OH, CANADA…AND SO MUCH MORE (Jack Scott, R.I.P.)

Though his family moved to Detroit when he was ten and he made his mark as a unique voice in rockabilly and later country, Jack Scott (born Giovanni Scafone, Jr.) was the first true Canadian rock and roll star. He was both more rock and roll and more Canadian than Paul Anka, who was headed to Vegas wherever he was from.

And he was a great one, racking up 19 chart hits in 41 months, a feat matched in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era only by Elvis, the Beatles, Fats Domino and Connie Francis. More importantly, he was a musical and spiritual godfather for the Band (whose original leader, Ronnie Hawkins moved from Arkansas to Canada, reversing Scott’s journey), the Guess Who, Randy Bachman, Neil Young and anybody else who made rock and roll out of Canadian roots. On the American side, he was also the first serious white rocker out of the Detroit that would produce Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger among others.

He died this past December after having a heart attack on my birthday. He left here an unjustly forgotten pioneer who worked until the very end and was more deserving of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction than any of the acts or businessmen whose inductions were announced the month after his death.

They forgot.

We ain’t forgot….

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Connie Francis Up)

“Fallin’”
Connie Francis (1958)
#30 Billboard
#39 Cashbox
Recommended source: Souvenirs

Connie Francis was a brilliant pop singer who, because she was the right age for it in the late fifties, got marketed to the rock and roll audience–and pulled it off. Not many waked that path with any real success. Bobby Darin for sure. Pat Boone sort of (his success was undeniable–for all kinds of musical and social reasons, his relationship to rock and roll was far more dubious than Darin’s or even Connie’s, but that’s a story for another time).

If you accept her as rock and roll–which is not much more a stretch than accepting Italo-American women who came in her wake, from Nancy Sinatra to Madonna Ciccone (lots don’t, I sometimes do, though Connie remains an enigma)–then she was the music’s first female superstar, beating Brenda Lee to the Top Ten by two years.

Yet, if Brenda is obscured now, Connie is all but forgotten. Listening to the first disc of her box set Souvenirs, which I just reacquired, more than fifteen years after the Great CD Selloff of 2002 (aka, The Second Worst Mistake of My Life–the first involved a girl), one can almost hear why.

Despite her remarkable talent, it didn’t seem the industry knew quite what to do with her. Records that would have fit right in–and possibly been big hits a few years earlier–sounded staid and old-fashioned in 1955 and ’56, even though she was still in her teens.

After ten straight stiffs (somebody must have believed in her), “Who’s Sorry Now” finally put her in the big time, reaching #4 on both the Pop and R&B charts in 1957. There was another stiff and a modest hit before she followed up with 1958’s “Stupid Cupid,” a novelty that sold entirely on her voice and didn’t necessarily point to any discernible future.

A few months later, in early 1959, “My Happiness”–an early and excellent example of vocal double-tracking (mostly available to singers who were really on-pitch in those days)–went to #2, established her basic persona for good, and cemented her position as a major star, a position she would hold until the arrival of the Beatles. (From “Stupid Cupid” onward, twenty-seven of her next twenty-eight singles went Top 40, with thirteen going Top 10 and three to #1.)

You don’t exactly need a calculator to count the vocal stars who could match that success between 1956 and 1963 and to count the women you only need to count Connie and Brenda.

But the record released between “Stupid Cupid” and “My Happiness” is one of history’s intriguing near misses. “Fallin'” was a bluesy, adult vocal married to a Tin Pan Alley-style lyric (not as good as top level Tin Pan Alley but not bad). It stalled in the lower half of the Top 40 and was promptly forgotten. If it had broken as big as “My Happiness” did with the very next release–if the lyric had been as good as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or “Blue Moon,”–who knows what possibilities producers would have sensed in Francis’ voice? Hits do clarify things!

It’s a fine record in its own right. And the more pop-sounding records were plenty good.

But boy would I love to hear her on an album’s worth of this stuff:

“THE ONLY WHITE WOMAN WHO COULD SING THE BLUES” (Kay Starr: R.I.P.)

kaystarr1

“The only white woman who could sing the blues.”

You don’t have to completely buy Billie Holiday’s judgment to recognize that Katherine LaVerne Stark, who made her way from a Texas chicken farm to a Bel Air mansion by way of a Memphis radio station and a host of big band gigs (Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, like that) where she was forever replacing or being replaced by someone more famous, was one of the key voices that bridged what came before with the new “fad” she celebrated in her biggest hit:

Her phrasing alone left a deep stamp on the styles of Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, and, through them, a thousand others. And, in the ferment of the early fifties, she crossed easily from Jazz to Pop to Country, giving a boost to the crossover ambitions of Tennessee Ernie Ford along the way.

Though she was often saddled with the era’s clunky arrangements, she established another truism which has carried down to the present day–the unique ability of the powerful female voice to cut through any “wall of sound” a male arranger/producer/computer designer can create.

Whoever called the amalgamation Hillbilly Jazz wasn’t wrong. But, in the end, like most great singers who cross so many boundaries, her style was more properly defined as something both broader and more specific.

Call it “Kay Starr.”

Six marriages and ninety-four years on, she passed this week, one of the few of her generation who could say the revolutions she set in motion are still spinning.

kaystarr3

 

WHAT’S IN A VOICE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #64)

I don’t do a whole lot of lists, but I’m not immune to them. If I ever got really full of myself (or something stronger) and did one that was titled something like “The Ten Most Beautiful Records Ever Made,” Jeannie Kendall, who most of the world has never hear of, and is remembered by most of those who have for “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and nothing else, would probably be singing on about seven of them.

One of those would be her recorded version of “Making Believe,” which would also top any list entitled “The Greatest Versions of ‘Making Believe.'”

And “Making Believe” is one of the few songs that actually has enough great versions to warrant a list. It’s one of those songs nearly every country giant (and not a few from other fields) has not only taken a crack at but done justice by. The great country women, either soloing or duetting (as Jeannie did with her father) have been especially drawn to it: Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Anita Carter, Emmylou Harris, Loretta and Conway, Patty and Vince. That’s in addition to Merle Haggard, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.

You know, like that.

Just at the high end. Just for starters.

But on record, nobody made it cut like the Kendalls.

My improbable discovery of the past week was that they made it cut even deeper on Austin City Limits, way back when:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiCCeS0W2_A

And my other not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that it still doesn’t cut as deep as “Just Like Real People” or “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” or “I’m Coming Down Lonely,” which is so obscure that it’s not even on YouTube.

So my final not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that we’re not living in a perfect world just yet.

But, you know, stay tuned. Anything could happen.

HARD LUCK WOMAN (Evie Sands: Vocalist of the Month, 9/13)

Evie Sands was one of rock and roll’s great near-misses and great lost voices.

So it sort of makes sense that I discovered her in a case of forty-fives a friend of mine swapped me during our senior year in high school for helping him cheat on an algebra test that he ultimately failed anyway.

I suspect the main reason he went ahead and made the deal despite being grounded for the rest of the school year by my inability to lift him over the line–and thereby losing the stakes that made it a big enough deal for him to consider cheating in the first place (studying, of course, was simply not a cool option)–was because they were his sister’s forty-fives.

He swore she’d never miss them.

Since I already had enough vinyl in my veins to risk flunking a teacher’s aide class on my way to graduation day–don’t worry, when I was trying to change those neat little minuses into neat little pluses with a mechanical pencil the teacher knew good and well had no place in grading papers (red markers were preferred then as doubtless they still are), he was looking straight over at me, which told me that Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about guilt and that, having cooked up this deal less than forty-eight hours earlier, my friend had probably spent some part of the interim running his mouth about how he had the test in the bag because he had me in the bag–it’s more than a little likely I would have run into Evie somewhere along the way.

Still, that particular forty-five of hers that was hiding in a stack of my friend’s sister’s purloined stash represented a real marker in my development as a record fanatic.

I had already noticed that some records I loved didn’t stay on the radio very long, but when it came to judging the past I was stuck with what still lingered in the air or in the written record–in oldies’ formats or K-tel commercials or my trusty chart books or even stray conversations with people who had been around “back then.”

You know, back in the good old days of five or ten years before when I was technically alive but thoroughly oblivious.

But Sands and her record fit no ready frame of reference in my 1978 world. So “Any Way That You Want Me,” which had come out when I was eight years old, reached me like a talisman from a lost time.

Odd that is had this peculiar effect, because by 1978 I had actually heard enough “oldies” to know that a lot of the record’s elements were perhaps over-familiar. To, in effect, know what I didn’t know.

I did not know, for instance, that the bridge was a direct lift from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but if somebody had told me it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, hadn’t the Doors ripped the intro to “Touch Me” from the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne?” Sure they had. And didn’t I like springing that one on anybody who thought the Doors were the coolest band ever and made retching noises any time Frankie Valli’s name came up?

Sure I did.

I didn’t doubt there were a lot of reasons why “Any Way That You Want Me” couldn’t be heard on the radio anymore (if it ever had been), why there were no tantalizing snippets on cheesy TV ads, why there was no mention of it in my chart or reference books, which in those days, never seemed to stretch to include anything which hadn’t made the Top 40 unless it was from some serious “artist”’s cool album.

Believe me, I knew Evie Sands singing “Any Way That You Want Me’ wasn’t cool.

I’d have known that much even if it hadn’t been pilfered from a girl.

Maybe some place. Maybe some time.

Not where I lived. Not then.

I even knew–sort of–that there might be troubling socio-political implications in the lyric scenario of a woman pleading with a man to take her any way he’ll have her.

I also knew none of that mattered.

Because the two things that grabbed me were the tone of desperate pleading and the quality of the singer’s voice.

I related.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to stop caring about what is cool.

Evie Sands made lots of fine records. As an up and comer with big talent in the New York scene that was turning out the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, she should have had a hit with “Take Me For a Little While” in the mid-sixties. Should have, that is, except that somebody swiped the master, took it to Chicago, cut it with soul singer Jackie Ross (who wasn’t aware of the subterfuge), got it on the streets first and muddied the waters so badly that neither version ended up charting nationally even though both caught fire wherever they were played. The fallout within the industry was bad enough to scotch Evie’s followup “I Can’t Let Go,” which was stronger than the hit versions by either the Hollies or, much later, Linda Ronstadt (two artists I happen to love).

Not too long after that the great writer/producer Chip Taylor waxed his masterpiece “Angel of the Morning” with her (after Connie Francis reportedly turned it down) and, again, her killer version took off in numerous local markets.

The orders poured in just as the record label was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.

Not long after, Merrilee Rush cut an equally killer version for a record company that wasn’t going bankrupt and her take soared into the top ten, becoming a permanent radio fixture and a direct model for Juice Newton’s big hit in the early eighties.

So it went, until “Any Way That You Want Me” was released in 1969.

It wasn’t quite as much a mystery in its own time as it was a decade later when I encountered it somewhere in the middle of my friend’s sister’s nice little collection of Three Dog Night and Jackson 5 and Isley Brothers’ records and felt myself getting–as the retro-phrase now often used for entirely separate reasons to describe those years goes–dazed and confused.

Like Sands’ earlier major efforts, the record had been a big hit in a bunch of different local markets, including Birmingham, Alabama, which probably had at least some influence on the southern Alabama region that contained the Top 40 stations for the section of the Florida Panhandle where I would pass through high school–the market, that is, where high school girls who had gone off to college by the time I came along and left their forty-five collections unprotected from their dope-smoking, not-into-studying-but-really-don’t-want-to-get-grounded little brothers, were likely to hear the records that drove them into stores with whatever part of their baby-sitting money went for something to spin on the Dansette.

So, unlike those previous near-misses, “Any Way That You Want Me” did not sink without a trace, to await the high end collectors who have kept Evie Sands’ name alive in the collective memory bank, two, three and four decades on. It was, in fact, something of a hit, reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 nationally and selling around 500,000 copies.

Even then, something held it slightly in check. It rambled around the middle of the charts and became (with, of all things, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”) the record that spent the most time on Billboard‘s main chart without cracking the top 50.

Seventeen weeks as it happened.

There have been plenty of top ten and even #1 records that spent less.

Something, then, kept it from breaking out all the way.

Perhaps the fact that the Troggs, who had hit #1 a couple of summers earlier with Taylor’s “Wild Thing”–as far from the sensibilities of “Any Way That You Want Me” as Void is from the Creation (I’ll leave it to each Earthling to decide for his or herself which record is which, and just gently remind all and sundry that one cannot exist without the other)–had released a hit version in the UK in 1966, tipped the Cosmos just slightly.

Or maybe Evie’s version was simply a little too strong, a little too mysterious, contained just a little too much genuine ache, to find its home anywhere but the edge of the frame.

Maybe it was destined to remain half-hidden, waiting for us kindred spirits to discover it by our own haphazard methods.

Some records are like that.

Evie’s career went on for a bit–was, in fact, just winding down when my path intersected hers.

She got an album out of the single’s success and it’s quite fine, featuring the kind of soulful, folkish material that smoky-voiced goddesses like Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Gentry were doing around the same time and, strictly as a vocalist, Sands was very much in their league, even as the plaintive aspects of her timbre put her in a league of her own.

In my world–then and now–that’s saying something.

Unfortunately, the future was already behind her. The chance for sustained, long term success had already flown. There were a couple of modest hits later in the seventies. A couple of decades further along, there was a reunion with Chip Taylor and his partner, Al Gorgoni, which produced a lovely CD called Women In Prison. She still tours and occasionally produces other artists.

The early days are still where the magic is, though.

The magic and the ache.

Boats against the current.

What might have been.

You know the drill.

I happened to first encounter her in that phase of any music lover’s life when discoveries are happening on a near-daily basis. But I suspect that she would have broken through with spectacular force whenever and wherever I found her.

Heck, I don’t even suspect. I know.

I live in America in the age of decline and fall and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The past never seems nearer and dearer than when we know the future is behind us.

Even if it only hit #53 in Billboard!