“Desiree”: 30 Hours in the Making

I met John Simson around the time Zero to 180 had first hung out a shingle and was grappling with its mission and scope.  After explaining the website’s concept to Simson, I remember asking if he might suggest any overlooked songs worthy of celebration.  Much later, I would learn the depth of Simson’s involvement in DC’s multi-faceted music scene over the last few decades, in the course of pulling together first one and then another long-form tribute to Silver Spring recording studio, Track Recorders.  It’s probably a good thing that I waited until I had more experience under my belt before following up on Simson’s recommendation, though a part of me still needs to ask:  What took me so long to examine the back story behind “Desiree” by The Left Banke?

For one thing, digitization efforts in recent years have increased access to music industry publications, such as Billboard and Cashbox, making it easier to piece together history from primary sources.  Thanks to a tip from 45Cat contributor davie gordon, anyone with web access can read Claude Hall‘s original front page story from the September 2, 1967 edition of Billboard, “Long Sessions Required for ‘Serious’ Pop,” in which we learn that “the Left Banke just spent more than 30 hours in planning and producing their new single – ‘Desiree’ – for Mercury Records.”

“Desiree”     The Left Banke     1967

Charlie Fach, director of record product for the label,” notes Hall (who coined the term, easy listening), “thought this set a record for the firm, but considers the group ‘the most creative act in our corporate history.”

Given the considerable time and expense that went into this song, 45Cat contributor RecordDragon rightly asks, “Does a true stereo version of the A-side exist?”  Sadly, that does not appear to be the case, at least judging from streaming audio available on YouTube, not to mention the LP label itself  [see image further down the page].

Rear text of 45 picture sleeve:

“Putting it rather mildly, you are about to listen to a major achievement.  The Left Banke (and this is the same Left Banke that gave you “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina“) has created a masterpiece.  Dozens of hours in the recording studio have resulted in this, their greatest creation — “Desiree.”  Since their first record, the avowed policy of the Banke has been that each successive record must be better than the last.  A lofty goal, yes; but one that they definitely have reached.  Much of the success lies with Michael Brown, who has quit performing with the group to devote his full energies to composing-producing-arranging for the Left Banke.  The other reasons are Steve Martin, Rick Brand, Tom Finn, and George Cameron.  Listen carefully.  You’ll begin to wonder how they’ll outdo themselves the next time.”

Music historian (and member of St. Etienne) Bob Stanley, in his appreciation of the Left Banke’s recorded legacy for the 20 March 2015 edition of The Guardian, bitterly notes the group’s cleaving into two factions (“one of the most pointless and depressing scraps in pop history”) that resulted in the simultaneous release of two singles in 1967 [“Ivy Ivy” vs. “She May Call You Up Tonight“], both bearing the name, Left Banke.  By the time Michael Brown had rejoined the group in late 1967, “the momentum was lost.”  Futhermore —

The real tragedy of this was that the Left Banke then released arguably their greatest single, Desiree.  Urgent strings played “Eleanor Rigby” line at double speed, a bassoon was used as percussive counterpoint.  There was a booming brass bridge – or is it a first chorus? – of Wagnerian import before massed harmonies sang out the title.  “Desiree” was a masterpiece; it dared radio not to play it, laughed at contemporaneous efforts like the Stones’ Satanic Majesties and the Beatles’ lightweight “Hello Goodbye“, urged other groups to follow its lead, and then peaked at No 98 in November 1967.

Oh, dear:  Label says, “Electronically re-recorded to simulate stereo”

Simson himself — in a Zero to 180 exclusive — provides additional historical context:

One of my band mates from my high school band, the Valhalla Chemists, was a member of Stories, a great early 70’s band that Mike Brown started with Ian Lloyd, my good friend, Steve Love and drummer Brian Madey (Brian and Steve were my rhythm section when I opened for Jethro Tull in 1971 [debut album released]).  Their first record had a Beatlesque single, “I’m Coming Home” that did fair, but the follow up album had some amazing tracks on it and was not doing well so the label forced them to cover a big hit in England by Hot Chocolate called “Brother Louie” and it was a number 1 smash.  Mike Brown hated it and left the band. 

Mike then produced another version of ‘Desiree’ in 1976 (I think) with a group called Montage, and it was a pretty faithful version to the original Left Banke.  The Banke played my High School in 1967 and did a great version of “A Day in the Life” in addition to their repertoire.

44 years after the song bubbled under the Top 100, “Desiree” would finally receive proper recognition when performed by The Left Banke, with NYU’s All University Choir, Drama Cantorum, on December 10, 2011 (thanks to Music Director, Ralph Affoumado, for uploading this video):

“Desiree”     The Left Banke + NYU’s All University Choir, Drama Cantorum     2011

Pop Music Time Capsule
Excerpt from Billboard‘s Sept. 2, 1967 “Serious Pop” feature article

The talk of the industry is the amount of time spent in the studio — and the astronomical studio costs that have resulted — by the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  But other long hours inside studio walls have been chalked up by such artists as Oscar Toney Jr., Aretha Franklin, The Youngbloods, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Music Explosion, the Mothers of Invention, and Simon and Garfunkel, just to name a few

The first Aretha Franklin hit — “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” — took almost three days of work in a Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio.  Papa Don Schroeder, independent producer, said it took 23 hours in a studio to come up with “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify and 27 hours for “Shake a Tail Feather.”  Felix Pappalardi, who produced an album by the Cream recently in New York for Atlantic Records, said it took six hours to do “Strange Brew,” a big British hit.

45 – Italy                                                      EP – Portugal

The reason that it is taking longer to produce records, according to MGM Records producer Tom Wilson is that the record business today is an “intensely creative business.”  Songwriters are trying to say more and the producers and performers are trying to say more in their records.  Any record by the Mothers of Invention takes two weeks to record and two weeks to edit, he said.  And this occurs in spite of the fact that Frank Zappa, leader of the group, sometimes writes out a full script to an album, so the group knows exactly what it’s doing.

At the Monterey Pop Festival, Simon and Garfunkel said they’d been working 51 hours on their current single — “Fakin’ It.”  At that point, they had not finished the record.

45 – France                  45 – Netherlands                         45 – Italy

The Beatles freed everybody, Wilson said.  “And many people don’t realize what fantastic musical growth there has been in a group like the Beach Boys.  Motown product never stays the same, each new record is a little different, a little more sophisticated.”

Innovation is the key element.  Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell taped the sound of a kettle drum backward to get a unique sound on their production of a recent Tommy James and the Shondells hit.  And this is one of the reasons, Wilson felt, why Bob Crewe is such a great producer.  “If he hears a bluebird flying by the window, he’ll stick a microphone out and record it and use it on a record if he likes the sound.”

Records are becoming more and more an art form, says Pappalardi, who has produced records by the Cream, the Youngbloods, the Vagrants and others.  “There’s a great deal of thought put into a record before ever going into a studio, then you’re constantly fighting in the studio to reach your ideal.  I try to get the absolutely best production every time and expect the B side to be as good as the A side.  The time for throwing away the B side is past.”  He said he already spent six hours in the studio with “Sparrow Tune” by Bo Grumpus and hasn’t finished the session yet.

While studio costs have gone up, because many groups do their experimenting in front of a mike, recording costs as a whole have not gone any higher than in previous years, said Wilson.  The reason is that most of the music is made by a small group today; whereas in the old days a record company had to hire 30-35 musicians for a session.

1967:  Year of the Guitar-Phonograph Combo

Just below the fold in that same September 2, 1967 issue of Billboard is an oddball item that almost escaped unnoticed:  “Phono-Guitar Combo Hits.”  Ray Brack reports:

“The hottest phonograph promotional gimmick to emerge with the 1968 lines is the offering of low-priced portable phonograph-guitar combinations.  Three companies are making available this package, guitar and phonograph included, for about $100.  Several other phonograph manufacturers have models with jacks capable of accepting amplified guitar input.”

What prompted this innovation is “the realization that the millions of guitar players in the U.S. do most of their learning by listening to records.”

Earliest Recording of a Melodica?

One of Zero to 180’s earliest pieces (from 2012) concerned itself with documenting the earliest recording of a melodica (i.e., keyboard version of a harmonica), and 1966 seems to be year to beat in this regard, with the composer, Steve Reich, as well as future pop giants, The Bee Gees, having both committed the melodica to tape that same year.

This summer on a long road trip, I was enjoying a CD compilation of rare 45s and obscure album tracks that had been thoughtfully assembled by musician/scholar, Joe Goldmark, (and partner at San Francisco’s legendary Amoeba Records), when I was startled to hear a 1960s recording of South African township jive that includes a melodica!

“Ice Cream and Suckers (pts. 1 & 2)”     Soweto Stokvel Septette     1966?

Incredibly, when you search the entire Discogs database for recordings by the group, Soweto Stokvel Septette, only one item turns up:  a various artists LP release issued on the Mercury label for US distribution entitled Ice Cream & Suckers:  South African Soul, and which features the title track, parts one and two (stitched together in the mix above).

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-aZero to 180 is impressed with Mercury’s receptiveness to the exciting new sounds coming out of South Africa at that particular time in the 1960s (20 years or so before Paul Simon’s Graceland album) — only question is exactly when?  Before 1966, possibly?

Here’s a clue:  this 4-star review in Billboard‘s April 19, 1969 edition.  However, this description for an online auction sale pegs the album as being a 1966 LP release!  Curiously (or not), the description for this online auction sale approximates the release date to be “c. 1966,” while Lyon, France’s Sofa Records also understands the album’s year of release as 1966.

Assuming this is true, can we necessarily assume that Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded their two-part title track in 1966?  In other words, was the recording made the previous year or even earlier?  The back cover liner notes (courtesy of ElectricJive), unfortunately, do not shed light in this regard.  Nevertheless, “Ice Cream and Suckers” is now, at the very least, part of a three-way tie for earliest melodica recording.

Double-click on image below to view liner notes at maximum resolution

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-cc

One other supporting clue:  Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded a 45 of “South African ska” that also happened to be released in 1966, according to this vendor.

Soweto Stokvel Septette 45Zero to 180, you might recall, put Joe Goldmark’s music research to good use when its staff compiled a special list of King-related steel guitar releases from Joe’s landmark work, The International Steel Guitar and Dobro Discography.

International Steel Guitar - Dobro DiscographyZero to 180 history pieces related to the steel guitar

Ian McLagan’s Reggae Bump

I still wish I had those post-it notes my brother Bryan made when I was 11 that helpfully pointed me to (1) which Jimi Hendrix albums to seek out (e.g., Electric Ladyland) and (2) which ones to avoid (e.g., Midnight Lightning).  Decades later I would make the accidental and hilarious discovery that Jimi Hendrix — who took a playful swipe at surf music in his groundbreaking composition, “Third Stone from the Sun” — and obscure “beach music” artist, Robert Ray Whitely, would both release songs entitled “1983the very same year.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a Big Brother’s (and Big Sister’s Day) so we could thank our older siblings for all their musical guidance and encouragement?

This past week I had the chance to reread Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life (which my mother-in-law recently passed along), and somehow I only just now learned that keyboardist Ian McLagan was part of The New Barbarians, a rather unlikely musical aggregation that brought together Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Keys, and McLagan, with legendary instrumentalists, Stanley Clarke and JosephZigabooModeliste — but only for a single tour and without producing any recordings.  [Not completely true:   I would later learn that McLagan was able to rally the group into Zuma Beach’s Shangri-La recording studio at the conclusion of the tour to lay down their 12-minute take on “Truly” by The Cimarrons – according to the BBC, the UK’s “first self-contained indigenous” reggae group.]

[L to R:  McLagan, Wood, Keys, Modeliste, Richards, Clarke]

New BarbariansNot too many years ago, brother Bryan had given me an autographed CD of Ian McLagan‘s second and final album for Mercury, 1981’s Bump in the Night, upon which Ian had written “Hi Chris, this one’s for Steve & Ronnie” (Marriott and Lane, undoubtedly — former comrades-in-arms in The Small Faces).  Tight-fisted Mercury would only allow one single for McLagan’s first album and none for its follow-up; nevertheless, if I were in charge, “Not RunninAway” would be my choice for the A-side:

“Not Runnin’ Away”      Ian McLagan     1981

Guitar, Keyboards & Lead Vocals:  Ian McLagan
Bass:  Ricky Fataar
Drums & Vocals:  Ricky Fataar
Lead Guitar & Vocals:  Johnny Lee Schell
Horns:  Bobby Keys

I’m happy to report that McLagan’s memoir All the Rage is, as widely reported, immensely good fun.  And also informative:  Phil Chen who we encountered last week, as one of the principal producers at UK early reggae label, Doctor Bird – would also be a dear friend of McLagan going back to the early 1960s, as recalled in All the Rage:

“Thanks to the constant barrage of phone calls to agents and bookers, we got to play at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, Soho, quite a few times, opening for Graham Bond or Gary Farr and the T-Bones, or, more usually, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, whose bass player Phil Chen is still my old mate.  The Jamaican Chinaman or Chinese Jamaican, whichever way you look at him, never seems to get any older, or like me, any taller.  Years later he toured with Rod Stewart and in 1979, joined the New Barbarians for our final gig at Knebworth in England.”

Ian-McLaganSadly, McLagan, a long-time resident of Austin, Texas, left us December 3, 2014.

Lucky Ladybug:  Still Reigning Champ — First Use of Phasing?

McLagan’s remarks in All the Rage on the use of phasing in Small Faces’ classic “Itchycoo Park” immediately brought to mind Zero to 180’s piece from July, 2013 about the first use of phasing in a popular recording and whether (a) 1959’s “The Big Hurt” by Miss Toni Fisher – as Rhino claims in its Nuggets II box set (and McLagan concurs) – or (b) November, 1958‘s “Lucky Ladybug” by Billy and Lillie – as Zero to 180 asserts – was the first to employ this futuristic sound effect.  At the very beginning of the song is where you can most easily hear the phasing effect, which is especially pronounced on the cleaned-up/remastered version on CD.

Billy & Lillie promo

“Operation X”: Top-Secret Trucker Tune

Dave Dudley’s earliest recordings go back to King Records, interestingly — six sides altogether, with three written by Dudley and one co-written with Louis Innis.  Dudley would record for a handful of small labels before being signed to Mercury in the wake of “Six Days on the Road” and its breakout success (in retrospect, his first & last Top 40 pop hit).

Dudley, of course, recorded other material besides truck-driving tunes, such as these back-to-back singles released in 1965/66 – “What We’re Fighting For” & “Vietnam Blues” – the first written by Tom T. Hall and the second by up-and-comer, Kris Kristofferson.  But within the world of trucker music, “Operation X” stands apart in one important respect:  this is the only truck driving song (at least, that I know of) written about the Korean War:

“Operation X” from 1965 Mercury LP, Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun

Those famously percussive guitar riffs are being popped off by Jimmy Colvard, no doubt — and yet nowhere is his name in these credits from the indispensable LP Discography:

Jerry Kennedy:  Guitar & Dobro
Harold Bradley & Ray Edenton:  Guitar
Pete Drake:  Steel Guitar
Bob Moore:  Bass
Buddy Harman:  Drums
HargusPigRobbins:  Piano
Recorded:  March, 1965 – Columbia Studios – Nashville

Well as long as there’s a truck I won’t forget
Korea and Operation X.

I won’t forget the year of ’54
I drove a truck in that Korean war.
Haulin’ GI’s to the front and back
In a truck they called Deuce and a half.
The others called it Operation X
We had to move in just an hour or less.

First ethanol and maintenance that was all
And there were twenty men I had to haul.
That south Korean sky was smoky black
I was third in convoy from the back.
But twenty minutes out they hit the nail
It was mortar they were sendin’ in the mail.

We’ll scatter out and find a hole they said
Cause Operation X is catchin’ lead.
I wheeled into a side road to the left
Drivin’ to an almost certain death.
I heard the steady screepin’ of the shells
The burnin’ powder sent a deadly smell.

And it happened as I pulled into a stop
They hit us and I blacked out from the shock.
Somehow I got back to the States alive
And now I got another rig to drive.
My bumper sign says “Operation X”
It’s there ’cause I’m the only one that’s left.

“Operation X” was written by – who else? – Tom T. Hall.  Is it wrong of me to point out that by 1954, the United States had ceased combat in the Korean War (says the State of New Jersey’s website:  “On July 27, 1953, the Armistice was signed, and all fighting stopped”)?

“Summertime’s Another Name for Love”: Pizzicato in Pop

Chicago’s New Colony Six released seven singles on the Mercury label from 1967-1970. “Summertime’s Another Name for Love,”  from 1968’s Revelations album, sounds like an obvious A-side to me – and yet it ended up being the B-side to “Can’t You See Me Cry.”

I especially enjoy the tantalizingly brief pizzicato passage in the song’s instrumental coda — as you will, too:

“Summertime’s Another Name for Love”     New Colony Six     1968

 

Released June 6, 1968, the single spent eight weeks on the Billboard pop chart, having climbed to the #52 spot at its peak.

New Colony Six 45

“BluEmmons”: Landmark Steel Guitar Jazz

Just as Louis Jordan’s pairing of jump blues with country-style steel guitar was seen as a radical move in 1947, Buddy Emmons’ decision to feature his masterful steel guitar stylings within a modern jazz context was considered equally bold in 1963 when Mercury released groundbreaking album, Steel Guitar Jazz.

“Bluemmons”     Buddy Emmons     1963

“BluEmmons” – a Buddy Emmons original – is the album’s kick-off track.

Buddy vs. Buddie?   Only his mother knows.

Steel Guitar Jazz LP“Buddy Emmons wasn’t the first musician to be featured playing a pedal steel guitar in a jazz setting, but it is unlikely that anyone else recorded an entire date playing one prior to this 1963 session.  Although both he and the instrument are indelibly associated with country music, Emmons makes it work for several reasons.  He’s surrounded by some top players, including Bobby Scott, Jerome Richardson, Art Davis, and Charlie Persip; he also interacts with the band rather than overdoing the special effects available to him, especially the horn-like sounds obtained from his use of the slide.  Emmons also chose an intriguing mix of material.  Obvious highlights are the loping treatment of “Where or When,” featuring Richardson’s delicious soprano sax trading off with the leader, and Emmons’ hot playing of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.”  Equally rewarding are the jazz classics:  Ray Brown’s soulful “Gravy Waltz,” an intricate romp through Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” and Horace Silver’s toe-tapping “The Preacher.”  This was pretty much a one-time affair for Emmons, who returned to country music, though he did record some additional jazz with guitarist Lenny Breau during the 1970s.  Although the instrument never really caught on in jazz, this highly recommended album, which was finally reissued on CD in 2003, is well worth checking out.”    —    Ken Dryden, All Music

Musical Roll Call – Special Trucker’s Edition: “There Ain’t No Easy Run”

Dave Dudley and Tom T. Hall collaborated on a musical roll call that cleverly pays tribute to the rich tapestry of American trucking firms that happened to be in existence as of December 1967 when this song was recorded and subsequently released on Dudley’s 1968 Mercury album, Thanks for All the Miles:

There Ain’t No Easy Run – Dave Dudley

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “There Ain’t No Easy Run” by Dave Dudley.]

[The above audio clip taken from a special all-trucking edition of Charlie Coleman‘s Classic Country that was guest selected by Zero to 180 alter ego, The Dieselbilly Kid.]

There Ain’t No Easy Run” was a Top 10 country hit, while the album made the Top 40 on the country charts.

Dave Dudley - Thanks for All the Miles

Musician and recording credits for this album – although isn’t that Jimmy Colvard (“Six Days on the Road”) playing his distinctive brand of percussive lead guitar?

Jerry Kennedy - guitar/dobro
Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, Jerry Shook, Chip Young - guitar
Pete Drake - steel
Bob Moore - bass
Buddy Harman - drums
Hargus Pig Robbins - piano
Recorded:
December 1967 - Columbia Recording Studio - Nashville