Saturday, January 29, 2011

History in the Making

This blog has seen the light of the day only very recently ... and yet cannot go on as planned. At least for the moment being.
The people of Egypt are about to write history in the manner the Tunisians already did. Nothing will ever be the same.

Today's post is dedicated to the courageous protesters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Let's hear J.J. Jackson and his wonderful British band. Fittingly, they recorded an instrumental version of the Sam Cooke classic »A Change Is Gonna Come«. It comes from the Congress LP The Greatest Little Soul Band In The Land (1968):

Days of Wrath!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Drifters on Stage in Philadelphia

»Under The Boardwalk« (live 1964)

One of the great summer hits of '64 in the U.S. was »Under The Boardwalk« by The Drifters. While the British invasion was at its peak the song (on Atlantic 2237) reached # 1 r&b and # 4 pop in June.

It was recorded in New York on May 21, 1964. Lead-singer is Johnny Moore, who returned to be part of the Drifters only that spring. As is well-known, the Drifters had, in their long history, several lead-singers some of whom went solo after their stint with the group. Between 1953 and 1971, there were 11 of them in all, among them Clyde McPhatter (1953-55), Bobby Hendricks (1955-56, 58-59), Johnny Moore (1956-58), Ben E. King (1959-61) and Rudy Lewis (1961-63). And in 1963 the group was already marketed as a classic and their '50s recordings were sold as »Golden Oldies«. It was a sign of the times: In May '63, Roulette Records had started a new Oldies-series called »Golden Goodies« (and that included some of the old Drifters' tunes as well).

Ad from Billboard (May 25, 1963)

But with »Under The Boardwalk« the Drifters still had contemporary success. The song was penned by Artie Resnick & Kenny Young after Leiber & Stoller had, for the time being, stopped to deliver material for the Drifters. Most see the song as »pop-soul«, and indeed it is more »pop« than »soul«. However, you will hear the song in a different way after having listened to the live version of it, and without the Latino-Soul gimmicks that characterize its studio version. In fact, there is a nice live-recording of that song, taped in the Uptown Theatre of Philadelphia on July 24, 1964.

This live-version was released on the Atlantic LP # 8101 (Saturday Night At The Uptown) in late 1964. It contains several songs by The Drifters, The Vibrations and Wilson Pickett and one each by The Carltons, Patti La Belle & Her Bluebells, Patty & The Emblems and Barbara Lynn. Quite obviously, the LP was part of the new craze for live albums which was fired by James Brown's »Live At The Apollo«. Soon after that, Sam Cooke, Gene Chandler, Ike & Tina Turner and Etta James appeared »live« on records, and most Motown stars (The Marvelettes, The Miracles, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye) as well. A number of the earlier live-LPs were technically less than satisfying, and many of the Motown albums in particular were poorly produced. Not so Atlantic 8101. It may not be perfect judged by today's standards, but in the year 1964 it must have appeared well recorded and finely cut.

The intros are spoken by Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop, popular DJs from Philadelphia, and the guitar player who is addressed in the middle of »Under The Boardwalk« was Billy Davis. On the back cover of the LP we read:
The audience called for Under The Boardwalk: The Drifters sang their infectious summertime hit ... and the audience quickly joined in and sang with them.
And here we, too, join in ...

The Drifters: »Under The Boardwalk« from the Atlantic LP Saturday Night At The Uptown (1964)

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Doo-Lang Doo-Lang Doo-Lang!

»He's So Fine« (1963)

In December 1962, The Chiffons recorded »He's So Fine«. The single was released when other hits-to-be appeared on vinyl as well, e.g. »Hey Paula« (Paul & Paula) or »Our Day Will Come« (Ruby & The Romantics). On February 9, 1963, Billboard reviewed the song, as usual without making too many words:
»This all-girl group has a good sound and they show off their bright style with a flourish on this rhythmic waxing. It has a beat and it moves.«
Laurie # 3152 (Dec. 1962)
The song, written by Ronald »Ronnie« Mack (who passed away soon after), was released in December '62 on Laurie # 3152. The New York-based Laurie Records was in existence since 1958, but The Chiffons were their only successful black act. Before, they had had Dion & The Belmonts, then Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Royal Guardsmen (all of them British).

In fact, the Chiffons were the classical cinderella story the like of which we find often in the music business of the early 1960s: Mack heard the girls singing at their high school in the Bronx and as a result decided to become their manager, for little more than a few bucks. He contacted The Tokens from Brooklyn, who then produced some songs with the Chiffons in the Capitol Recording Studios, among them »He's So Fine«. (Others maintain that Mack first dealed with the Tokens over some songs and brought the Chiffons in later.) In any case, nobody got interested in what Mack had recorded. Especially »He's So Fine« was not considered by to possess any hit potential, and the boss of Capitol called the song »too trite and too simple«. The Tokens then knocked at the door of some nine or ten other record companies, but it was Laurie that went for it.

This made the day for the Chiffons, and for Laurie as well. The song became one of the most popular hits in 1963. Its intro viz. its chorus »Doo-Lang Doo-Lang Doo-Lang« has entered the hall of fame of catchy song lines and will be memorable for the rest of times. Legend has it that is was the recording engineer who came up with these nonsense syllables when the song was still in the making in the studio. On March 30, 1963, the song reached # 01 on the pop charts. Jay Warner neatly summed up the peculiar success story of the Chiffons and their unwanted hit song: »Throughout rock and roll history, vocal groups (especially the non-writing variety) have spent entire careers in search of hit-bound melodies and captivating lyrics. In a reverse of that equation, the Chiffons garnered their success because a hit song was in search of a group.« (American Singing Groups. A History from 1940 to Today, Milwaukee 2006, p. 343).

Billboard's Hot Hundred, March 30, 1963
Songfacts: »He's So Fine« entered the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 23, 1963 (# 87) / Cashbox Top 100 Singles (# 87) and remained # 01 for four weeks between March 30 and April 20 (in both Billboard and Cashbox). It was listed for the last time on June 1, 1963 (BB # 43, CB # 40). The song entered the r&b charts on March 2 and was at the top from April 6 to April 27.

Interestingly, »He's So Fine« also nicely illustrates the limited powers of prediction in the record industry. Thus in a commentary in Billboard (April 20, 1963) the song was singled out, among some others, in order to show that even the most astute A&R men weren't able to correctly foresee which songs will eventually make it to the top of the charts:
»Every week trade publications, a.&r. men, promotion men and others try to select the big money winners of tomorrow. We all know it's in the grooves - but who knows what grooves? The so-called experts feel that they can pick them, and then along comes something like 'Tom Dooley' a few years back ... or more recently an unknown group called the 'Chiffons' and 'He's So Fine,' and we all walk around scratching our heads.«
The song made the Chiffons, unknown to all until then, into the most popular girl group of 1963. (The rumour that the New York Chiffons were the same as some other »Chiffons« recording in California in around 1960 is unfounded, see is unfounded.) The New York Chiffons, that is The Chiffons, consisted of Judy Craig, aged 17 at the time and singing lead, Patricia Bennett (16), Barbara Lee (19) and Sylvia Peterson (17). Sylvia was »recruted« only a short while before recording »He's So Fine«.

The surprising success of their first single (and of several to follow in 1963) prompted Laurie to put out an album by the Chiffons as quickly as possible, and as was usual then this album was called after their biggest hit. So Laurie LP # 2018 came into frenzied existence. And although it is an album built around the success of one song, it actually does not contain only »fillers« for the rest but a number of nice and equally likeable songs.

Laurie LP # 2018
It goes without saying that the LP also contains the Chiffons' signature song, »He's So Fine«. And here it is:

The Chiffons: »He's So Fine« from the Laurie LP 2018 (1963):

Yes, it may be a simple song. But it kicks you off your feet all the same. That's the mystery behind it, and in some way the mystery behind some other seemingly trite girl-group songs of the epoch as well. That's why they have endured and every year appear on new samplers. And I'm not sure whether even the lyrics can be dismissed easily as »girl talk«. The unlikely authority of Iggy Pop, unlikely in this context that is, was quoted in Spin (November 2003, p. 60) as follows:
»During my formative years ('64-'66), I was into the American day-dream 'emotionalistic' approach to youth music, as exemplified by the girl groups. 'He's So Fine' is basically ghetto music - this guy she's talking about is not a Ph.D. He's not even nine-to-five - he's just five. (The Ronettes) 'Be My Baby' was another one. I remember being down in the basement in the 11th grade, having more of a sexual encounter than I'd ever had in my life, and I kept jumping up to put that single on again!«
What is more, the song did not escape the attention of professional music historians the like of Jacqueline Warwick who wrote:
»Indeed, "He's So Fine" depicts a gang of girlfriends whispering about a boy who has caught their eye, practically licking their lips as they look him up and down, and the "doo lang doo lang" refrain conveys a lustful appreciation far beyond the vocabulary of the prim middle-class teens ... With lead singer Judy Clay ... declaring "I don't know how I'm gonna do it, but I'm gonna make him mine" and itemizing the boy's charms to her appreciative backing vocalists, the song made it clear that girls were perfectly capable of taking an aggressive lead in romance.« (Girl Groups, Girl Culture. Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s, New York-London 2007, pp. 37, 199).
Given the song's success, also Dee Dee Sharp (of »Mashed Potatoes«-fame) recorded a version of it. This was done on March 19, 1963, in Philadelphia and released on her album Do The Bird (Cameo LP # 1050, 1963). However, her version is slower and decidedly turns the song into a soft-pop tune. Together with Dee Dee's much higher voice pitch and the mixed male-female backing vocals her version therefore seems flat and mainstreamed if compared with the Chiffons' edgier original. Well, listen for yourselves:

Dee Dee Sharp: »He's So Fine« (1963):

Clearly, there is much more groove in the original, and Judy Craig's deeper voice on the Chiffons' recording fits the song better.

In 1971, the song made its way again in the charts ... but this time it were the C&W charts! This came about because Jody Miller (of »Look At Mine«-fame) recorded the former girl-group song and turned it into a C&W song, released on Epic-Single # 10734.
The classic Doo Lang Doo Lang Doo Lang at the beginning is dropped, and the part is now covered by a guitar intro. I like that version. It's not a close adaption, but really tries to give the song a new twist ... and succeeds. Jody performs it with the lyrical »sweetness« of C&W singers, and she certainly has a special talent for that. Her version peaked at # 05 of the C&W charts and made it to # 53 on the pop charts, nothing less:

Cody Miller: »He's So Fine« from the LP Epic # 30669 (1971):

The fact that Jody Miller included the song of a black girl group in her repertoire shows convincingly how fluid the demarcation lines between musical styles and listeners' groups had become (if ever there were any fixed demarcation lines, that is). We have many more examples for this, and also black singers moved into the C&W realm, notably Ray since Charles' »Modern Sounds« and then ever more frequently in the second half of the 1960s. Thus in 1968 we find Joe Tex recording »Green Green Grass Of Home« and fittingly including that song on his ambigously titled LP »Soul Country«.

For the record companies and retailer networks this blend of former more or less separate musical »provinces« proved somewhat of a challenge. (And I'm non going here into the interesting debate of whether the music industry artificially separated these provinces in the first place or whether they merely gave names to really distinct fields.) For example, those who stacked the jukeboxes had to have some clue as to what music would probably be requested in a certain place. Surely they couldn't fill the jukes with r&b titles in a hillbilly bar or with C&W titles in a supper lounge. But as musical styles increasingly flowed into each other, guessing the taste of the respective customers became more difficult. Thus a certain Henry Holzenthal, a jukebox programmer, was quoted by Billboard (Sept. 4, 1971, p. 37) with the following story:
»Holzenthal said the crossover among categories probably indicates jukebox patrons are "listening to music more than ever and are open to more music experiences. We've all but abandoned categorizing our jukeboxes." ... [Jody Miller's] "He's So Fine" was originally considered country by Holzenthal. "But one of our better lounges called up and asked for it. I would never have pro- grammed it there because I knew he (the lounge owner) wants no country."«
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Oh well. Got to add another thing, for good measure. Most of you will have heard of it anyway. »He's So Fine« in the 1970s was object of a plagiarism suit, which then was lost by George Harrison, concerning his song »My Sweet Lord«. The details are known, and I don't find them sufficiently intriguing to repeat them here. Nevertheless, the judge ruled that Harrison had »plagiarized unconsciously«, which is about the most bizarre way of justifying plagiarism I ever heard of. Harrison paid more than half a million USD to those holding the rights of the Chiffons' original. Fact is that large parts of Harrison's »My Sweet Lord« sound exactly (and I mean exactly) like the Chiffons' tune. Only very blockheaded Beatles- or Harrison fans will seriously negate that »My Sweet Lord« is little else but another version of »He's So Fine« with changed lyrics. But this after-story must not detain us any longer, listen here and make your own judgment.
Doo-Lang, Doo-Lang, Doo-Lang!
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