I hate to call bullshit on a respected historical institution, but the JFK Library’s chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is missing important and vital information that would help the public put the crisis in perspective. I’m specifically referring to the entry for October 24, 1962:
Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
The astute historian will likely find this single entry woefully inadequate, and correct the oversight as follows:
1. Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
2. James Brown and The Famous Flames performed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on the night of October 24; the recording of the performance would prove to be a major factor in establishing the commercial viability of live recordings and a significant development in the history of soul music.
Yes, while Khruschev and Kennedy were wagging their dicks at each other, James Brown was busy triggering orgasms in an audience of 1500 people.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (like my parents) invariably spice their stories by describing a world paralyzed by the fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. They give us the impression that every ear in the whole wide world was glued to their transistor radios or vacuum tube TV’s, terrified that at any moment they would receive word that the missiles were on their way. The JFK Library reinforces this narrative by titling their section on the crisis “The World on the Brink.”
Did James Brown, The Famous Flames, the staff at the Apollo and the 1500 concert-goers live in some kind of bubble that shielded them from the daily news? Why weren’t they hiding in fallout shelters or crawling under their beds like everyone else?
Through diligent research and my extraordinary ability to put two and two together, I have managed to solve the mystery. One of the anecdotes often cited in histories of the crisis describes how an American U-2 drifted into Soviet air space on October 27, when tensions were at the breaking point. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard the news and rushed out of a meeting shouting, “This means war with the Soviet Union!” In full Paul Revere mode, McNamara immediately called the President, who, according to the accepted mythology, received the news with unruffled detachment: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
The push-button-activated taping system in the White House confirms that JFK did indeed utter that bit of folklore wisdom, but in one of the many attempts to burnish his legacy, the record was deliberately tampered with to make JFK appear cool and calm in the midst of the crisis. The real conversation featuring that phrase took place in the Oval Office two days before, on the morning of October 25th while Jack was having breakfast with brother Bobby:
BOBBY: Hey! Did you hear James Brown played to a packed house at the Apollo last night? Here we are facing imminent worldwide destruction and the guy decides the show must go on? Either he’s a nut or one of the most dedicated performers alive.
JACK: Well, there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.
James Brown was the son-of-a-bitch who didn’t get the word! As for the 1500 fans who filled the Apollo, they were obviously the smartest people alive at the time. Shit, if you think you’re going to be vaporized any second and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it, you might as well go out partying!
James Brown can be forgiven for not keeping up with the news at that particular juncture in his career. Though he had consistently hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts, he had yet to reach the Billboard Top 30. And while he was widely known as a must-see live act, his performances were still limited to the Chitlin’ Circuit (since refashioned to “Urban Theater Circuit”), making it difficult to reach mainstream (translation: white) audiences. Brown strongly believed he had to try something different and proposed a live album to his masters at King Records. Displaying insight similar to the MLB executives who fought television every step of the way and allowed football to supplant baseball as the American pastime, head man Syd Nathan squashed the idea, arguing that a live recording would discourage fans from attending Brown’s performances.
Imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit most Americans admire, Brown decided to fund the enterprise himself, forking over a lot of his hard-earned dough to pay for the recording equipment, theater rental and tuxedos for the Famous Flames. Even after Brown submitted the finished product, King Records dragged its feet on the release (the album wouldn’t hit the shelves until May 1963). According to James Maycock’s superb retrospective on the album from The Guardian:
As owner of the recordings, Brown forced Nathan to buy the tapes from him. But Nathan wasn’t impressed. Brown: “He didn’t like the way we went from one tune to another without stopping . . . I guess he was expecting exact copies of our earlier records, but with people politely applauding in between.” Once Nathan finally agreed to press 5,000 copies of the album, both men argued about the promotional single. James Brown: “Mr Nathan was waiting to see which tune the radio stations were going to play from the album, and then he would shoot it out as a single. I said, ‘We’re not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it is.'”
James Brown’s instincts were balls-on. Live at the Apollo shot to #2 on the Billboard LP charts and stayed on the charts for over a year. The album that blocked its path to the top spot was Andy Williams’ The Days of Wine and Roses.
That, my friends, is the epitome of the term, “polar opposites.”
Though the album opened the door to concerts in mainstream venues, it would take a couple of years for Brown to come up with a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Part 1”) and none of his future studio albums came close to reaching the top. A second live album released a year later (Pure Dynamite – Live at the Royal) reached #10, but the more salient fact is that James Brown holds the record for having the most singles to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 without any of them reaching #1. While he sold lots of records and will be long remembered for his influence on the development of soul and funk, James Brown was first and foremost a live performer, a showman with an extraordinary ability to capture, mesmerize and engage his audience.
And that’s what you hear on Live at the Apollo.
When I’m really, really horny, I hate wasting my time on foreplay. Just pull the damn thing out, and don’t stop until you’ve given me everything you got and then some!
That’s also what you get with Live at the Apollo: nonstop action for twenty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds (add another 1:49 if you include Fats’ Gonder’s introduction, and another nine or so minutes if you add the alternative mixes on the deluxe version). Live at the Apollo is the polar opposite (not quite as strong as the James Brown-Andy Williams polarization, but close enough) of a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead take their sweet time moving from one song or jam to another and play as long as they feel like it, usually for multiple hours. Live at the Apollo is bereft of spaces, thank yous and idle chatter. Brown and the Flames never let up, not for a second. Though their appearance was fairly brief in terms of linear time, the sonic record leaves no doubt that they left it all on the field.
As did The Dead, consistently. Sometimes hard and fast is great, sometimes slow and elongated hits the sweet spot. When I say, “Give me everything you’ve got,” I want something more than an automatic thrusting dildo sex machine (available on Amazon) set to the highest speed. I want variation and style!
James Brown understood that variation is as important to music as it is to sex. If you’re someone who has never heard Live at the Apollo, do not assume that the pedal-to-the-floor pace of the show results in a performance that resembles the frantic speed of the guy who explains the dozens of dangerous side effects towards the end of American pharmaceutical commercials. A good chunk of Live at the Apollo is devoted to slow dance numbers, so the minutes don’t exactly fly by. James Brown was pretty good with upbeat material but saved his most dramatic performances for the slow stuff, where often he seems to make time stand still, squeezing every last drop from the musical moment.
Fats Gonder’s job as emcee was to raise the level of the crowd’s anticipation to pre-orgasmic status, an assignment he accomplished with professionalism and aplomb. After sharing the first of several James Brown epithets (“The Hardest Workingman in Show Business”), he runs through a list of Brown’s hits, each followed by an ascending huzzah from the brass-heavy band and each occasioning a noticeable rise in crowd reaction—particularly from the women in the crowd. By the time Fats works his way up the hit list to “Lost Someone,” the screams are reminiscent of the shrieks the American public would hear on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Maycock noted in his retrospective, we can thank an uncredited African-American woman for serving as catalyst:
The recording of that Wednesday’s shows was not without its obstacles though. In one of the early performances an elderly woman, just below a microphone, repeatedly screamed: “Sing it, motherfucker!” Debating this dilemma between performances, the band realised she was actually an asset, encouraging the rest of the audience to shriek louder. So King’s vice-president, Hal Neely, bribed her with popcorn into attending the other shows, although he discreetly moved the microphone out of cussing range. Bobby Byrd: “She brought the house down, she was a big part of the album.”
After wrapping up the list by mentioning Brown’s latest release (“Night Train”), Fats throws in two more epithets (“Mr. Dynamite” and “The Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself”) before announcing “The star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!”
The band takes the cue and jumps out of the gate with a high-speed blues interlude. What stands out most prominently is the Al Caiola-Duane Eddy style guitar, dishing out a riff eerily similar to the theme song of the Batman television series. Since that series wouldn’t air for another three years, you can hold your shouts of “Holy ripoff, Batman!” and just revel in the fun. At the start of the third go-round, the screams from the audience tell you that the star performer and his entourage have made what was no doubt a dramatic entrance.
“You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!) “You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!!) “I feel aaaaawwwwlllllllrigh—–ight!” Brown’s welcome is followed by a crunchy, descending vamp on electric guitar that introduces a seriously uptempo riff in 6/4 time that ends with a tight closing flourish from the brass. The tempo shifts to a nice, hip-grinding mid-tempo beat as the singer launches into “I’ll Go Crazy” with doo-wop style support from the Famous Flames. The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with sharply-executed stop-time moments designed to get the adrenaline pumping. Brown’s vocal in this opening piece is delivered with disciplined ease, more concerned with phrasing in sync with groove than lyrical articulation, though he and the Flames tighten up the pronunciation a bit when they sing the key line, “You’ve got to live for yourself/Yourself and nobody else.” As the verses depict a man about to go crazy if his baby leaves him, that key line forms a primitive version of self-affirmation technique.
I don’t want to spend any time imagining James Brown as a self-help guru, so I’m very thankful that the next number starts immediately.
The applause hasn’t run itself out before Brown opens “Try Me,” and those two little words elicit intense screams spiced with swoons. The call-and-response and background vocals from The Famous Flames are outstanding, more than worthy of the few moments of rapt, silent attention they elicit. Sporadic screams do fill the air during the piece, but only in the breaks, never in the verses. This song is directed at two parts of the body—the heart and the clitoris (sorry, guys)—and the performers are right on target. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll say it forever—there’s nothing quite as hot as a man showing a hint of vulnerability. Although James Brown could definitely play the part of drama queen, he also had a remarkable knack for vocal understatement, and here his tone and delivery reflect a man at the lowest of all low points.
After a brief vamp played at hyperspeed, we get “Think,” a hyperspeed version of the version James and the Flames recorded in 1960. It’s such a shocking shift from the slow grind of “Try Me” that the crowd has a hard time getting into the groove; as such, it stands out as the track featuring the least intense audience reaction. The single was definitely uptempo but still danceable; the Apollo version is so fast you might wind up snapping tendons and ligaments trying to keep up. Brown would re-record the song many times over the course of his career, a curious obsession with a rather “meh” song.
This time the vamp leads to a brief guitar lead-in and the welcoming downtempo rhythm of “I Don’t Mind.” Here The Flames’ harmonies take on more of a sweet gospel feel that is a delight to the ear. As with “Try Me,” there are plenty of moments of elongated stop time to raise anticipation, and James Brown’s vocal runs the gamut from low-register notes delivered with emotional restraint and high-pitched howls that display how difficult is for the narrator to maintain that restraint (he’s leaving his baby rather than the other way around, and the wavering emotion tempers the general tone of gloating). The truth is he does mind—and that’s what drives the extremes in Brown’s magnificent vocal.
The original November 1961 release of “Lost Someone,” is a fairly standard slow dance piece distinguished by James Brown’s intense, melodramatic vocal. It touched a sufficient number of hearts to hit #2 on the R&B charts, and you can easily imagine its potential as the closing number in a live set, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. From a purely logical perspective, however (she says, channeling her inner Spock), it’s hard to imagine it as a crowd participation number. I mean, who wants to admit they just got their sorry ass dumped in front of an audience? “Yeah, James, that’s me, I’m a fucking loser! Sing it, man! Bring it on home!”
Still clinging to the illogic of it all, my inner Spock reminds me that human beings are irrational creatures governed by their emotions, encourages me to get over it and give James Brown a helluva lot of credit for pulling off the impossible.
Refusing to let any marketing opportunity go to waste, Brown opens the performance with a brief advertisement for some of his hits:
I said if you leave me I go crazy
‘Cause I know it’s true now
You’ve got the power, and I want you to try me
‘Cause I don’t mind
Don’t leave me bewildered
‘Cause this old heart can’t stand no more
Kudos to J. B. for his marketing prowess, and thank your lucky stars he didn’t remind the audience of the merch table. The brief commercial break is followed by four repetitions of “there’s only one thing I can do/say,” a signal to the sharper pencils in the audience to anticipate a full performance of another James Brown hit. The audience has only one second to shout out or telepathically send their wishes his way, but everyone probably knew it simply had to be either “Please, Please, Please” or “Lost Someone.” The screaming, swooning crowd reaction tells us he made the right call, especially for the women in the audience.
Brown plays it close to the recording for the first few verses, teasing occasional responses from his hypnotized audience. He confirms their location in the palm of his hand through the classic, “Let me hear you say yeah” trope, building it up with “Let me hear you say it a little bit louder.” Soon you hear him move away from the mike, a brilliant little trick that forces the audience to listen even more intently. He conclusively proves the audience will follow him anywhere when, in his distant, near off-mike voice, he screams out “I’ll lo-OOOVE you tomorrow” and the audience rewards him with the most passionate screams on the album. As he continues to float in the distance during the repetition of “I’m so weak,” you wonder if he’s going to do the bit where he feigns utter exhaustion, a signal to one of the Flames to cover his shoulders in a wrap or cape and start to lead him offstage when WHAM! Brown taps into his reserve tank, rips off the covering and explodes in a fit of passion to cap his performance. Alas, it’s just a teaser; Brown returns to full mike and another run-through of “Lost Somebody.” During this phase, he wanders away from the written lyrics and starts playing with the crowd again. My favorite part is when he sings, “I want to hear you scream” and tries to get them to loosen up (“Don’t just say “aah,” say OWWWW!”). Like a good preacher, he tells them that if they let loose, “I believe that my work will be done.” I hope he meant that his work was to make everyone permanently horny so we would spend all our time fucking and never go to war with one another again.
Although early rock/R&B/soul critic and author Peter Guralnick has a tendency to go hyperbolic at times, his description of this performance is fairly grounded in reality:
Here, in a single, multilayered track … you have embodied the whole history of soul music, the teaching, the preaching, the endless assortment of gospel effects, above all the groove that was at the music’s core. “Don’t go to strangers,” James pleads in his abrasively vulnerable fashion. “Come on home to me . . . Gee whiz I love you . . . I’m so weak . . .” Over and over he repeats the simple phrases, insists “I’ll love you tomorrow” until the music is rocking with a steady pulse, until the music grabs you in the pit of the stomach and James knows he’s got you. Then he works the audience as he works the song, teasing, tantalizing, drawing closer, dancing away, until finally at the end of Side I that voice breaks through the crowd noise and dissipates the tension as it calls out, “James, you’re an asshole.” “I believe someone out there loves someone,” declares James with cruel disingenuousness. “Yeah, you,” replies a girl’s voice with unabashed fervor. “I feel so good I want to scream,” says James, testing the limits yet again. “Scream!” cries a voice. And the record listener responds, too, we are drawn in by the same tricks, so transparent in the daylight but put across with the same unabashed fervor with which the girl in the audience offers up her love.
Guralnick, P. (1986). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 236-237. New York: Back Bay Books.
I don’t buy “the whole history of soul music bit,” or the “steady rocking bit” but the description of the milieu feels right. You may notice the phrase “Gee whiz” is mentioned, and yes, it is part of the song. More shocking (and not in the original lyrics) is the moment James Brown says, “Shucks,” a word I only associate with one Opie Taylor, inhabitant of the fictional realm known as Mayberry.
There is NO break—not even a nanosecond of space—between “Lost Someone” and the medley, which opens with the first verse of “Please, Please, Please.” This is the worst tease on the album—one lousy verse of “Please, Please, Please” where J. B. sings only the opening line and then we’re off to the races to “You’ve Got the Power” (twelve seconds of it), then to “I Found Someone,” and then . . . five more excerpts before the “Please, Please, Please” reprise, stream after stream of premature ejaculation. In case you haven’t figured it out, I consider the medley the weakest part of the performance, a highlight reel of questionable musical value. I can’t believe there weren’t fans in the audience who didn’t feel a little more than annoyed with these selected shorts. To my ears, the crowd response is fleeting, the cheers and screams fade quickly and my guess is more than a few people took the opportunity presented by this half-assed collage to hit the head. Sadly, I’m not all that impressed with the closing number, “Night Train,” but the crowd seems to be having a good time. I guess I’m not into geography songs.
As it is impossible for a live performance to come out flawless, don’t take my assessment of its few defects as a thumbs-down vote for the album as a whole. With Live at the Apollo, the whole is better than its parts. It’s a damned exciting record, and I think the concert would have been an absolute knockout live-and-in-person.
While later in life his aggressive core would turn nasty and result in several complaints of domestic violence, Live at the Apollo is the culmination of a mid-20th Century Horatio Alger story. James Brown faced more obstacles than most people reading this review will ever face. Through a combination of guts, willpower, talent and a commitment to his craft, he climbed to the top of his profession and made a whole lot of people happy as they grooved to his music. Live at the Apollo is a celebration of his talent and his pluck, and is more than worth the modest price of admission.
I do have to point out that for all his foresight and despite the impressive breadth of his marketing campaign, James Brown didn’t think of filming Live at the Apollo. Fortunately for history, we can catch his performance at the 1964 T. A. M. I. show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International). The lineup was pretty damned impressive—The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore and a host of others—but there is no question that James Brown stole the show. Here you’ll see the physical nature of his performance, the precise choreography and not one, not two, not three but FOUR fits of feigned exhaustion. Even if you don’t give a hoot for James Brown’s music, you have to smile at his audacity, his discipline and his off-the-charts kinetic energy.
Here’s how I came to discover Early Girl 7″ Hits:
- While researching my post on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, I noticed that her backstory involved intimate relationships with several women. Always interested in fellow bisexuals, I started digging into that bit of history.
- One of her many alleged partners was a woman named Norma Tanega. “Norma Tanega. Norma Tanega. I know I’ve heard that name somewhere.” So I researched Norma Tanega.
- Much to my surprise, I found that Norma, like me, is a graduate of one of the Claremont Colleges, and currently lives as an artist and musician in Claremont. Small world! More to the point, I found that Norma Tanega was a singer-songwriter who produced a minor 60’s hit called, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog.” I’d never heard the song before, so I must have seen her name when I was reviewing the historical Billboard and Cashbox charts.
- As much as I grumble about iTunes, they’re pretty good at obscurity, so I went there and searched for Norma Tanega. The song only appeared on a collection called Early Girl 7″ Hits. I previewed “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and found it to be a pleasant, whimsical pop tune, perfect for a summer day in 1966.
- I looked at the other tracks on the album and found the collection intriguing. Knowing that iTunes has tons of collections that are filled with fakes sung by second-stringers who don’t come close to the originals, I sampled the tracks by Jan Bradley, Barbara Lynn and Doris Troy because I already had those in my library. All originals!
Since I’d already written my reviews of Silly Sisters and Phoebe Snow, I came up with a great idea: I’d review this album and make it Chick Week on Altrockchick.com! Yes, I realize it’s kind of dumb to announce Chick Week at the end of the week, and it gets even worse when I tell you that this review will be split into two parts, so it will carry over into next week, which can’t be Chick Week because it’s a different week . . . but feel free to pepper me with blonde jokes to your heart’s content.
While my marketing strategy may have been a little off, I do have a clear purpose in mind. As my maman said about me in her post, I am a ravenous learner. It struck me a few months ago during the period when I’d decided to give up the blog that the greatest satisfaction I get from writing music reviews is that in the process of researching the artist and experiencing the music, I get to learn more about music, about culture and about myself. As a person with a deep interest in the place of women in society, exploring the status of women as expressed in music during the years prior to and following the advent of The Pill and the beginning of Women’s Lib gives me an opportunity to learn even more about the obstacles to equality, many of which were generated by the women themselves. While there are some seriously cool songs in this collection, I have to admit that some of my female forebears were fucking idiots! Let’s try to figure out why many women of the era between 1955 and 1968 insisted on dumbing themselves down and refused to live up to their potential, while a few had the courage to break the mold.
Sound like fun? Let’s rock! Instead of following the track order of this album, I’ve chosen to review these songs chronologically to uncover the cultural-historical patterns. Due to the length of the album (26 songs), I’m splitting this essay into two different posts. We’ll split the list right down the middle, which means this post will end somewhere in 1962. Just pretend that the Cuban Missile Crisis disrupted my writing schedule and you should be able to stay with me.
1955 “Band of Gold” by Kit Carson, Billboard #17: This is not Freda Payne’s Holland-Dozier-Holland song, a depressing story that at least had a good groove behind it. This “Band of Gold” is a dreadful piece of poetry backed by one of those shimmering orchestras that accompanied many a bad film in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. A gentleman named Bob Musel is responsible for the tortuous lyrics that open with the horrid “I’ve never wanted wealth untold.” Dude! In Modern English, you put adjectives before the noun. Who do you think you are, fucking Milton? The core message of the song follows forthwith: “My life has one design/A simple little band of gold/To prove that you are mine.” Prove to whom? The neighbors? The vice squad? Why do you have to prove anything? I’ve never understood wives or husbands who get upset that the other is not wearing the wedding ring, or carelessly lost it down the toilet. Baby, if the entire structure of your relationship depends on a skinny little piece of metal, I think you’re missing the point. By the way, Kit’s real name is Liza Morrow. Many of the women on this album adopted new names for their show biz persona, primarily of the Anglo-Saxon variety, and a good chunk of the names eradicated by this pattern of institutional prejudice were of Italian origin. I have no idea what was wrong with Liza Morrow, but I guess some marketing genius thought naming a singer after a man who spent most of his life slaughtering Native Americans was a good angle.
1955 “Let Me Go, Lover!” by Joan Weber, Billboard #1: Oh, my god. Talk about a melodramatic performance! Joan wrings the life out of every syllable in this song, spitting out the word “go” and the phrase “cut me deep” with such force that it sounds like she’s auditioning for a part in the junior high school play. The story, if you can call it that, is of a woman whose lover won’t let her go. He’s not holding her captive in the basement or anything like that, but holding her with his “spell.” Joan’s not the only woman in this collection who communicates serious dependency problems, and it makes me wonder if the women of the postwar era were attacked with some kind of super science fiction brain-sucking death ray that turned them into moronic parasites convinced that their survival depended entirely on responding to male whims.
1956 “Ivory Tower” by Cathy Carr. Billboard #2: Born Angelina Cordovano, Cathy traded her melodic Italian name for a shot at the big time. Remarkably, there were three versions of this song released in 1956, and little Angelina’s version beat out Gale Storm’s (My Little Margie) and a soul version by Otis Williams & The Charms. Cathy has a very smooth and pleasant voice, rather like Patsy Cline without the oomph and the accent. The song is essentially a plea that her true love come down from the cold, cold ivory tower and find love in her warm, warm arms. Cathy and the song were slotted for the teen market of the time, which gives the impression that teens were still pretty much squares in 1956 (or so the record companies wanted to believe). This song came out a year after Rebel Without a Cause, and I’ll bet there were more teen girls trying to emulate Natalie Wood smoking on way to school (scandalous!) and standing up to her vicious father (how dare she!) than trying to become the next Cathy Carr.
1957 “I’m Available” by Margie Rayburn, Billboard #9: A cute and eventually irritating little ditty dominated by true-ooh-ooh’s and lo-0ves, Margie (Marjorie Helen Orwig) uses this opportunity to advertise herself to a particular member of the male population: “My heart tells me that you need a little lo-ove/So let’s get started ’cause that’s what I’ve plenty uh-uh-of.” Sounds racy! Unfortunately, she disappoints those whose imaginations conjure up the sight of hairy chests and muscular arms, the sound of ripping brassieres and the smell of sweaty, sordid passion. Good little girl that she is, she prudishly and cruelly establishes limits to her availability: “Well, I’m available for a kiss or two-ooh-ooh.” That’s it? You call that available? Other than the lesson in the phenomenon of semantic change, “I’m Available” falls into the damned-with-faint-praise categories of “inoffensive” and “sweet.”
1957 “With All My Heart” by Jodie Sands, Billboard #15: In one of the more criminal examples of identity theft, Eleanor DiSipio is transformed into Jodie Sands, all for a hit that didn’t even break into the Top 10. At least she got a few minutes on American Bandstand with Sal Mineo. The song isn’t that good, the lyrics are 100% cliché and her voice not as inviting as Cathy Carr’s. This is one of many pop songs during the 1950’s featuring a Latin touch, a phenomenon that will henceforth be known as The Ricky Ricardo Effect.
1958 “Padre” by Toni Arden, Billboard unknown: 1958 was a very strange year for pop music. The early burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy seems to have been snuffed out by a combination of novelty songs and corny romantic numbers. David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” spent two weeks at #1, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” six weeks at the top and Domenico Modugno’s “Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)” was #1 for an astonishing ten weeks. Although it’s not even listed in the Billboard year-end Top 50, “Padre” sold over a million records. Absofuckinglutely amazing. Opening with a despicably angelic chorus, Toni Arden delivers a melodramatic performance even more pitiful than Joan Weber’s in this emotionally bizarre mix of jealousy and Catholicism. The story involves a woman who has gone to consult the priest who performed her marriage ceremony. She had a sickeningly sweet and (to her) satisfying marriage, living in a little cottage where “All day, the birds would sing” to the joyful couple until . . . “SHE came along/And sang him her song/And won him with honeyed lies/SHE of the golden eyes.” Since the people in the 1950’s were so into euphemism, I’m going to assume SHE had a bigger rack and knew how to give head better than the saintly wife. The wife is so out of touch with reality that she kneels and prays for hours “counting her beads alone” and asks the padre to “pray for my love and me.” It’s never explained why on earth the guy would want to go back to such a mentally-imbalanced, crushing bore of a wife, but I’ll let the padre figure that out. The cultural theme of interest is that love was viewed by women of the era as a competitive sport and that every other woman was a potential thief and bitter enemy. Divided and conquered, they dreamed of spending the day baking cakes and doing the wash. By the way, Toni (originally Antoinette Ardizzone) looked like she had a pretty good rack herself, so she must have sung this song in a state of deep denial. This song is so bad it hurts, so I’ll share the pain with my readers:
1960 “He’ll Have to Stay” by Jeanne Black, Billboard #4: Talk about a crossover hit! In addition to the Billboard Top 100 placement, it hit #6 on the Country chart and #11 on the Black Singles chart, despite the fact that Jeanne Black is as white as a lily. “He’ll Have to Stay” was what they called an “answer song” to Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go.” In Reeves’ song, he’s on the phone in some juke joint talking to a lady friend who is entertaining a gentleman friend other than Mr. Reeves. He gives her a rather wimpy ultimatum to make a choice, and though we never hear how it turned out, I hope she slammed the receiver down so hard it punctured the eardrums of this creepy, intrusive suitor. Apparently, Jeanne (or her team of songwriters) felt the same way, for she insists that her visitor is there to stay! She even turns the tables on the creep on the other end of the line, singing, “I can hear the jukebox playing soft and low/And you’re out again with someone else, I know.” Typical possessive male, holding on to one but refusing to let go of the other. Way to stand up for yourself, honey! It’s a new decade, and in a few short years, you’ll get your own cigarette, baby!
1960 “Sixteen Reasons” by Connie Stevens, Billboard #3: Wanna know how to turn your shitty teen pop song into a sure-fire hit? Stick the word “sixteen” in the title! Whether it was tons, candles or reasons, sixteen was a magic number for everyone from Chuck Berry to Neil Sedaka. Connie Stevens was a breathy blonde TV star (77 Sunset Strip) who had previously teamed up with fellow cast member Edd Byrnes on the novelty hit, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.” Why any girl would want to use a comb all greased up with Brylcreem or Vitalis is beyond me, but the song was a huge hit in 1959. I’m never going to get another chance to share this incredible peek into late 1950’s culture, so here are the lovely couple with Dick Clark:
As for the song on this record, the suspense is in whether or not Connie Stevens can pull off the math required to finish it. Fortunately, she has help because the background singers introduce every line with the count, from one to sixteen. It’s Connie’s job to briefly describe each reason then sum the numbers so she can give us a little update on her progress in the chorus. She blows the first by copping out, singing “They’re all part of sixteen reasons why I love you,” indicating she has some trouble counting to four. She then proceeds to blow us away in the next chorus with “That’s just half of sixteen reasons why I love you.” Think about what it took for Connie to get there: she would have had to remember that the background singers sang “eight” two seconds before her big moment AND reduce 8/16 to the lowest common denominator of 1/2. Is that higher reasoning or what? The suspense resumes, though, because Connie has to survive the bridge without summing up the numbers AND sing another verse of four more reasons on top of that. It is truly fucking thrilling when Connie triumphantly belts out that line, “And those are all of sixteen reasons why I love you.” Brings tears to my eyes to see a fellow blonde shine like that.
1961 “Angel on My Shoulder” by Shelby Flint, Billboard (made Top 100): Sort of a pre-folk song with acoustic guitar, Shelby does have a very pretty voice, so much so that Joni Mitchell said that when she started her folk career that her goal was to sound like Shelby Flint. While this song isn’t half as demanding as Joni’s simplest number, her voice is undeniably pleasing and exceptionally articulate. Lyrically it doesn’t go beyond the wish for a boy to love her, but as least she doesn’t grovel.
1961 “I Just Don’t Understand” by Ann-Margret, Billboard #17: Ann-Margret was apparently all the rage in the early 60’s, something like a high-class sex kitten, I guess. She wasn’t much of an actress and she wasn’t much of a singer, and despite several attempts to turn her into the latter, she didn’t really make it until she went gospel later in life and won a Grammy. The Beatles actually covered this song (it’s on Live at the BBC), and John Lennon didn’t do much better with it. The line, “Well, you say that you need me/Like the ocean needs sand” ranks as one of the worst similes on record.
1961 “Triangle” by Janie Grant, Billboard #87: A very obscure song by a very obscure young girl who was sixteen at the time. Janie didn’t quite hit all the notes but that probably didn’t matter to teenage girls who bought the record, a pretty run-of-the-mill song about boy-girl challenges.
1962 “Bobby’s Girl” by Marcie Blaine, Billboard #3: Marcie’s real name was Marcia Blank, a much more fitting name for a singer who sounds as if her entire cranial cavity had been vacuumed clean. Later she would redeem herself in a career as an educator, but here she’s the epitome of the dumb teenage girl of the era who has only one wish in life: to be Bobby’s girl. The refrain “You’re not a kid anymore” is supposed to imply that becoming a teenager means one should begin thinking about the future, but Marcie missed the thinking part, stubbornly imagining a future with Bobby despite the fact he’s got another girl who probably has twice the brains (I’m guessing, but I’ll be willing to put some money on it). The lyrics are full of unintended pathos—this chick doesn’t need Bobby, she needs a therapist!
Each night I sit at home
Hoping that he will phone
But I know Bobby has someone else
(You’re not a kid anymore)
Still in my heart I pray
There soon will come the day
When I will have him all to myself…
I want to be Bobby’s girl
I want to be Bobby’s girl
That’s the most important thing to me…
And if I was Bobby’s girl
If I was Bobby’s girl
What a faithful, thankful girl I’d be
To be fair, to Marcie, her stardom was a complete accident. In high school, she recorded a demo as a favor for a friend and somehow the demo wound up in the greedy hands of Seville Records, who decided it was just the thing for the booming dumb teenage girl market hooked on Gidget movies. Still, “Bobby’s Girl” is nowhere near as offensive the next song in our countdown.
1962 “Johnny Get Angry” by Joanie Sommers, Billboard #7: Oh, for fuck’s sake. I have never heard a more completely sexist song in my life, one that is insulting to both men and women and displays a complete disrespect for both introversion and intelligence. This insult to humanity deserves nothing less than a verse-by-verse, blow-by-blow critique.
Johnny I said we were through
Just to see what you would do
You stood there, and hung your head
Made me wish that I were dead
You broke up with a guy just to get a rise out of him? What a mean-spirited little bitch! After breaking the poor guy’s heart, you’re appalled that he’s expressing a natural human emotion to rejection? It’s called sadness, asshole!
Oh, Johnny get angry, Johnny get mad
Give me the biggest lecture that I ever had
I want a brave man, I want a cave man
Johnny show me that you care, really care for me
Let me try to get my head around this. What you want is a Neanderthal in need of anger management therapy instead of a relationship with a guy who has class enough not to make a scene and is sensitive enough to feel pain? And you want him to show you how manly he is by lecturing you? I wish he’d channel his inner Neanderthal, take his big manly club and beat you fucking senseless!
Every time you dance with me,
You let Freddy cut in constantly
When he does, you never speak
Must you always be so meek?
That’s called civility, manners and politeness, dummy! Hey, if you don’t want Johnny, I’ll take him! I’d be doing him a service to save him from a future of perpetual nagging by a girl who would be way better off with someone like King Kong.
Every girl wants someone who
She can always look up to
You know I love you, of course
Let me know that you’re the boss
Whoa! Wait a minute! You LOVE Johnny? Let’s see, so far you’ve criticized every move he’s made, called him a wimp and said he makes you wish you were dead. That’s love? But . . . you don’t want him to be himself, you want him to be someone you can look up to and boss you around . . . but that’s not Johnny, so how can you love . . . Oh, for fuck’s sake, I give up.
I can go no further. At this point all I can say is:
Each night I hope and pray
That when I post Monday
You’ll hear about women who have half a brain.