Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” produced for Liberty Records by Snuff Garrett and sung by Bobby Vee, hit #1 smack in the middle of the era that official histories of rock and pop music tell us was a creative ditch, a period of time when early rock & roll had lost its mojo and the world was just waiting for The Beatles to come along, but I care not at all for that theory, or that people dismiss this as the Age of The Bobbys. When I heard “Take Good Care of My Baby,” I asked my father to drive me into town from the bungalow colony where we spent my childhood summers, so I could purchase the Liberty 45 at the five-and-ten. Unluckily for me, and for my dad, the first copy I bought had a scratch in it, so we had to make a second trip for more playable vinyl, and then I played that single over and over. It seemed perfect to me and still does, and I’ve been thinking about it in the days since Snuff Garrett passed away, and since CBS aired the Kennedy Center Honors show where Carole King was one of the honorees.
There was a nice tribute to King’s songs therein, and everyone now knows that Miss Aretha Franklin shook the walls of the Kennedy Center so mightily that JFK could have felt it from deep in his grave, but the show didn’t include the songs that Carole wrote for Bobby Vee. They’re songs that don’t get covered much, but as a kid, I bought every one of them: “How Many Tears” (which came right before “Take Good Care of My Baby”), “Walking With My Angel,” “I Can’t Say Goodbye,” “Sharing You.” “Run To Him” (by Goffin with Jack Keller) was like a shot at Orbisonian operatics scaled down to Veeish proportions, an exercise in romantic selflessless and sacrifice, while its Goffin-King flip side was, well, its flip side: the elation of strolling through town with a devoted girl on his arm. You can dismiss the Vee-Garrett records as teen soap-opera, but on the radio they shined like a new silver dime, and they helped form my ideas about how simple and heart-tugging a pop single could be.
And look at the songs that surrounded “Take Good Care of My Baby” on the radio: “My True Story” by The Jive Five, “Hurt” by Timi Yuro, “Crying” by Roy Orbison, dramatic epics all. And Bert Berns’ “A Little Bit of Soap” with The Jarmels, Pomus & Shuman’s “Little Sister” b/w “His Latest Flame” for Elvis, “The Mountain’s High” by Dick & DeeDee, ‘School Is Out” by Gary U.S. Bonds. The Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp” was climbing the charts, and so were Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” The Chantels’ “Look In My Eyes” and Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack,” so you can be dismissive all you like about the pre-Beatles ‘60s, but pop music was brimming over with emotion and exuberance. While Vee was circling the top spot, not far behind was Tony Orlando with Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil’s “Bless You” (and Mann himself with “Who Put The Bomp”). For a kid in the very first phase of a lifelong music-listening fixation, these 45s (and early Phil Spector’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” with Curtis Lee and “Every Breath I Take” with Gene Pitney, another Goffin & King triumph) were a pop foundation.
You could, I suppose, use Snuff Garrett as a case study in the compromises of commercial pop, point to his records with Johnny Burnette at Liberty as schlockification, the reigning-in of the untamed rampage of Burnette’s records with his Rock & Roll Trio. Garrett and Burnette’s “Dreamin’,””You’re Sixteen” and “Little Boy Sad,” with their plonking strings and sentimentality, were a long way from “Eager Beaver Baby.” But those singles, and the utterly crazy 1961 non-hit “Clown Shoes,” where Burnette’s fiancé buys him a beautifully-wrapped gift, only to humiliate him with the titular footwear, are laden with pop trickery, and so are his singles with Gene McDaniels, like ‘61’s “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength,” and the following year’s even more berserk “Chip Chip” and Goffin & King’s “Point of No Return.” Garrett somehow managed to wring a top 5 single out of the creaky vocal stylings of Walter Brennan (and the piano playing of Leon Russell) with 1962’s “Old Rivers.”
Garrett went on to produce hits with Gary Lewis & The Playboys (and, with Russell, an oddball album with Gary’s dad, The Jerry Lewis Singers: Yesterday and Other Folk-Rock Hits, which sorry to say does not include a Jerry lead vocal on “It’s Ain’t Me Babe”), Cher and others, but he may have never topped “Take Good Care of My Baby”; the blueprint for his production is there in Carole’s piano demo, all the melodic moves, the way the arrangement builds, the little flourishes and counterpoints. It was all there from the start, and I’ve heard that Goffin & King initially offered it to Dion, but that would’ve been a mistake (he did cut it, and it feels half-hearted); Dion was up to something tougher and less swoony at that point. In Vee and Garrett’s hands, it blossomed. I was only a child, and had been listening to pop radio for a little more than a year, but it’s weird what I remember: when I heard the opening verse, Vee alone setting up the scenario, then jumping into the title hook, it was the first time I thought, “That’s going to be number one.” It made the top spot on WABC in September, then was knocked out by “Runaround Sue.” Good year.