Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.
She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.
Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:
Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.
Rachel Sweet was too early and too late. Too late to be a straightforward heir of the Brenda Lee rasp (which, as of the mid-seventies, had been taken over by adults like Stevie Nicks), and too early to catch the wave of teen angel-dom she helped create (of which Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were the prime beneficiaries and formers of the bridge to Britney and Miley and whoever’s hustling the mall crowd right now, working for the day when they, too, are chosen) none of whom could sing like Rachel Sweet.
Her early records on Stiff excited some critics and a hardcore cult, just enough to ensure that a small, fierce, purely informal band would carry on even if she left the biz. I count myself an enthusiastic member.
Later on, she did indeed leave the biz–at least the rock and roll part of it. She grew up, graduated from Columbia (the university), and made a mint writing and producing for television. According to Wikipedia she was eventually worth enough to buy and sell one of Madonna’s houses for some ridiculous sum.
But, on the whole, her records worked best as secrets and the best secret of all was “Shadows of the Night.” Ex-pat Helen Schneider had a big, contemporary hit with her version in Germany and other parts of Europe. That may have been why Sweet’s American label didn’t release her version as a single.
Or maybe they were just stupid.
It took a lot of miscalculation to prevent Sweet from being a star. And, as my dad used to say about certain other inexplicable things, sometimes you have to assume it must have taken a genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.
The stupidity all around was exposed a year later when Pat Benetar had one of the biggest hits of a hit-machine career with a version that was half as good.
I’m glad Rachel got rich. I only wish it had been for the best of reasons and not just one more proof of a world gone sideways.
Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).
Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).
And after that?
Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.
Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.
But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.
In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.
Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.
Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.
Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:
He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…
Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…
The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…
By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.
Big names even.
Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.
What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…
…and literally a hundred more.
You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”
To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”
As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”
You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.
But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!
Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?
In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…
and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…
And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone, sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…
…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…
Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.
But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.
Those records could be as great and iconic as this…
or even this…
But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…
Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).
As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.
One man did.
That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…
Yeah, it was (eventually) a marketing concept. Also (eventually) a “genre.”
But before, during and after all that, it was also an Aesthetic. That’s the history I’m trying to trace here (before I head into my multi-part dissertation on the vocal history of soul–I’m up to five categories and counting so we’ll just have to see how long that takes).
I’ll just add that, if the current charts are any real measure of such things, as plenty of people believe, then this is by far the most influential genre of rock and roll extant.
Make of that what you will.
Meanwhile…. (as always, I’ve linked a combination of live, synched and studio versions, with an eye toward balancing fun and education. And as always, some of the info on background singers is fuzzy to say the least. I’ve done my best but if you spot a mistake or can fill in any missing blanks, please give me a shout in the comments section and I will update accordingly.)
“Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop”–Little Anthony and the Imperials (Anthony Gourdine, lead vocal; Tracey Lord, Nathaniel Rogers, Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright, harmony vocals): Silly, smooth and sublime on every level. As good a place to start as any once I figured out Frankie Lymon was too rough around the edges.
“I Will Follow Him”–Little Peggy March: “The Producer” steps up, throws a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. Singer takes a deep breath and hits a five-hundred-foot home run that lands at #1 Pop and #1 R&B, establishing a key dynamic of the Aesthetic whilst identifying its great theme: Hormones!
“Denise”–Randy and the Rainbows (Dominick “Randy” Safuto, lead vocal; Frank Safuto, Mike Zero, Sal Zero, Ken Arcipowski, harmony vocals): Ode to a Girl: Volume I.
“Hanky Panky”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God in training, as a first-rank garage band singer. (Recorded,1964; #1 Pop, 1966)
“Let’s Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Doo wop pros from way back. They were often good. Just this once, they were as good as the Four Seasons. “Just this once” is a very key element of Naked Truth (not to mention “rock and roll”) aesthetics!
“Iko, Iko”–The Dixie Cups (Barbara Ann Hawkins, Rosa Lee Hawkins, Joan Marie Johnson, shared lead and harmony vocals): Chant power by way of New Orleans, which has to be in the basic DNA of this stuff somewhere. (Alternate: Lee Dorsey’s “Ya-Ya.”)
“I Want Candy”–The Strangeloves (Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer, shared lead and harmony vocals): NY session pros pretending to be Aussies to cash in on the British Invasion. Hey, the hunt for cash is never far from any true rock and roll endeavor! If they had hooked up with Tommy James, they would have kicked this thing into overdrive three years early, because the singer is the only thing missing. (Notably remade by Bow Wow Wow, who took the whole naked part of the Naked Truth quite literally.)
“My Boy Lollipop”–Millie Small: Truth to tell, this is not a big favorite of mine, but it put Jamaica on the map in a way I suspect Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or Toots Hibbert couldn’t have possibly done in 1965.
Beatles? …We don’t need no stinkin’ Beatles!
“Last Train to Clarksville”–The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “unknown”): Writer/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart have said this was essentially a Viet Nam record. David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren included it in their Heartaches By the Number (a terrific list of five hundred essential country records). Twelve-year-old girls went ape by the millions. Don Kirshner laughed all the way to the bank. None of them were wrong.
“Come on Down to My Boat”–Every Mother’s Son (Larry Larden, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “I ain’t real sure”): Signed as a “nice” garage band by the corporate overlords, they had one sly classic in them: about the hunt for poontang, naturally. Just what you’d expect from nice boys operating undercover.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron”–The Royal Guardsmen (Barry Winslow, lead vocal, Chris Nunley, harmony vocals…along with…possibly….others): More Brit-fakes, by way of Ocala, Florida. Actually, a derailed garage band. And, just vocally speaking, a perfect blend of the Monkees and the Swinging Medallions.
“Just My Style”–Gary Lewis and the Playboys (Gary Lewis, lead vocal, Ron Hicklin, bass and harmony vocal and, er, “vocal guidance”): Young Hollywood’s version of the malt shop. Meaning it’s so ersatz it hurts, but the bass vocal is a killer.
(Tommy James, a.k.a. “The Sun God,” accepting an award from Hubert Humphrey, for whom he served as “Official Youth Advisor” in the 1968 presidential campaign. The Naked Truth was everywhere.)
“I Think We’re Alone Now”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God finds His voice. The concept crystallizes. (Note: Best I can tell, various Shondells sang harmony vocals on all records by the group from this point forward but I can’t find an authoritative session listing so I’ll leave it at that.)
“Mony, Mony”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God reminds everyone that He started life leading a gutbucket garage band. Then He considerably ups the ante.
“Little Bit O’ Soul”–The Music Explosion (Jamie Lyons, lead vocal): Actually quite a bit more than a little. This could fit the blue-eyed soul category or the garage band category or just the blow-your-throat-out category, but their bosses (a couple of guys names Katz and Kasenetz, see image above) were working up to something….so it’s slotted here.
“Incense and Peppermints”–The Strawberry Alarm Clark (Greg Munford, lead vocal): Munford was actually a sixteen-year-old ringer, hired for this session only. The rest of the band? “In their early days of touring, the band members would often sit on ‘magic carpets’ as their roadies carried them to the stage and drummer Randy Seol would rig up wrist gas jets to give the illusion that he was playing the bongos and vibes with his hands on fire. This last gimmick was soon abandoned when it got to be too dangerous.” If that ain’t the Naked Truth, there’s no such thing.
“Daydream Believer”–The Monkees (Davy Jones, lead and harmony vocals; Mickey Dolenz, harmony vocals): There’s a piece of the sixties residing in this record–and specifically in Davy Jones’s vocal–that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Would we be any better off if it did?God only knows.
“Savoy Truffle”–The Beatles (George Harrison, lead vocal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, harmony vocals): Edges “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for the chewiest cut from the Aesthetic’s greatest conceptual album–the concept being a double album which, before Charles Manson got hold of it, was a perfect and completely abstract celebration of….Itself! Also a splinter under the skin of the entire sixties. Sometimes, the Truth is a little too Naked.
“She’d Rather Be With Me”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal; Mark Volman, harmony vocal): I wouldn’t call them mercenaries just because they were every bit as convincing here as they ever were at surf-rock or folk-rock or whatever you want to call that album just around the corner that included “Surfer Dan” (“He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by” and I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (“We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts”). I’d call them eclectic visionaries who could handle a line as tricky as “Some girls like to run around/They like to handle everything they see” with admirable aplomb and I’d put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But then I’m not part of the Conspiracy-That-Rules-Us….am I?
“Indian Lake”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Billy Cowsill hated his transcendent moment, which was forced on him by “management” (i.e., his abusive dad). According to Susan, Brian Wilson loved it. Brian Wilson knew best.
“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and (preferably) “Chewy, Chewy”–Ohio Express (Joey Levine, lead vocal): Er, remember Katz and Kasenetz? Well, they’re back and, okay, now it’s a marketing category. Joey Levine and whoever does that chirping on “Chewy, Chewy” save the day.
“This Magic Moment”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Want to drive an Establishmentarian absolutely crazy? Make him hate you forever? Say this is as good as the Drifters. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Just go ahead and say it anyway. Get Naked!
(Monkees?….We don’t need no stinkin’ Monkees!)
“Sugar, Sugar” and “Seventeen Ain’t Young”–The Archies (Ron Dante, lead and harmony vocals, Toni Wine and Andy Kim, harmony vocals): The Beatles had just done “Ob-La-Di, Ob-la-da.” Seriously, they needed to go. It was the Archies who broke up too soon. [Footnote: the Cuff Links’ “Tracy” didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s worth noting that Dante was the first (and I believe only) lead vocalist of the rock and roll era to have two songs in the Top Ten at the same time with two different groups. Of course he was!]
“Hair”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Banned in Viet Nam. You bet. One of rock’s greatest productions and arrangements, (vocally and every other way)–created nearly as obsessively as “Good Vibrations,” courtesy of Bob and Billy (and the fact that little brother John needed fifty-something takes to get the drum part right…these days, he drums for, you guessed it, the Beach Boys). It sold two million plus and their manager Dad almost immediately kicked Billy to the curb, leaving the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy families to reap the enormous benefits of the vacuum.
“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”–Edison Lighthouse (Tony Burrows, lead vocal; harmony vocals by some assemblage of British session singers): Ode to a girl, Volume II. The Secret Agent, a.k.a. Tony Burrows, arrives.
“United We Stand”–Brotherhood of Man (Tony Burrows and Sunny Leslie, lead and harmony vocals; Sue Glover, John Goodison and Roger Greenaway, harmony vocals): The Secret Agent under another of his many guises. Here trumped, for the only time in his career, by Sunny Leslie.
“Montego Bay”–Bobby Bloom: The Naked Truth, Island style. Bloom split his time in the music business between singing jingles and engineering records for the likes of late period Louis Jordan. He shot himself in 1974, the year of the Apotheosis. Accidentally, of course.
“Sweet Cherry Wine”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): Hey, there had to be at least one great anti-war bubblegum drinking song. Who else was gonna provide it?
“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”–The Poppy Family (Susan Jacks, lead vocal; Terry Jacks, harmony vocal): Once in a while, even the Naked Truth must stand before the Void.
(Wait…now Motown is involved? This is getting serious…)
“I Want You Back,”“ABC” and “The Love You Save” (Michael Jackson, lead and harmony vocals; Jermaine and Jackie Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals; Tito Jackson and Marlon Jackson, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Motown. And, from there, the emergence of the concept’s transcendent star, who would eventually crack under the strain and rain sorrow everywhere he went.
“One Bad Apple,”“Double Lovin” and “Yo-Yo”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, second lead and harmony vocals; Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and real competition for the J5 no matter what you might have heard. Then, of course, they decided to go it on their own. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.
“Tighter, Tighter”–Alive ‘N’ Kickin’ (Pepe Cardona, Sandy Toder, lead and harmony vocals): Side project for the Sun God. He gave them this one after He decided to keep “Crystal Blue Persuasion” for Himself. I’m still not sure He made the right call, though, to be fair, even He couldn’t have bettered this.
“I’ll Be There”–The Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson, lead vocal, Jermaine Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson and Tito Jackson, harmony vocals): So ethereal it really oughta float away. It’s Jermaine who keeps it on track and it’s the contrast between the two leads straining to live up to a concept supposed to be far beyond their years that makes it transcendent.
“I Think I Love You”–The Partridge Family (David Cassidy, lead vocal, Shirley Jones, Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler and Jackie Ward, harmony vocals): While the TV show was on the air, the great photographer Lynn Goldsmith did a photo shoot with Cassidy. One night while they were walking on the beach, he said “You know, Lynn, I’m a legend in my own time.” The Aesthetic could do that to a guy.
“Indiana Wants Me”–R. Dean Taylor: Of course, in any Aesthetic this quintessentially, buck-chasing, All-American there had to be a murder ballad. And the complete lack of sociopolitical import–reflected in both the lyrics and Taylor’s superbly callow vocal–probably runs a lot closer to the true spirit of the sort of guy who ends up running from the law saying things like “If a man ever needed dyin’ he did/No one had the right to say what he said…about you,” than anything ever managed by Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen (who, for better and worse, has spent a large chunk of his life trying to re-write this).
“Ballroom Blitz”–Sweet: (Brian Connolly and Steve Priest, shared lead and harmony vocals; Andy Scott and Mick Tucker, harmony vocals): Blitzkreig is more like it, “glam” being the Naked Truth’s logical next step. Recorded in 1973, a US hit in 1975.
“How Do You Do”–Mouth & MacNeal (Willem Duyn, a.k.a. “Big Mouth,” and Maggie MacNeal, shared lead and harmony vocals): Caveman and Cinderella. Cinderella’s two-line solo verse may be the Aesthetic’s finest vocal moment.
(Elton John on Soul Train..it was that kind of time.)
“Rock Me Gently”–Andy Kim: The Apotheosis of the Apotheosis. By a former Archie, of course. (Would really like some help identifying the background singer(s) on this one!) UPDATE: Wikipedia has come through. Carol Carmichael and Company….though it’s unclear if there was really a Company or just overdubs. In any case brilliant. She also reportedly did the harmony vocals on Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” which is enough to justify any human’s life.)
“Beach Baby”–First Class (Tony Burrows, lead and harmony vocals; Chas Mills, harmony vocals): The rumor was, this was the Beach Boys recording under another name. An Australian DJ played it for Brian Wilson who said it wasn’t the Beach Boys but it was definitely West Coast America. Actually it was recorded in London by a bunch of English session pros headed by the Secret Agent. But that’s just geography. I prefer to think Brian was referring to a state of mind…in which case he was dead on. (The link is fun and is the 45 edit…Full glorious version here (in particularly superb sound). I’ll leave the story of how this record was very weirdly linked to my first speeding ticket for some other day!)
“Rock On”–David Essex: Re-channeling the fifties was a very big part of the Naked Truth. Never better than on this record which made the fifties sound like they could have only happened in a glam-rock dream. I mean, it’s so fake it’s kinda….real.
“Rock the Boat”–The Hues Corporation (Fleming Williams, lead vocal, St. Clair Lee and H. Ann Kelly, harmony vocals): Lifted by the discos, which only proved the Naked Truth was getting around. Or maybe just that certain forms of perfection really are undeniable.
“Benny and the Jets”–Elton John: Star looks audience dead in the face and plays the me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me-looking-at-you game, sans cynicism or naivete.
“The Locomotion”–Grand Funk (Mark Farner, lead vocal; Don Brewer, Craig Frost, Todd Rundgren, harmony vocals): If you turn it up to eleven and listen all the way through, you might feel like you’ve just been bludgeoned to death with a ball peen hammer on the set of a bad seventies-era cop show. But if, for any number of reasons, you should find yourself in need of identifying the prime source for hair metal, this is as good a place to start as any.
“Hooked on a Feeling”–Blue Swede (Bjorn Skifs, lead vocal; harmony vocals? I dunno. A steam packet?): Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga-cha-ka. I think I had this in philosophy class in Junior College. I think it was part of a multiple choice test where all the options were this or “I Want Candy.” Aced that test! No, really, I’m sure I did.
“Waterloo”–Abba (Agnetha Faltskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, lead and harmony vocals; Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, harmony vocals): Couple of guys teamed up with their manager to write lines like “I was defeated, you won war” for their significant others to sing back to them in a song contest. Thus was Euro-pop born.
“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”–Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (Sorry, couldn’t find any solid info on the lead or backing singers..Help, I need somebody!): Okay, so this was a little late to the Age of Viet Nam Protest. Let alone the age of Civil War Protest (to which it was supposedly referring). But you could argue Bo and the boys were really protesting the next war. Which might make it the most Naked Truth of all. (Note: This song was originally done by an English group, Paper Lace, who hit #1 about the same time with “The Night Chicago Died,” one of the strangest records ever made. I didn’t include it only because I found trying to formulate actual thoughts about it made me more than usually inclined to just give up a life of abstinence and become a drinking man.)
“Kung Fu Fighting”–Carl Douglas: “In fact it was a little bit frightening.” A little bit? Hey the Establishmentarians had to come up with punk rock to combat this stuff. It was clearly getting out of hand.
“Rock and Roll Heaven”–The Righteous Brothers: See what I mean? Necrophilia in the top five. Isn’t that just what the Velvet Underground was after all along?
Post (What Came After):
“The Proud One”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals) : One last improbable shining moment for the brothers, courtesy of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe and harmonies only a shared womb can produce.
“It’s OK”–The Beach Boys (Mike Love, lead and harmony vocals; Dennis Wilson, second lead and harmony vocals; Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Marilyn Wilson, Al Jardine, harmony vocals): Really guys? It took you this long?
“Boogie Fever”–The Sylvers (Edmund Sylvers, lead vocal; Foster Sylvers, second lead; Olan Sylvers, Charmaigne Sylvers, J.J. Sylvers, Ricky Sylvers, Angie Sylvers, Pat Sylvers, harmony vocals): You know how you can tell if something fits the Aesthetic? When the lead singer can sing a line like “You know she ate a pizza, dancing to the beat,” with the purest conviction.
(The Aesthetic now brimmed with such confidence that teen idols even came in…plaid. This may have been hubris.)
“More, More, More”–The Andrea True Connection (Andrea True, lead vocal): Abba. Blue Swede. Then this. What was it with the Swedes and the Aesthetic. Even their porn stars got into the act. They’re obviously a strange people.
“That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”–Shaun Cassidy: The last blast of the teen-pop ethos kick-started by the Cowsills. Shortly after, the switch flipped. I think it had something to do with Reagan being elected and the end of politics. But it’s possible I’m paranoid.
“New York Groove”–Ace Frehley: Hey, KISS didn’t miss by much, themselves. KISS’s guitarist cashing in on disco by calling on the spirit of the Sun God? That goes straight to the heart of the matter. (Worth visiting this update here…In case you’re wondering what a recording studio can do for a fella. To be fair this is the very first time I’ve ever paid the least attention to the words.)
“You’re the One That I Want”–Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta: Suzy Creamcheese and Boy Toy smoke themselves, each other, the charts, whatever else happens to be standing near.
“B-A-B-Y,”“Shadows of the Night”–Rachel Sweet: The link between Carla Thomas and Britney Spears (there had to be one, didn’t there?) and teen-rock’s great lost voice. (Pat Benetar having the hit with “Shadows of the Night” was one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse. And, yes, I know which one, but I’m not allowed to tell.)
“Mickey”–Toni Basil: Ode to a Boy, Volume I (subsequent volumes….pending). “I Want Candy” from the other side of the fence (even further than Bow Wow Wow’s actual remake of “I Want Candy,” if only because it was a natural smash.)
“Uptown”–Prince: The Sun God’s natural heir and an all but official sequel to “Sweet Cherry Wine.” (Sorry, couldn’t find a useful link.)
“Jessie’s Girl”–Rick Springfield: The greatest record ever made by a soap opera star. And one of the greatest records ever made by anybody about that strange place called L.A. At least in the sense that, despite it’s universal lyric theme, it’s sense of helpless, plasticized doom couldn’t possibly have been conceived anywhere else at the time. These days, plasticized doom being such common coin of the realm, it couldn’t be conceived anywhere at all. Strange, that. Has all the markings of a Security State plot. I’d investigate further but, hey, I don’t want to end up like this guy.
“Jump”–Van Halen (David Lee Roth, lead vocal): Somebody once described “Dance the Night Away” (perfectly) as “the Archies meet the Rolling Stones.” For this one, they ditched the Stones.
(Dressed for success…in a Beatles’ t-shirt. “This is the end. My only friend, the end.”)
“Dressed for Success”–Roxette (Marie Fredriksson, lead and harmony vocal; Per Gessle, harmony vocal): If somebody asked me for one record to define the eighties, you know, the end of Politics in the West, this would be it. The Swedes again. Is anyone surprised? But, hey, at least the end sounded wonderful. It had a good beat and you could dance to it.
“Rhythm of the Night”–Debarge (El DeBarge, lead vocal; Bunny DeBarge, Randy DeBarge, Mark DeBarge, James DeBarge, harmony vocals): Light as a feather and God love ’em. You start with the J5 (or, if you like, Little Peggy March) and by the time you get to here, the Naked Truth is virtually….indistinguishable…from…anything….else. Catchy at least.
“TLC”–Linear (Charlie Pennachio, lead vocal; Wyatt Pauley, Joey Restivo, Trevor Anthony and Billy Griffin, harmony vocals ): The new paradigm. Hip-hop style, rock image, Aesthetic vocals, catchy marketing (“Latin Freestyle”). It never quite took hold. This, in fact, was as far as it got Aesthetically speaking. Too bad….But if there could only be one, at least it was perfect.
“MMMBop”–Hanson (Taylor Hanson, lead and harmony vocals; Isaac Hanson, Zac Hanson, harmony vocals): The most exciting teen-and-under vocalist since Michael Jackson. And, after this fell from #1, there was absolutely nowhere for him to go. Need some semblance of a culture for that particular sort of career development, so goodbye to all that. Singing I mean. Teen-pop lives on, of course. Heck, it rules. But it’s the (mostly white) quasi-hip-hop version now. And hip-hop, quasi- or otherwise, belongs to suits and producers, not singers. After this, the men in charge finally figured out a way for teen-pop to permanently be both crust and filling, instead of the cherry on top.
If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:
Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”
In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).
That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.
This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)
(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…
“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.
“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.
“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.
“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.
“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.
“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.
“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.
“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.
“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!
“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.
“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).
“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.
“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.
“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.
“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”
“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.
“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.
“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.
“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)
“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.
“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.
“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.
“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.
“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.
“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)
“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.
“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.
“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)
“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.
“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.
“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.
“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.
“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.
“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.
“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.
“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.
“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.
“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.
“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.
“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”
“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.
“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.
So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!
[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]