Monday, March 2, 2009

'66: Johnny Rivers, the Beach Boys

Johnny Rivers: Secret Agent Man

Here's a clip of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" by my friend Paul Stingo's covers band The Rockinghams. Released on Imperial 66159, it was Rivers' third Top Ten, his fifth chart single, and the first to not begin with "M," following "Memphis," "Maybelline," "Mountain of Love," and "Midnight Special." Attaining the chart March 19, 1966, "Agent" ascended to #3 a few weeks later.

The song was given an added boost when it was chosen as the opening theme song for Patrick McGoohan's British spy show, Danger Man. The show was retitled Secret Agent for the American market, and its theme song in Britain, the instrumental "High Wire" was replaced by Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan's "Secret Agent Man." The lyrics, which mention the Riviera and Bombay (today's Mumbai) presciently say: "they've given you a number and taken away your name." Meant to refer to the Bondian-Get Smart Agent 007 theme, they predate McGoohan's follow-up TV show, The Prisoner, in which a retired spy is kidnapped and held in a glorified prison called The Village until he gives up certain information; in The Village no one has a name, just a number. McGoohan, who was born in Astoria, Queens, passed away in January 2009 at age 80. Sloan and Barri would go on to create the Grass Roots.

I always mistook the "swingin' down the Riviera one day" line for "swingin' on the rivy Irrawaddy."

Beach Boys -- Sloop John B.

So how many of you thought "Sloop John B." was Brian Wilson original? I did for many years -- the real story is that it was a West Indies folk song about a notorious fishing boat from early 20th Century, revived by the Weavers' Lee Hays in the 1950s, the Kingston Trio in 1958, and Lonnie Donegan in 1960. It was the Kingston Trio's version that Al Jardine heard and played for Brian Wilson, and it inspired the Beach Boys' recording, with Brian singing lead on the 1st and 3rd verses and Mike Love the second, all backed by the Boys' trademark harmonies. Jardine had lobbied for a lead vocal assignment, since he had brought the song to Brian's attention. He would later sing lead on another Beach Boys cover, "Cotton Fields." The song made the Billboard Hot 100 April 3, 1966 and ascended to #3, B-sided by the excellent "You're So Good To Me."

Later in the year, "Sloop John B." was included in the Beach Boys' classic LP Pet Sounds, which was pretty much rejected by the public at the time but has since been recognized as Brian Wilson's zenith as a songwriter and producer.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"66: Stevie Wonder, the T-Bones

Stevie Wonder -- Uptight

Here's a good live clip of 16-year-old Stevie Wonder doing two of his greatest from the Mike Douglas Show from late 1966. Douglas, who was about as square as square can be (his hit was "The Men in My Little Girl's Life," and was popular at the same time "Uptight" was in early 1966) would surprise you -- he frequently had R&B and pop stars on his afternoon show, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously guest hosted his show in the early 1970s for a week while Douglas was away (lovingly captured on a DVD set). You rarely hear Stevie talk about being blind, but Douglas got him to mention it, if not say too much. How about that set -- asterisks were very big in the mid-60s. They dominated the Dating Game set, too. 

After hitting it big with "Fingertips Part 2" in the summer of 1963 Stevie had had only modest success by his later standards on pop radio, so "Uptight," co-written with Motown label songwriter Sylvia Moy providing the lyrics, was not only a comeback for him but a springboard for a wave of hits that would see Wonder hitting the charts in an almost unbroken line for the next twenty years. "Uptight," an uptempo, horn-driven shouter, finds Stevie cast as a poor boy "from the wrong side of the tracks" who loves a rich girl. With "Purple Rain Drops" on the flip on Tamla, it went to #3 in early '66. 

T-Bones -- No Matter What Shape 

One of those out-of-left-field smashes the Swingin' Sixties are famous for. The T-Bones were four session musicians produced by Joe Saraceno, who had hit the charts himself in 1958 with "The Freeze" as half of the duo Tony and Joe; he later turned to production, attaining success with The Marketts ("Out of Limits") and the Ventures (Walk, Don't Run" and many other hits).  "No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach's In) was produced by Saraceno for use in an Alka-Seltzer commercial you see here. The Ventures indeed covered the song soon after on their Where The Action Is LP. "Shape" was on the radio at the same time as "Uptight" in early 1966, and made it to #3 on the Liberty label.

After one more minor instrumental hit, "Sippin' 'n Chippin," in the spring of 1966, the T-Bones weren't heard from again -- until 1971, when Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds stormed the radio that summer with "Don't Pull Your Love." Dan Hamilton, Joe Frank Carillo, and Tommy Reynolds were all in the T-Bones.

Oh, yeah -- the version in the commercial isn't the T-Bones recording. This is.

Monday, February 16, 2009

'66 -- Simon and Garfunkel, The Happenings

Simon and Garfunkel -- I Am A Rock

Paul Simon paints a rather grim portrait here of a loner who has given up on life and love, living alone, without friends, with only his "books and my poetry to protect me." It's quite likely that Simon was writing completely ironically here, telling us that this isn't the way to go. It's also possible that he wrote it during a particularly bleak period and these were indeed his opinions at the time. (The same ambivalence can be seen in John Lennon's "Nowhere Man" from the same period -- is he writing about himself, or someone else?) 

The song was first recorded by Simon alone in a solo version that appeared only in the UK, on The Paul Simon Songbook. Simon had spent a couple of years in England in the early 1960s before reuniting with Art Garfunkel after returning to the USA. The rerecorded duo version is the closing track on Side Two of the Sounds of Silence LP. The B-side, "Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall" appeared on the follow-up LP, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  "Rock" has been covered most notably by The Hollies the same year, and by the Australian band The Church in 1981. 

I couldn't find a live take of the song, but I did find a video that shows the lads clambering on rocks in lower Manhattan by the FDR Drive and Brooklyn Bridge. 

The song was S&G's third consecutive Top Ten hit in 1966, but they hit something of a slump thereafter, reaching #1 again after a 2-year absence in 1968 with "Mrs. Robinson." "Rock" debuted in the Hot 100 on May 7, 1966 and spent a total of 11 weeks in the chart, topping off at #3.

The Happenings -- See You in September

The Happenings were a four-part vocal group from Paterson, NJ featuring Bob Miranda (lead), Tom Giuliano (tenor), Ralph DiVito (baritone) and Dave Libert (bass). All their hits were released on B.T. Puppy, the label founded by The Tokens' Hank Medress. For their debut recording, a song that was a hit in 1959 for another 4-man vocal group, the Tempos (from Pittsburgh, PA), "See You In September," composed by Sid Wayne and Sherman Edwards, was selected. The Happenings sped up the original cha-cha version somewhat and added a rock arrangement. "September" turned out to be The Happenings' biggest hit, entering the Hot 100 on July 9, 1966 and ascending to #3.

Bob Miranda talks about the Happenings' formation in this interview on

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'66 -- Bob Dylan, Gary Lewis and the Playboys

Bob Dylan -- Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

I'll be frank -- I've never had much to do with drugs, and I'm speaking as someone who has been around people who have indulged in recreational drug use my whole life; I have embraced the pop music of the 1960s through the 1990s (the 2000s, not so much) knowing full well that without drugs of whatever type you like, very little of the most creative forms of pop music ever made, from jazz to country to rock & roll, would ever have been made; and fully admit that the main reason for my shunning of drugs is pure, unadulterated cowardice: fear of addiction, fear of not being able to afford a habit; fear of not having full control of my personality. If that's being a coward, I'm guilty as charged.

Despite all the drawbacks why do people get involved with substances and why do many of them abuse substances? Dylan summed it up nicely in "Rainy Day Women" which was the kickoff anthem on his 1966 offering Blonde on Blonde: "Well, I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned." You do it because other people are doing it.

According to legend, when Dylan and studio musicians were working on this, a woman and her daughter came in to the building out of the rain, and the title of a rock classic was born. The numbers 12 and 35 are a little more conjectural; perhaps the mother was 35, and the daughter 12, but that wouldn't explain "women." Bob himself has likely forgotten an incident over 40 years ago. "Rainy Day Women" was recorded in one take with the help of a trombonist, Wayne Butler, who was hunted up just prior to the session.

Despite being a huge concert draw and album act for nearly 50 years, Dylan has never found consistent success on the singles chart (on his own, at least) and "Rainy Day Women" along with the earlier "Like a Rolling Stone" were his biggest hits, each making Number 2 Billboard. "Women" arrived at #2 just after Cher's "Bang Bang," appropriately enough, since Cher's first solo hit was Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do" in 1965.

"Rainy Day Women #12 & #35" ends our look at the #2 hits of 1966 -- that means we'll start on the #3 hits with...

Gary Lewis and the Playboys -- She's Just My Style

I couldn't find a live take of "She's Just My Style" but this lip-synch version, from possibly the Ed Sullivan Show or Hollywood Palace, shows Gary Lewis and his touring band from the mid-60s. As was the case for many groups from the Byrds to the Monkees in this era, the touring band was very often not the group that did the studio recordings. Lewis himself was not a guitarist but a drummer by trade, and John West is seen with his "cordovox" or electric accordion. The drummer never gets a closeup, I imagine partly because Lewis used a number of drummers in his tour group.

In the studio, Lewis (who, of course, is the son of Jerry) was backed by the sterling talents of Liberty Records producer Snuff Garrett, drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner and keyboardist-songwriter Leon Russell, who would become a rock headliner himself in the early 1970s -- his breakout gig being none other than George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh in 1971. For a period of three years beginning in late 1964 they could do no wrong, with hit after infectious hit - quite possibly "Style" being your webmaster's favorite. Arranger/composer Al Capps is heard on the "dontcha know that she's" and "everything about her" bass vocal. Gary Lewis' touring band included, by late 1965, guitarist Tom Trippelhorn, father of actress Jeanne Trippelhorn of "Big Love" fame, and bassist Carl Radle (1942-1980), later of Derek and the Dominoes. Radle is standing to Lewis' immediate left in the linked video.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

'66 -- Beatles, Cher

The Beatles -- Yellow Submarine

Though it was by no means a trend -- some of their biggest hits such as "Hey Jude" and "Get Back" were yet to come -- the Beatles slumped ever so slightly in 1966, as only one of their three A-sides released that year, "Paperback Writer," hit Number One. The other two, "Yellow Submarine" and "Nowhere Man" stalled at #2 and #3 respectively on Billboard, though "Submarine" snagged #1 in the Record World chart. Over the years, though, Billboard has come to be the, er, gold standard.

"Submarine" was Ringo Starr's 2nd lead vocal on a Capitol Beatles 45 A-side, after "Matchbox" in 1964; he preceded George Harrison (though Capitol of Canada had already put a George lead, on "Roll Over Beethoven" on an A-side in 1964). George would have to wait until his "Something" in 1969, and even that was on a double-A side with John's "Come Together." "Submarine" was a pure Paul McCartney lark; his intention was to write a children's singalong tune that was easy to sing, and Ringo, with a game but limited range, was the natural choice to sing it. Donovan, enjoying peak popularity in 1966, contributed the line "sky of blue and sea of green." 

"Submarine" is one of the Beatles' most intricately produced songs, employing plenty of sound effects from the Abbey Road Studio library. The basic music and vocal track was laid down first (May 26, 1966) , and on June 1st, Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick added the distinctive additions: chains, ship's bell, whistles, hooters, wind and thunderstorm machines, and, though I can't make it out, the cash regsiter noise later used by Pink Floyd as the intro to "Money" (the Floyd also recorded at Abbey Road). Studio staff and visitors such as Brian Jones, Patti Harrison and Marianne Faithfull joined in the fun, while John Lennon sat in the studio's echo chamber and called out "Full speed ahead, Mister Captain" and echoed several of Ringo's vocal lines. 

"Submarine" exists in 4 official released versions: a mono version, a stereo version, a mono dubbed from the stereo version, and a special stereo version released in 1995 in association with The Beatles' Anthology CD collection and TV special. The main difference between the mono and stereo is that in the mono, John is heard repeating "a life of ease" after Ringo sings it, while it was mixed out in the stereo version. The 1995 version appeared as the B-side to "Real Love" and is worth seeking out, since it restores sound effects not previously heard, as well as a spoken intro by Ringo:

"And we will march to free the day to see them gathered there, from Land O' Groats to John O'Green, from Stepney to Utrecht, to see a yellow submarine... we love it!"

"Submarine" hit #2 on September 17, 1966, beaten out by The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." The song has not been covered very often, though Maurice Chevalier did a version in French.

Cher -- Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)

Cherilyn Sarkisian's first big solo smash and first solo Top 5 hit, though she would have to wait until 1971's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" for her first Number One, with or without Sonny Bono. Cher may have always been a vamp, but she's hardly camp -- despite her sometimes outrageous outfits, on stage and off, she is one of the great ladies of pop and her staying power may yet be exceeded only by Madonna. Beginning in 1965, Cher has had hits in five decades and counting, and has been an acclaimed movie actress, with poignant and/or hilarious turns in Moonstruck, for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award, Mask and Silkwood.

The Russian-flavored "Bang Bang," which features some fevered fiddling, was written by Sonny during a lull in the duo's fortunes; though Cher was initially reluctant to record it, it became her fastest-selling solo hit to date. It was soon covered by Nancy Sinatra in a version later used by Quentin Tarantino in the opening scenes of Kill Bill Volume 1; and her father, Frank, made it a staple of his concert appearances, also recording it twice. The song has also been covered by Stevie Wonder, Petula Clark, Vanilla Fudge in their signature slowed-down style, The Jam's Paul Weller, and Carla Bruni, the first lady of France. Cher has continued to perform it in nearly all her concert tours.

"Bang Bang" hit #2 April 23, 1966, exceeded on the Billboard chart only by the Righteous Brothers' ("You're My) Soul and Inspiration."

Friday, December 19, 2008

'66: Beach Boys, The Cyrkle

The Beach Boys -- Barbara Ann

Jack Benny, fresh from celebrating his 39th birthday, introduces Brian Wilson and the boys for their hit remake of Bronx doo-wop group The Regents' Top 20 hit from 1961. Dean Torrance, of Jan and Dean, doesn't appear with the Beach Boys here, but he was the lead voice on their hit radio version, which hit #2 for Capitol on January 29th. The recording was taken from The Beach Boys Party! album, released by Capitol during the 1965 holiday season as a stopgap; Brian was in the midst of preparing for his magnum opus of early 1966, Pet Sounds. Since the Beach Boys had already released a live album, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!!) the "live -in-the studio" concept was used here, with impromptu takes on recent classics such as The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better," "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"and "Tell Me Why" as well as Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin." The laughter and studio noise was largely dubbed in later, though the studio chatter with guests like Jan and Dean was kept. Some alternate takes of "Barbara Ann" appeared on the 1990s Hawthorne, CA compilation.

The Cyrkle -- Red Rubber Ball

The Cyrkle carried on the mid-60s tradition of slightly misspelled words as band names, pioneered by The Beatles, The Byrds and The Monkees. Here on this clip from Hullabaloo they sport possibly the shortest haircuts of any post-1964 pop group. Easton, Pennsylvanians Don Danneman, Tom Dawes, Mike Loeskamp and Marty Fried scored big with a little luck from pop greats John Lennon and Paul Simon. After Dawes and Danneman's original band, the Rhondells, signed with Columbia Records on the strength of their east coast shows, Brian Epstein took notice of the group and championed them through their early successes. Legend has it that John Lennon was asked to submit a better name for the promising band and came up with "The Cyrkle." 

When Danneman was fulfilling a military obligation with the Coast Guard, Dawes joined the Simon and Garfunkel tour as a guitarist, and picked up two songs Paul Simon was working on, "Red Rubber Ball" and "Wish You Could Be Here." "Ball," a song Simon co-wrote with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers, is a triumphant song about recovering from a breakup.  It became The Cyrkle's biggest hit at #2 on July 9th.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

'66: Bobby Hebb, Mindbenders

Bobby Hebb -- Sunny

Bobby Hebb's only pop hit, ascending to #2 on August 20, 1966, was written as an elegy for his brother Hal, who was with him in a successful 1950s R&B singing group called The Marigolds. There are no overt references to death in the lyrics, which are couched in a romantic situation, except the repeated phrase "thank you." Even as a kid, I knew something was up when I heard it on the radio, and seeing that the song was often used at funerals I read about in the paper, my suspicions were confirmed when I researched the song for this post. 

Hebb never had another big hit, but his story is no less remarkable. Both his parents were blind; he preceded Charley Pride to the Grand Ole Opry stage, having struck up a friendship with Roy Acuff in his hometown of Nashville, TN. Hebb was teamed with singer Sylvia Shemwell (later of the Sweet Inspirations) for a time in the early 60s, then recorded for the Rich label, issuing songs like "You Broke My Heart and I Broke Your Jaw" and "Night Train to Memphis."

A subsequent tragedy inadvertently led to his greatest success. On November 23, 1963, the day after the assassination of JFK, Hal Hebb was killed in a fight outside a Nashville nightclub, and according to legend, the devastated Bobby Hebb wrote "Sunny" in response to both events. (Brian Wilson is said to have composed "The Warmth of the Sun" in response to JFK's death as well.) After a few labels passed on the song, Hebb set it aside,  but recorded it for Philips in 1966. Before long, he was touring with The Beatles. Later in 1966 he made the Top 40 again with an R&B arrangement of the country classic "A Satisfied Mind," and Lou Rawls hit in 1971 with Hebb's "A Natural Man." Bobby Hebb still occasionally records and appears in concert. "Sunny" did not make the Top 100 again as a cover version, but it has had dozens of covers, among them by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, in two separate versions. Hebb himself did a disco remake in 1976.

Mindbenders -- A Groovy Kind of Love

"A Groovy Kind of Love" marked the first time that Eric Stewart's voice was heard on pop radio in the USA, but it wouldn't be the last -- he would hit with Hotlegs ("Neanderthal Man") in 1972, and twice with 10cc ("I'm Not in Love" and "The Things We Do For Love" in 1975 and 1977, respectively). Veteran songwriter Graham Gouldman would team up with Stewart in the Mindbenders in 1968, and the pair later were one-quarter of 10cc. Stewart had replaced founding 'Bender Wayne Fontana on lead vocal after he left the band in 1965; coincidentally, Mindbenders recordings continued to be issued on the Fontana label throughout their US chart career.

"Groovy" also marked the beginning of a long and successful career for songwriter/performer Carole Bayer Sager, who, with "Groovy" songwriting partner Toni Wine, were students at the NYC High School Music and Art; both were not yet out of their teens. She has gone on to win an Oscar,  Grammy and two Golden Globe awards with compositions such as "That's What Friends Are For," "Arthur's Theme" and many, many more with powerhouse collaborators such as former husband Bert Bacharach, Peter Allen and David Foster.

"Groovy" became a #1 hit in 1988 when Phil Collins took it to the top as part of the soundtrack to his feature film Buster, Collins appearing as one of the Great Train Robbers, Buster Edwards. Collins slowed down the song for a more adult, romantic vibe.