhov".

Eventually, George Wigg, an MP for the opposition Labour Party, used Parliamentary privilege to bring the matter out into the open. Parliamentary privilege is an aspect of British law which means that an MP saying something in Parliament is not liable under the normal laws of slander and libel. Profumo denied everything to Parliament, but suspicion still remained.

Meanwhile, the police were getting suspicious of Stephen Ward, believing that he was acting as a pimp, rather than just as a friend of lots of people who happened to sometimes introduce them to one another. They started pressuring people who knew Ward to testify against him -- Mandy Rice-Davies, Keeler's flatmate, was arrested for a driving offence and held in prison for eight days until she agreed to testify. Stephen Ward went to various government ministers to try to get the police action against him halted, and he told them that he'd been covering for Profumo, who had lied to Parliament.

Profumo resigned from his ministerial position, and retired from public life -- he spent the rest of his very long life doing charity work in an attempt to rehabilitate himself, and seems to have been generally remorseful about the whole business. Stephen Ward, meanwhile, was put on trial for living off immoral earnings, though there seems little evidence that he was actually a pimp. But none of his friends would testify for him, and he was found guilty in absentia -- the night before the verdict was due, he took an overdose of sleeping pills, and he died in hospital a few days later without ever regaining consciousness. Keeler was imprisoned for several months for perjury in a related trial, about the assault she had claimed Lucky Gordon had committed -- Gordon was found not guilty of having attacked her. Keeler's life was ruined, and she spent the next fifty-three years having to live with having had her sex life made a topic of national discussion.

There were many more rumours about other people having been involved in compromising actions as part of Ward's set, including other ministers and members of the Royal family, but the truth of most of those rumours will never be known.

The Conservative government was fatally wounded by the affair -- Macmillan resigned shortly afterwards, claiming he had health problems which led him to suspect he would not live much longer, though in fact he lived for another twenty-three years, finally dying at the age of ninety-two in the mid-eighties. His successor, Alec Douglas-Home, remained in power a little less than a year before being defeated in late 1964 by the Labour Party.

That defeat let in one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century -- the Labour government that came in, and Roy Jenkins, who was Home Secretary for much of the next few years, abolished the death penalty, legalised sexual acts between men, legalised abortion, got rid of corporal punishment in the prison system, and ended censorship in the theatre, among many other things. And part of the reason they were able to do these things was because the Profumo affair had brought to light just how the people in power were behaving, and from that point on the media had decided politicians didn't deserve respect because of their office. While nothing has a single cause, you can trace all the social changes we'll see in Britain as we look at the sixties back to this point, and to a powerful man having an affair with a much younger woman.

Nov 16, 2020
Apology for Delays
00:44

Transcript

Hi, this is just a brief apology for the fact that things are going a bit slow at the moment with the podcast. I try to keep to a weekly schedule, but recently I've been having a bit of a flare-up of some of my chronic illnesses, which has in turn meant that I've not been sleeping very well, and it's very difficult to write or research when I'm brain-fogged. This has meant that instead of a seven-day episode turnaround, things have slipped a bit, and it's now taking about nine days, give or take, to get an episode done, and has done for a few weeks now. I'm recording this week's episode tonight, and it should be up soon – possibly tomorrow, maybe Monday – and I hope this flare-up passes soon and I can get back to my normal working speed. Thanks for your patience.
Nov 14, 2020
Episode 103: "Hitch-Hike" by Marvin Gaye
29:43

Episode one hundred and three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Hitch-Hike" by Marvin Gaye, and the early career of one of Motown's defining artists. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Any Other Way" by Jackie Shane.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Erratum

I say that Smokey Robinson was the only person allowed to be both a writer/producer and performer at Motown. That was Marvin Gaye's later statement, but at this point Eddie Holland was also still doing all those things.

 

Resources

As usual, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

For Motown-related information in this and other Motown episodes, I've used the following resources:

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown's thirty-year history.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 693 tracks released on Motown singles.

There is a Complete Motown Singles 1959-62 box available from Hip-O-Select with comprehensive liner notes, but if you just want the music, I recommend instead this much cheaper bare-bones box from Real Gone Music.

For information on Gaye specifically, I relied on Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz.

The best collection of Gaye's music is The Master, a four-disc box covering his recordings from "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" to the very last recordings of his life.

 

Transcript

A brief note -- this week's episode contains some minor mentions of parental and domestic abuse, and some discussions of homophobia. I don't think those mentions will be upsetting for anyone, but if you're unsure you might want to check the transcript before listening.

Today we're going to look at the start of one of the great careers in soul music, and one of the great artists to come out of the Motown hit factory. We're going to look at the continued growth of the Motown company, and at the personal relationships that would drive it in the 1960s, but would also eventually lead to its downfall. We're going to look at "Hitch-Hike", and the early career of Marvin Gaye:

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "Hitch-Hike"]

One thing we've not talked about much in the podcast so far is the way that the entertainment industry, until relatively recently, acted as a safety valve for society, a place where people who didn't fit in anywhere could build themselves a life and earn a living without playing along with the normal social conventions. And by instinct, temperament, and upbringing, Marvin Gaye was one of those people.

He was always someone who rubbed up against authority. He spent his youth fighting with his abusive father, and eventually left home to join the Air Force just to get away from his father. But he didn't stay long in the Air Force either -- he was discharged due to mental problems, which he later claimed he'd faked, with his honourable discharge stating "Marvin Gay cannot adjust to regimentation and authority".

Back in Washington DC, where he'd grown up, and feeling like a failure, he formed a doo-wop group called the Marquees -- in later years, Gaye would state that he'd come up with the name as a reference to the Marquis de Sade, but in fact Gaye hadn't heard of de Sade at the time. The Marquees were like a million doo-wop groups of the time, and leaned towards the sweeter end of doo-wop, particularly modelling themselves on the Moonglows.

The group performed around Washington, and came to the attention of Bo Diddley, who was living in the area and friends with a neighbour of the group. Diddley took them under his wing and wrote and produced both sides of their first single, which had another member, Reese Palmer, singing lead -- Palmer also claimed that he wrote both songs, but Diddley is credited and they certainly sound like Diddley's work to me. The tracks were originally backed by Diddley's band, but Okeh, the record label for whom they were recording, asked that one of the two sides, "Wyatt Earp", be rerecorded with session musicians like Panama Francis who played on almost every R&B record made on the East Coast at the time. Oddly, listening to both versions, the version with the session musicians sounds rather more raw and Bo-Diddleyesque than the one with Diddley's band. The result had a lot of the sound of the records the Coasters were making around the same time:

[Excerpt: The Marquees, "Wyatt Earp"]

At the same initial session, the Marquees also sang backing vocals on a record by Billy Stewart. We've encountered Stewart briefly before -- his first single, "Billy's Blues", was the first appearance of the guitar figure that later became the basis for "Love is Strange", and he played piano in Diddley's band. With Diddley's band and the Marquees he recorded "Billy's Heartache":

[Excerpt: Billy Stewart, "Billy's Heartache"]

However, the Marquees' first record did nothing, and the group were dropped by the label and went back to just playing clubs around Washington DC. It looked like their dreams of stardom were over. But one of the group's members, Chester Simmons, took a job as Bo Diddley's driver, and that was to lead to the group's second big break.

Diddley was on a tour with the Moonglows, who as well as being fellow Chess artists had also backed Diddley on records like "Diddley Daddy":

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, "Diddley Daddy"]

Harvey Fuqua, the group's leader, was complaining to Diddley about the rest of the group, and in particular about Bobby Lester, the group's tenor singer. He was thinking of dropping the entire group and getting a new, better, set of Moonglows to work with. Simmons heard Fuqua talking with Diddley about this, and suggested that the Marquees might be suitable for the job. When the tour hit DC, Fuqua auditioned the Marquees, and started working with them to get them up to the standard he needed, even while he was still continuing to tour with the original Moonglows.

Fuqua trained the Marquees in things like breath control. In particular, he had a technique he called "blow harmony", getting the group to sing with gentle, breathy, "whoo" sounds rather than the harder-edged "doo" sounds that most doo-wop groups used -- Fuqua was contemptuous of most doo-wop groups, calling them "gang groups". He taught the Marquees how to shape their mouths, how to use the muscles in their throats, and all the other techniques that most singers have to pick up intuitively or never learn at all. The breathy sound that Fuqua taught them was to become one of the most important techniques that Gaye would use as a vocalist throughout his career.

Fuqua took the group back with him to Chicago, and they added a sixth singer, Chuck Barkside, who doubled Simmons on the bass. There were attempts at expanding the group still further, as well -- David Ruffin, later the lead singer of the Temptations, auditioned for the group, but was turned down by Fuqua. 

The group, now renamed Harvey and the Moonglows, cut a few tracks for Chess, but most were never released, but they did better as backing vocalists. Along with Etta James, they sang the backing vocals on two hits by Chuck Berry, "Almost Grown" and "Back in the USA":

[Excerpt: Chuck Berry, "Back in the USA"]

At the time, Etta and Harvey were in a relationship, and Marvin took note -- being in a relationship with someone else in the industry could be good for your career. Marvin was starting to discover some other things, as well -- like that he really didn't enjoy being on stage, even though he loved singing, and that the strain of touring could be eased with the use of cannabis. Marvin didn't want to be on the stage at all -- he wanted to be making records. The studio was where he was comfortable.

The new Moonglows did release some recordings of their own, one of which, "Mama Loochie", had Marvin on lead vocals, and was cowritten by Marvin and Harvey:

[Excerpt: Harvey and the Moonglows, "Mama Loochie"]

Another record that featured Marvin, though not as lead vocalist, was "Twelve Months of the Year", an attempt to recapture the success of the original Moonglows' "Ten Commandments of Love". On that one, Marvin does the spoken recitation at the beginning and end, as well as singing backing vocals:

[Excerpt: Harvey and the Moonglows, "Twelve Months of the Year"]

But the Moonglows were coming to the end of their career -- and Harvey was also coming to the end of his relationship with Etta James. Anna Records, one of the labels owned by members of the Gordy family, had made a distribution agreement with Chess Records, and Leonard Chess suggested to Harvey that he move to Detroit and work with Anna as a Chess liaison. Soon Harvey Fuqua was fully part of the Gordy family, and he split up with Etta James and got into a relationship with Gwen Gordy. Gwen had split up with her own partner to be with Harvey -- and then Gwen and her ex, Roquel Davis, co-wrote a song about the split, which Etta James sang:

[Excerpt: Etta James, "All I Could Do Was Cry"]

Marvin had come with Harvey -- he'd signed with him as a solo artist, and Harvey thought that Marvin could become a Black Frank Sinatra, or better. Marvin was signed to Harvey Records, Harvey's label, but after Harvey and Gwen got together romantically, their various labels all got rolled up in the Motown family. At first, Marvin wasn't sure whether he would be recording at all once Harvey Records was shut down, but he made an impression on Berry Gordy by gatecrashing the Motown Christmas party in 1960 and performing "Mr. Sandman" at the piano.

Soon he found that Berry Gordy had bought out his recording contract, as well as a fifty percent share of his management, and he was now signed with Tamla. Marvin was depressed by this to an extent -- he saw Fuqua as a father figure -- but he soon came to respect Gordy. He also found that Gordy's sister Anna was very interested in him, and while she was seventeen years older than him, he didn't see that as something that should stand in the way of his getting together with the boss' sister. There was a real love between the twenty year old Marvin Gaye and the thirty-seven-year-old Anna Gordy, but Gaye also definitely realised that there was an advantage to becoming part of the family -- and Berry Gordy, in turn, thought that having his artists be part of his family would be an advantage in controlling them.

But right from the start, Marvin and Berry had different ideas about where Marvin's career should go. Marvin saw himself becoming a singer in the same style as Nat "King" Cole or Jesse Belvin, while Gordy wanted him to be an R&B singer like everyone else at Motown. While Marvin liked singers like Sam Cooke, he was also an admirer of people like Dean Martin and Perry Como -- he would later say that the sweaters he wore in many photos in the sixties were inspired by Como, and that "I always felt like my personality and Perry's had a lot in common".

They eventually compromised -- Marvin would record an album of old standards, but there would be an R&B single on it, one side written by Berry, and the other written by Harvey and Anna. The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye was only the second album released by Motown, which otherwise concentrated on singles, but neither it nor the single Berry wrote, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide", had any commercial success:

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide"]

As well as singing on the album, Marvin also played drums and piano, and while his singing career wasn't doing wonderfully at this point, he was becoming known around Motown for turning his hand to whatever was needed, from drumming on a session to sweeping the floor.

The most notable thing about the album, though, was that he changed the spelling of his surname, from Gay spelled G-a-y to G-a-y-e. He gave three different reasons for this, at least two of which were connected. 

The first one was that he was inspired by Sam Cooke, whose career he wanted to emulate. Cooke had added an "e" to his surname, and so Marvin was doing the same.

The second reason, though, was that by this time the word "gay" was already being used to refer to sexuality, and there were rumours floating around about Marvin's sexuality which he didn't want to encourage. He did like to wear women's clothing in private, and he said some things about his experience of gender which might suggest that he wasn't entirely cis, but he was only interested in women sexually, and was (like many people at the time) at least mildly homophobic. And like many people he confused sexuality and gender, and he desperately didn't want to be thought of as anything other than heterosexual.

But there was another aspect to this as well. His father was also someone who wore women's clothing, and tied in with Marvin's wish not to be thought of as gay was a wish not to be thought of as like his father, who was physically and emotionally abusive of him throughout his life. And his father was Marvin Gay senior. By adding the "e", as well as trying to avoid being thought of as gay, he was also trying to avoid being thought of as like his father.

While Marvin's first album was not a success, he was doing everything he could to get more involved with the label as a whole. He played drums on records, despite never having played the instrument before, simply because he wanted to be around the studio -- he played on a record we've already looked at, "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman"]

He played with the Miracles on occasion, and he also played on "I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call it the Blues" by Little Stevie Wonder:

[Excerpt, Little Stevie Wonder, "I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call it the Blues"]

And on "That's What Girls are Made For”by the Spinners (the group known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners):

[Excerpt: The Spinners, "That's What Girls are Made For"]

And he both co-wrote and played drums on "Beechwood 4-5789" by the Marvelettes, which made the top twenty: 

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Beechwood 4-5789"]

But this kind of thing ended up with Gaye being pushed by Berry Gordy in the direction of writing, which was not something he wanted to do. At that time in Motown, there was a strict demarcation, and the only person who was allowed to write *and* perform *and* produce was Smokey Robinson -- everyone else was either a writer/producer or a singer, and Marvin knew he wanted to be a singer first and foremost.

But Marvin's own records were flopping, and it was only because of Anna Gordy's encouragement that he was able to continue releasing records at all  -- if he hadn't given up himself, he would almost certainly have been dropped by the label. And indirectly, his first hit was inspired by Anna.

Marvin's attitude to authority was coming out again in his attitude towards Motown and Berry Gordy. By this point, Motown had set up its famous charm school -- a department of the label that taught its singers things like elocution, posture, how to dress and how to dance. Marvin absolutely refused to do any of that, although he later said he regretted it.

 Anna told him all the time that he was stubborn, and he started thinking about this, and jamming with Mickey Stevenson, the Motown staff songwriter and producer with whom he worked most closely, and who had started out as a singer with Lionel Hampton. The two of them came up with what Marvin later described as a "basic jazz feeling", and then Berry Gordy suggested a few extra chords they could stick in, and the result was "Stubborn Kind of Fellow":

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow"]

You can hear what he meant about that starting out with a jazz feel, most notably with Beans Bowles' flute part, but the finished product was very much an R&B record -- Marvin sounds more like Ray Charles than Sinatra or Como, and the backing vocals by Martha and the Vandellas are certainly not anything that you would have got behind a crooner. The record went right up the R&B chart, making the R&B top ten, but it didn't cross over to the pop audience that Gaye was after. He was disappointed, because what he wanted more than anything else was to get a white audience, because he knew that was where the money was, but after getting an R&B hit, he knew he would have to do as so many other Black entertainers had, and play to Black audiences for a long time before he crossed over.

And that also meant going out on tour, something he hated. At the end of 1962 he was put on the bill of the Motortown Revue, along with the Contours, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Little Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, and the Miracles. On the live album from that tour, recorded at the Apollo, you can hear Gaye still trying to find a balance between his desire to be a Sinatra-type crooner appealing to a white audience, and his realisation that he was going to have to appeal to a Black audience. The result has him singing "What Kind of Fool Am I?", the Anthony Newley show tune, but sticking in interpolations inspired by Ray Charles:

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "What Kind of Fool Am I?"]

This was a real concern for him. He would later say "Commercially, though, I learned quickly that it was primarily my people who were going to support me. I vowed always to take care of them, give 'em the funk they wanted. It wasn't my first choice, but there's integrity in the idea of pleasing your own people. Secretly, I yearned to sing for rich Republicans in tuxes and tails at the Copacabana. No matter."

He hated that tour, but some of the musicians on the tour thought it was what made him into a star -- specifically, they knew that Gaye had stage fright, hated being on stage, and would not put his all into a live performance. Unless they put Little Stevie Wonder on before him. Wonder's performances were so exciting that Gaye had to give the audience everything he had or he'd get booed off the stage, and Gaye started to rise to the challenge. He would still get stage fright, and try to get out of performing live at all, but when he turned up and went on stage he became a captivating performer.

And that was something that was very evident on the first recording he made after coming off the tour. The Apollo recording we just heard was from the last week of the tour, and two days after it concluded, on December 19th 1962, Marvin Gaye was back in the studio, where he felt most comfortable, writing a song with Mickey Stevenson and Clarence Paul. While there were three writers of the song, the bulk of it was written by Gaye, who came up with the basic groove before the other writers got involved, and who played both piano and drums on the record:

[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, "Hitch-Hike"]

"Hitch-Hike" became Gaye's first real crossover hit -- it made number twelve on the R&B chart, but also made the top forty on the pop chart, largely because of his appearances on American Bandstand, where he demonstrated a new dance he'd made up, involving sticking your thumb out like a hitch-hiker, which became a minor craze among Bandstand's audiences -- we're still in the period where a novelty dance was the most important thing in having a hit. The song also became the first Marvin Gaye song to get covered on a regular basis. The first cover version of it was by the Vandellas, who sang backing vocals on Marvin's version, and who used the same backing track for their own recording -- this was something that happened often with Motown, and if you listen to albums by Motown artists in the sixties, you'll frequently hear a hit single with different vocals on it:

[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Hitch-Hike"]

But while Martha and the Vandellas were the first to cover "Hitch-Hike", they were far from the only ones -- it became a favourite for white rock groups like the Sonics or the Rolling Stones to cover, and it would be the inspiration for many more rock records by people who wanted to show they could play soul.

By June 1963, Marvin Gaye was a bona fide star, and married to Anna Gordy. He was even able to buy his mother a house. But while everything seemed to be going swimmingly as far as the public were concerned, there were already problems -- at their wedding reception, Gaye and Anna got into a huge row which ended up with Anna hitting Gaye on the head with her shoe heel. And while he'd bought the house for his mother, his father was still living with her, and still as toxic as he had ever been. 

But for the moment, those things didn't matter. Marvin Gaye was on top of the world, and had started a run of singles that would come to define the Motown sound, and he was also becoming a successful songwriter -- and the next time we look at him, it'll be for a classic song he wrote for someone else.

Nov 05, 2020
Episode 102: "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers
37:24

Episode one hundred and two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers, and the early career of Bert Berns. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "How Do You Do It?" by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

No Mixcloud this week, due to the number of songs by the Isleys.

Amazingly, there are no books on the Isley Brothers, unless you count a seventy-two page self-published pamphlet by Rudolph Isley's daughter, so I've had to piece this together from literally dozens of different sources.

For information about the Isley Brothers the main source was  Icons of R&B and Soul by Bob Gulla

The information about Bert Berns comes from Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin.

There are many compilations of the public-domain recordings of the Isleys. This one seems the most complete.

This three-CD set, though, is the best overview of the group's whole career.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today we're going to look at one of the great Brill Building songwriters, and at a song he wrote which became a classic both of soul and of rock music. We're going to look at how a novelty Latin song based around a dance craze was first taken up by one of the greatest soul groups of the sixties, and then reworked by the biggest British rock band of all time. We're going to look at "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers.

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Twist and Shout"]

When we left the Isley Brothers, they had just signed to Atlantic, and released several singles with Leiber and Stoller, records like "Standing on the Dance Floor" that were excellent R&B records, but which didn't sell:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Standing on the Dance Floor"]

In 1962 they were dropped by Atlantic and moved on to Wand Records, the third label started by Florence Greenberg, who had already started Tiara and Scepter. As with those labels, Luther Dixon was in charge of the music, and he produced their first single on the label, a relatively catchy dance song called "The Snake", which didn't catch on commercially:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "The Snake"]

While "The Snake" didn't sell, the Isley Brothers clearly had some commercial potential -- and indeed their earlier hit "Shout" had just recharted, after Joey Dee and the Starliters had a hit with a cover version of it. All that was needed was the right song, and they could be as big as Luther Dixon's other group, the Shirelles. And Dixon had just the song for them -- a song co-written by Burt Bacharach, and sung on the demo by a young singer called Dionne Warwick. Unfortunately, they spent almost all the session trying and failing to get the song down -- they just couldn't make it work -- and eventually they gave up on it, and Bacharach produced the song for Jerry Butler, the former lead singer of the Impressions, who had a top twenty hit with it:

[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, "Make it Easy on Yourself"]

So they were stuck without a song to record -- and then Dixon's assistant on the session, Bert Berns, suggested that they record one of his songs -- one that had been a flop for another group the previous year.

The story of "Twist and Shout" actually starts with a group called the Five Pearls, who made their first record in 1954:

[Excerpt: The Five Pearls, "Please Let Me Know"]

The Five Pearls recorded under various different names, and in various different combinations, for several different mid-sized record labels like Aladdin throughout the 1950s, but without much success -- the closest they came was when one of the members, Dave "Baby" Cortez, went solo and had a hit with "The Happy Organ" in 1959:

[Excerpt: Dave "Baby" Cortez, "The Happy Organ"]

But in 1960 two members of the Pearls -- who used different names at different points of their career, but at this point were calling themselves Derek Ray and Guy Howard, signed to Atlantic as a new duo called The Top Notes. Their first single under this name, "A Wonderful Time", did no better than any of their other records had -- but by their third single, they were being produced by a new staff producer -- Phil Spector, who had started taking on production jobs that Leiber and Stoller weren't interested in doing themselves, like a remake of the old folk song "Corrina, Corrina", which had been an R&B hit for Big Joe Turner and which Spector produced for the country singer Ray Peterson:

[Excerpt: Ray Peterson, "Corrina, Corrina"]

But soon after that, Spector had broken with Leiber and Stoller. Spector was given the opportunity to co-write songs for the new Elvis film, Blue Hawaii. But he was signed to a publishing contract with Leiber and Stoller's company, Trio Music, and they told Hill & Range that he could only do the songs if Trio got half the publishing, which Hill & Range refused -- there was apparently some talk of them going ahead anyway, but Hill & Range were scared of Trio's lawyer, one of the best in the entertainment industry. This wouldn't be the last time that Phil Spector and Lee Eastman ended up on the opposite sides of a disagreement.

Shortly after that, Spector's contract mysteriously went missing from Trio's office. Someone remembered that Spector happened to have a key to the office.

But by this point Spector had co-written or co-produced a fair few hits, and so he was taken on by Atlantic on his own merits, and so he and Jerry Wexler co-produced singles for the Top Notes, with arrangements by Teddy Randazzo, who we last heard of singing with accordion accompaniment in The Girl Can't Help It.

The first of these Top Notes singles, "Hearts of Stone", was an obvious attempt at a Ray Charles soundalike, with bits directly lifted both from "What'd I Say" and Charles' hit "Sticks and Stones":

[Excerpt: The Top Notes, "Hearts of Stone"]

But the next Top Notes release was the song that would make them at least a footnote in music history. The writing credit on it was Bert Russell and Phil Medley, and while Medley would have little impact on the music world otherwise, the songwriter credited as Bert Russell is worth us looking at.

His actual name was Bertrand Russell Berns -- he had been named after the famous philosopher -- and he was a man on a mission. He was already thirty-one, and he knew he didn't have long to live -- he'd had rheumatic fever as a child and it had given him an incurable heart condition. He had no idea how long he had, but he knew he wasn't going to live to a ripe old age. And he'd wasted his twenties already -- he'd tried various ways to get into showbiz, with no success. He'd tried a comedy double act, and at one point had moved to Cuba, where he'd tried to buy a nightclub but backed out when he'd realised it was actually a brothel. 

On his return to the US, he'd started working as a songwriter in the Brill Building. In the late fifties he worked for a while with the rockabilly singer Ersel Hickey -- no relation to me -- who had a minor hit with "Bluebirds Over the Mountain":

[Excerpt: Ersel Hickey, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain"]

Berns was proud just to know Hickey, though, because "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" had been covered by Ritchie Valens, and "La Bamba" was Berns' favourite record -- one he would turn to for inspiration throughout his career. He loved Latin music generally -- it had been one of the reasons he'd moved to Cuba -- but that song in particular was endlessly fascinating to him.

He'd written and produced a handful of recordings in the early fifties, before his Cuba trip, but it was on his return that he started to be properly productive. He'd started producing novelty records with a friend called Bill Giant, like a song based on the Gettysburg Address:

[Excerpt: Bert and Bill Giant, "The Gettysburg Address"]

Or a solo record about the Alamo -- at the time Berns seemed to think that songs about American history were going to be the next big thing:

[Excerpt: Bert Berns, "The Legend of the Alamo"]

He'd co-written a song called "A Little Bird Told Me" with Ersel Hickey -- not the same as the song of the same name we talked about a year or so ago -- and it was recorded by LaVern Baker:

[Excerpt: LaVern Baker, "A Little Bird Told Me"]

And he and Medley co-wrote "Push Push" for Austin Taylor:

[Excerpt: Austin Taylor, "Push Push"]

But he was still basically a nobody in the music industry in 1961. But Jerry Wexler had produced that LaVern Baker record of "A Little Bird Told Me", and he liked Berns, and so he accepted a Berns and Medley cowrite for the next Top Notes session. 

The song in question had started out as one called "Shake it Up Baby", based very firmly around the chords and melody of "La Bamba", but reimagined with the Afro-Cuban rhythms that Berns loved so much -- and then further reworked to reference the Twist dance craze. Berns was sure it was a hit -- it was as catchy as anything he could write, and full of hooks. 

Berns was allowed into the studio to watch the recording, which was produced by Wexler and Spector, but he wasn't allowed to get involved -- and he watched with horror as Spector flattened the rhythm and totally rewrote the middle section. Spector also added in backing vocals based on the recent hit "Handy Man" -- a "come-a-come-a" vocal line that didn't really fit the song. The result was actually quite a decent record, but despite being performed by all the usual Atlantic session players like King Curtis, and having the Cookies do their usual sterling job on backing vocals, "Twist and Shout" by the Top Notes was a massive flop, and Berns could tell it would be even during the session:

[Excerpt: The Top Notes, "Twist and Shout"]

The Top Notes soon split up, making no real further mark on the industry -- when Guy Howard died in 1977, he had reverted to his original name Howard Guyton, and the Top Notes were so obscure that his obituaries focused on his time in one of the later touring versions of the Platters.

Berns was furious at the way that Spector had wrecked his song, and decided that he was going to have to start producing his own songs, so they couldn't be messed up. But that was put on the back burner for a while, as he started having success. His first chart success as a songwriter was with a song he wrote for a minor group called the Jarmels. By this time, the Drifters were having a lot of success with their use of the same Latin and Caribbean rhythms that Berns liked, and so he wrote "A Little Bit of Soap" in the Drifters' style, and it made the top twenty:

[Excerpt: The Jarmels, "A Little Bit of Soap"]

He also started making non-novelty records of his own. Luther Dixon at Wand Records heard one of Berns' demos, and decided he should be singing, not just writing songs. Berns was signed to Wand Records as a solo artist under the name "Russell Byrd", and his first single for the label was produced by Dixon. The song itself is structurally a bit of a mess -- Berns seems to have put together several hooks (including some from other songs) but not thought properly about how to link them together, and so it meanders a bit -- but you can definitely see a family resemblance to "Twist and Shout" in the melody, and in Carole King's string arrangement:

[Excerpt: Russell Byrd, "You'd Better Come Home"]

That made the top fifty, and got Berns a spot on American Bandstand, but it was still not the breakout success that Berns needed.

While Berns had been annoyed at Spector for the way he'd messed up "Twist and Shout", he clearly wasn't so upset with him that they couldn't work together, because the second Russell Byrd session, another Drifters knockoff, was produced by Spector:

[Excerpt: Russell Byrd, "Nights of Mexico"]

But Berns was still looking to produce his own material. He got the chance when Jerry Wexler called him up.

Atlantic were having problems -- while they had big vocal groups like the Drifters and the Coasters, they'd just lost their two biggest male solo vocalists, as Bobby Darin and Ray Charles had moved on to other labels. They had recently signed a gospel singer called Solomon Burke, and he'd had a minor hit with a version of an old country song, "Just Out of Reach":

[Excerpt: Solomon Burke, "Just Out of Reach"]

Burke was the closest thing to a male solo star they now had, and clearly a major talent, but he was also a very opinionated person, and not easy to get on with. His grandmother had had a dream, twelve years before he was born, in which she believed God had told her of her future grandson's importance. She'd founded a church, Solomon's Temple: The House Of God For All People, in anticipation of his birth, and he'd started preaching there from the age of seven as the church's spiritual leader. Rather unsurprisingly, he had rather a large ego, and that ego wasn't made any smaller by the fact that he was clearly a very talented singer.

His strong opinions included things like how his music was to be marketed. He was fine with singing pop songs, rather than the gospel music he'd started out in, as he needed the money -- he had eight kids, and as well as being a singer and priest, he was also a mortician, and had a side job shovelling snow for four dollars an hour -- but he wasn't keen on being marketed as "rhythm and blues" -- rhythm and blues was dirty music, not respectable. His music needed to be called something else. After some discussion with Atlantic, everyone agreed on a new label that would be acceptable to his church, one that had previously been applied to a type of mostly-instrumental jazz influenced by Black gospel music, but from this point on would be applied almost exclusively to Black gospel-influenced pop music in the lineage of Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. Burke was not singing rhythm and blues, but soul music.

Wexler had produced Burke's first sessions, but he always thought he worked better when he had a co-producer, and he liked a song Berns had written, "Cry to Me", another of his Drifters soundalikes. So he asked Berns into the studio to produce Burke singing that song. The two didn't get on very well at first -- Burke's original comment on meeting Berns was "Who is this Paddy mother--" except he included the expletive that my general audience content rating prevents me from saying there -- but it's hard to argue with the results, one of the great soul records of all time:

[Excerpt: Solomon Burke, "Cry to Me"]

That made the top five on the R&B chart, and started a run of hits for Burke, whose records would continue to be produced by the team of Berns and Wexler for the next several years.

After this initial production success, Berns started producing many other records, most of them again unsuccessful, like a cheap Twist album to cash in on the resurgent Twist craze. And he was still working with Wand records, which is what led to him being invited to assist Dixon with the Isley Brothers session for "Make it Easy on Yourself". 

When they couldn't get a take done for that track, Berns suggested that they make an attempt at "Twist and Shout", which he still thought had the potential to be a hit, and which would be perfectly suited to the Isley Brothers -- after all, their one hit was "Shout!", so "Twist and Shout" would be the perfect way for them to get some relevance. 

The brothers hated the song, and they didn't want to record any Twist material at all -- apparently they were so vehemently against recording the song that furniture got smashed in the argument over it. But Luther Dixon insisted that they do it, and so they reluctantly recorded "Twist and Shout", and did it the way Bert Berns had originally envisioned it, Latin feel and all:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Twist and Shout"]

It's a testament to Ronald Isley's talent, in particular, that he sounds utterly committed on the record despite it being something he had no wish to take part in at all. 

The record made the top twenty on the pop chart and number two in R&B, becoming the Isleys' first real mainstream hit. It might have even done better, but for an unfortunate coincidence -- "Do You Love Me" by the Contours, a song written by Berry Gordy, was released on one of the Motown labels a couple of weeks later, and had a very similar rising vocal hook:

[Excerpt: The Contours, "Do You Love Me"]

"Do You Love Me" was a bigger hit, making number three in the pop charts and number one R&B, but it's hard not to think that the two records being so similar must have eaten into the market for both records.

But either way, "Twist and Shout" was a proper big hit for the Isleys, and one that established them as real stars, and Berns became their regular producer for a while. Unfortunately, both they and Berns floundered about what to do for a follow-up. The first attempt was one of those strange records that tries to mash up bits of as many recent hits as possible, and seems to have been inspired by Jan & Dean's then-recent hit with a revival of the 1946 song "Linda":

[Excerpt: Jan and Dean, "Linda"]

That song was, coincidentally, written about the daughter of Lee Eastman, the lawyer we mentioned earlier. "Twistin' With Linda", the brothers' response, took the character from that song, and added the melody to the recent novelty hit "Hully Gully", lyrical references to "Twist and Shout" and Chubby Checker's Twist hits, and in the tag Ronald Isley sings bits of "Shout", "Don't You Just Know It", "Duke of Earl", and for some reason "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Twistin' With Linda"]

That only made the lower reaches of the charts. Their next single was "Nobody But Me", which didn't make the hot one hundred, but would later be covered by the Human Beinz, making the top ten in their version in 1968:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Nobody But Me"]

With Berns still producing, the Isleys moved over to United Artists records, but within a year of "Twist and Shout", they were reduced to remaking it as "Surf and Shout", with lyrics referencing another Jan and Dean hit, "Surf City":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Surf and Shout"]

Oddly, while they were doing this, Berns was producing them on much more interesting material for album tracks, but for some reason, even as Berns was also by now producing regular hits for Solomon Burke, Ben E King and the Drifters, the Isleys were stuck trying to jump on whatever the latest bandwagon was in an attempt at commercial success. Even when they were writing songs that would become hits, they were having no success. The last of the songs that Berns produced for them was another Isleys original, "Who's That Lady?":

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Who's That Lady?"]

That would become one of the group's biggest hits, but not until they remade it nine years later. It was only two years since "Twist and Shout", but the Isley Brothers were commercially dead.

But the success of "Twist and Shout" -- and their songwriting royalties from "Shout" -- gave them the financial cushion to move to comparatively better surroundings -- and to start their own record label. They moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and named their new label T-Neck in its honour. They also had one of the best live bands in the US at the time, and the first single on T-Neck, "Testify", produced by the brothers themselves, highlighted their new guitar player, Jimmy James:

[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Testify"]

But even while he was employed by the Isleys, Jimmy James was playing on other records that were doing better, like Don Covay's big hit "Mercy, Mercy":

[Excerpt: Don Covay and the Goodtimers, "Mercy, Mercy"]

And he soon left the Isleys, going on first to tour with a minor soul artist supporting Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, and then to join Little Richard's band, playing on Richard's classic soul ballad "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me", also written by Don Covay:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me"]

We'll be picking up the story of Jimmy James in a couple of months' time, by which point he will have reverted to his birth name and started performing as Jimi Hendrix.

But for the moment, this is where we leave Hendrix and the Isley Brothers, but they will both, of course, be turning up again in the story. But of course, that isn't all there is to say about "Twist and Shout", because the most famous version of the song isn't the Isleys'. While the Beatles' first single had been only a minor hit, their second, "Please Please Me", went to number one or two in the  UK charts, depending on which chart you look at, and they quickly recorded a follow-up album, cutting ten songs in one day to add to their singles to make a fourteen-track album. Most of the songs they performed that day were cover versions that were part of their live act -- versions of songs by Arthur Alexander, the Cookies, and the Shirelles, among others.

 John Lennon had a bad cold that day, and so they saved the band's live showstopper til last, because they knew that it would tear his throat up. Their version of "Twist and Shout" was only recorded in one take -- Lennon's voice didn't hold up enough for a second -- but is an undoubted highlight of the album:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Twist and Shout"]

Suddenly Bert Berns had a whole new market to work in. And so when we next look at Bert Berns, he will be working with British beat groups, and starting some of the longest-lasting careers in British R&B.

 

Oct 26, 2020
Episode 101: "Telstar" by the Tornados
52:49

Episode 101 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs is the first one of the podcast's third year. This one looks at "Telstar" by the Tornados, and the tragic life of Joe Meek, Britain's first great pop auteur. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Apologies for the lateness of this one -- my two-week break got extended when my computer broke down.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

Most of the information here comes from The Legendary Joe Meek: The Telstar Man by John Repsch. Some bits come from Clem Cattini: My Life Through the Eye of a Tornado.

This compilation contains most of the important singles Meek produced, with the notable exceptions of the Tornados' singles. This, meanwhile, contains the early records he engineered before going into production. This is probably the best compilation of the Tornados' music available.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Welcome to the third year of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, and welcome to the future! Although for this particular future we're actually going backwards a couple of months. This episode and the next one are both about records that were released a little before "Love Me Do", which the most recent episode covered, and that's something I should point out -- the podcast is never going to be absolutely chronological, and in this case it made sense to tell that story before these ones.

Before we start this episode, I need to give warnings for a whole lot of different things, because we're looking at one of the most tragic stories we'll see during the course of this podcast. This story contains discussion of occultism, severe mental illness, legalised homophobia,  an unsolved probably homophobic murder, and a murder-suicide. I am going to try to deal with all those subjects as sensitively as possible, but if you might become distressed by hearing about those things, you might want to skip this episode, or at least read the transcript before listening.

I also want to make something very clear right now -- this episode deals with a mentally ill man who commits a murder. He did not commit that murder *because* he was mentally ill. Mental illness is far more likely to make someone the victim of a crime than the perpetrator, and I have known many, many people who have had the same symptoms but who have not committed such awful acts. It is impossible to talk about the events in this episode without the risk of increasing stigma for mentally ill people, but I hope by saying this I can reduce that risk at least somewhat.

Today we're going to look at the first British rock and roll record to make number one in the USA, and at the career of the first independent record producer and engineer in Britain. We're going to look at the sad life and tragic end of Joe Meek, and at "Telstar" by the Tornadoes:

[Excerpt: The Tornadoes, "Telstar"]

Joe Meek is someone who has become something of a legend among music lovers, and he's someone whose music is more talked about than listened to. People talk about him as a genius, but rather fewer of them explain what it was that he did that was so impressive. This is partly because, more than much of the music of the era, it requires context to appreciate. Meek was a producer above all else -- he had no real knowledge of music, and had no ear for singers. What Meek did know was sounds, and how to achieve sounds in the recording studio that could not be achieved anywhere else.

Meek had, from a very young age, been fascinated by the possibilities of both sound and electronics. He had experimented with both as a child, and when he'd moved to London he'd quickly found himself jobs where he could make use of that -- he'd started out as a TV repairman, but quickly moved on to working at IBC, one of the few independent studios in existence. There he was given the job of assistant engineer on a Radio Luxembourg show that was recorded live in theatres up and down the country -- he had to plug in all the mics and so on. He soon moved on to editing the tape recordings, and then to working the controls himself.

As well as being main engineer on the radio show, though, he was also still an assistant engineer in the studio for music sessions, and for a long time that was all he was doing. However, he kept trying to get more involved in recording the music, and eventually to shut him up the studio boss gave him the chance to be the main engineer at a session -- for a twenty-piece string section. The boss assumed that Meek wouldn't be able to handle such a complicated assignment as his first engineering job, and that he'd be kept quiet if he knew how hard the job was. Instead, he did such a good job balancing the sound that the musicians in the studio applauded the playback, and he was quickly promoted to senior balance engineer.

The world got its first small inkling of what Meek could do in 1956, when he created the unique sound of "Bad Penny Blues", a record by the trad jazz trumpet player Humphrey Lyttleton.

"Bad Penny Blues" actually happened more or less by accident, at least as far as the musicians were concerned. There was a five-piece band in the studio, but the saxophone player had to leave early, and so they were stuck for what to record once he was gone. Denis Preston, the producer in charge of the session, suggested that they just play a blues, and so they improvised a boogie woogie piece, based around something they played in the clubs -- Johnny Parker, the piano player, played somewhat in the style of Dan Burley, the man who had coined the term "skiffle". But what made the track wasn't the group or the producer, but the engineering:

[Excerpt: Humphrey Lyttleton, "Bad Penny Blues"]

These days, that doesn't sound all that revolutionary, but when they heard it back the group were furious at what Meek had done to the sound, because it just didn't sound like what they were used to.

 There were several innovative things about it, at least for a British record, but one of the most important was that Meek had actually bothered to mic the drum kit separately -- at this point in British studios, which were several years behind American ones, it was considered unnecessary to mic the drums properly, as their sound would get into the other microphones anyway, because the musicians were all playing together in the same room. If you really wanted a good drum sound, you'd hang a single mic over the drummer's head. Meek was using separate mics for each drum on the kit.

Because of this, Meek had managed to get a drum sound which was unlike anything that had been heard in a British record before. You can actually *hear* the kick drum. It sounds normal now, but that's because everyone who followed Meek realised that actually bothering to record the drums was something worth doing. 

There was another thing Meek did, which again you will almost certainly not have noticed when listening to that recording -- he had added a lot of compression.

Compression is a standard part of the sound engineer's toolkit, and a simple one to understand. All it does is make quiet sounds louder and loud sounds quieter. Used sparingly, it gives a recording a little more punch, and also evens out the sound a bit. So for example, when you're listening to a playlist on Spotify, that playlist applies a little compression to everything, so when you go from a Bach piece for solo piano to a Slayer track, you can hear the Bach piece but your earbuds don't make your eardrums bleed when the Slayer record comes on.

By the way, this is one of those words that gets used confusingly, because the word "compression", when referring to Internet sound files such as MP3s, has a totally different meaning, so you might well see someone talking about compression of a recording in ways that seem to contradict this. But when I refer to compression in this episode, and in any of the episodes in the foreseeable future, I mean what I've talked about here.

Generally speaking, recordings have had steadily more compression applied to them over the decades, and so the moderate use of compression on "Bad Penny Blues" might not sound like much to modern ears -- especially since when older recordings have been reissued, they almost always have additional compression on them, so even when I've excerpted things in these episodes, they've sounded more compressed than the original recordings did. But Meek would soon start using a *lot* more compression, even than is used these days, and that drastically changed the character of the sound.

To show what I mean, here's me playing a few bars on the guitar, recorded with no compression whatsoever:

[guitar]

Here's the same recording with a touch of compression:

[guitar with compression]

And the same recording with a *lot* of compression:

[guitar with steadily more compression added]

This was one of the things that Meek would do over the course of his career, and which very few other people were doing at the time in the UK. 

"Bad Penny Blues" became one of the most important British jazz records ever -- probably *the* most important British jazz record ever -- and it made the top twenty, which never happened with jazz records at the time. Meek's reputation as an innovative engineer was set.

Shortly after "Bad Penny Blues", Meek was given his first opportunity to indulge his love of sound effects, on what became one of the biggest-selling British records of the year. Anne Shelton was recording a military-themed song, and the producer suggested that they needed the sound of marching feet. Rather than play in something from a sound-effects album, which was what the producer expected but which wouldn't have been in time with the music, Meek got a box of gravel and had someone shake it in time with the music. The result did sound exactly like marching feet, though the dust from the gravel apparently made Shelton's new suit into a mess, and the record went to number one for a month:

[Excerpt: Anne Shelton, "Lay Down Your Arms"]

Another hit Meek engineered in the mid-fifties has led to an urban myth that's been repeated unquestioningly even in the Guardian, even though a second's thought proves that it's nonsense. Frankie Vaughan's "Green Door" went to number two in 1957:

[Excerpt: Frankie Vaughan, "Green Door"]

That line, "When I said 'Joe sent me' someone laughed out loud" has been taken to be referring to Meek himself, and a whole elaborate mythology has been spun around this. As Meek was gay, and as there was a lesbian club called The Gateways in London which happened to have a green door, people have stated as fact that the song is about that club, and that the people in there were laughing because a man was trying to get into a lesbian club.

There's only one slight problem with this, which is that it's complete nonsense. For a start, while Meek was gay, he saw being gay as an affliction, something to be ashamed of, and was hardly likely to make a whole jokey record about that — at least at this time. He did some things later on.

Then there's the fact that Meek was at the time only a moderately-known engineer, not the famous producer and songwriter he became later.

But more important than either of those things -- the song was a cover of an American hit record by Jim Lowe, written by songwriters who had almost certainly never even been to Britain. And the line about "Joe"? That was in the original, and was a reference to a 1954 hit on the same lines, "Hernando's Hideaway":

[Excerpt: Ella Fitzgerald, "Hernando's Hideaway"]

During this early period of his career, Meek was recording all sorts of music. While the bread-and-butter work of a recording engineer at the time was orchestral pop covers of American records, he also engineered skiffle records by Lonnie Donegan, with a stinging guitar sound he would later use on many other records:

[Excerpt: Lonnie Donegan, "Cumberland Gap"]

Calypso records by people like Lord Invader or the Mighty Terror:

[Excerpt: Mighty Terror, "T.V. Calypso"]

And jazz records by Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, and Humphrey Lyttleton, usually produced by Denis Preston, who after "Bad Penny Blues" insisted on using Meek for all of his sessions. Because of this connection, Meek also got to engineer some of the very first blues records cut in Britain. Barber would bring over American folk-blues artists to tour with him -- and we'll be looking at the consequences of that for much of the next three years -- and Preston arranged sessions, engineered by Meek, for Big Bill Broonzy:

[Excerpt: Big Bill Broonzy, "When Do I Get To Be Called A Man?"]

And Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee -- who wouldn't seem a natural fit with Meek's very artificial style, but the echo he applies to Terry's harmonica, in particular, gives it a haunting feel that really works, to my ears at least:

[Excerpt: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, "Key to the Highway"]

But while Meek was becoming the best engineer in Britain, he was not getting on at all well with his boss. In large part this was because of the boss in question being extremely homophobic, so when Meek refused to work with assistants he perceived as incompetent and insisted on other ones, the boss assumed he wanted to work with people he fancied.

In fact, Meek was just being a perfectionist -- but he was also very prone to mood swings and stubbornness, and bursts of paranoia. He started to think that the people he was working with were stealing his ideas. 

And he was having a lot of ideas. As well as close-micing instruments, adding compression as a sound effect, and adding extra echo, all of which were almost unknown in British studios at the time, he was also the first person in Britain to deliberately add distortion to a sound, and he also came up with a primitive method of multi-tracking, at a time when everything in British studios was recorded straight to mono. He would record a backing track, then play it back into the studio for the musicians to play along with, rerecording the backing track into another microphone. This way of working round the limitations of the studio ended up giving some of the records a swimmy sound because of loss of fidelity, but Meek leaned into that, and it became a signature of his music even after he eventually gained access to multi-track recording.

So Meek knew he would have to move on from just being an engineer, working for a homophobe who also didn't appreciate his talents. He needed to become a producer, and this is where Denis Preston came in. Preston was himself an independent record producer -- the only one in Europe at the time. He would make records and only after they were recorded would he make an agreement with a record label to release them. 

Meek wanted to go even further than Preston -- he wanted to become the first independent producer *and engineer* in the UK. Up to this point, in Britain, the jobs of producer and engineer were separate. Meek had recently built a tiny studio in his flat, for recording demos, and he had cowritten a song, "Sizzling Hot", that he thought had hit potential. He recruited a local skiffle band to record a demo of the song, and Preston agreed it had potential, and funded the recording of a proper version of the song:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Miller, "Sizzling Hot"]

Jimmy Miller, the singer of that song, was present at an event that shaped much of the rest of Joe Meek's life. Now, I need to emphasise that when he reported this, Miller was talking many years later, so he may have exaggerated what actually happened, and I have no reason to think that what I'm about to describe actually involved anything supernatural. But the way Miller told the story, he, Meek, and a friend of Meek's named Faud were conducting a seance in January 1958. Miller was shuffling and dealing tarot cards with one hand, while holding Meek's hand with the other. Meek in turn was holding one of Faud's hands, while Faud held a pen in the other hand and was performing automatic writing. As Miller told it, at one point he felt strange and gripped Meek's hand so hard it drew blood, and at the same moment Faud wrote down the words "Feb 3, Buddy Holly dies", in what looked to Miller like Miller's own handwriting rather than Faud's.

Meek tried to get the record labels and publishers to warn Holly, but they didn't. February the third 1958 came and went with no problem, but Meek was still worried, and so when Holly and the Crickets toured Britain in March that year, Meek waited outside the stage door and slipped Holly a bit of paper warning him. Holly apparently treated him politely, but he was later heard to joke on the radio about some of the strange things that had happened to him on tour, including being slipped this note.

And then, on February the third 1959, Buddy Holly did die.

Now, again, we only have Miller's after the fact word that the seance predicted the exact date of Holly's death, but it's very clear that something happened that day that affected Meek deeply, and that he did make efforts to warn Holly. Meek was severely disturbed when Holly died, and while he had already been a fan of Holly's, he was now something more. He was convinced that Buddy Holly was *important* to him in some way, and that Holly's music, and Holly's personality, were something he needed to study. Later on, he would become convinced that Holly's ghost was talking to him.

But for the moment, this, and Meek's mood swings, didn't affect things too much. He quit working at IBC and started his own studio, Landsdowne studio, which was funded and owned by Preston, but with equipment designed by Meek, who was to have the run of the place.

His songwriting was starting to pay off, too. While "Sizzling Hot" hadn't been a hit, Meek had written another song, "Put a Ring on Her Finger", which had been recorded by Eddie Silver, and had been unsuccessful. But then Les Paul and Mary Ford had covered it in the US, and it had made the US top forty:

[Excerpt: Les Paul and Mary Ford, "Put a Ring on My Finger"]

And Tommy Steele had covered their version as the B-side of his top-ten UK hit cover of Richie Valens' "Come on Let's Go". 

But that success as a songwriter led to Meek leaving Lansdowne studios in November 1959. Denis Preston owned the publishing company that published Meek's songs, and Meek started pestering him to take more songs. He did this in a recording session, and Preston told him to concentrate on the session and leave pitching songs to afterwards. Meek stormed out, leaving his assistant to finish the session, and Preston told him not to bother coming back -- Meek was a great engineer and producer, but was just too difficult to work with.

Luckily for Meek, his firing came at a time when he was in high demand in the industry. He'd just co-produced "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?" by Emile Ford and the Checkmates, which became both the first number one of the sixties and the first number one by a Black British artist:

[Excerpt: Emile Ford and the Checkmates, "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?"]

He had two more records in the top ten as well. But even so, he found it hard to get any more work, and so he spent his time working on an experimental album, I Hear a New World, which was inspired by the launch of the first Sputnik satellite and by his getting hold of a clavioline, the same kind of keyboard instrument that had been modified into the Musitron on "Runaway".  I Hear A New World wasn't a success, but it was the first attempt at something that would later become very big for Meek:

[Excerpt: The Blue Men, "Magnetic Field"]

I Hear a New World was eventually released as a limited-pressing EP and an even more limited pressing album by a new label that Meek set up with William Barrington-Coupe, Triumph Records.

Triumph lasted less than a year. While working at the label, Meek did produce three hit singles, including "Angela Jones" by Michael Cox, which made the top ten:

[Excerpt: Michael Cox, "Angela Jones"]

But Meek soon became paranoid about Barrington-Coupe, and for once he may have been right. Most of the businesses Barrington-Coupe was involved with collapsed, he spent some time in prison for tax fraud in the mid-sixties, and he would later become involved in one of the great scandals to hit the classical music world. Before linking up with Meek, he had married the minor concert pianist Joyce Hatto, who had a reputation as being moderately, but not exceptionally, talented, and who recorded for Barrington-Coupe's Saga Records:

[Excerpt: Joyce Hatto and the New York Pro Arte Symphony, "Rhapsody in Blue"]

While Hatto's career continued into the seventies, both she and Barrington-Coupe then disappeared from public view. 

Then, in 2002, Hatto started releasing what was the most extraordinary outpouring of music from any classical musician. She released over a hundred CDs in the next four years on a label owned by Barrington-Coupe, performing almost the entire major classical piano repertoire. She was only working in the studio -- she was very ill -- but she became a legend among lovers of classical music:

[Excerpt: "Joyce Hatto" (Vladimir Ashkenazy), Brahms Piano Concerto #2]

It was only after her death in 2006 that the truth came out -- none of the recordings from her late golden period were actually of her. Barrington-Coupe had simply been taking other people's recordings of these pieces -- often recordings by relatively obscure musicians -- and reissuing them under her name, with made-up conductors and orchestras. 

That's the kind of person that Barrington-Coupe was, and it suggests that Meek was correct in his suspicions of his business partner.

But for a short time, Meek was happy at Triumph, and he set up a fruitful working partnership with Charles Blackwell, his young co-writer on "Sizzling Hot", who worked as his arranger and would translate Meek's ideas into music that other musicians could understand -- Meek couldn't play an instrument, or read music, or sing in tune. To write songs, Meek would often take an old rhythm track he happened to have lying around and record a new vocal on it, la-laing his way through a melody even if the chords didn't go with it. Blackwell would take these demos and turn them into finished songs, and write string arrangements.

So he was creatively happy, but he needed to move on. And while he quickly decided that Barrington-Coupe was a chancer who he shouldn't be having any dealings with, he didn't feel the same about Major Banks, who had provided the funding for Barrington-Coupe's investment in Triumph.

Banks came to Meek with a new idea -- rather than have a record company, they would do like Denis Preston did and make records which they would then lease to the major labels. Meek would deal with all the music, and Banks with the money, and Banks would pay for Joe to move into a bigger flat, where he could have his own professional recording studio, which would be cheaper than recording in other studios, as he had been since he'd left Lansdowne. RGM Sound was born.

Meek's new studio was something utterly unheard of in Britain, and almost unheard of in the world. It was a three-storey flat above a shop on a residential street. He was recording in a normal home. The live room he used was a bedroom, and sometimes musicians would play in the hallway or the bathroom. 

Other than odd amateur disc-cutting places, there was no such thing as a home studio in the Britain of the 1950s and sixties. Studios were large, purpose-built facilities run by very serious pipe-smoking men employed by major multinational firms, who wore lab coats if they were doing technical work or a suit and tie if they were on the creative side. The idea of making a record in someone's bedroom was just nonsensical.

Meek started making records with a new young songwriter named Geoff Goddard, who took on the stage name Anton Hollywood, and found a lucrative opportunity in a young Australian manager and agent named Robert Stigwood. Stigwood had a lot of actors on his books who had TV careers, and he wanted to promote them as all-round entertainers. He started sending them to Meek, who was good enough in the studio that he could make even the worst singer sound competent, and then one of them, John Leyton, got a part in a soap opera as a pop singer. Whatever his next record was, it would get the kind of TV exposure most acts could only dream of.  Goddard wrote a song called "Johnny Remember Me", Blackwell came up with the arrangement, and Meek produced it and managed to get Leyton sounding like a singer:

[Excerpt: John Leyton, "Johnny Remember Me"]

It went to number one and sold half a million copies. But those lyrics about hearing a dead person's voice were a sign of something that was eventually going to lead to tragedy. Goddard shared many of Meek's obsessions. Goddard, like Meek, was a spiritualist, and he thought he could talk to the dead. The two started to hold regular seances, in which they would try to contact Buddy Holly, who Goddard believed had sent him "Johnny Remember Me" from the spirit world.

Meek's obsession with the undead also showed in some of the other records he was making, like the instrumental "Night of the Vampire" by the Moontrekkers:

[Excerpt: The Moontrekkers, "Night of the Vampire"]

The Moontrekkers did have a singer, but after hearing him audition, Meek came running into the room flapping his arms and blowing raspberries, because he thought he was too awful to record. Rod Stewart would have to wait a while longer for his recording career.

In 1961, Meek put together a group for studio work. The group started because the lead guitarist of the Outlaws, one of the bands Meek produced, got sacked. Their bass player, Chas Hodges, later more famous as half of Chas & Dave, switched to guitar, and Meek had tried to replace him with a new bass player, one Heinz Burt. Heinz was someone who Meek was very attracted to -- reports differ on whether they were lovers or not, but if not then Meek definitely wanted them to be -- and Meek was moulding Heinz to be a future star, despite his lack of musical ability. While he was being groomed for stardom, he was made the bass player in the group -- until Hodges decided he was going to switch back to bass, because Heinz couldn't play. Alan Caddy, formerly of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, became the new guitarist for the Outlaws, and then the group lost their drummer, who was replaced with Clem Cattini, Caddy's old Pirates bandmate.

By this point Chas Hodges was the only Outlaw left, and Meek really wanted to give Heinz a job, and so he took Caddy and Cattini and made them into a new group, for studio work, who were to be known as the Tornados, with Heinz on bass. Soon they added a rhythm guitarist, George Bellamy, and a keyboard player, Norman Hale.

Larry Parnes was, as we saw in the last episode, always on the lookout for bands to back his stars, and so in 1962 the Tornados became Billy Fury's backing band -- something that was to cause problems for them more quickly than they imagined. At the time, it seemed like a great opportunity. They were going to record for Meek -- both their own records and as the backing musicians for anyone else that Meek thought they'd work with -- and they were going to tour with Fury, so they'd have regular work. And Meek saw it as an opportunity for him to possibly get involved with Fury's recording career, which would have been a great opportunity for him had it worked out.

The Tornados' first single, "Love and Fury", seems to have been named with this new association in mind:

[Excerpt: The Tornados, "Love and Fury"]

Unfortunately for the group, it wasn't a hit. But then Meek got inspired. In July 1962, the first ever communications satellite, Telstar, was launched. For the first time in history, people could see events on the other side of the world broadcast live, and so Europeans got to see, in real time, a speech by President Kennedy and part of a baseball game. It's hard now to imagine how revolutionary this was at the time, but this was a time when things like the Olympics were shown on twelve-hour delays or longer, as to show them the TV companies had to film them on actual film, and then fly the film over to the UK.

Telstar was the future, and Meek, with his interest in space, was going to commemorate that. He took a song he'd recorded with Geoff Goddard, “Try Once More”:

[Excerpt: Geoff Goddard, “Try Once More”]

As was always his way with writing, he took that backing track, and sang a new melody over it:

[Excerpt: Joe Meek, “Telstar (demo)”]

He then got the keyboard player Dave Adams to work out the melody based on that demo, and recorded Adams playing that melody over a different pre-recorded backing track:

[Excerpt: Dave Adams, “Telstar demo”]

He then used that as the demo to show the Tornados what to play. They spent twelve hours in the studio recording the backing track, between Billy Fury shows, and then Meek got Goddard in to play piano and clavioline, and do some wordless vocals, as the Tornados didn't have enough time between shows to finish the track by themselves. Meek then overdubbed the track with various backwards-recorded and echoed sound effects:

[Excerpt: The Tornados, "Telstar"]

"Telstar" entered the charts on the fifth of September, and reached number one on the tenth of October, the week after "Love Me Do" came out. It stayed there for five weeks, and as well as that it went to number one in America -- the first British rock and roll record ever to do so.

The follow-up, "Globetrotter", also charted -- and got into the top ten while "Telstar" was still there:

[Excerpt: The Tornados, "Globetrotter"]

Unfortunately, that was to be the high point for the Tornados. Larry Parnes, who was managing them, didn't want them to take the spotlight away from Billy Fury, who they were backing -- he let them play "Telstar" on stage, but that was it, and when they got offers to tour America, he insisted that Fury had to be on the bill, which caused the American promoters to back out. Not only that, but the other Tornados were getting sick of Meek putting all his attention into Heinz, who he was still trying to make into a solo star, recording songs like the Eddie Cochran tribute "Just Like Eddie", written by Geoff Goddard and with a new young guitarist called Ritchie Blackmore, who was the guitarist in Chas Hodges' latest lineup of Outlaws, playing lead:

[Excerpt: Heinz, "Just Like Eddie"]

And then in March 1963, the composer of a piece of French film music, "Le Marche d’Austerlitz", sued Meek over "Telstar"s similarity to that tune:

[Excerpt: Jean Ledrut, "Le Marche d’Austerlitz"]

It was a frivolous suit -- Meek had no way of having heard that piece, which was from a film which hadn't been released in Britain -- but it tied up all Meek's royalties from “Telstar” for the next four years.

Meek was still having hits -- "Just Like Eddie" eventually made number five – for example, but in 1963 with the rise of Merseybeat he was having fewer and fewer. Not only that, but his mental health was getting worse and worse, especially after he was arrested for soliciting.

He started getting more and more paranoid that people were stealing his ideas, and one by one he cut ties with business associates like Larry Parnes and Robert Stigwood. Heinz got a girlfriend, and everyone was in Meek's bad books.

But he was still turning out the hits, like "Have I The Right" by the Honeycombs:

[Excerpt: The Honeycombs, "Have I the Right"]

That went to number one, but meant the end of Meek's association with Goddard -- Goddard claimed that he had written the song, which was credited to the Honeycombs' managers, and Meek thought he was just claiming this so he could avoid being associated with Meek now that his homosexuality was public knowledge after his arrest. Goddard ended up suing over the song.

Meek was also just producing too much music in an attempt to remain on top. He's often compared to Phil Spector, but in a three-year period Spector had twenty-one hit singles out of twenty-four releases. Meek, in the same period, had twenty-five hit singles -- but released 141 singles, almost one a week. His failure rate in turn made record labels more and more wary of buying his tapes.

By the mid-sixties, the hits were well and truly drying up. Meek was still producing a group called the Tornados, but it had none of the original members in and now featured guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and drummer Mitch Mitchell . This lineup of Tornados split up shortly after Meek pulled out a shotgun in the studio and aimed it at Mitchell's head, saying he'd shoot him if he didn't get the drum part right.

Meek's final important record was in mid 1966, when he finally jumped on the Merseybeat bandwagon two years late, with "Please Stay" by the Cryin' Shames, the most popular band in Liverpool at the time:

[Excerpt: The Cryin' Shames, "Please Stay"]

Unfortunately, that only made the lower reaches of the top thirty. Meek was getting deeper and deeper in debt, and his mental health was getting worse. He was seriously considering quitting as an independent producer and taking a steady job with EMI instead.

And then, a tragic event happened which eventually led to the unravelling of Meek's entire life. Meek was already in a very low place when he learned of the murder of sixteen-year-old Bernard Oliver, a young gay teenager who Meek had known (reports vary on how well they knew each other, with some saying that Oliver had done some work for Meek at his studio, while others say they just vaguely knew each other). The murder, which has still never been solved, was a major news story at the time, and it led to a massive increase in police harassment of anyone who was known to be gay, especially if they knew Oliver -- and Meek had a conviction.

Meek already believed he was being spied on and that his phone was being tapped, and now the world started giving him reason to think that -- strange cars parked outside his house, almost certainly undercover police spying on him. 

On February the second, 1967, the PRS received a letter from the French performing rights society, saying that Meek's problems with the Telstar lawsuit would soon be over -- the court had determined that no matter what had happened, the composer of “Le Marche d'Austerlitz” would only be entitled to a small percentage of the royalties from "Telstar" at most. Frederick Woods, the assistant general manager of the PRS and a friend of Meek's, put the letter aside intending to call Meek and tell him the good news -- all he had to do was to write to the PRS and they'd be able to give him an advance on the money, and soon almost all of it would be coming through. He'd soon be getting the bulk of the £150,000 he was owed -- nearly three million pounds in today's money.

But Woods got distracted and didn't make the phone call, and Meek never found out that his money troubles were nearly over.  Ritchie Blackmore's wife Margaret called round to see Joe, as she sometimes did. He was apparently not in his right mind, talking a lot about black magic and comparing Margaret to Frieda Harris, one of Aleister Crowley's associates. He was convinced people were stealing his ideas from his mind, and asked her to leave. While she was there, she saw him destroying correspondence and paintings he owned.

The next morning, February the third, Meek asked his assistant to get his landlady, Violet Shenton, up to Meek's office. There was some shouting from Meek, and then he turned a gun he had, which was owned by Heinz, on Mrs. Shenton and killed her. Meek's assistant ran into the room, but before he could get to Meek, Meek shot himself, dying instantly. It was the eighth anniversary of Buddy Holly's death.

The lawsuit over "Telstar" was finally resolved just three weeks later, in Meek's favour.

There's a plaque now at the building where Meek's studio was. It says that Joe Meek, "the Telstar man", "Lived, worked, and died here". It doesn't mention Violet Shenton. After all, she wasn't a great male genius, just the male genius' female victim.

Oct 16, 2020
BONUS: I Read The News Today, Oh Boy: The Cuban Missile Crisis
08:58

This is the first of a new monthly feature that will run alongside the main podcast -- once a month I'll be doing a ten-minute bonus episode looking at non-music news from the time we're covering in the podcast. These can be skipped if you're only interested in the music, but add valuable context about the culture in which those records were made. This month's is on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Year three of the podcast starts in a few days' time, with "Telstar".

Click through for the episode transcript:

----more----

 Welcome to "I read the news today, Oh boy", a new feature for this podcast. One of the things I've been doing during the series is trying to put the music I'm talking about into a wider context, and part of that has involved explaining things about the Civil Rights movement or strikes that affected the industry and so on.

As we enter the sixties, the music we're talking about gets a lot more socially conscious, and music will start to interact far more with other events. For example, in a few weeks time we're going to be looking at the March on Washington, and at a song that was sung there, and some of the performers who were there. While there is no such thing as music that is completely apolitical -- every piece of music is affected by the circumstances in which it was written and performed, in a myriad ways -- there is a difference between Little Richard singing "Tutti Frutti" and the Beatles singing "Revolution" or the Rolling Stones singing "Street Fighting Man". 

The sixties were also a time of radical social change, which shaped the music that was being made. In many ways, society in at least the US and the UK, the two countries we're mostly going to be looking at in this history, was unrecognisable in 1974 from the way it was in 1964, and we're still living in a world shaped by the arguments then -- largely because we're currently ruled by the generation that grew up in that time period.

Now, anything that directly affects the music gets explained as part of the episode -- so the March on Washington will be explained in that episode. But I was reading a book on the Beatles recently, and it mentioned the Profumo affair in passing. And I was pretty sure that about 95% of my listeners will have no idea what that was. It probably indirectly affected every event that's happened in Britain in the ensuing fifty-seven years, and shaped every British thing we're going to talk about, but there aren't any songs about it, at least not that we're going to cover.

So, once a month, I'm going to do a ten-minute podcast where I do a quick overview of what was happening in the non-music news at the time we're looking at, to provide cultural context. That will go up to twenty minutes if the Patreon hits its next target. You can skip these, which will all be clearly labelled, if you're not interested. Other than this episode, done in a skip week, they'll go up the same day as the first proper podcast of the month.

To start with, we're going to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. The roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis go back to 1952, when a US-backed right-wing dictator, Batista, led a military coup that got rid of the elected President of Cuba, and handed most of the country over to American organised crime bosses to run. As you can imagine, this was not very popular among the people of Cuba, and for several years there was an armed resistance, which eventually turned into a revolution which overthrew Batista in 1959. Unfortunately, instead of returning to the democracy that had been in place before the Batista coup, the revolutionaries replaced it with another dictatorship, albeit a left-wing one, under the leadership of Fidel Castro.  Now, the Castro regime decided to take away all the vast wealth that had been put in the hands of American citizens by the Batista regime. They then tried to become friends with the USA, as all previous Cuban administrations had. However, the USA has never been keen on governments that take money from rich US citizens, and so they soon gave up on the idea of friendship.

The Cuban leadership became even less keen on the idea of friendship with the US after an event known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. What happened there was that the CIA and the Mafia teamed up to train huge numbers of Cuban exiles who hated the new Cuban government. The idea was that these "independent" fighters would go in to invade Cuba, quickly have some success, then "ask the US for help", and the US would send in troops and planes to help them. They reasoned that Castro would be unpopular in Cuba, that the invaders would be welcomed as liberators, and that they would lead to a popular uprising against Castro.

What they failed to take into account was that Castro was in fact very popular in Cuba, certainly at the time. Batista was a monster, and while Castro was also a dictator, he was one who gave people healthcare and education and got rid of the Mafia from the country. Given the choice between Castro and Batista, people were very fond of Castro. The invasion force didn't get the immediate response that was expected, the rest of the world soon found out what was going on and disapproved, and the US decided it wasn't going to get any more involved. The end result was that the Castro regime was left more secure than ever, and Castro remained in power for another fifty years, while Kennedy had to go public and admit that they'd made a colossal error.

And as a result of this, Castro decided that given that he had an unfriendly superpower close by, it would be a good idea to get in the good books of a friendly superpower, and so he turned to the USSR.

This happened to be exactly what the USSR was looking for. At the time, America had allies throughout Western Europe, who let US troops and missiles be stationed in their countries. That meant that at any time the US could launch an attack on the USSR from right on its border.

The USSR, though, had no allies anywhere near the American border, and at this point in time there were very few intercontinental missiles. The only way they could launch a nuclear attack of more than a handful of missiles on the US was to send a load of planes on a twelve-hour journey, including a refueling stop at the Arctic. That was not ideal from their point of view, as both the US and USSR were run by people who were convinced that the other side was run by madmen who would decide at a moment's notice to launch a nuclear attack, and the only way to prevent this would be to be able to destroy the other side if they tried anything.

But Cuba is only ninety miles from the US coast. If the USSR could stick a bunch of missiles there, they could easily destroy the entire East Coast and much of the midwest. So the USSR and Cuba quickly came to an agreement -- the USSR would protect Cuba from US invasion, and in return it would get to put a load of missiles in Cuba.

Unfortunately for everyone, the USA found out about these plans before they were complete. And the US Government was very, very, very, unhappy with the idea of Russian nuclear missiles ninety miles away from the US. Tensions stepped up on both sides, to quite an astonishing degree. The US armed forces went to DEFCON-2 for the only time during the Cold War -- DEFCON-1 would be nuclear war.

Both countries' armed forces were on such high alert that there were two incidents that came as close as we've ever come to all-out war between the US and Russia. A US spy plane accidentally flew over Soviet territory, and on the same day some small practice depth charges were dropped on a Soviet submarine. Those depth charges were just used for signalling -- they couldn't do any real damage -- but what the people dropping them didn't know was that the submarine in question was armed with nuclear weapons, and had orders to use them if a war started. The submarine was cut off from radio communication, and the captain took the depth charges as a sign that war *had* started. Luckily for everyone on the planet, launching them required the authorisation of all three officers on board, and one of the officers, Vasili Arkhopov, refused to authorise the missile launch. We came that close to the destruction of all life on the planet.

Thankfully, while we came that close, we didn't come any closer. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were, by the standards of the leaders of their respective countries, cautious, intelligent, well-meaning people, and they managed to negotiate an agreement by which the USA would remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy, and in return the Soviet missiles would be removed from Cuba. The crisis was over, but had either of them been even slightly less stable or capable, or had someone other than Arkhopov been on that submarine, we would not be here today.

Oct 06, 2020
Episode 100: "Love Me Do" by the Beatles
01:33:27

This week there are two episiodes of the podcast going up, both of them longer than normal. This one, episode one hundred, is the hundredth-episode special and is an hour and a half long. It looks at the early career of the Beatles, and at the three recordings of "Love Me Do". Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Misirlou" by Dick Dale and the Deltones.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

No Mixclouds this week, as both episodes have far too many songs by one artist. The mixclouds will be back with episode 101.

While there are many books on the Beatles, and I have read dozens of them, only one needs to be mentioned as a reference for this episode (others will be used for others). All These Years Vol 1: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn is simply the *only* book worth reading on the Beatles' career up to the end of 1962. It is the most detailed, most accurate, biography imaginable, and the gold standard by which all other biographies of musicians should be measured. I only wish volumes two and three were available already so I could not expect my future episodes on the Beatles to be obsolete when they do come out.

There are two versions of the book -- a nine-hundred page mass-market version and a 1700-page expanded edition. I recommend the latter. The information in this podcast is almost all from Lewisohn's book, but I must emphasise that the opinions are mine, and so are any errors -- Lewisohn's book only has one error that I'm aware of (a joke attributed to the comedian Jasper Carrott in a footnote that has since been traced to an earlier radio show). I am only mortal, and so have doubtless misunderstood or oversimplified things and introduced errors where he had none.

 

The single version of "Love Me Do" can be found on Past Masters, a 2-CD compilation of the Beatles' non-album tracks that includes the majority of their singles and B-sides. The version with Andy White playing on can be found on Please Please Me. The version with Pete Best, and many of the other early tracks used here, is on Anthology 1.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Errata

I pronounce the name of Lewisohn's book as "All Those Years" instead of "All These Years".

I say " The Jets hadn't liked playing at Williams' club" at one point. I meant "at Koschmider's club"

 

Transcript

 

The Beatles came closer than most people realise to never making a record.

Until the publication of Mark Lewisohn's seminal biography All These Years vol 1: Tune In, in 2013 everyone thought they knew the true story -- John met Paul at Woolton Village Fete in 1957, and Paul joined the Quarrymen, who later became the Beatles. They played Hamburg and made a demo, and after the Beatles' demo was turned down by Decca, their manager Brian Epstein shopped it around every record label without success, until finally George Martin heard the potential in it and signed them to Parlophone, a label which was otherwise known for comedy records. Martin was, luckily, the one producer in the whole of the UK who could appreciate the Beatles' music, and he signed them up, and the rest was history.

The problem is, as Lewisohn showed, that's not what happened. Today I'm going to tell, as best I can the story of how the Beatles actually became the band that they became, and how they got signed to EMI records. I'm going to tell you the story of "Love Me Do":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Love Me Do (single version)"]

As I mentioned at the beginning, this episode owes a *huge* debt to Mark Lewisohn's book. I like to acknowledge my sources, anyway, but I've actually had difficulty with this episode because Lewisohn's book is *so* detailed, *so* full, and written *so* well that much of the effort in writing this episode came from paring down the information, rather than finding more, and from reworking things so I was not just paraphrasing bits of his writing. Normally I rely on many sources, and integrate the material myself, but Lewisohn has done all that work far better than any other biographer of any other musician. Were the Beatles not such an important part of music history, I would just skip this episode because there is nothing for me to add. As it is, I *obviously* have to cover this, but I almost feel like I'm cheating in doing so. If you find this episode interesting at all, please do yourself a favour and buy that book. 

This episode is going to be a long one -- much longer than normal. I won't know the precise length until after I've recorded and edited it, of course, but I'm guessing it's going to be about ninety minutes. This is the hundredth episode, the end of the second year of the podcast, the end of the second book based on the podcast, and the introduction of the single most important band in the whole story, so I'm going to stretch out a bit. I should also mention that there are a couple of discussions of sudden, traumatic, deaths in this episode.

With all that said, settle in, this is going to take a while.

Every British act we've looked at so far -- and many of those we're going to look at in the next year or two -- was based in London. Either they grew up there, or they moved there before their musical career really took off. The Beatles, during the time we're covering in this episode, were based in Liverpool. While they did eventually move to London, it wasn't until after they'd started having hits. And what listeners from outside the UK might not realise is what that means in terms of attitudes and perceptions. Liverpool is a large city -- it currently has a population of around half a million, and the wider Liverpool metropolitan area is closer to two million -- but like all British cities other than London, it was regarded largely as a joke in the British media, and so in return the people of Liverpool had a healthy contempt for London.

To give Americans some idea of how London dominates in Britain, and thus how it's thought of outside London, imagine that New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles were all the same city -- that the financial, media, and political centres of the country were all the same place. Now further imagine that Silicon Valley and all the Ivy League universities were half an hour's drive from that city. Now, imagine how much worse the attitudes that that city would have about so-called "flyover states" would be, and imagine in return how people in large Midwestern cities like Detroit or Chicago would think about that big city. 

In this analogy, Liverpool is Detroit, and like Detroit, it was very poor and had produced a few famous musicians, most notably Billy Fury, who was from an impoverished area of Liverpool called the Dingle:

[Excerpt: Billy Fury, "Halfway to Paradise"]

But Fury had, of course, moved to London to have his career. That's what you did.

But in general, Liverpool, if people in London thought of it at all, was thought of as a provincial backwater full of poor people, many of them Irish, and all of them talking with a ridiculous accent. Liverpool was ignored by London, and that meant that things could develop there out of sight.

The story of the Beatles starts in the 1950s, with two young men in their mid-teens. John Winston Lennon was born in 1940, and had had a rather troubled childhood. His father had been a merchant seaman who had been away in the war, and his parents' relationship had deteriorated for that and other reasons. As a result, Lennon had barely known his father, and when his mother met another man, Lennon's aunt, Mary Smith, who he always called Mimi, had taken him in, believing that his mother "living in sin" would be a bad influence on the young boy.

The Smith family were the kind of lower middle class family that seemed extremely rich to the impoverished families in Liverpool, but were not well off by any absolute standard. Mimi, in particular, was torn between two very different urges. On one hand, she had strongly bohemian, artistic, urges -- as did all of her sisters. She was a voracious reader, and a lover of art history, and encouraged these tendencies in John. But at the same time, she was of that class which has a little status, but not much security, and so she was extremely wary of the need to appear respectable. This tension between respectability and rebellion was something that would appear in many of the people who Lennon later worked with, such as Brian Epstein and George Martin, and it was something that Lennon would always respond to -- those people would be the only ones who Lennon would ever view as authority figures he could respect, though he would also resent them at times.

And it might be that combination of rebellion and respectability that Lennon saw in Paul McCartney. McCartney was from a family who, in the Byzantine world of the British class system of the time, were a notch or so lower than the Smith family who raised Lennon, but he was academically bright, and his family had big plans for him -- they thought that it might even be possible that he might become a teacher if he worked very hard at school. McCartney was a far less openly rebellious person than Lennon was, but he was still just as caught up in the music and fashions of the mid-fifties that his father associated with street gangs and hooliganism.

Lennon, like many teenagers in Britain at the time, had had his life changed when he first heard Elvis Presley, and he had soon become a rock and roll obsessive -- Elvis was always his absolute favourite, but he also loved Little Richard, who he thought was almost as good, and he admired Buddy Holly, who had a special place in Lennon's heart as Holly wore glasses on stage, something that Lennon, who was extremely short-sighted, could never bring himself to do, but which at least showed him that it was a possibility.

Lennon was, by his mid-teens, recreating a relationship with his mother, and one of the things they bonded over was music -- she taught him how to play the banjo, and together they worked out the chords to "That'll Be the Day", and Lennon later switched to the guitar, playing banjo chords on five of the six strings. 

Like many, many, teenagers of the time, Lennon also formed a skiffle group, which he called the Quarrymen, after a line in his school song. The group tended to have a rotating lineup, but Lennon was the unquestioned leader. The group had a repertoire consisting of the same Lonnie Donegan songs that every other skiffle group was playing, plus any Elvis and Buddy Holly songs that could sound reasonable with a lineup of guitars, teachest bass, and washboard.

The moment that changed the history of the music, though, came on July the sixth, 1957, when Ivan Vaughan, a friend of Lennon's, invited his friend Paul McCartney to go and see the Quarry Men perform at Woolton Village Fete. That day has gone down in history as "the day John met Paul", although Mark Lewisohn has since discovered that Lennon and McCartney had briefly met once before. It is, though, the day on which Lennon and McCartney first impressed each other musically.

McCartney talks about being particularly impressed that the Quarry Men's lead singer was changing the lyrics to the songs he was performing, making up new words when he forgot the originals -- he says in particular that he remembers Lennon singing "Come Go With Me" by the Del-Vikings:

[Excerpt: The Del-Vikings, "Come Go With Me"]

McCartney remembers Lennon as changing the lyrics to "come go with me, right down to the penitentiary", and thinking that was clever.

Astonishingly, some audio recording actually exists of the Quarry Men's second performance that day -- they did two sets, and this second one comes just after Lennon met McCartney rather than just before. The recording only seems to exist in a very fragmentary form, which has snatches of Lennon singing "Baby Let's Play House" and Lonnie Donegan's hit "Puttin' on the Style", which was number one on the charts at the time, but that even those fragments have survived, given how historic a day this was, is almost miraculous:

[Excerpt: The Quarrymen, "Puttin' on the Style"]

After the first set, Lennon met McCartney, who was nearly two years younger, but a more accomplished musician -- for a start, he knew how to tune the guitar with all six strings, and to proper guitar tuning, rather than tuning five strings like a banjo. Lennon and his friends were a little nonplussed by McCartney holding his guitar upside-down at first -- McCartney is left-handed -- but despite having an upside-down guitar with the wrong tuning, McCartney managed to bash out a version of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty-Flight Rock", a song he would often perform in later decades when reminding people of this story:

[Excerpt: Paul McCartney, "Twenty-Flight Rock"]

This was impressive to Lennon for three reasons. The first was that McCartney was already a strong, confident performer -- he perhaps seemed a little more confident than he really was, showing off in front of the bigger boys like this. The second was that "Twenty-Flight Rock" was a moderately obscure song -- it hadn't charted, but it *had* appeared in The Girl Can't Help It, a film which every rock and roll lover in Britain had watched at the cinema over and over. Choosing that song rather than, say, "Be-Bop-A-Lula", was a way of announcing a kind of group affiliation -- "I am one of you, I am a real rock and roll fan, not just a casual listener to what's in the charts".

I stress that second point because it's something that's very important in the history of the Beatles generally -- they were *music fans*, and often fans of relatively obscure records. That's something that bound Lennon and McCartney, and later the other members, together from the start, and something they always noted about other musicians. They weren't the kind of systematic scholars who track down rare pressings and memorise every session musician's name, but they were constantly drawn to find the best new music, and to seek it out wherever they could.

But the most impressive thing for Lennon -- and one that seems a little calculated on McCartney's part, though he's never said that he thought about this that I'm aware of -- was that this was an extremely wordy song, and McCartney *knew all the words*. Remember that McCartney had noticed Lennon forgetting the words to a song with lyrics as simple as "come, come, come, come, come into my heart/Tell me darling we will never part", and here's McCartney singing this fast-paced, almost patter song, and getting the words right. 

From the beginning, McCartney was showing how he could complement Lennon -- if Lennon could impress McCartney by improvising new lyrics when he forgot the old ones, then McCartney could impress Lennon by remembering the lyrics that Lennon couldn't -- and by writing them down for Lennon, sharing his knowledge freely.

McCartney went on to show off more, and in particular impressed Lennon by going to a piano and showing off his Little Richard imitation. Little Richard was the only serious rival to Elvis in Lennon's affections, and McCartney could do a very decent imitation of him. This was someone special, clearly.

But this put Lennon in a quandary. McCartney was clearly far, far, better than any of the Quarry Men -- at least Lennon's equal, and light years ahead of the rest of them. Lennon had a choice -- invite this young freak of nature into his band, and improve the band dramatically, but no longer be the unquestioned centre of the group, or remain in absolute control but not have someone in the group who *knew the words* and *knew how to tune a guitar*, and other such magical abilities that no mere mortals had.

Those who only know of Lennon from his later reputation as a massive egoist would be surprised, but he decided fairly quickly that he had to make the group better at his own expense. He invited McCartney to join the group, and McCartney said yes.

Over the next few months the membership of the Quarry Men changed. They'd been formed while they were all at Quarry Bank Grammar School, but that summer Lennon moved on to art school. I'm going to have to talk about the art school system, and the British education system of the fifties and early sixties a lot over the next few months, but here's an extremely abbreviated and inaccurate version that's good enough for now.

Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, people in Britain -- at least those without extremely rich parents, who had a different system -- went to two kinds of school depending on the result of an exam they took aged eleven, which was based on some since-discredited eugenic research about children's potential. If you passed the exam, you were considered academically apt, and went to a grammar school, which was designed to filter you through to university and the professions. If you failed the exam, you went to a secondary modern, which was designed to give you the skills to get a trade and make a living working with your hands. And for the most part, people followed the pipeline that was set up for them. You go to grammar school, go to university, become a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher. You go to secondary modern, leave school at fourteen, become a plumber or a builder or a factory worker.

But there are always those people who don't properly fit into the neat categories that the world tries to put them in. And for people in their late teens and early twenties, people who'd been through the school system but not been shaped properly by it, there was another option at this time. If you were bright and creative, but weren't suited for university because you'd failed your exams, you could go to art school.

The supposed purpose of the art schools was to teach people to do commercial art, and they would learn skills like lettering and basic draughtsmanship. But what the art schools really did was give creative people space to explore ideas, to find out about areas of art and culture that would otherwise have been closed to them. Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ian Dury, Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry, Syd Barrett, and many more people we'll be seeing over the course of this story went to art school, and as David Bowie would put it later, the joke at the time was that you went to art school to learn to play blues guitar.

With Lennon and his friends all moving on from the school that had drawn them together, the group stabilised for a time on a lineup of Lennon, McCartney, Colin Hanton, Len Garry, and Eric Griffiths. But the first time this version of the group played live, while McCartney sang well, he totally fluffed his lead guitar lines on stage. While there were three guitarists in the band at this point, they needed someone who could play lead fluently and confidently on stage.

Enter George Harrison, who had suddenly become a close friend of McCartney. Harrison went to the same school as McCartney -- a grammar school called the Liverpool Institute, but was in the year below McCartney, and so the two had always been a bit distant. However, at the same time as Lennon was moving on to art school after failing his exams, McCartney was being kept back a year for failing Latin -- which his father always thought was deliberate, so he wouldn't have to go to university. Now he was in the same year at school as Harrison, and they started hanging out together.

The two bonded strongly over music, and would do things like take a bus journey to another part of town, where someone lived who they heard owned a copy of "Searchin'" by the Coasters:

[Excerpt: The Coasters, "Searchin'"]

The two knocked on this stranger's door, asked if he'd play them this prized record, and he agreed -- and then they stole it from him as they left his house. Another time they took the bus to another part of town again, because they'd heard that someone in that part of town knew how to play a B7 chord on his guitar, and sat there as he showed them.

So now the Quarrymen needed a lead guitarist, McCartney volunteered his young mate. There are a couple of stories about how Harrison came to join the band -- apparently he auditioned for Lennon at least twice, because Lennon was very unsure about having such a young kid in his band -- but the story I like best is that Harrison took his guitar to a Quarry Men gig at Wilson Hall -- he'd apparently often take his guitar to gigs and just see if he could sit in with the bands. On the bill with the Quarry Men was another group, the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group, who were generally regarded as the best skiffle band in Liverpool. Lennon told Harrison that he could join the band if he could play as well as Clayton, and Harrison took out his guitar and played "Raunchy":

[Excerpt: Bill Justis, "Raunchy"]

I like this story rather than the other story that the members would tell later -- that Harrison played "Raunchy" on a bus for Lennon -- for one reason. The drummer in the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group was one Richy Starkey, and if it happened that way, the day that George joined the Quarry Men was also the day that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all in the same place for the first time.

George looked up to John and essentially idolised him, though Lennon thought of him as a little annoying at times -- he'd follow John everywhere, and not take a hint when he wasn't wanted sometimes, just eager to be with his big cool new mate. But despite this tiny bit of tension, John, Paul, and George quickly became a solid unit -- helped by the fact that the school that Paul and George went to was part of the same complex of buildings as Lennon's art college, so they'd all get the bus there and back together. 

George was not only younger, he was a notch or two further down the social class ladder than John or Paul, and he spoke more slowly, which made him seem less intelligent. He came from Speke, which was a rougher area, and he would dress even more like a juvenile delinquent than the others.

Meanwhile, Len Garry and Eric Griffiths left the group -- Len Garry because he became ill and had to spend time in hospital, and anyway they didn't really need a teachest bass. What they did need was an electric bass, and since they had four guitars now they tried to persuade Eric to get one, but he didn't want to pay that much money, and he was always a little on the outside of the main three members, as he didn't share their sense of humour. So the group got Nigel Walley, who was acting as the group's manager, to fire him. The group was now John, Paul, and George all on guitars, and Colin Hanton on drums. Sometimes, if they played a venue that had a piano, they'd also bring along a schoolfriend of Paul's, John "Duff" Lowe, to play piano.

Meanwhile, the group were growing in other ways. Both John and Paul had started writing songs, together and apart. McCartney seems to have been the first, writing a song called "I Lost My Little Girl" which he would eventually record more than thirty years later:

[Excerpt: Paul McCartney, "I Lost My Little Girl"]

Lennon's first song likewise sang about a little girl, this time being "Hello, Little Girl".

By the middle of 1958, this five-piece group was ready to cut their first record -- at a local studio that would cut a single copy of a disc for you. They went into this studio at some time around July 1958, and recorded two songs. The first was their version of "That'll Be the Day":

[Excerpt: The Quarry Men, "That'll be the Day"]

The B-side was a song that McCartney had written, with a guitar solo that George had come up with, so the label credit read "McCartney/Harrison". "In Spite of All the Danger" seems to have been inspired by Elvis' "Trying to Get to You":

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Trying to Get to You"]

It's a rough song, but a good attempt for a teenager who had only just started writing songs:

[Excerpt: The Quarry Men, "In Spite of All the Danger"]

Apparently Lowe and Hanton hadn't heard the song before they started playing, but they make a decent enough fist of it in the circumstances. Lennon took the lead even though it was McCartney's song -- he said later "I was such a bully in those days I didn’t even let Paul sing his own song."

That was about the last time that this lineup of Quarry Men played together. In July, the month that seems likely for the recording, Lowe finished at the Liverpool Institute, and so he drifted away from McCartney and Harrison. Meanwhile Hanton had a huge row with the others after a show, and they fell out and never spoke again. The Quarry Men were reduced to a trio of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.

But -- possibly the very day after that recording if an unreliable plaque at the studio where they recorded it is to be believed -- something happened which was to have far more impact on the group than the drummer leaving. John Lennon's mother, with whom he'd slowly been repairing his relationship, had called round to visit Mimi. She left the house, and bumped into Nigel Walley, who was calling round to see John. She told him he wasn't there, and that he could walk with her to the bus stop. They walked a little while, then went off in different directions. Walley heard a thump and turned round -- Julia Lennon had been hit by a car and killed instantly.

As you can imagine, John's mother dying caused him a huge amount of distress, but it also gave him a bond with McCartney, whose own mother had died of cancer shortly before they met. Neither really spoke about it to each other, and to the extent they did it was with ultra-cynical humour -- but the two now shared something deeper than just the music, even though the music itself was deep enough.

Lennon became a much harder, nastier, person after this, at least for a time, his natural wit taking on a dark edge, and he would often drink too much and get aggressive. But life still went on, and John, Paul, and George kept trying to perform -- though the gigs dried up, and they didn't have a drummer any more. They'd just say "the rhythm's in the guitars" when asked why they didn't have one. They were also no longer the Quarry Men -- they didn't have a name.

At one point late in the year, they also only had two guitars between the three of them -- Lennon seems to have smashed his in a fit of fury after his mother's death. But he stole one backstage at a talent contest, and soon they were back to having three.

That talent show was one run by Carroll Levis, who we talked about before in the episode on "Shakin' All Over". The three boys went on Levis' show, this time performing as Johnny & The Moondogs --  in Manchester, at the Hippodrome in Ancoats, singing Buddy Holly's "Think it Over":

[Excerpt: The Crickets, "Think it Over"]

Lennon sang lead with his arms draped over the shoulders of Paul and George, who sang backing vocals and played guitar. They apparently did quite well, but had to leave before the show finished to get the last train back to Liverpool, and so never found out whether the audience would have made them the winner, with the possibility of a TV appearance. They did well enough, though, to impress a couple of other young lads on the bill, two Manchester singers named Allan Clarke and Graham Nash.

But in general, the Japage Three, a portmanteau of their names that they settled on as their most usual group name at this point, played very little in 1959 -- indeed, George spent much of the early part of the year moonlighting in the Les Stewart Quartet, another group, though he still thought of Lennon and McCartney as his musical soulmates; the Les Stewart Quartet were just a gig. 

The three of them would spend much of their time at the Jacaranda, a coffee bar opened by a Liverpool entrepreneur, Allan Williams, in imitation of the 2is, which was owned by a friend of his. Lennon was also spending a lot of time with an older student at his art school, Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the few people in the world that Lennon himself looked up to.

The Les Stewart Quartet would end up indirectly being key to the Beatles' development, because after one of their shows at a local youth club they were approached by a woman named Mona Best. Mona's son Pete liked to go to the youth club, but she was fairly protective of him, and also wanted him to have more friends -- he was a quiet boy who didn't make friends easily. So she'd hit upon a plan -- she'd open her own club in her cellar, since the Best family were rich enough to have a big house. If there was a club *in Pete's house* he'd definitely make lots of friends. They needed a band, and she asked the Les Stewart Quartet if they'd like to be the resident band at this new club, the Casbah, and also if they'd like to help decorate it. 

They said yes, but then Paul and George went on a hitch-hiking holiday around Wales for a few days, and George didn't get back in time to play a gig the quartet had booked. Ken Brown, the other guitarist, didn't turn up either, and Les Stewart got into a rage and split the group. Suddenly, the Casbah had no group -- George and Ken were willing to play, but neither was a lead singer -- and no decorators either. So George roped in John and Paul, who helped decorate the place, and with the addition of Ken Brown, the group returned to the Quarry Men name for their regular Saturday night gig at the Casbah.

The group had no bass player or drummer, and they all kept pestering everyone they knew to get a bass or a drum kit, but nobody would bite. But then Stuart Sutcliffe got half a painting in an exhibition put on by John Moores, the millionaire owner of Littlewoods, who was a big patron of the arts in Liverpool. I say he got half a painting in the exhibition, because the painting was done on two large boards -- Stuart and his friends took the first half of the painting down to the gallery, went back to get the other half, and got distracted by the pub and never brought it.

But Moores was impressed enough with the abstract painting that he bought it at the end of the exhibition's run, for ninety pounds -- about two thousand pounds in today's money. And so Stuart's friends gave him a choice -- he could either buy a bass or a drum kit, either would be fine. He chose the bass.

But the same week that Stuart joined, Ken Brown was out, and they lost their gig at the Casbah. John, Paul, George and Ken had turned up one Saturday, and Ken hadn't felt well, so instead of performing he just worked on the door. At the end of the show, Mona Best insisted on giving Ken an equal share of the money, as agreed. John, Paul, and George wouldn't stand for that, and so Ken was out of the group, and they were no longer playing for Mona Best.

Stuart joining the group caused tensions -- George was fine with him, thinking that a bass player who didn't yet know how to play was better than no bass player at all, but Paul was much less keen. Partly this was because he thought the group needed to get better, which would be hard with someone who couldn't play, but also he was getting jealous of Sutcliffe's closeness to Lennon, especially when the two became flatmates. But John wanted him in the group, and what John wanted, he got.

There are recordings of the group around this time that circulate -- only one has been released officially, a McCartney instrumental called "Cayenne", but the others are out there if you look:

[Excerpt: The Quarry Men, "Cayenne"]

The gigs had dried up again, but they did have one new advantage -- they now had a name they actually liked. John and Stuart had come up with it, inspired by Buddy Holly's Crickets. They were going to be Beatles, with an a.

Shortly after the Beatles' first appearance under that name, at the art school student union, came the Liverpool gig which was to have had Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent headlining, before Cochran died. A lot of Liverpool groups were booked to play on the bill there, but not the Beatles -- though Richy Starkey was going to play the gig, with his latest group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Allan Williams, the local promoter, added extra groups to fill out the bill, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, and suddenly everyone who loved rock and roll in Liverpool realised that there were others out there like them. Overnight, a scene had been born.

And where there's a scene, there's money to be made. Larry Parnes, who had been the national promoter of the tour, was at the show and realised that there were a lot of quite proficient musicians in Liverpool. And it so happened that he needed backing bands for three of his artists who were going on tour, separately -- two minor stars, Duffy Power and Johnny Gentle, and one big star, Billy Fury. And both Gentle and Fury were from Liverpool themselves. So Parnes asked Allan Williams to set up auditions with some of the local groups. Williams invited several groups, and one he asked along was the Beatles, largely because Lennon and Sutcliffe begged him. He also found them a drummer, Tommy Moore, who was a decade older than the rest of them -- though Moore didn't turn up to the audition because he had to work, and so Johnny "Hutch" Hutchinson of Cass and the Cassanovas sat in with them, much to Hutch's disgust -- he hated the Beatles, and especially Lennon. 

Cass of the Cassanovas also insisted that "the Beatles" was a stupid name, and that the group needed to be Something and the Somethings, and he suggested Long John and the Silver Beatles, and that stuck for a couple of shows before they reverted to their proper name.

The Beatles weren't chosen for any of the main tours that were being booked, but then Parnes phoned Williams up -- there were some extra dates on the Johnny Gentle tour that he hadn't yet booked a group for. Could Williams find him a band who could be in Scotland that Friday night for a nine-day tour? Williams tried Cass and the Cassanovas, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and Gerry and the Pacemakers, but none of them could go on tour at such short notice. They all had gigs booked, or day jobs they had to book time off with.

The Beatles had no gigs booked, and only George had a day job, and he didn't mind just quitting that. They were off to Scotland. They were so inspired by being on tour with a Larry Parnes artist that most of them took on new names just like those big stars -- George became Carl Harrison, after Carl Perkins, Stuart became Stuart de Staël, after his favourite painter, and Paul became Paul Ramon, which he thought sounded mysterious and French. There's some question about whether John took on a new name -- some sources have him becoming "Long John", while others say he was "Johnny" Lennon rather than John. Tommy Moore, meanwhile, was just Thomas Moore.

It was on this tour, of course, that Lennon helped Johnny Gentle write "I've Just Fallen For Someone", which we talked about last week:

[Excerpt: Darren Young, "I've Just Fallen For Someone"]

The tour was apparently fairly miserable, with horrible accommodation, poor musicianship from the group, and everyone getting on everyone's nerves -- George and Stuart got into fistfights, John bullied Stuart a bit because of his poor playing, and John particularly didn't get on well with Moore -- a man who was a decade older, didn't share their taste in music, and worked in a factory rather than having the intellectual aspirations of the group. The two hated each other by the end of the tour.

But the tour did also give the group the experience of signing autographs, and of feeling like stars in at least a minor way. When they got back to Liverpool, George moved in with John and Stuart, to get away from his mum telling him to get a proper job, and they got a few more bookings thanks to Williams, but they soon became drummerless -- they turned up to a gig one time to find that Tommy Moore wasn't there. They went round to his house, and his wife shouted from an upstairs window, "Yez can piss off, he's had enough of yez and gone back to work at the bottle factory". The now four-piece group carried on, however, and recordings exist of them in this period, sounding much more professional than only a few months before, including performances of some of their own songs. The most entertaining of these is probably "You'll Be Mine", an Ink Spots parody with some absurd wordplay from Lennon:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "You'll Be Mine"]

Soon enough the group found another drummer, Norm Chapman, and carried on as before, getting regular bookings thanks to Williams.

There was soon a temporary guest at the flat John, Stuart, and George shared with several other people -- Royston Ellis, the Beat poet and friend of the Shadows, had turned up in Liverpool and latched on to the group, partly because he fancied George. He performed with them a couple of times, crashed at the flat, and provided them with two formative experiences -- he gave them their first national press, talking in Record and Show Mirror about how he wanted them to be his full-time group, and he gave them their first drug experience, showing them how to get amphetamines out of inhalers.

While the group's first national press was positive, there was soon some very negative press indeed associated with them. A tabloid newspaper wanted to do a smear story about the dangerous Beatnik menace. The article talked about how "they revel in filth", and how beatniks were "a dangerous menace to our young people… a corrupting influence of drug addicts and peddlers, degenerates who specialise in obscene orgies". And for some reason -- it's never been made clear exactly how -- the beatnik "pad" they chose to photograph for this story was the one that John, Stuart, and George lived in, though they weren't there at the time -- several of their friends and associates are in the pictures though.

They were all kicked out of their flat, and moved back in with their families, and around this time they lost Chapman from the group too -- he was called up to do his National Service, one of the last people to be conscripted before conscription ended for good. They were back to a four-piece again, and for a while Paul was drumming.

But then, as seems to have happened so often with this group, a bizarre coincidence happened.

A while earlier, Allan Williams had travelled to Hamburg, with the idea of trying to get Liverpool groups booked there. He'd met up with Bruno Koschmider, the owner of a club called the Kaiserkeller. Koschmider had liked the idea, but nothing had come of it, partly because neither could speak the other's language well. A little while later, Koschmider had remembered the idea and come over to the UK to find musicians. He didn't remember where Williams was from, so of course he went to London, to the 2is, and there he found a group of musicians including Tony Sheridan, who we talked about back in the episode on "Brand New Cadillac", the man who'd been Vince Taylor's lead guitarist and had a minor solo career:

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan, "Why?"]

Sheridan was one of the most impressive musicians in Britain, but he also wanted to skip the country -- he'd just bought a guitar on credit in someone else's name, and he also had a wife and six-month-old baby he wanted rid of. He eagerly went off with Koschmider, and a scratch group called the Jets soon took up residence at the Kaiserkeller.

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, Derry and the Seniors were annoyed. Larry Parnes had booked them for a tour, but then he'd got annoyed at the unprofessionalism of the Liverpool bands he was booking and cancelled the booking, severing his relationship with Williams. The Seniors wanted to know what Williams was going to do about it. 

There was no way to get them enough gigs in Liverpool, so Williams, being a thoroughly decent man who had a sense of obligation, offered to drive the group down to London to see if they could get work there. He took them to the 2is, and they were allowed to get up and play there, since Williams was a friend of the owner.

And Bruno Koschmider was there. The Jets hadn't liked playing at Williams' club, and they'd scarpered to another one with better working conditions, which they helped get off the ground and renamed the Top Ten, after Vince Taylor's club in London. So Bruno had come back to find another group, and there in the same club at the same time was the man who'd given him the idea in the first place, with a group. Koschmider immediately signed up Derry and the Seniors to play at the Kaiserkeller. 

Meanwhile, the best gig the Beatles could get, also through Williams, was backing a stripper, where they played whatever instrumentals they knew, no matter how inappropriate, things like the theme from The Third Man:

[Excerpt: Anton Karas, "Theme from The Third Man"]

A tune guaranteed to get the audience into a sexy mood, I'm sure you'll agree.

But then Allan Williams got a call from Koschmider. Derry and the Seniors were doing great business, and he'd decided to convert another of his clubs to be a rock and roll club. Could Williams have a group for him by next Friday? Oh, and it needed to be five people.

Williams tried Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. They were busy. He tried Cass and the Cassanovas. They were busy. He tried Gerry and the Pacemakers. They were busy. Finally, he tried the Beatles. They weren't busy, and said yes they could go to Hamburg that week. There were a few minor issues, like there not being five of them, none of them having passports, and them not having a drummer. The passports could be sorted quickly -- there's a passport office in Liverpool -- but the lack of a fifth Beatle was more of a problem. In desperation, they turned eventually to Pete Best, Mrs. Best's son, because they knew he had a drum kit. He agreed. 

Allan Williams drove the group to Hamburg, and they started playing six-hour sets every night at the Indra, not finishing til three in the morning, at which point they'd make their way to their lodgings -- the back of a filthy cinema. 

By this time, the Beatles had already got good -- Howie Casey, of Derry and the Seniors, who'd remembered the Beatles as being awful at the Johnny Gentle audition, came over to see them and make fun of them, but found that they were far better than they had been. But playing six hours a night got them *very* good *very* quickly -- especially as they decided that they weren't going to play the same song twice in a night, meaning they soon built up a vast repertoire.

But right from the start, there was a disconnect between Pete Best and the other four -- they socialised together, and he went off on his own. He was also a weak player -- he was only just starting to learn -- and so the rest of the group would stamp their feet to keep him in time. That, though, also gave them a bit more of a stage act than they might otherwise have had.

There are lots of legendary stories about the group's time in Hamburg, and it's impossible to sort fact from fiction, and the bits we can sort out would get this podcast categorised as adult content, but they were teenagers, away from home for a long period for the first time, living in a squalid back room in the red light district of a city with a reputation for vice. I'm sure whatever you imagine is probably about right.

After a relatively short time, they were moved from the Indra, which had to stop putting on rock and roll shows, to the Kaiserkeller, where they shared the bill with Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, up to that point considered Liverpool's best band. There's a live recording of the Hurricanes from 1960, which shows that they were certainly powerful:

[Excerpt: Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, "Brand New Cadillac"]

That recording doesn't have the Hurricanes' normal drummer on, who was sick for that show.

But compared to what the Beatles had become -- a stomping powerhouse with John Lennon, whose sense of humour was both cruel and pointed, doing everything he could to get a rise out of the audience -- they were left in the dust. A letter home that George Harrison wrote sums it up -- "Rory Storm & the Hurricanes came out here the other week, and they are crumby. He does a bit of dancing around but it still doesn’t make up for his phoney group. The only person who is any good in the group is the drummer."

That drummer was Richy Starkey from the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group, now performing as Ringo Starr. They struck up a friendship, and even performed together at least once -- John, Paul, George, and Ringo acting as the backing group for Lu Walters of the Hurricanes on a demo, which is frustratingly missing and hasn't been heard since.

They were making other friends, too. There was Tony Sheridan, who they'd seen on TV, but who would now sometimes jam with them as equals. And there was a trio of arty bohemian types who had stumbled across the club, where they were very out of place -- Astrid Kirscherr, Klaus Voormann, and Jurgen Vollmer. They all latched on to the Beatles, and especially to Stuart, who soon started dating Astrid, despite her speaking no English and him speaking no German.

But relations between Koschmider and the Beatles had worsened, and he reported to the police that George, at only seventeen, was under-age. George got deported. The rest of the group decided to move over to the Top Ten Club, and as a parting gift, Paul and Pete nailed some condoms to their bedroom wall and set fire to them. Koschmider decided to report this to the police as attempted arson, and those two were deported as well. John followed a week later, while Stuart stayed in Hamburg for a while, to spend more time with Astrid, who he planned to marry.

The other four regrouped, getting in a friend, Chas Newby, as a temporary bass player while Stuart was away. And on the twenty-seventh of December, 1960, when they played Litherland Town Hall, they changed the Liverpool music scene. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen, and the audience didn't dance -- they just rushed to the stage, to be as close to the performance as possible. The Beatles had become the best band in Liverpool. Mark Lewisohn goes further, and suggests that the three months of long nights playing different songs in Hamburg had turned them into the single most experienced rock band *in the world* -- which seems vanishingly unlikely to me, but Lewisohn is not a man given to exaggeration.

By this time, Mona Best had largely taken over the group's bookings, and there were a lot of them, as well as a regular spot at the Casbah. Neil Aspinall, a friend of Pete's, started driving them to gigs, while they also had a regular MC, Bob Wooler, who ran many local gigs, and who gave the Beatles their own theme music -- he'd introduce them with the fanfare from Rossini's William Tell Overture:

[Excerpt: Rossini, "William Tell Overture"]

Stuart came over from Hamburg in early January, and once again the Beatles were a five-piece -- and by now, he could play quite well, well enough, at any rate, that it didn't destroy the momentum the group had gathered. The group were getting more and more bookings, including the venue that would become synonymous with them, the Cavern, a tiny little warehouse cellar that had started as a jazz club, and that the Quarry Men had played once a couple of years earlier, but had been banned from for playing too much rock and roll.

Now, the Beatles were getting bookings at the Cavern's lunchtime sessions, and that meant more than it seemed. Most of the gigs they played otherwise were on the outskirts of the city, but the Cavern was in the city centre. And that meant that for the lunchtime sessions, commuters from outside the city were coming to see them -- which meant that the group got fans from anywhere within commuting distance, fans who wanted them to play in their towns.

Meanwhile, the group were branching out musically -- they were particularly becoming fascinated by the new R&B, soul, and girl-group records that were coming out in the US. After already having loved "Money" by Barrett Strong, John was also obsessed with the Miracles, and would soon become a fervent fan of anything Motown, and the group were all big fans of the Shirelles. As they weren't playing original material live, and as every group would soon learn every other group's best songs, there was an arms race on to find the most exciting songs to cover. As well as Elvis and Buddy and Eddie, they were now covering the Shirelles and Ray Charles and Gary US Bonds.

The group returned to Hamburg in April, Paul and Pete's immigration status having been resolved and George now having turned eighteen, and started playing at the Top Ten club, where they played even longer sets, and more of them, than they had at the Kaiserkeller and the Indra. Tony Sheridan started regularly joining them on stage at this time, and Paul switched to piano while Sheridan added the third guitar. This was also when they started using Preludin, a stimulant related to amphetamines which was prescribed as a diet drug -- Paul would take one pill a night, George a couple, and John would gobble them down. But Pete didn't take them -- one more way in which he was different from the others -- and he started having occasional micro-sleeps in the middle of songs as the long nights got to him, much to the annoyance of the rest of the group. But despite Pete's less than stellar playing they were good enough that Sheridan -- the single most experienced musician in the British rock and roll scene -- described them as the best R&B band he'd ever heard.

Once they were there, they severed their relationship with Allan Williams, refusing to pay him his share of the money, and just cutting him out of their careers. 

Meanwhile, Stuart was starting to get ill. He was having headaches all the time, and had to miss shows on occasion. He was also the only Beatle with a passion for anything else, and he managed to get a scholarship to study art with the famous sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who was now working in Hamburg. Paul subbed for Stuart on bass, and eventually Stuart left the group, though on good terms with everyone other than Paul.

So it was John, Paul, George and Pete who ended up making the Beatles' first records. Bert Kaempfert, the most important man in the German music industry, had been to see them all at the Top Ten and liked what he saw. Outside Germany, Kaempfert was probably best known for co-writing Elvis' "Wooden Heart", which the Beatles had in their sets at this time:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Wooden Heart"]

Kaempfert had signed Tony Sheridan to a contract, and he wanted the Beatles to back him in the studio -- and he was also interested in recording a couple of tracks with them on their own. The group eagerly agreed, and their first session started at eight in the morning on the twenty-second of June 1961, after they had finished playing all night at the club, and all of them but Pete were on Preludin for the session. Stuart came along for moral support, but didn't play.

Pete was a problem, though. He wasn't keeping time properly, and Kaempfert eventually insisted on removing his bass drum and toms, leaving only a snare, hi-hat, and ride cymbal for Pete to play.

They recorded seven songs at that session in total. Two of them were just by the Beatles. One was a version of "Ain't She Sweet", an old standard which Gene Vincent had recorded fairly recently, but the other was the only track ever credited to Lennon and Harrison as cowriters. On their first trip to Hamburg, they'd wanted to learn "Man of Mystery" by the Shadows:

[Excerpt: The Shadows, "Man of Mystery"]

But there was a slight problem in that they didn't have a copy of the record, and had never heard it -- it came out in the UK while they were in Germany. So they asked Rory Storm to hum it for them. He hummed a few notes, and Lennon and Harrison wrote a parody of what Storm had sung, which they named "Beatle Bop" but by this point they'd renamed "Cry For a Shadow":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Cry For a Shadow"]

The other five songs at the session were given over to Tony Sheridan, with the Beatles backing him, and the song that Kaempfert was most interested in recording was one the group had been performing on stage -- a rocked-up version of the old folk song "My Bonnie":

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, "My Bonnie"]

That was the record chosen as the single, but it was released not as by Tony Sheridan and the Beatles, but by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers -- "Beatles", to German ears, sounded a little like "piedels", a childish slang term for penises. The Beatles had made their first record, but it wasn't one they thought much of. They knew they could do better.

The next week, the now four-piece Beatles returned to Liverpool, with much crying at Stuart staying behind -- even Paul, now Stuart was no longer a threat for John's attention, was contrite and tried to make amends to him. 

On their return to Liverpool, they picked up where they had left off, playing almost every night, and spending the days trying to find new records -- often listening to the latest releases at NEMS, a department store with an extensive record selection. Brian Epstein, the shop's manager, prided himself on being able to get any record a customer wanted, and whenever anyone requested anything he'd buy a second copy for the shelves. As a result, you could find records there that you wouldn't get anywhere else in Liverpool, and the Beatles were soon adding more songs by the Shirelles and Gary US Bonds to their sets, as well as more songs by the Coasters and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me".

They were playing gigs further afield, and Neil Aspinall was now driving them everywhere. Aspinall was Pete Best's closest friend -- and was having an affair with Pete's mother -- but unlike Pete himself he also became close to the other Beatles, and would remain so for the rest of his life. 

By this point, the group were so obviously the best band on the Liverpool scene that they were starting to get bored -- there was no competition. And by this point it really was a proper scene -- John's old art school friend Bill Harry had started up a magazine, Mersey Beat, which may be the first magazine anywhere in the world to focus on one area's local music scene. Brian Epstein from NEMS had a column, as did Bob Wooler, and often John's humorous writing would appear as well. The Beatles were featured in most issues -- although Paul McCartney's name was misspelled almost every time it appeared -- and not just because Lennon and Harry were friends. By this point there were the Beatles, and there were all the other groups in the area.

For several months this continued -- they learned new songs, they played almost every day, and they continued to be the best. They started to find it boring. The one big change that came at this point was when John and Paul went on holiday to Paris, saw Vince Taylor, bumped into their friend Jurgen from Hamburg, and got Jurgen to do their hair like his -- the story we told in the episode on "Brand New Cadillac". They now had the Beatles haircut, though they were still wearing leather. When they got back, George copied their new style straight away, but Pete decided to leave his hair in a quiff.

There was nowhere else to go without a manager to look after them. They needed management -- and they found it because of "My Bonnie":

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, "My Bonnie"]

"My Bonnie" was far from a great record, but it was what led to everything that followed. The Beatles had mentioned from the stage at the Cavern that they had a record out, and a young man named Raymond Jones walked into NEMS and asked for a copy of it. Brian Epstein couldn't find it in the record company catalogues, and asked Jones for more information -- Jones explained that they were a Liverpool group, but the record had come out in Germany. A couple of days later, two young girls came into the shop asking for the same record, and now Epstein was properly intrigued -- in his view, if *two* people asked for a record, that probably meant a lot more than just two people wanted it. He decided to check these Beatles out for himself.

Epstein was instantly struck by the group, and this has led to a lot of speculation over the years, because his tastes ran more to Sibelius than to Little Richard. As Epstein was also gay, many people have assumed that the attraction was purely physical. And it might well have been, at least in part, but the suggestion that everything that followed was just because of that seems unlikely -- Epstein was also someone who had a long interest in the arts, and had trained as an actor at RADA, the most prestigious actors' college in the UK, before taking up his job at the family store. Given that the Beatles were soon to become the most popular musicians in the history of the world, and were already the most popular musicians in the Liverpool area, the most reasonable assumption must be that Epstein was impressed by the same things that impressed roughly a billion other people over the next sixty years.

Epstein started going to the Cavern regularly, to watch the Beatles and to make plans -- the immaculately dressed, public-school-educated, older rich man stood out among the crowd, and the Beatles already knew his face from his record shop, and so they knew something was going on. By late November, Brian had managed to obtain a box of twenty-five copies of "My Bonnie", and they'd sold out within hours. He set up a meeting with the Beatles, and even before he got them signed to a management contract he was using his contacts with the record industry in London to push the Beatles at record companies. Those companies listened to Brian, because NEMS was one of their biggest customers.

December 1961, the month they signed with Brian Epstein, was also the month that they finally started including Lennon/McCartney songs in their sets.  And within a couple of weeks of becoming their manager, even before he'd signed them to a contract, Brian had managed to persuade Mike Smith, an A&R man from Decca, to come to the Cavern to see the group in person. He was impressed, and booked them in for a studio session.

December 61 was also the first time that John, Paul, George, and Ringo played together in that lineup, without any other musicians, when on the twenty-seventh of December Pete called in sick for a show, and the others got in their friend to cover for him. It wouldn't be the last time they would play together.

On New Year's Day 1962, the Beatles made the trek down to London to record fifteen songs at the Decca studios. The session was intended for two purposes -- to see if they sounded as good on tape as they did in the Cavern, and if they did to produce their first single. Those recordings included the core of their Cavern repertoire, songs like "Money":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Money (Decca version)"]

They also recorded three Lennon/McCartney songs, two by Paul -- "Love of the Loved" and "Like Dreamers Do":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Like Dreamers Do"]

And one by Lennon -- "Hello Little Girl":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Hello Little Girl"]

And they were Lennon/McCartney songs, even though they were written separately -- the two agreed that they were going to split the credit on anything either of them wrote.

The session didn't go well -- the group's equipment wasn't up to standard and they had to use studio amps, and they're all audibly nervous -- but Mike Smith was still fairly confident that they'd be releasing something through Decca -- he just had to work out the details with his boss, Dick Rowe.

Meanwhile, the group were making other changes. Brian suggested that they could get more money if they wore suits, and so they agreed -- though they didn't want just any suits, they wanted stylish mohair suits, like the black American groups they loved so much. 

The Beatles were now a proper professional group -- but unfortunately, Decca turned them down. Dick Rowe, Mike Smith's boss, didn't think that electric guitars were going to become a big thing -- he was very tuned in to the American trends, and nothing with guitars was charting at the time. Smith was considering two groups -- the Beatles, and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, and wanted to sign both. Rowe told him that he could sign one, but only one, of them. The Tremeloes had been better in the studio, and they lived round the corner from Smith and were friendly with him. There was no contest -- much as Smith wanted to sign both groups, the Tremeloes were the better prospect.

Rowe did make an offer to Epstein: if Epstein would pay a hundred pounds (a *lot* of money in those days), Tony Meehan, formerly of the Shadows, would produce the group in another session, and Decca would release that. Brian wasn't interested -- if the Beatles were going to make a record, they were going to make it with people who they weren't having to pay for the privilege.

John, Paul, and George were devastated, but for their own reasons they didn't bother to tell Pete they'd been turned down.

But they did have a tape of themselves, at least -- a professional-quality recording that they could use to attract other labels. And their career was going forward in other ways. The same day Brian had his second meeting with Decca, they had an audition with the BBC in Manchester, where they were accepted to perform on Teenager's Turn, a radio programme hosted by the Northern Dance Orchestra. A few weeks later, on the seventh of March, they went to Manchester to record four songs in front of an audience, of which three would be broadcast:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Please Mr. Postman (Teenager's Turn)"]

That recording of John singing "Please Mr. Postman" is historic for another reason, which shows just how on the cutting edge of musical taste the Beatles actually were -- it was the first time ever that a Motown song was played on the BBC.

Now we get to the part of the story that, before Mark Lewisohn's work in his book a few years back, had always been shrouded in mystery. What Lewisohn shows is that George Martin was in fact forced to sign the Beatles, against his will, and that this may have been as a punishment.

The Beatles had already been turned down by Parlophone once, based on "My Bonnie", when Brian Epstein walked into the HMV store on Oxford Street in London in mid-February. HMV is now mostly known as a retail chain, Britain's biggest chain of physical media stores, but at the time it was owned by EMI, and was associated with their label of the same name -- HMV stood for "His Master's Voice", and its logo was the same one as America's RCA, with whom it had a mutual distribution deal for many years.

As a record retailer, Epstein naturally had a professional interest in other record shops, and he had a friend at HMV, who suggested to him that they could use a disc-cutting machine that the shop had to turn his copy of the Decca tapes into acetate discs, which would be much more convenient for taking round and playing to record labels. That disc-cutter was actually in a studio that musicians used for making records for themselves, much as the Quarry Men had years earlier -- it was in fact the studio where Cliff Richard had cut *his* first private demo, the one he'd used to get signed to EMI. 

Jim Foy, the man who worked the lathe cutter, liked what he heard, and he talked with Brian about the group. Brian mentioned that some of the songs were originals, and Foy told him that EMI also owned a publishing company, Ardmore & Beechwood, and the office was upstairs -- would Brian like to meet with them to discuss publishing? Brian said he would like that.

Ardmore & Beechwood wanted the original songs on the demo. They were convinced that Lennon and McCartney had potential as songwriters, and that songs like "Like Dreamers Do" could become hits in the right hands. And Brian Epstein agreed with them -- but he also knew that the Beatles had no interest in becoming professional songwriters. They wanted to make records, not write songs for other people to record. 

Brian took his new discs round to George Martin at EMI -- who wasn't very impressed, and basically said "Don't call us, we'll call you". Brian went back to Liverpool, and got on with the rest of the group's career, including setting up another Hamburg residency for them, this time at a new club called the Star Club.

That Star Club residency, in April, would be devastating for the group -- on Tuesday the tenth of April, the same day John, Paul, and Pete got to Hamburg (George was ill and flew over the next day), Stuart Sutcliffe, who'd been having headaches and feeling ill for months, collapsed and died, aged only twenty-one. The group found out the next day -- they got to the airport to meet George, and bumped into Klaus and Astrid, who were there to meet Stuart's mother from the same flight. They asked where Stuart was, and heard the news from Astrid. 

John basically went off the rails. Most of the stories about Lennon's bad behaviour in Hamburg come from this trip in particular -- a young man dealing with his trauma by taking amphetamines and drinking too much, and resorting to cruel humour to mask the fact that he was traumatised by the death of his closest friend.

But the music still continued, and they even did another session for Tony Sheridan. Sheridan wasn't actually in the studio -- his vocal was overdubbed later -- but the four Beatles went into the studio along with the piano player Roy Brown -- the one who had taught Adam Faith how to sing like Buddy Holly, and who often joined them on stage during this period -- to record rock and roll versions of old standards for Sheridan to sing on:

[Excerpt: Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, "Sweet Georgia Brown"]

But it was while they were in Hamburg on this trip that the Beatles finally got a record contract.

Ardmore & Beechwood really wanted those songs, and they knew that the Beatles were only interested in making records. Then a song plugger called Kim Bennett hit upon the idea that would lead to the Beatles' success, and to almost everything that follows in subsequent episodes of this podcast. Ardmore and Beechwood were a subsidiary of EMI, and they had a budget for promoting songs. They could use that song-promoting budget... to pay for a record to be made. EMI could put it out, but the costs wouldn't be charged to whichever EMI label put the record out, but to Ardmore & Beechwood's promotional budget for the songs in question. The publishing company would then get two copyrights that it could perhaps use for a successful artist like Cliff Richard or Adam Faith, and the Beatles would get to make a record.

EMI didn't like the idea at first -- publishers should stick to publishing and record companies to records -- but eventually they were worn down by Bennett's persistence. The only question was which of the subsidiary labels -- all of which had already turned the group down -- would be forced to sign them. And that had a solution. It was going to be George Martin.

George Martin was a real musician -- an oboeist with a strong classical background -- and he'd worked on every kind of record, including producing some of the Vipers' records, but he had his greatest successes with novelty and comedy records. He was the producer of the Temperance Seven, a comedy trad group:

[Excerpt: The Temperance Seven, "You're Driving Me Crazy"]

Bernard Cribbins:

[Excerpt: Bernard Cribbins, "Hole in the Ground"]

Flanders & Swann:

[Excerpt: Flanders & Swann, "A Gnu"]

Peter Sellers, Beyond the Fringe, and more. 

George Martin was in the bad books of Len Wood, the Managing Director of EMI. For several years, Martin, who was married, had been having an affair with his secretary -- Martin's marriage had failed and he and Judy, the secretary in question, were deeply in love and would later marry. But Wood had very strict religious views, and had discovered Martin's infidelity. Not only that, but Martin was getting far too big for his boots -- he was pushing to get an actual *royalty* on the records he produced! 

Wood couldn't fire Martin -- Martin was too respected by Wood's own boss, Sir Joseph Lockwood -- but he could make Martin's life difficult. And so, in order to shut Kim Bennett at Ardmore & Beechwood up, George Martin was ordered, against his own better instincts, to offer a contract to the Beatles. Martin arranged a meeting with Brian Epstein, who then sent a telegram to the Beatles -- they were going to make a record. Their first session was going to be on the sixth of June.

John and Paul got to work -- they had no idea that they had been signed on the basis of their songwriting, and it seems that neither they nor Epstein were ever told what had actually happened to lead to the contract. As far as everyone was concerned, George Martin had made his own decision. They didn't know what it was they would be recording, but they decided to write some new material in case they had a chance to do something of their own.

They came up with two songs while they were there. One, "P.S. I Love You", was a totally new song by Paul, inspired by "Soldier Boy" by the Shirelles:

[Excerpt: The Shirelles, "Soldier Boy"]

The other, "Love Me Do", was a half-finished song of Paul's from years earlier that they dug out and finished up. The main changes they made to the song were to add a new bridge by Lennon, and an instrumental hook, also Lennon's work. The big sound of that summer was the harmonica -- Bruce Channel had used it on his massive hit "Hey Baby!":

[Excerpt: Bruce Channel, "Hey Baby!"]

A bunch of other records came out with harmonica on around that time, and Lennon was playing harmonica on stage. They added a harmonica hook to their song in the hope that that would make it more commercial.

While they were at the Star Club, they also spent some time with Gene Vincent, who came over just as they were about to leave, and shared a bill with them for four days. They were hugely impressed to be working with one of their real idols, although by this time he was seriously out of control -- Harrison would later remember Vincent dragging him along to a hotel room where Vincent was convinced his wife was having an affair, pulling a gun out and handing it to Harrison to hold for him while he banged on the door. Harrison quickly passed the gun back to Vincent and left -- if there was going to be a murder committed, he didn't want to be involved. Thankfully, Vincent didn't shoot his wife.

A few days after their return to Liverpool, they headed down to the session that they were sure would be to record their first single, still not knowing what they were going to be recording. Ron Richards, George Martin's assistant, was in charge of that initial session, and they started by cutting a version of the old standard "Besame Mucho". They then recorded three originals -- John's Miracles-styled "Ask Me Why", plus "P.S. I Love You" and "Love Me Do". George Martin turned up at some point during the session, and suggested that Paul, rather than John, sing the solo lead line on "Love Me Do", as the harmonica part overlapped with that line:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Love Me Do (6 June 1962 version)"]

At that session, the Beatles and Martin clicked as people -- he was still unimpressed with them as musicians, but he found that he shared a sense of humour with them. They were people he could work with, and vice versa. 

Or at least, three of them were. Pete Best didn't say a single word to Martin, and he also played quite amazingly shoddily. After the session, Martin came to a couple of conclusions -- Ron Richards was going to have to look for a better song for the group to perform, and any further recordings would *not* feature Pete Best.

John, Paul, and George were coming to similar conclusions, but for the moment Pete was still a Beatle, and a few days later the four of them made another appearance on "Teenager's Turn", where they performed an original on the radio for the first time -- John's "Ask Me Why":

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Ask Me Why (Teenager's Turn)"]

After that show, someone mentioned to Pete that the Beatles were thinking of kicking him out of the band. He didn't believe them, but it was true, as he'd find out a few weeks later.

The sacking of Pete Best is one of the saddest episodes in rock and roll history. It was absolutely necessary -- he simply wasn't a competent drummer -- but it crushed him. From the point of view of the other three, as well, it made sense -- they'd never felt particularly close to him -- but he doesn't seem to have realised that they didn't think of him as close. He wasn't really close with *anyone* -- that's just who he was. It's not his fault. Nobody disliked him, they just didn't know him that well. He wasn't one of them.

Anyone who's ever had a friendship that meant more to them than it did to the other person will be able to sympathise with how Pete felt on that level, but it's hard to imagine just how much it must have hurt to be dropped from a band that was his whole life, which he considered himself an equal member of, and which then went on to be the most successful band in the world so soon after he was out. It didn't help that the other three left Brian Epstein to do their dirty work. Nor did it help that his best mate Neil Aspinall -- the man who lived in his house, and who had just fathered Pete's younger half-brother, carried on working for them, telling him "They sacked *you*, they didn't sack me."

One reason they chose that particular moment to sack Pete, and get in Ringo, who was widely regarded as either the best drummer in Liverpool or the second best after Johnny Hutch (who hated and despised John Lennon so much that he was never even considered, while Ringo was good friends with all of them) was because the next week, on the 22nd of August, there was going to be a TV crew coming to the Cavern to film them for local TV:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Some Other Guy"]

Pete Best was in the audience, watching his replacement.

The day after that came another big change -- John's girlfriend, Cynthia, was pregnant, and they married on the 23rd of August, in a small ceremony. Brian Epstein gave the happy couple the use of his flat rent-free until they could find a place of their own.

On the fourth of September, the group went down to London to record what was sure to be their first real single. They'd been given a song to learn by George Martin -- a song written by the songwriter Mitch Murray, published by Dick James, a friend of Martin's, which had already been turned down by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and Adam Faith, called "How Do You Do It?"

They despised the song, but they did what they were told. That was to be the A-side:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "How Do You Do It?"]

For the B-side, they cut another version of "Love Me Do", this time with Ringo on drums:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Love Me Do (single version)"]

They also made an attempt at cutting a new song of John's, "Please Please Me", but Ringo didn't know the song that well, and he was also showing off a bit in the studio due to nerves. He messed up, and George Martin determined that the next session -- if there was even going to be a next session -- he'd get in a session drummer rather than keep relying on whoever the Beatles brought in.

It turned out that that next session would be sooner than he'd imagined. John and Paul begged him to not put out "How Do You Do It?", saying they could do better, but Martin stood firm, saying "When you can write something as good as that, I'll consider it". But then Ardmore & Beechwood went ballistic. The purpose of the session was to get Lennon/McCartney songs recorded for Ardmore & Beechwood, not Dick James songs. They at least wanted the A-side of the record to be "Love Me Do". But Dick James wouldn't let "How Do You Do It?" be relegated to a B-side either, and Mitch Murray, once he heard the recording, wasn't even sure if he wanted it to come out at all.

So George Martin called the group back into the studio yet again a week later, telling them he was graciously agreeing to their requests, and this time he also brought in a session drummer, Andy White, much to Ringo's disgust.

They recorded two songs for consideration as the B-side, with Ron Richards running the session -- "P.S. I Love You", and John's new one "Please Please Me", and then cut a reworking of "Love Me Do", this time with White on drums while Ringo played a tambourine:

[Excerpt: The Beatles, "Love Me Do (album version)"]

In the end, "P.S. I Love You" was chosen for the B-side, and "Please Please Me" kept back to be reworked at a future date. George Martin was now, despite all the difficulty they'd caused him, on the Beatles' side. He knew they were good, and he knew "Please Please Me" could be a hit. He just had to get this record that he didn't think much of out of the way first. The record was released with the earlier version of "Love Me Do" on the A-side -- Ringo, not Andy White, playing drums -- although when the group's first album came out the Andy White version would be included instead.

"Love Me Do" wasn't expected to be a success, but it surprised everyone, due mostly to its sales in Liverpool and the North-West of England. It crept into the top fifty, and slowly made its way up the charts to number seventeen. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had a hit record, and the sixties had finally started.

Sep 25, 2020
Episode 99: "Surfin' Safari" by the Beach Boys
54:23

This week there are two episiodes of the podcast going up, both of them longer than normal. This one, episode ninety-nine, is on "Surfin' Safari" by the Beach Boys, and the group's roots in LA, and is fifty minutes long. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Misirlou" by Dick Dale and the Deltones.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

No Mixclouds this week, as both episodes have far too many songs by one artist. The mixclouds will be back with episode 101.

I used many resources for this episode, most of which will be used in future Beach Boys episodes too. It's difficult to enumerate everything here, because I have been an active member of the Beach Boys fan community for twenty-three years, and have at times just used my accumulated knowledge for this. But the resources I list here are ones I've checked for specific things.

Becoming the Beach Boys by James B. Murphy is an in-depth look at the group's early years.

Stephen McParland has published many, many books on the California surf and hot-rod music scenes, including several on both the Beach Boys and Gary Usher. The Beach Boys: Inception and Creation is the one I used most here, but I referred to several. His books can be found at https://payhip.com/CMusicBooks

Andrew Doe's Bellagio 10452 site is an invaluable resource.

Jon Stebbins' The Beach Boys FAQ is a good balance between accuracy and readability.

And Philip Lambert's Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is an excellent, though sadly out of print, musicological analysis of Wilson's music from 1962 through 67.

The Beach Boys' Morgan recordings and all the outtakes from them can be found on this 2-CD set.

The Surfin' Safari album is now in the public domain, and so can be found cheaply, but the best version to get is still the twofer CD with the Surfin' USA album.

*But*, those two albums are fairly weak, the Beach Boys in their early years were not really an album band, and you will want to investigate them further. I would recommend, rather than the two albums linked above, starting with this budget-priced three-CD set, which has a surprisingly good selection of their material on it.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today, there are going to be two podcast episodes. This one, episode ninety-nine, will be a normal-length episode, or maybe slightly longer than normal, and episode one hundred, which will follow straight after it, will be a super-length one that's at least three times the normal length of one of these podcasts.

I'm releasing them together, because the two episodes really do go together. We've talked recently about how we're getting into the sixties of the popular imagination, and those 1960s began, specifically, in October 1962. That was the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw the world almost end. It was the month that James Brown released Live at the Apollo -- an album we'll talk about in a few weeks' time. And if you want one specific date that the 1960s started, it was October the fifth, 1962.

On that date, a film came out that we mentioned last week -- Doctor No, the first ever James Bond film. It was also the date that two records were released on EMI in Britain. One was a new release by a British band, the other a record originally released a few months earlier in the USA, by an American band. Both bands had previously released records on much smaller labels, to no success other than very locally, but this was their first to be released on a major label, and had a slightly different lineup from those earlier releases. Both bands would influence each other, and go on to be the most successful band from their respective country in the next decade. Both bands would revolutionise popular music. And the two bands would even be filed next to each other alphabetically, both starting "the Bea". In episode one hundred, we're going to look at "Love Me Do" by the Beatles, but right now, in episode ninety-nine, we're going to look at "Surfin' Safari" by the Beach Boys:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin' Safari"]

Before I start this story properly, I just want to say something -- there are a lot of different accounts of the formation of the Beach Boys, and those accounts are all different. What I've tried to do here is take one plausible account of how the group formed and tell it in a reasonable length of time. If you read the books I link in the show notes, you might find some disagreements about the precise order of some of these events, or some details I've glossed over. This episode is already running long, and I didn't want to get into that stuff, but it's important that I stress that this is just as accurate as I can get in the length of an episode.

The Beach Boys really were boys when they made their first records. David Marks, their youngest member, was only thirteen when "Surfin' Safari" came out, and Mike Love, the group's oldest member, was twenty-one. 

So, as you might imagine when we're talking about children, the story really starts with the older generation. In particular, we want to start with Hite and Dorinda Morgan. The Morgans were part-time music business people in Los Angeles in the fifties. Hite Morgan owned an industrial flooring company, and that was his main source of income -- putting in floors at warehouses and factories that could withstand the particular stresses that such industrial sites faced.

But while that work was hard, it was well-paying and didn't take too much time. The company would take on two or three expensive jobs a year, and for the rest of the year Hite would have the money and time to help his wife with her work as a songwriter. She'd collaborated with Spade Cooley, one of the most famous Western Swing musicians of the forties, and she'd also co-written "Don't Put All Your Dreams in One Basket" for Ray Charles in 1948:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Don't Put All Your Dreams in One Basket"]

Hite and Dorinda's son, Bruce, was also a songwriter, though I've seen some claims that often the songs credited to him were actually written by his mother, who gave him credits in order to encourage him. One of Bruce Morgan's earliest songs was a piece called "Proverb Boogie", which was actually credited under his father's name, and which Louis Jordan retitled to "Heed My Warning" and took a co-writing credit on:

[Excerpt: Louis Jordan, "Heed My Warning"]

Eventually the Morgans also started their own publishing company, and built their own small demo studio, which they used to use to record cheap demos for many other songwriters and performers.

The Morgans were only very minor players in the music industry, but they were friendly with many of the big names on the LA R&B scene, and knew people like John Dolphin, Bumps Blackwell, Sam Cooke, and the Hollywood Flames. Bruce Morgan would talk in interviews about Bumps Blackwell calling round to see his father and telling him about this new song "You Send Me" he was going to record with Cooke.

But although nobody could have realised it at the time, or for many years later, the Morgans' place in music history would be cemented in 1952, when Hite Morgan, working at his day job, met a man named Murry Wilson, who ran a machine-tool company based in Hawthorne, a small town in southwestern Los Angeles County. It turned out that Wilson, like Dorinda Morgan, was an aspiring songwriter, and Hite Morgan signed him up to their publishing company, Guild Music.

Wilson's tastes in music were already becoming old-fashioned even in the very early 1950s, but given the style of music he was working in he was a moderately talented writer. His proudest moment was writing a song called "Two Step Side Step" for the Morgans, which was performed on TV by Lawrence Welk -- Murry gathered the whole family round the television to watch his song being performed. 

That song was a moderate success – it was never a hit for anyone, but it was recorded by several country artists, including the rockabilly singer Bonnie Lou, and most interestingly for our purposes by Johnny Lee Wills, Bob Wills' brother:

[Excerpt: Johnny Lee Wills, "Two Step Side Step"]

Wilson wrote a few other songs for the Morgans, of which the most successful was "Tabarin", which was recorded by the Tangiers -- one of the several names under which the Hollywood Flames performed. Gaynel Hodge would later speak fondly of Murry Wilson, and how he was always bragging about his talented kids:

[Excerpt: The Tangiers, "Tabarin"]

But as the fifties progressed, the Morgans published fewer and fewer of Wilson's songs, and none of them were hits. But the Morgans and Wilson stayed in touch, and around 1958 he heard from them about an opportunity for one of those talented kids.

Dorinda Morgan had written a song called "Chapel of Love" -- not the same song as the famous one by the Dixie Cups -- and Art Laboe had decided that that song would be perfect as the first record for his new label, Original Sound. Laboe was putting together a new group to sing it, called the Hitmakers, which was based around Val Poliuto. Poliuto had been the tenor singer of an integrated vocal group -- two Black members, one white, and one Hispanic -- which had gone by the names The Shadows and The Miracles before dismissing both names as being unlikely to lead to any success and taking the name The Jaguars at the suggestion of, of all people, Stan Freberg, the comedian and voice actor.

The Jaguars had never had much commercial success, but they'd recorded a version of "The Way You Look Tonight" which became a classic when Laboe included it on the massively successful "Oldies But Goodies", the first doo-wop nostalgia album:

[Excerpt: The Jaguars, "The Way You Look Tonight"]

The Jaguars continued for many years, and at one point had Richard Berry guest as an extra vocalist on some of their tracks, but as with so many of the LA vocal groups we've looked at from the fifties, they all had their fingers in multiple pies, and so Poliuto was to be in this new group, along with Bobby Adams of the Calvanes, who had been taught to sing R&B by Cornell Gunter and who had recorded for Dootsie Williams:

[Excerpt: The Calvanes, "Crazy Over You"]

Those two were to be joined by two other singers, who nobody involved can remember much about except that their first names were Don and Duke, but Art Laboe also wanted a new young singer to sing the lead, and was auditioning singers. Murry Wilson suggested to the Morgans that his young son Brian might be suitable for the role, and he auditioned, but Laboe thought he was too young, and the role went to a singer called Rodney Goodens instead:

[Excerpt: The Hitmakers, "Chapel of Love"]

So the audition was a failure, but it was a first contact between Brian Wilson and the Morgans, and also introduced Brian to Val Poliuto, from whom he would learn a lot about music for the next few years.

Brian was a very sensitive kid, the oldest of three brothers, and someone who seemed to have some difficulty dealing with other people -- possibly because his father was abusive towards him and his brothers, leaving him frightened of many aspects of life. He did, though, share with his father a love of music, and he had a remarkable ear -- singular, as he's deaf in one ear. He had perfect pitch, a great recollection for melodies -- play him something once and it would stay in his brain -- and from a very young age he gravitated towards sweet-sounding music. He particularly loved Glenn Miller's version of "Rhapsody in Blue" as a child:

[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, "Rhapsody in Blue"]

But his big musical love was a modern harmony group called the Four Freshmen -- a group made up of two brothers, their cousin, and a college friend. Modern harmony is an outdated term, but it basically meant that they were singing chords that went beyond the normal simple triads of most pop music. While there were four, obviously, of the Four Freshmen, they often achieved an effect that would normally be five-part harmony, by having the group members sing all the parts of the chord *except* the root note -- they'd leave the root note to a bass instrument. So while Brian was listening to four singers, he was learning five-part harmonies. The group would also sing their harmonies in unusual inversions -- they'd take one of the notes from the middle of the chord and sing it an octave lower.

There was another trick that the Four Freshmen used -- they varied their vocals from equal temperament. 

To explain this a little bit -- musical notes are based on frequencies, and the ratio between them matters. If you double the frequency of a note, you get the same note an octave up -- so if you take an A at 440hz, and double the frequency to 880, you get another A, an octave up. If you go down to 220hz, you get the A an octave below.

You get all the different notes by multiplying or dividing a note, so A# is A multiplied by a tiny bit more than one, and A flat is A multiplied by a tiny bit less than one. But in the middle ages, this hit a snag -- A#. which is A multiplied by one and a bit, is very very slightly different from B flat, which is B multiplied by 0.9 something. And if you double those, so you go to the A# and B flat the next octave up, the difference between A# and B flat gets bigger. And this means that if you play a melody in the key of C, but then decide you want to play it in the key of B flat, you need to retune your instrument -- or have instruments with separate notes for A# and B flat -- or everything will sound out of tune.

It's very very hard to retune some instruments, especially ones like the piano, and also sometimes you want to play in different keys in the same piece. If you're playing a song in C, but it goes into C# in the last chorus to give it a bit of extra momentum, you lose that extra momentum if you stop the song to retune the piano. So a different system was invented, and popularised in the Baroque era, called "equal temperament". In that system, every note is very very slightly out of tune, but those tiny errors cancel out rather than multiply like they do in the old system. You're sort of taking the average of A# and B flat, and calling them the same note. And to most people's ears that sounds good enough, and it means you can have a piano without a thousand keys. 

But the Four Freshmen didn't stick to that -- because you don't need to retune your throat to hit different notes (unless you're as bad a singer as me, anyway). They would sing B flat slightly differently than they would sing A#, and so they would get a purer vocal blend, with stronger harmonic overtones than singers who were singing the notes as placed on a piano:

[Excerpt: the Four Freshmen, "It's a Blue World"]

Please note by the way that I'm taking the fact that they used those non-equal temperaments somewhat on trust -- Ross Barbour of the group said they did in interviews, and he would know, but I have relatively poor pitch so if you listened to that and thought "Hang on, they're all singing dead-on equal tempered concert pitch, what's he talking about?", then that's on him.

When Brian heard them singing, he instantly fell for them, and became a major, major fan of their work, especially their falsetto singer Bob Flanigan, whose voice he decided to emulate. He decided that he was going to learn how they got that sound. Every day when he got home from school, he would go to the family's music room, where he had a piano and a record player. He would then play just a second or so of one of their records, and figure out on the piano what notes they were singing in that one second, and duplicating them himself. Then he would learn the next second of the song. He would spend hours every day on this, learning every vocal part, until he had the Four Freshmen's entire repertoire burned into his brain, and could sing all four vocal parts to every song.

Indeed, at one point when he was about sixteen -- around the same time as the Art Laboe audition -- Brian decided to go and visit the Four Freshmen's manager, to find out how to form a successful vocal group of his own, and to find out more about the group themselves. After telling the manager that he could sing every part of every one of their songs, the manager challenged him with "The Day Isn't Long Enough", a song that they apparently had trouble with:

[Excerpt: The Four Freshmen, "The Day Isn't Long Enough"]

And Brian demonstrated every harmony part perfectly. He had a couple of tape recorders at home, and he would experiment with overdubbing his own voice -- recording on one tape recorder, playing it back and singing along while recording on the other. Doing this he could do his own imitations of the Four Freshmen, and even as a teenager he could sound spookily like them:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys [Brian Wilson solo recording released on a Beach Boys CD], "Happy Birthday Four Freshmen"]

While Brian shared his love for this kind of sweet music with his father, he also liked the rock and roll music that was making its way onto the radio during his teen years -- though again, he would gravitate towards the sweet vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers rather than to more raucous music.

He shared his love of the Everlys with his cousin Mike Love, whose tastes otherwise went more in the direction of R&B and doo-wop. Unlike Brian and his brothers, Mike attended Dorsey High School, a predominantly Black school, and his tastes were shaped by that -- other graduates of the school include Billy Preston, Eric Dolphy, and Arthur Lee, to give some idea of the kind of atmosphere that Dorsey High had. He loved the Robins, and later the Coasters, and he's been quoted as saying he "worshipped" Johnny Otis -- as did every R&B lover in LA at the time. He would listen to Otis' show on KFOX, and to Huggy Boy on KRKD. His favourite records were things like "Smokey Joe's Cafe" by the Robins, which combined an R&B groove with witty lyrics:

[Excerpt: The Robins, "Smokey Joe's Cafe"]

He also loved the music of Chuck Berry, a passion he shared with Brian's youngest brother Carl, who also listened to Otis' show and got Brian listening to it. While Mike was most attracted to Berry's witty lyrics, Carl loved the guitar part -- he'd loved string instruments since he was a tiny child, and he and a neighbour, David Marks, started taking guitar lessons from another neighbour, John Maus. Maus had been friends with Ritchie Valens, and had been a pallbearer at Valens' funeral. John was recording at the time with his sister Judy, as the imaginatively-named duo "John & Judy":

[Excerpt: John & Judy, "Why This Feeling?"]

John and Judy later took on a bass player called Scott Engel, and a few years after that John and Scott changed their surnames to Walker and became two thirds of The Walker Brothers.

But at this time, John was still just a local guitar player, and teaching two enthusiastic kids to play guitar. Carl and David learned how to play Chuck Berry licks, and also started to learn some of the guitar instrumentals that were becoming popular at the time.

At the same time, Mike would sing with Brian to pass the time, Mike singing in a bass voice while Brian took a high tenor lead. Other times, Brian would test his vocal arranging out by teaching Carl and his mother Audree vocal parts -- Carl got so he could learn parts very quickly, so his big brother wouldn't keep him around all day and he could go out and play. And sometimes their middle brother Dennis would join in -- though he was more interested in going out and having fun at the beach than he was in making music.

Brian was interested in nothing *but* making music -- at least once he'd quit the school football team (American football, for those of you like me who parse the word to mean what it does in Britain), after he'd got hurt for the first time. But before he did that, he had managed to hurt someone else -- a much smaller teammate named Alan Jardine, whose leg Brian broke in a game. Despite that, the two became friends, and would occasionally sing together -- like Brian, Alan loved to sing harmonies, and they found that they had an extraordinarily good vocal blend. While Brian mostly sang with his brothers and his cousin, all of whom had a family vocal resemblance, Jardine could sound spookily similar to that family, and especially to Brian. Jardine's voice was a little stronger and more resonant, Brian's a little sweeter, with a fuller falsetto, but they had the kind of vocal similarity one normally only gets in family singers.

However,  they didn't start performing together properly, because they had different tastes in music -- while Brian was most interested in the modern jazz harmonies of the Four Freshman, Jardine was a fan of the new folk revival groups, especially the Kingston Trio. Alan had a group called the Tikis when he was at high school, which would play Kingston Trio style material like "The Wreck of the John B", a song that like much of the Kingston Trio's material had been popularised by the Weavers, but which the Trio had recorded for their first album:

[Excerpt: The Kingston Trio, "The Wreck of the John B"]

Jardine was inspired by that to write his own song, "The Wreck of the Hesperus", putting Longfellow's poem to music. One of the other Tikis had a tape recorder, and they made a few stabs at recording it. They thought that they sounded pretty good, and they decided to go round to Brian Wilson's house to see if he could help them -- depending on who you ask, they either wanted him to join the band, or knew that his dad had some connection with the music business and wanted to pick his brains. When they turned up, Brian was actually out, but Audree Wilson basically had an open-door policy for local teenagers, and she told the boys about Hite and Dorinda Morgan. The Tikis took their tape to the Morgans, and the Morgans responded politely, saying that they did sound good -- but they sounded like the Kingston Trio, and there were a million groups that sounded like the Kingston Trio. They needed to get an original sound.

The Tikis broke up, as Alan went off to Michigan to college. But then a year later, he came back to Hawthorne and enrolled in the same community college that Brian was enrolled in. Meanwhile, the Morgans had got in touch with Gary Winfrey, Alan's Tikis bandmate, and asked him if the Tikis would record a demo of one of Bruce Morgan's songs. As the Tikis no longer existed, Alan and Gary formed a new group along the same lines, and invited Brian to be part of one of these sessions. That group, The Islanders made a couple of attempts at Morgan's song, but nothing worked out. But this brought Brian back to the Morgans' attention -- at this point they'd not seen him in three years.

Alan still wanted to record folk music with Brian, and at some point Brian suggested that they get his brother Carl and cousin Mike involved -- and then Brian's mother made him let his other brother Dennis join in. 

The group went to see the Morgans, who once again told them that they needed some original material. Dennis piped up that the group had been fooling around with a song about surfing, and while the Morgans had never heard of the sport, they said it would be worth the group's while finishing off the song and coming back to them.

At this point, the idea of a song about surfing was something that was only in Dennis' head, though he may have mentioned the idea to Mike at some point. Mike and the Wilsons went home and started working out the song, without Al being involved at this time -- some of the rehearsal recordings we have seem to suggest that they thought Al was a little overbearing and thought of himself as a bit more professional than the others, and they didn't want him in the group at first.

While surf music was definitely already a thing, there were very few vocal surf records. Brian and Mike wrote the song together, with Mike writing most of the lyrics and coming up with his own bass vocal line, while Brian wrote the rest of the music:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin' (Rehearsal)"]

None of the group other than Dennis surfed -- though Mike would later start surfing a little -- and so Dennis provided Mike with some surfing terms that they could add into the song. This led to what would be the first of many, many arguments about songwriting credit among the group, as Dennis claimed that he should get some credit for his contribution, while Mike disagreed:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Surfin' (Rehearsal)”]

The credit was eventually assigned to Brian Wilson and Mike Love.

Eventually, they finished the song, and decided that they *would* get Al Jardine back into the group after all. When Murry and Audree Wilson went away for a long weekend and left their boys some money for emergencies, the group saw their chance. They took that money, along with some more they borrowed from Al's mother, and rented some instruments -- a drum kit and a stand-up bass. They had a party at the Wilsons' house where they played their new song and a few others, in front of their friends, before going back to the Morgans with their new song completed.

For their recording session, they used that stand-up bass, which Al played, along with Carl on an acoustic guitar, giving it that Kingston Trio sound that Al liked. Dennis was the group's drummer, but he wasn't yet very good and instead of drums the record has Brian thumping a dustbin lid as its percussion. As well as being the lead vocalist, Mike Love was meant to be the group's saxophone player, but he never progressed more than honking out a couple of notes, and he doesn't play on the session.

The song they came up with was oddly structured -- it had a nine-bar verse and a fourteen-bar chorus, the latter of which was based around a twelve-bar blues, but extended to allow the "surf, surf with me" hook. But other than the unusual bar counts it followed the structure that the group would set up most of their early singles. The song seems at least in part to have been inspired by the song "Bermuda Shorts" by the Delroys, which is a song the group have often cited and would play in their earliest live shows:

[Excerpt: The Delroys, "Bermuda Shorts"]

They messed around with the structure in various ways in rehearsal, and those can be heard on the rehearsal recordings, but by the time they came into the studio they'd settled on starting with a brief statement of the chorus hook:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin'"]

It then goes into a verse with Mike singing a tenor lead, with the rest of the group doing block harmonies and then joining him on the last line of the verse:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin'"]

And then we have Mike switching down into the bass register to sing wordless doo-wop bass during the blues-based chorus, while the rest of the group again sing in block harmony:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin'"]

That formula would be the one that the Beach Boys would stick with for several singles to follow -- the major change that would be made would be that Brian would soon start singing an independent falsetto line over the top of the choruses, rather than being in the block harmonies. 

The single was licensed to Candix Records, along with a B-side written by Bruce Morgan, and it became a minor hit record, reaching number seventy-five on the national charts. But what surprised the group about the record was the name on it. They'd been calling themselves the Pendletones, because there was a brand of thick woollen shirt called Pendletons which was popular among surfers, and which the group wore.  It might also have been intended as a pun on Dick Dale's Deltones, the preeminent surf music group of the time. But Hite Morgan had thought the name didn't work, and they needed something that was more descriptive of the music they were doing. He'd suggested The Surfers, but Russ Regan, a record promoter, had told him there was already a group called the Surfers, and suggested another name. So the first time the Wilsons realised they were now in the Beach Boys was when they saw the record label for the first time.

The group started working on follow-ups -- and as they were now performing live shows to promote their records, they switched to using electric guitars when they went into the studio to record some demos in February 1962. By now, Al was playing rhythm guitar, while Brian took over on bass, now playing a bass guitar rather than the double bass Al had played. For that session, as Dennis was still not that great a drummer, Brian decided to bring in a session player, and Dennis stormed out of the studio. However, the session player was apparently flashy and overplayed, and got paid off. Brian persuaded Dennis to come back and take over on drums again, and the session resumed. Val Poliuto was also at the session, in case they needed some keyboards, but he's not audible on any of the tracks they recorded, at least to my ears.

The most likely song for a follow-up was another one by Brian and Mike. This one was very much a rewrite of "Surfin'", but this time the verses were a more normal eight bars, and the choruses were a compromise between the standard twelve-bar blues and "Surfin'"s fourteen, landing on an unusual thirteen bars. With the electric guitars the group decided to bring in a Chuck Berry influence, and you can hear a certain similarity to songs like "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" in the rhythm and phrasing:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin' Safari [early version]"]

Around this time, Brian also wrote another song -- the song he generally describes as being the first song he ever wrote. Presumably, given that he'd already co-written "Surfin'", he means that it was the first song he wrote on his own, words and music. The song was inspired, melodically, by the song "When You Wish Upon A Star" from the Disney film Pinocchio:

[Excerpt: Cliff Edwards "When You Wish Upon a Star"]

The song came to Brian in the car, and he challenged himself to write the whole thing in his head without going to the piano until he'd finished it. The result was a doo-wop ballad with Four Freshmen-like block harmonies, with lyrics inspired by Brian's then girlfriend Judy Bowles, which they recorded at the same session as that version of “Surfin' Safari”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfer Girl [early version]"]

At the same session, they also recorded two more songs -- a song by Brian called Judy, and a surf instrumental written by Carl called "Karate".

However, shortly after that session, Al left the group. As the group had started playing electric instruments, they'd also started performing songs that were more suitable for those instruments, like "What'd I Say" and "The Twist". Al wasn't a fan of that kind of music, and he wanted to be singing "Tom Dooley" and "Wreck of the John B", not "Come on baby, let's do the Twist". He was also quite keen on completing his university studies -- he was planning on becoming a dentist -- and didn't want to spend time playing tons of small gigs when he could be working towards his degree. This was especially the case since Murry Wilson, who had by this point installed himself as the group's manager, was booking them on all sorts of cheap dates to get them exposure. As far as Al could see, being a Beach Boy was never going to make anyone any real money, and it wasn't worth disrupting his studies to keep playing music that he didn't even particularly like.

His place was taken by David Marks, Carl's young friend who lived nearby. Marks was only thirteen when he joined, and apparently it caused raised eyebrows among some of the other musicians who knew the group, because he was so much younger and less experienced than the rest. Unlike Al, he was never much of a singer -- he can hold a tune, and has a pleasant enough voice, but he wasn't the exceptional harmony singer that Al was -- but he was a competent rhythm player, and he and Carl had been jamming together since they'd both got guitars, and knew each other's playing style.

However, while Al was gone from the group, he wasn't totally out of the picture, and he remained close enough that he was a part of the first ever Beach Boys spin-off side project a couple of months later. Dorinda Morgan had written a song inspired by the new children's doll, Barbie, that had come out a couple of years before and which, like the Beach Boys, was from Hawthorne. She wanted to put together a studio group to record it, under the name Kenny and the Cadets, and Brian rounded up Carl, Al, Val Poliuto, and his mother Audree, to sing on the record for Mrs Morgan:

[Excerpt: Kenny and the Cadets, "Barbie"]

But after that, Al Jardine was out of the group for the moment -- though he would be back sooner than anyone expected.

Shortly after Al left, the new lineup went into a different studio, Western Studios, to record a new demo. Ostensibly produced by Murry Wilson, the session was actually produced by Brian and his new friend Gary Usher, who took charge in the studio and spent most of his time trying to stop Murry interfering.

Gary Usher is someone about whom several books have been written, and who would have a huge influence on West Coast music in the sixties. But at this point he was an aspiring singer, songwriter, and record producer, who had been making records for a few months longer than Brian and was therefore a veteran. He'd put out his first single, "Driven Insane", in March 1961:

[Excerpt: Gary Usher, "Driven Insane"]

Usher was still far from a success, but he was very good at networking, and had all sorts of minor connections within the music business. As one example, his girlfriend, Sandra Glanz, who performed under the name Ginger Blake, had just written "You Are My Answer" for Carol Connors, who had been the lead singer of the Teddy Bears but was now going solo:

[Excerpt: Carol Connors, "You Are My Answer"]

Connors, too, would soon become important in vocal surf music, while Ginger would play a significant part in Brian's life.

Brian had started writing songs with Gary, and they were in the studio to record some demos by Gary, and some demos by the Beach Boys of songs that Brian and Gary had written together, along with a new version of "Surfin' Safari". Of the two Wilson/Usher songs recorded in the session, one was a slow doo-wop styled ballad called "The Lonely Sea", which would later become an album track, but the song that they were most interested in recording was one called "409", which had been inspired by a new, larger, engine that Chevrolet had introduced for top-of-the-line vehicles.

Musically, "409" was another song that followed the "Surfin' Safari" formula, but it was regularised even more, lopping off the extra bar from "Surfin' Safari"'s chorus, and making the verses as well as the choruses into twelve-bar blues. But it still started with the hook, still had Mike sing his tenor lead in the verses, and still had him move to sing a boogie-ish bassline in the chorus while the rest of the group chanted in block harmonies over the top.

But it introduced a new lyrical theme to the group -- now, as well as singing about surfing and the beach, they could also sing about cars and car racing -- Love credits this as being one of the main reasons for the group's success in landlocked areas, because while there were many places in the US where you couldn't surf, there was nowhere where people didn't have cars.

It's also the earliest Beach Boys song over which there is an ongoing question of credit. For the first thirty years of the song's existence, it was credited solely to Wilson and Usher, but in the early nineties Love won a share of the songwriting credit in a lawsuit in which he won credit on many, many songs he'd not been credited for.

Love claims that he came up with the "She's real fine, my 409" hook, and the "giddy up" bass vocal he sang. Usher always claimed that Love had nothing to do with the song, and that Love was always trying to take credit for things he didn't do. It's difficult to tell who was telling the truth, because both obviously had a financial stake in the credit (though Usher was dead by the time of the lawsuit). Usher was always very dismissive of all of the Beach Boys with the exception of Brian, and wouldn't credit them for making any real contributions, Love's name was definitely missed off the credits of a large number of songs to which he did make substantial contributions, including some where he wrote the whole lyric, and the bits of the song Love claims *do* sound like the kind of thing he contributed to other songs which have no credit disputes. On the other hand, Love also overreached in his claims of credit in that lawsuit, claiming to have co-written songs that were written when he wasn't even in the same country as the writers.

Where you stand on the question of whether Love deserves that credit usually depends on your views of Wilson, Love and Usher as people, and it's not a question I'm going to get into, but I thought I should acknowledge that the question is there.

While "409" was still following the same pattern as the other songs, it's head and shoulders ahead of the Hite Morgan productions both in terms of performance and in terms of the sound. A great deal of that clearly owes to Usher, who was experimenting with things like sound effects, and so "409" starts with a recording that Brian and Usher made of Usher's car driving up and down the street:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "409"]

Meanwhile the new version of "Surfin' Safari" was vastly superior to the recording from a couple of months earlier, with changed lyrics and a tighter performance:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Surfin' Safari (second version)"]

So at the end of the session, the group had a tape of three new songs, and Murry WIlson wanted them to take it somewhere better than Candix Records. He had a contact somewhere much better -- at Capitol Records. He was going to phone Ken Nelson.

Or at least, Murry *thought* he had a contact at Capitol. He phoned Ken Nelson and told him "Years ago, you did me a favour, and now I'm doing one for you. My sons have formed a group and you have the chance to sign them!"

Now, setting aside the question of whether that would actually count as Murry doing Nelson a favour, there was another problem with this -- Nelson had absolutely no idea who Murry Wilson was, and no recollection of ever doing him a favour. It turned out that the favour he'd done, in Murry's eyes, was recording one of Murry's songs -- except that there's no record of Nelson ever having been involved in a recording of a Murry Wilson song.

By this time, Capitol had three A&R people, in charge of different areas. There was Voyle Gilmore, who recorded soft pop -- people like Nat "King" Cole. There was Nelson, who as we've seen in past episodes had some rockabilly experience but was mostly country -- he'd produced Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson, but he was mostly working at this point with people like Buck Owens and the Louvin Brothers, producing some of the best country music ever recorded, but not really doing the kind of thing that the Beach Boys were doing.

But the third, and youngest, A&R man was doing precisely the kind of thing the Beach Boys did. That was Nik Venet, who we met back in the episode on "LSD-25", and who was one of the people who had been involved with the very first surf music recordings. Nelson suggested that Murry go and see Venet, and Venet was immediately impressed with the tape Murry played him -- so impressed that he decided to offer the group a contract, and to release "Surfin' Safari" backed with "409", buying the masters from Murry rather than rerecording them. Venet also tried to get the publishing rights for the songs for Beechwood Music, a publishing company owned by Capitol's parent company EMI (and known in the UK as Ardmore & Beechwood) but Gary Usher, who knew a bit about the business, said that he and Brian were going to set up their own publishing companies -- a decision which Murry Wilson screamed at him for, but which made millions of dollars for Brian over the next few years.

The single came out, and was a big hit, making number fourteen on the hot one hundred, and "409" as the B-side also scraped the lower reaches of the charts. Venet soon got the group into the studio to record an album to go with the single, with Usher adding extra backing vocals to fill out the harmonies in the absence of Al Jardine. While the Beach Boys were a self-contained group, Venet seems to have brought in his old friend Derry Weaver to add extra guitar, notably on Weaver's song "Moon Dawg":

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, "Moon Dawg"]

It's perhaps unsurprising that the Beach Boys recorded that, because not only was it written by Venet's friend, but Venet owned the publishing on the song. The group also recorded "Summertime Blues", which was co-written by Jerry Capehart, a friend of Venet and Weaver's who also may have appeared on the album in some capacity. Both those songs fit the group, but their choice was clearly influenced by factors other than the purely musical, and very soon Brian Wilson would get sick of having his music interfered with by Venet. 

The album came out on October 1, and a few days later the single was released in the UK, several months after its release in the US. And on the same day, a British group who *had* signed to have their single published by Ardmore & Beechwood put out their own single on another EMI label. And we're going to look at that in the next episode...

Sep 25, 2020
Admin Note
01:46

Transcript

 

This is a couple of quick announcements.

Tomorrow or the day after, I will be posting two new episodes, both much longer than normal – episodes ninety-nine and one hundred. I just want to say in advance that these are very, very long, but that *will not* be the norm from now on. I know most of you like the episodes being half an hour, and that's going to continue. Episode one hundred – the end of two years – is an important one, though, and the bands I'm covering are important, so I've stretched out quite a lot.

After that, the podcast will be on a break for two weeks, before year three starts. I'll be using that time to edit the book version of year two.

I've also taken the opportunity to make a couple of changes to the Patreon. I've enabled annual memberships, so if you want to join and pay for a year up front, you now can. You get a discount equivalent to two months free if you do that – so you pay for ten months and get a year. You can still just pay monthly though.

Unfortunately, to do that I've had to set it so that *everyone* joining from today on pays on the first day they join, and then gets charged normally from the first of the month if they're paying monthly. That means that if you join today and pay monthly, you get charged today and then also get charged on the first of October – but then from every first of the month from then on. That's not my choice, it's Patreon's, so be aware of that if you're very short of money. That said, you do get access to all the past Patreon posts from the first day you join, including about seventy bonus podcasts, so you're getting something for your money.

Also, from October the fifth, the Patreon will have the option to pay in your local currency, rather than just in dollars.

Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy episodes ninety-nine and one hundred.

Sep 22, 2020
Episode 98: "I've Just Fallen For Someone" by Adam Faith
30:10

Episode ninety-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "I've Just Fallen For Someone" by Adam Faith, and is our final look at the pre-Beatles British pop scene. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "San Francisco Bay Blues" by Jesse Fuller.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

This double-CD set contains all Adam Faith's early recordings.

And Big Time: The Life of Adam Faith by David and Caroline Stafford is a delightfully-written, extremely quotable, and by all accounts accurate biography of Faith.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Errata

I repeatedly mispronounce Faith's birth surname as “Nelham”. It was “Nelhams”, with an “s”.

I also say that "Milk From the Coconut" by Johnny Gentle made the top thirty. It didn't -- I got this from an unreliable source.

Transcript

Today we're going to take our last look at the pre-Beatles British pop world, and we're going to look at a record that's far more important in retrospect than it seemed at the time. We're going to look at Adam Faith, and a track he recorded called "I've Just Fallen For Someone":

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "I've Just Fallen For Someone"]

As is normal for British rock and roll stars of the fifties, Adam Faith was a pseudonym, in this case for someone whose birth name is the subject of some debate -- the registrar seems to have got a bit confused -- but who was known as Terry Nelhams, a five-foot-five singer with high cheekbones, a strong chin, and a weak voice.

The crucial change in Nelhams' life had come at the cinema, when he had watched a film called Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean. Amazingly, I think we managed to get through the whole 1950s without mentioning Dean, but he was a massive figure in youth pop culture of the fifties, and his presence still resonated for decades afterwards. Dean only starred in three films, and only one, East of Eden, was released in his lifetime -- he died in a car crash while the other two were in post-production -- but his performance in the posthumously-released Rebel Without A Cause seemed to many teenagers of the time to encapsulate everything that they wanted to be. 

And Terry Nelhams decided he wanted to be James Dean -- why not? He bore a slight resemblance to him. Terry was going to go into showbiz.

There was a problem, though -- in the Britain of the fifties, acting was something that was largely the purview of the middle classes, and Terry was firmly working class. He lived on a council estate and went to a secondary modern -- the schools which, in the fifties UK education system, were designed for people who were considered unlikely to succeed academically. There was no way he was going to end up studying at RADA or any of the other ways one got into acting.

So he decided that rather than become a film star, he would become a director. That was much easier to get into than acting was, in the British film industry of the fifties -- you got a job as a tea boy at a film studio, worked your way up into the editing suite, became an editor, and then became a director. There was a steady career path, and you had job security at every stage -- and Terry Nelhams was someone who always looked after his money. So that's what he did -- he got a job at the Rank organisation as a messenger, then moved across to a company that made commercials for the new commercial TV network ITV, where he was an assistant editor.

But while he was working at Rank, Nelhams had joined a skiffle group, the Worried Men -- named after the skiffle standard -- who had been formed by some of the younger employees. They became the resident band at the 2is when the Vipers Skiffle Group went out on tour. Despite all the stories about other people who had been discovered at the 2is on their first gig, the Worried Men ended up performing there for months before any kind of success. But then they did get a certain amount of fame, when Six-Five Special did its single most famous episode -- a live outside broadcast from the 2is itself. As the house band, the Worried Men got to perform a few songs on that show, and they also got a couple of tracks on two Decca compilations, "Rockin' at the 2is" and "Stars of the Six-Five Special":

[Excerpt: The Worried Men, "This Little Light"]

But neither album sold particularly well, and the Worried Men slowly drifted apart -- one member joined the Vipers, and Nelhams left before the group got in a couple of people we've already seen a few times in our story -- both Tony Meehan, who would go on to join the Shadows, and Brian Bennett, who ended up replacing him, passed through the group.

But while Nelhams had quit the Worried Men -- as much as anything else because holding down a day job while he also played for four hours at the 2is every night was starting to affect his health -- Jack Good remembered him from that one Six-Five Special appearance, and thought that his looks, if not his singing ability, gave him the potential to be a star. 

Good changed Nelhams' name to Adam Faith, and gave him a solo spot on Six-Five Special, as well as getting him a contract with HMV, one of several record labels owned by the large conglomerate EMI. His first single on HMV was "(Got A) Heartsick Feeling", backed by Geoff Love and his Orchestra:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "(Got A) Heartsick Feeling"]

That record was, of course, publicised on Six-Five Special, but the extent to which Faith's star potential was based on his looks rather than his singing ability can probably be seen from the fact that after his first appearance on the show he mimed rather than sing live, unlike all the other performers. The record was not a success, and nor was his second single, a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "High School Confidential":

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "High School Confidential"]

Faith was unpopular, but he was able to give up his day job in the editing room to go on tour with a package based on Six-Five Special, at the bottom of the bill. And on that tour he became friendly with one of the other acts, John Barry, the trumpet playing leader of a group called the John Barry Seven. Barry had wanted to be an arranger for big bands, but when he realised that was no longer a viable career path, he'd formed his small group, who at the time were making records like "Zip Zip", which were fairly awful early British rock and roll efforts, but with slightly more interesting instrumental arrangements than the bulk of the work being put out in the UK at that point:

[Excerpt: The John Barry Seven, "Zip Zip"]

When Jack Good moved over to ITV to do Oh Boy!, he took Faith with him, but Faith's career was stagnating, and he quit performing altogether, and got another job as an assistant editor at Elstree studios, working on ATV shows like William Tell and The Invisible Man. But then Faith got a call from John Barry. The BBC were putting together a new show, Drumbeat, to compete with Oh Boy!, and they wanted their own star to compete with Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. Would Adam be interested?

He would -- though he was cautious enough after last time that he kept his day job. He'd bunk off work on Thursday and Friday afternoons to rehearse and record the show, and make the time up on Sundays. His workmates covered for him when he bunked off, and that worked until his boss' daughter mentioned to the boss that she'd seen Terry on the telly. He was told he had to choose between his pop career and a secure job, and he decided to make his pop career into a secure job, by getting a guaranteed six-month contract on Drumbeat before quitting Elstree.

Drumbeat did little to make Faith's records sell any more, but it did lead to acting appearances -- as a biker in the police show No Hiding Place, and as a musician in a cheap exploitation film that was originally titled "Striptease Girl", before the censors made the film producers cut the nudity out (except for foreign markets) at which point it was retitled Beat Girl in the UK, and Wild For Kicks in the US. It was hardly Rebel Without a Cause, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.

The music for that film was done by Adam's friend John Barry -- the very first film score Barry ever did:

[Excerpt: The John Barry Seven, "Beat Girl"]

But Adam Faith was still a pop star without a hit, and that was a situation that couldn't last. He was also temporarily without a record contract, but his new manager Eve Taylor managed to get him one with Parlophone, another EMI-owned label. And then his Drumbeat contacts came through in a big way. 

One of the other acts who regularly appeared on the show was a group called the Raindrops, who featured a singer who had been born Yannis Skoradalides, but whose name had soon been anglicised to John Worsley. He'd then taken on the stage name Johnny Worth, which was the name he performed under, but he was also starting to write songs -- and because he was under contract as a recording artist, he took on yet another name as a songwriter to avoid any legal complications, so he was writing as Les Vandyke.

It was under that name that he wrote a song called "What Do You Want?", which he played to Faith and Barry, his two colleagues on Drumbeat. They saw potential in it -- a lot of potential. And John Barry had an idea for an instrumental gimmick.

We're now into 1959, and Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Any More" had just been a big posthumous hit for him:

[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, "It Doesn't Matter Any More"]

The pizzicato strings, in particular, had caught the ear of a lot of people, and Barry had already used them in the arrangement he'd written for "Be Mine", a record by the minor British pop star Lance Fortune:

[Excerpt: Lance Fortune, "Be Mine"]

That hadn't been released yet – it went top five when it eventually was – and Barry thought that it was worth repeating the trick, and so he came up with a pizzicato arrangement for the song Vandyke had written. And for a final touch, Faith received some vocal coaching from another Drumbeat performer, Roy Young, who taught him how to mangle his vowels so that he could sing in what was, to British ears, almost a convincing imitation of Buddy Holly's hiccupping vocal, particularly on the word "baby".

The result was a huge hit, becoming the first number one single ever on the Parlophone label:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "What Do You Want?"]

Faith was now a real pop star at last. "What Do You Want?" was also one of the very rare British records to actually get an American cover version -- Bobby Vee, the Buddy Holly soundalike, picked up on the record and issued his own version of it:

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, "What Do You Want?"]

That wasn't a success, but as Vee became a star he would occasionally record versions of other songs Faith recorded.

Faith's second Parlophone single was another number one, and another song written by Les Vandyke and arranged by John Barry. It was very much "What Do You Want?" part two, but there was an interesting musical figure Barry came up with in the intro:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "Poor Me"]

In the 1990s, Barry used that as evidence in a court case over his claim to authorship of the piece of music with which he is most associated, a piece arranged and performed by Barry, but whose credited writer is Monty Norman. Compare and contrast "Poor Me":

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "Poor Me"]

And the James Bond theme:

[Excerpt: John Barry, "James Bond Theme"]

For the next couple of years, Faith had a string of hits, mostly written by Vandyke and arranged by Barry, though no more number ones. By most metrics -- in hits, record sales, and fan appeal -- he was the second-biggest British pop star of the early sixties, after Cliff Richard. 

He also became well known as a media personality, thanks in large part to his appearance on the interview show Face to Face. This was a TV programme that ran from 1959 through 1962 -- almost the precise same length as Faith's pop career -- and which had interviewer John Freeman sat with his back to the camera, while the studio was largely in darkness other than the face of the person he was interviewing. Freeman's questions seem in the modern media landscape to be remarkably gentle, but in the early sixties he was regarded as the most incisive and probing interviewer in the British media. He reduced at least one subject, Gilbert Harding, to tears, and his questioning of Tony Hancock is popularly supposed to have started Hancock into the spiral of questioning, self-doubt, and depression that led first to his career crashing and burning and eventually to his suicide.

Most of the guests that Freeman had on the show were serious, important, highbrow people. The thirty-five episodes of the show included interviews with Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Adlai Stevenson, Henry Moore, Martin Luther King and Jomo Kenyatta. But occasionally there would be someone invited on from the world of sport or entertainment, and Faith was invited on to the show as a representative of youth culture and pop music.

The questions asked on the show were clearly designed to make Faith -- a twenty-year-old pop singer who went to a secondary modern and still lived on a council estate even now he'd hit the big time -- seem a laughing stock, and to poke holes in his image. Everyone involved seems to have been surprised when he came across as a well-read, cultured, if rather mercenary, young man who could string three words together:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "Face to Face", interview questions about classical music and literature]

As a result of that appearance, Faith was increasingly asked on to TV shows to be "the voice of the youth", particularly as he was the first pop star to admit to things like having sex before marriage. He debated with the Archbishop of York about religion on national TV, in a debate chaired by Ludovic Kennedy, and Faith was largely viewed as having come out better than the bishop.

He also took at least one brave political stand in 1964. He had been booked to tour in South Africa, and agreed to do so only under the condition that he would perform only to integrated audiences. But when he got on stage for one show, he saw the police dragging two young girls out of an otherwise all-white audience, because they weren't white. He walked off stage, and refused to do the rest of the tour. The promoter demanded compensation, and Faith refused, saying he'd made clear that he was only going to play to integrated audiences. He tried to leave the country, booking plane tickets under his birth name to escape suspicion, but was dragged off the plane at gunpoint by South African police. Eventually the intervention of the chairman of EMI, the British Foreign Secretary, the general secretary of Equity, the actor's union, and several brave journalists who said that if Faith was imprisoned they would go to prison with him, meant that Faith was allowed to leave the country, though EMI paid the promoter's compensation and took it out of Faith's future royalties.

Not that there were many royalties by that point. In early 1963, John Barry had stopped working with Faith to concentrate on his film music -- he'd just started working on the Bond films that would make his name -- and the hits dried up then, especially when musical styles suddenly changed in the middle of that year.

But Faith had managed to parlay his looks into an acting career by that point, and over the next decade he appeared in several films, starred in the TV series Budgie, and toured in repertory theatre. He also became a manager and producer, managing Leo Sayer and producing Roger Daltrey's solo recordings.

He would occasionally make the odd record himself, up to the nineties, with his final single being a duet with Daltrey on a cover version of "Stuck in the Middle With You":

[Excerpt: Adam Faith and Roger Daltrey, "Stuck in the Middle With You"]

But as someone who looked after his money, Faith had been far more canny than most of his fellow pop stars, and for much of his life he was a very wealthy man. While he continued performing, his main role in the eighties and nineties was as a financial journalist and investment advisor, writing columns on finance for the Daily Mail. He presented the BBC business show Working Lunch, the Channel 4 money show Dosh, and eventually started his own TV channel devoted to business, The Money Channel. Unfortunately for him, the Money Channel went down in the stock market crashes of the early 2000s, and Faith went bankrupt in 2002. He died in 2003, aged sixty-two.

But you'll notice we haven't yet mentioned the song that this episode is about. That's because that song, "I've Just Fallen For Someone", was completely unimportant in Adam Faith's life. It was just a bit of album filler on his second album. But though Faith didn't know it, it was an important song in rock music history:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "I've Just Fallen For Someone"]

Like Faith's hits, that was written by another performer, one who like Les Vandyke had a variety of different names. John Askew was one of Larry Parnes' stable of acts, and far from the most successful of them. He performed under the name Johnny Gentle, and didn't have a great deal of success. Askew's first single, "Wendy", was unsuccessful, but it was unusual among British singles of the period in that it was written by Askew himself:

[Excerpt: Johnny Gentle, "Wendy"]

His second, though, made the top thirty:

[Excerpt: Johnny Gentle, "Milk From the Coconut"]

That would be the most success Johnny Gentle ever had, and his live shows were made up entirely of cover versions of other people's records -- when he toured Scotland in 1960, for example, his setlist consisted of two Buddy Holly songs, and one each by Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Eddie Cochran, and Jim Reeves.

But he was still writing songs on that tour, and he was working on one in a hotel in Inverness – one that clearly referenced “What Do You Want?” with its girl who doesn't want ermine and pearls – when he got stuck for a middle eight for the song, and mentioned it to the rhythm guitarist in his backing band. The guitarist came up with a new middle eight -- referencing a line from a favourite song of his, "Money" by Barrett Strong. Askew took that new middle eight, though didn't give the guitarist any songwriting credit -- Askew was an established songwriter, after all. He gave the song to Faith, who recorded it in late 1961, and released it in 1962:

[Excerpt: Adam Faith, "I've Just Fallen for Someone"]

That was on his second album, Adam Faith (his first album had been called Adam), and on an EP taken from the album. But Askew thought it had more potential, and he recorded his own version, as Darren Young -- by this point he'd decided that his old stage name was bringing him bad luck:

[Excerpt: Darren Young, "I've Just Fallen for Someone"]

That version wasn't successful either, and the song remained completely obscure until the mid-1990s. It was at that point that Askew started telling the story of how the song had been written. And suddenly the song was of a lot more interest, at least to some people, because that rhythm guitarist who wrote that middle eight was John Lennon, and Gentle's backing band on that tour was the Beatles. We've just heard the story of the first ever commercial recording of a John Lennon song. And we'll pick up on that next week...

Sep 15, 2020
Episode 97: "Song to Woody" by Bob Dylan
50:23

 

Episode ninety-seven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Song To Woody" by Bob Dylan, and at the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Sherry" by the Four Seasons.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This might not be available in the US, due to the number of Woody Guthrie songs in a row.

Dylan's first album is in the public domain in Europe, so a variety of reissues of it exist. An interesting and cheap one is this, which pairs it (and a non-album single by Dylan) with two Carolyn Hester albums which give a snapshot of the Greenwich Village scene, on one of which Dylan plays harmonica.

The Harry Smith Anthology is also now public domain, and can be freely downloaded from archive.org

I have used *many* books for this episode, most of which I will also be using for future episodes on Dylan:

The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald is the fascinating and funny autobiography of Dylan's mentor in his Greenwich Village period.

Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald is the definitive book on Robert Johnson.

Information on Woody Guthrie comes from Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray.

Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan is a partial, highly inaccurate, but thoroughly readable autobiography.

Bob Dylan: All The Songs by Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon is a song-by-song look at every song Dylan ever wrote, as is Revolution in the Air, by Clinton Heylin.

Heylin also wrote the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades.

I've also used Robert Shelton's No Direction Home, which is less accurate, but which is written by someone who knew Dylan.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

1962 is the year when the sixties really started, and in the next few episodes we will see the first proper appearances of several of the musicians who would go on to make the decade what it was. By two weeks from now, when we get to episode one hundred and the end of the second year of the podcast, the stage will be set for us to look at that most mythologised of decades.

And so today, we're going to take our first look at one of the most important of the sixties musicians, the only songwriter ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a man who influenced every single performer and songwriter for at least the next decade, and whose work inspired a whole subgenre, albeit one he had little but contempt for. We're going to look at his first album, and at a song he wrote to his greatest influence. And we're also going to look at how his career intersected with someone we talked about way back in the very first episode of this podcast.

Today we're going to look at Bob Dylan, and at "Song to Woody":

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Song to Woody"]

This episode is going to be a little different from several of the other episodes we've had recently. At the time he made his first album, Dylan was not the accomplished artist he quickly became, but a minor performer whose first record only contained two original songs. But he was from a tradition that we've looked at only in passing before. We've barely looked at the American folk music tradition, and largely ignored the musicians who were major figures in it, because those figures only really enter into rock and roll in a real way starting with Dylan. So as part of this episode, we're going to have very brief, capsule, looks at a number of other musicians we've not touched on before. I'll only be giving enough background for these people so you can get a flavour of them -- in future episodes when we look at the folk and folk-rock scenes, we'll also fill in some more of the background of these artists. That also means this episode is going to run a little long, just because there's a lot to get through.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in the Minnesota Iron Range, an area of the US that was just beginning a slow descent into poverty, as the country suddenly needed a lot less metal after the end of World War II. He was born in Duluth, but moved to Hibbing, a much smaller town, when he was very young.

As a kid, he was fascinated with music that sounded a little odd. He was first captivated by Johnnie Ray -- and incidentally, Clinton Heylin, in his biography of Dylan, thinks that this must be wrong, and "Dylan has surely mixed up his names" and must be thinking of Johnny Ace, because "Ray’s main period of chart success" was 1956-58. Heylin's books are usually very, very well researched, but here he's showing his parochialism. Johnnie Ray's biggest *UK* hits were in 1956-8, but in the US his biggest hits came in 1951, and he had a string of hits in the very early fifties. 

Ray's hits, like "Cry", were produced by Mitch Miller, and were on Columbia records:

[Excerpt: Johnnie Ray, "Cry"]

Shortly after his infatuation with Ray's music, he fell for the music of Hank Williams in a big way, and became obsessed with Williams' songwriting:

[Excerpt: Hank Williams, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"]

He also became a fan of another Hank, Hank Snow, the country singer who had been managed by Colonel Tom Parker, and through Snow he became aware of the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, who Snow frequently covered, and who Snow admired enough that Snow's son was named Jimmie Rodgers Snow. 

But he soon also became a big fan of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. He taught himself to play rudimentary piano in a Little Richard style, and his ambition, as quoted in his high school yearbook, was to join Little Richard's band. He was enough of a fan of rock and roll music that he went to see Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on the penultimate date of their ill-fated tour. He later claimed to have seen a halo over Holly's head during the performance.

His first brush with fame came indirectly as a result of that tour. A singer from Fargo, North Dakota, named Bobby Vee, was drafted in to cover for Holly at the show that Holly had been travelling to when he died. Vee sounded a little like Holly, if you didn't listen too closely, and he had a minor local hit with a song called "Suzy Baby":

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, "Suzy Baby"]

Dylan joined Vee's band for a short while under the stage name Elston Gunn, playing the piano, though he was apparently not very good (he could only play in C, according to some sources I've read), and he didn't stay in Vee's band very long. But while he was in Vee's band, he would tell friends and relatives that he *was* Bobby Vee, and at least some people believed him.

Vee would go on to have a career as one of the wave of Bobbies that swarmed all over American Bandstand in the late fifties and early sixties, with records like "Rubber Ball":

[Excerpt: Bobby Vee, "Rubber Ball"]

While Dylan made his name with a very different kind of music, he would always argue that Vee deserved rather more respect than he usually got, and that there was some merit to his music.

But it wasn't until he went to university in Minneapolis that Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, and changed everything about his life. As many people do when they go to university, he reinvented himself -- he took on a new name, which has variously been quoted as having been inspired by Marshall Dillon from the TV series Gunsmoke and by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He stopped studying, and devoted his time to music and chasing women. And he also took on a new musical style.

The way he tells it, he had an epiphany in a record shop listening booth, listening to an album by the folk singer Odetta. Odetta was an astonishing singer who combined elements of folk, country, and blues with an opera-trained voice, and Dylan was probably listening to her first album, which was largely traditional folk songs, plus one song each by Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers:

[Excerpt: Odetta, "Muleskinner Blues"]

Dylan had soon sold his electric guitar and bought an acoustic, and he immediately learned all of Odetta's repertoire and started performing her songs, and Lead Belly's, with a friend, "Spider" John Koerner, who would later become a fairly well-known folk blues musician in his own right:

[Excerpt: Ray, Koerner, and Glover, "Hangman"]

And then, at a coffee-shop, he got talking with a friend of his, Flo Castner, and she invited him to come round to her brother's apartment, which was nearby, because she thought he might be interested in some of the music her brother had.

Dylan discovered two albums at Lyn Castner's house that day that would change his life. The first, and the less important to him in the short term, is one we've talked about before -- he heard the Spirituals to Swing album, the record of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concerts that we talked about back in the first few episodes of the podcast:

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner & Pete Johnson, "It's Alright, Baby"]

That album impressed him, but it was the other record he heard that day that changed everything for him immediately. It was a collection of recordings by Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie is someone we've only mentioned in passing so far, but he was pivotal in the development of American folk music in the 1940s, and in particular he was important in the politicisation of that music.

In the 1930s, there wasn't really a distinction made between country music and folk -- that distinction is one that only really came later -- and Guthrie had started out as a country singer, singing songs inspired by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other 1920s greats. For most of his early twenties he'd bummed around Oklahoma and Texas doing odd jobs as a sign painter, psychic, faith healer, and whatever else he could pick up a little money for. But then in 1936 he'd travelled out to California in search of work. When there, he'd hooked up with a cousin, Jack Guthrie, who was a Western singer, performing the kind of Western Swing that would later become rockabilly. We don't have any recordings of Jack from this early, but when you listen to him in the forties, you can hear the kind of hard-edged California Western Swing that would influence most of the white artists we looked at in the first year or so of the podcast:

[Excerpt: Jack Guthrie, "Oakie Boogie"]

Woody and Jack weren't musically compatible -- this was when country and western were seen as very, very different genres, rather than being lumped into one -- but they worked together for a while. Jack was the lead singer and guitarist, and Woody was his comedy sidekick, backing vocalist, and harmonica player. They performed with a group called the Beverly Hillbillies and got their own radio show, The Oakie and Woody Show, but it wasn't successful, and Jack decided to give up the show. Woody continued with a friend, Maxine Crissman, who performed as "Lefty Lou From Old Mizzou". The Woody and Lefty act became hugely popular, but Lefty eventually also quit, due to her health failing, and while at the time she seems to have been regarded as the major talent in the duo, her leaving the act was indirectly the best thing that ever happened to Guthrie.

The radio station they were performing on was owned by a fairly left-wing businessman who had connections with the radical left faction of the Democratic Party (and in California in the thirties that could be quite radical, somewhere close to today's Democratic Socialists of America), and when Lefty quit the act, the owner of the station gave Guthrie another job -- the owner also ran a left-wing newspaper, and since Guthrie was from Oklahoma, maybe he would be interested in writing some columns about the plight of the Okie migrants? 

Guthrie went and spent time with those people, and his shock at the poverty they were living in and the discrimination they were suffering seems to have radicalised him. He started hanging round with members of the Communist Party, though he apparently never joined -- he wasn't all that interested in Marxist theory or the party line, he just wanted to take the side of the victims against the bullies, and he saw the Communists as doing that. He was, though, enough of a fellow traveller that when World War II started he took the initial Communist line of it being a capitalist's fight that socialists should have no part of (a line which was held until Russia joined the war, at which point it became a crusade against the evils of fascism). His employer was a more resolute anti-fascist, and so Guthrie lost his newspaper job, and he decided to move across the country to New York, where he hooked up with a group of left-wing intellectuals and folk singers, centring on Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.

It was this environment, centred in Almanac House in Greenwich Village, that spawned the Almanac Singers and later the Weavers, who we talked about a few episodes back. And Guthrie had been the most important of all of them.

Guthrie was a folk performer -- a big chunk of his repertoire was old songs like "Ida Red", "Stackolee", and "Who's Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?" – but he also wrote songs himself, taking the forms of old folk and country songs, and reworking the lyrics -- and sometimes, but not always, the music -- creating songs that dealt with events that were happening at the time. There were songs about famous outlaws, recast as Robin Hood type figures:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, "Pretty Boy Floyd"]

There were talking blues with comedy lyrics:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, "Talking Fishing Blues"]

There were the famous Dust Bowl Ballads, about the dust storms that had caused so much destruction and hardship in the west:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, "The Great Dust Storm"]

And of course, there was "This Land is Your Land", a radical song about how private property is immoral and unnatural, which has been taken up as an anthem by people who would despise everything that Guthrie stood for:

[Excerpt: Woody Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land"]

It's not certain which records by Guthrie Dylan heard that day -- he talks about it in his autobiography, but the songs he talks about weren't ones that were on the same album, and he seems to just be naming a handful of Guthrie's songs. What is certain is that Dylan reacted to this music in a visceral way. He decided that he had to *become* Woody Guthrie, and took on Guthrie's playing and singing style, even his accent.

However, he soon modulated that slightly, when a friend told him that he might as well give up -- Ramblin' Jack Elliot was already doing the Guthrie-imitation thing. Elliot, like Dylan, was a middle-class Jewish man who had reinvented himself as a Woody Guthrie copy -- in this case, Elliot Adnopoz, the son of a surgeon, had become Ramblin' Jack the singing cowboy, and had been an apprentice of Guthrie, living with him and learning everything from him, before going over to Britain, where his status as an actual authentic American had meant he was one of the major figures in the British folk scene and the related skiffle scene. Alan Lomax, who had moved to the UK temporarily to escape the anti-Communist witch hunts, had got Elliot a contract with Topic Records, a folk label that had started out as part of the Workers' Music Association, which as you can probably tell from the name was affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There he'd recorded an album of Guthrie songs, which Dylan's acquaintance played for him:

[Excerpt: Ramblin' Jack Elliot, "1913 Massacre"]

Dylan was shocked that there was someone out there doing the same thing, but then he just took on aspects of Elliot's persona as well as Guthrie's. He was going to be the next Woody Guthrie, and that meant inhabiting his persona utterly, and giving his whole repertoire over to Guthrie songs.

He was also, though, making tentative efforts at writing his own songs, too. One which we only have as a lyric was written to a girlfriend, and was set to the same tune we just heard -- Guthrie's "1913 Massacre". The lyrics were things like "Hey, hey Bonny, I’m singing to you now/The song I’m singing is the best I know how"

Incidentally, the woman that was written for is yet another person in the story who now has a different name -- she became a moderately successful actor, appearing in episodes of Star Trek and Gunsmoke, and changed her name to Jahanara Romney shortly after her marriage to the hippie peace activist Wavy Gravy (which isn't Mr. Gravy's birth name either). Their son, whose birth name was Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, also changed his name later on, you'll be unsurprised to hear.

Dylan by this point was feeling as constrained by the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as he had earlier by the small town Hibbing. In January 1961, he decided he was going to go to New York, and while he was there he was going to go and meet Woody Guthrie in person.

Guthrie was, by this time, severely ill -- he had Huntington's disease, a truly awful genetic disorder that had also killed his mother. Huntington's causes dementia, spasmodic movements, a loss of control of the body, and a ton of other mental and physical symptoms. Guthrie had been in a psychiatric hospital since 1956, and was only let out every Sunday to see family at a friend's house. 

Bob Dylan quickly became friendly with Guthrie, visiting him regularly in the hospital to play Guthrie's own songs for him, and occasionally joining him on the family visits on Sundays. He only spent a few months doing this -- Dylan has always been someone who moved on quickly, and Guthrie also moved towards the end of 1961, to a new hospital closer to his family, but these visits had a profound effect on the young man.

When not visiting Guthrie, Dylan was spending his time in Greenwich Village, the Bohemian centre of New York. The Village at that time was a hotbed of artists and radicals, with people like the poet Allen Ginsberg, the street musician Moondog, and Tiny Tim, a ukulele player who sang Rudy Vallee songs in falsetto, all part of the scene. It was also the centre of what was becoming the second great folk revival.

That revival had been started in 1952, when the most important bootleg ever was released, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music:

[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"]

Harry Smith was a record collector, experimental filmmaker, and follower of the occultist Aleister Crowley. His greatest work seems at least in part to have been created as a magickal work, with album covers designed by himself full of esoteric symbolism. Smith had a huge collection of old 78 records -- all of them things that had been issued commercially in the late 1920s and early thirties, when the record industry had been in a temporary boom before the depression. Many of these records had been very popular in the twenties, but by 1952 even the most popular acts, like Blind Lemon Jefferson or the Carter Family, were largely forgotten.

So Smith and Moe Asch, the owner of Folkways Records, took advantage of the new medium, the long-playing album, and put together a six-album set of these recordings, not bothering with trivialities like copyright even though, again, most of these had been recorded for major labels only twenty or so years earlier -- but at this time there was not really such a thing as a market for back catalogue, and none of the record labels involved seem to have protested.

Smith's collection was an idiosyncratic one, based around his own tastes. It ran the gamut from hard blues:

[Excerpt: Joe Williams' Washboard Blues Singers, "Baby Please Don't Go"]

To the Carter Family's country recordings of old ballads that date back centuries:

[Excerpt: The Carter Family, "Black Jack Davey"]

To gospel:

[Excerpt: Sister Clara Hudmon, "Stand By Me"]

But put together in one place, these records suggested the existence of a uniquely American roots music tradition, one that encompassed all these genres, and Smith's Anthology became the favourite music of the same type of people who in the UK around the same time were becoming skifflers -- many of them radical leftists who had been part of the US equivalent of the trad jazz movement (who were known as “mouldy figs”) and were attracted by the idea of an authentic music of the working man. The Harry Smith Anthology became the core repertoire for every American folk musician of the fifties, the seed around which the whole movement crystallised. Every folkie knew every single song on those records.

Those folkies had started playing at coffee shops in Greenwich Village, places that were known as basket houses, because they didn't charge for entry or pay the artists, but the performers could pass a basket and split whatever the audience decided to donate. 

Originally, the folk musicians were not especially popular, and in fact they were booked for that reason. The main entertainment for those coffee shops was poetry, and the audience for poetry would mostly buy a single coffee and make it last all night. The folkies were booked to come on between the poets and play a few songs to make the audience clear out to make room for a new audience to come and buy new coffees. However, some of the people got good enough that they actually started to get their own audiences, and within a short time the roles were reversed, with the poets coming on to clear out the folk audience.

Dylan's first gigs were on this circuit, playing on bills put together by Fred Neil, a musician who was at this point mostly playing blues songs but who within a few years would write some of the great classics of the sixties singer-songwriter genre:

[Excerpt: Fred Neil, "Everybody's Talkin'"]

By the time Dylan hit the scene, there were quite a few very good musicians in the Village, and the folk scene had grown to the point that there were multiple factions. There were the Stalinists, who had coalesced around Pete Seeger, the elder statesman of the scene, and who played a mixture of summer-camp singalong music and topical songs about news events. There were the Zionists, who were singing things like "Hava Nagilah". There were bluegrass players, and there were the two groups that most attracted Dylan -- those who sang old folk ballads, and those who sang the blues.

Those latter two groups tended to cluster together, because they were smaller than the other groups, and also because of their own political views -- while all of the scene were leftists, the blues and ballad singers tended either to be vaguely apolitical, or to be anarchists and Trotskyites rather than Stalinists. But they had a deeper philosophical disagreement with the Stalinists -- Seeger's camp thought that the quality of a song was secondary to the social good it could do, while the blues and ballad singers held that the important thing was the music, and any political or social good was a nice byproduct.

There was a huge amount of infighting between these small groups -- the narcissism of small differences -- but there was one place they would all hang out. The Folklore Centre was a record and bookshop owned by a man named Izzy Young, and it was where you would go to buy every new book, to buy and sell copies of the zines that were published, and to hang out and find out who the new musicians on the scene were. 

And it was at the Folklore Centre that Dylan met Dave Van Ronk:

[Excerpt: Dave Van Ronk, "Cocaine Blues"]

Van Ronk was the most important musician in the blues and ballads group of folkies, and was politically an anarchist who, through his connection with the Schachtmanites (a fringe-left group who were more Trotskyite than the Trotskyites, and whose views sometimes shaded into anarchism) was becoming converted to Marxism. A physically massive man, he'd started out as a traditional jazz guitarist and banjo player, but had slowly moved on into the folk side of things through his love of blues singers like Bessie Smith and folk-blues artists like Lead Belly. Van Ronk had learned a great deal from Rev. Gary Davis, a blind gospel-blues singer whose technique Van Ronk had studied:

[Excerpt: Rev. Gary Davis, "Death Don't Have No Mercy"]

Van Ronk was one of the few people on the Village scene who was a native New Yorker, though he was from Queens rather than the Village, and he was someone who had already made a few records that Dylan had heard, mostly of the standard repertoire:

[Excerpt: Dave Van Ronk, "See That My Grave is Kept Clean"]

Dylan consciously sought him out as the person to imitate on the scene, and he was soon regularly sleeping on Van Ronk's couch and being managed for a brief time by Van Ronk's wife. Once again, Dylan was learning everything he could from the people he was around -- but he had a much bigger ambition than anyone else on the scene.

A lot of the people on that scene have been very bitter over the years about Dylan, but Van Ronk, who did more for Dylan than anyone else on the scene, never really was -- the two stopped being close once he was no more use to Dylan, as so often happened, but they remained friendly, because Van Ronk was secure enough in himself and his own abilities that he didn't need the validation of being important to the big star. Van Ronk was an important mentor to him for a crucial period of six months or so, and Dylan always acknowledged that, just as Van Ronk always acknowledged Dylan's talent.

And that talent, at least at first, was a performing talent rather than a songwriting one. Dylan was writing songs by now, but hardly any, and when he did perform them, he was not acknowledging them. His first truly successful song, a song about nuclear war, "Let Me Die in my Footsteps", he would introduce as a Weavers song:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Let Me Die in my Footsteps"]

For the most part, his repertoire was still only Woody Guthrie songs, but people were amazed by his personal charisma, his humour -- one comparison you see time and again when people talk about his early performances is Charlie Chaplin -- and his singing. There are so many jokes about Dylan's vocals that this sounds like a joke, but among the folk crowd, his phrasing in particular -- as influenced by the R&B records he grew up listening to as by Guthrie -- was considered utterly astonishing.

Dylan started publishing some of his song lyrics in Broadside, a magazine for new topical songs, and in other magazines like Sing Out! These were associated with the Communist side of the folk movement, and Dylan had a foot in both camps through his association with Guthrie and Guthrie's friends. Through these people he got to know Suze Rotolo, a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality, who became his girlfriend, and her sister Carla, who was the assistant to Alan Lomax, who was now back from the UK, and the Rotolos played a part in Dylan's big breakthrough. 

The timeline that follows is a bit confused, but Carla Rotolo recorded some of the best Village folk singers, and wrote to John Hammond about the tape, mentioning Dylan in particular. At the same time, Hammond's son John Hammond Jr, another musician on the circuit and a friend of Dylan's, apparently mentioned Dylan to his father. Dylan was also working on Robert Shelton, the folk critic of the New York Times, who eventually gave Dylan a massive rave review for a support slot he'd played at Gerde's Folk City. And the same day that review came out, eight days after Carla Rotolo's letter, Dylan was in the recording studio with the folk singer Carolyn Hester, playing harmonica on a few of her tracks, and Hammond was the producer:

[Excerpt: Carolyn Hester, "I'll Fly Away"]

Hammond had, of course, organised the Spirituals to Swing concerts which had influenced Dylan. And not only that, he'd been the person to discover Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. And Charlie Christian. He was now working for Columbia Records, where he'd just produced the first secular records for a promising new gospel singer who had decided to turn pop, named Aretha Franklin:

[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, "Today I Sing the Blues"]

So Hammond was an important figure in many ways, and he had a lot of latitude at Columbia Records. He decided to sign Dylan, and even though Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of A&R at the time, had no clue what Hammond saw in Dylan, Hammond's track record was good enough that he was allowed to get on with it and put out an album.

Hammond also gave Dylan an album to take home and listen to, a record which hadn't come out yet, a reissue of some old blues records called "King of the Delta Blues Singers" by Robert Johnson:

[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, "Crossroads Blues"]

There has been a hell of a lot of mythology about Johnson over the years, so much so that it's almost impossible to give anyone who's heard of him at all an accurate impression of Johnson's place in music history. One question I have been asked repeatedly since I started this podcast is "How come you didn't start with Robert Johnson?", and if you don't know about him, you'll get an idea of his general perception among music fans from the fact that I recently watched an episode of a science fiction TV series where our heroes had to go back in time to stop the villains from preventing Johnson from making his recordings, because by doing that they could stop rock and roll from ever existing.

There's a popular perception that Johnson was the most important blues musician of his generation, and that he was hugely influential on the development of blues and R&B, and it's simply false.

He *was* a truly great musician, and he *was* hugely influential -- but he was influential on white musicians in the sixties, not black musicians in the thirties, forties, and fifties. In his lifetime, his best selling records sold around five thousand copies, which to put it in perspective is about the same number of people who've listened to some of my more popular podcast episodes. Johnson's biographer Elijah Wald -- a man who, like I do, has a huge respect for Johnson's musicianship, has said "knowing about Johnson and Muddy Waters but not about Leroy Carr or Dinah Washington [is] like knowing about, say, the Sir Douglas Quintet but not knowing about the Beatles." I'd agree, except that the Sir Douglas Quintet were much, much, bigger in the sixties than Robert Johnson was in the thirties.

Johnson's reputation comes entirely from that album that Hammond had handed Dylan. Hammond had been one of the tiny number of people who had actually listened to Johnson at the time he was performing. Indeed, Hammond had wanted to get Johnson to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, only to find that Johnson had died only a short time earlier -- they'd got Big Bill Broonzy to play in his place, and played a couple of Johnson's records from the stage. That had, in fact, kickstarted Broonzy's later second career as a folk-blues musician playing for largely white audiences, rather than as a proto-Chicago-blues performer playing for Black ones.

Hammond's friend Alan Lomax had also been a fan of Johnson -- he'd gone to Mississippi later, to try to record Johnson, also without having realised that Johnson had died. But far from Johnson being the single most important blues musician of the thirties, as he is now portrayed in popular culture, if you'd asked most blues musicians or listeners about Robert Johnson in the twenty-three years between his death and the King of the Delta Blues Singers album coming out, most of them would have looked at you blankly, or maybe asked if you meant Lonnie Johnson, the much more famous musician who was a big inspiration for Robert.

When King of the Delta Blues Singers came out, it changed all that, and made Robert Johnson into a totemic figure among white blues fans, and we'll see over the next year or two a large number of very important musicians who took inspiration from him -- and deservedly so. While the myth of Robert Johnson has almost no connection to the real man, his music demonstrated a remarkable musical mind -- he was a versatile, skilled guitarist and arranger, and someone whose musical palette was far wider than his recorded legacy suggests -- Ramblin' Johnny Shines, who travelled with Johnson for a time, describes him as particularly enjoying playing songs like "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" and Jimmie Rodgers songs, and polkas, calling Johnson "a polka hound, man". And even though in his handful of recording sessions he was asked only to play blues, you can still hear elements of that:

[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, "They're Red Hot"]

But the music wasn't the main thing that grabbed Dylan. Dylan played the album for Dave Van Ronk, who was unimpressed -- musically, Johnson just didn't seem very original to Van Ronk, who played Dylan records by Skip James, Leroy Carr, and others, showing Dylan where Johnson had picked up most of his musical ideas. And Dylan had to agree with him that Johnson didn't sound particularly original in that context -- but he also didn't care, reasoning that many of the Woody Guthrie songs he loved were rewrites of old Carter Family songs, so if Johnson was rewriting Leroy Carr songs that was fair enough.

What got to Dylan was Johnson's performance style, but also his ability with words. Johnson had a very sparse, economical, lyrical style which connected with Dylan on a primordial level. Most of those who became fans of Johnson following the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers saw Johnson as an exotic and scary figure -- the myth commonly told about him is that he sold his soul at a crossroads to the Devil in return for the ability to play the guitar, though that's a myth that was originally told about a different Mississippi blues man called Tommy Johnson, and there's no evidence that anyone thought that of him at the time -- and so these later fans see his music as being haunted. Dylan instead seems to see Johnson as someone very like himself -- in his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan talks about Johnson being a bothersome kid who played harmonica, who was later taught a bit of guitar and then learned the rest of his music from records, rather than from live performers. Dylan's version of Johnson is closer to the reality, as far as we know it, than the Johnson of legend is, and Dylan seems to have been delighted when he found out much later that the name of the musician who taught Johnson to play guitar was Ike Zimmerman.

Dylan immediately tried to incorporate Johnson's style into his own songwriting, and we'll see the effects of that in future episodes. But that songwriting wouldn't be seen much on his debut album. And nor would his Woody Guthrie repertoire. Instead, Dylan performed a set of traditional ballads and blues numbers, most of which he never performed live normally, and at least half of which were arrangements that Dylan copied wholesale from Dave Van Ronk.

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”]

The album was recorded quickly, in a couple of days. Hammond found Dylan incredibly difficult to work with, saying he had appalling mic technique, and for many of the songs Dylan refused to do a second take.

There were only two originals on the album. One, "Talkin' New York", was a comedy talking blues about his early time in New York, very much in the style of Woody Guthrie's talking blues songs. The other, "Song To Woody", was a rewrite of his earlier "Song For Bonny", which was itself a rewrite of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre". The song is a touching one, Dylan paying tribute to his single biggest influence:

[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, "Song to Woody"]

Dylan was moving on, and he knew he was moving on, but he had to say goodbye.

Dylan's first album was not a success, and he became known within Columbia Records as "Hammond's Folly", but nor did it lose money, since it was recorded so quickly. It's a record that Dylan and Hammond both later spoke poorly of, but it's one I rather like, and one of the best things to come out of the Greenwich Village folk scene.

But by the time it came out, Dylan's artistic heart was already elsewhere, and when we come back to him in a couple of months, we'll be seeing someone who had completely reinvented himself.

 

Sep 10, 2020
Episode 96: "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva
36:48

Episode ninety-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva, and how a demo by Carole King's babysitter became one of the biggest hits of the sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

There are no biographies of Little Eva, so I've used a variety of sources, including the articles on Little Eva and The Cookies at This Is My Story. The following books were also of some use:

A Natural Woman is Carole King's autobiography.

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the whole scene.

Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including articles on both Little Eva and The Cookies.

There are no decent CDs of Eva's material readily available, but I can recommend two overlapping compilations. This compilation contains Little Eva's only sixties album in full, along with some tracks by Carole King, the Cookies, and the Ronettes, while Dimension Dolls is a compilation from 1963 that overlaps substantially with that album but contains several tracks not on it.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

A quick note before this begins -- there is some mention of domestic violence in this episode. If that's something that might upset you, please check the transcript of the episode at 500songs.com if reading it might be easier than listening.

A couple of months back, we talked about Goffin and King, and the early days of the Brill Building sound. Today we're going to take another look at them, and at a singer who recorded some of their best material, both solo and in a group, but who would always be overshadowed by the first single they wrote for her, when she was still working as their childminder. Today, we're going to look at Little Eva and "The Loco-Motion", and the short history of Dimension Records:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, "The Loco-Motion"]

The story of Little Eva is intertwined with the story of the Cookies, one of the earliest of the girl groups, and so we should probably start with them. We've mentioned the Cookies earlier, in the episode on "What'd I Say", but we didn't look at them in any great detail. The group started out in the mid-fifties, as a group of schoolgirls singing together in New York -- Dorothy Jones, her cousin Beulah Robertson, and a friend, Darlene McRae, who had all been in the choir at their local Baptist Church. They formed a group and made their first appearance at the famous Harlem Apollo talent contests, where they came third, to Joe Tex and a vocal group called the Flairs (not, I think, any of the Flairs groups we've looked at). They were seen at that contest by Jesse Stone, who gave them the name "The Cookies". He signed them to Aladdin Records, and produced and co-wrote their first single, "All-Night Mambo". That wasn't commercially successful, but Stone liked them enough that he then got them signed to Atlantic, where he again wrote their first single for the label. That first single was relatively unsuccessful, but their second single on Atlantic, "In Paradise", did chart, making number nine on the R&B chart:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, "In Paradise"]

But the B-side to that record would end up being more important to their career in the long run. "Passing Time" was the very first song by Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield to get recorded, even before Sedaka's recordings with the Tokens or his own successful solo records:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, "Passing Time"]

But then two things happened. Firstly, one of the girls, Beulah Robertson, fell out with Jesse Stone, who sacked her from the group. Stone got in a new vocalist, Margie Hendrix, to replace her, and after one more single the group stopped making singles for Atlantic. But they continued recording for smaller labels, and they also had regular gigs as backing vocalists for Atlantic, on records like "Lipstick, Powder, and Paint" by Big Joe Turner:

[Excerpt: Big Joe Turner, "Lipstick, Powder and Paint"]

"It's Too Late" by Chuck Willis:

[Excerpt: Chuck Willis, "It's Too Late"]

And "Lonely Avenue" by Ray Charles:

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "Lonely Avenue"]

It was working with Ray Charles that led to the breakup of the original lineup of the Cookies -- Charles was putting together his own group, and wanted the Cookies as his backing vocalists, but Dorothy was pregnant, and decided she'd rather stay behind and continue working as a session singer than go out on the road. Darlene and Margie went off to become the core of Charles' new backing group, the Raelettes, and they would play a major part in the sound of Charles' records for the next few years. It's Margie, for example, who can be heard duetting with Charles on "The Right Time":

[Excerpt: Ray Charles, "The Right Time"]

Dorothy stayed behind and put together a new lineup of Cookies. To make sure the group sounded the same, she got Darlene's sister Earl-Jean into the group -- Darlene and Earl-Jean looked and sounded so similar that many histories of the group say they're the same person -- and got another of her cousins, Margaret Ross, to take over the spot that had previously been Beulah's before Margie had taken her place. 

This new version of the Cookies didn't really start doing much for a couple of years, while Dorothy was raising her newborn and Earl-Jean and Margaret were finishing high school. But in 1961 they started again in earnest, when Neil Sedaka remembered the Cookies and called Dorothy up, saying he knew someone who needed a vocal group.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King had become hot songwriters, and they'd also become increasingly interested in record production after Carole had been involved in the making of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Carole was recording her own demos of the songs she and Goffin were writing, and was increasingly making them fully-produced recordings in their own right. The first record the new Cookies sang on was one that seems to have started out as one of these demos. "Halfway to Paradise" by Tony Orlando sounds exactly like a Drifters record, and Orlando was, at the time, a sixteen-year-old demo singer. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that this was a demo intended for the Drifters, that it was turned down, and so the demo was released as a record itself:

[Excerpt: Tony Orlando, "Halfway to Paradise"]

That made the lower reaches of the Hot One Hundred, while a British cover version by Billy Fury made number three in the UK.

From this point on, the new lineup of the Cookies were once again the premier session singers. They added extra backing vocals to a lot of the Drifters' records at this time, and would provide backing vocals for most of Atlantic's artists, as the earlier lineup had. They were also effectively the in-house backing singers for Aldon Music -- as well as singing on every Goffin and King demo, they were also singing with Neil Sedaka:

[Excerpt: Neil Sedaka, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"]

But it was Goffin and King who spent the most time working with the Cookies, and who pushed them as recording artists in their own right. They started with a solo record for Dorothy, "Taking That Long Walk Home", a song that was very much "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" part two:

[Excerpt: Dorothy Jones, "Taking That Long Walk Home"]

The Cookies were doing huge amounts of session work, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Dorothy Jones described being in the studio working on a King Curtis session until literally fifteen minutes before giving birth. 

They weren't the only ones working hard, though. Goffin and King were writing from their Aldon offices every single day, writing songs for the Drifters, the Shirelles, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney, the Crickets, the Everly Brothers, and more. And on top of that they had a child and Carole King was pregnant with a second one. 

And, this being the very early 1960s, it never occurred to either Goffin or King that just because Carole King was working the exact same number of hours as Goffin, that might mean she shouldn't also be doing the housework and looking after the children with no help from Goffin. There was only one way they could continue their level of productivity, and that was to get someone in to help out Carole. She mentioned to the Cookies that she was looking for someone to help her with the children, and Earl-Jean mentioned that a nineteen-year-old acquaintance -- her friend's husband's sister -- had just moved to New York from North Carolina to try to become a singer and was looking for any work she could get while she was trying to make it. Eva Narcissus Boyd, Earl-Jean's acquaintance, moved in with Goffin and King and became their live-in childminder for $35 a week plus room and board.

Goffin and King had known that Eva was a singer before they hired her, and they discovered that her voice was rather good. Not only that, but she blended well with the Cookies, and was friends with them. She became an unofficial "fourth Cookie", and was soon in the studio on a regular basis too -- and when she was, that meant that Eva's sister was looking after the kids, as a subcontracted babysitter.

During this time, Don Kirshner's attitude was still that he was determined to get the next hit for every artist that had a hit. But that wasn't always possible. 

Cameo-Parkway had, after the success they'd had with "The Twist", fully jumped on the dance-craze bandwagon, and they'd hit on another dance that might be the next Twist. The Mashed Potato was a dance that James Brown had been doing on stage for a few years, and in the wake of "The Twist", Brown had had a hit with a song about it "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes", which was credited to Nat Kendrick & the Swans rather than to Brown for contractual reasons:

[Excerpt: Nat Kendrick and the Swans, "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes"]

Cameo-Parkway had picked up on that dance, and had done just what Kirshner always did and created a soundalike of a recent hit -- and in fact they'd mashed up, if you'll pardon the expression, two recent hits. In this case, they'd taken the sound of "Please Mr. Postman", slightly reworked the lyrics to be about Brown's dance, and given it to session singer Dee Dee Sharp:

[Excerpt: Dee Dee Sharp, "Mashed Potato Time"]

That had gone to number two on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, and even inspired its own rip-offs, like "The Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett:

[Excerpt: Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, "The Monster Mash"]

So Kirshner just assumed that Sharp would be looking for another dance hit, one that sounded just like "Mashed Potato Time", and got Goffin and King to write one to submit to her. 

Unfortunately for him, he'd assumed wrong. Cameo-Parkway was owned by a group of successful songwriters, and they didn't need outside writers bringing them hits when they could write their own. Dee Dee Sharp wasn't going to be recording Goffin and King's song. 

When he listened to the demo, Don Kirshner was astonished that they hadn't taken the song. It had "hit" written all over it. He decided that he was going to start his own record label, Dimension Records, and he was just going to release that demo as the single. The Cookies went into the studio to overdub another layer of backing vocals, but otherwise the record that was released was the demo Eva -- now renamed "Little Eva" -- had sung:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, "The Loco-Motion"]

The record went to number one, and made Little Eva a star. It also made Gerry Goffin a successful producer, because even though Goffin and King had coproduced it, Goffin got sole production credit on this, and on other records the two produced together. According to King, Goffin was the one in the control room for their productions, while she would be on the studio floor, and she didn't really question whether what she was doing counted as production too until much later -- and anyway, getting the sole credit was apparently important to Gerry.

"The Loco-Motion" was such a big hit that it inspired its own knockoffs, including one song cheekily called "Little Eva" by a group called "The Locomotions"  -- so the record label would say "Little Eva, The Locomotions", and people might buy it by mistake. You'll be shocked to learn that that one was on a Morris Levy label:

[Excerpt: The Locomotions, "Little Eva"]

That group featured Leon Huff, who would later go on to make a lot of much better records.

Meanwhile, as Little Eva was now a star, Carole King once again had to look for a childminder. This time she insisted that anyone she hired be unable to sing, so she wouldn't keep having to do this.

Dimension Records was soon churning out singles, all of them involving the Cookies, and Eva, and Goffin and King. They put out "Everybody's Got a Dance But Me" by Big Dee Irwin, a song that excerpted "The Loco-Motion", "Wah Watusi", "Hully Gully" and "Twist and Shout" among many others, with the Cookies on backing vocals, and with Goffin as the credited producer:

[Excerpt: Big Dee Irwin, "Everybody's Got a Dance But Me"]

That wasn't a hit, but Dimension soon released two more big hits. One was a solo single by Carole King, "It Might as Well Rain Until September", which went to number twenty even though its only national exposure was a disastrous appearance by King on American Bandstand which left her feeling humiliated:

[Excerpt: Carole King, "It Might as Well Rain Until September"]

Her solo performing career wouldn't properly take off for a few more years, but that was a step towards it. The Cookies also had a hit on Dimension around this point. Goffin and King had written a song called "Chains" for the Everly Brothers, who had recorded it but not released it:

[Excerpt: The Everly Brothers, "Chains"]

So they gave the song to the Cookies instead, with Little Eva on additional vocals, and it made the pop top twenty, and the R&B top ten:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, "Chains"]

Several people have pointed out that that lyric can be read as having an element of BDSM to it, and it's not the only Goffin and King song from this period that does -- there's a 1964 B-side they wrote for Eva called "Please Hurt Me", which is fairly blatant:

[Excerpt: Little Eva, "Please Hurt Me"]

But the BDSM comparison has also been made -- wrongly, in my opinion -- about one of the most utterly misguided songs that Goffin and King ever wrote -- a song inspired by Little Eva telling them that her boyfriend beat her up. They'd asked her why she put up with it, and she said that he only hit her because he loved her. They were inspired by that to write "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)", an utterly grotesque song which, in a version produced by Phil Spector for the Crystals, was issued as a single but soon withdrawn due to general horror. I won't be excerpting that one here, though it's easy enough to find if you want to.

(Having said that, I should also say that while people have said that Goffin & King's material at this point flirts with BDSM, my understanding of BDSM, as it has been explained to me by friends who indulge in such activities, is that consent is paramount, so I don't think that "He Hit Me" should be talked about in those terms. I don't want anything I've said here to contribute to the blurring of distinctions between consensual kink and abuse, which are too often conflated).

Originally, Eva's follow-up to "The Loco-Motion" was going to be "One Fine Day", another Goffin and King song, but no matter how much Goffin and King worked on the track, they couldn't come up with an arrangement, and eventually they passed the song over to the Tokens, who solved the arrangement problems (though they kept King's piano part) and produced a version of it for the Chiffons, for whom it became a hit:

[Excerpt: The Chiffons, "One Fine Day"]

Instead, Goffin and King gave Eva "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby". This is, in my opinion, the best thing that Eva ever did, and it made the top twenty, though it wasn't as big a hit as "The Loco-Motion":

[Excerpt: Little Eva, "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby"]

And Eva also appeared on another Cookies record, "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby", which made the top ten:

[Excerpt: The Cookies, "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby"]

The Cookies, Eva, and Goffin and King were such a package deal that Dimension released an album called Dimension Dolls featuring the first few hits of each act and padded out with demos they'd made for other artists.  This hit-making machine was so successful for a brief period in 1962 and 63 that even Eva's sister Idalia got in on the act, releasing a song by Goffin, King, and Jack Keller, "Hula Hoppin'":

[Excerpt: Idalia Boyd, "Hula Hoppin'"]

For Eva's third single, Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller wrote a song called "Let's Turkey Trot", which also made the top twenty. But that would be the last time that Eva would have a hit of her own.

At first, the fact that she had a couple of flop singles wasn't a problem -- no artists at this time were consistent hit-makers, and it was normal for someone to have a few top ten hits, then a couple at number 120 or something, before going back to the top. And she was touring with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, and still in high demand as a live performer.

She also, in 1963, recorded a version of "Swinging on a Star" with Big Dee Irwin, though she wasn't credited on the label, and that made the top forty (and made number seven in the UK):

[Excerpt: Big Dee Irwin, "Swinging on a Star"]

But everything changed for Little Eva, and for the whole world of Brill Building pop, in 1964. In part, this was because the Beatles became successful and changed the pop landscape, but by itself that shouldn't have destroyed the careers of Eva or the Cookies, who the Beatles admired -- they recorded a cover of "Chains", and they used to play "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" in their live sets. But Don Kirshner decided to sell Aldon Music and Dimension Records to Columbia Pictures, and to start concentrating on the West Coast rather than New York. The idea was that they could come up with songs that would be used in films and TV, and make more money that way, and that worked out for many people, including Kirshner himself.

But even when artists like Eva and the Cookies got hit material, the British Invasion made it hard for them to get a footing. For example, Goffin and King wrote a song for Earl-Jean from the Cookies to record as a solo track just after Dimension was taken over by Columbia. That record did make the top forty:

[Excerpt: Earl-Jean, "I'm Into Something Good"]

But then Herman's Hermits released their version, which became a much bigger hit. That sort of thing kept happening. The Cookies ended up splitting up by 1967.

Little Eva did end up doing some TV work -- most famously, she sang a dance song in an episode of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Magilla Gorilla:

[Excerpt: Little Eva "Makin' With the Magilla"]

But Dimension Records was not a priority for anyone -- Columbia already owned their own labels, and didn't need another one -- and the label was being wound down. And then Al Nevins, Don Kirshner's partner in Aldon, died. He'd always been friendly with Eva, and without him to advocate for her, the label sold her contract off to Bell Records. From that point on, she could no longer rely on Goffin and King, and she hopped between a number of different labels, none of them with any great success. After spending seven years going from label to label, and having split up with her husband, she quit the music business in 1971 and moved back to North Carolina. She was sick of the music industry, and particularly sick of the lack of money -- she had signed a lot of bad contracts, and was making no royalties from sales of her records.

She worked menial day jobs, survived on welfare for a while, became active in her local church, and depending on which reports you read either ran a soul-food restaurant or merely worked there as a waitress. Meanwhile, "The Loco-Motion" was a perennial hit. Her version re-charted in the UK in the early seventies, and Todd Rundgren produced a version for the heavy metal band Grand Funk Railroad which went to number one in the US in 1974:

[Excerpt: Grand Funk Railroad, "The Loco-Motion"]

And then in 1988 an Australian soap star, Kylie Minogue, recorded her own version, which went top five worldwide and started Minogue's own successful pop career:

[Excerpt: Kylie Minogue, "The Loco-Motion"]

That record becoming a hit got a series of "where are they now?" articles written about Eva, and she was persuaded to come out of retirement and start performing again -- though having been so badly hurt by the industry, she was very dubious at first, and she also had scruples because of her strong religious faith. She later said that she'd left the contracts on her table for eight months before signing them -- but when she finally did, she found that her audience was still there for her. For the rest of her life, she was a popular performer on the oldies circuit, performing on package tours with people like Bobby Vee and Brian Hyland, playing state fairs and touring Europe. She continued performing until shortly before her death, even after she was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed her, as she once again connected with the audiences who had loved her music back when she was still a teenager. She died, aged fifty-nine, in 2003.

Sep 01, 2020
Episode 95: "You Better Move On" by Arthur Alexander
37:15

Episode ninety-five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "You Better Move On", and the sad story of Arthur Alexander. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Mother-In-Law" by Ernie K-Doe.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Resources

As always, I've created Mixcloud playlists with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This week it's been split into two parts because of the number of songs by Arthur Alexander. Part one. Part two.

This compilation collects the best of Alexander's Dot work.

Much of the information in this episode comes from Richard Younger's biography of Alexander. It's unfortunately not in print in the UK, and goes for silly money, though I believe it can be bought cheaply in the US.

And a lot of the background on Muscle Shoals comes from Country Soul by Charles L. Hughes.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

 

Before we start, a warning for those who need it. This is one of the sadder episodes we're going to be doing, and it deals with substance abuse, schizophrenia, and miscarriage.

One of the things we're going to see a lot of in the next few weeks and months is the growing integration of the studios that produced much of the hit music to come out of the Southern USA in the sixties -- studios in what the writer Charles L. Hughes calls the country-soul triangle: Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals.

That integration produced some of the greatest music of the era, but it's also the case that with few exceptions, narratives about that have tended to centre the white people involved at the expense of the Black people. The Black musicians tend to be regarded as people who allowed the white musicians to cast off their racism and become better people, rather than as colleagues who in many cases somewhat resented the white musicians -- there were jobs that weren't open to Black musicians in the segregated South, and now here were a bunch of white people taking some of the smaller number of jobs that *were* available to them. 

This is not to say that those white musicians were, individually, racist -- many were very vocally opposed to racism -- but they were still beneficiaries of a racist system. These white musicians who loved Black music slowly, over a decade or so, took over the older Black styles of music, and made them into white music. Up to this point, when we've looked at R&B, blues, or soul recordings, all the musicians involved have been Black people, almost without exception. And for most of the fifties, rock and roll was a predominantly Black genre, before the influx of the rockabillies made it seem, briefly, like it could lead to a truly post-racial style of music.

But over the 1960s, we're going to see white people slowly colonise those musics, and push Black musicians to the margins. And this episode marks a crucial turning point in the story, as we see the establishment of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as a centre of white people making music in previously Black genres. But the start of that story comes with a Black man making music that most people at the time saw as coded as white.

Today we're going to look at someone whose music is often considered the epitome of deep soul, but who worked with many of the musicians who made the Nashville Sound what it was, and who was as influenced by Gene Autry as he was by many of the more obvious singers who might influence a soul legend. Today, we're going to look at Arthur Alexander, and at "You Better Move On":

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "You'd Better Move On"]

Arthur Alexander's is one of the most tragic stories we'll be looking at. He was a huge influence on every musician who came up in the sixties, but he never got the recognition for it. He was largely responsible for the rise of Muscle Shoals studios, and he wrote songs that were later covered by the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, as well as many, many more. The musician Norbert Putnam told the story of visiting George Harrison in the seventies, and seeing his copy of Alexander's hit single "You Better Move On". He said to Harrison, "Did you know I played bass on that?" and Harrison replied, "If I phoned Paul up now, he'd come over and kiss your feet". That's how important Arthur Alexander was to the Beatles, and to the history of rock music.

But he never got to reap the rewards his talent entitled him to. He spent most of his life in poverty, and is now mostly known only to fans of the subgenre known as deep soul.

Part of this is because his music is difficult to categorise. While most listeners would now consider it soul music, it's hard to escape the fact that Alexander's music has an awful lot of elements of country music in it.

This is something that Alexander would point out himself -- in interviews, he would talk about how he loved singing cowboys in films -- people like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry -- and about how when he was growing up the radio stations he would listen to would "play a Drifters record and maybe an Eddy Arnold record, and they didn't make no distinction. That's the way it was until much later".

The first record he truly loved was Eddy Arnold's 1946 country hit "That's How Much I Love You":

[Excerpt: Eddy Arnold, "That's How Much I Love You"]

Alexander grew up in Alabama, but in what gets described as a relatively integrated area for the time and place -- by his own account, the part of East Florence he grew up in had only one other Black family, and all the other children he played with were white, and he wasn't even aware of segregation until he was eight or nine.

Florence is itself part of a quad-city area with three other nearby towns – Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. This area as a whole is often known as either “the Shoals”, or “Muscle Shoals”, and when people talk about music, it's almost always the latter, so from this point on, I'll be using “Muscle Shoals” to refer to all four towns. The consensus among people from the area seems to have been that while Alabama itself was one of the most horribly racist parts of the country, Muscle Shoals was much better than the rest of Alabama. Some have suggested that this comparative integration was part of the reason for the country influence in Alexander's music, but as we've seen in many previous episodes, there were a lot more Black fans of country music than popular myth would suggest, and musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were very obviously influenced by country singers.

Alexander's father was also called Arthur, and so for all his life the younger Arthur Alexander was known to family and friends as "June", for Junior. Arthur senior had been a blues guitarist in his youth, and according to his son was also an excellent singer, but he got very angry the one time June picked up his guitar and tried to play it -- he forbade him from ever playing the guitar, saying that he'd never made a nickel as a player, and didn't want that life for his son. As Arthur was an obedient kid, he did as his father said -- he never in his life learned to play any musical instrument.

But that didn't stop him loving music and wanting to sing. He would listen to the radio all the time, listening to crooners like Patti Page and Nat "King" Cole, and as a teenager he got himself a job working at a cafe owned by a local gig promoter, which meant he was able to get free entry to the R&B shows the promoter put on at a local chitlin circuit venue, and get to meet the stars who played there. He would talk to people like Clyde McPhatter, and ask him how he managed to hit the high notes -- though he wasn't satisfied by McPhatter's answer that "It's just there", thinking there must be more to it than that. And he became very friendly with the Clovers, once having a baseball game with them, and spending a lot of time with their lead singer, Buddy Bailey, asking him details of how he got particular vocal effects in the song "One Mint Julep":

[Excerpt: The Clovers, "One Mint Julep"]

He formed a vocal group called the Heartstrings, who would perform songs like "Sixty Minute Man", and got a regular spot on a local TV show, but according to his account, after a few weeks one of the other members decided he didn't need to bother practising any more, and messed up on live TV. The group split up after that.

The only time he got to perform once that group split up was when he would sit in in a band led by his friend George Brooks, who regularly gigged around Muscle Shoals. But there seemed no prospect of anything bigger happening -- there were no music publishing companies or recording studios in Alabama, and everyone from Alabama who had made an impact in music had moved away to do it -- W.C. Handy, Hank Williams, Sam Phillips, they'd all done truly great things, but they'd done them in Memphis or Nashville, not in Montgomery or Birmingham. There was just not the music industry infrastructure there to do anything.

That started to change in 1956, when the first record company to set up in Muscle Shoals got its start. Tune Records was a tiny label run from a bus station, and most of its business was the same kind of stuff that Sam Phillips did before Sun became big -- making records of people's weddings and so on. But then the owner of the label, James Joiner, came up with a song that he thought might be commercial if a young singer he knew named Bobby Denton sang it. "A Fallen Star" was done as cheaply as humanly possible -- it was recorded at a radio station, cut live in one take. The engineer on the track was a DJ who was on the air at the time -- he put a record on, engineered the track while the record was playing, and made sure the musicians finished before the record he was playing did, so he could get back on the air.

That record itself wasn't a hit, and was so unsuccessful that I've not been able to find a copy of it anywhere, but it inspired hit cover versions from Ferlin Husky and Jimmy C. Newman:

[Excerpt: Jimmy C. Newman, “A Fallen Star”]

Off the back of those hit versions, Joiner started his own publishing company to go with his record company. Suddenly there was a Muscle Shoals music scene, and everything started to change. A lot of country musicians in the area gravitated towards Joiner, and started writing songs for his publishing company.

At this point, this professional music scene in the area was confined to white people -- Joiner recalled later that a young singer named Percy Sledge had auditioned for him, but that Joiner simply didn't understand his type of music -- but a circle of songwriters formed that would be important later.

Jud Phillips, Sam's brother, signed Denton to his new label, Judd, and Denton started recording songs by two of these new songwriters, Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill. Denton's recordings were unsuccessful, but they started getting cover versions. Roy Orbison's first single on RCA was a Hall and Sherrill song:

[Excerpt: Roy Orbison, "Sweet and Innocent"]

Hall and Sherrill then started up their own publishing company, with the help of a loan from Joiner, and with a third partner, Tom Stafford. Stafford is a figure who has been almost written out of music history, and about whom I've been able to find out very little, but who seems in some ways the most intriguing person among these white musicians and entrepreneurs. Friends from the time describe him as a "reality-hacking poet", and he seems to have been a beatnik, or a proto-hippie, the only one in Muscle Shoals and maybe the only one in the state of Alabama at the time. He was the focal point of a whole group of white musicians, people like Norbert Puttnam, David Briggs, Dan Penn, and Spooner Oldham.

These musicians loved Black music, and wanted to play it, thinking of it as more exciting than the pop and country that they also played. But they loved it in a rather appropriative way -- and in the same way, they had what they *thought* was an anti-racist attitude. Even though they were white, they referred to themselves collectively as a word I'm not going to use, the single most offensive slur against Black people.

And so when Arthur Alexander turned up and got involved in this otherwise-white group of musicians, their attitudes varied widely. Terry Thompson, for example, who Alexander said was one of the best players ever to play guitar, as good as Nashville legends like Roy Clark and Jerry Reed, was also, according to Alexander, “the biggest racist there ever was”, and made derogatory remarks about Black people – though he said that Alexander didn't count. Others, like Dan Penn, have later claimed that they took an “I don't even see race” attitude, while still others were excited to be working with an actual Black man. Alexander would become close friends with some of them, would remain at arm's length with most, but appreciated the one thing that they all had in common – that they, like him, wanted to perform R&B *and* country *and* pop.

For Hall, Sherrill, and Stafford's fledgling publishing company FAME, Alexander and one of his old bandmates from the Heartstrings, Henry Lee Bennett, wrote a song called “She Wanna Rock”, which was recorded in Nashville by the rockabilly singer Arnie Derksen, at Owen Bradley's studio with the Nashville A-Team backing him:

[Excerpt: Arnie Derksen, "She Wanna Rock"]

That record wasn't a success, and soon after that, the partnership behind FAME dissolved. Rick Hall was getting super-ambitious and wanted to become a millionaire by the time he was thirty, Tom Stafford was content with the minor success they had, and wanted to keep hanging round with his friends, watching films, and occasionally helping them make a record, and Billy Sherrill had a minor epiphany and decided he wanted to make country music rather than rock and roll. Rick Hall kept the FAME name for a new company he was starting up and Sherrill headed over to Nashville and got a job with Sam Phillips at Sun's Nashville studio. Sherrill would later move on from Sun and produce and write for almost every major country star of the sixties and seventies – most notably, he co-wrote "Stand By Your Man" with Tammy Wynette, and produced "He Stopped Loving Her Today" for George Jones. And Stafford kept the studio and the company, which was renamed Spar.

Arthur Alexander stuck with Tom Stafford, as did most of the musicians, and while he was working a day job as a bellhop, he would also regularly record demos for other writers at Stafford's studio. By the start of 1960, 19-year-old June had married another nineteen-year-old, Ann. And it was around this point that Stafford came to him with a half-completed lyric that needed music. Alexander took Stafford's partial lyric, and finished it. He added a standard blues riff, which he had liked in Brook Benton's record “Kiddio”:

[Excerpt: Brook Benton, “Kiddio”]

The resulting song, “Sally Sue Brown”, was a mixture of gutbucket blues and rockabilly, with a soulful vocal, and it was released under the name June Alexander on Judd Records:

[Excerpt: June Alexander, "Sally Sue Brown"]

It's a good record, but it didn't have any kind of success. So Arthur started listening to the radio more, trying to see what the current hits were, so he could do something more commercial. He particularly liked the Drifters and Ben E. King, and he decided to try to write a song that fit their styles. He eventually came up with one that was inspired by real events -- his wife, Ann, had an ex who had tried to win her back once he'd found out she was dating Arthur.

He took the song, "You Better Move On", to Stafford, who knew it would be a massive hit, but also knew that he couldn't produce the record himself, so they got in touch with Rick Hall, who agreed to produce the track. There were multiple sessions, and after each one, Hall would take the tapes away, study them, and come up with improvements that they would use at the next session.

Hall, like Alexander, wanted to get a sound like Ben E. King -- he would later say, "It was my conception that it should have a groove similar to 'Stand By Me', which was a big record at the time. But I didn't want to cop it to the point where people would recognise it was a cop. You dig? So we used the bass line and modified it just a little bit, put the acoustic guitar in front of that.":

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "You Better Move On"]

For a B-side, they chose a song written by Terry Thompson, "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues", which would prove almost as popular as the A-side:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues"]

Hall shopped the record around every label in Nashville, with little success. Eventually, in February 1961, the record was released by Dot Records, the label that Pat Boone was on. It went to number twenty-four on the pop charts, becoming the first ever hit record to be made in Alabama. Rick Hall made enough money from it that he was able to build a new, much better, studio, and Muscle Shoals was set to become one of the most important recording centres in the US. As Norbert Puttnam, who had played bass on "You Better Move On", and who would go on to become one of the most successful session bass players and record producers in Nashville, later said "If it wasn't for Arthur Alexander, we'd all be at Reynolds" -- the local aluminium factory.

But Arthur Alexander wouldn't record much at Muscle Shoals from that point on. His contracts were bought out -- allegedly, Stafford, a heavy drug user, was bought off with a case of codeine -- and instead of working with Rick Hall, the perfectionist producer who would go on to produce a decade-long string of hits, he was being produced by Noel Ball, a DJ with little production experience, though one who had a lot of faith in Alexander's talent, and who had been the one to get him signed to Dot. His first album was a collection of covers of current hits. The album is widely regarded as a failure, and Alexander's heart wasn't in it -- his father had just died, his wife had had a miscarriage, and his marriage was falling apart.

But his second single for Dot was almost as great as his first. Recorded at Owen Bradley's studio with top Nashville session players, the A-side, "Where Have You Been?" was written by the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and was very much in the style of "You Better Move On":

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "Where Have You Been?"]

While the B-side, "Soldiers of Love" (and yes, it was called "Soldiers of Love" on the original label, rather than "Soldier"), was written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon, two members of Brenda Lee's backing band, The Casuals:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "Soldiers of Love"]

The single was only a modest hit, reaching number fifty-eight, but just like his first single, both sides became firm favourites with musicians in Britain. Even though he wasn't having a huge amount of commercial success, music lovers really appreciated his music, and bands in Britain, playing long sets, would pick up on Arthur's songs. Almost every British guitar group had Arthur Alexander songs in their setlists, even though he was unaware of it at the time.

For his third Dot single, Arthur was in trouble. He'd started drinking a lot, and taking a lot of speed, and his marriage was falling apart. Meanwhile, Noel Ball was trying to get him to record all sorts of terrible songs. He decided he'd better write one himself, and he'd make it about the deterioration of his marriage to Ann -- though in the song he changed her name to Anna, because it scanned better:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "Anna (Go To Him)"]

Released with a cover version of Gene Autry's country classic "I Hang My Head and Cry" as the B-side, that made the top ten on the R&B chart, but it only made number sixty-eight on the pop charts. His next single, "Go Home Girl", another attempt at a "You Better Move On" soundalike, only made number 102. Meanwhile, a song that Alexander had written and recorded, but that Dot didn't want to put out, went to number forty-two when it was picked up by the white singer Steve Alaimo:

[Excerpt: Steve Alaimo, "Every Day I Have To Cry"]

He was throwing himself into his work at this point, to escape the problems in his personal life. He'd often just go to a local nightclub and sit in with a band featuring a bass player called Billy Cox, and Cox's old Army friend, who was just starting to get a reputation as a musician, a guitarist they all called Marbles but who would later be better known as Jimi Hendrix. He was drinking heavily, divorced, and being terribly mismanaged, as well as being ripped off by his record and publishing companies. He was living with a friend, Joe Henderson, who had had a hit a couple of years earlier with "Snap Your Fingers":

[Excerpt: Joe Henderson, "Snap Your Fingers"]

Henderson and Alexander would push each other to greater extremes of drug use, enabling each other's addiction, and one day Arthur came home to find his friend dead in the bathroom, of what was officially a heart attack but which everyone assumes was an overdose. Not only that, but Noel Ball was dying of cancer, and for all that he hadn't been the greatest producer, Arthur cared deeply about him.

He tried a fresh start with Monument Records, and he was now being produced by Fred Foster, who had produced Roy Orbison's classic hits, and his arrangements were being done by Bill Justis, the saxophone player who had had a hit with "Raunchy" on a subsidiary of Sun a few years earlier.

Some of his Monument recordings were excellent, like his first single for the label, "Baby For You":

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "Baby For You"]

On the back of that single, he toured the UK, and appeared on several big British TV shows, and was generally feted by all the major bands who were fans of his work, but he had no more commercial success at Monument than he had at the end of his time on Dot.

And his life was getting worse and worse. He had a breakdown, brought on by his constant use of amphetamines and cannabis, and started hallucinating that people he saw were people from his past life -- he stopped a taxi so he could get out and run after a man he was convinced was his dead father, and assaulted an audience member he was convinced was his ex-wife. He was arrested, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and spent several months in a psychiatric hospital.

Shortly after he got out, Arthur visited his friend Otis Redding, who was in the studio in Memphis, and was cutting a song that he and Arthur had co-written several years earlier, "Johnny's Heartbreak":

[Excerpt: Otis Redding, "Johnny's Heartbreak"]

Otis asked Arthur to join him on a tour he was going to be going on a couple of weeks later, but fog grounded Arthur's plane so he was never able to meet up with Otis in Atlanta, and the tour proceeded without him -- and so Arthur was not on the plane that Redding was on, on December 10 1967, which crashed and killed him.

Arthur saw this as divine intervention, but he was seeing patterns in everything at this point, and he had several more breakdowns. He ended up getting dropped by Monument in 1970. He was hospitalised again after a bad LSD trip led to him standing naked in the middle of the road, and he spent several years drifting, unable to have a hit, though he was still making music. He kept having bad luck – for example, he recorded a song by the songwriter Dennis Linde, which was an almost guaranteed hit, and could have made for a comeback for him:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, “Burning Love”]

But between him recording it and releasing it as a single, Elvis Presley released his version, which went to number two on the charts, and killed any chance of Arthur's version being a success:

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Burning Love”]

He did, though, have a bit of a comeback in 1975, when he rerecorded his old song "Every Day I Have To Cry", as "Every Day I Have To Cry Some", in a version which many people think likely inspired Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" a few years later:

[Excerpt: Arthur Alexander, "Every Day I Have To Cry Some"]

That made number forty-five, but unfortunately his follow-up, “Sharing the Night Together”, was another song where multiple people released versions of it at the same time, without realising, and so didn't chart – Dr. Hook eventually had a hit with it a year later. Arthur stepped away from music. He managed to get himself more mentally well, and spent the years from 1978 through 1993 working a series of blue-collar jobs in Cleveland -- construction worker, bus driver, and janitor. He rarely opened up to people about ever having been a singer. He suffered through more tragedy, too, like the murder of one of his sons, but he remained mentally stable.

But then, in March 1993, he made a comeback. The producer Ben Vaughn persuaded him into the studio, and he got a contract with Elektra records. He made his first album in twenty-two years, a mixture of new songs and reworkings of his older ones. It got great reviews, and he was rediscovered by the music press as a soul pioneer.

He got a showcase spot at South by Southwest, he was profiled by NPR on Fresh Air, and he was playing to excited crowds of new, young fans. He was in the process of getting his publishing rights back, and might finally start to see some money from his hits.

And then, three months after that album came out, in the middle of a meeting with a publisher about the negotiations for his new contracts, he had a massive heart attack, and died the next day, aged fifty-three. His bad luck had caught up with him again.

Aug 27, 2020
BONUS: "Strawberry Fair" by Anthony Newley
28:28

This is a special extra episode of the podcast, not one of the "proper" five hundred. A book I've written, on the TV series The Strange World of Gurney Slade, has just become available for pre-order from Obverse Books, so to publicise that I've done an extra episode, on the pop music career of its star, Anthony Newley. The next normal episode will be up in a day or two. Transcript below the cut. 

Erratum: In a previous version of this episode, I mentioned, in passing, my understanding that Newley was an alcoholic. This has been strongly questioned by some fans, who took offence at the suggestion, and as it was utterly irrelevant to the point I was making I have deleted those three words rather than cause further offence.

 

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Welcome to a special bonus episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs. This is not this week's normal episode, which will be up in a couple of days, and nor is it the Patreon bonus episode, which will also be up as normal. This is an extra, full-length episode, on a song which didn't make the list of songs I'm covering.

But this week, a book I've written has gone on pre-order, and it'll be out on the first of September. That book is on The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a TV show from the very early 1960s. And the star of that show, Anthony Newley, also had a very successful music career in the late fifties and early sixties -- and a career which had a real influence on many people who will be seen in future episodes. So, in order to promote my book, I'm going to talk today about some of Newley's music. If you're not interested in anything that isn't part of my "official" five hundred songs, then you can skip this episode, but I promise that other than a brief mention at the end, this is not going to be an advert for my book, but just another episode, about the music career of one of Britain's most interesting stars of the pre-Beatles era. So let's look at "Strawberry Fair" by Anthony Newley:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, "Strawberry Fair"]

Anthony Newley was someone whose career only came about by what would seem at first to be bad luck. Newley was a child in London during the Blitz, the son of an unmarried mother, which had a great deal of stigma to it in those days. When the Blitz hit, he was evacuated, and felt abandoned by his mother. That sense of abandonment increased when his mother married her new boyfriend and moved to Scotland.

And then Newley was moved into a second foster home, this one in Morecambe, Lancashire. His foster father during the war was one George Pescud, a music hall performer about whom I can discover nothing else, except that he instilled in Newley a great love of the theatre and of the arts, and that as a result of this Newley started writing music, painting, writing, and, especially, acting.

When the war ended, Newley was fourteen, and didn't go back to live with his mother and her new husband, choosing instead to move to London and start living an artistic life.

He saw an advert in the paper for the Italia Conti stage school, and tried to become a student there. When he found out that he couldn't afford the fees, he found another way in -- he got a job there as an office boy, and his tuition was included in his wages. While there, he became friends with another student, Petula Clark, who would herself go on to stardom with records like “Downtown”.

[Excerpt: Petula Clark, "Downtown"]

Clark also encouraged him to start singing -- something that would definitely pay off for him later. Apparently, Clark had a crush on Newley, but he wasn't interested in her.

While at the school, Newley got cast in a couple of roles in low-budget films, which brought him to the attention of David Lean, who was directing his film adaptation of Oliver Twist, and cast Newley in the role of the Artful Dodger. The film, which featured Alec Guinness, became one of the classics of British cinema, and also starred Diana Dors, with whom Newley started an affair, and who managed to get him a job as a bit player for the Rank Organisation.

For the next few years, Newley had small roles in films, started a double act with the comedy writer Dick Vosburgh, had a brief spell in the army (very brief -- he was discharged because of his mental health problems), spent a couple of years in rep, shared a flat with Christopher Lee and appeared in a Hammer Horror film -- the usual things that low-level actors do as they slowly work their way up to stardom.

His most notable appearance was in the West End revue Cranks, which opened in late 1955. A revue, for those who don't know, is a theatrical show that usually mixes comedy sketches and songs (though the term was, confusingly for our purposes, sometimes also used for a bill with several different musical acts). These were very popular in the fifties and sixties, and Cranks was one of the most popular. After its West End run it transferred to Broadway, and Newley was one of the cast members who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to promote it, though the Broadway run of the show was not a success like the British one was. It was in Cranks that Newley's singing first came to public attention:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, "Cold Comfort"]

Newley was starting to get substantial film roles, and it was with the film Idol on Parade that Newley became a star, and became drawn into the world of pop music. In that film, the first film written by the prominent British screenwriter John Antrobus, he played a pop star who was drafted into the British army, as all young men were in Britain in the fifties. The film is usually said to have been inspired by Elvis Presley having been called up, though it was likely that it was also influenced by Terry Dene, a British rock and roll star who had recently been drafted, before having a breakdown and being discharged due to ill health, and who had recorded songs like “Candy Floss”:

[Excerpt: Terry Dene, "Candy Floss"]

Dene's story must have struck a chord with Newley, who'd had a very similar Army experience, though you couldn't tell that from the film, which was a typical low-budget British comedy.

As Newley was playing a pop singer, obviously he had to sing some songs in the film, and so he recorded five songs, one of which, “I've Waited So Long”, was released as a single and went to number three in the charts:

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, "I've Waited So Long"]

Somehow, despite Newley being an actor -- and someone who despised a lot of rock and roll music -- he had become a pop star. He won the Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Most Promising Newcomer of 1959, even though he'd been making films since 1946.

"I've Waited So Long" was co-written by Jerry Lordan, who wrote "Apache", and Len Praverman, but two of the other songs in the film were written by Newley and Joe 'Mr. Piano' Henderson, and this would soon set Newley on the way to a career as a songwriter -- indeed, as the most important singer-songwriter in pre-Beatles British pop music.

He had seven UK top ten hits, two of them number ones, in the years from 1959 through 61, and he had a few more minor hits after that. Most of those hits were either cover versions of American hits like Lloyd Price's "Personality", or were written for him by people like Lionel Bart. One odd example shows where he would go as a music-maker, though. "Strawberry Fair" is a traditional folk song, which was collected, and presumably bowdlerised, by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould -- the lyrics, about a young woman offering a young man the chance to pluck the cherries from her basket, read as innuendo, and Baring-Gould, who wrote "Onward Christian Soldiers", was well known for toning down the lyrics of the folk songs he collected.

Newley rewrote the lyrics under the pseudonym "Nollie Clapton":

[Excerpt: Anthony Newley, "Strawberry Fair"]

But Newley was someone who wanted to do *everything*, and did so very well. While he was a pop star, he starred in his own series of TV specials, and then in his own sitcom, The Strange World of Gurney Slade. He starred in the classic British noir film The Small World of Sammy Lee. And he recorded a satirical album with his second wife, Joan Collins, and Peter Sellers, mocking the Government over the Profumo sex scandal:

[Excerpt: Fool Britannia, "Twelve Randy Men"]

That album went top ten, and was co-written by Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse would go on to collaborate with Newley in writing a series of songs, mostly for musicals, that everyone knows, though many don't realise that Newley was involved in them. Newley mostly wrote the music, while Bricusse mostly wrote lyrics, though both did both. Their first major collaboration was on the play Stop The World, I Want To Get Off!, a semi-autobiographical starring vehicle for Newley, which displayed the life of a selfish womaniser called Littlechap, who would regularly stop the action of the play to monologue at the audience in much the same way as Newley's TV character Gurney Slade.

Much of Newley's work seems to be trying to be three different things at the same time -- he seems to want to write self-flagellating autobiography about his own selfish and sometimes misogynistic behaviour -- this is a man who would later write a song called "Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am", and mean it -- while also wanting to create work that is formally extraordinary and involves a lot of metafictional and postmodern elements -- *and* at the same time wanting to make all-round family entertainment. For a while, at least, he managed to juggle all three aspects very successfully, and Stop The World, I Want to Get Off! became a massive hit on stage, and was adapted for the cinema once and TV twice.

Stop The World introduced two songs that would become standards. "What Kind of Fool Am I?" became a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr, and won the Grammy for "Song of the Year" at the 1963 Grammy Awards:

[Excerpt: Sammy Davis Jr., "What Kind of Fool Am I?"]

Davis also recorded another song from that show, "Gonna Build a Mountain", as the B-side, and that too became a standard, recorded by everyone from Matt Monroe to the Monkees:

[Excerpt: The Monkees, "Gonna Build a Mountain"]

Newley and Bricusse followed that up with another musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, which again introduced a whole host of famous songs. "Who Can I Turn To?" was the big hit at the time, for Tony Bennett, and has since been performed by everyone from Miles Davis to Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield to the Temptations:

[Excerpt: Temptations, "Who Can I Turn To?"]

But the song from that musical that is now best known is almost certainly "Feeling Good", which you've almost certainly heard in Nina Simone's staggering version:

[Excerpt: Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"]

They also wrote the theme to "Goldfinger", with John Barry:

[Excerpt: Shirley Bassey, "Goldfinger"]

That song was one that Bricusse would use in interviews to demonstrate the almost telepathic rapport that he and Newley had – when Barry played them the beginning of the melody, they both instantly sang, without looking at each other, “wider than a mile”. Barry was unimpressed, and luckily for all concerned the rest of the melody wasn't that similar to “Moon River”, and the song became arguably the definitive Bond theme.

But at the same time that Newley was having this kind of popular success, he was also doing oddities like "Moogies Bloogies", a song in which Newley sings about voyeuristically watching women, while Delia Derbyshire backs him with experimental electronic music:

[Excerpt: Delia Derbyshire and Anthony Newley, "Moogies Bloogies"]

That was recorded in 1966, though it wasn't released until much later.

Newley's career was a bizarre one by almost every measure. Possibly the highlight, at least in some senses, was his 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

[Excerpt: "Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?" trailer]

On one level, that film is a terrible sex comedy of the kind that the British film industry produced far too much of in the late sixties and seventies, featuring people like Bruce Forsyth and with characters named Hieronymus Merkin, Filligree Fondle, and Polyester Poontang. On the other hand, it's a work of postmodern self-commenting autobiography, with Newley co-writing the script, starring as multiple characters, directing, producing, and writing the music. Roger Ebert said it was the first English-language film to attempt the same things that Fellini and Godard had been attempting, which is not something you'd normally expect of a musical featuring Milton Berle and Joan Collins.

The film has at least four different layers of reality to it, including a film within a film within the film, and it features Newley regularly stepping out of character to talk about the problems with the film. It's a film of his midlife crisis, basically, but where Ebert compares it to Fellini and Godard, I'd say it's closer to Head, 200 Motels, or other similarly indulgent rock films of the era, and it deals with a lot of the same concerns -- God and the Devil, sexual freedom, and the nature of film as a narrative medium.

All of Newley's career was like that -- a mixture of lowbrow light entertainment and attempts at postmodernist art, both treated by Newley as of equal value, but each being offputting to an audience that might have enjoyed the other. If you want songs and pretty women and dirty jokes, you probably don't want metafictional conversations between the main character of the film and the director, both of whom are the same person. If you want a film that Roger Ebert will compare to Fellini, you probably don't want it to be a musical including a song that starts out as a fairy-tale about a lonely princess named Trampolena Whambang, and ends up with the princess having sex with a donkey:

[Excerpt: Heironymus Merkin soundtrack, "Princess Trampolena"]

The film also was one of the things that led to Newley's breakup with Collins -- she decided that she didn't like the aspects of his character, and his attitudes towards women, the film revealed -- though Newley claimed until his dying day that while the film was inspired by his own life, it wasn't directly autobiographical. Given that the film's main character, in one sequence, talks about his attraction to underage girls, that's probably for the best.

(And Newley did have a deplorable attitude to women generally -- I'm not going into it in detail here, because this podcast is about the work, not the person, but Newley was a thoroughly unpleasant person in many respects.)

Hieronymus Merkin was a massive flop, though the critical response to it was far kinder than its reputation suggests. Unfortunately, Joan Collins so detests the film that it's never been available on DVD in the UK, and only sporadically elsewhere -- DVD copies on Amazon currently go for around three hundred pounds.

That was, largely, the end of Anthony Newley's career as an auteur. It wasn't, though, the end of his career in songwriting. With Leslie Bricusse he wrote the songs that made up the soundtrack of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- songs like "Pure Imagination":

[Excerpt: Gene Wilder, "Pure Imagination"]

That film also featured "The Candy Man", which became a number one hit in a cover version by Sammy Davis Jr:

[Excerpt: Sammy Davis Jr, "The Candy Man"]

After that, though, Newley didn't have much more success as a songwriter, but by this point his biggest influence on rock and roll music was already very apparent.

David Bowie once said "I never thought I could sing very well, and I used to try on people's voices if they appealed to me. When I was a kid, about fifteen, sixteen, I got into Anthony Newley like crazy, because a couple of things about him -- one, before he came to the States and did the whole Las Vegas thing, he really did bizarre things over here. Now, a television series he did, called the Strange World of Gurney Slade, which was so odd, and off the wall, and I thought, 'I like what this guy's doing, where he's going is really interesting'. And so I started singing songs like him... and so I was writing these really weird Tony Newley type songs, but the lyrics were about, like, lesbians in the army, and cannibals, and paedophiles"

If you listen to Bowie's earliest work, it's very, very apparent how much he took from Newley's vocal style in particular:

[Excerpt: David Bowie, "Rubber Band"]

There is a whole vein of British music that usually gets called "music hall" when bad critics talk about it, even though it owes nothing to the music that was actually performed in actual music halls. But what it does owe a great deal to is the work of Anthony Newley. One can draw a direct line from him through Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie, Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, Ian Dury, Blur... even a performer like John Lydon, someone who would seem worlds away from Newley's showbiz sheen, has far more of his influence in his vocal inflections than most would acknowledge. Every time you hear a singer referred to as "quintessentially British", you're probably hearing someone who is either imitating Newley, or imitating someone who was imitating Newley.

Newley is one of the most frustrating figures in the history of popular culture. He was someone who had so much natural talent as an actor, singer, songwriter, and playwright, and so many different ideas, that he didn't work hard enough at any of those things to become as great as he could have been -- there are odd moments of genius scattered throughout his work, but very little one can point to and say "that is a work worthy of his talents". His mental and emotional problems caused damage to him and to the people around him, and he spent much of the last half of his career making a living from appearing in Las Vegas and as a regular on Hollywood Squares, and appearing in roles in things like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie -- his last starring role in the cinema.

He attempted a comeback in the nineties, appearing with his ex-wife Joan Collins in two Noel Coward adaptations on TV, taking the lead role in the hit musical Scrooge, written by his old partner Bricusse, and getting a regular role in East Enders (one of the two most popular soap operas on British TV), but unfortunately he had to quit the East Enders role as he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him in 1999, aged sixty-seven.

Anyway, if this episode has piqued your interest in Newley, you might want to check out my book on The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which is a TV show that has almost all the best aspects of Newley's work, and which deserves to be regarded as one of the great masterpieces of TV, a series that is equal parts Hancock's Half Hour, The Prisoner, and Waiting for Godot.

You can order the book from Obverse Books, at obversebooks.co.uk, and I'll provide a link in the show notes. While you're there, check out some of the other books Obverse have put out -- they've published two more of my books and a couple of my short stories, and many of their writers are both friends of mine and some of the best writers around.

I'll be back in a couple of days with the next proper episode.

Aug 24, 2020
Episode 94: "Stand By Me", by Ben E. King
36:35

Episode ninety-four of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King, and at the later career of the Drifters. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "If I Had a Hammer" by Trini López.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

----more----

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

This 3-CD set has all Ben E. King's recordings, both solo and with the Drifters, the Crowns, and LaVern Baker, up to 1962.

This episode follows on from episode seventy-five, on "There Goes My Baby".

I'm not going to recommend a Drifters compilation, because I know of none that actually have only the original hit recordings without any remakes or remixes. The disclaimer in episode seventy-five also applies here -- I may have used an incorrect version of a song here, because of the sloppy way the Drifters' music is packaged.

My main resource in putting this episode together was Marv Goldberg's website, and his excellent articles on both the early- and late-period Drifters, Bill Pinkney's later Original Drifters, the Five Crowns, and Ben E. King. 

Lonely Avenue, a biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt, helped me with the information on Pomus.

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and David Ritz tells Leiber and Stoller's side of the story well.

And Bill Millar's book on the Drifters, while it is more a history of 50s vocal group music generally using them as a focus than a biography of the group, contains some interesting material.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

Today, we're going to look at a song that ties together several of the threads we've looked at in previous episodes. We're going to look at a song that had its roots in a gospel song that had been performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, that involves the Drifters, Leiber and Stoller, and Phil Spector, and which marks the highpoint of the crossover from gospel to pop audiences that had been started by Ray Charles. We're going to look at "Stand By Me", by Ben E King.

[Excerpt: Ben E King, "Stand By Me"]

When we left the Drifters, they'd hit a legal problem. When the contracts for the individual members had been sold to George Treadwell, the owner of the Drifters' name, Ben E King's contract had not been sold with the rest. This had meant that while King continued to sing lead on the records, including the first few big hits of this new lineup of Drifters, he wasn't allowed to tour with them, and so they'd had to bring in a soundalike singer, Johnnie Lee Williams, to sing his parts on stage. So there were now five Drifters in the studio, but only four of them in the touring group.

That might seem like an unworkable arrangement for any length of time, and so it turned out, but at first this was very successful. Leiber and Stoller continued producing records for this new Drifters lineup, but didn't tend to write for them. They were increasingly tiring of writing to a teenage audience that didn't really share their tastes, and were starting to move into writing for adult stars like Peggy Lee.

And so Leiber and Stoller increasingly relied on songs by other writers, and one team they particularly relied on was Pomus and Shuman. You'll remember we've talked about them in association with both the Drifters and Leiber and Stoller previously, and that they'd been the ones who'd discovered the Ben E. King lineup of the Drifters. Doc Pomus was one of the great R&B songwriters of the fifties, but by 1960 he and Mort Shuman, who was thirteen years younger than him, had written a whole string of hits for white performers like Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Darin. A typical example of the stuff they were writing was "Two Fools" for Frankie Avalon:

[Excerpt: Frankie Avalon, "Two Fools"]

They were one of the hottest teams in the Brill Building, but they still had a sensibility for the R&B music that the Drifters had their roots in, and so they were the perfect writers to provide crossover hits for the group, and that's what they did. They'd already written "If You Cry True Love, True Love" for the group, which had gone to number thirty-three and which had been the only Drifters single on which Williams had taken a lead vocal, and now they wrote a song for King to sing, "This Magic Moment":

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and the Drifters, "This Magic Moment"]

That made number sixteen on the pop charts. But the next song they wrote for the group was a much bigger success, and a far more personal song. Pomus was paraplegic after having had polio as a child, and either used crutches or a wheelchair to get around. His wife, though, was younger, and was an actor and dancer. On their wedding day, Pomus was unable to dance with her himself, and watched as she danced with a succession of other people. The feeling stayed with him, and a few years later, he turned those thoughts into a set of lyrics, which Shuman then put to music with a vaguely Latin feel, like many of the Drifters' recent hits.

The result was a number one record, and one of the all-time classic songs of the rock and roll era:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and the Drifters, "Save the Last Dance For Me"]

That song has gone on to be one of the most covered songs of all time, with recordings by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, Buck Owens, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Harry Nilsson, and Bruce Willis, among many others. It would be the Drifters' only number one on the pop charts, and it was also Ben E King's last single with the Drifters, after King's manager Lover Patterson came to an agreement with the Drifters' manager George Treadwell that would let King move smoothly into a solo career.

There might have been more to it than that, as there seems to have been a lot of negotiation going on around the group's future at this time. There were reports, for example, that King Records were negotiating to buy the Drifters' contract from Atlantic, which would have been interesting -- it's hard to see the group continuing to have success at King, which didn't have Leiber and Stoller, and which put out very different records from Atlantic.

But either way, the result was that Ben E. King started performing solo, and indeed by the time "Save the Last Dance" came out, he had already released a couple of solo records. The first of these was not a success, and nor was the second, a duet with LaVern Baker:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King and LaVern Baker, "How Often"]

But the third was something else.

At this point, as a favour to their old friend Lester Sill, Leiber and Stoller were mentoring a kid that Sill thought had promise, named Phil Spector, who we've talked about before in the episode on The Gamblers, but who had now moved over to New York for a time. Spector was staying with Leiber, and would follow him around literally everywhere, claiming that he was so traumatised by his father's death that he couldn't be left alone at any time. Leiber found Spector annoying, but owed Sill a favour, and so kept working with him.

And Spector kept pestering Leiber to collaborate with him on some songs. Leiber told Spector, "No, I write with Mike Stoller", to which Spector would reply, "Well, he can write with us too."

Leiber explained to him that that wasn't how things worked, and that if there was any collaboration, it would be Leiber and Stoller letting Spector write with them, not Spector graciously allowing Stoller to write with him and Leiber. Spector said that that was what he had meant, of course.

Leiber and Stoller reluctantly agreed that Spector could write with them, but then Stoller was unable to turn up to the writing session. Spector persuaded Leiber to go ahead and just write a song with him since Stoller wasn't around.

He agreed, and they came up with a song called "Spanish Harlem", to which Stoller later added a prominent instrumental line, for which he didn't claim credit, because he thought that Spector would only whine, and he didn't need the hassle.

Or at least, that's the story that normally gets told -- there are people who knew Ritchie Valens who say that the marimba riff on the record, which became the most defining feature of the song, was actually something that Valens had been regularly playing in the months before he died. According to them, Spector, who moved in the same circles as Valens, must have stolen the riff from him.

I tend to believe Stoller's version of the story myself, but either way, Leiber, Stoller, and Spector played the song to Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun as a trio, with Stoller on piano, Spector on guitar, and Leiber singing. They agreed it should be on the B-side of the next single by King, though the song was popular enough that the record was soon flipped, and "Spanish Harlem" made the top ten:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, "Spanish Harlem"]

But that wasn't even the most important record they made at that session, because after recording it, they decided to record a song that King had written for the Drifters, but which they had turned down. King had brought in the basic idea for the song, and Leiber had helped him finish off the lyric, while Stoller had helped with the music -- the resulting songwriting credit gave fifty percent of the royalties to King, and twenty-five percent each to Leiber and Stoller, as a result. King's song had a long prehistory before he wrote it, and like many early soul songs it had its basis in gospel music. The original source for the song is a spiritual from 1905 by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, which had been recorded by various people, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

[Excerpt: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Stand By Me"]

But the proximate influence for the song was a song that Sam Cooke had written for his old group, the Soul Stirrers, the year before, which had in turn been inspired by Tindley's song. The lead vocal on the Soul Stirrers' record was by Johnnie Taylor, a friend of Cooke's who had replaced Cooke in his first group, the Highway QCs, and then replaced him in his second one, because he sounded exactly like Cooke:

[Excerpt: The Soul Stirrers, "Stand By Me, Father"]

King idolised Cooke, and was inspired by that record to come up with his own variant on the song. Working with Leiber and Stoller, he carefully crafted his secular adaptation of it, writing a lyric that worked equally well as a gospel song or as a song to a lover, other than the words "darling, darling" in the chorus. The chord sequence they used was a simple adaptation of the standard doo-wop chord changes. On a normal doo-wop song, the chords would go I, minor vi, IV, V, with each chord taking up the same amount of time, like this:

[demonstrates on guitar]

Stoller took those changes, and made the I and minor vi last two bars each,

[demonstrates]

then had the IV and V chords both last a bar, then go to two more bars of the I chord.

[demonstrates]

That bar of IV, bar of V, two bars of I thing is almost what you get at the end of a twelve-bar blues, except there you go V, IV, I, I, rather than IV, V, I, I. So to compare, here's the end of a twelve-bar blues:

[demonstrates]

And here's what Stoller did again:

[demonstrates]

So effectively Stoller has taken the two most hackneyed chord sequences in rock and roll music, and hybridised them to turn them into a single new sequence that's instantly recognisable:

[demonstrates on guitar]

In later years, Leiber always gave Stoller the credit for the song's success, saying that while the lyrics and melody were good, and King's performance exceptional, it was the bass line that Stoller came up with which made the song the success it was. I agree, to a large extent -- but that bassline is largely just following the root notes of the chord sequence that Stoller had written. But it's one of the most immediately recognisable pieces of music of the early sixties:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"]

The record sounded remarkably original, for something that was made up almost entirely out of repurposed elements from other songs, and it shows more clearly than perhaps any other song that originality doesn't mean creating something entirely ab initio, but can mean taking a fresh look at things that are familiar, and putting just a slight twist on them.

In particular, one thing that doesn't get noted enough is just how much of a departure the song was lyrically. People had been reworking gospel ideas into secular ones for years -- we've already looked at Ray Charles doing this, and at Sam Cooke, and there were many other examples, like Little Walter turning "This Train" into "My Babe". But in most cases those songs required wholesale lyrical reworking.

"Stand By Me" is different, it brings the lyrical concerns and style of gospel firmly into the secular realm. "If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountains should crumble to the sea" is an apocalyptic vision, not "Candy's sweet/And honey too/There's not another quite, quite as sweet as you", which were the lyrics Sam Cooke wrote when he turned a song about how God is wonderful into one about how his girl is loveable.

This new type of more gospel-inflected lyric would become very common in the next few years, especially among Black performers. Another building block in the music that would become known as soul had been put in place.

The record went to number four on the charts, and it looked like he was headed for a huge career. But the next few singles he released didn't do so well -- he recorded a version of the old standard "Amor" which made number nineteen, and then his next two records topped out at sixty-six and fifty-six. He did get back in the pop top twenty with a song co-written by his wife and Ahmet Ertegun, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)", which reached number eleven and became an R&B standard:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)"]

But as many people did at the time, he tried to move into the more lucrative world of adult supper-club singers, rather than singing R&B. While his version of "I Who Have Nothing" -- a French song that has since become a standard, and whose English lyrics were written for King by Leiber and Stoller -- managed to reach number twenty-nine, everything else did terribly. He sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "What Now My Love?" perfectly well, but that wasn't what the audience wanted from him.

He made some great records in the later 60s, like "What Is Soul":

[Excerpt: Ben E. King "What Is Soul?"]

But even teaming up with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Joe Tex, and Arthur Conley as The Soul Clan didn't help him kickstart his recording career:

[Excerpt: The Soul Clan, "Soul Meeting"]

He asked to be let go from his contract with Atlantic in 1969, and spent a few years in the early seventies recording for small labels.

Meanwhile, the Drifters were continuing without King. After King left, Atlantic started releasing whatever material they had in their vaults, both songs with King's leads and older records from the earlier line-up of Drifters. But they were about to have even more personnel shifts. When they were on tour and got to Mobile, Alabama, Johnny Lee Williams said that he was just going to stay there and not continue on the tour -- he was sick of not getting to sing lead vocals, and he came from Mobile anyway. Williams went on to join a group called the Embraceables, who released this with him singing lead:

[Excerpt: The Embraceables, "My Foolish Pride"]

That was later rereleased as by The Implaceables, for reasons I've not been able to discover.

The Drifters got in a replacement for Williams, James Poindexter, but he turned out to have stage fright, and the group spent several months as a trio, before being joined by new lead singer Rudy Lewis. And then Elsbeary Hobbs, the group's bass singer, was drafted, and the group got in a couple of different singers before settling on Tommy Evans, who had sung with the old versions of the Drifters in the fifties. The new lineup, Rudy Lewis, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, and Tommy Evans, would be one of the group's longest-lasting lineups, lasting more than a year, and would record hits like "Up On the Roof", by Goffin and King:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Up On the Roof"]

But then Dock Green left the group. He and Tommy Evans joined another group -- even though Evans was also still in the Drifters. The Drapers, the group they joined, was managed by Lover Patterson, Ben E. King's manager, and had been given a name that sounded as much like "The Drifters" as possible. As well as Green and Evans, it also had Johnny Moore and Carnation Charlie Hughes, who had been in the same 1956 lineup of the Drifters that Tommy Evans had been in.

That lineup of the Drapers released one single that didn't do particularly well:

[Excerpt: The Drapers, "(I Know) Your Love Has Gone Away"]

The new Drifters lineup, without Dock Green, recorded "On Broadway", a song that Leiber and Stoller had co-written with the Brill Building team of Mann and Weill. The guitar on the record was by Phil Spector -- he was by that point a successful producer, but Leiber and Stoller had bumped into him on the way to the session and invited him to sit in:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "On Broadway"]

Tommy Evans then also left the Drifters, and was replaced by Johnny Terry, leaving a lineup of Rudy Lewis, Charlie Thomas, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry. But Rudy Lewis, the lead singer of the group since just after King had left, was thinking of going solo, and even released one solo single:

[Excerpt: Rudy Lewis, "I've Loved You So Long"]

That wasn't a success, but George Treadwell wanted some insurance in case Lewis left, so he got Johnny Moore -- who had been in the group in the fifties and had just left the Drapers -- to join, and for a few months Lewis and Moore traded off leads in the studio.

One song that they recorded during 1963, but didn't release, was "Only in America", written for them by Leiber and Stoller. Leiber and Stoller had intended the song to be a sly satire, with Black people singing about the American dream, but Atlantic worried that in the racial climate of 1963, the satire would seem tasteless, so they took the Drifters' backing track and got Jay and the Americans, a white group, to record new vocals, turning it into a straightforward bit of boosterism:

[Excerpt: Jay and the Americans, "Only in America"]

Tragedy struck on the day the Drifters recorded what would be their last US top ten hit, the twenty-first of May 1964. Johnny Moore bumped into Sylvia Vanterpool, of Mickey and Sylvia, and she said "thank God it wasn't you". He didn't know what she was talking about, and she told him that Rudy Lewis had died suddenly earlier that day. The group went into the studio anyway, and recorded the songs that had been scheduled, including one called "I Don't Want To Go On Without You" which took on a new meaning in the circumstances. But the hit from the session was "Under the Boardwalk", with lead vocals from Moore:

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Under the Boardwalk"]

This version of the group -- Johnny Moore, Charlie Thomas, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry, would be the longest-lasting of all the versions of the group managed by George Treadwell, staying together a full two years. But after "Under the Boardwalk", which went to number four, they had no more top ten hits in the US. The best they could do was scrape the top twenty with "Saturday Night at the Movies":

[Excerpt: The Drifters, "Saturday Night at the Movies"]

There were several more lineup changes, but the big change came in 1967 when George Treadwell died. His wife, Faye, took over the management of the group, and shortly after that, Charlie Thomas -- the person who had been in the group for the longest continuous time, nine years at that point, decided to leave. There were a lot more squabbles and splinter groups, and by 1970 the Drifters' career on Atlantic was over.

By this point, there were three different versions of The Drifters. There was a group called The Original Drifters, which had formed in 1958 after the first set of Drifters had been fired, and was originally made up entirely of members of the early-fifties lineups, but which was now a revolving-door group based around Bill Pinkney, the bass singer of the Clyde McPhatter lineup, and stayed that way until Pinkney's death in 2007.

Then there was a version of the Drifters that consisted of Dock Green, Charlie Thomas, and Elsbeary Hobbs, the people who had been in Ben E. King's version of the group. Charlie Thomas won the right to use the name in the USA in 1972, and continues touring with his own group there to this day, though no more of that lineup of the Drifters are with him.

And then there was a UK-based group, managed by Faye Treadwell, with Johnny Moore as lead singer. That group scored big UK hits when the group moved to the UK in 72, with re-releases of mid-sixties records that had been comparative flops at the time -- "Saturday Night at the Movies", "At the Club", and "Come On Over to My Place" all made the UK top ten in 1972, and Moore's Drifters would have nine more top ten hits with new material in the UK between 1973 and 76.

And Ben E. King, meanwhile, had signed again to Atlantic, and had a one-off top ten hit with "Supernatural Thing" in 1975:

[Excerpt: Ben E. King, "Supernatural Thing"]

But other than that he'd continued to have far less chart success than his vocal talents deserved, and in the eighties he moved to the UK and joined the UK version of the Drifters, singing his old hits on the nostalgia circuit with them, and adding more authenticity to the Johnny Moore lineup of the group.

He spent several years like that, until in 1986 his career had a sudden resurgence, when the film Stand By Me came out and his single was used as the theme. On the back of the film's success, the song reentered the top ten, twenty-five years after its initial success, and made number one in the UK. As a result, King became the first person to have hit the top ten in the US in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties -- a remarkable record for someone who had had relatively few hits. A greatest hits collection of King's records made the top twenty in the UK, as well, and King left the Drifters to once again become a solo artist.

But this is where we say goodbye to King, and to the Drifters, and to Leiber and Stoller as songwriters. The UK version of the Drifters carried on with Johnny Moore as lead singer until he died in 1998, and up to that point it was reasonable to think of that group as a real version of the Drifters, because Moore had sung with the group on hits in the fifties and sixties, and in the UK in the seventies – roughly eighty percent of records released as by The Drifters had had Moore singing on them. But after Moore's death, it gets very confusing, with the Treadwell family apparently abandoning the trademark and moving back to the US, and then changing their mind, resulting in a series of lawsuits. The current UK version of the Drifters has nobody who was in the group before 2010, and is managed by George and Faye Treadwell's daughter. They still fill medium-sized theatres on large national tours, because their audiences don't seem to care, so long as they can hear people singing "Up On the Roof" and "On Broadway", "There Goes My Baby" and "Save the Last Dance For Me". In total thirty-four different people were members of the Drifters during their time with Atlantic Records. It's the only case I know where a group identity was genuinely bigger than the members, where whoever was involved, somehow they carried on making exceptional records.

Leiber and Stoller, meanwhile, will turn up again, once more, next year, as record executives, collaborating with another figure we've seen several times before to run a record label. But this is the last record we'll look at with them as a songwriting team. We've been following their remarkable career since episode fifteen, and they would continue writing great songs for a huge variety of artists, but "Stand By Me" would be the last time they would come up with something that would change the music industry. It was the end of a truly remarkable run, and one which stands as one of the great achievements in twentieth century popular music.

And Ben E. King, who was, other than Clyde McPhatter, the only member of the Drifters to ever break away and become a solo success, spent the last twenty-nine years of his life touring as a solo artist off the renewed success of his greatest contribution to music. He died in 2015, but as long as people listen to rock, pop, soul, or R&B, there'll be people listening to "Stand By Me".

Aug 18, 2020
Episode 93: "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes
33:51

Episode ninety-three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes, and the career of the first group to have a number one on a Motown label. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Take Good Care of My Baby" by Bobby Vee.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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Erratum

After recording this, I happened to discover that in 2017 Katherine actually came out of retirement and formed a new “Marvelettes”, who recorded in the UK in 2017 with someone called “Hitsville Chalky”.

 

Resources

This week's Mixcloud playlist is split into two parts, because of the number of Marvelettes songs. Part one, and part two.

The Original Marvelettes: Motown's Mystery Girl Group by Marc Taylor is the only biography of the group. Sadly it currently goes for silly money.

Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.

 To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.

Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Katherine Anderson Schaffner.

I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.

The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown's thirty-year history.

And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 693 tracks released on Motown singles.

There is a Complete Motown Singles 1959-62 box available from Hip-O-Select with comprehensive liner notes, but if you just want the music, I recommend instead this much cheaper bare-bones box from Real Gone Music.

And this three-CD set contains the group's complete discography up to mid-1966 -- the Gladys Horton years.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Transcript

When we left the Tamla Motown family of labels, a couple of months back, they'd finally had their first big hit with Barrett Strong's "Money", and the label was starting to pull together the full creative team that would be responsible for its later successes. But while "Money" is a great record, it's not a record with what would later become known as the "Motown Sound" -- it sounds far more like a Ray Charles record than the records that would later make Motown's name.

So today, we're going to look at the first number one to come out of Motown -- a record that definitely did have the Motown sound, and which established the label as the sound of young America. Today, we're going to look at "Please Mr. Postman":

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman"]

The story of the Marvelettes starts with Gladys Horton, who lived in the small town of Inkster in Michigan. When Horton was only fourteen, she had formed a group called the Del-Rhythmettes, who made one single, "Chic-A-Boomer":

[Excerpt: The Del-Rhythmettes, "Chic-A-Boomer"]

That had got a little bit of airplay on local radio, but had otherwise been unsuccessful, and the Del-Rhythmettes had split up. But Gladys still wanted to make music, and she started looking around for other people to sing with. One who caught her eye was a young girl who would appear in the High School talent contests, named Georgia Dobbins. By the time Gladys got to high school herself, Georgia had graduated, but Gladys persuaded her to join a group she put together for her own talent contest entry. The group she formed originally jokingly named themselves the Casinyettes -- because they "can't sing yet" -- and that was the name under which they performed at the talent contest.

There was a reason that Gladys wanted Georgia for this talent contest -- this one had, as its first prize, the chance of an audition at Motown. Motown was still a small label, but it had started to have hits, and everyone in Michigan with an interest in music knew about Berry Gordy. In particular, Motown had just released "Shop Around" by the Miracles.

Smokey Robinson had written that song, and it had been released to no real effect. The record had been pulled, and another version released. THAT had had no success either, and then at three o'clock in the morning Berry Gordy had suddenly realised that the record needed a new, faster, arrangement. He'd phoned up Smokey and told him to get the group together and into the studio, before he lost the inspiration, even though it was the middle of the night. They did, and the second version of "Shop Around" was pulled and replaced with the new third version, which went to number two on the pop charts and sold a million copies:

[Excerpt: The Miracles, "Shop Around"]

So Motown were now in the big leagues, and the chance of recording for them was an exciting one, and one that the girls, and Gladys in particular, wanted.

The Casinyettes at this point consisted of Gladys, Georgia, Georgeanna Tillman, Katherine Anderson, and Juanita Cowart -- I've also seen Juanita's name reported as Wyanetta, and can't find anything which definitively says which it was. At the talent show, they sang "Maybe" by the Chantels:

[Excerpt: The Chantels, "Maybe"]

The group came fourth -- but one of their teachers, Shirley Sharpley, knew the person from Motown who was arranging the auditions, and persuaded them to offer auditions to the top five, rather than just to the winners. The Cansinyettes went to their audition, and Motown were interested, but told them they had to come up with something original before they'd be signed. They went back to Inkster and got to work. A friend of Georgia, William Garrett, had started a blues song about a postman, and Georgia worked on his idea, writing most of the lyrics and recasting it as something less bluesy.

But then Georgia had to quit the group. Her father hadn't known she was singing until she brought the record contract home for him to countersign -- as she was under twenty-one, she needed a parent to sign it, and her mother was too ill. Her father believed the entertainment industry to be sinful, and wouldn't sign. She was so depressed that she gave up singing altogether, and by her own account didn't sing a note until 1978. By the time they came back to Motown with the beginnings of a song, Georgia had been replaced by Wanda Young, though the remaining group members were still singing her song.

The song was decent, but it needed work. The group were assigned to Brian Holland, who had a listen to the song and had a brainwave. Holland and his brother Eddie were both on Motown staff at the time, but before joining Motown Holland had been in a group called the Fidelitones. The Fidelitones had recorded some tracks for Aladdin, produced by Gordy, in the late fifties but they'd never been released:

[Excerpt: The Fidelitones, "Is It Too Late?"]

Holland had stayed in touch with Freddie Gorman, another member of the group. Gorman still had musical ambitions, and he would pop into Motown every day after he finished work -- as a postman.

So when Gorman popped in that day, Holland asked him to chip in ideas for the song and use his experience to make it more realistic -- though there's nothing much in the finished song that would seem to require expertise. Gorman became one of five credited writers on the song, along with Holland, Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, and Holland's normal songwriting partner Robert Bateman, who worked with Holland as a songwriting and production team called "Brianbert". Before moving into production, Bateman had been a member of the Satintones, who had made several unsuccessful records for Motown, including this one that was a knock-off of "There Goes My Baby":

[Excerpt: The Satintones, "My Beloved"]

The Casinyettes weren't the first girl group to be signed to the label -- Motown had already signed one girl group, a group called the Primettes, who had been renamed and who had so far released two singles:

[Excerpt: The Supremes, "I Want a Guy"]

But the Supremes, as they were renamed, wouldn't become successful for several years, and were generally regarded as a joke among the Motown staff, who thought -- not entirely without reason -- that they had been signed more because Berry Gordy was attracted to Diane Ross, one of the members of the group, than because of any talent they had.

One of the girls, though, Florence Ballard, was very popular at Motown, and was generally regarded as being helpful and friendly. She worked with Gladys on her lead vocal part, and helped her craft her performance.

The production that Brian Holland crafted for the song was very heavy on the percussion -- along with piano player Popcorn Wylie, guitarist Eddie Willis, and bass player James Jamerson, the backing musicians included a percussion player, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, and two drummers -- the normal session drummer on most of the Motown recordings, Benny Benjamin, and a young man who had been a member of the last lineup of the Moonglows before Harvey Fuqua had moved over to working for the Gordy family labels, and who was now doing whatever he could around the studio, named Marvin Gaye.

There was one final change that needed to be made -- The Casinyettes was obviously a joke name, and they needed a better one. The name they were eventually given supposedly came after Berry Gordy heard them sing and said "those girls are marvels". The Marvelettes were born, and their first single was the catchiest thing Motown had put out to that point:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman"]

"Please Mr. Postman" became the second million seller from Motown, and its first number one on the pop charts. It only stayed there for one week, but that one week was all that was needed -- Motown was now a label that everyone in the industry had to notice.

And "Please Mr. Postman" was the record that saved Motown. I've talked before about how a hit record could put a small label out of business -- they had to pay for the records to be pressed up and distributed, but it would be many months before the distributors would actually pay them the money they were owed. And many distributors would not pay at all -- they reasoned that a small label wasn't going to be able to do anything about it if they didn't pay, so why bother?

The only leverage a small label with a big hit had was a second big hit. If they had another record the distributors wanted from them, then they could tell the distributors they wouldn't get it until they paid up. And after "Shop Around" sold a million copies, Motown's follow-ups had all sold poorly. They were running out of money, and they needed another hit quickly before they went bankrupt altogether.

Berry Gordy had, early on, given the label a slogan -- Create, Make, and Sell -- because he wanted to make great records and then have them sell a lot of copies -- but around this time he realised that there was no point in selling the records if they didn't get paid for them. So reasoning that "create" and "make" were near-synonyms, he changed that slogan to Create, Sell, and Collect.

By being a second million-seller for Motown, "Please Mr. Postman" ensured that they got paid for the first one. If it hadn't come along, it's possible that Motown would just be a footnote in histories of Chess Records -- "Chess also distributed a handful of records from a small Detroit label owned by Harvey Fuqua's brother-in-law, who co-wrote several hits for Jackie Wilson, before that label went bankrupt."

But as it is, the Marvelettes were now big stars. For the followup, Berry Gordy wanted to do something that was as close to the hit as possible . This would be the policy from this point on with Motown -- if someone had a hit, the same producers and songwriters would be assigned to come up with something that sounded like the hit, and the artist would only go in a different direction once they stopped having hits with their original formula. In this case, the Marvelettes' second single was designed not only to capitalise on their original hit, but on the popularity of the Twist craze, and so they released "Twistin' Postman":

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Twistin' Postman"]

"Twistin' Postman" went top forty, but it didn't do anything like as well as "Please Mr. Postman". But just as with their first single, one of the group brought in a new song which brought them back to the top ten, if not number one. This time it was Gladys, who came up with a song called "Playboy", which Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, and Mickey Stevenson rewrote, and which made number seven on the pop charts and number four on the R&B charts.

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Playboy"]

Meanwhile, Freddie Gorman had continued working with Brian Holland as well, and had put out a single under his own name, "The Day Will Come":

[Excerpt: Freddie Gorman, "The Day Will Come"]

Unfortunately, that wasn't a success, and Freddie had to continue on his post rounds. That also meant that his songwriting partnership with Holland came to an end -- Freddie kept finding that when he came round to Hitsville after work, if Brian Holland had had an idea for a song, he'd already finished it -- usually with the help of his brother Eddie and their new writing partner Lamont Dozier.

And there were problems brewing for the Marvelettes, too. They'd felt all along that they were looked down on a bit by the people from Detroit, who thought of them as hicks from the sticks because they came from Inkster. They were so self-conscious about this that it led to the first member leaving the group. They appeared on American Bandstand, and Juanita said that Detroit was a suburb of Inkster, when she'd meant to say that Inkster was a suburb of Detroit. She felt so bad about this slipup and the way she was mocked for it that she had a breakdown, and ended up leaving the group.

That didn't bother Motown too much -- when "Please Mr. Postman" had been a hit but the girls had been at school, it had been suggested that they could just send any five girls out on the road as the Marvelettes, until the girls put their foot down about that. Not only that, but at one point when Wanda had been pregnant, Motown had replaced her on the road with Florence Ballard from the Supremes -- the contracts for that tour had specified five Marvelettes, the Supremes were the least successful group on Motown at the time, and the girls got on well with Florence. If Motown were willing to do that, they were definitely willing to have the group just carry on with one member gone, and just make sure the contracts said there would be four Marvelettes.

They carried on as a four-piece group, and had a few more records, mostly written and produced by Smokey Robinson but with others like Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye sometimes contributing, but while those records did okay on the R&B charts, they didn't have much success on the pop charts, mostly getting to around number fifty. At one point, Motown started to wonder if they needed to change things up a little -- they put out a single by the group with Gladys and Wanda singing a dual lead, and with the group joined by Motown's in-house backing vocal group The Andantes. The record was put out under the name The Darnells, but was unsuccessful:

[Excerpt: The Darnells, "Too Hurt Too Cry, Too Much In Love To Say Goodbye”]

Unfortunately for them, they missed the chance at a really big hit. Holland, Dozier, and Holland had written a song for them, but Gladys didn't like it, she thought it was too simplistic, and so they took it to the group who were still known within Motown as the no-hit Supremes. We'll be looking at "Where Did Our Love Go?" in more detail next year.

Eddie Holland did cowrite a hit for them with Norman Whitfield, though -- though it wasn't a monster hit like "Where Did Our Love Go?", it did give all the girls a chance to have a solo spot, a rarity for them:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Too Many Fish in the Sea"]

That took them back into the top thirty, and made the top five on the R&B chart. It would be the last hit that they would have with Georgeanna in the group, though -- she'd been diagnosed with sickle-cell anaemia as a child, and the constant strain of touring made her more ill.

The tours had been a shock for all of them, to be honest. Their first major national tour was the first Motor Town Revue in 1962 -- a tour with a lineup that seems preposterously good these days. All of Motown's major acts, and several acts that weren't yet major but soon would be, were on the same bill -- the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Marv Johnson, Stevie Wonder, the Contours, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, and Singing Sammy Ward.

The girls had grown up in Michigan, and while they had an intellectual understanding that the South was different, they were unprepared for the realities of segregation, of not being able to use public toilets or eat in the same restaurants that white people did. That was awful enough, but there was also the fact that all those acts were on the same bus. And starting the year before, there had been the phenomenon of Freedom Riders -- black people from the North who had been coming down to the south to sit in whites-only seats on Greyhound buses, to protest segregation.

In several places in the South, the sight of a lot of black people on a bus brought the Freedom Riders to mind, and people actually took pot-shots at the bus. A couple of years living like that took an immense toll on Georgeanna's health, and she started suffering from unexplained fatigue. Eventually it was realised that she had lupus, an autoimmune disease which is now largely treatable if not curable, but at the time was often a death sentence. She retired from music, going to work for Motown as a secretary instead. She died in 1980, aged only thirty-six.

The remaining three carried on as a trio, and they were about to have a second commercial wind. After a couple of flop follow-ups to "Too Many Fish in the Sea", Smokey Robinson took over their production, and decided to start using Wanda as the lead vocalist, rather than Gladys, who had sung lead on their hits up to that point. "Don't Mess With Bill", their first single of 1966, became their first top ten pop hit since "Playboy" in early 1962:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Don't Mess With Bill"]

Robinson also wrote the marvellous "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" for the group:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game"]

Or, at least, he wrote it for Wanda. By this point, while the records were getting released as by "the Marvelettes", Robinson was only using Wanda for lead vocals, and having the Andantes sing all the backing vocals. The explanation for this was generally that the group were on tour all the time, and it was easier to make the records without them and then get Wanda just to sing the lead, and the other members reluctantly accepted that, but it rankled.

There were other problems, too. Juanita and Georgeanna had been the glue holding the group together -- they'd been the ones who had been friends with all the others. Katherine, Gladys, and Wanda, hadn't known each other before forming the group, and they started to discover that they weren't hugely fond of each other now.

At first, they still worked well together, each having their assigned area of responsibility -- Gladys was a combination musical director and choreographer, working out the group's setlists and dance moves, Katherine was the spokesperson in interviews, and looked after the group's money, and Wanda was the lead singer. This worked for a while, but as Katherine would later put it, when there had been five of them, they'd been friends. Now they were somewhere between acquaintances and co-workers.

And then in 1967, Gladys decided to leave the group. This made the group an even lower priority for Motown -- while Wanda was by now the undisputed lead singer, within Motown they were thought of as Gladys' group, as she'd been the leader in the beginning.

Motown did decide to get someone else in to replace her. They could cope with the group going from five members to four, and from four to three -- three women, after all, was still a girl group. But once they'd got down to two members, they needed a third. Harvey Fuqua suggested Ann Bogan, who he'd discovered a while before and recorded a few duets with:

[Excerpt: Harvey and Ann, "What Can You Do Now?"]

Ann was a sort of general utility singer around Motown -- she'd sung with the Andantes and the Challengers Three, and she'd also gone out on the road with Marvin Gaye, subbing for his duet partner Tammi Terrell, when the latter had become sick with the brain tumour that eventually killed her.

Ann replaced Gladys, and the group made two further albums, and Ann was at least allowed to sing on album tracks. The group continued having R&B hits, but while they kept releasing great records like "Destination: Anywhere", they were by now barely scraping the hot one hundred on the pop charts:

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Destination: Anywhere"]

And Wanda was having problems. She'd been doing too much cocaine and drinking too much, and was starting to act strangely. Then in 1969 her younger sister was shot dead, by her other sister's estranged husband (who seems to have thought he was shooting the other sister), and to compound matters while the group were on tour in Europe someone spiked Wanda's drink. She was never the same again, and has had mental health problems for the last fifty years. The group split up, though nothing was announced -- they just didn't get booked on any more tours, and went their separate ways.

Bogan went on to join a group called Love, Peace, and Happiness, who had a minor hit with a song that had been, coincidentally, co-written by Katherine, who wrote it for Gladys Knight:

[Excerpt: Love, Peace, and Happiness, "I Don't Want to Do Wrong"]

That group then joined with Harvey Fuqua in a seventeen-piece funk band called New Birth, with Bogan singing on their hit "I Can Understand It":

[Excerpt: New Birth, "I Can Understand It"]

Motown decided to give the Marvelettes one more try, and in 1970 they got Wanda in to record an album titled The Return of the Marvelettes. This was essentially a solo album, produced by Smokey Robinson, but they did try to get Katherine to appear on the cover photograph. She told the label that if she wasn't good enough to sing on the record, she wasn't good enough to appear on the cover, either, and so the cover, like the record, only featured Wanda of the original Marvelettes.

Over the next few decades, various groups toured under the Marvelettes name, none featuring any of the original members -- Motown, rather than the women, had owned the group name, and had sold it off. Gladys, Katherine, and Juanita were busy being homemakers, and Wanda and Georgeanna were too ill to consider a music career.

Then in the late 1980s, Ian Levine entered the picture. Levine is a British DJ who at the time owned and ran Motor City Records, which put out new recordings by people who had released records on Motown in the sixties.

He got over a hundred former Motown artists to record for him, and one album he put out was a Marvelettes reunion of sorts -- he managed to persuade Gladys and Wanda out of retirement to make a new Marvelettes album with two new backing vocalists, Echo Johnson and Jean Maclean. The new record was a mixture of remakes of their old hits and new songs by Levine, like "Secret Love Affair":

[Excerpt: The Marvelettes, "Secret Love Affair"]

Wanda was still too ill to perform regularly, but Gladys went out on tour on the oldies circuit, singing her old hits as "Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes", as none of the group owned the original name. She and Katherine were in the process of suing to regain the name under the Truth in Music Act, when she died of a stroke in 2011.

Of the other Marvelettes, Katherine and Juanita are retired, though Katherine still gives regular interviews about her time with the group, and Wanda's mental health has apparently improved enough in the last few years that she can perform again. They're all apparently happy with their situations now, and don't miss the old life.

They do miss the recognition, though. For the twenty-fifth, fortieth, fiftieth, and sixtieth anniversary celebrations of Motown, TV specials were produced featuring many of the label's acts, and honouring the label's history. None of the members of the first group to hit number one on the label were invited to be part of any of them.

Aug 10, 2020
Episode 92: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by the Tokens
40:20

Episode ninety-two of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens, and at a seventy-year-long story of powerful people repeatedly ripping off less powerful people, then themselves being ripped off in turn by more powerful people, and at how racism meant that a song that earned fifteen million dollars for other people paid its composer ten shillings. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis.

 

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 

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ERRATUM: I say “Picture in Your Wallet” when I mean “Picture in My Wallet”.

 

Resources

 

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

 

Rian Malan's 2000 article on Solomon Linda and The Lion Sleeps Tonight can be found here.

 

This 2019 article brings the story of the legal disputes up to date.

 

The information about isicathamiya comes from Nightsong: Performance, Power and Practice in South Africa by Veit Erlmann.

 

This collection of early isicathamiya and Mbube music includes several tracks by the Evening Birds.

 

Information on Pete Seeger and the Weavers primarily comes from Pete Seeger vs. The Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist by Edward Renehan.

 

This collection has everything the Weavers recorded before their first split.

 

This is the record of one of the legal actions taken during Weiss' dispute with Folkways in the late eighties and early nineties.

 

Information on the Tokens came from This is My Story.

 

There are, surprisingly, no budget compilations of the Tokens' music, but this best-of has everything you need.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

Today we're going to look at a song that became a worldwide hit in multiple versions, and which I can guarantee everyone listening to this podcast has heard many times. A song that has been recorded by REM, that featured in a Disney musical, and which can be traced back from a white doo-wop group through a group of Communist folk singers to a man who was exploited by racist South African society -- a man who invented an entire genre of music, which got named after his most famous song, but who never saw any of the millions that his song earned for others, and died in poverty. We're going to look at the story of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight":

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"]

 

The story of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is a story that goes back to 1939, when a singer called Solomon Linda was performing in South Africa. Linda was a Zulu, and thus in the racist regime of South Africa was largely without rights.

Linda was, in the thirties and forties, probably the single most important performer in South Africa. He was the leader of a vocal group called the Evening Birds, who were the most popular isicathamiya group in South Africa.

 

Isicathamiya -- and I hope I'm pronouncing that right -- was a form of music which has a lot of parallels to some of the American vocal group music we've looked at, largely because it comes from some of the same roots. I don't pretend to be an expert on the music by any means -- I'll put a link on the podcast webpage to a book which has far more information about this -- but as best I understand it, it's a music created when rural black people were forcibly displaced in the late nineteenth century and forced to find work in the city.

 

Those people combined elements of traditional Zulu music with two more Western elements. The first was the religious music that they heard from Church missions, and the second was American minstrel songs, heard from troupes of minstrels that toured the country, especially a black performer named Orpheus McAdoo, who led a troupe of minstrel and gospel performers who toured South Africa a lot in the late nineteenth century.

 

This new style of music was usually performed a capella, though sometimes there might be a single instrument added, and it gained a relatively formalised structure -- it would almost always have very specific parts based on European choral music, with parts for a tenor, a soprano, an alto, and a bass, in strict four-part harmony -- though the soprano and alto parts would be sung in falsetto by men. It would usually be based around the same I, IV, and V chords that most Western popular music was based on, and the Zulu language would often be distorted to fit Western metres, though the music was still more freeform than most of the Western music of the time.

 

This music started to be recorded in around 1930, and you can get an idea of the stylistic range from two examples. Here's "Umteto we Land Act" by Caluza's Double Quartet:

 

[Excerpt, "Umteto We Land Act", Caluza's Double Quartet"]

 

While here's the Bantu Glee Singers, singing "Jim Takata Kanjani":

 

[Excerpt: The Bantu Glee Singers, "Jim Takata Kanjani"]

 

Solomon Linda's group, the Evening Birds, sang in this style, but incorporated a number of innovations. One was that they dressed differently -- they wore matching striped suits, rather than the baggy trousers that the older groups wore -- but also, they had extra bass singers. Up until this point, there would be four singers or multiples of four, with one singer singing each part. The Evening Birds, at Linda's instigation, had a much thicker bass part, and in some ways prefigured the sound of doo-wop that would take over in America twenty years later.

 

Their music was often political -- while the South African regime was horribly oppressive in the thirties, it wasn't as oppressive as it later became, and a certain amount of criticism of the government was allowed in ways it wouldn't be in future decades.

 

At the time, the main way in which this music would be performed was at contests with several groups, most of whom would be performing the same repertoire. An audience member would offer to pay one of the groups a few pennies to start singing -- and then another audience member, when they got bored with the first group, would offer that group some more money to stop singing, before someone else offered another group some money. The Evening Birds quickly became the centre of this scene, and between 1933 and 1948, when they split, they were the most popular group around. As with many of the doo-wop groups they so resembled, they had a revolving lineup with members coming and going, and joining other groups like the Crocodiles and the Dundee Wandering Singers. There was even a second group called the Evening Birds, with a singer who sounded like Linda, and who had a long-running feud with Linda's group.

 

But it wasn't this popularity that got the Evening Birds recorded. It was because Solomon Linda got a day job packing records for Gallo Records, the only record label in South Africa, which owned the only recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa. While he was working in their factory, packing records, he managed to get the group signed to make some records themselves. In the group's second session, they recorded a song that Linda had written, called "Mbube", which means "lion", and was about hunting the lions that would feed on his family's cattle when he was growing up:

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, "Mbube"]

 

There's some dispute as to whether Linda wrote the whole song, or whether it's based on a traditional Zulu song -- I tend to fall on the side of Linda having written the whole thing, because very often when people say something is based on a traditional song, what they actually mean is "I don't believe that an uneducated or black person can have written a whole song".

 

But whatever the circumstances of most of the composition, one thing is definitely known – Linda was the one who came up with this falsetto melody:

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, "Mbube"]

 

The song became massively, massively popular -- so popular that eventually the master copy of the record disintegrated, as they'd pressed so many copies from it. It gave its name to a whole genre of music -- in the same way that late fifties American vocal groups are doo-wop groups, South African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo are, more than eighty years later, still known as "mbube groups".

 

Linda and the Evening Birds would make many more records, like "Anodu Gonda":

 

[Excerpt: Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, "Anodu Gonda"]

 

But it was "Mbube" that was their biggest hit. It sold a hundred thousand copies on Gallo Records -- and earned Solomon Linda, its writer and lead singer, ten shillings. The South African government at the time estimated that a black family could survive on thirty-seven shillings and sixpence a week. So for writing the most famous melody ever to come out of Africa, Linda got a quarter of a week's poverty-level wages. When Linda died in 1962, he had a hundred rand -- equivalent then to fifty British pounds -- in his bank account. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

And, a little over a year before his death, his song had become an international number one hit record. To see why, we have to go back to 1952, and a folk group called the Weavers.

 

Pete Seeger, the most important member of the Weavers, is a figure who is hugely important in the history of the folk music rebirth of the 1960s. Like most of the white folk singers of the period, he had an incredibly privileged background -- he had attended Harvard as a classmate of John F Kennedy -- but he also had very strong socialist principles. He had been friends with both Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly in the forties, and he dedicated his later career to the same kind of left-wing activism that Guthrie had taken part in. 

 

Indeed, Guthrie and Seeger had both been members of the Almanac Singers, a folk group of the forties who had been explicitly pro-Communist. They'd been pacifists up until the Soviet entry into the Second World War, at which point they had immediately turned round and become the biggest cheerleaders of the war:

 

[Excerpt: The Almanac Singers, "Round and Round Hitler's Grave"]

 

The Almanac Singers had a revolving door membership, including everyone from Burl Ives to Cisco Houston at one point or another, but the core of the group had been Seeger and Lee Hays, and those two had eventually formed another group, more or less as a continuation of the Almanac Singers, but with a less explicitly political agenda -- they would perform Guthrie and Lead Belly songs, and songs they wrote themselves, but not be tied to performing music that fit the ideological line of the Communist Party.

 

The Weavers immediately had far more commercial success than the Almanac Singers ever had, and recorded such hits as their version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene", with orchestration by Gordon Jenkins:

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, "Goodnight Irene"]

 

And one of the hits they recorded was a version of "Mbube", which they titled "Wimoweh".

 

Alan Lomax, the folk song collector, had discovered somewhere a big stack of African records, which were about to be thrown out, and he thought to himself that those would be exactly the kind of thing that Pete Seeger might want, and gave them to him. Seeger loved the recording of "Mbube", but neither man had any clear idea of what the song was or where it came from. Seeger couldn't make out the lyrics -- he thought Linda was singing something like "Wimoweh", and he created a new arrangement of the song, taking Linda's melody from the end of the song and singing it repeatedly throughout:

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, "Wimoweh"]

 

At the time, the Weavers were signed as songwriters to Folkways, a company that was set up to promote folk music, but was part of a much bigger conglomerate, The Richmond Organisation. When they were informed that the Weavers were going to record "Wimoweh", Folkways contacted the South African record company and were informed that "Mbube" was a traditional folk song. So Folkways copyrighted "Mbube", as "Wimoweh", in the name Paul Campbell -- a collective pseudonym that the Weavers used for their arrangements of traditional songs.

 

Shortly after this, Gallo realised their mistake and tried to copyright "Mbube" themselves in the USA, under Solomon Linda's name, only to be told that Folkways already had the copyright. Now, in the 1950s the USA was not yet a signatory to the Berne Convention, the international agreement on copyright laws, and so it made no difference that in South Africa the song had been copyrighted under Linda's name -- in the USA it was owned by Folkways, because they had registered it first.

 

But Folkways wanted the rights for other countries, too, and so they came to an agreement with Gallo that would be to Gallo's immense disadvantage. Because they agreed that they would pay Gallo a modest one-off fee, and "let" Gallo have the rights to the song in a few territories in Africa, and in return Folkways would get the copyright everywhere else. Gallo agreed, and so "Mbube" by Solomon Linda and "Wimoweh" by Paul Campbell became separate copyrights -- Gallo had, without realising it, given up their legal rights to the song throughout the world.

 

"Wimoweh" by the Weavers went to number six on the charts, but then Senator McCarthy stepped in. Both Pete Seeger and Lee Hays had been named as past Communist Party members, and were called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee to testify. Hays stood on his fifth amendment rights, refusing to testify against himself, but Seeger took the riskier option of simply refusing on first amendment grounds. He said, quite rightly, that his political activities, voting history, and party membership were nobody's business except his, and he wasn't going to testify about them in front of Congress. He spent much of the next decade with the threat of prison hanging over his head.

 

As a result, the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and TV, as was Seeger as a solo artist. "Wimoweh" dropped off the charts, and the group's recording catalogue was deleted. The group split up, though they did get back together again a few years later, and managed to have a hit live album of a concert they performed at Carnegie Hall in 1955, which also included "Wimoweh":

 

[Excerpt: The Weavers, "Wimoweh (live at Carnegie Hall)"]

 

Seeger left the group permanently a couple of years after that, when they did a commercial for tobacco -- the group were still blacklisted from the radio and TV, and saw it as an opportunity to get some exposure, but Seeger didn't approve of tobacco or advertising, and quit the group because of it -- though because he'd made a commitment to the group, he did appear on the commercial, not wanting to break his word. At his suggestion, he was replaced by Erik Darling, from another folk group, The Tarriers. Darling was an Ayn Rand fan and a libertarian, so presumably didn't have the same attitudes towards advertising.

 

As you might have gathered from this, Seeger was a man of strong principles, and so you might be surprised that he would take credit for someone else's song. As it turned out, he didn't. When he discovered that Solomon Linda had written the song, that it wasn't just a traditional song, he insisted that all future money he would have made from it go to Linda, and sent Linda a cheque for a thousand dollars for the money he'd already earned. But Seeger was someone who didn't care much about money at all -- he donated the vast majority of his money to worthy causes, and lived frugally, and he assumed that the people he was working with would behave honourably and keep to agreements, and didn't bother checking on them. They didn't, and Linda saw nothing from them.

 

Over the years after 1952, "Wimoweh" became something of a standard in America, with successful versions like the one by Yma Sumac:

 

[Excerpt: Yma Sumac, "Wimoweh"]

 

And in the early sixties it was in the repertoire of almost every folk group, being recorded by groups like the Kingston Trio, who had taken the Weavers' place as the most popular folk group in the country.

 

And then the Tokens entered the picture. We've mentioned the Tokens before, in the episode on "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" -- they were the group, also known as the Linc-Tones, that was led by Carole King's friend Neil Sedaka, and who'd recorded "While I Dream" with Sedaka on lead vocals:

 

[Excerpt: Neil Sedaka and the Tokens, "While I Dream"]

 

After recording that, one member of the group had gone off to college, and been replaced by the falsetto singer Jay Siegel. But then the group had split up, and Sedaka had gone on to a very successful career as a solo performer and a songwriter. 

But Siegel and one of the other group members, Hank Medress, had carried on performing together, and had formed a new group, Darrell and the Oxfords, with two other singers. That group had made a couple of records for Roulette Records, one of which, "Picture in Your Wallet", was a local hit:

 

[Excerpt: Darrell and the Oxfords, "Picture in Your Wallet"]

 

But that group had also split up. So the duo invited yet another pair of singers to join them -- Mitch Margo, who was around their age, in his late teens, and his twelve-year-old brother Phil. The group reverted to their old name of The Tokens, and recorded a song called "Tonight I Fell In Love", which they leased to a small label called Warwick Records:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, "Tonight I Fell In Love"]

 

Warwick Records sat on the track for six months before releasing it. When they did, in 1961, it went to number fifteen on the charts. But by then, the group had signed to RCA Records, and were now working with Hugo and Luigi, the production duo who you might remember from the episode on "Shout".

 

The group put out a couple of flop singles on RCA, including a remake of the Moonglows' "Sincerely":

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, "Sincerely"]

 

But after those two singles flopped, the group made the record that would define them for the rest of their lives.

The Tokens had been performing "Wimoweh" in their stage act, and they played it for Hugo and Luigi, who thought there was something there, but they didn't think it would be commercial as it was. They decided to get a professional writer in to fix the song up, and called in George David Weiss, a writer with whom they'd worked before. The three of them had previously co-written "Can't Help Falling In Love" for Elvis Presley, basing it on a traditional melody, which is what they thought they were doing here:

 

[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, "Can't Help Falling In Love"]

 

Weiss took the song home and reworked it. Weiss decided to find out what the original lyrics had been about, and apparently asked the South African consulate, who told him that it was about lions, so he came up with new lyrics -- "in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight".

 

Hugo and Luigi came up with an arrangement for Weiss' new version of the song, and brought in an opera singer named Anita Darian to replicate the part that Yma Sumac had sung on her version. The song was recorded, and released on the B-side of the Tokens' third flop in a row:

 

[Excerpt: The Tokens, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"]

 

As it was believed by everyone involved that the song was a traditional one, the new song was copyrighted in the names of Weiss, Hugo, and Luigi. And as it was released as a B-side of a flop single, nobody cared at first.

 

But then a DJ flipped the record and started playing the B-side, and suddenly the song was a hit. Indeed, it went to number one. And it didn't just go to number one, it became a standard, recorded over the years by everyone from Brian Eno to Billy Joel, The New Christy Minstrels to They Might Be Giants.

 

Obviously, the publishers of "Wimoweh", who knew that the song wasn't a traditional piece at all, wanted to get their share of the money. However, the owner of the publishing company was also a good friend of Weiss -- and Weiss was someone who had a lot of influence in the industry, and who nobody wanted to upset, and so they came to a very amicable agreement. The three credited songwriters would stay credited as the songwriters and keep all the songwriting money -- after all, Pete Seeger didn't want it, and the publishers were only under a moral obligation to Solomon Linda, not a legal one -- but the Richmond Organisation would get the publishing money.

 

Everyone seemed to be satisfied with the arrangement, and Solomon Linda's song went on earning a lot of money for a lot of white men he never met.

 

The Tokens tried to follow up with a version of an actual African folk song, "Bwa Nina", but that wasn't a hit, and nor was a version of "La Bamba". While they continued their career for decades, the only hit they had as performers was in 1973, by which point Hank Medress had left and the other three had changed their name to Cross Country and had a hit with a remake of "In the Midnight Hour":

 

[Excerpt: Cross Country, "The Midnight Hour"]

 

I say that was the only hit they had as performers, because they went into record production themselves. There they were far more successful, and as a group they produced records like the Chiffons' "He's So Fine", making them the first vocal group to produce a hit for another vocal group:

 

[Excerpt: The Chiffons, "He's So Fine"]

 

That song would, of course, generate its own famous authorial dispute case in later years. After Hank Medress left the group, he worked as a producer on his own, producing hits for Tony Orlando and Dawn, and also producing one of the later hit versions of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", Robert John's version, which made number three in 1972:

 

[Excerpt: Robert John, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"]

 

Today there are two touring versions of the Tokens, one led by Jay Siegel and one by Phil Margo.

 

But while in 1961 the Richmond Organisation, Hugo and Luigi, and George Weiss all seemed happy with their agreement, things started to go wrong in 1989.

 

American copyright law has had several changes over the years, and nothing of what I'm saying applies now, but for songs written before 1978 and the first of the Mickey Mouse copyright extensions, the rule used to be that a song would be in copyright for twenty-eight years. The writer could then renew it for a second twenty-eight-year term. (The rule is now that songs published in America remain in copyright until seventy years after the writer's death). 

 

And it's specifically the *writer* who could renew it for that second term, not the publishers. George Weiss filed notice that he was going to renew the copyright when the twenty-eight-year term expired, and that he wasn't going to let the Richmond Organisation publish the song.

 

As soon as the Richmond Organisation heard about this, they took Weiss to court, saying that he couldn't take the publishing rights away from them, because the song was based on "Wimoweh", which they owned. Weiss argued that if the song was based on "Wimoweh", the copyright should have reflected that for the twenty-eight years that the Richmond Organisation owned it. They'd signed papers agreeing that Weiss and Hugo and Luigi were the writers, and if they'd had a problem with that they should have said so back in 1961.

 

The courts sided with Weiss, but they did say that the Richmond Organisation might have had a bit of a point about the song's similarity to "Wimoweh", so they had to pay a small amount of money to Solomon Linda's family.

 

And the American writers getting the song back coincided with two big boosts in the income from the song. First, R.E.M recorded a song called "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", on their album Automatic For the People (a record we will definitely be talking about in 2026, assuming I'm still around and able to do the podcast by then). The album was one of the biggest records of the decade, and on the song, Michael Stipe sang a fragment of Solomon Linda's melody:

 

[Excerpt: R.E.M. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"]

 

The owners of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" took legal action about that, and got themselves credited as co-writers of R.E.M.'s song, and the group also had to record "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", releasing it as a B-side to the hit single version of "Sidewinder":

 

[Excerpt: R.E.M. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"]

 

Even better from their point of view, the song was featured in the Disney film The Lion King, which on its release in 1994 became the second highest-grossing film of all time and the most successful animated film ever, and in its Broadway adaptation, which became the most successful Broadway show of all time.

 

And in 2000, Rian Malan, a South African journalist based in America, who mostly dedicated his work to expunging his ancestral guilt -- he's a relative of Daniel Malan, the South African dictator who instituted the apartheid system, and of Magnus Malan, one of the more monstrous ministers in the regime in its last days of the eighties and early nineties -- found out that while Solomon Linda's family had been getting some money, it amounted at most to a couple of thousand dollars a year, shared between Linda's daughters. At the same time, Malan estimated that over the years the song had generated something in the region of fifteen million dollars for its American copyright owners.

 

Malan published an article about this, and just before that, the daughters got a minor windfall -- Pete Seeger noticed a six thousand dollar payment, which came to him when a commercial used "Wimoweh", rather than "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". He realised that he'd been receiving the royalties for "Wimoweh" all along, even though he'd asked that they be sent to Linda, so he totalled up how much he'd earned from the song over the years, which came to twelve thousand dollars, and he sent a cheque for that amount to Linda's daughters.

 

Those daughters were living in such poverty that in 2001, one of the four died of AIDS -- a disease which would have been completely treatable if she'd been able to afford the anti-retroviral medication to treat it.

 

The surviving sisters were told that the copyright in "Mbube" should have reverted to them in the eighties, and that they had a very good case under South African law to get a proper share of the rights to both "Wimoweh" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

 

They just needed to find someone in South Africa that they could sue. Abilene Music, the current owners of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", were based in the USA and had no assets in South Africa. Suing them would be pointless.

But they could sue someone else:

 

[Excerpt: Timon and Pumbaa, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"]

 

Disney had assets in South Africa. Lots of them. And they'd used Solomon Linda's song in their film, which under South African law would be copyright infringement. It would even be possible, if the case went really badly for Disney, that Linda's family could get total ownership of all Disney assets in South Africa.

 

So in 2006, Disney came to an out of court settlement with Linda's family, and they appear to have pressured Abilene Music to do the same thing. Under South African law, "Mbube" would go out of copyright by 2012, but it was agreed that Linda's daughters would receive royalties on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" until 2017, even after the South African copyright had expired, and they would get a lump sum from Disney. The money they were owed would be paid into a trust.

 

After 2017, they would still get money from "Wimoweh", but not from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", whose rights would revert fully to its American owners.

 

Unfortunately, most of the money they got seems to have gone on legal bills. The three surviving sisters each received, in total, about eighty-three thousand dollars over the ten-year course of the agreement after those bills, which is much, much, more than they were getting before, but only a fraction of what the song would have earned them if they'd been paid properly.

 

In 2017, the year the agreement expired, Disney announced they were making a photorealistic CGI remake of The Lion King. That, too, featured "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and that, too, became the most successful animated film of all time.

Under American copyright law, "Wimoweh" will remain in copyright until 2047, unless further changes are made to the law. Solomon Linda's family will continue to receive royalties on that song. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", the much more successful song, will remain in copyright until 2057, and the money from that will mostly go to Claire Weiss-Creatore, who was George Weiss' third wife, and who after he died in 2010 became the third wife of Luigi Creatore, of Hugo and Luigi, who died himself in 2015. Solomon Linda's daughters won't see a penny of it.

 

According to George Weiss' obituary in the Guardian, he "was a familiar figure at congressional hearings into copyright reform and music piracy, testifying as to the vital importance of intellectual property protection for composers".

 

Aug 02, 2020
Episode 91: "The Twist" by Chubby Checker
36:22

Episode ninety-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "The Twist" by Chubby Checker, and how the biggest hit single ever had its roots in hard R&B. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Viens Danser le Twist" by Johnny Hallyday, a cover of a Chubby Checker record that became the first number one for France's biggest rock star.

 

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

 

Also, people have asked me to start selling podcast merchandise, so you can now buy T-shirts from https://500-songs.teemill.com/. That store will be updated semi-regularly.

 

----more----

 

Resources

 

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. 

 

Much of the information in this episode comes from The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World by Jim Dawson. 

 

This collection of Hank Ballard's fifties singles is absolutely essential for any lover of R&B.

 

And this four-CD box set contains all Chubby Checker's pre-1962 recordings, plus a selection of other Twist hits from 1961 and 62, including recordings by Johnny Hallyday, Bill Haley, Vince Taylor, and others.

 

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

 

Today we're going to look at a record that achieved a feat that's unique in American history. It is the only non-Christmas-themed record -- ever -- to go to number one on the Billboard pop charts, drop off, and go back to number one again later. It's a record that, a year after it went to number one for the first time, started a craze that would encompass everyone from teenagers in Philadelphia to the first lady of the United States.

 

We're going to look at Chubby Checker, and at "the Twist", and how a B-side by a washed-up R&B group became the most successful record in chart history:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, "The Twist"]

 

One of the groups that have been a perennial background player in our story so far has been Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. We talked about them most in the episode on "The Wallflower", which was based on their hit "Work With Me Annie", and they've cropped up in passing in a number of other places, most recently in the episode on Jackie Wilson. By 1958, though they were largely a forgotten group. Their style had been rooted in the LA R&B sound that had been pioneered by Johnny Otis, and which we talked so much about in the first year or so of this podcast. That style had been repeatedly swept away by the newer sounds that had come out of Memphis, Chicago, and New York, and they were yesterday's news. They hadn't had a hit in three years, and they were worried they were going to be dropped by their record label.

 

But they were still a popular live act, and they were touring regularly, and in Florida (some sources say they were in Tampa, others Miami) they happened to play on the same bill as a gospel group called the Sensational Nightingales, who were one of the best gospel acts on the circuit:

 

[Excerpt: The Sensational Nightingales, "Morning Train"]

 

The Sensational Nightingales had a song, and they were looking for a group to sing it. They couldn't sing it themselves -- it was a secular song, and they were a gospel group -- but they knew that it could be a success if someone did. The song was called "The Twist", and it was based around a common expression from R&B songs that was usually used to mean a generic dance, though it would sometimes be used as a euphemism for sexual activity. There was, though, a specific dance move that was known as the twist, which was a sort of thrusting, grinding move. (It's difficult to get details of exactly what that move involved these days, as it wasn't a formalised thing at all). Twisting wasn't a whole dance itself, it was a movement that people included in other dances.

 

Twisting in this sense had been mentioned in several songs. For example, in one of Etta James' sequels to "The Wallflower", she had sung:

 

[Excerpt: Etta James, "Good Rockin' Daddy"]

 

There had been a lot of songs with lines like that, over the years, and the Sensational Nightingales had written a whole song along those lines. They'd first taken it to Joe Cook, of Little Joe and the Thrillers, who had had a recent pop hit with "Peanuts":

 

[Excerpt: Little Joe and the Thrillers, "Peanuts"]

 

But the Sensational Nightingales were remembering an older song, "Let's Do the Slop", that had been an R&B hit for the group in 1954:

 

[Excerpt: Little Joe and the Thrillers, "Let's Do the Slop"]

 

That song was very similar to the one by the Nightingales', which suggested that Little Joe might be the right person to do their song, but when Little Joe demoed it, he was dissuaded from releasing it by his record label, Okeh, because they thought it sounded too dirty. So instead the Nightingales decided to offer the song to the Midnighters.

 

Hank Ballard listened to the song and liked it, but he thought the melody needed tightening up. The song as the Sensational Nightingales sang it was a fifteen-bar blues, and fifteen bars is an awkward, uncommercial, number. So he and the Midnighters' guitarist Cal Green took the song that the Nightingales sang, and fit the lyrics to a pre-existing twelve-bar melody.

 

The melody they used was one they'd used previously -- on a song called "Is Your Love For Real?":

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Is Your Love For Real?"]

 

But this was one of those songs whose melody had a long ancestry. "Is Your Love For Real?" had been inspired by a track by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, "Whatcha Gonna Do?":

 

[Excerpt, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, "Whatcha Gonna Do?"]

 

That song is credited as having been written by Ahmet Ertegun, but listening to the gospel song "Whatcha Gonna Do?" by the Radio Four, from a year or so earlier, shows a certain amount of influence, shall we say, on the later song:

 

[Excerpt: The Radio Four, "Whatcha Gonna Do?"]

 

Incidentally, it took more work than it should to track down that song, simply because it's impossible to persuade search engines that a search for The Radio Four, the almost-unknown fifties gospel group, is not a search for Radio Four, the popular BBC radio station.

 

Initially Ballard and Green took that melody and the twist lyrics, and set them to a Jimmy Reed style blues beat, but by the time they took the song into the studio, in November 1958, they'd changed it for a more straightforward beat, and added the intro they'd previously used on the song "Tore Up Over You":

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Tore Up Over You"]

 

They apparently also changed the lyrics significantly -- there exists an earlier demo of the song, recorded as a demo for VeeJay when Ballard wasn't sure that Syd Nathan would renew his contract, with very different, more sexually suggestive, lyrics, which are apparently those that were used in the Sensational Nightingales' version.

 

Either way, the finished song didn't credit the Nightingales, or Green – who ended up in prison for two years for marijuana possession around this time, and missed out on almost all of this story – or any of the writers of the songs that Ballard lifted from. It was released, with Ballard as the sole credited writer, as the B-side of a ballad called "Teardrops on Your Letter", but DJs flipped the single, and this went to number sixteen on the R&B chart:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "The Twist"]

 

And that should have been the end of the matter, and seemed like it would be, for a whole year. "The Twist" was recorded in late 1958, came out in very early 1959, and was just one of many minor R&B hits the Midnighters had. But then a confluence of events made that minor R&B hit into a major craze. The first of these events was that Ballard and the Midnighters released another dance-themed song, "Finger-Poppin' Time", which became a much bigger hit for them, thanks in part to an appearance on Dick Clark's TV show American Bandstand:

 

[Excerpt: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Finger-Poppin' Time"]

 

The success of that saw "The Twist" start to become a minor hit again, and it made the lower reaches of the chart.

 

The second event was also to do with Dick Clark. American Bandstand was at the time the biggest music show on TV -- at the time it ran for ninety minutes every weekday afternoon, and it was shown live, with a studio audience consisting almost entirely of white teenagers. Clark was very aware of what had happened to Alan Freed when Freed had shown Frankie Lymon dancing with a white girl on his show, and wasn't going to repeat Freed's mistakes.

 

But Clark knew that most of the things that would become cool were coming from black kids, and so there were several regulars in the audience who Clark knew went to black clubs and learned the latest dance moves. Clark would then get those teenagers to demonstrate those moves, while pretending they'd invented them themselves. Several minor dance crazes had started this way, and in 1960 Clark noticed what he thought might become another one.

 

To understand the dance that became the Twist, we have to go back to the late thirties, and to episode four of this podcast, the one on "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie". If you can remember that episode, we talked there about a dance that was performed in the Savoy Ballroom in New York in the late thirties, called the Lindy Hop.

 

There were two parts of the Lindy Hop. One of those was a relatively formalised dance, with the partners holding each other, swinging each other around, and so on. That part of the dance was later adopted by white people, and renamed the jitterbug. But there was another part of the dance, known as the breakaway, where the two dancers would separate and show off their own individual moves before coming back together. That would often involve twisting in the old sense, along with a lot of other movements. The breakaway part of the Lindy Hop was never really taken up by white culture, but it continued in black clubs.

 

And these teenagers had copied the breakaway, as performed by black dancers, and they showed it to Clark, but they called the whole dance "the Twist", possibly because of Ballard's record. Clark thought it had the potential to become something he could promote through his TV shows, at least if they toned down the more overtly sexual aspects. But he needed a record to go with it.

 

Now, there are several stories about why Clark didn't ask Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on to the show. Some say that they were simply busy elsewhere on tour and couldn't make the trip back, others that Clark wanted someone less threatening -- by which it's generally considered he meant less obviously black, though the artist he settled on is himself black, and that argument gets into a lot of things about colourism about which it's not my place to speak as a white British man. Others say that he wanted someone younger, others that he was worried about the adult nature of Ballard's act, and yet others that he just wanted a performer with whom he had a financial link -- Clark was one of the more obviously corrupt people in the music industry, and would regularly promote records with which he had some sort of financial interest. Possibly all of these were involved.

 

Either way, rather than getting Hank Ballard and the Midnighters onto his shows to perform "The Twist", even as it had entered the Hot One Hundred at the lower reaches, Clark decided to get someone to remake the record. He asked Cameo-Parkway, a label based in Philadelphia, the city from which Clark's show was broadcast, and which was often willing to do "favours" for Clark, if they could do a remake of the record. This was pretty much a guaranteed hit for the label -- Clark was the single most powerful person in the music industry at this point, and if he plugged an artist they were going to be a success -- and so of course they said yes, despite the label normally being a novelty label, rather than dealing in rock and roll or R&B. They even had the perfect singer for the job.

 

Ernest Evans was eighteen years old, and had repeatedly tried and failed to get Cameo-Parkway interested in him as a singer, but things had recently changed for him. Clark had wanted to do an audio Christmas card for his friends -- a single with "Jingle Bells" sung in the style of various different singers. Evans had told the people at Cameo-Parkway he could do impressions of different singers, and so they'd asked him to record it. That recording was a private one, but Evans later did a rerecording of the song as a duet with Bobby Rydell, including the same impressions of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and the Chipmunks that he'd done on Clark's private copy, so you can hear what it sounded like:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, "Jingle Bell Imitations"]

 

It was that Fats Domino imitation, in particular, that gave Evans his stage name. Dick Clark's wife Barbara was there when he was doing the recording, and she called him "Chubby Checker", as a play on "Fats Domino".

 

Clark was impressed enough with the record that Cameo-Parkway decided to have the newly-named Chubby Checker make a record in the same style for the public, and his version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in that style, renamed "The Class" made number thirty-eight on the charts thanks to promotion from Clark:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, "The Class"]

 

Two more singles in that vein followed, "Whole Lotta Laughin'" and "Dancing Dinosaur", but neither was a success. But Checker was someone known to Clark, someone unthreatening, someone on a label with financial connections to Clark, and someone who could do decent impressions. So when Clark wanted a record that sounded exactly like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters singing "The Twist", it was easy enough for Checker to do a Ballard impression:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, "The Twist"]

 

Clark got Checker to perform that on The Dick Clark Show -- a different show from Bandstand, but one with a similar audience size -- and to demonstrate the toned-down version of the dance that would be just about acceptable to the television audience. This version of the dance basically consisted of miming towelling your buttocks while stubbing out a cigarette with your foot, and was simple enough that anyone could do it.

 

Checker's version of "The Twist" went to number one, as a result of Clark constantly plugging it on his TV shows. It was so close to Ballard's version that when Ballard first heard it on the radio, he was convinced it was his own record. The only differences were that Checker's drummer plays more on the cymbals, and that Checker's saxophone player plays all the way through the song, rather than just playing a solo -- and King Records quickly got a saxophone player in to the studio to overdub an identical part on Ballard's track and reissue it, to make it sound more like the soundalike. Ballard's version of the song ended up going to number twenty-eight on the pop charts on Checker's coattails.

 

And that should, by all rights, have been the end of the Twist. Checker recorded a series of follow-up hits over the next few months, all of them covers of older R&B songs about dances -- a version of "The Hucklebuck", a quick cover of Don Covay's "Pony Time", released only a few months before, which became Checker's second number one, and "Dance the Mess Around". All of these were hits, and it seemed like Chubby Checker would be associated with dances in general, rather than with the Twist in particular. In summer 1961 he did have a second Twist hit, with "Let's Twist Again" -- singing "let's twist again, like we did last summer", a year on from "The Twist":

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, "Let's Twist Again"]

 

That was written by the two owners of Cameo-Parkway, who had parallel careers as writers of novelty songs -- their first big hit had been Elvis' "Teddy Bear". But over the few months after "Let's Twist Again", Checker was back to non-Twist dance songs. But then the Twist craze proper started, and it started because of Joey Dee and the Starliters.

 

Joey DiNicola was a classmate of the Shirelles, and when the Shirelles had their first hits, they'd told DiNicola that he should meet up with Florence Greenberg. His group had a rotating lineup, at one point including guitarist Joe Pesci, who would later become famous as an actor rather than as a musician, but the core membership was a trio of vocalists -- Joey Dee, David Brigati, and Larry Vernieri, all of whom would take lead vocals. They were one of the few interracial bands of the time, and the music they performed was a stripped-down version of R&B, with an organ as the dominant instrument -- the kind of thing that would later get known as garage rock or frat rock.

 

Greenberg signed the Starliters to Scepter Records, and they released a couple of singles on Scepter, produced and written like much of the material on Scepter by Luther Dixon:

 

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, "Shimmy Baby"]

 

Neither of their singles on Scepter was particularly successful, but they became a popular live act around New Jersey, and got occasional gigs at venues in New York. They played a three-day weekend at a seedy working-class Mafia-owned bar called the Peppermint Lounge, in Manhattan. Their shows there were so successful that they got a residency there, and became the house band. Soon the tiny venue -- which had a capacity of about two hundred people -- was packed, largely with the band's fans from New Jersey -- the legal drinking age in New Jersey was twenty-one, while in New York it was eighteen, so a lot of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds from New Jersey would make the journey.

 

As Joey Dee and the Starliters were just playing covers of chart hits for dancing, of course they played "The Twist" and "Let's Twist Again", and of course these audiences would dance the Twist to them. But that was happening in a million dingy bars and clubs up and down the country, with nobody caring. The idea that anyone would care about a tiny, dingy, bad-smelling bar and the cover band that played it was a nonsense.

 

Until it wasn't.

 

Because the owners of the Peppermint Lounge decided that they wanted a little publicity for their club, and they hired a publicist, who in turn got in touch with a company called Celebrity Services. What Celebrity Services did was, for a fee, they would get some minor celebrity or other to go to a venue and have a drink or a meal, and they would let the gossip columnists know about it, so the venue would then get a mention in the newspapers. Normally this would be one or two passing mentions, and nothing further would happen.

 

But this time it did. A couple of mentions in the society columns somehow intrigued enough people that some more celebrities started dropping in. The club was quite close to Broadway, and so a few of the stars of Broadway started popping in to see what the fuss was about. And then more stars started popping in to see what the other stars had been popping in for. Noel Coward started cruising the venue looking for rough trade, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Tallulah Bankhead were regulars, Norman Mailer danced the Twist with the granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook, and Tennessee Williams and even Greta Garbo turned up, all to either dance to Joey Dee and the Starliters or to watch the younger people dancing to them. There were even rumours, which turned out to be false, that Jackie Kennedy had gone to the Peppermint Lounge – though she did apparently enjoy dancing the Twist herself.

 

The Peppermint Lounge became a sensation, and the stories all focussed on the dance these people were doing.

"The Twist" reentered the charts, eighteen months after it had first come out, and Morris Levy sprang into action. Levy wanted a piece of this new Twist thing, and since he didn't have Chubby Checker, he was going to get the next best thing. He signed Joey Dee and the Starliters to Roulette Records, and got Henry Glover in to produce them.

 

Henry Glover is a figure who we really didn't mention as much as we should have in the first fifty or so episodes of the podcast. He'd played trumpet with Lucky Millinder, and he'd produced most of the artists on King Records in the late forties and fifties, including Wynonie Harris, Bill Doggett, and James Brown. He'd produced Little Willie John's version of "Fever", and wrote "Drown in My Own Tears", which had become a hit for Ray Charles.

 

Glover had also produced Hank Ballard's original version of "The Twist", and now he was assigned to write a Twist song for Joey Dee and the Starliters. His song, "Peppermint Twist", became their first single on Roulette:

 

[Excerpt: Joey Dee and the Starliters, "Peppermint Twist"]

 

"Peppermint Twist" went to number one, and Chubby Checker's version of "The Twist" went back to number one, becoming the only record ever to do so during the rock and roll era. In fact, Checker's record, on its reentry, became so popular that as recently as 2018 Billboard listed it as the *all-time* number one record on the Hot One Hundred.

 

The Twist was a massive sensation, but it had moved first from working-class black adults, to working-class white teenagers, to young middle-class white adults, and now to middle-aged and elderly rich white people who thought it was the latest "in" thing. And so, of course, it stopped being the cool in thing with the teenagers, almost straight away. If you're young and rebellious, you don't want to be doing the same thing that your grandmother's favourite film star from when she was a girl is doing.

 

But it took a while for that disinterest on the part of the teenagers to filter through to the media, and in the meantime there were thousands of Twist cash-in records. There was a version of "Waltzin' Matilda" remade as "Twistin' Matilda", the Chipmunks recorded "The Alvin Twist". The Dovells, a group on Cameo Parkway who had had a hit with "The Bristol Stomp", recorded "Bristol Twistin' Annie", which managed to be a sequel not only to "The Twist", but to their own "The Bristol Stomp" and to Hank Ballard's earlier "Annie" recordings:

 

[Excerpt: The Dovells, "Bristol Twistin' Annie"]

 

There were Twist records by Bill Haley, Neil Sedaka, Duane Eddy... almost all of these were terrible records, although we will, in a future episode, look at one actually good Twist single.

 

The Twist craze proper started in November 1961, and by December there were already two films out in the cinemas. Hey! Let's Twist! starred Joey Dee and the Starliters in a film which portrayed the Peppermint Lounge as a family-run Italian restaurant rather than a Mafia-run bar, and featured Joe Pesci in a cameo that was his first film role. Twist Around the Clock starred Chubby Checker and took a whole week to make. As well as Checker, it featured Dion, and the Marcels, trying desperately to have another hit after "Blue Moon":

 

[Excerpt: The Marcels, "Merry Twistmas”]

 

Twist Around The Clock was an easy film to make because Sam Kurtzman, who produced it, had produced several rock films in the fifties, including Rock Around the Clock. He got the writer of that film to retype his script over a weekend, so it talked about twisting instead of rocking, and starred Chubby Checker instead of Bill Haley. As Kurtzman had also made Bill Haley's second film, Don't Knock The Rock, so Checker's second film became Don't Knock the Twist.

 

Checker also appeared in a British film, It's Trad, Dad!, which we talked about last week. That was a cheap trad jazz cash-in, but at the last minute they decided to rework it so it included Twist music as well as trad, so the director, Richard Lester, flew to the USA for a couple of days to film Checker and a couple of other artists miming to their records, which was then intercut with footage of British teenagers dancing, to make it look like they were dancing to Checker.

 

Of course, the Twist craze couldn't last forever, but Chubby Checker managed a good few years of making dance-craze singles, and he married Catharina Lodders, who had been Miss World 1962, in 1964. Rather amazingly for a marriage between a rock star and a beauty queen, they remain married to this day, nearly sixty years later.

 

Checker's last big hit came in 1965, by which point the British Invasion had taken over the American charts so comprehensively that Checker was recording "Do the Freddie", a song about the dance that Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers did on stage:

 

[Excerpt: Chubby Checker, "Do the Freddie"]

 

In recent decades, Checker has been very bitter about his status. He's continued a career of sorts, even scoring a novelty hit in the late eighties with a hip-hop remake of "The Twist" with The Fat Boys, but for a long time his most successful records were unavailable. Cameo-Parkway was bought in the late sixties by Allen Klein, a music industry executive we'll be hearing more of, more or less as a tax writeoff, and between 1975 and 2005 there was no legal way to get any of the recordings on that label, as they went out of print and weren't issued on CD, so Checker didn't get the royalties he could have been getting from thirty years of nostalgia compilation albums. Recent interviews show that Checker is convinced he is the victim of an attempt to erase him from rock and roll history, and believes he deserves equal prominence with Elvis and the Beatles. He believes his lack of recognition is down to racism, as he married a white woman, and has protested outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at his lack of induction. Whatever one's view of the artistic merits of his work, it's sad that someone so successful now feels so overlooked.

 

But the Twist fad, once it died, left three real legacies. One was a song we'll be looking at in a few months, and the other two came from Joey Dee and the Starliters. The Young Rascals, a group who had a series of hits from 1965 to 1970, started out as the instrumentalists in the 1964 lineup of Joey Dee and the Starliters before breaking out to become their own band, and a trio called Ronnie and the Relatives made their first appearances at the Peppermint Lounge, singing backing vocals and dancing behind the Starliters. They later changed their name to The Ronettes, and we'll be hearing more from them later.

 

The Twist was the last great fad of the pre-Beatles sixties. That it left so little of a cultural mark says a lot about the changes that were to come, and which would sweep away all memory of the previous few years...

Jul 25, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford
12:14

Welcome to the seventh and final in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey . I'm glad to say that this pledge week has been successful enough that I may do another of these in a year or so.

This one is about "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a record that was a huge influence on many, many artists in the mid fifties.

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As we're reaching the end of 1956, and are also now on the fiftieth episode of the podcast, I thought it worth while trying to fill in a few gaps in the year we've been covering. And one of those gaps is the song "Sixteen Tons". We've mentioned this song a couple of times before -- we talked during the episode on Bo Diddley about how much he liked the song, and it also came up in the episode on Johnny Cash, but because it's not actually a rock and roll song as such we never looked at it in any more detail. But it's a song that was a huge hit in 1956, and which influenced many rock and rollers, and so we should probably have a quick look at its history:

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"]

That's the version of the song that became a hit in 1956, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it's not the original version of the song. The song was originally written by Merle Travis, one of the greatest country guitarists of all time.

Merle Travis is credited with the invention of "Travis picking", a type of guitar playing where you play a bass line on the bottom two strings of the guitar while you play melody on the top two, with the melody syncopated as in ragtime -- it's a particular pattern that can be heard in everything from "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel to "Just Breathe" by Pearl Jam.

Travis' own playing was more complicated than the kind of music that now gets called "Travis picking", as you can hear on, say, "Cannonball Rag":

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Cannonball Rag"]

That owes a lot to ragtime and blues, not just to country music. While Travis is credited as the inventor of this style, he wasn't actually its originator. It was actually invented by a black blues guitarist called Arnold Shultz, who lived in Travis' home state of Kentucky. Shultz never made a record, but he taught the style to several other guitarists, including one called Kennedy Jones, who in turn taught it to many other guitarists -- including Ike Everly, who we'll be hearing more about in the second year of the main podcast.

Travis spent the early part of his career as a fairly conventional country singer. He started off as one of the very first artists on Syd Nathan's King Records, before King made its turn to the R&B for which it became better known, but then in 1946 he signed to Capitol Records, where he made country-pop records like "Divorce Me COD":

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Divorce Me COD"]

But then Travis made an album called "Folk Songs of the Hills", which was very different from anything else he'd recorded before. This was before the long-playing vinyl record, and so it was a box of four singles, all of which consisted just of Travis singing to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The songs were a mixture of the traditional folk songs that the title led you to expect:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "John Henry"]

and new songs written by Travis himself, mostly about the culture of the mining areas of Kentucky where he grew up. And "Sixteen Tons" was one of those. In its original version it started with a spoken introduction explaining the concept of "company scrip", where someone could work for a company and be paid, not in cash that could be spent anywhere, but in tokens that could only be exchanged for goods sold by the company they worked for. This was an unfortunately common practice in the early and mid twentieth century, and those of you who've been following developments in cryptocurrencies and the big tech companies know that it's making a return at the moment:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Sixteen Tons"]

Travis' recording was not particularly successful, and he went back to recording the honky tonk country records that he was successful with, but his career started to fade in the fifties. Until his friend Tennessee Ernie Ford, who had become nationally known thanks to some appearances on I Love Lucy, decided he wanted to record a new version of "Sixteen Tons" in 1956, a decade after Travis' original version.

Ford's version is very, very, different from Travis' original. It cuts out the spoken explanation, and where Travis' version is a ragtime-influenced guitar track, Ford's is taken at a much lower pitch, and it is dominated by clarinet and fingersnaps. It's quite an astonishing arrangement, although it was soon imitated by all sorts of people, not least Peggy Lee in her version of "Fever":

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"]

Ford's recording became an instant classic, inspiring everyone from Johnny Cash to Bo Diddley to Tom Waits. It's a perfect marriage of song, arrangement, and vocalist, and one of those records that perfectly encapsulates its time.

It also revived the career of Merle Travis, who had stopped having any commercial success with his electric recordings, despite being a musician's musician who every single other guitarist in the business looked up to. Suddenly people started to reevaulate Travis' work, and he became an integral part of the new folk music movement. Travis continued playing the electric guitar, but he started recording solo albums of electric guitar performances of traditional songs, and became known as one of the great exponents of country guitar, as well as one of the great songwriters, with his "Dark as a Dungeon" in particular, another song from "Folk Songs of the Hills", becoming a country standard.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, meanwhile, went on to a career as a presenter of TV variety shows, and while he continued making records, none of them had the success, either artistically or commercially, of "Sixteen Tons". But you only need to make one classic like that per career for your career to be worthwhile.

Jul 19, 2020
Episode 90: "Runaway" by Del Shannon
32:06

Episode ninety of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Runaway" by Del Shannon, and at the early use of synthesised sound in rock music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

 

Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Blue Moon" by the Marcels.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/

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A note

Almost every version of “Runaway” currently available is in stereo, and the stereo version of the song has a slightly different vocal take to the original mono version. Unfortunately, there appear to be multiple “original mono versions” too. To check that what I'm using here, a mono track available as a bonus on a reissue of the album Runaway With Del Shannon, is actually the hit single version, I downloaded two vinyl rips of the single and one vinyl rip of a mono hits compilation from the sixties that had been uploaded to YouTube. Unfortunately no two copies of the song I could find online would play in synch – they all appear to be mastered at slightly different speeds, possibly due to the varispeeding I talk about in the episode. I've gone with the version I did because it's a clean-sounding mono version, but it may not be exactly what people heard in 1961.

Resources

As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode. This one is in two parts because of the number of songs by Del Shannon in the mix. Part one, part two.

Only one biography of Del Shannon has ever been written, and that's out of print and (to judge from the Amazon reviews) not very well written, so I've relied again on other sources. Those include the liner notes to this CD, a good selection of Shannon's work (with the proviso that "Runaway" is in stereo -- see above; the articles on Shannon and Max Crook on This Is My Story, the official Del Shannon website,  and the Internet Archive's cached copy of Max Crook's old website.

Patreon

This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

 

Transcript

Today's episode is an odd one to write, as just as I put the finishing touches to the script I discovered that Max Crook, the keyboard player at the centre of this story, died less than two weeks ago. The news wasn't widely reported, and I only discovered this by double-checking a detail and discovering an obituary of him. Crook was one of the great early pioneers of electronic music, and a massive talent, and he's a big part of the story I'm telling today, so before we go into the story proper I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge his passing, and to regret that it hasn't been more widely noted.

One of the things we've not talked about much in this podcast so far is the technology of music. We've discussed it a bit -- we've looked at how things like the change from 78s to 45s affected the music industry, at the transition from recording on discs to recording on tape, at the electrification of the guitar, and at Les Paul's inventions. But in general, the music we've looked at has been made in a fairly straightforward manner -- some people with some combination of guitars, bass, piano, drums, and saxophone, and maybe a few string players on the most recent recordings, get together in front of a microphone and sing and play those instruments.

But today, we're going to look at the start of synthesisers being used in rock and roll music. Today we're going to look at "Runaway" by Del Shannon:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Runaway"]

Synthesised sound has a far longer pedigree than you might expect. The use of electronics to create music goes back to the invention of the theremin and the ondes martenot in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, people had already started using polyphonic keyboard-based electronic instruments. The Novachord was produced by the Hammond organ company between 1938 and 1942, and was introduced at the World's Fair in 1939, where Ferdinand Grofe, who we talked about a little in the episode on "Cathy's Clown", led a group consisting only of Novachord players in a public performance.

The Novachord never achieved mass popularity because of World War II halting its production, but it was still used in a few recordings. One that's of particular interest to those of us interested in early rock and roll is Slim Gaillard's "Novachord Boogie":

[Excerpt: Slim Gaillard, "Novachord Boogie"]

But also it was used on one of the most famous records of the late thirties. These days, when you hear "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn on documentaries about the second world war, this is the version you hear:

[Excerpt: Vera Lynn, "We'll Meet Again"]

But the record that people actually listened to in World War II didn't have any of that orchestration. It was Lynn accompanied by a single instrument, a Novachord played by Arthur Young, and is notably more interesting and less syrupy:

[Excerpt: Vera Lynn with Arthur Young on Novachord, "We'll Meet Again"]

So even in the late thirties, synthesised sounds were making their way on to extremely popular recordings, but it wasn't until after the war that electronic instruments started getting used in a major way. And the most popular of those instruments was a monophonic keyboard instrument called the clavioline, which was first produced in 1947. The clavioline was mostly used as a novelty element, but it appeared on several hit records. We're going to devote a whole episode in a few months' time to a record with the clavioline as lead instrument, but you can hear it on several fifties novelty records, like "Little Red Monkey" by Frank Chacksfield's Tunesmiths, a UK top ten hit from 1953:

[Excerpt: Frank Chacksfield's Tunesmiths, "Little Red Monkey"]

But while the clavioline itself was in use quite widely in the fifties, the first big rock and roll hit with an electronic synthesiser actually used a modified clavioline called a musitron, which was put together by an electronics amateur and keyboard player named Max Crook, from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Crook had built his musitron using a clavioline as a base, but adding parts from TVs, reel-to-reel recorders, and bits of whatever electronic junk he could salvage parts from. He'd started playing electronic instruments in his teens, and had built his own recording studio.

Sadly, the early records Crook made are not easily available. The only place I've been able to track down copies of his early singles in a digital format is one grey-market CD, which I wasn't able to obtain in time to include the tracks here and which only seems to be available from one shop in Cornwall. His first band, the White Bucks, released a single, "Get That Fly" backed with "Orny", on Dot Records, but I can tell you from experience that if you search anywhere online for "White Bucks Orny" you will find... well, not that record, anyway.

Even more interestingly, he apparently recorded a version of "Bumble Boogie", the novelty instrumental that would later become a hit for B. Bumble and the Stingers, with Berry Gordy at some point in the late fifties. Sadly, that too is not generally available.

But it wasn't until he auditioned for Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band that Max Crook met the people who were going to become his most important collaborators. The Big Little Show Band had started as Doug DeMott and The Moonlight Ramblers, a honky-tonk band that played at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, Michigan. Battle Creek is a company town, midway between Chicago and Detroit, which is most famous as being the headquarters of the Kellogg company, the cereal manufacturer and largest employer there. It's not somewhere you'd expect great rock and roll to come from, being as it is a dull medium-sized town with little in the way of culture or nightlife.

The Hi-Lo Club was a rough place, frequented by hard-working, hard-drinking people, and Doug DeMott had been a hard drinker himself -- so hard a drinker, in fact, that he was soon sacked. The group's rhythm guitarist, Charles Westover, had changed his name to Charlie Johnson and put together a new lineup of the group based around himself and the bass player, Loren Dugger. They got in a new drummer, Dick Parker, and then went through a couple of guitarists before deciding to hire a keyboard player instead.

Once they auditioned Crook, with his musitron, which he could clip to the piano and thus provide chordal piano accompaniment while playing a lead melody on his musitron, they knew they had the right player for them.

Crook had a friend, a black DJ named Ollie McLaughlin, who had music industry connections, and had been involved in the White Bucks recordings. Crook and Johnson started writing songs and recording demos for McLaughlin, who got Johnson a session with Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk, two record producers who were working with Johnny and the Hurricanes, an instrumental group who'd had a big hit with "Red River Rock" a year or so previously:

[Excerpt: Johnny and the Hurricanes, "Red River Rock"]

Johnson recorded two songs in New York, without his normal musicians backing him. However, Micahnik and Balk thought that the tracks were too dirgey, and Johnson was singing flat -- and listening to them it's not hard to see why they thought that:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "The Search"]

They told him to go back and come up with some more material that was less dirgey. Two things did come out of the association straight away, though. The first was that Charles Johnson changed his name again, combining a forename he chose to be reminiscent of the Cadillac Coup deVille with a surname he took from an aspiring wrestler he knew, Mark Shannon, to become Del Shannon.

The second was that Johnny and the Hurricanes recorded one of Max Crook's instrumentals, "Mr Lonely", as a B-side, and you can hear in the Hammond organ part the kind of part that Crook would have been playing on his Musitron:

[Excerpt: Johnny and the Hurricanes, "Mr Lonely"]

Shannon and Crook recorded a tape of many other songs they were working on for McLaughlin to play to Micahnik and Balk, but they weren't interested -- until they heard a fragment of a song that Shannon and Crook had recorded, and which they'd then mostly taped over. That song, "Runaway", was the one they wanted.

"Runaway" had been an idea that had happened almost by accident. The band had been jamming on stage, and Crook had hit a chord change that Shannon thought sounded interesting -- in later tellings of the story, this is always the Am-G chord change that opens the song, but I suspect the actual chord change that caught his ear was the one where they go to an E major chord rather than the expected G or E minor on the line “As our hearts were young”. That's the only truly unusual chord change in the song.

But whatever it was, Shannon liked the changes that Crook was playing -- he and Crook would both later talk about how bored he was with the standard doo-wop progression that made up the majority of the songs they were playing at the time -- and the band ended up jamming on the new chord sequence for fifteen or twenty minutes before the club owner told them to play something else.

The next day, Shannon took his guitar to the carpet shop where he worked, and when there were no customers in, he would play the song to himself and write lyrics. He initially wrote two verses, but decided to scrap one.

They performed the song, then titled "My Little Runaway", that night, and it became a regular part of their set. The crucial element in the song, though, came during that first performance. Shannon said, just before they started, "Max, when I point to you, play something". And so when Shannon got to the end of the chorus, he pointed, and Crook played this:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Runaway"]

When they were told that Micahnik and Balk liked the fragment of song that they'd heard, Shannon and Crook recorded a full demo of the song and sent it on to them. The producers weren't hugely impressed with the finished song, saying they thought it sounded like three songs trying to coexist, and they also didn't like Shannon's voice, but they *did* like Crook and the Musitron, and so they invited Crook and Shannon to come to New York to record. The two men drove seven hundred miles in a broken-down car, with their wives, to get from Michigan to New York. It was the middle of winter, the car had no heating, and Shannon smoked while Crook was allergic to tobacco smoke, so they had to keep the windows open.

The session they were going to do was a split session -- they were going to record two Del Shannon vocal tracks, and two instrumentals by Crook, who was recording under the name "Maximilian" without a surname (though the "Max" in his name was actually short for Maxfield). Crook was definitely the one they were interested in -- he rearranged the way the microphones were arranged in the studio, to get the sound he wanted rather than the standard studio sound, and he also had a bag full of gadgets that the studio engineers were fascinated by, for altering the Musitron's sound.

The first single released as by "Maximilian" was "The Snake", which featured Crook and Shannon's wives on handclaps, along with an additional clapper who was found on the street and paid forty dollars to come in and clap along:

[Excerpt: Maximilian, "The Snake"]

After that, the two women got bored and wandered off down Broadway. They eventually found themselves in the audience for a TV game show, Beat the Clock, and Joann Crook ended up a contestant on the show -- their husbands didn't believe them, when they explained later where they'd been, until acquaintances mentioned having seen Joann on TV.

Meanwhile, the two men were working on another Maximillian track, and on two Del Shannon tracks, one of which was "Runaway". They couldn't afford to stay overnight in New York, so they drove back to Michigan, but when the record company listened to "Runaway", they discovered that Shannon had been singing flat due to nerves. Shannon had to go back to New York, this time by plane, to rerecord his vocals.

According to Crook, even this wasn't enough, and the engineers eventually had to varispeed his vocals to get them in key with the backing track. I'm not at all sure how this would have worked, as speeding up his vocals would have also meant that he was singing at a different tempo, but that's what Crook said, and the vocal does have a slightly different quality to it. And Harry Balk backed Crook up, saying "We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn't sound like Del. We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful. When I brought Ollie and Del into my office to hear it, Del had a bit of a fit. He said, 'Harry, that doesn't even sound like me!' I just remember saying, 'Yeah but Del, nobody knows what the hell you sound like!"

Like most great records, "Runaway" was the sum of many parts. Shannon later broke down all the elements that went into the song, saying:

"I learned falsetto from The Ink Spots' 'We Three,'":

[Excerpt: The Ink Spots, "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)"]

"I eventually got hooked on Jimmy Jones' 'Handy Man' in '59 and would sing that at the Hi-Lo Club.":

[Excerpt: Jimmy Jones, "Handy Man"]

"I always had the idea of 'running away' somewhere in the back of my mind. 'I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder, why...' I borrowed from Dion & The Belmonts' 'I Wonder Why.'"

[Excerpt: Dion and the Belmonts, "I Wonder Why"]

"The beats you hear in there, '...I wonder, bam-bam-bam, I wa-wa...' I stole from Bobby Darin's 'Dream Lover.'"

[Excerpt: Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover"]

Listening to the song, you can definitely hear all those elements that Shannon identifies in there, but what emerges is something fresh and original, unlike anything else out at the time:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Runaway"]

"Runaway" went to number one in almost every country that had a chart at the time, and top five in most of the rest. In America, the song it knocked off the top was "Blue Moon" by the Marcels, one of those songs with the doo-wop progression that Shannon had been so bored with. At its peak, it was selling eighty thousand copies a day, and Billboard put it at number three hundred and sixty four on the all-time charts in 2018. It was a massive success, and a game-changer in the music industry.

Maximilian's single, on the other hand, only made the top forty in Argentina. Clearly, Del Shannon was the artist who was going to be worth following, but they did release a few more singles by Maximilian, things like "The Twisting Ghost":

[Excerpt: Maximilian, "The Twisting Ghost"]

That made the Canadian top forty, but Maximilian never became a star in his own right. Shannon, on the other hand, recorded a string of hits, though none were as successful as "Runaway". The most successful was the follow-up, "Hats off to Larry", which was very much "Runaway part 2":

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Hats off to Larry"]

But every single he released after that was slightly less successful than the one before. He soon stopped working with Crook, who remained at the Hi-Lo Club with the rest of the band while Shannon toured the country, and without Crook's Musitron playing his records were far less interesting than his earliest singles, though he did have the distinction of being one of the few singers of this era to write the bulk of his own material.

He managed to further sabotage his career by suing Micahnik and Balk, and by 1963 he was largely washed up, though he did do one more thing that would make him at least a footnote in music history for something other than "Runaway".

He was more popular in the UK than in the US, and he even appeared in the film "It's Trad Dad!", a cheap cash-in on the trad jazz craze, starring Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas as teenagers who try to persuade the stuffy adults who hate the young people's music that the Dukes of Dixieland, Mr. Acker Bilk and the Temperance Seven are not dangerous obscene noises threatening the morals of the nation's youth. That film also featured Gene Vincent and Chubby Checker along with a lot of British trumpet players, and was the first feature film made by Richard Lester, who we'll be hearing more about in this story.

So Shannon spent a fair amount of time in the UK, and in 1963 he noticed a song by a new British group that was rising up the UK charts and covered it. His version of "From Me to You" only made number seventy-seven on the US charts, but it was still the first version of a Lennon/McCartney song to make the Hot One Hundred:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "From Me to You"]

He made some interesting records in the rest of the sixties, and had the occasional fluke hit, but the music he was making, a unique blend of hard garage rock and soft white doo-wop, was increasingly out of step with the rest of the industry. In the mid and late sixties, his biggest successes came with songwriting and productions for other artists. He wrote "I Go to Pieces" which became a hit for Peter & Gordon:

[Excerpt: Peter and Gordon, "I Go to Pieces"]

Produced the band Smith in their cover version of "Baby It's You", which made the top five:

[Excerpt: Smith, "Baby It's You"]

And produced Brian Hyland's million-selling version of a Curtis Mayfield song that I'm not going to play, because its title used a racial slur against Romani people which most non-Romani people didn't then regard as a slur, but which is a great record if you can get past that. That Hyland record featured Crook, reunited briefly with Shannon.

But over the seventies Shannon seemed increasingly lost, and while he continued to make records, including some good ones made in the UK with production by Dave Edmunds and Jeff Lynne, he was increasingly unwell with alcoholism. He finally got sober in 1978, and managed to have a fluke hit in 1981 with a cover version of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love", produced by Tom Petty and with Petty's band the Heartbreakers backing him:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Sea of Love"]

He also came to people's attention when a rerecorded version of "Runaway" with new lyrics was used as the theme for the TV show Crime Story.

In 1989, Del Shannon was working on a comeback album, with Jeff Lynne producing and members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as backing musicians. The same people had previously worked on Roy Orbison's last album, which had been his biggest success in decades, and Lynne was gaining a reputation for resuscitating the careers of older musicians. Both Lynne and Petty were fans of Shannon and had worked with him previously, and it seemed likely that he might be able to have a hit with some of the material he was working on. Certainly "Walk Away", which Shannon co-wrote with Lynne and Petty, sounds like the kind of thing that was getting radio play around that time:

[Excerpt: Del Shannon, "Walk Away"]

There were even rumours that Lynne and Petty were thinking of inviting Shannon to join the Travelling Wilburys to replace Roy Orbison, though that seems unlikely to me.

Unfortunately, by the time the album came out, Shannon was dead. He'd been suffering from depression for decades, and he died of suicide in early 1990, aged fifty-five. His widow later sued the manufacturers of the new wonder drug, Prozac, which he'd been prescribed a couple of weeks earlier, claiming that it caused his death.

Max Crook, meanwhile, had become a firefighter and burglar alarm installer, while also pursuing a low-key career in music, mostly making religious music. When Shannon was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Crook volunteered to perform at the ceremony, playing his original Musitron, but his offer was ignored. In later years he would regularly show up at annual celebrations of Shannon, and talk about the music they made together, and play for their fans. He died on July the first this year, aged eighty-three.

Jul 18, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by the Cheers
11:54

Welcome to the sixth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by the Cheers, one of the first Teen Tragedy records, and Leiber and Stoller's biggest hit. Content warning -- contains mentions of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations. Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

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Welcome to the latest ten-minute Patreon bonus episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. In this one we're going to talk about "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by The Cheers. This episode has some discussion of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations, so if that's going to be traumatic for anyone, please turn off now, or read the transcript to check if it'll be OK for you.

The Cheers are not a group who usually turn up in histories of rock and roll. If they're mentioned at all by anyone, it's usually because one of the trio, Bert Convy, later went on to be a host of several syndicated game shows in the eighties and early nineties.

But "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" was one of the biggest-selling singles of 1955, and the ur-example of a genre that would become hugely popular over the next decade:

[Excerpt: "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"]

We've talked about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller before in the main series, and they are going to come up a lot more, but at the time we're talking about they weren't the massive stars of rock and roll songwriting they later became. They were, rather, just one of a lot of songwriting teams who were working in blues and R&B in the mid-fifties. Normally, they worked only with black artists, but for once they were working with a white group.

The Cheers were signed to Capitol Records, one of the major labels. They were a trio consisting of Bert Convy, Gill Garfield, and Sue Allan, and they were tragically uncool in the way that only white vocal groups of the early fifties could be.

When they were signed to Capitol, they were assigned Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as their producers. I've not been able to find anything out about how this came to happen -- Leiber and Stoller weren't staffers at Capitol, and they never really talked about their work with the Cheers in interviews. But their first record with the group, "Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin')" was a hit:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, "Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin')"]

The Cheers' sound really, really doesn't fit with the style of Leiber and Stoller's songwriting, but the power of white blandness meant that this was the first Leiber and Stoller song to hit the pop charts.

Around this time, Jerry Leiber was involved in something that would traumatise him for the rest of his life. The story as Leiber told it -- and to be clear, this is *his* telling of the story, not necessarily the truth -- was that he'd got drunk, and then two attractive women had offered to have a threesome with him. He'd been keen, but then backed out as he'd pulled a muscle earlier that day. The two women, however, insisted that he should pay them two hundred dollars or they would accuse him of raping them. He didn't have two hundred dollars on him, so, very drunk and in pain, he drove them to go and meet a friend who would give him the money.

They never made it to their destination. Leiber had no memory of the crash, but he and one of the women were injured, and the other woman died.

Now, I don't know for sure that this experience fed into Leiber's writing process -- I've not been able to find out the dates for the car crash, or any interviews about his writing of the song -- but the second, and final, hit for the Cheers, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" certainly seems likely to have been inspired by it, dealing as it does with an automotive crash and a loss of life:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"]

The main hook for the song, a teen tragedy about a young man who dies in a crash after his girlfriend tells him not to ride his motorbike, was simply that it was about a motorcycle -- there had been no hit records about motorbikes before, and this one latched on to the newfound popularity of bikes and bikers.

But the song was given an unexpected, and tragic, boost in popularity when the week after it came out, James Dean, a young actor who specialised in moody, rebellious, tormented characters and appealed to almost exactly the same teenage demographic who were buying rock and roll records, died in a car crash. People started buying "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" as a form of tribute to Dean.

Meanwhile, the royalty cheques for "Bazoom" were starting to come in. Mike Stoller was astonished to get a cheque for a whole five thousand dollars -- more money than he'd ever seen in his life -- and he and his wife went on a trip to Europe for three months. While they were there, they went to see Edith Piaf in concert, and heard her perform this:

[Excerpt: Edith Piaf, "L'Homme a la Moto"]

It was Piaf's own version of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", which had become her biggest hit. "Black Denim Trousers" had become a sensation, the first in what would become a whole new genre of records about tragic rebellious figures dying in car crashes, and you can hear its echoes in everything from "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las to "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson. It also inspired this parody record a few years later:

[Excerpt: Dodie Stevens, "Pink Shoe Laces"]

But Stoller, too, would be affected by tragedy. He and his wife were persuaded that on the way back they should go by sea, on a new fancy ocean liner, the Andrea Doria. While he was on the boat, Stoller was reading A Night To Remember, the bestselling book about the Titanic, as were many of the other passengers.

The night before it was due to arrive in New York, the Andrea Doria collided with another liner, the Stockholm. Both ships sank, and fifty-one people died. Stoller and his wife, though, survived, and made it to New York. When they got to New York Harbor, Jerry Leiber ran up to them. He was excited that they'd survived, of course, but he was also excited about something else.

"Mike, you're OK! We have a smash hit!"

"You're kidding?"

"Hound Dog"

"Big Mama Thornton?"

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

For Leiber and Stoller, nothing would ever be the same again.

Jul 18, 2020
PLEDGE WEEK: "Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry
13:16

Welcome to the fifth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about "Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry, a classic of both novelty music and New Orleans R&B.

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

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This episode is almost a request one -- Daniel Helton asked during the question and answer sessions last week if I'd thought about covering this song in an episode, and I said then that I'd do it as a Patreon bonus. I may do other songs suggested by backers in future bonus episodes, we'll see, but this one is a song that genuinely deserves at least a brief look:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Ain't Got No Home"]

Clarence "Frogman" Henry is from New Orleans, as you can immediately hear from the record. It's yet another of those classic records made in Cosimo Matassa's studio, but Henry was young enough that he grew up listening to those earlier records -- as a teenager, he was a fan of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

He started playing in bars in his teens, with various local bands, and he soon developed a unique vocal technique. At the time Shirley and Lee were one of the biggest acts in New Orleans, and everyone wanted to hear their material:

[Excerpt: Shirley and Lee, "Let the Good Times Roll"]

But Henry was the only singer with the bands he was in, and so he would sing both Shirley's vocal part and Lee's, and he developed ways to make his voice sound more feminine. He would also play around with his voice and try other unusual voices, including one that sounded like a bullfrog -- he used to imitate frogs and alligators in school to scare the girls.

And then one night, performing in a club at two o'clock in the morning, far past when he wanted to go to bed, he started wondering if the audience had no homes to go to, and improvised a song around that theme, "Ain't Got No Home", using his different voices.

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Ain't Got No Home"]

The song was very loosely based on one he'd already written called "Lonely Tramp", but sped up and turned into a showcase for his vocal tricks.

The song became a regular in his sets, and he eventually came to the attention of Paul Gayten, a musician in New Orleans who also worked as an A&R man for Chess Records. Gayten signed Henry to Chess' new subsidiary Argo, and they went into Cosimo Matassa's studio to record a single. "Ain't Got No Home" was intended for the B-side -- the A-side was a Fats Domino style song called "Troubles, Troubles":

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Troubles, Troubles"]

Leonard Chess initially didn't want to release the single at all, but then the New Orleans DJ known as "Poppa Stoppa" played an acetate of it. "Poppa Stoppa" was one of several white men who performed under that name, playing a character initially created by a black man and pretending to *be* black, and he was to New Orleans what Alan Freed was to Cleveland, Huggy Boy to LA, and Dewey Phillips to Memphis -- the white DJ who could make or break black music in the mass market.

"Poppa Stoppa" played both sides of the record, but it was the B-side that made listeners sit up and take note -- they kept calling in to hear "the song by the frog man". Poppa Stoppa turned to Henry, who was in the studio with him, and said "from now on you're Frogman".

The record went out with "Ain't Got No Home" on the A-side, and it became a big hit, going to number three on the R&B charts and hitting the top twenty in the pop charts. However, the follow-up, "Lonely Tramp", didn't chart:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Lonely Tramp"]

After a couple more failed attempts at follow-ups, Henry went back to just being a live performer, and didn't make a record for three years. But then in 1961 he teamed up with the songwriter Bobby Charles.

Charles was a white Cajun songwriter who had been as influenced by Fats Domino as Henry was. He'd written hits for Domino, but was best known for his song "Later Alligator", which as "See You Later Alligator" had been a big hit for Bill Haley:

[Excerpt: Bobby Charles, "Later Alligator"]

Charles and Gayten wrote a ballad called "I Don't Know Why (But I Do)" which they gave to Henry to sing. Allen Toussaint produced, arranged, and played piano, and the result was absolutely nothing like his first hit, but a catchy pop ballad that became a perennial classic:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "But I Do"]

"But I Do" became a worldwide hit, reaching number four in the pop charts and number three in the UK. Several follow-ups also charted, though less well. Many listeners believed Henry to be white -- something that Chess encouraged by putting a stock photo of a white man with his head in his hands on the cover of his first album. This was a common technique in the early sixties when a black artist had crossover appeal.

Clarence "Frogman" Henry was no longer a one-hit wonder who'd had a hit with a novelty record, but a serious artist who'd had multiple big hits. While he would never again reach the heights of "But I Do", that was enough to ensure him a career which continues to this day.

For decades Henry had a residency in a club on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, but he also spent lengthy periods in Britain, where he had a big following. His most famous British fans were the Beatles, who invited him to perform as their opening act on their first US tour. He'd first met them on a UK tour a little earlier, and they had occasionally played "But I Do" in their set when that had been in the charts.

But he had other UK fans as well, and would occasio