Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volume Six: Don’t You Just Know It? – Soul, Blues, Instrumentals, Novelties, and Doo Wop

122. Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns: Don't You Just Know It
(Huey "Piano" Smith-Johnny Vincent) 1958

123. Little Willie John: Leave My Kitten Alone
(William E. John-Titus Turner-James McDougal) 1959

124. Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops
(Berry Gordy-Tyran Carlo) 1958

125. Clyde McPhatter: Without Love (There Is Nothing)
(Danny Small) 1956

126. Sam Cooke: Bring It on Home
(Sam Cooke) 1962

127. Brook Benton: Kiddio
(Brook Benton-Clyde Otis) 1960

128. Bobby Blue Bland: I Pity the Fool
(Deadric Malone) 1961

129. Sonny Boy Williamson II: Bring It on Home
(Willie Dixon) 1963

130. John Lee Hooker: Boom Boom
(John Lee Hooker) 1961

131. Bing Day: Mama's Place
(Murray Allen-Dan Belloc) 1959

132. Dion and the Belmonts: My Girl the Month of May
(Dion DiMucci) 1966

133. The Belmonts: Come On Little Angel
(Ernest Maresca-Thomas Bogdany) 1962

134. Ricky Nelson: Hello Mary Lou
(Gene Pitney) 1961

135. The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Little Susie
(Boudleaux Bryant-Felice Bryant) 1957

136. Ray Stevens: Ahab the Arab
(Ray Stevens) 1962

137. Chet Atkins: Windy and Warm
(John D. Loudermilk) 1961

138. Bill Justis: Raunchy
(Bill Justis-Sid Manker) 1957

139. Bill Doggett: Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)
(Billy Butler-Bill Doggett-Clifford Scott-Shep Shepherd) 1956

140. Duane Eddy and his "Twangy" Guitar: Rebel Rouser
(Duane Eddy-Lee Hazlewood) 1958

141. The Champs: Tequila
(Daniel Flores) 1958

142. Little Anthony and the Imperials: Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop
(Bob Smith) 1960

143. The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon: Why Do Fools Fall in Love?
(Herman Santiago-Jimmy Merchant) 1955

144. The Five Satins: In the Still of the Night
(Fred Parris) 1956

145. The Platters: The Great Pretender
(Buck Ram) 1955

146. The Flamingos: I Only Have Eyes for You
(Harry Warren-Al Dubin) 1959

147. The Coasters: Poison Ivy
(Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller) 1959

148. Mel Torme: Comin' Home Baby
(Bob Dorough-Ben Tucker) 1962

149. Ray Charles: I Believe to My Soul
(Ray Charles) 1959


“In the beginning, ‘The Big Bucks’ were made by low-life chisellers who screwed doo-wop groups out of their royalties. While the chiselers played golf, the singers vanished into the never-never land of needles and cookers.”

-- Frank Zappa

After the advent of Elvis Presley, rock and roll quickly became the biggest business in popular music; Elvis’s first producer, Sam Phillips, had said that he could make a billion dollars if he found a white man who could sing black. With Elvis’s multiple hit singles and albums and his burgeoning career in movies, producers and A&R men quickly followed Phillips’s plan, seeking out not only white singers who could sound black, but also black singers who could be packaged for white audiences. The eccentricities and general wildness of the early rockers, the untamed ‘authenticity’ that made early rock and roll so engaging, thus, was gradually packaged, blown dry, and exploited to a degree not previously seen in popular music.

The received history of rock and roll tells us that the period immediately following Elvis was a fallow land of empty teen idols, declawed covers of r&b classics (cf. Pat Boone’s covers of “Tutti Frutti” and “Ain’t That a Shame”), and string-laden “softened” rock. To some degree this is true. What is more true is that in the period immediately following the birth (or, more accurately, the arrival in mass culture) of rock and roll, more styles emerged and were marketed in more effective, but increasingly artistically corrosive ways. The recently-deceased rock scholar Charlie Gillette identified, in The Sounds of the City, five distinct genres that fell under the general rubric “rock and roll” during the 1954-1956 period: Northern rock (as exemplified by Bill Haley), Southern rock / rockabilly, New Orleans rhythm and blues, Chicago / electric blues, and vocal harmony groups (later, usually, termed “doo-wop”. To these genres, during the remaining years of the fifties can be added soul (essentially gospel-influenced r&b, often with strings joining a standard r&b line-up), instrumental rock, rock and roll novelty records, and teen idols. These genres proliferated after the advent of Top Forty radio, a new formatting approach to radio that involved playing the top selling and top-played jukebox singles, regardless of genre. The sheer amount of money available to producers and A&R representatives meant that all sorts of singles were released in an attempt to gain airplay and sales; there was money to be made if only one could find or create a new trend, a group of random teenagers who could harmonize, a guy with a guitar and some songs, or a guy who couldn’t sing, looked good on tv, and looked good in the suit. Rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, doo-wop, electric blues, instrumentals, novelty and comedy songs, traditional pop, and soul jostled one another on the charts in an enormous money-grab that profited few of the artists while gradually diluting the initial wallop of rock and roll as the soundtrack to teenage delinquency.

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of corruption crept in as small independent labels’s discoveries were bought up by “the men in the shiny suits”, many of whom also owned interests in radio stations or simply paid disc jockeys to play their new discoveries. Some years ago, one of the cofounders of Bee Records, a tiny independent label based in Reading, Pennsylvania, told me his fascinating tale of attempting to discover and nurture acts in this climate [Bee was founded in 1957 and closed shop for good in 1966.] The two men who ran Bee recorded local Reading/Philadelphia-area doo-wop and rockabilly acts. The story goes that, whenever one of Bee’s releases would start to sell locally, “the men in shiny suits”, would come, make an offer that couldn’t be refused, and a larger label would buy up the recording, the publishing rights, and the act’s contract. In most cases, the still-essentially-unknown artists wound up with less money than they started with, off, as Zappa put it, to the “land of needles and cookers”.

All of the behind the scenes corruption, however, should not take away from the artistic innovations that were taking place during this period. The greatest of these surely was the blending of rhythm and blues with gospel-influenced vocals and “sophisticated” arrangements of strings and horns to create soul. Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton, Clyde McPhatter, and, most importantly, Ray Charles, the “Genius of Soul”, created the standard definition of soulfulness – a fusion of gospel-derived emotion, prodigious vocal technique, and unabashed sexuality wrapped in arrangments that fused the best of rhythm and blues playing with jazz and Tin Pan Alley-influenced arranging. Not only did they set the standard for black singers to follow, but also for white rock and pop singers in the coming decades from John Lennon to Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen and on to the melisma-strewn vocal acrobatics displayed weekly on American Idol, in grotesque unintended parody of the genuine article. These artists developed a uniquely American sound that managed to be of the street and of the supper-club – the fifties equivalent of Swing, in essence – a sound that took the best of black and white musical traditions and fused them into something organic and new.

The profusion of soul records in the Top Forty in the late fifties, along with the aforementioned corporate cum organized crime money-grab resulted in a number of unlikely artists recording in the genre; traditional pop singer Mel Torme (one of the last big band era singers to launch a successful solo career) was compelled to record the Bob Dorough-penned blues “Comin’ Home Baby”, backed by vocal group the Cookies (whose original members had morphed into the Raelettes) and scored a hit single; Torme professed to despise the record. The gulf between album-oriented traditional pop singers like Torme, album-oriented jazz artists, and the singles-oriented rockers grew greater, even as the soul singers who had recently crossed-over from gospel gradually crossed over into album success, again with Ray Charles leading the pack.

It is important to note, also, at this point how differently the crossover soul artists (and the Chicago blues artists, also reaching a high point commercially and artistically) construct their identities as artists. Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, and blues originals John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II (despite his name), and Bobby Blue Bland stake a good deal of their ethos on their personalities as individuals, as creators, as charismatic stage performers, while the purveyors of doo-wop and instrumental rock are largely nameless and faceless assemblages without even nominal leaders to differentiate bands (as, for instance, during the swing era). George Harrison remarked of the Beatles’ first American tour in 1964 that everywhere the Beatles played, the same doo-wop and r&b groups were playing, different line-ups, but the exact same groups. In every city. Multiple touring line-ups of Coasters, Platters, Five Satins were to be found criss-crossing the US at any given time, their members considered interchangeable by the record business, like touring companies of Broadway shows.

Both in nomenclature and style, doo-wop gives us yet another highly-debated genre. The term doo-wop was seldom, if ever, used during the music’s heyday, and some sources claim it wasn’t used at all until the early sixties, or even the early seventies. Essentially, doo-wop is street-corner harmony, itself an outgrowth of urban black gospel music. Hundreds, if not thousands, of vocal groups, mostly black and urban, formed, disbanded, re-formed, often recording one or two flop singles for small labels, creating a stream of records that would, in their number and rarity, fuel the first stirrings of serious rock record collecting in the late nineteen-seventies, but leave behind a relatively paltry legacy of great music. Exceptions can be found in the Teenagers’ ebullient “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and the Flamingos’ lovely “I Only Have Eyes for You”, among others. They would also inspire the early sixties girl-groups, legendary megalomaniacal producer Phil Spector, and the Beach Boys.

In the melting pot of Top Forty radio of the late fifties we find, along with soul, blues, and doo-wop a great number of “novelty” records – a catch-all term used to describe comedy, parody, and instrumental hits. The majority of these – the Chipmunks, Sheb Wooley, the “break-in” records of Dickie Goodman (in which a simulated news report would include questions “answered” by excerpts from hit songs) – do not particularly hold up to repeated or contemporary listening. Occasionally, however, the sheer force of joyful absurdity, reminiscent at times of the spirit of Dixieland jazz or early blues and country, overcomes any questions of taste or topicality, as in the case of Ray Stevens’s “Ahab the Arab”, a bizarre distillation of pseudo-Lord Buckley hipster patois and comic book orientalism, or the Champs’ deathless “Tequila” or any of the comic-tragic playlets of the Coasters.

By the early sixties, rock and roll, which Charlie Gillette identified as five separate genres, consisted of easily double that number of recognizable stylistic variants, all of which the Great Voices of Marketing would eventually (as early as 1960) lump together as “Golden Oldies.” Without a single rallying point, with Elvis in the Army, Chuck Berry in jail, Buddy Holly dead, and Little Richard off saving souls, the previous media portrayals of rock and roll as a serious threat to culture had largely dissipated, and pop music seemed to return to business as usual. The notion of “rock and roll” writ large as cultural force had been replaced by the notion of “the single” as the greatest expression of individual freedom, as Pete Townshend would later claim, or, at least, as one of the most reliable profit making entertainment-based disposable goods. Sources vary.



mmoir327 said...

I have a 45-rpm single of 'Ahab the Arab' lying around somewhere...

Christopher said...

Argh--I just wrote a really long reply to this post, and then accidentally deleted it. I'll summarize: good tracklist, and overview of the time. Check out "Velvet Underground: New York Art" for an amusing look at how Reed's early compositions were packaged in this environment. Be sure to dig on the new Hendrix. And for Massachussetts readers: Acid Mothers Temple are in Cambridge next week -- see them if you like the best in Japanese noise psych drone metal folk -- but if you do you probably already know this.

albat said...

Glad to see you included Lieber and Stoller. Omitting them would have been a crime.