and when the night falls…

About three-quarters through the new Whitney Houston documentary – the second in the past year – director Kevin Macdonald drops the much-chattered-about bombshell about young Whitney being sexually molested by a relative (Dee Dee Warwick). There’s something off-key about the moment of revelation, like it’s supposed to be the “Rosebud” of Whitney, but by that point in the film we’ve been introduced to so many villains, enablers, suspects that we’re just exhausted. Isn’t this a summer film? Where is the superhero (Kevin Costner pops in to congratulate himself on the colorblind casting of The Bodyguard, and good for him, but he didn’t whisk her away in real life and shield her)? Not many people come off well here, not her family, certainly, not Bobby Brown or L.A. Reid (who ran Arista in the early 2000’s, when Whitney was in horrendous shape, but who claims on camera to have been unaware of her drug problem). The woman who seems to have cared the most about Whitney, Robyn Crawford, isn’t interviewed on screen, but is the subject of some nasty homophobia, and how about some blame for the state of affairs where Whitney was pressured to deny what was perhaps her healthiest relationship?

Whitney is crushingly sad, of course. And cinematically effective, if what you mean by that is that it keeps you in knots wishing there were something you could do to stop the relentless downward spiral. There are a lot of familiar scenes here: the incandescent TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show, the cascade of boos at the Soul Train Awards, the epic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the catastrophic interview with Diane Sawyer. Macdonald seems to be in an awful hurry to get to the juicy stuff, like “yeah, yeah, all those hit records and awards and Hollywood, got it.” There’s not a lot of delving into her recording career which, you might think, would be kind of important. The first three Arista albums zip by in one of those montages that zoom in on the names of songs sprinting up the Billboard charts, like the singles were train stops in an old movie on TCM where a vaudeville act hits the road. One minute she’s on the Griffin show doing the song “Home” from The Wiz, and snap! she’s the biggest pop artist on the planet. How did that happen? Macdonald doesn’t say, really. She had a great voice and she was real pretty, I guess.

Whitney is in its way a valuable piece of the saga, thorough and definitive about how drugs derailed her; there’s some footage that is so raw and invasive that it’d have been nice if someone had tapped a cameraman on the shoulder and lead him into a hallway. But what Whitney is going to need at some point is a biographer to do for her what Peter Guralnick did for Elvis Presley, dig into the music and the cultural influences that shaped her, separate the accepted version of her story from the truth. What we’re always told is that the record label that signed her (confession for those who might not know: I worked there, was involved in her early publicity and marketing campaigns, and later was on Clive Davis’s A&R staff that searched for Whitney songs; one of the songs I suggested is in the movie) transformed her into a pop diva, steering her away from music that was too “black.”

Which is nonsense. If anyone was grooming Whitney Houston for a mainstream audience, it was her mom. There was some Mama Rose in Gypsy stuff going on (“Sing out, Whitney!!”), with an idea of what was classy, how a young lady in show biz should behave. When the labels started showing up at Cissy’s gigs to see what her teenaged daughter was up to, the younger Houston was all dolled up, and singing songs from The Wiz and Dreamgirls. And “The Greatest Love of All,” which she sang beautifully: it’s a song about self-belief and autonomy (“If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe”), not walking in anyone else’s shadow, keeping one’s dignity, all that Oprahbabble. For better or worse, ok worse, that song came to define her before it was supplanted as her anthem by the Anthem, and by “I Will Always Love You.”

If anything, one mandate at Arista was to muss her up a bit, make her less pristine, more youthful. She may have walked in the door with “The Greatest Love of All,” and there were those other Michael Masser “All” ballads that followed – “Saving All My Love For You,” “All at Once,” Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (and “All the Man That I Need” which is not by Masser but might as well be) – but the records that have stuck the most engagingly are “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “So Emotional.” Whitney in the throes of infatuation, ready to break loose, cause some mischief. The playful Whitney is sometimes forgotten, because the ballads are so show-boaty, so filled with the drama we now associate with her life. But I loved that Whitney, the girlish one on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” looking for a little bit of excitement: “When the night falls,” she sang, “my lonely heart calls.” You just wanted to take her hand, rescue her.

better hurry up and put my tie on…

Tick-tock. Listen to the clock. It’s five o’clock, but the singer, Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five from Brooklyn, New York, is already geared up, projecting three hours into the future. He has a date, and what you hear in his voice is all the pent-up anticipation and anxiety that leads to that instant when the girl opens the door and the rest of the night is stretched out in front of you, all the possibilities. Three hours to go, and then two, then one: the record marches forward, the group reminding Pitt, keeping track for him, like they’re in the room with him as he’s dabbing the Brylcreem and slapping on Old Spice. “Better hurry up,” they tell him in the bridge, and he realizes he needs to put his tie on; he wants to make a good impression. Tick-tock; his heart beats to that rhythm, or maybe quicker. Finally, it’s time for love. Does any vocal group R&B record capture the urgency, the drama of waiting? What is she going to be wearing? Where will the evening end? “What Time Is It,” by the team of Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy”), is one of the high points of the early ‘60s vocal group resurgence, Eugene Pitt’s crowning moment.

Eugene Pitt passed away this week. Coincidentally, I’d just been talking about the Jive Five with a friend the day before, raving about their I’m a Happy Man LP on United Artists. They are fading away, all those voices, the singers who expressed all our longings and desires. The other night, at a book promotion event for his memoir, Seymour Stein teared up when he sang a line from the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember),” and if that music – which, I keep reminding people, was never called doo wop when it was new, or even when the songs were being played as “oldies but goodies” – meant anything to you when you were young, it only takes a few bars to make you misty. I remember being ten years old and hearing the Jive Five’s “My True Story” on the radio and wondering, what is happening here? What is the singer (Pitt) so broken up about? “Cry, cry, cry,” was the constant refrain (the words “My True Story” are nowhere in the song), and the characters, Sue, Earl, Lorraine, how were they entangled? “Names have been changed dear,” Pitt confesses at the end, “to protect you and I.” There was mystery in it. What wasn’t he telling us?

I could riff on other records Pitt was at the center of, going back to the Genies’ “Who’s That Knocking,” flashing forward to the UA period of “I’m a Happy Man,” then to their incarnation as the Jyve Fyve. To their cover of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time” on Avco, and their endearing 1982 album Here We Are! on Ambient Sound Records, with guests Arlene Smith’s Chantels on “Don’t Believe Him Donna,” and an odd stab at Fagen and Becker’s “Hey Nineteen.” I have a strong affection for “Hully Gully Calling Time” (“Do the Frank Sinatra!!”) and F-G-G’s “Rain” (and their “Every Day Is Like a Year” that came out as a Pitt solo single on Beltone), and I know I’ll be pumping “Do You Hear Wedding Bells” when I tie the knot in the fall, because there aren’t too many records from that era that so giddily celebrate the prospect of marriage. But the one I keep returning to is “What Time Is It” from the summer of 1962, when I was too young to even contemplate what it would be like to ask a girl out, let alone put on a tie and summon up the courage to ring her doorbell. Tick-tock, listen to the clock. Eugene Pitt was taking that brave leap, so nervous that he has to ask the other four guys the time every hour. How much longer? How much longer now? The record builds: “The moment’s here at last,” and as his friends swoon behind him, he leaves them behind. He’ll take it from here.

“Petticoats of Portugal” and other non-hits of 1956

“Marty on Planet Mars (Parts 1 & 2”) by Marty on Novelty Records. The El Venos (from Pittsburgh) singing “Now We’re Together” (Groove Records). “I Wanna Be Seventeen All of My Life” by the Silver Sisters. The Dawn Breakers doing “Boy with the Be-Bop Glasses (and the Suede Shoes,” on Coral Records. You probably never heard of any of those records. I certainly hadn’t, and now I’m wondering what “be-bop glasses” were, what that Marty single might be like (it must be a combination of the character from the Delbert Mann film and the trend of break-in “Flying Saucer” records, right?), and what the advantages of what being seventeen forever might be. Never graduating high school? Avoiding the draft? Carrying around a fake I.D. forever? I really want to hear “Broadway at Basin Street” by The Four Beards on ABC-Paramount. They were a Brooklyn group, apparently, whose record only cracked the top 10 on WKXY in Sarasota, Florida. There has to be a backstory there.

Every once in a while over the last few days I’ve been picking up the 80-page book Cash Box Regional Hits 1956, presented by chart scholar Joel Whitburn, just combing the columns of names of 45s, artists and labels from that pivotal year, records that failed to make any of the national singles charts but had a moment of success on radio stations and juke boxes and in record stores in local areas, as reported in Cash Box magazine. We learn, for example, that the Dawn Breakers record was #5 on WKBW in Buffalo, NY, and was being played by the dj Herb Knight.

Nearly every page has something odd and fascinating. In November ’56, the Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” was top 10 on WWIN in Baltimore. There were a lot of records of songs from My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella. Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was top 10 in about a dozen local markets, and top 5 on the national R&B chart, but never crossed over to the pop singles chart. Columbia Records released a single by Joan Weber called “Goodbye Lollipops, Hello Lipstick (I’m Not a Baby Anymore),” a top 4 hit on Greenville, MS’s WGVM. 1956 is generally regarded as the year rock’n’roll made its Big Move, with the explosion of Elvis, and what these 1270 non-hits show us is that the music business was a crazy jumble, with labels large and small throwing everything out there: instrumentals (a lot of them), novelty records – like “Love is) The $64,000 Question” by Tony Travis on RCA Victor — vocal group R&B, rockabilly. There were great records on Atlantic (The Clovers, The Drifters, Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter) and Sun (Carl Perkins, Warren Smith), all now considered classics in their genre, but at the time falling short of the primary pop charts.

Steve Lawrence, on Coral, put out a cover of the Cadillacs’ “Speedo” (#6, WSAI Cincinnatti), and something called “Ethel, Baby” (#9, WAVZ New Haven). There were a lot of odd celebrity records: Steve Allen’s “What is a Freem?,” Jayne and Audrey Meadows’ “Dungaree Dan and Chino Sue,” Andy Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants,” Danny Thomas’ “Nobody Knows But the Lord,” and “In the Middle of the House” by Milton Berle. The book helpfully tells is that Uncle Miltie was “the biggest TV star of the 1950s,” but who doesn’t know that? (Famous Berle joke: A comic kept challenging Berle to a size contest, and finally, fed up with the pestering, someone told Milton to “just take out enough to win.”)

It was a nutty year, with all those “Flying Saucer” rip-offs, tributes to James Dean, those twinkling instrumentals like “Petticoats of Portugal,” so many drippy ballads. But what you take away from Cash Box Regional Hits 1956 is all the excitement that was churning up below (literally: beneath the lists of official hits) the surface. Flip the pages, and the narrative starts to emerge, the local hits on non-major labels that are about to crack American music in half, from Lee Allen’s “Rockin’ at Cosmo’s” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (that wasn’t a national hit??) to the Dells’ “Oh What a Nite” (top 5 R&B, but only Arnie Ginsburg at WBOS Boston reported it as top 5 in pop world), Smiley Lewis’ “One Night.”

There’s a randomness to this book, and there’s no way you can interpret it as being statistically reliable; as Whitburn says in the introduction, there were 42 dj, 21 retail, and 21 juke box top 10 reports published in Cash Box each week, so it was really a spin of the wheel which 45s got mentioned in any given issue. There was likely some payola involved, some favors called in. But the randomness makes total pop sense. You could imagine an entirely different book of a thousand 1956 singles on small record labels that got airplay for a week or so in some market and then faded into even more complete obscurity. Look at the labels on the cover: Balboa Records, Pep Records, Turquoise Records, Selma Records, Buddy Records…each record representing an idea that the three minutes of music captured on it will be heard everywhere. Some of the singles in this book have reverberated for six decades, most were relatively invisible even then. That’s a key story of American pop, and I can’t wait for the 1957 volume

not the only starfish in the sea

What if producer Tom Wilson didn’t have the notion of augmenting the acoustic recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”? What if, disheartened by the lackluster reception given to the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. album, Simon went to England (that’s what happened in real life), wrote the song “Red Rubber Ball” with Bruce Woodley of the Seekers, and that became a big pop hit (also true: by the Cyrkle; they also wrote “Cloudy” together, although when it turned up on a S&G LP, Simon’s name stood there alone). Back in New York City, where Simon had hustled around midtown Manhattan trying to cobble together a hitmaking career, his more serious, introspective, let’s say Dylanesque, efforts were not greeted with universal enthusiasm. As Dave Van Ronk recalled in his memoir, for a while, in order to get a guaranteed laugh in Village circles, all you had to do was start singing “Hello, darkness, my old friend.” And you’d have to admit, I think, that’s a howler of a line. (Simon was fond of addressing things that had no ability to respond: “Hey, sunshine,” in “Cloudy,” “Hello, lamppost,” in “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”) Most of the song is a cascade of nonsense. Does a vision really leave seeds? Is there such a thing as “talking without speaking”? Talking without meaning, maybe.

In his new biography of Simon, Robert Hilburn offers the thesis that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting gift to flower. Hilburn told the website Best Classic Bands, “In fact, he spent five years after high school in the lower rungs of the New York City record business, writing songs, recording demos, trying to get his own records released—and all he was really doing was copying the most generic pop-rock on the radio. There wasn’t even a glimmer of artistry or even promise in all those recordings.” That’s a bit ungenerous. It is true that among the many recordings Simon made under the name Jerry Landis, or as Tico in Tico & the Triumphs, or as Tom in Tom & Jerry, are major clunkers such as the one Hilburn points to, “The Lipstick on Your Lips.” But there are some kind of charming efforts as well, like “I Wish I Weren’t In Love,” a shameless rip-off of Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love.” I confess that, on balance, I would rather hear Simon’s novelty singles “Motorcycle” and “The Lone Teen Ranger” than “I Am a Rock” and “The Dangling Conversation.”

Simon was a student of pop, and a gifted mimic. He and Garfunkel could approximate Don and Phil Everly. According to Burt Bacharach, quoted in Hilburn’s book, he got Simon to do a demo for a song he was going to pitch to Frankie Avalon, and you can hear in some of the “Jerry Landis” songs how adept Simon was at emulating that smarmy faux-innocence. Marty Cooper, who sang with Simon in Tico & the Triumphs, recalls, “He was constantly monitoring the radio, looking for new ideas…One day he’d tell us about the gentle way that the leader of the Fleetwoods [Gary Troxel] sang.” I’d always heard traces of the Fleetwoods in the wispier side of Simon & Garfunkel (what was “Mr. Blue” except the kind of forlorn lament Simon made a specialty of?), and the connection makes complete sense. You get the idea that given time, Simon would have found the right combination of elements, that if “The Sound of Silence” wouldn’t have been commercially rescued by the Wilson session overdubs, he’d have moved on from Garfunkel. Maybe into a group like the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mama’s and the Papa’s, the Seekers or the Cyrkle. Whatever was hot and happening.

His association with Bruce Woodley yielded “Cloudy” (although Woodley has insisted it was like pulling teeth to get Simon to acknowledge it), the completely lovely “I Wish You Could Be Here” (cut by both the Seekers and the Cyrkle; a few years earlier it would have been perfect for the Fleetwoods, like Randy Newman’s “They Tell Me It’s Summer”), and “Red Rubber Ball.” The Cyrkle’s version was released in spring 1966, in between S&G’s “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock,” on the same label (Columbia), and although both S&G singles hit the top 5, “Red Rubber Ball” landed a little bit higher at #2. And it holds up better. It shows that Simon (with a collaborator?) could have knocked off catchy pop hits at will; the song is a skip and jump into the sunlight (goodbye, darkness!) after being dumped. “Now I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea,” it goes. “If I never hear your name again it’s all the same to me.” Was it too frivolous for Paul and Art to cut, too simple, not “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”ish enough? “Friendship causes pain!” Does it? Well, Simon had his books and his poetry to protect him, and nice for him.

Simon & Garfunkel started doing “Red Rubber Ball” live after it became a hit for the Cyrkle (jauntily produced by John Simon, no relation), so maybe they did have a twinge of regret about giving it away. But I don’t see it on the setlists for Simon’s current farewell tour, which in a way is too bad. If nothing else, it’s like a sliding door into an alternate Paul Simon career. It feels casual and tossed-off, not labored over and literary. Hilburn is right that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting talent to click into place, but I believe he’s wrong about when that happened; the writer who found his groove on Bookends – especially the singles on side two – began with “I should have known you’d bid me farewell,” not “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”

“Brenda shook the wetness of her hair onto my face and with the drops that touched me I felt she had made a promise to me about the summer, and, I hoped, beyond.” – Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus is, when you get down to it, a story about a summer romance. It’s about many other things, class, race, Jewishness, but it begins at a country club swimming pool at the start of the summer, where Brenda Patimkin asks Neil Klugman to hold her glasses, and ends at the start of fall, when Brenda is back at school in Boston. The movie version came out in 1968 when I was seventeen years old and working in a jeans store on east Fordham Road in the Bronx, and every time a pretty girl walked into Kerkers to try on Landlubber bell-bottoms, I looked for the glimmer, the slightest trace, of Ali MacGraw. Who was no actress, not really, but she was able to give the banter in the early scenes – much taken directly from Philip Roth’s novella – an edgy, snooty sexiness. Goodbye, Columbus, the movie, is in most ways that matter, a mess. It’s crudely directed, cartoonish and clichéd. But those scenes between MacGraw and Richard Benjamin were, to a Jewish kid wrapping up his freshman year at Lehman College girlfriendless, aspirational. I hadn’t yet read any of Philip Roth’s books, but he already was starting to work his way into my life.

A little bit later in the summer of ’68, in a lounge chair at the bungalow colony in Rockland County where we went to escape, I picked up the copy of New American Review #3, a literary paperback/magazine where the lead story was Roth’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” There is some familial disagreement about how NAR #3 found its way into our bungalow. I insist that I bought it at a drugstore “in town” because there was an article in it by Albert Goldman called “The Emergence of Rock,” and Rock was, in addition to the fruitless longing for a Brenda of my own, the subject that occupied most of my waking thoughts. My sister is equally convinced that she was the one who took it off the book rack, and we have argued about this for decades even though it obviously is of no importance.

What is of major importance is that “Civilization and Its Discontents,” narrated by a character named Alexander Portnoy, was shocking. It had never occurred to me that anyone could write like that, in that voice, about that subject matter, with that level of candor. It was an extended riff on the Jewish family – the Jewish mother in particular, and I had one – and the sexual rampage that goes on in the mind of the Jewish boy. Most people focused on the fact that there was an unusual amount of jerking off for a literary endeavor (although not unusual, perhaps, for the average kid from Newark, or the Bronx). But what floored me was not the sex stuff, but the slashing humor, the observations, the cadence of Jewish family conversation, the impoliteness of the whole thing. Like Tom Wolfe, whose articles on Phil Spector and Murray the K I’d devoured in another book that shaped my ideas about writing (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), Roth wrote in a breathless, hyper-fueled voice. It was like a release of everything we were not supposed to acknowledge, our repressed libidos, sure, but also the oppressive expectations of our parents, our teachers, who seemed most concerned with us being well-behaved, the one thing we most did not want to be. Roth, like Dylan and the Rolling Stones, gave us a permission slip. He was like a literary Lenny Bruce, only funnier.

I didn’t know while I was reading NAR #3 that the Philip Roth story was a preview of the book that would become Portnoy’s Complaint, and that the novel would become a sensation, and make him a celebrity, any of that. All I knew fifty years ago, in the summer of ’68, was that Goodbye, Columbus (the movie; I read the book a bit later) and “Civilization and Its Discontents” were giving me new ideas about what I wanted, what could be said and how. No writer of fiction meant so much to me for so long.

“the virtues of musical illiteracy”: seymour stein and the secrets of a&r

“I was standing there not sure whether to laugh,” Seymour Stein writes about his initial encounter with the Ramones, and that’s how it felt to a lot of people: they were absurd but also, one imagined, undeniable. But among record executives, as among rock critics, the verdict was by no means unanimous. Luckily for everyone, Stein stepped up and signed the band to his Sire label. He also signed Talking Heads, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys. Also on his resume: Madonna, the Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, the Smiths, the Replacements, “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand, and a number of other artists and records enumerated in his autobiography Siren Song: My Life in Music, co-written with Gareth Murphy. It’s an impressive list, certainly, and you can almost forgive the publisher’s claim that Stein is “America’s greatest living record man,” who has “signed and nurtured more important artists than anyone alive.” I checked, and Berry Gordy, Jac Holzman, Clive Davis and Mo Ostin are still around, and I’m pretty sure they’d take issue with that pronouncement, but let’s accept it as St. Martin’s Press revving up the hype machine.

The book made me sad, because it’s as much of a swan song as a siren song; it’s not just about the powerful lure of music (and the “sire” pun within), but about a record industry that ran on instinct and chutzpah, sheer nerve, threats and double-crosses, and the tastes of executives who only trusted their gut. Stein is romantic, with good reason, about the music world he entered, the world of Syd Nathan at King Records, Morris Levy and George Goldner, Red Bird Records. Together with songwriter-producer Richard Gottehrer, he formed Sire (one of the label’s first 45s was by a local group I was friendly with in the Bronx, Barry Pohl and the Concessions, and that was my introduction to the company; later, I wrote a couple of quickie music bios on Carole King and Simon & Garfunkel for a short-lived book-publishing alliance between Sire and Chappell Music). It took a while for Sire to find its own voice, but once it did, it became one of the hippest outfits in the business.

Key to Stein’s signing sensibility was being hooked by vocal group R&B. “Boy, did I love doo wop, and still do,” he says (true to his word, he’s been passionate about getting some of those groups into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Loving doo wop, it seems to me, means embracing inspired amateurism over slick professionalism, realizing that sincerity and stupidity can co-exist to make sublime noise, that competence – even “talent” – is a pretty routine commodity. Stein is the guy who heard potential in Madonna’s bright, silly demos, when a bunch of other labels had passed. He’s the guy who was knocked out by the Ramones and wrote the check for their debut album. In Siren Song he writes, “I’m no musician, so I never understood or even trusted technical virtuosity…Pop music is not just notes and beats; the really big vibration that rattles the city walls comes from a real-deal gang walking a tightrope together.” In another chapter, he talks about “the virtues of musical illiteracy.”

So of course Sire was an ideal home for the Replacements, for Lou Reed (another Jewish kid besotted with doo wop), for Madness’s “One Step Beyond” and Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation.” It always felt as though whatever was released on Sire — including k.d. lang, Brian Wilson’s solo album, the soundtrack from Shag, the heart-tugging vocalist Jimmy Scott, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – was the result of an impulse, beyond market calculation. Why be in charge of a record label if you can’t treat it like your own playground, give Jimmy Scott, or Charlie Rich, a third act, make records with the Flamin Groovies? Put out LPs by the Beckies and Duncan Browne? Flipping through Siren Song (which is not without some egregious errors, and some serious score-settling) is both exhilarating and depressing, because Stein’s generation of record men, the ones with “shellac in their veins,” is dwindling.

I used to cross paths with Seymour from time to time. At CBGB’s, checking out the same bands, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame dinners, at Mark Strausman’s restaurant Campagna on 21st Street in Manhattan, where he held court in a corner booth, leaving behind traces of white powder on the seats (his indulgences were no secret, and are detailed in Siren Song). Once, in a swanky clothing store in Paris. He never seemed to quite register who I was, despite the fact that we’d been introduced by friends we had in common, like A&R whirlwind Kate Hyman, and that he‘d had complimentary things to say about the books I did for Sire-Chappell. He was just on a different plane. But from my table at the Waldorf at those R&R HoF nights, I’d listen him rhapsodize about his formative years in the music business, the doo wop groups he championed. As the years went on, the bands he took a shot with, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, were inducted. Seymour Stein was one of the people who made A&R seem like a dream gig. You hear a demo, see a showcase, say yes. That’s how everything starts.

something shimmering and white


In April 1988 – three decades ago! – “Under the Milky Way” by the Church began to inch up the pop singles chart, after establishing itself as a rock, alternative and MTV hit. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, I thought I’d re-post a piece I wrote for the now-defunct MOG website in 2009 (a flashback within a flashback).
 
 A friend I worked at Arista with, a lifetime and a half ago, sent me an e-mail asking me if I’d heard that car commercial with some girl singing ‘Under The Milky Way.’ I had, from another room in my apartment, and I didn’t recognize the singer (Sia, it turned out), but it was one of those ‘what’s that?’ moments, when something you know so well, but haven’t heard it ages, comes back in an altered form, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on.
 
Another thing I didn’t know: ‘Under The Milky Way’ is all over the place. Just go to YouTube if you don’t believe me. There’s a clip of The Killers doing it with an assist from Chairlift, and an acoustic version by Nicole Atkins, and Matchbox 20 give it a shot… I mean, the thing is more than two decades old, and this is The Moment of Rediscovery. How randomly the wheel of pop spins.
 
‘Under The Milky Way’ played a pretty significant part in my own story, which I’ll tell you as succinctly as possible. I was knocking out advertising and marketing copy at Arista Records, and getting really restless. How many ways can you hype Air Supply? What more was there to say about Barry Manilow? You see my dilemma: on the one hand, I was employed at a record company, on the other hand, Air Supply and Barry Manilow. A couple of A&R people left the label, and I lobbied for a shot at the gig.
 
And got an unequivocal no. Which was understandable. It’s a desirable job, and I had no experience at it, and didn’t exactly know what it entailed (I knew that the A&R guys tended to show up for work later than the rest of us, and I liked that idea). But I kept being a noodge, and basically said, look, I have no idea if I can do this, and I’m not asking for a new title, or more money, or a bigger office. Just give me demo tapes, send me to showcases, have me call song publishers, and we’ll give it a trial, and meanwhile I’ll keep doing my real job even if it means more Manilow copy.
 
So I found a couple of songs for Arista artists to cut. And I got some artist demos, one of which was by The Church. They’d already been on Capitol and Warners, and hadn’t broken, but they had a little following, and college airplay, and Arista could use a band with that kind of cred. OK. On a cassette I got from the manager was a song called ‘Under The Milky Way,’ and I breathed a little sigh of relief, because it was simply perfect, in its way, It was moody, and hooky, pop enough but not too pop, slightly Pink Floydish, and yet modern and not prog-ish (and still, neo-prog band Coheed & Cambria have lately been known to play it at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, so maybe it’s more proglike than I’d like to admit, given my progophobia).
 
It became the lead single and centerpiece of the band’s Arista debut ‘Starfish.’ And it crossed over from college radio to AOR to pop radio when it was difficult to make that transition, and the album went gold, and I was officially an A&R guy, because my first artist signing had worked.
 
What I think now (late 2009), is that ‘Under The Milky Way’ is mysterious, but childlike. It’s abstract, but has a melody that sticks with you. It’s certainly a Rock Song (which is why The Killers can do it), but it’s also, stripped down to its basics, folk-strummy (which is why Nicole Atkins can do it), and it’s Pop (which is why Rob Thomas can do it). As Sia’s Lincoln spot proves, it even works in a 30-second version. I have not heard the recordings by Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen, but the fact that it has been done by both Rick Springfield and Echo & The Bunnymen speaks much about its adaptability.
 
What I though then (1988) was that it was a hit, and I’m happy to see that it still is.

vo vo de oh deux

There’s a swell new record store in Winooski, Vermont, Autumn Records (not, I assume, named after the record label home of the Beau Brummels, but who knows?), and on a recent visit I was flipping through the racks and came across something so odd and so of-its-moment, so quintessential an example of the jumble-sale aesthetic of 1967 pop, that it should be on display somewhere, like on this blog. On Do the Love, the distinguished jazz producer and label executive Bob Thiele, whose name is in the credits of dozens of LPs that belong in any basic collection, is accompanied by – and I want to quote this exactly – “His New Happy Times Orchestra Featuring the Sunflower Singers and Steve Allen.” Thiele is dressed in Sgt. Pepperesque marching band costume. The cover typeface resembles west coast rock ballroom posters. Some of the song titles: “Jet Me to Frisco,” “The Sunshine of Love,” “Here Comes Sgt. Pepper.” There are also a few quite old tunes: “My Blue Heaven,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “When Day is Done,” done in period style. Because there was, in 1966 and through 1967, a convergence of trippy flower power and antique whimsy, a new age/jazz age fusion, a decision to skip backwards a few decades. Do the Love, a perfectly pleasant album (a YouTube clip identifies the title track as a “tittyshaker soul instro”), sits right in the neo-old-timey sweet spot, for which one can blame “Winchester Cathedral” and groups like the Beatles, the Youngbloods, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Mostly “Winchester Cathedral,” by a British studio ensemble called the New Vaudeville Band.

“Winchester Cathedral,” written by Geoff Stephens (“The Crying Game,” “There’s a Kind of Hush”), with a lead vocal by the Ivy League’s John Carter, emulated the ‘20s dance-orchestra sound, sprightly and syrupy, and Carter’s voice was recorded in the style of Rudy Vallee’s wavery megaphoned tone. It’s a charming little novelty, and in late 1966, a period of crazy pop invention, it certainly stood out; it was a throwback not just to the pre-rock era, but to the pre-WWII era. It was pop archeology. Your grandparents would have recognized it. It was massive, #1 pop, #1 adult contemporary. But beyond its chart success, it was one of those records that, for a little while, alters the musical conversation, creates a mini-trend. One thing you should know about “Winchester Cathedral”: when the Grammy Awards were handed out for 1966, it won Best Contemporary (R&R) Recording, beating out (among others) “Good Vibrations,” “Monday, Monday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

Strange things started happening; there had already been a nostalgic tint to some of the new pop music, touches of British music hall in the Beatles (especially McCartney’s songs), of vintage American pop in the Spoonful and the Mama’s and the Papa’s. But the success of “Winchester Cathedral” – was this an early clue to the new direction? — sent writers, arrangers, bands into the attic to crank up the gramophone and rummage through old sheet music for inspiration. “Hello Hello” by Sopwith Camel, “Grizzly Bear” by the Youngbloods (complete with “vo do dee oh”), “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” by Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band.” The Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy,” written by Harry Nilsson, had an anachronistic shuffle to it. In San Francisco, the Charlatans were doing “Sweet Sue, Just You” and “Alabamy Bound,” while in England, the Bonzo Dog Band recorded “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies.”

It wasn’t all due to the New Vaudeville Band; sometimes there’s just a collective impulse in the musical air. But it was all over the place, this very-retro tone, on the Stones’s “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” on Between the Buttons, on Peter & Gordon’s “Lady Godiva.” Ian Whitcomb, a true scholar of such things, recorded Ian Whitcomb’s Mod, Mod Music Hall (among the tracks: “Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider,” “That Ragtime Suffragette,” “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi”). Producer Lee Hazlewood, arranger Billy Strange and the members of the Wrecking Crew dressed Nancy Sinatra in vintage clothes (not literally: on the cover she barely wears a pink bikini) for the album Sugar (“sweet, soulful serenades from the old timey years”), featuring tunes like “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Oh! You Beautiful Doll.”

Nancy’s daddy, meanwhile, took a swing at “Winchester Cathedral” itself, and he could not sound more miserable. He could not get a fix on it, and his interpolations (“You didn’t ding-dong,” he admonishes the edifice) are painful. He was not alone in stumbling through this uncomplicated ditty. “Ah hah!,” A&R people must have thought as the song climbed the charts: “Here’s something our long-in-the-tooth middle-of-the-road artists can do that the kids will dig.” So it was covered and covered, and parodied (by Homer & Jethro – “It set music back now at least fifty years” — and by Allan Sherman as “Westchester Hadassah”). A group called the New Happiness (not to be confused with Thiele’s New Happy Times Orchestra) released it as a single on Columbia Records, lead vocal by Bruce “Smooth” Lundvall (Mr. Lundvall became one of the most respected execs in the music industry).

Such was the power of “Winchester Cathedral” that Rudy Vallee re-emerged with an album (Hi Ho Everybody) to capitalize on his vocal mannerisms being back in vogue. Also re-emerging, on Warner Brothers, was Jimmy Durante, whose 1966 album was titled after the inescapable, undeniably peppy, past-evoking tune “One of Those Songs.” Tony Randall cut an LP called Vo, Vo, De, Oh, Doe. (The album, like Vallee’s, had the Geoff Stephens song, of course.) Another actor, George Segal, did an album of ragtime-jazz (“Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “The Moving Picture Ball”) called The Yama Yama Man. With ’67 came the Innocence’s single of “Mairzy Doats,” Spanky & Our Gang doing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the stylistic influence of Bonnie and Clyde, the anything-goes spirit of Sgt. Pepper (“With a Little Help from My Friends” has a touch of vaudeville in there). Which brings us back to Do the Love. Are you not intrigued by the idea of Steve Allen singing, in New Vaudeville Band mode, “My Blue Heaven”? Or by the Sunflower Singers doing the Cashman-Pistilli song “Jet Me to Frisco” (“That’s where the flowers are growing,” the lyric tells us)? The liner notes insist “It is Mod and it is timely.” Yes, everything old was mod. After all, wasn’t one of the hippest clothing stores in London in 1966 called Granny Takes a Trip?

sounds & fury

As pre-teen moviegoers in the early 1960s, we were not at all discriminating. Whatever was playing within a walk or bus ride in the Bronx, at the Earl, the Kent, the Luxor, or up near Fordham Road, was perfectly ok with us. But anything that promised a a look at contemporary pop stars – since television was not very helpful in that particular area in that particular era – had high must-see priority. Anything with “rock” or “twist” in the title, anything with Elvis (even something as dashed-off as Kid Galahad). Movies as dreary as Teenage Millionaire with Jimmy Clanton: in order to see Jackie Wilson and Dion, we sat through hijinks with Rocky Graziano and ZaSu Pitts. It didn’t matter so much what the premise of the film was, or that the stars were singers who hadn’t gotten much exposure in the U.S.; we even went to the British movies that managed to make their way over here: Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (called It’s Trad Dad in the U.K., and directed by Richard Lester), Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, and something called Play It Cool starring Billy Fury.

Play It Cool (directed by Michael Winner) is, no spoiler here, utterly forgettable, and it’s a bit of a mystery why it was released in the States at all. Neither of its stars, Fury or Helen Shapiro, made any transatlantic waves, and tossing Bobby Vee into the mix doesn’t up U.S. marquee value by much. And yet there it was at our local cinema in 1963, a year after it premiered in England. If the plan was to break Billy Fury in America, that didn’t pan out. Not much British pop made the crossing. A few instrumentals, “Stranger on the Shore,” “Midnight in Moscow,” “Telstar.” ABC-Paramount and Epic Records took some shots with Cliff Richard to middling response. The whole slew of teen idols over there, most of them managed and renamed by manager Larry Parnes (where would U.K. pop be without the insight and influence of gay Jewish men?) remained unknown in America: Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, none charted so much as a single (it took until ’65 for Adam Faith to crack through with “It’s Alright” and some riveting performances on Shindig).

So reading the new book Halfway to Paradise: The Life of Billy Fury by David & Caroline Stafford is like taking a tour through an alternate pop universe. It’s a detailed, enthusiastic and eye-opening look at pre-Beatles England. For most Americans, it might as well be historical fiction; Billy Fury could just as easily be “Billy Universe,” his character in Play It Cool; the titles of single after single zip by, chart positions noted, descriptive assessments offered, but we have no first-hand context. We have the Staffords’ word for how seismic Fury’s impact was, how compelling and scandalous he was as a live performer, what a landmark his self-written debut album The Sound of Fury (1960) was. It is a mysterious artifact to us, but luckily we can click over to Spotify and hear what the fuss was all about. What it is, is snappy, imitative rockabilly, a little bit early Elvis, some Buddy Holly and Charlie Gracie. The surprise is how confident it sounds; it’s enlivened quite a bit by Joe Brown’s guitar – he clearly did his homework listening to Scotty Moore, and maybe the James Burton solos on Ricky Nelson records – and it wins points for being slightly behind the curve, for evoking pre-Army Elvis, and the Crickets. It is, no joke, one of the purest rock’n’roll albums of 1960, and most of us never even heard it.

Halfway to Paradise, unfortunately, recycles the old tired clichés about 1960 pop music, Elvis in uniform, Chuck Berry in prison, Little Richard finding God, Jerry Lee in exile, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran dead. “Real rock’n’roll,” the Staffords tell us, “had all but vanished from Americas airwaves,” replaced by an army of Bobbys. All that doesn’t take into account the incredible amount of musical invention early in that decade, through the JFK years. But in Fury’s case, he rarely came close to the convincingly moody U.S.-rock’n’roll replication of The Sound of Fury. There was the string-laden tango of “Jealousy,” the Goffin & King song that gives the book its title, the eerie “Wondrous Place,” the cover versions of “A Thousand Stars” and “Letter Full of Tears,” the dismissible “My Christmas Prayer.” Is Fury’s life worth nearly 300 pages, dotted with stories of sexual exploits, chronic health issues, career slides, and quite a bit of minutia about his fascination with birds (of the ornithological sort)?

It is, because whatever Fury’s career might have meant outside of the U.K. – some Americans might only know him from his portrayal of the anachronistic pop (not porn) star Stormy Tempest in the movie That’ll Be the Day – he was a key figure in the evolution of British rock, when it was still hadn’t found its own voice. Together with Billy Bragg’s book Roots, Radicals and Rockers, subtitled How Skiffle Changed the World, it fills in a lot of blanks, gives a snapshot of English pop before most of us were paying close attention, or only hearing the occasional trad-jazz number, or the cheery novelty of Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Over Night” (which clearly pointed the way to Herman’s Hermits). It was a different world over there in the early ‘60s, and no one had any idea how it all was about to change.

mood rock & pet rocks

“You are about to witness a new dimension in entertainment.” The voice is authoritative, and a bit ominous, like in the movie trailers that begin “In a world…” Out of the darkness, a man appears, his hair fluffed like Bobby Sherman’s, his collar spread wide like pointy white seagull wings. He sings, and it’s not clear what the announcer is talking about, what this new dimension might entail. Peter Lemongello is handsome enough; he seems like the kind of guy you’d see at the bar at Maxwell’s Plum, offering to buy a lady a Harvey Wallbanger, and because this is the mid-1970s, his clothes are ridiculous. There is a yellow get-up that reveals way too much man-cleavage. This two-minute introduction to Mr. Lemongello will run repeatedly on television: it’s a commercial for a record album called Love ’76, and before long that album will have sold well over a million copies (probably, but not officially: there are no R.I.A.A. statistics for it), just through mail order. There will be sold-out live appearances, write-ups in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Because, amazingly enough, no one thought to do this before, buy fame in 120-second installments, convince viewers to send $6.98 ($8.98 for 8-track tape) for an album by an artist they’d never even heard of. It was like a real-life version of the 1954 movie It Should Happen to You, where a struggling actress (played by Judy Holliday) rents out a billboard in mid-Manhattan for the purpose of getting attention (it’s a much better film than that Three Billboards… thing, by the way). It worked for her, and it worked for Lemongello.

Love ’76 is an album that’s not remembered for its music, but for its marketing, and in that sense, it’s sort of brilliant. It was all what we’d now call “branding,” selling Lemongello’s image, calling what he was doing “Mood Rock,” a term as evocative as it is meaningless, but what did that matter? A year before, an awful lot of people bought something called a Pet Rock, and there is not that much difference between a Pet Rock and Lemongello’s Mood Rock: once it came in the mail you thought, What do I do with this now? You played the double-LP once or twice, maybe, and then it became just an artifact that’s in your house, an impulsive purchase. Before you spent your money, you’d never heard a complete Peter Lemongello song on the radio in your life, and now you owned this.

What Lemongello figured out was, if a singer appears a couple of times on The Mike Douglas Show, he’s just one of a parade of musical guests that gets a few minutes of airtime. The next day and the day after that, new singers will take his place. But if you make a commercial and show it over and over again, flash your name on the screen in big letters, sing just enough of a song to indicate what you’re up to, a number of people–maybe more than a million!–will reach for their phones out of curiosity. He didn’t have to compete for airplay. He’d already done that, in the early ‘70s, and that didn’t work out so well. There were a couple of singles on the small Rare Bird Records (“Groovy Little Things” and an old Bacharach-David song, “Rain From the Skies”), another one on Mark V (“Contemplation”), and he was even briefly on a major, releasing “Mary Lee” on Epic. You most likely never heard any of those. So he had to take control of his own fate, raising money from private investors to finance an album and a campaign.

In an earlier era, he might have been positioned as a Bandstand teen idol, one of the lower-tier ones, like Johnny Restivo or Frank Gari (and someone would have shortened his name to Peter Lymon). Or he could have taken the nightclub route, singing Sentimental Songs for High Rollers, like Al Martino or Jimmy Roselli (whose biography is titled Making the Wise Guys Weep). But in the ’70s, the logical route was down the middle of the road, like what Neil Sedaka (“Laughter in the Rain”) and Frankie Valli (“My Eyes Adored You”) were doing. So he got Teddy Randazzo to co-produce, arrange, and cowrite most of the original material for Love ’76. Randazzo had written some major-league big ballads, “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Hurt So Bad,” “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” and a few songs for Frank Sinatra, and for Lemongello, he and his collaborators took an approach that was part Barry Manilow, part Barry White-Lite, PG-13 seduction: “Come closer, baby,” the album starts off. “It’s the moment of truth.” Smooth talker.

One of the non-Randazzo songs is credited solely to Paul Anka on the LP credits, but that’s not accurate. “Do I Love You”–featured prominently in the ad: “Do I love you, don’t you KNOW by now?”–started off, like some other Anka compositions (“My Way,” “Let Me Try Again”) as a French song (“Plus rien qu’une address en commun”) that he loosely adapted into English. Anka had released it as a single on Buddah, and it had also been covered by Scott Walker (below). When Lemongello signed to a real record label, Private Stock, “Do I Love You” became the title track for his next album. But that LP never cracked the top 200. That’s the twist in the story: Lemongello orchestrated the launch of Love ’76 to separate him from every other struggling singer, to gain credibility through visibility, but once that happened, and he was on a regular label, he was on the same playing field as everyone else, another mainstream easy-listening singer angling for attention and airplay (even on Private Stock, his album came out in between albums by David Soul and Frankie Valli, competing in the same arena). What was special about that?

Lemongello became, then, the only artist to sell a million albums without once making Billboard’s LP or singles chart. “They’re calling me an innovator,” he told The New York Times, “because I went directly to the public. I wasn’t innovating anything. I was trying to be a star.” After him, artists such as Slim Whitman and Boxcar Willie hawked their music on TV. After him came Home Shopping Network and QVC. Today, all aspiring Lemongellos have so many avenues for exposure: Instagram, YouTube, Facebook. You can go on American Idol or The Voice. It’s easy to become famous for a while, if famous is all you want to be. Peter Lemongello figured that out more than four decades ago.