Frequency Response Test – A Public Service from Zero to 180

I would love to know just how many hi-fi enthusiasts back in vinyl’s heyday relied on stereo demonstration recordings to test the performance caliber of their stereo sound system.

Stereo Demonstration - 1

I get the sense that National Lampoon’s Ed Subitzky found this whole business of scrutinizing the quality of your stereo output across the 20-20,000 Hz audio spectrum to be a little dubious, as well as a rich source for mockery, and in 1974 – with assistance from John Belushi and Chevy Chase (among others) – released The Official National Lampoon Stereo Test and Demonstration Record.

One of the album tracks – “Frequency Response” – humorously incorporates audio test tones (e.g., 50 Hz) into a 70s “hippy rock” pastiche that proclaims “Stereo Demonstration” to be the “brand new rock sensation”:

Stereo Demo – Frequency Response = National Lampoon

[Test: Click on the triangle above to test the playback quality of your stereo sound system.]

National Lampoon Stereo Demonstration

“Bluebirds Over the Mountain”: Reggaebilly?

If you’re like me (someone who didn’t have access to YouTube growing up), you’re probably familiar with this iconic photo of rockabilly singer, Ersel Hickey, but maybe         not his big 1958 hit,  “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”:Ersel Hickey

Check out the loping guitar intro with the lead guitar and bass playing the melody line in harmony – sounds very much like rocksteady or early reggae … but a good 8 years before it was even invented!   Could this be the earliest (unintended) example of “pop reggae” in the American music marketplace?

I cannot take credit for coining the term “reggaebilly,” for that distinction goes to former Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys sideman, Peter Rowan, who released an album in 2001 bearing a title of the same name.

Mason Williams: Music + Comedy + Art

From David Bianculli’s book on the Smothers Brothers’ groundbreaking television variety show, I discovered that Mason Williams was much more than the guy who wrote the million-selling instrumental, “Classical Gas.”   Williams not only recorded albums for Warner Brothers (and Mercury & Vee Jay) but also wrote incisive and edgy sketches for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (as well as The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Roger Miller Show, and Saturday Night Live, et al.) and produced a couple clever pieces of conceptual art, most notably an actual-size photograph of a Greyhound bus in 1967.

That same year Williams released The Mason Williams Phonograph Record album with a cover photo that once again explored the intersection of art and Greyhound buses – one of the more intriguing album tracks is a composition in which Williams fuses “baroque” musical elements with a bossa nova backbeat and sunny syllables sung in classic West Coast fashion:

Mason Williams’ Bus Book was a strictly do-it-yourself affair that came packaged thusly:Mason Williams's Bus Book

“Vitamin L”: Musically Nutritious

I remember fondly the 1970s soap opera spoof, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman – cited by Wikipedia as “one of the biggest cult television shows of all time” and so named because show creator, Norman Lear, and his writers believed that “everything that was said on a soap opera was said twice.”

Mary Kay Place recorded a Grammy-nominated album, Tonite! At the Capri Lounge, Loretta Haggers, on which she sang as her Mary Hartman character.   Columbia released two singles from that Top 10 country album, both written by Mary Kay Place:  “Baby Boy” – which went to #60 on Billboard’s pop charts and #3 on the country charts in 1976 – and “Vitamin L” which made the country charts (#72) but not pop in 1977:

Vitamin L – Mary Kay Place

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play ”Vitamin L” by Mary Kay Place.]

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Lyrical excerpt:

Mama made me eat carrots ‘n’ hominy grits
Though I really felt disinclined
But she said they was packed with vitamin A
And if I didn’t that I’d go blind

She said, “Your skin’ll break out ‘n’ you’ll get beri-beri
‘Less you eat all them black-eyed peas
‘Cause them and the greens ‘n’ the lima beans
They all got Vitamin B

‘N’ you’ll get scurvy ‘less you eat them prunes
‘Cause they got vitamin C
Well then, c’mon outside ‘n’ play in the sun
Or get rickets from no vitamin D”

Well, I did what she said ‘n’ I ate what she asked
‘N’ for a while I felt real swell
But I sure wish Mama had told me back then
All about Vitamin L
Yeah, I sure wish Mama had a mentioned to me
All about Vitamin L

“Congratulations Baby”: Marriage as Payback

Doris Duke (the singer, not the tobacco heiress) is getting married out of spite, and frankly, I think she’s making a big mistake:

Doris Duke - I'm a Loser

This classic track is from 1969’s I’m a Loser – Doris’ first solo album after singing backup for the likes of Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Franklin, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis, Jr. among many others.

Album recorded & mixed at Capricorn Studios, Macon GA – with string overdub done in Philly.  Arranged & produced by Jerry Williams, Jr. (a.k.a., Swamp Dogg) with help from –

Piano:   Paul Hornsby & Jerry Williams, Jr.
Organ:   Paul Hornsby
Guitar:  Jesse Carr
Bass:    Robert Popwell
Drums:   Johnny Sandlin

Note:  Duane Allman did play on these sessions, as well, but not this particular tune.

Pop & Rock’s Latin Roots: “Cerveza”

The Drifters’ original 1961 version of “Sweet for My Sweets” has a distinct Latin feel – which brings to mind a piece of writing by Dave Marsh that I found to be illuminating some years ago, still do.

In his 1984 article for The Boston Phoenix – “Rock and Roll’s Latin Tinge” – Marsh recounts how, in his frustration over failed attempts to convince a colleague that Latin forms were, indeed, a significant factor in the evolution and development of rock and roll, he compiled (with the help of John Storm RobertsThe Latin Tinge) this somewhat detailed list of rock & roll’s Latin roots and influences:

+ Bo Diddley’s beat (derived from the mambo);

+ Professor Longhair’s piano rhythms, which extend to New Orleans pianists from Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint;

+ Chuck Willis’ “C.C. Rider” & Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” (both grounded in the rhumba);

+ The Drifters and their use of the Brazilian baiao rhythm;

+ Ritchie Valens (whose big hit, “La Bamba” was a Mexican folk song);

+ “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, a band of Chicano migrant workers;

+ “Land of 1000 Dances,” both because Chris Kenner was a Longhair disciple and because Cannibal & the Headhunters, who did the best version of the song, were Chicanos from East LA;

+ Surf music, whose entire guitar style, the raison d’etre of the form, can be said to derive from “Malaguena” and similar Mexican-American standards;

+ The Premiers’ “Farmer John,” an impeccable frat-rocker written and performed by another East LA band;

+ Such doowop groups as The Teenagers and Harptones, all of which had key Latin members;

+ The Sir Douglas Quintet and the rest of the Tex-Mex bands;

+ The boogaloo (based on the Latin bugalu, which was popularized in 1966 by Joe Cuba’s instrumental version of “Bang Bang”);

+ Santana (Woodstock’s breakout stars who famously fused rock and Latin American music);

+ War’s low-rider rock and its trickle-down effect on Stevie Wonder’s midseventies records;

+ The slick psychedelicized salsa of Earth, Wind & Fire during their “Serpentine Fire” period;

+ And finally the disco movement, which continues to adapt Caribbean rhythmic accents and arrangements.

 

In 1958 one Latin-flavored instrumental went to the top of the pop and R&B charts – “Tequila” by The Champs.  What a long and healthy life that song has lived, as indicated by the number of cover versions on Wikipedia (e.g., George Benson having recently visited the tune on 2011’s Guitar Man).   Of course, there were near-covers, as well, such as “Cerveza” by trumpeter Shorty Rogers using the alias, Boots Brown.

“Cerveza”     Boots Brown & His Blockbusters     1958

The Accidental Hit

“Tequila” was written by Dan Flores (the one who also played the “dirty” sax solo), but because he was already under contract with another label, the songwriting credit is attributed to alter ego, Chuck Rio.  “Tequila,” however was originally a fun jam song that was recorded impromptu at the end of a recording session at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios for Dave Burgess (a rockabilly artist under contract to Gene Autry’s Challenge label) by his backing musicians.  The song was originally the B-side to Dave Burgess’ “Train to Nowhere” – a single that was (ironically, perhaps) not going anywhere until DJs began playing the flip side, thus making “Tequila” the first pop instrumental to hit number 1 on the Billboard charts (and, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “the first instrumental group to go to the top spot with its first release”).  What’s funny is that “The Champs” didn’t exist until this song unexpectedly blew up large, at which point one had to be created in order to tour off the success of that song’s sales.Latin-America

“Sweets for My Sweet”: Unattributed Artist

Imagine browsing through a bunch of old records and finding a cover whose only text was a title – “Bubble Rock is Here to Stay” – and an encircled statement that whimsically declared, “There is no artiste on this album – the songs are the stars.”  Bubble Rock - 1972

Only when you pull the vinyl out of its sleeve does the album actually give an artist attribution:  Jonathan King.   I knew from endless youthful readings of Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever that Jonathan King was a “pop-star-turned-pundit” who was one of the lone voices of opposition to the Beatles’ groundbreaking 1966 album, Revolver, dismissing much of it as “pseudo-intellectual rubbish.”  The previous year, King had had a big international hit with “Everybody’s Gone to the Moon.”

With 1972’s Bubble Rock Is Here to Stay, it would appear that King has attempted to recast classic pop & rock tunes in new and fresh settings – as indicated on the liner notes:

The multi-million sellers – as never heard before.  Fabulous old wines in beautiful new bottles!  Would you believe ‘Rock Around the Clock Waltz’?  Would you imagine ‘Twist and Shout’ with a string quartet?  Have you heard ‘It’s My Party’ gay and heavy?  ‘The Wanderer’ rocking with violin and mouth organ?  ‘Have I the Right?’ guitar freakout and ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ rock and roll?  ‘Reflections’ squashed into the ‘Whole Lotta Love’ bass riff?  ‘It’s Over” as a whispered instrumental; ‘Sweets for My Sweets’ – pounding drums, fuzz bass and swinging violins; ‘Rain and Tears’ (the European giant) with organ and mandolin.”

“Sweets for My Sweets” – the album track with the most commercial potential – is a Pomus & Shuman song originally made famous in 1961 by The Drifters:

Sweets for My Sweet

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Sweets for My Sweet” by unattributed artist]

Love the Flub:   Musical Bloopers

Sometimes a mistake left in the mix can lend a refreshing human-ness to the listening experience – as on “Sweets for My Sweet,” where the fuzz bassist flubs the note near the fade out (around the 1:53 mark) but does a decent job of covering his mistake.  Other fun moments of imperfection in pop recording history include –

“I’m Gonna Love You Too” by Buddy Holly & the Crickets:  you can actually hear, er, crickets chirping at the very end of the song (around the 2:09 mark).

“Wendy” by The Beach Boys:  during an instrumental break you can hear someone cough (at the 1:19 mark).

“He’s a Doll” by The Honeys:  you don’t need a music degree to hear the flubbed drum break (at the 1:00 mark) that immediately follows the first chorus – would you be stunned to discover that the culprit is none other than legendary session drummer, Hal Blaine?

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War:  the fluffed note in the keyboard intro (0:02) is so obvious and so easily re-doable – and yet they decided to keep it.  Fascinating.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beatles:  during the instrumental coda near the end of the song, bassist Paul overshoots the note by two frets (at the 4:23 mark) but disguises the flubbed note in such a way that most probably have no idea it’s there.

“With Your Love” by Jefferson Starship:  toward the end of this upbeat ballad (around the 2:37 mark), bassist Pete Sears defies convention by playing a G against an F Major 7 chord – a “mistake” that I would sorely miss should the band unwisely decide to correct through some sort of digital trickery.

“Louie Louie”: Languid, Listless

One year after Stu Phillips recorded a spectacularly soporific reading of “Tired of Waiting for You,” The Sandpipers released a similarly sluggish take on the garage rock classic, “Louie Louie” – it, too, makes me laugh:

Were Stu Phillips and The Sandpipers part of a mid-60s “torp pop” trend?

Louie Louie EPWhat’s in a Name:  The Sandpipers – whose 1966 debut A&M single, “Guantanamera” was a Top 10 smash – had unknowingly appropriated the same name as a trio of Pensacola, Florida girls who enjoyed musical backing from a young Duane & Gregg Allman (as The Allman Joys) when they auditioned for Columbia in 1965 with Bob Dylan’s then-producer, Bob Johnston.  Spectropop has the back story – with photos.

The Most Literal Cover Version Ever

I remember having a good laugh the first time I listened to Stu Phillips’ ever-so-sleepy arrangement of the Kinks’ classic, “Tired of Waiting for You”:

The original Kinks hit was recorded in late 1964 and released January 1965 in the UK (one month later in the US).  Stu Phillips, interestingly, arranged and recorded his version just three months later on May 21st.  I am struck by the dichotomy between the swiftness of his response and the torpor of his results:

This “torp pop” approach will be re-examined in Zero to 180’s next piece on The Sandpipers.

Stu Phillips

Could this sort of “languid pop” have set the stage for future indie subgenre, “slowcore“?

Nina Simone & Richie Havens Each Extol the Sun

I was sorry to learn of the passing of Richie Havens, whose legendary performance as the opening act of Woodstock was so riveting – in no small part due to the sheer physicality and novelty of Havens using his considerable thumb as a moving capo, holding down all six strings of his openly-tuned guitar as he chorded up and down the neck of the guitar.

My Richie Havens music library, unfortunately, consists of exactly one song, “Minstrel from Gault” – from Ronco’s aforementioned Do It Now “music collage” album.  However, a recent vinyl purchase – Nina Simone’s 1971 RCA album, Here Comes the Sun – led to the discovery that she and Richie Havens each did a great job of interpreting the classic Abbey Road track that George Harrison had famously written one day while “playing hooky” from an Apple Records business meeting:

“Here Comes the Sun”     Nina Simone     1971

Compare Nina’s version with Richie Havens’ which went to #16 in the pop charts in 1971 – his only charting single, interestingly:

“Here Comes the Sun”     Richie Havens     1971

Intrigued to learn that even though “Here Comes the Sun” was a radio staple, this song was never released as a single – instead, that distinction went to George’s other great Abbey Road contribution, “Something,”  his first ever A-side.

Thanks, EMI:

According to Wikipedia, “astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan had wanted [the original Beatles version of “Here Comes the Sun”] to be included on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were attached to both spacecraft of the Voyager program to provide any entity that recovered them a representative sample of human civilization. Although the Beatles favored the idea, EMI refused to release the rights and when the probes were launched in 1977 the song was not included.”

EMI was justifiably concerned about the possibility of aliens bootlegging and profiting from a song that had been a worldwide radio smash back on the home planet.