Q: Who’s the Swingin’est Dolly?

Answer:  Swingy.


I picked up a flexi-disc at the local thrift store, just like the ones kids used to cut out of the back of cereal boxes back when “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies was burning up the charts (click here for a discography of “cereal box records” by those tireless scholars at Bubblegum University).  Except this flexi-disc came pre-cut.  And it likely was among the first pop recordings to be included as part of the packaging of a baby doll – in this case, Mattel’s head-swiveling life of the party, Swingy  [TV ad].

Not a bad tune for bubblegum, I have to admit, and it features some nifty 12-string fingerpicking in the bridge.  But for some unfathomable reason, the song nearly clocks in at 5 minutes – twice the length it should have been.  Fortunately, I have mixed a 2:15 version of this recording that better suits the attention span of the desired demographic for this product:

Swingy – The Mattel All-Stars

[Note:  Click on the triangle above to play the “Swingy” flexi-disc recording.]

But wait – there’s more to the story.  “Swingy,” the song, as one astute YouTube observer points out, is a faithful remake of Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Mr. Sun Mr. Moon” (#18 pop hit in March 1969) on Columbia – albeit with a new lyrical concept.  No wonder the flexi-disc says “Columbia Special Products” on the label:  CBS Records creatively leveraging its musical assets to tap new markets – i.e., preschool rockers.

The Great American Songbook – Southern California Style

Last year in Philadelphia I picked up a 2-LP various artists compilation (of “previously released material”) called California U.S.A. – originally issued in 1981 on Columbia:

California U.S.A.

Surprisingly, my buddy, Tom – a gifted record collector – had never heard of it.  This hodgepodge of 60s & 70s singles/rarities that originally came out on Columbia/Epic (save one) is unified by a connection to sunny California and its association with the beach, surfing, and fast cars.  I was amused to see that one of the songs in this collection was written in 1851:  “Swanee River.”   Why, you may ask, would a minstrel song that is the official state song of Florida (and better known as “Old Folks at Home” or, more accurately, “Suwannee River”)  be included in a California-themed compilation?

Produced & Arranged by Tony Rivers

Answer:  This fresh and original take on Stephen Foster’s crusty classic is pure 70s sunshine/power pop that only could have come from Southern California (or, even better, a UK band clearly besotted with the Beach Boy ideal of Southern California and its lush harmony vocal tradition) – the pastoral “middle eight” section, in particular, being an arrangement straight out of Brian Wilson’s long lost (though recently found) Smile album:

“Swanee River”     (Tony Rivers &) Fresh     1972

My uncle Chuck might be intrigued to know that this double album also includes “No Surf in Cleveland” by the Euclid Beach Band – a misnomer of a lyric, actually, since not only do Cleveland surfers exist, but they also believe “they are the last remnants of the original surf culture of the 1940s & 50s, when surfing was still a renegade sport of social misfits who scouted virgin breaks, surfed alone, and lived by a code of friendliness to newcomers and respect for the water.”

Pioneering Pop: The Melodica on Record

July 2020 Update:  Click here for the latest info

You may not know the melodica by name, but you might have seen one or, more likely, heard one at some point in your life.  Essentially, the melodica is a wind-powered keyboard that sounds much like a harmonica:


Wikipedia tells me that the “modern version” of the melodica (also known as the “pianica” or “blow organ”) was invented by Hohner in the 1950s, although its more primitive forebears go back to 19th-century Italy, apparently.

I first encountered the instrument in the 1980s during college via Joe Jackson’s ska-inflected “Pretty Boys” and the great side-two opening track off New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies album, “Your Smiling Face.”  Around the same time, someone lent me an album by Augustus Pablo, a dub reggae musician and producer who almost single-handedly popularized the melodica and inspired others to see it as something beyond simply being a “kiddie instrument.”

Wikipedia also tells me that composer, Steve Reich, was the first to use the melodica as a “serious” musical instrument on his 1966 composition entitled, “Melodica” (which would be released 20 years later on the 3-LP compilation of experimental works, Music from Mills, by Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Ramon Sender, among many others.).  Fortunately, serious music is outside the scope of this blog — and besides, as the person behind the electronic music blog, Orpheus Music, even admits, Reich’s piece is “certainly not among [his] better works”.

Moreover, I have discovered another musical artist who committed the melodica to tape around the same time as Reich but utilized the instrument within a composition that was aimed at a broader audience.  Who, you might ask, first pushed the boundaries of pop to include the lowly melodica?

Cover art for GERMAN market

Bee Gees LP - Germany

Incredibly, it’s The Bee Gees.  Their second album – originally released in Australia in 1966 under the title, Monday’s Rain (later Spicks and Specks, but repackaged here in the States as Rare, Precious & Beautiful on Atco) – includes a catchy, Beatles-y composition, “Tint of Blue,” that features an instrumental break whose haunting melody is played on the melodica:

“Tint of Blue”     The Bee Gees     1966

The first person who can find a melodica on a pop recording prior to 1966 wins the lucky two-dollar bill that I keep in my wallet.

ARGENTINA CASH-IN LP (with pugilistic cover concept) that includes “Tinte de Azul”

Bee Gees vs Beatles LP I - Argentina

¡UPDATE!  Click on link to November 29, 2017 melodica piece

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In Hindsight, the Lawsuit Was Inevitable

One of my favorite (and affordable) ways of discovering music is trawling for vinyl at local secondhand shops.  Of course, you have to wade through a lot of Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith to find something worthwhile, but that’s part of the fun – and adventure.  It’s not uncommon to find boxed sets in excellent condition, such as this 6-LP offering by Columbia that I picked up for 5 bucks:

Country Box Set

At this point I need to stop and ask:  do you remember where you were when you first learned that George Harrison lost a major court battle, having been found to have “unconsciously” plagiarized the melody of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” for his 1970-71 worldwide smash, “My Sweet Lord“?  When I first learned of the charges, I was pretty outraged on George’s behalf and took George at his word when he professed his innocence.  I thought the accusation was a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly, and a naked attempt to shake down an ex-Beatle for a big payday.  I realize now I had been blinded by Beatle love.

Apparently, others noticed the melodic similarity between the two tunes, such as the dobro player who backed Jody Miller on her 1971 country pop cover version of “He’s So Fine” – one of the songs on the 6-LP box set that caught my ear.  Nice intro, great arrangement, crisp guitar lines – and humorous incorporation of George’s distinctive slide guitar part from “My Sweet Lord”:

“He’s So Fine”     Jody Miller     1971

Most fascinatingly – as Chip Madinger & Mark Easter point out in Eight Arms to Hold You:  The Solo Beatles Compendium – Phil Spector, the master of the early 60s “girl group” sound and the producer who spun the dials for “My Sweet Lord,” failed to notice the similiarity.  Which I think qualifies as ironic.

As Rolling Stone points out, the resulting lawsuit – filed in 1971 and litigated until 1998 – makes it “one of the longest legal skirmishes in American history.”

The Real Cincinnati Kid

This blog’s first post is a tip of the hat to my hometown, Cincinnati, and the record label  that recorded the rhythm & blues and hillbilly bop that helped give birth to rock and roll — King Records.

In 1965 King’s most famous and influential artist, James Brown (along with The Famous Flames) ushered in the new funk with the landmark 45, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”  That same year Steve McQueen starred as The Cincinnati Kid, a professional gambler in 1930s New Orleans, who challenges the reigning poker champ to a big match in a film that featured music composed by Ray Charles.

Cincinnati Kid - Prince BusterThe following year saw the release of a tune also bearing the title, “Cincinnati Kid,” but musically and lyrically being something else altogether.  Instead Prince Buster, one of the leading lights of the Jamaican rocksteady sound, slyly calls out praise and respect to the “real” Cincinnati Kid – James Brown – (without actually naming him) in a particularly funky track for 1966 that clearly shows the influence of the new sound being laid down in a recording studio on Brewster Avenue (that still stands) in the Evanston neighborhood of Cincinnati across I-71 from my old high school.  The Cincinnati-Kingston connection.  There you have it – listen for yourself:

“Cincinnati Kid”      Prince Buster     1966