In 1977, the year I started scribbling copy in Arista Records’ publicity department, Clive Davis hired Billy Meshel to run Arista’s new music publishing company, and I’d see Billy once in a while, especially when I needed info on a press release announcing a new songwriter signing. He was a gregarious, enthusiastic guy. What I didn’t know, and wish I had, was that he had written songs that were recorded by Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, Dion & the Belmonts, Reparata & the Delrons, Lloyd Price, Cliff Richard, the Brady Bunch. And that he’d made his own records under his own and different names (one pseudonym he used was Flip Cartridge, and how utterly perfect is that?). Had I been aware that Meshel was the author or co-author of such songs as “L. David Sloane,” “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” “Dear Mrs. Applebee” and “I Blew It,” and the B-side of Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry” (“Don’t Gild the Lily, Lily”), and “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon,” I’m sure I’d have peppered him with questions about being a songwriter-on-the-make in the 1960s, about having his compositions cut by John Davidson and Michele Lee, about his own album The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel.
His songs weren’t exactly “novelty” songs, but they had the far-fetched, gimmicky lyrics, and sprightly melodies, of pop songs that were reminiscent of early-20th-century vaudeville and English music hall, but with a modern spin. They had characters – “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” “Take a Bow, Rufus Humfry” — and little scenarios (“I Didn’t Come to NY to Meet a Girl from My Hometown”). Like a lot of writers from his era, he tried his hand at sappy teen ballads (there is an especially unfortunate one he sings under the name Billy Mitchum, “Twelve and Three Quarters”), girl-group records (the Fortune Cookies, the Royalettes), whatever was hot at the moment (“The Heartbreaking Truth” by Don & Juan is a Righteous Brothers soundalike). You can check more than thirty of them out on the compilation Paradise Found: the Songs of Billy Meshel, but that “Early Years” CD doesn’t have some of his oddest and most Meshelish efforts. For those, YouTube is particularly helpful, but not comprehensive.
Take “I Blew It”: it was released as a single (on Roulette) in 1967 by a group called the Vacant Lot, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that “the Vacant Lot” was another Meshel secret identity (the singer sounds suspiciously like him). “I’m never gonna have a happy ending,” the narrator complains, “like in the paperbacks when the sad and lonely couple strike oil in the backyard and the landlord goes to prison forever.” “I Blew It” is quintessential Meshel, and his version (or let’s say the version released under his name, because who knows?) on the A. Wilbur Meshel album actually got some FM airplay in NY when it came out as a single in 1969. The album also has “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” which had been done by Gene Pitney, Reparata & the Delrons, and previously by Meshel as Flip Cartridge. What sends men to the Bowery? “Great disappointments from beautiful girls.” Meshel paints a picture of an army of forgotten men, exiled to downtown Manhattan (this is pre-gentrification; pre-CBGB’s, even) by romantic rejection.
Flip Cartridge’s “Dear Mrs. Applebee” (think a variation on “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”) was another miss for Meshel as a recording artist (WMCA spun it for a little while), but became a hit in the U.K. by David Garrick, who also cut Meshel’s “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon” (other versions: Lloyd Price – the original – on his short-lived stint on Reprise Records, the U.K. girl-band She Trinity, and the kazoo-based GoZoo Band on Columbia). “Valise” – I just can’t type it out again – tells the tale of poor Mary Lou, whose luggage fell into the hands of someone else, and what a shame, because it was packed for her honeymoon (a polka-dot dress, a bikini or two, a brand new strawberry hat, a pink chemise). Meshel’s biggest U.S. hit was Michele Lee’s “L. David Sloane” (in England, the single was by Kay Garner, and there was an instrumental 45 by the Electric Junkyard), a jaunty kiss-off: she just wants to be left alone so she isn’t tempted (“I’m at a point where my resistance can be destroyed by your insistence”). Lee’s LP also had her doing Meshel’s “I Didn’t Come to New York to Meet a Guy from My Hometown.”
It never occurred to me to buy The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel when it came out in 1969; it was difficult to figure out what it was. The cover was a photo of a schlubby Meshel sitting woefully in a park, eating a sandwich, one bench over from a happy couple. “Written and performed by Billy Meshel” didn’t ring any bells, the liner notes were kind of baffling. But a few days ago I was flipping (see what I did there?) through some vinyl at Academy and there it was. Now I knew “Loserville” (Dion & the Belmonts did it on their Together Again reunion album), “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” and I vaguely remembered “If You Could Put That in a Bottle” (I think the version by a group called The Minimum Daily Requirements, but maybe by John Davidson). When the single from A. Wilbur Meshel, “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” was issued in 1969, Billboard tipped it as “right in today’s sales market and it could prove a big one.” It wasn’t. “I’ve got to stand there,” Meshel sings, “while everybody calls her nasty, dirty names.” You can hear on his album touches of Nilsson, Biff Rose, Rupert Holmes, writers who twisted pop songs in whimsical, unexpected ways. It’s a shame I never poked my head into his office and asked him, “What on earth were you thinking?”