Tag Archives: Ben E. King

Ben E King – The Very Best of – Classic Music Review

Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28, 1938, to two very smart parents.

Little Ben didn’t spend much of his life in his home state; his family was part of the Great Migration of the postwar period, abandoning the world of Jim Crow for Harlem when Ben was only nine. The move was serendipitous indeed—in addition to providing plenty of opportunities for a young singer to develop his chops in the choirs of neighborhood churches, Harlem was becoming the epicenter of the burgeoning doo-wop movement. From Wikipedia: “Blacks were forced by legal and social segregation, as well as by the constraints of the built physical environment, to live in certain parts of New York City of the early 1950s. They identified with their own wards, street blocks and streets. Being effectively locked out of mainstream white society increased their social cohesion and encouraged creativity within the context of African American culture. Young singers formed groups and rehearsed their songs in public spaces: on street corners, apartment stoops, and subway platforms, in bowling alleys, school bathrooms, and pool halls, as well as at playgrounds and under bridges.” The Apollo Theater sponsored regular talent contests for budding doo-wop artists—contests monitored by record company A&R men and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts—giving doo-wop groups an exceptional opportunity to attract industry attention.

During his high school years, Ben appeared at the Apollo with his group The Four B’s, and though those performances did not result in a recording contract or an appearance on the Godfrey show, Ben became a more familiar name in the music community. The real break came when a more established group called The Five Crowns had an opening and brought him into the fold. As luck would have it, the group known as The Drifters were in an extended free-fall that began years before with Clyde McPhatter’s departure. The unstable bunch that followed couldn’t hold it together, and after one of the itinerant members picked a fight with the emcee at the Apollo, manager George Treadwell fired the lot—and The Five Crowns found themselves transformed into The Drifters, with Ben E King moving into the role of lead singer. Later he would receive a promotion of sorts when the group became Ben E. King and the Drifters, but this particular employee retention plan failed to impress Ben, who had asked for a raise and a piece of the royalties. He left in early 1960 to launch his own solo career.

Once again, his timing couldn’t have been better. The deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran had pretty much taken the steam out of guitar-based rock; except for a few hits by Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Ricky Nelson, the guitar would fade into the background until surf music scene began to . . .  make waves. Solo male vocalists (along with girl groups) would dominate the scene for the next few years, and most of those guys followed the lead of the softer, post-Army Elvis by focusing on ballads, extremely light rock and dance-oriented tunes. Although the quality of those male vocalists was highly variable (I wouldn’t even classify whatever Fabian did as “singing’), this period produced some of the greatest male vocalists of all-time—Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Dion and Ben E. King.

It’s important to note that Dion and Ben developed their superb vocal abilities through doo-wop. It is a vocal style that demands exceptional melodic and harmonic precision as well as a highly developed sense of rhythm. The best doo-wop lead singers knew they had to clearly distinguish themselves from the group while remaining in perfect sync with their supporting cast. When you’re part of a cohesive musical group, you realize that it’s not all about you, even when you step up to the mic for your solo. Ben E. King certainly brought that sensibility with him when he launched his solo career, his distinctive voice mingling beautifully with his supporting instrumentalists and vocalists.

This compilation includes three Drifters songs and two Ben E. King and the Drifters songs, with the balance devoted to Ben’s solo career spanning the years 1960-1963 and 1974-1975. Thankfully, the ’60s recordings are presented in the original mono versions. As I reviewed the history and background of each song, I was struck by the sheer number of covers of Ben’s work and the diversity of the covering artists—everyone from Donna Summer to Lou Reed to Dolly Parton to Siouxsie and the Banshees. While you have to give credit to the A-Team songwriters Ben worked with (Lieber, Stoller, Spector, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman and others), it was Ben E. King’s voice that brought the best out of those songs.

The sad aspect of Ben’s career is he fell out of favor with the general audience only a couple of years into his solo career. Though most blame the British Invasion for his decline in the charts, the facts do not support that hypothesis: his last early-career hit to break the Top 20 came out in April 1962, almost two years prior to February 9, 1964 (I don’t have to remind my readers of the significance of that date). None of the other singers I mentioned were wiped out by the Invasion per se: Ray Charles and Roy Orbison continued spinning out hits; Dion developed a fascination with the blues and chose to abandon pop music; Sam Cooke fell victim to gun violence (but still managed to crack the Top 10 posthumously).

No, Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.

“There Goes My Baby”: Depending on your source, this is either one of the worst-recorded songs of all-time or an innovative breakthrough in monaural recording. According to Songfacts, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler blew his top when he first heard it: “I’d never release shit like this. It’s dog meat!” When Jerry Lieber first heard the results of his co-writing effort on his push-button-operated car radio, he thought he was picking up two stations at the same time. His buddy Mike Stoller described the recording process as follows: “We slapped on soaring strings, and exotic baion beat, kettledrums, timpani and every other god-damn sound we could think of.” In an interview on his 70’s album The Beginning of It All, Ben noted that he and his mates entered the studio cold, had not properly rehearsed the song and lacked any studio recording experience. Because Ben co-wrote the song, Lieber and Stoller made a snap decision to reward Ben with the job of lead vocalist.

The finished product is somewhat disorienting the first time through. The Northern Brazilian beat Stoller referred to is very faint, as if it was recorded for the sole purpose of giving the singers a reference point.  Ben is located on the left of the sound field (yes, you can employ panning in monaural recording), but oddly enough, he defies acoustic science by coming through loud and clear. The Drifters enter in their doo-wop supporting role close to center stage, and despite Ben’s best efforts, science reasserts itself, and The Drifters come close to overpowering Ben. As this was one of the first recordings to use strings to emphasize the emotional content of R&B (a hit-or-miss proposition indeed), the technique was still in its experimental stage. The first string segment swoop emphasizes the violins and abruptly comes out of nowhere, forming a kind of cleavage between Ben and The Drifters; when the strings return for a second go-round, rough-bowed cellos dominate, drifting to the bottom of the sound field like something out of Mussorgsky. And though there are technically verses and a chorus, the song feels more like blank verse due to the lack of rhyme.

After a few more whirls, though, it all begins to make sense. Ben’s relative isolation serves to enhance the utter loneliness of a man who just lost his baby, while The Drifters serve as the empathetic, “Yeah, man, we’ve all been there” supporting chorus. What is very clear from this first recording is that Ben E. King possessed a distinctive, memorable, gospel-influenced voice capable of carrying significant emotional punch. I’ll bet Jerry Wexler became quite enamored with “There Goes My Baby” when it shot to #2 on the Billboard charts (and #1 on the R&B side).

“Dance with Me”: For many teens in the pre-Pill era, dancing was the most practical way to ignite a little tingle in the nether regions. For the guys, dance also represented an opportunity for some chest-to-chest action and a chance to cop a feel when the chaperones weren’t looking. Dance was also a way to demonstrate one’s flexibility and/or grace, and those who couldn’t dance were often considered social outcasts.

A record’s danceability also had a lot to do with its commercial success. The Rate-A-Record segment on American Bandstand was wildly popular, and when the teenage judges honored a song with the legendary phrase “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it,” you could bet your bottom dollar that DJ’s around the country got the message.

“Dance with Me” turned out to be a respectable follow-up to “There Goes My Baby,” entering the Top 20. The recording is much clearer and cleaner, the latinate beats more pronounced and the lyrics actually rhyme (sometimes awkwardly). Ben sounds a bit more comfortable in the studio and the vocal arrangement is more balanced. Still, I can’t see this song passing muster with the American Bandstand crowd, as its mid-tempo pace falls somewhere between grab-and-grind and swing-your-partner. Using the AB scale of 35 to 98, I’d have to give it a 65.

“This Magic Moment”: The title turned out to be predictive, as this was clearly Ben’s first magic moment as lead vocalist. The mix is a vast improvement, placing Ben’s voice front and center while The Drifters do what they should be doing and doing it where they should be doing it—in the background. I would have dispensed with the flurry of strings that opens the song and reappears in a few awkward places; instead of conveying “magic,” the rising and falling notes are reminiscent of a police siren on the fritz. The song has no proper chorus; the hook is found in the repetition of the song title at the start of three of the verses. The best part of the song comes in the form of a bridge, featuring a brief moment of stop-time a capella where Ben tempers the passion he applied to the verses and delivers the line “Sweeter than wine” with appreciative tenderness for the magic in a kiss. Better still, the strings vanish completely for a moment, replaced by a lovely Spanish-style guitar played by big band jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (who himself sired another accomplished guitarist and an equally competent jazz bassist). Somewhat disappointingly, the strings return for the instrumental break, but Ben soon returns to delight the listener with his strong, confident vocal.

“Save the Last Dance for Me”: I’d heard this song a hundred times but could never quite get my head around it. Every other love song of this period and beyond clearly defined love as an act of possession—“You’re mine, baby!” I figured that the narrator was perhaps a superior, enlightened human being, an extraordinarily confident son-of-a-bitch or a complete fool for letting another guy move in on his girl:

You can dance
Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile
Every smile for the man who held your hand ‘neath the pale moonlight

But don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darlin’
Save the last dance for me

Then I read the backstory. From Songfacts:

The songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote this song. In Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus, Alex Halberstadt explains that one night, Pomus found a wedding invitation in a hatbox, and back came his most vivid memory from his wedding: watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while Doc, who had polio, sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to this song on the back of the invitation. Shuman had played him a soaring Latin melody that afternoon, and he wanted the words to sound like a poem translated into English – something along the lines of Pablo Neruda. By the second verse, a hint of jealousy and vulnerability creeps in with the lyrics, “If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no.” Pomus ended his night of songwriting by writing down the words that would become the title: “Save The Last Dance For Me.”

The song becomes even more poignant when you consider that Doc’s wife was an actress and . . . dancer.

Obviously, the song presents a challenge for the singer in terms of expressing complex emotional content, but Ben somehow manages to find the sweet spots between confidence and insecurity, passion and regret, joy in seeing his woman express herself through dance and a certain unease in regards to his competitors. His rendering of the lilting lines of the chorus (“But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be”) express both the fragility of a reminder and a quiet faith that all will turn out well in the end. His marvelous delivery of the “Hmmm” sounds like a man savoring images of intimacy once the night is over and the two are alone in the boudoir. Though other songs in the collection highlight Ben’s wide vocal range, “Save the Last Dance for Me” demonstrates his gift for phrasing that remains true to melody, rhythm and narrative.

The story behind the release of the song foreshadows Ben’s eventual decline. Ahmed Ertegün and Jerry Wexler considered “Save the Last Dance for Me” no better than a B-side, designating another Pomus-Shuman ditty, “Nobody But Me,” as the future hit single. The complete absence of “Nobody But Me” from this “very best” collection was not an oversight; the song has all the structural integrity of a Tinkertoy creation when you don’t shove the sticks in the holes all the way—weak melody, dumb chorus, mechanical call-and-response and an incredibly long instrumental break featuring (once again) a string section all a-flurry (amazingly, Ben sounds ab fab). Dick Clark wisely flipped the disc on American Bandstand, preserving the public reputations of Messrs. Ertegun and Wexler. This historical aside tells me that the suits at Atlantic/Atco didn’t have a clear grasp of Ben’s strengths and what sort of material would highlight those strengths. I would have collared Ahmed and Jerry and told them, “Look, guys. Just because Ben can sing anything doesn’t mean he should.”

“I Count the Tears”: This was Ben’s last hit with The Drifters, released (like “Save the Last Dance for Me”) after Ben had left the group. It’s not one of the best songs Pomus and Shuman ever wrote—it sounds like they gave it to Ben before they finished the lyrics:

And at na,na,na,na,na,na, late at night
Na,na,na,na,na,na late at night
I’ll sit and count the tears

It’s like McCartney saying, “Fuck it, let’s go with what we got” and recording those stirring lines, “Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/Not as much as I love scrambled eggs.”

“Spanish Harlem”: Sigh. Another B-side that had to be flipped to give Ben his first solo hit. Written by Leiber and Spector with Stoller getting credit for the distinctive arrangement, Ben handles the extended, note-packed, rhythmically challenging verse lines with aplomb, hardly skipping a beat when he drops to the lower register to deliver the clinching line:

There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal
That looks down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
I have to beg your pardon

In the plethora of songs about romance with girls on the “wrong side of the tracks,” I’ll take “Spanish Harlem” over “Dawn,” “Down in the Boondocks,” “Hang On, Sloopy” or even “Poor Side of Town” any day of the week, largely because the narrator’s desire for this Latina is free from any hints of guilt or regret.

“Stand By Me”: While there are conflicting stories about the song’s origins and even more conflicting stories about the collaborative songwriting process, the one consistent thread involves Ben E. King’s transformation of a gospel song into a secular song that celebrates one of the most enduring themes in popular music: the concept that a relationship can serve as a refuge from a hostile, unfeeling society.

It was Ben’s idea to “update” a 1905 gospel hymn by one Charles Albert Tindley called “Stand By Me” that had recently undergone renovation courtesy of Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander on behalf of the Soul Stirrers. Both gospel numbers call on the higher power to provide support in times of trouble: “When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.” Ben had the concept, the melody and some of the lyrics when he turned to Leiber and Stoller to help him put it all together. Leiber and Ben finished the lyrics while Stoller came up with the distinctive bass line that would open the song and serve as the song’s foundation. That bass line is built on the “50’s progression” of I–vi–IV–V, in this case A major, F# minor, D major and E major. Even the least nimble bass player in the world can play the four-note patterns without breaking a sweat—-further validation of my Count Basie Theory that simplicity is often more powerful than complexity.

The lyrics fascinate us with their mingling of the cosmic and cataclysmic with intimate-scale human commitment, but there is no doubt in Ben’s heart as to which is more powerful:

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
So darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by me
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Ben delivers each line with distinct clarity and a deep sense of the awesome strength of the commitment inherent in unconditional love for another human being. Though in the first two verses he pleads for the support he needs, he offers the same in return as the song fades out, shifting the perspective from the cosmic to the daily world of toil and trouble: “Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me.” Ben spends most of the song in the upper part of his vocal range, the additional strain adding an irresistibly attractive grit to his voice, as it did for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. The truly timeless appeal of “Stand by Me” has withstood the generational change test, as evidenced by the song’s reappearance in the Top 10 in 1986 following the release of the film carrying the same title.

“On the Horizon”: This is the B-side of “Stand by Me,” conclusive proof that Leiber and Stoller knew when to waste a song like Koufax knew when to waste a pitch. For some reason, this corny tune about a ship with golden sails calls up images in my brain of a shirtless, sweaty Victor Mature continuing to perfect his piss-poor approach to acting in horribly vivid Technicolor.

“Amor”: Premise: “We need a good strong follow-up to ‘Stand By Me’ and Ben sounded pretty good on those Latin numbers.” Conclusion: “Let’s give him that old Crosby number to work with. Latin’s all the rage now and so is Ben E. King. A marriage made in heaven!” Footnote: “Hey, I got an idea! We’ll have him do ‘Souvenir from Mexico’ for the B-side! It’ll be the first ‘concept single!’ You know how the guys got all hot and horny for Latin chicks with ‘Spanish Harlem.’ We’ll make a bundle on this one!”

The suits were technically right; “Amor” did make it to the Top 20, qualifying as a respectable follow-up. His voice having matured, Ben sings in a lower register reminiscent of Brook Benton that is intensely pleasing. The problem with the song is that it sounds like Ben’s turning into a square. If I were a gum-snapping teenager of the early ’60s, I’d say “‘Amor’ is something my parents would like. Yecch!” The cheesy B-side only strengthens that impression.

“Young Boy Blues”: This weird Pomus-Spector number makes the idea of shooting the piano player very appealing. I have no idea who is on piano or what the fuck that idiot is doing, but featuring a performance that has no rhythmic or melodic connection to any of the other parts of the song isn’t exactly a formula for pop chart success. The public wholeheartedly agreed, and this B-side peaked at #66.

“Here Comes the Night”: The A-side fared even worse (#81), and no wonder. It seems to be another attempt to capitalize on Ben’s Latin credentials, but runs into a couple of problems . . . booming timpani and triangle on the right channel . . . military snare rolls on the left . . . Ben slightly off-center in a desperate search for the melody . . . what a mess. Oh, wait . . . a distant memory appears on the horizon . . . it’s a music critic . . . the music critic has something to tell us . . . here it is . . . “Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.”

Whoever said that was a fucking genius.

“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”: This was co-written by Betty Nelson, who would remain married to Ben for half a century. Unfortunately, her co-writer was an industry pro who happened to be the head of Atlantic Records: Ahmed Ertegün. Perhaps noticing that Betty had employed the ’50s progression in her song, Ertegün grabbed the opportunity to imbue the song with figures that would remind listeners of “Stand By Me,” most notably in the song’s introduction, a mimeographed copy of that famous lead-in. Producing follow-ups that bear a striking resemblance to the original mega-hit isn’t all that unusual in pop music history; “Standing in the Shadows of Love” replicated the arrangement of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and cracked the Top 10. “Don’t Play That Song” just missed the Top 10, and I think the miss was caused by two production flaws: one, the appearance of an annoying female chorus whose timbre clashes mightily with Ben’s; and Ben’s loss of emotional discipline, probably occasioned by an overwhelming desire to do right by his wife. As things played out, this was the last time Ben would come close to the top of the charts for quite a while.

“How Can I Forget”: I’m really pissed off that the song doesn’t answer the question in the song title because there’s nothing I would love more than to forget this awful song where once again Ben throws discipline to the wind.

“I (Who Have Nothing)”: In comparison to the two previous songs, Ben actually does a good job of reining it in—not an easy feat for a song so melodramatic that Tom Jones jumped at the chance to record it. It’s the classic “he buys you diamonds and takes you to fancy restaurants and that’s why I lost you even though I love you so much I could die” crap—crap because it’s the worst possible argument a guy could make if he really wants to convince the girl to come back. Who wants to hang with such a whiny loser?

Now, if a guy said something to me like . . . “Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied. Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy. I don’t care too much for money—money can’t buy me love . . . ” then I’d thank him for metaphorically slapping sense into my little blonde brain, hop into his arms and wrap my legs around his torso and hope that something good pops up in a sec.

This brings us to June 1963, still months away from regular sightings of ships bearing the Union Jack in American waters. Ben spent the next eleven-and-a-half years in the mid-to-lower reaches of R&B charts and barely made any dents in the Billboard Top 100. For a while, his material oscillated in a nowheresville between pop, easy listening and soul, but his pop wasn’t particularly catchy and his soul frequently lacked the strong bottom of the material released by Motown, Stax and even Atlantic (“What Is Soul?” is an obvious exception). In 1970 he moved from Atco to another Atlantic subsidiary (Maxwell) and released the first of two albums produced by Bob Crewe of “Music to Watch Girls Go By” fame. Rough Edges is a curious work with a laid-back feel notable for its extended play mashups combining popular songs on single tracks (for example, “In the Midnight Hour” with “Lay Lady Lay”). Eighteen months later, Ben switched to yet another Atlantic label (Mandala) for the album The Beginning of It All where he covered Elton John, Dave Mason and Van Morrison and added a few compositions of his own. I have to say I like Ben’s version of “Take Me to the Pilot” a lot more than the original, largely because Ben didn’t have to go through all kinds of vocal pretzelizations to sound like a black guy.

Yay! I made up another word! Somebody call the O. E. D!

The Beginning of It All ends with a 40-minute retrospective on Ben’s career including an interview with Richard Robinson. Though he didn’t say it, I got the feeling that he felt boxed in by the powerful nostalgia attached to his early hits and somewhat slighted that despite his best efforts, people had generally ignored the music he had released in the previous ten years. Ben then took a three-year break from recording. I couldn’t find out how he spent his time during those years, but when he returned, he’d figured out how to break out of the amber of nostalgia.

All he had to do was avoid sounding like Ben E. King.

“Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1:” This catchy little dance number combining smooth soul, disco and funk features a smoother version of Ben E. King singing in a much higher register than his typical baritone. Looking at the list of musicians who contributed to the album Supernatural, it appears that Ben was supported by a much stronger cast of session musicians, including Carlos Alomar from Bowie’s troupe and Bob Babbitt of the Funk Brothers. He was also working with a new songwriting team; this two-part tune in the tradition of “What I’d Say” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was penned by Hamas Frye aka Patrick Grant and Gwen Guthrie, who wrote hits for Sister Sledge, Roberta Flack and Martha Reeves as well as half the songs on Supernatural. While this song and the entire album benefitted from superior musicianship and production quality, there is no doubt that Ben E. King had really rediscovered his groove (and then some). “Supernatural Thing” moved up the charts slowly but steadily, eventually peaking at #5. Ben was back!

“Do It In the Name of Love”: The second single released from Supernatural didn’t fare as well as “Supernatural Thing,” its potential possibly limited by the song’s religious overtones (“Try with all your might/Get your strength from/The Lord up above.”) Given his early training in gospel, I’m actually kind of surprised that Ben’s catalog doesn’t contain all that many non-secular efforts . . . but I’ll stop right there before I get myself in trouble.

Ben E. King passed away on April 30, 2015, at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey at the age of 76, survived by his mother, his wife of 53 years, three children and six grandchildren. In a moving tribute to Ben, Gary U. S. Bonds described him as “one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years.” That description rings true; in the interview on The Beginning of It All, he comes across as soft-spoken and gracious, eager to express appreciation for the people he worked with and deeply thankful for the rare opportunity to share his music with fans all around the world. In a time when we have been inundated with stories of disgusting, selfish, greedy, paranoid and thoroughly corrupt human beings, the music of Ben E. King is there to remind us that nice guys can succeed in this heartless world of ours and leave legacies certain to outlive the cacophony of human ugliness.

Dad’s 45’s, Part Two (1959-1963)

duke-of-earl-45

If you want to hear truly great music from 1959 to 1963, forget about rock ‘n’ roll. Head over to the jazz section instead.

While jazz gave us masterworks like Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, Free Jazz, Sketches of Spain, The Bridge and more, rock ‘n’ roll limped along on life support. While there were some promising developments on the R&B side of life, rock ‘n’ roll had become watered down, maddeningly predictable and dreadfully safe.

The primary virtue of the popular music during this period is that it stands up pretty well when compared to today’s over-produced, over-marketed, over-technologized shit that dominates the airwaves and video channels. The artists seemed more genuine, humble and less full of themselves, largely because few of them could get rich in an era of artist-unfriendly royalty and session payments and a touring system that made it challenging for many artists to break even. I’d take any of these folks over greedy, egomaniac losers like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry . . . even Brian Hyland and his Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.

My father’s collection during this period was a triumph of quantity over quality. Since there are few lawns to mow in San Francisco and no kid in his right mind would take a paper route that forced you to ride your bike over steep hills through freezing fogs, dad was lucky to have a father with a construction business, enabling him to earn the princely wage of a fifty cents an hour on Saturdays and five days a week during the cold summer months in The City. He spent nearly all his earnings on records, baseball gear and, later in his teens, concerts. The sheer quantity of sides is mind-boggling when you consider that he didn’t start buying his own records until November 1961; the records before that date were either inherited from his brother or the result of sometimes shrewd trading. The best of the bunch are covered here and in my reviews of The Beach Boys‘ Sounds of Summer, Dion and the Belmonts’ Greatest Hits, the Smokey Robinson segment in the Motown Series and in Roy Orbison’s Playlist.

But jeez maneez, there was a lot of crap in that pile! Sugary, sappy Elvis singles. Loads of forgettable dance hits. Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Jimmy Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” Neil Fucking Sedaka. “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” by Charlie Drake. “Johnny Angel” by Shelly Fabares AND “My Dad” by Paul Petersen. “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. The Lettermen, for fuck’s sake.

And no less than four Brian Hyland 45’s, INCLUDING “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” And he traded for it!

I’m thinking of having that senseless act engraved on his tombstone.

Of the twenty-eight 45’s I selected, only two, maybe three, qualify as rock ‘n’ roll. The best of the rest come from girl singers, girl groups and African-American artists (also heavily represented in the girl singer and girl group categories). Soul was clearly moving into its prime—you can draw a straight line from the music of this era to the golden period of Motown, Stax and Atlantic. On the flip side, if someone had told you back in 1962 that rock ‘n’ roll would soon be rescued from oblivion by four guys from Liverpool, you would have immediately concluded that the guy had a screw loose somewhere. No one—especially no one in the United States—could see The Beatles coming. All the signs pointed to an early demise for rock ‘n’ roll, and none of the artists of this period came close to reigniting its smoldering ruins.

Then again, everyone assumed that JFK would be president for eight years before turning the reins over to Bobby. No one could foresee that America would piss away its resources, its moral standing and more than 50,000 young men in an Asian jungle . . . but we’re getting way ahead of our story. Let’s return to 1959, to the waning days of the Eisenhower administration when Vietnam was a tiny zit on America’s ass and the U. S. A. was a happy, benevolent and generally peaceful place where everything went according to plan (thanks to the C. I. A.) and the future would be one of endless progress as long as those durned Negroes didn’t stir up too much trouble.

“What’d I Say Parts 1 and 2,” Ray Charles, July 1959: The experience of listening to this 45 felt like I’d stepped back into the age of The Flintstones, when Fred had to power his stone-wheeled car with his feet. Because the seven-and-a-half minute recording exceeded the 3-minute max rule imposed by radio, the producers decided to split it up into two parts on two separate sides, whacking a few “shake that thing” passages in a vain attempt to cool down the heat generated by Ray and The Raelettes. Maybe if I had been born in the 50’s I wouldn’t have thought it a hassle to get my ass out of the seat and turn the record over to hear the rest of the song, but this girl found the experience intensely annoying and worthy of the heartfelt “oh, for fuck’s sake” I flung into the ether. The experience was like having a guy bang me with all his might only to suddenly pull out for a minute to trim his toenails.

Tip: Don’t fuck with the 45. Get the full version and have a great fuck.

From the electric piano intro to the visceral sounds of the call-and-response between Ray and The Raylettes, “What I’d Say” works on two levels. For the technical connoisseur, “What I’d Say” is the blessed marriage between gospel and R&B that spawned a new genre called soul music. For the person who seeks enjoyment through music and couldn’t give a damn about origins, influences or classifications, “What I’d Say” is a ringing endorsement of more open sexual expression in music. As Ray famously said, “I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I’d Say’, then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.” The exchange of pre-orgasmic vocalizations punctuated by Ray’s screams of delight express far more sexuality than the clever euphemisms permissible in the era. “What I’d Say” is sexual heat turned into music, and given my active libido, it should come as no surprise to my readers that I fucking love this song.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Connie Francis, August 1959: Concetta Franconero was the girl all the girls wanted to be, thanks in part to the name change that turned her into the more WASP-ish Connie Francis. Like Patsy Cline and Ruth Brown, she entered the public eye after recording a song she couldn’t stand, “Who’s Sorry Now?” She followed that monster hit with a couple of clunkers, then turned to Neil Sedaka for “Stupid Cupid,” a vacuous piece of tripe that cracked the Top 20 and made her the darling of the squeaky clean rock ‘n’ roll set. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was supposed to be her follow-up hit to the perfectly silly “Lipstick on Your Collar,” but it never charted higher than the low 30’s. Well, screw that! This is my favorite Connie Francis song! Possessing one of the most purely beautiful voices to ever grace the recording studio, what makes “You’re Gonna Miss Me” stand out is her phrasing, full of marvelous off-rhythm lines and subtle pauses that lend a palpable sincerity to her performance. Her repetition of “miss me” in the song’s climax sounds like a woman fighting the pain of rejection with all her might while begging the guy who kicked her to the side of the road to feel some regret about losing her. An exquisite performance!

“Poison Ivy,” The Coasters, August 1959: I’m not a huge fan of The Coasters, as I think most of their stuff crosses the line into novelty. My dad has a few of their 45’s, and I chose this Leiber-Stoller number because it was the least “cute.” I do like the diversity of their voices and their collective energy, and the integration of Latin touches adds a bit of spice. Still, I feel rather blah about the song, and I think Jerry Leiber’s fifty-years-later claim that “Poison Ivy” is about venereal disease is absolute horseshit, a lame attempt to make the pop songs they wrote seem more socially significant than they were.

“Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong, February 1960: There are two famous versions of “Money,” and both are first-rate performances. The Beatles’ version is lustful, greedy madness; Barrett Strong’s original is more cynical and street-wise—an attitude of “That’s the way the world works, so get over it.” I get seriously hot and bothered by the pounding toms backing Barrett during the verses, and find myself enthralled by Eugene Crew’s distorted guitar licks. This Janie Bradford-Berry Gordy composition turned out to be Motown’s first hit (on Tamla), and for that alone we should be forever grateful.

“Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures, July 1960: Instrumental music was much more popular during the 50’s and 60’s than it is in our rap-infested present. Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” (1960) and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (1962) were the best-selling singles in their respective years. Whether cause or effect, one noticeable cultural difference between those days and ours (noticeable when you’ve spent as many hours I have studying American cultural history through film and television) is that the people back then spent a helluva lot more time whistling and humming. When I shared this hypothesis with my dad, he agreed: “Yeah, when you were working or waiting for someone, you’d either whistle or have a smoke if you were old enough.” In the twelve years I’ve spent in the modern office-bound workforce, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone whistle on the job, and the only person I’ve ever heard humming is me. If true, the many wordless records of the period served a valuable purpose by supplying committed whistlers and hummers with new tunes to keep them sharp.

The instrumentals mentioned above definitely fall into the easy listening camp, but the kids had their instrumentals, too. Those instrumentals largely placed the guitar at the forefront. While the impact of Bill Doggett, Bill Justis, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and The Ventures wasn’t particularly noticeable during this down period of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of those guys who became guitar heroes after the British Invasion restored rock to pre-eminence learned their chops by trying to replicate the sounds and moves they heard in “Raunchy,” “Rebel Rouser” and “Walk, Don’t Run.”

The Ventures’ version of “Walk Don’t Run” is vastly different from the original Johnny Smith composition, a cool jazz number that would likely be completely unrecognizable to a Ventures fan. The Ventures based their version on Chet Atkins’ cover, a sweetly-picked, laid-back rendition.

You would never connect the phrase “laid-back” with The Ventures’ version of “Walk, Don’t Run.” The opening rimshot-laden snare roll must have aroused the hell out of listeners used to the sonorous sounds of The Fleetwoods, and once you think things are about to settle down with the shift to the ONE-two-three-four rhythm and a brief rhythm guitar chord intro, Bob Bogle enters the fray and delivers a whammy-bar punctuated, slick-picking extravaganza. The sheer speed of The Ventures’ version is breathtaking, and while they would release multiple versions of the song over the years (including disco and metal versions), the original is the one that influenced a generation of budding guitarists who would change rock forever in the years ahead.

“Runaway,” Del Shannon, March 1961: Geez. If it feels like it took a helluva a long time to get to a genuine, certifiable rock ‘n’ roll song, you’re right! On the other hand, if “Runaway” is all you have to keep the faith, you’re in pretty good shape. This song has everything—a killer arpeggiated guitar intro, a no-holds barred vocal from Del, and the curious sound of the Musitron, the invention of one Max Crook, who had been one of Del’s mates in a band with the incredibly long name of Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band. The song moves like wildfire, never letting up until the fade. “Runaway” is two minutes and seventeen seconds of bliss that makes you want to hear more Del Shannon. You may want to rethink that after flipping the disc to hear “Jody,” where Del sounds like he’s ready for his last rites. The lack of quality material plagued Del throughout his career, but in “Runaway,” he gave us one of the greatest songs in rock history, no small achievement.

“Runaway” was a must at our annual family bashes, with my uncle (the guy who gave my dad his 50’s records) taking the lead vocal and doing a damn fine job with it . . . until the falsetto peak in the chorus. Yours truly stepped in and filled the gap, and after a couple of years they called on us to perform by shouting, “It’s time for Big Del and Little Del!” For a while my dad used that as my nickname until I threatened to forever damage his sexual prowess with one swift kick, so he switched to “sunshine” in honor of my blonde mane and perpetually sweet disposition.

“Mother In-Law,” Ernie K-Doe, April 1961: Not all songs in this era were about loves gained, lost or left at the laundromat. Some songs dealt with genuine threats to social stability, and if you watch the sitcoms of the period, there was no greater threat facing the American people than . . . the Mother-in-Law. Ralph almost lost Alice when he called her mother a “BLABBERMOUTH” and Ricky lived in mortal fear of Lucy’s. The mother-in-law was a comic meme of the period: everyone knew she was the ultimate symbol of evil.

Allen Toussaint’s lyrics are a stinging indictment of this dreaded presence, and (after several takes), Ernie K. Doe finally connected with the bitter, semi-comic animus in those words. Shee-it, does Ernie let her have it! “The worst person I know.” “Satan should be her name.” “Sent from down below.” Whoa, Ernie! His bitterness finally coalesces into an action plan in the last verse when she questions his masculinity. You see, back then, real men had to earn money to validate their machismo:

I come home with my pay
She asks me what I made
She thinks her advice is the constitution
But if she would leave that would be the solution
And don’t come back no more

One more thing: I don’t know who that is singing the low bass refrain but I proclaim now that he’s the greatest singer who ever lived and I want to fuck him.

“Travelin’ Man”/”Hello Mary Lou,” Ricky Nelson, April 1961: Rick Nelson is often dismissed as a relic, a teen idol during a relatively dull period in rock history, a privileged son of show business parents whose fame was based more on regular television exposure than genuine musical talent. You can file that perception into the “bullshit” category, for Rick Nelson not only loved music but took it seriously at a very early age, long before displaying his talents on Ozzie and Harriet. He could have sold millions of records based on fame and looks alone, but instead of settling for mediocrity, he insisted on working with the best musicians and recording professionals of the era (and had the resources to secure their services). While his vocals lack the energy of Elvis or Little Richard, he knew how to work within his limitations. He wasn’t a great rocker, but he did okay for himself.

This was a double-sided hit, and I prefer the original b-side, “Hello, Mary Lou,” to “Travelin’ Man,” for two reasons. First, Rick Nelson has absolutely zero credibility playing the role of a man who journeys around the world bonking babes in every port of call. Second, while he does a yeoman’s job with the vocal on “Travelin’ Man,” it is more than obvious that he is much more comfortable and energetic with the rockabilly sway of “Hello, Mary Lou.” Once he stopped being Ricky Nelson and had a little freedom, he would move decisively in that direction.

“Travelin’ Man” does present us with a question. Why wasn’t Ricky Nelson hunted down by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan? In “Travelin’ Man” he does the deed with a Mexican chick, an Asian chick and a Pacific Islander. That’s interracial sex! Filthy miscegenation! Sure, he slips it to a German broad, but she was probably a dominatrix! That pervert! And wait, wasn’t it sinful even for a man to have premarital sex back then? Shit, man, if Rick Nelson were alive today and released this song, the Christian Right would be all over his wandering ass!

“Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, April 1961: #1 for not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six . . . but seven consecutive weeks! Bobby Lewis had learned his craft from the great blues singers, and he put his lessons to work in an exceptionally energetic all-out performance. The background singers are a bit stiff in comparison but a minor distraction when Bobby Lewis is on fire. The horn section knocks it out of the park on the stop-time bridge in one of the tightest ensemble performances on record. I pronounce myself both surprised and almost elated that such an energetic song could have such a strong appeal to a rather dull generation of Americans.

“Quarter to Three,” Gary U. S. Bonds, May 1961: It may not be garage rock, but it’s got the primitive sound and unrestrained energy of “Hey Joe” by The Leaves (which I’ll cover in Part Four). Gary competes with Bobby Lewis for Most Energetic Vocal of 1961 and gives him a good run for his money. One of many songs in this period recorded in a party atmosphere, what separates the song from the other party songs of the era is . . . you really want to be at this party! Step aside, folks, I’ve got to shake my thing! Do the Mashed Potatoes! Twist like we did last summer! Bartender! Another highball on the rocks!

“Stand By Me,” Ben E. King, May 1961: I was totally pissed when I found my father’s vaunted collection did not include my #1 favorite Ben E. King song, “Spanish Harlem,” but it’s hard to stay mad when your back-up is “Stand by Me.” King wrote this with Leiber-Stoller (they were EVERYWHERE in the 50’s and 60’s), using what would be called the “50’s Progression,” a I-vi-IV-V pattern you hear in dozens of songs, from Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” “Stand by Me” masks the pattern somewhat with a subtle arrangement opening with bass and handheld percussion, later supported by strings that are poured on a little too thick for my tastes. But I don’t listen to “Stand by Me” for the string arrangement, but for Ben E. King’s jaw-dropping vocal. Man, if ever a guy deserved to leave a group and go solo, it was Ben E. King. Ben used Sam Cooke as a model for his vocal, and his passionate plea for unconditional love combines the best of gospel and R&B. The timelessness of Ben E. King’s version is unquestioned; it was a top ten hit in two separate decades with a 26-year gap between releases.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, November 1961: Forever honored as my father’s first music purchase, I asked him to describe what appealed to him about the song. “The guys singing ‘Wimoweh.’ I just loved those syllables and the way they snapped out the word. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” The Tokens transformed an old South African folk song into a doo-wop masterpiece, and even this anti-silliness chick found herself getting caught up in the excitement generated by the arrangement. And there in the background, without much in the way of credit, you can hear the lovely voice of opera singer Anita Darian on counterpoint. Damn fine piece of work.

“Shake Your Money Maker,” Elmore James, December 1961 (uncharted): The crown jewel of dad’s collection of this era, I was absolutely stunned to see the orange and black Fire Records label in the pile. “How did you get your hands on this?” I screamed. “You’re not going to believe it,” he laughed. “I was walking through the Fillmore one day and found this half-assed yard sale—a bunch of junk spread out over the front stairs—and I caught a stack of records leading against one of the steps with Elmore James right on top. I picked up the record and the woman who was running the sale said, ‘That’s the devil’s music. You take it away, white boy, you take it away and you go to the devil.’ I thought she was giving it away and so I took it and started to leave and she screamed, ‘Five dollars!’ I didn’t have five dollars, but I gave her two bucks and some change and she seemed okay with it.”

That now makes four times my dad got lucky: meeting my mother, having me, winning an Aretha Franklin record on a call-in radio promo and finding an original Elmore James single.

I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review. Yes, even I have my limits.

Elmore James was fire personified, and his sessions with Fire Records were absolutely fierce. The covers of this song not only pale in comparison, they fucking vanish. This song rocks with such intensity that it takes your breath away . . . and it ends way too soon. Legend has it that Elmore and his band, The Broomdusters, would play this song for thirty minutes straight and leave the crowd begging for more. Shit, I would have come at least fifteen times! The band is tight, the rhythm rollicking and Elmore’s slide substitution for the dirty deed is an irresistible tease. Some feminists may object to the prostitution implications, but most feminists are women in need of a great fuck to get them back in touch with their moneymakers. It’s a source of power, you idiots! I made my dad promise me he would leave me “Shake Your Moneymaker” in his will when he kicks the bucket. Goddamn, what a song!

“Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler, January 1962: The only way to explain “Duke of Earl” to the aliens is to tell them that it’s a testament to the attraction of human voices melding together in song, because the lyrics are flat-out silly. In the role of self-proclaimed Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler’s regal arrogance is patently absurd, and we’re not exactly sure what this dukedom of his is all about. Is it a fantasy of a struggling nobody or the ravings of a megalomaniac? I mean, Gene actually sounds like he’s strutting through his country estate wearing his dukely robes (or whatever dukes wear), pointing out the sweep of the landscape to the girl he intends to transform into a duchess. Ridiculous!

Okay. To listen properly to “Duke of Earl,” you have to shut down the analyst in your brain completely. You cannot question Gene’s sanity. You have to believe he is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shh! Shh! Just sit back, relax and listen to the voices.

Cool, huh! I bet you started singing along with the second round of “duke-duke-duke-of-earl!” You can’t help yourself! And yes, when Gene ends the verses with the “yay, yay, yay, yay,” you try to belt it out along with him! And now Gene doesn’t sound silly—he’s a man completely immersed in his role, and his goal is to make his life sound as grand and enticing as possible so he can secure his duchess for all eternity. What a romantic!

It also helps to remember that “Duke of Earl” started out as a joke. Once upon a time there was a guy named Eugene Dixon who sang with a group called The Dukays, was warming up his voice with a “do-do-do-do” pattern along with another Dukay named Earl Edwards. Eugene started riffing on the pattern, and thinking of the name of his singing buddy, out came “du-duke-duke-of-Earl.” The pair then worked out the full song with songwriter Bernice Williams and The Dukays recorded it. The record company refused to release it under The Dukays’ name, but gave Eugene the option of releasing it as a solo artist. He then slipped into a phone booth, changed into a duke’s costume and out came Gene Chandler, The Duke of Earl.

Okay, I lied about the phone booth, but the rest is true.

“Duke of Earl” works because the singers were fully committed to making it work; it is the wonderful sound of human voices uniting to create a compelling tapestry of sound.

If you’re still having a hard time explaining this to the aliens, show them this clip from the NYPD Blue episode, “Large Mouth Bass.” I used to watch the show religiously when I was a teenager because I loved the character of Andy Sipowicz and I had a serious crush on Jimmy Smits. If the aliens don’t get it after watching this scene, you can assume that they’re really dumb aliens and you don’t have to worry about them taking over the planet.

“The One Who Really Loves You,” Mary Wells, March 1962: The artistic marriage of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson produced a string of hits for Mary, all the way up to and including her signature song, “My Guy.” My dad has all her hits, and I had considered doing a piece on Mary for my Great Broads series, but it was just one too many depressing female life stories for me to deal with in a series full of depressing life stories. Choosing one single was challenging, and originally I had planned to do “Two Lovers” based on my extensive experience with simultaneous multiple intimate relationships. Sounded like a natural for the altrockchick! The problem I ran into is that the song isn’t as daring as the title implies, for in the end you find out that there aren’t really two lovers but one lover with a split personality.

Yawn.

I chose “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary’s commanding vocal, supported by Smokey Robinson’s brilliant production featuring deep-voiced background vocals from The Love Tones and instrumentation from the original Funk Brothers, who would provide most of the great supporting music during Motown’s peak years. As is true with most Smokey Robinson songs, the chord structure is far more interesting than most of the songs of the era, with verses that begin in C major resolving to a Dm7, and a very clever pattern on the bridge that winds up on G major to create a more natural link to the verse. The premise that you can talk a horny young guy out of wanting to bang every piece of ass that comes his way is profoundly silly, but Mary sells it with her extreme confidence in herself.

“Bring It On Home to Me,” Sam Cooke, June 1962: While Sam Cooke’s pop songs are a mixed bag, I’ll take “Wonderful World” over most of the pop in that era because even when the material is spotty, that’s Sam Cooke singing, and it doesn’t get much better than that. In “Bring It On Home to Me,” he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.

“The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva, June 1962: Yes, my dad has most of the dance records from this era. He’s got Dee Dee Sharp doing the Mashed Potatoes, he’s got Bobby Freeman doing The Swim, he’s got The Orlons Watusi-ing around the dance floor, and yes, he’s got Chubby Checker, twisting, pony-ing, limbo-ing and twisting, twisting and twisting himself into a pretzel.

I loathe them all.

The shining exception to the Dance Tunes Suck rule is Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Another tune from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, they pitched the song to Dee Dee Sharp as a follow-up to her smash hit, “Mashed Potato Time.” Adhering to the limited culinary norms of the time, Dee Dee decided to stick with mashed potatoes and went with a song called “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” that pierced the Top 10 and is completely forgotten today. Running out of options, the pair turned to their babysitter, who had recorded the demo, and Eva Boyd of Belhaven, North Carolina, became Little Eva, pop star.

“The Loco-Motion” was an unusual dance song in one key respect: the dance did not exist when Goffin and King wrote the song. Little Eva covered for them and made one up on the fly. I suppose they had to have a dance to go along with a dance song (duh), but I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and never once felt motivated to do the Loco-Motion or even bother to learn the moves. What makes “The Loco-Motion” a great song is a fabulous arrangement combining sax drone, an ass-shaking beat, spot-on background vocals (featuring Carole King) and Little Eva’s enthusiastic, confident and unpolished vocal—and I mean “unpolished” in the most positive sense of the word. Little Eva sounds like Everygirl, just like Danny Rapp sounded like the kid you knew from high school on “At the Hop.” No one tried to Eliza Doolittle-ize her by cleaning up Eva’s accent or sharpening her pronunciation, and she sounds marvelous.

“The Loco-Motion” is the only song to make the Top 10 in three different versions in three different decades. Grand Funk Railroad’s version topped the charts in 1974 and Kylie Minogue’s rendition made it to #3 in the late 80’s. That’s a tribute to the strength of the song itself, but Little Eva’s version will always be #1 in my book.

“If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul & Mary, August 1962: My dad has always been something of a folkie. His daughter isn’t—at least not an American folkie. I love folk music, just not American folk music. The exceptions to the rule are artists who were a bit quirky, like Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. My favorite folk traditions are British, Irish and Bulgarian. I find nearly all the American folk heroes you care to name too preachy, too political, too sentimental or too obvious.

I had to pick one single from the mix to acknowledge the existence of the folk revival in the early 60’s, and I liked this one the best, primarily because Mary Travers takes the lead vocal and the two boring guys with the beards are relegated to the background. I find the lyrics to this Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song completely inane, and that’s coming from a confirmed socialist. The line I find most absurd is “I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” People! The day when we all put aside our differences and love one another ain’t ever gonna happen! Do you even like everyone you’ve met in your life? I don’t! And even if I could learn to like the grumpy old woman who runs the boulangerie or the guy who ripped me off by selling me my piece of shit first car, I’m never going to love Donald Trump, members of ISIS or Jimmy Swaggart! Not in the realm of possibility! It’s already hard enough to get people to accept other people with superficial differences like skin color or buy into the fact that there are different ways for adults to manifest love and affection. Personally, I’d hammer, ring and sing about having the freedom to live my own life in peace without having to be afraid of getting my head blown off by some mentally ill religious wacko who has been programmed to believe that I represent evil because I wear lipstick and reveal my cleavage. I’ll take that freedom and run with it!

“He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals (er, The Blossoms), September 1962: Phil Spector deserves credit for the technical advance known as the Wall of Sound, which provided more depth and oomph to records in an era when a producer had to deal with the severe limitations imposed by AM radio and monaural sound. He was also a flaming asshole who treated artists like shit. “He’s a Rebel” confirms his status as both a trailblazer and major league jerk.

Gene Pitney (a much better songwriter than a singer) wrote “He’s a Rebel” for The Shirelles, who took a pass. Phil Spector was interested in having The Crystals record the song, but heard through the grapevine that a version by Vikki Carr was in the works, and damn it all, The Crystals were out on tour and couldn’t possibly make it into the studio before Vikki stole Phil’s thunder. Such a conundrum presented no problem for a man with no sense of ethics, so Spector had a local group named The Blossoms record the track and then released it under The Crystals’ name.

That’s called balls, and if I’d been the lead singer of The Crystals, Phil Spector would be missing his.

That lead singer, Barbara Alston, couldn’t mimic the sound of Darlene Love, the lead singer of The Blossoms. Truth be told, Barbara wasn’t really all that comfortable as the front girl, so she stepped aside in favor of fellow Crystal Dolores “La La” Brooks. The shift would bear fruit in 1963, but jeez, what a shitty way to implement a personnel decision.

Despite the hoo-hah, I love the song and the production. The message was intensely appropriate for a culture hell-bent on conformity:

He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good
He’s a rebel ’cause he never ever does what he should
But just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does
That’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love

You go, Barbara . . . er, Darlene!

“Up On the Roof,” The Drifters, November 1962: There has never been a group with a name so suited to their history. The Drifters were as much a concept as a real group due to innumerable lineup changes over the years. Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King are best-remembered as lead vocalists, but “Up On the Roof” featured a guy named Rudy Lewis, who would later sing lead on the mega-hit “On Broadway.” Rudy died right before The Drifters were scheduled to record “Under the Boardwalk,” at the age of 27. His vocal on this Goffin-King urban fantasy is superb: you can hear the relief in his voice when he reaches his hideaway after a hard day at work; you can hear his voice expand as he surveys the expansive rooftop view. It’s a fine piece of work, but I find it curious that a song describing an experience limited pretty much to New York and a few other big cities could touch the hearts the millions of listeners whose families were part of the great white flight migration from the cities to suburbia that would continue for decades to come.

“The End of the World,” Skeeter Davis, January 1963: If you’re looking for evidence that American teenagers of the era were narcissistic drama queens capable of manufacturing tragedy from trivia, look no further than Skeeter Davis’ monster hit about getting dumped. This girl is in serious need of long-term therapy:

Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
’cause you don’t love me anymore?

Why do the birds go on singing?
Why do the starts glow above?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when I lost your love

Whoa! You expect the whole world to stop functioning just because your pimply boyfriend decided to take a powder? You think you’re the only person in the history of the world who has experienced rejection? Out of billions of guys on the planet, only this one adolescent can give your life meaning? I knew that the parents of Baby Boomers were famous for coddling their kids and trying to give them things they couldn’t have when they were kids, but this broad doesn’t need parental patience and understanding—she needs a virtual whack upside the head!

I asked my dad why he bought this horrid confessional so diametrically opposed to the way he and my mother raised me. He snapped, “She has a nice voice. Don’t read too much into it.” Translation: dad had a crush on Skeeter Davis. He’s always been a sucker for the lost puppy act.

“Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home),” The Crystals,  April 1963: Okay, these are the real Crystals . . . I think. I really don’t trust Phil Spector. Anyway, this is a great Wall of Sound recording with some very intense drumming that foreshadows the more energetic styles that would emerge after the British Invasion. As for the lyrics, all you need to know is Phil Spector co-wrote the song and he never wanted lyrics that would draw attention away from his production.

Skeeter wasn’t the only narcissist on the scene.

“Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis, May 1963: Blissfully we move on to a female vocalist with talent equally as impressive as the more famous and feted Connie Francis. Barbara Lewis has one of the few voices that melt me. For those of you unfamiliar with period vernacular, when someone melts you it means that someone’s presence, scent, moves, voice or touch ignite a swooning feeling that sets your heart all a-flutter. Barbara Lewis does it to me every time with her unique voice that combines depth, sweetness and sensitivity. The choice between this piece and “Baby I’m Yours” was a coin flip—I love both songs with all my heart, and both songs make me swoon in ecstasy. “Hello Stranger” has stronger backing vocals, and the deep baritone voices contrast beautifully with Barbara’s alto. My love and I often slow dance to Barbara Lewis after a romantic evening, a sweet and tender experience that balances the delicious aggressiveness of our style of lovemaking.

Ahh!

“One Fine Day,” The Chiffons, May 1963: “He’s So Fine” may be the more iconic hit, but I find the “doo-lang, doo-lang” riff intensely irritating. This second “fine” song, also written by Goffin and King, was produced by The Tokens of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame, and boy, did they do one helluva job! The rhythm is more intense, the doo-wop syllables are better balanced by harmonies and the arrangement encourages lead singer Judy Craig to soar to the heavens. While I’m getting pretty tired of boy-meets-girl-now-we’re-gonna-get-married songs at this point in the story, I can’t deny the genuine joy in The Chiffons’ performance.

Be My Baby,” The Ronettes, August 1963: Brian Wilson was obsessed with this song and admitted to playing it over 1,000 times. Brian Wilson apparently has a lot more stamina than I do, because I could barely stand to listen to it three times, my minimum listening requirement before I place my fingers on the keyboard. Yes, I get the whole Wall of Sound thing, but this is a boring song with insipid lyrics and Ronnie Spector can’t sing worth shit. All the other lemmings in the music business followed Brian over the cliff, with Rolling Stone ranking it #22 in one of their greatest songs of all-time lists (a list that changes frequently in accordance with updates to their marketing strategy). “Be My Baby” is another addition to my “influential records that suck” list (which includes some works by Brian Wilson).

“Louie, Louie,” The Kingsmen, November 1963: YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH! Finally! Sloppy, sassy, cheeky, who-gives-a-fuck rock ‘n’ roll! A certified, FBI-investigated act of rebellion!

The Kingsmen version is indeed a sloppy mess, and just like a big juicy cheeseburger slathered in oodles of catsup and mustard, a thoroughly satisfying sensual experience. The essential immediacy of the song accounts for its timeless appeal. What you hear is the first and only take. There are no overdubs or engineering tricks—it’s like you stepped into their garage just as they ended the countdown. About a minute into the song, the drummer drops a stick and yells, “Fuck!” The lead singer comes in too early on the last verse and the drummer covers for him. The rest of the band is thrown off by the mistake and shifts to the chorus a line early. All kinds of fuck-ups! Just like a real garage band! I love The Kingsmen!

The slurred lyrics have created a slew of mondegreens (misheard or misinterpreted lyrics that are unintentionally funny). My dad still insists that the line, “See Jamaica, the moon above,” is really “Stick my finger in the hole of love.” The FBI investigated the song and failed to find any of the obscenities they had hoped to expose. Apparently, they couldn’t understand any of the lyrics! Your tax dollars at work! And dig this—I read the FBI file on the investigation and noted several redactions where passages are crossed out with a big fat Sharpie. Wow! “Louie, Louie” had national security implications! Well, knock me over with a feather! The Kingsmen were true subversives of the highest order, for they wanted us to forget our stupid problems, get down and party. Take that, historical stream of American Puritanism!

Speaking of patriotism, when I lived in Seattle and attended Mariners games (yeah, they sucked but they were the only team in town), they’d play “Louie, Louie” after the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. I would always jump out of my seat and and dance, and once they flashed me on the big screen! My 5.6 seconds of fame! I would argue that “Louie, Louie,” devoted as it is to the good American tradition of party-til-the-cows-come-home, is much more patriotic than the despicable “God Bless America,” a song that should be banned forever for its violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

So yeah, no matter how many times I hear “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, I get energized, I shake and shimmy, and I feel completely, wholly, absolutely and unconditionally thrilled to be alive.

“Dominique,” The Singing Nun, November 1963: As soon as I picked up the disc, my dad leapt to his defense. “Before you start ragging on me, remember—I was still a practicing Catholic and I’d just gone through Confirmation the previous summer. This came out right after JFK’s assassination, so I was feeling pretty religious around that time.” “Okay, dad,” I said, having no idea what to expect since I hadn’t heard the song since I was a kid and had forgotten all about it.

So I gave it three spins, did some research and finally had a reaction: what the fuck? “Dominique” was a worldwide hit, climbing to #1 in several countries, even countries where Catholics were a distinct minority and French speakers were even more scarce. Just like The Beatles, The Singing Nun (aka Jeanne Deckers aka Soeur Luc-Gabrielle aka Soeur Souirire aka Sister Smile) appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (though there was a noticeable absence of screaming during her performance). How on earth did a mini-bio of St. Dominic set to music with lyrics that only a small percentage of buyers could understand take the world by storm? I mean, it wasn’t like she was one of those hot nuns you see in gothic porn fantasies, smoking cigarettes and brandishing whips—she was a rather plain Belgian lady completely devoured by her habit and free of any sinful lipstick or blush. The song is rather boring, with six verses and a chorus repeated seven times, all combining to tell us how St. Dominic humbly waged war against liars and other assorted sinners.

The best explanation I’ve read was that the song’s success was some kind of mass atonement for JFK’s murder. I had no idea that Catholic guilt was so contagious. From now on, I’ll cross the street if I happen to stroll by a Catholic church and run like hell if I see a nun.

The phenomenon of The Singing Nun didn’t end with a hit single. There were movies, some sanitized, some spurious. Jeannine Deckers, bless her heart, became something of a rebel, releasing a song in 1967 that celebrated the advent of The Pill. Departing the convent, she moved in with another woman and commenced a long-term lesbian relationship. Desperate for cash after the Belgian government socked her with a huge tax bill, she tried to rekindle her fame with a disco version of “Dominique” in 1982. It bombed, in large part because all she did was sing the same song with the same phrasing in the same rhythm with a cheesy disco music track in the background. Facing financial ruin, she and her lover committed suicide in 1985.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. The Singing Nun’s supporting album was unceremoniously excommunicated from the top of the charts by the blessed arrival of The Beatles . . . who would soon be more popular than Jesus!

“You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore, December 1963: My dad made a surprising comment when I pulled this record out of the sleeve: “You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lesley Gore.” That remark ignited a long conversation between father and daughter, and because I found his story so intriguing, I asked him to summarize what “You Don’t Own Me” meant to him and how it changed his life:

This song came out after a couple of years of puberty, at a time when the sexes were pretty segregated. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and we’d really only see girls when the parish held a mixer. So all the guys hung out together and the two big topics of conversation were sports and girls. With girls, we were passing on the myths handed down to us by our parents and often reinforced in the pop songs of the day. Stuff like, “You gotta keep a girl in her place,” and “You can’t let a woman make a fool out of you.” The basic attitude was that girls needed us more than we needed them, and that all they had to do is look pretty, don’t say anything stupid, or even better, don’t say anything at all. There was a definite implication that girls were the lesser half of the species—pretty things to have around and show off to your friends, but not to be taken seriously.

Just try to imagine me trying to get close to your mother with that kind of attitude. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I may not be alive!

Even though I went along with the guys and repeated the same old bullshit, part of me knew that the myth didn’t jive with my experience. I’d met a lot of girls who were smart, had interesting things to say and were pretty damned competitive. I was caught in between expectations of what it means to be a man and the nagging truth of my own experience.

Lesley Gore straightened me out. When I first heard that song, I froze—I don’t remember what I was doing, but I just froze and listened. Hell, the way they clear the scene for her, you can’t help but pay attention! When she sang those lines–“And don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display”—with such feeling and clarity, it was like having a vacuum cleaner suck out all the gunk from my brain. And when she turns the tables and says, “I don’t tell you what to say,” that hit me in the gut, and I realized that everything I learned about girls was not only bullshit, but flat-out wrong. I swore I’d treat any girl I knew the way I’d treat anyone else, and that gave me a definite advantage when your mother came into my life. I was about 80% free of sexism when I met her, and your mother took care of most of the rest. All thanks to Lesley Gore.

It’s easy to dismiss Lesley Gore as the teenage soap opera queen from her hits, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” That is certainly what her handlers wanted, so it took a lot of courage on the part of Lesley and Quincy Jones to record this song. “You Don’t Own Me,” interestingly enough, was written by the two guys who wrote “At the Hop,” who will reappear in Part 3 as card-carrying patriots. Their goal was to write a hit about a girl telling a guy off,  but as we know from listening to great singers like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline, the message of the lyrics can be enhanced or even countermanded by how the singer approaches the subtext—the way a singer holds a certain note, shortens a note, emphasizes a word, inserts a caesura or any number of variations to the expected pattern. Great singers uncover rich subtexts.

And Lesley Gore was a great singer.

She maximizes the darkness-and-light contrast of minor and major keys throughout the song. In the minor key verses, her voice is shadowed with righteous but controlled anger at the thought of becoming a possession; in the major key verses, she cries out for and celebrates liberation and self-worth. The dramatic shift is accomplished almost entirely by Lesley’s voice; Quincy Jones wisely lays back when most producers would go for overkill. “You Don’t Own Me” is simply one of the great vocal performances of all time.

What makes “You Don’t Own Me” a feminist liberation message with as much power than The Feminine Mystique all comes back to the emotional subtext Lesley Gore created through her performance. Here’s an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique germane to the period that we can use for our compare-and-contrast exercise:

In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”

This is an accurate description of the status of women at the time of “You Don’t Own Me,” and I am certain that the description of the experience and its impact had a huge effect on women. My mother, who lived through the era and experienced both excitement and exasperation when engaging feminists in dialogue, has often pointed out that the problem with The Feminine Mystique wasn’t Betty Friedan’s writing ability but that very few men bothered to read it. She once said to me, “Feminism is hard work. You can pass laws, but to truly change things, you have to change the world one man at a time.” She understood that equality of the genders required not only a major cultural shift but a major personal shift for every single woman and every single man.

This is why “You Don’t Own Me” is a powerful tool for change: Lesley is trying to change the world one man at a time. Betty Friedan worked on the systems level; Lesley Gore on the personal level. Both are valuable, but I have to say I’ve seen a lot more in the way of results when educating men on a personal level that I expect nothing less than full, equal treatment.

I admire Lesley Gore in many ways, as an activist, as a talented composer and songwriter, as a woman who came out of the closet way back in 1982 and had a loving relationship with her partner for over thirty years. But above all I admire her as a woman who had the courage to sing about human rights for women at a time when defiant women—those who refused to conform to society’s limited expectations—were often scorned and ridiculed. “You Don’t Own Me” may be a contradictory exclamation point to mark the end of this era in music, but more than any other song of its era, it foretold of the musical revolution to come.

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