Eventually, some of the things that should happen, do happen. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the induction of its latest performing class back in early December. They waited about a month and half to announce, with little fanfare (I completely missed the news and I actually try to keep up with this stuff), the latest non-performer inductee, in a category that has more recently come to be called the “Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement.”
I think we need George Carlin to rise from the grave and mock the category naming (along with all the other million reasons we need George Carlin to rise from the grave), but at least this time they got it right.
Bert Berns got into the record biz in 1960, just after he turned thirty. He was dead by 1968, of the heart disease doctors had predicted would kill him before he turned 21. In between he wrote or produced over fifty hits, started a couple of iconic record labels (Bang and Shout) and did as much to foster the best part of the revolution as any other single writer or producer.
Even more impressive than his number of hits, though, was the kind of hits. Even his occasional quasi-novelties, like the career-starter, the Jarmels “A Little Bit of Soap,” were killers.
I doubt I’d ever be able to pick a single favorite out of “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry to Me,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” and oh so many more, but, in going over his discography, I realized that I’d never quite understood just how consistently high the quality of his records actually was…or how many exist in multiple great (usually hit) versions. The Isleys and the Beatles on “Twist and Shout,” Erma Franklin and Janis Joplin in “Piece of My Heart,” The Strangeloves and Bow Wow Wow on “I Want Candy.” One could go on.
If I had to pick the essence, though, I’d pick these, both also produced by Berns in England, where he was the first American producer to record rock and roll. The first marker of truly great songwriters is that the truly great singers want to sing their songs.
I regret that I didn’t do more to push Berns in my occasional forays into nudging the Hall down the path to righteousness. Just one of those oversights I can’t explain or excuse. Fortunately, just this once, they didn’t need my help!
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.
Okay, back to the mission here with a new category.
Yes, this past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America, but it also, of course, marks the same anniversary of the beginning of what came, almost instantly, to be called the “second British Invasion” and then came (in the instant after that) to be called the British Invasion.
For shorthand historical purposes, this latter phrase has ever since referred to the tide of British acts who followed immediately in the Beatles path to success in America. Like pretty much every other rock and roll moment/movement between the early fifties and the early nineties, this “British Invasion” was, first and foremost, carried along by singers. It might seem self-evident that this is so, but most of what’s ever been written about the great changes the Beatles (and the Invasion in general) wrought have tended to focus on anything but singing, focusing instead on the rise of self-contained bands, the genius of the best bands being defined as those who wrote the best songs, the veneration of guitar gods, how witty and engaging some of the lads were in press conferences, whether the Beatles really were bigger than Jesus and so forth.
But the British Invasion finally rose and fell on great singing, just like nearly every other significant development in rock history before and after. So I thought I’d round up a list of some of the key vocal performances from 1964–66 that set the standards–and the limits–of just how far this thing proved it could go as commerce and/or art.
I think I included every really formidable singer from the Invasion proper who had any success at all on this side of the pond, though, of course, most of these made many other great records, so bear in mind this is only a representative sample. (I listed lead singers for groups and harmony singers where I thought they added something significant to the record. Also, where possible, I tried to find some interesting live version of the song in question for a link. But if you only want to close your eyes and listen to one, I’d recommend “It’s My Life” which is played off the original 45 and sounds superior to any CD mix I’ve heard.)
[Final note: This list is very roughly chronological but it’s really more about the gradual opening up of psychic space, as opposed to dates on a calendar….If you want to believe that’s code for “I’m way too lazy to look up every single one of these recording dates!” well, I won’t exactly give you an argument.]
“I Want To Hold Your Hand”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals): The kick-starter and a true update of the Everlys, with John and Paul as indistinguishable from each other’s heartbeats as they would ever be on record. They were never able to repeat the magic of this one live because (at least in every performance I’ve seen) they always stood at separate mikes and rather far apart. Fortunately for us, them and the world, the space they clearly needed on stage disappeared in the recording studio.
“She Loves You”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals, George Harrison, harmony vocal): Sheer rhetorical brilliance. Here were the Beatles, on their second big American single, claiming a special kinship (reinforced by the passion and intimacy of the harmonies) with the sort of staunch young female who made them a cultural phenomenon to begin with. It was a kinship they (John in particular, though Paul’s oft-expressed “well-it-would-be-nice-if-they-only-screamed-at-musically-appropriate-times” attitude speaks volumes as well) frequently made a point of disowning the moment it was commercially safe to do so. But the record itself was somehow both thunderous and sublimely intimate in its moment and has remained so in every moment since.
“I Only Want To Be With You”–Dusty Springfield: Dusty hit the charts the week after the Beatles with a record that very likely would have been an American hit in any case, providing, as it did, an instant bridge between the then reigning girl group sound and the blue-eyed soul waiting just around the corner. A solo vocal that sounds like a wave crashing on the beach. Only you, Dusty, only you.
“House of the Rising Sun”–The Animals (lead vocal, Eric Burdon): Maybe it was the JFK assassination or the Beatles on Sullivan. Maybe it was the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. Maybe it was something else. But you could stake a fair claim on “the Sixties” really being born here. When a working class English kid could step up to the mike and deliver a blues vocal on a par with Muddy or the Wolf then all bets were off and confusion was bound to continue its reign long after the exhilaration faded.
“Do Wah Diddy Diddy”–Manfred Mann (Paul Jones, lead vocal): Okay, an epic vocal on “House of the Rising Sun” is one thing, but this couldn’t possibly have been what Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had in mind when they wrote this.
“You Really Got Me”–The Kinks (Ray Davies, lead vocal): Dave Davies’ ripped-and-ready guitar chords get most of the love, but, great as all that is, it’s also mostly a fine variant on things Link Wray and Paul Burlison and Lonnie Mack had already gotten up to (in some cases, years before). But Ray’s vocal really was something new and astonishing, a maelstrom of self-pity turned on its head so that the anger always underlying such emotions comes boiling to the top in what was ostensibly a lyric designed to express the same aching sentiments as, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Here, the “sentiment” is basically along the lines of “if you don’t love me as much as I love you, I’ll punch you in the face.” There was one occasion later, on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Ray even topped himself–there, he sounded both more plaintive and more dangerous at the same time. But this was the breakthrough. (UPDATE: My bad. It was brother Dave on the lead vocal for “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” though Ray wrote it.)
“I’m Into Something Good”–Herman’s Hermits (lead vocal, Peter Noone): This swept aside Earl Jean’s version on its way up the charts. One of the uglier aspects of the British Invasion was that it temporarily brought back the practice of “cover” versions–i.e., a white version very specifically designed to sublimate the air play of a black original–which the original rock and rollers had laid to waste. Just to complicate things a bit further, though, some fair amount of the time the record by the highly marketable English lads was just as good (see the Moody Blues’ version of “Go Now,” co-opted from Bessie Banks, or Manfred Mann’s “Sha-la-la,” co-opted from the Shirelles, for other convincing examples; see the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” co-opted from Irma Thomas, for one among many not-so-convincing examples). Case in point is that, at least on this record, Peter Noone actually sounded like a male version of a girl group singer. For a solid year after–and despite Noone’s more usual penchant for sounding closer to an especially adenoidal Music Hall escapee (“No Milk Today” and “Must To Avoid” very much excepted)–the Hermits battled the Dave Clark Five for second place among British acts on the American charts. Evidently, young women were not entirely immune to hearing a cute boy sing themselves back to themselves.
“Needles and Pins”–The Searchers (lead vocal, Mike Pender, harmony vocal Chris Curtis): A rare great harmony record by a Liverpool band other than the Beatles themselves (more about that below), and perhaps more noted now for its influence on American folk rock via twin six-string guitars that presaged the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds’ early hits. But the vocal shouldn’t be sold short, marking as it did a kind of link between the American folk movement and the folk rock that would explode a year later.
“Is It True?”–Brenda Lee: A bit of a cheat but only a bit. Obviously Brenda’s not British. But this was recorded in London with Mickie Most (likely England’s greatest record producer)** at the console and Jimmy Page (yes, that Jimmy Page) on guitar. No way any of that was happening without the Invasion and, based on the evidence, the LP Lee reportedly planned to make in England that never materialized is a great loss indeed. Beyond its own considerable value, notable for providing proof that British vocalists would not have to rely on American studio expertise when it was time to make great records on the assembly line. If the locals could hang with Brenda Lee, they could hang with anybody.
“Glad All Over”–Dave Clark Five (Mike Smith, lead vocal): The seeds of Power Pop and Glam. Also, about as subtle as a sledgehammer–an approach well-noted by many after it started making a whole lotta money. And lots of other people did make money going down this same path–though relatively few made similar magic.
“Downtown”–Petula Clark: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, Brits other than Dusty Springfield (i.e., Brits who weren’t geniuses) could do Bacharach-style Orchestral Pop. Now things were getting serious! It turned out that–other than Dusty Springfield–really only Petula Clark could do it and that even she could only do it so transcendently this once. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a lot of American session pros a great deal more nervous than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever did. (And just how Pop was it? Well, I first heard it in a shopping mall when I was five, with Christmas decorations festooned all around…and I promise you it changed my life.)
“My Generation”–The Who (Roger Daltrey, lead vocal): Not a big hit in America initially but an anthem an awful lot of people took to heart precisely because of its stuttering vocal. A sixties’ version of the semi-articulate angst-ridden ethos James Dean had spoken to (and for) in a much more artificial context a decade earlier. (For an even more exhilarating version of the same basic world view, see “The Kids Are Alright.” For an even nastier one, see “The Good’s Gone.”)
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, lead vocal): The Stones had made some good records before this. Mick Jagger had even waxed a few really fine vocals. But, for the most part, the fuss they kicked up in the first year and a half of the Invasion is–musically speaking–a little hard to hear these days. The band smoked from the beginning, but early Jagger generally sang as though American English (especially black American English) was a foreign language he had learned phonetically. This is where he sold his soul to the Devil so he could complete with his idols, perhaps even surpass them. Compete he did. Surpass them he even perhaps occasionally did. Beginning in about 1973, the Devil got payback–he always does, whatever you decide to call him–but it was beyond belief while it lasted and it really did begin here.
“He’s Sure the Boy I Love”–Lulu: This was a remake–not simply a cover (as it was not designed to compete with the original on the charts and was not even released as a single)–of a Crystals’ hit on which Darlene Love had sung lead. Make that, the mighty Darlene Love. No way was Lulu supposed to dig in her heels and blow past Darlene Love (even if she was greatly assisted by a superior arrangement). But it happened. On a bit of album filler no less–and it is out of such miracles that cults are born and raised. Proof, if anybody needed it, that the Brits had a pretty deep bench.
“Look Through Any Window”–The Hollies (Alan Clarke, lead vocals, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, harmony vocals): One interesting, little-noted fact about the Invasion was that, having been made possible by a great harmony vocal group, it produced relatively little great harmony singing aside from the Beatles themselves. While the Fab Four’s own vocal impact in America was enormous (with implications that stretched from the Byrds in ‘65 to Buckingham/Nicks’ era Fleetwood Mac in the seventies to the Bangles in the eighties, and that’s just scraping the surface), only one of the British harmony groups who arrived in their wake were remotely in their league. This was their best early record and if they–or anyone–bettered it later on, it wasn’t by much.
“Gloria”–Them (Van Morrison, lead vocals): Displaced Irishman on his way to becoming the Invasion’s greatest singer howls at the moon and gives every garage band in the history of the world from that moment forward a reason to exist–not to mention hope. (Not to mention a break from playing “Louie, Louie”!)
“It’s My Life”–The Animals (Eric Burdon, lead vocal): “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was just as great and certainly more iconic–it’s still the go-to record for anyone who wants to short-hand Viet Nam-as-nightmare. But I’m going with this one because it’s possibly the angriest vocal ever recorded. By the end of it, Burdon actually sounds like somebody who might stab you in the throat–but only if you get in his way.
“Gimme Some Lovin'”–The Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood, lead vocal): The first instance of a popular record that involved speaking in tongues. Can’t say the idea caught on, but it’s still out there, waiting….
“Help” (John Lennon, lead vocal, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, harmony vocals) and “I’m Down” (Paul McCartney, lead vocal, John Lennon and George Harrison, harmony vocals)–The Beatles: Two sides of a 1965 forty-five. Side A featured John the acerbic rocker at his most vulnerable (he said in later interviews that he should have done it as a ballad). Side B featured Paul the romantic doing his crazed Little Richard imitation (and matching the original). All of which helps explain just how they were able to stay on top of this incredible wave for its duration.
“Friday On My Mind”–The Easybeats (Stevie Wright, lead vocal): Although an American studio confection who called themselves the Strangeloves made some classic, self-consciously primitive records while pretending to be Aussies (to exploit the Invasion, naturally), the first real Australian hit (albeit one recorded in England) was this garage-style classic from sixty-six. The only thing stranger than the combination of passion and opacity suggested by too much contemplation of a line like “Even my old man looks…good” is hearing Wright actually sing it. I might be delusional but, at this distance, I swear at least a hint of everything that bubbled up from down under afterwards is contained in this record: the Bee-Gees, Olivia Newton-John, AC/DC….whatever. I tilt my head this way and that and I hear it. Every bit of it. No really.
“Season of the Witch”–Donovan: A droogy, starry-eyed Scottish lad–who never did anything else even remotely similar–defines the future and names the era we’re still living in. Let’s just say that the psychological distance between this record and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the present,” is considerably less than the distance between this record and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been recorded two years earlier. (Note: I reserve the right to pick this one again when I do my inevitable “Greatest Folk Rock Vocals” post!)
**(Most produced five of the records on this list and his range went from the Animals to Herman’s Hermits. Later on, his range went from “To Sir With Love” to “You Sexy Thing.” He really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).
Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.
There is certainly some validity to that.
But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.
That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.
Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.
But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).
Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).
Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.
To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.
As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.
The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).
According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.
“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”
What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”
What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.
* * * *
For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.
The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.
As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).
As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)
Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).
Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.
Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).
Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.
And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.
Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.
We shouldn’t really be surprised.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.
I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.
If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.
* * * *
So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?
Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–
…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”
or, better yet…
“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”
Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.
But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”
Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.
In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.
Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.
And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.
That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.
His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.
Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”
It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.
“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.
A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.
Ours did not.
After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.
But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.
What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.
It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.
Don’t throw this away.
Don’t throw US away.
In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.
It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.
And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us: