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?

2 responses to “vo vo de oh deux

  1. Steve Allen financed a number of Thiele enterprises, notably Hanover/Signature Records, the home of the Nutty Squirrels (a jazzy Chipmunks knockoff) and Buck Hammer, a “rediscovered” old pianist whose technique was so strong, it was like he was playing with three hands. Which, thanks to overdubbing, he (really Steve Allen) was.

    Thiele also came up with many showcases for his wife, Teresa Brewer — among them, on his Flying Dutchman label, an album backed by “Oily Rags,” a British band formed from (as I recall) former members of Heads, Hands and Feet. Then there was his straight jazz stuff for Impulse! etc.
    An interesting guy.

    • A remarkable career, and a discography that includes so many essential albums. For some reason, “Do the Love” doesn’t even appear on his Wiki pages; I’d never heard of it until I stumbled on that used copy. One thing I was going to mention in my post, but it would have led to a maze of connections, was the George Segal “A Touch of Ragtime” album he produced on Signature; I wanted to confine my musings to the ’60…Thanks for chiming in.

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