The Four Tops took a turn for the topical on their 1969 Motown LP, Soul Spin, an album that included this very tuneful track – “Barbara’s Boy” – about the psychological impact of uncertainty over paternity issues in the wake of a failed romantic entanglement:
There’s an interesting moment around the 2:24 mark where the song changes key twice in quick succession — by the sound of it I can’t help but wonder if the tape engineer might have manually sped up the master tape to achieve that effect. Am I just hearing things?
In 1975 – the same year Gusto Records acquired Starday-King Records from Tennessee Recording & Publishing – Gusto released an album entitled Freddy Fender: Recorded Inside Louisiana State Prison. I suspect Gusto might have been trying to capitalize on the popularity (as well as notoriety) of Johnny Cash’s prison albums of the late 60s in addition to Fender’s then current chart success for the ABC/Dot label.
What’s really strange about the record is that it sounds absolutely nothing like a prison concert, as there is a complete absence of crowd noise. Not a speck of applause. Neither a whoop nor a holler. Why is that? Freddy Fender might have been approaching his commercial peak in the mid-70s, however, as it turns out, these recordings were made in 1962 – at a time when he was being incarcerated for illegal drug possession. Which begs the obvious question: did the Louisiana State Prison have an in-house studio where this recording was made?
Village Queen – Freddy Fender
[Pssst: Click on the triangle above to play “Village Queen” as sung by Freddy Fender.]
It’s humorous the way the liner notes awkwardly dance around this issue – essentially bolting from the room after finally (and obliquely) admitting that Freddy was not an honored guest but rather a resident member of the Louisiana State Prison population:
Freddy Fender’s fantastic success with “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” have made him a Super Star in the Pop and Country music fields. Though this success came seemingly overnight, it was many years in the making. Freddy traveled a lot of hard roads before teaming up with producer Huey Meaux and reaching that ever elusive pinnacle of success sought after by every entertainer, and attained by very few.
After all the disappointments, the years of living with a dream of success and watching others with similar ambitions give up without fulfilling their dream, Freddy didn’t give up. He kept right on trying, and he was one of the few lucky ones that made it. For every entertainer that reaches success, there are a thousand or more who don’t.
In this album, Freddy gives you more of the type songs that put him on top, done in the fashion as only he could do them. An experience that you will never forget is Freddy Fender, recorded inside Louisiana State Prision [sic] in 1962.”
Piecing Together Starday-King’s History
In 1975, Tennessee Recording and Publishing (owned by Leiber & Stoller with Hal Neely & Freddy Bienstock) – still running under the Starday-King name – sold the masters to another Nashville concern, GML, Inc., who operated the Gusto label. Gusto reissued much of the King catalog by the mid 1980s, and is still doing so today through licensing to other labels. Tennessee Recording & Publishing, meanwhile, kept the publishing rights to the whole Starday/King catalog, and quietly became rich. As one of the TRP executives noted, copyrights don’t argue with you or demand new contracts — they just sit there and generate cash. [Excerpt from The King, Federal & DeLuxe Story – Edwards & Callahan]
but the liner notes reveal that this is not just any ordinary guitar army:
This album was recorded in France. It spotlights the work of five of France’s outstanding guitarists: Francis Le Maguer (musical director), Pierre Cullaz, Raymond Gimenes, Paul Piguillem, and Victor Apicella. This is the first record on which they have played together as an orchestra. These five guitarists form the “Barclay Stars Orchestra” in which the guitars play the trumpet, trombone and saxophone parts of a conventional orchestra.
Although this 1966 album proudly bears the Atco imprint from front to back, Atlantic Records is simply serving as the American distributor for a work that was originally recorded in Paris by Barclay Records in glorious monophonic sound (for best results, observe the R.I.A.A. high frequency roll off characteristic with a 500 cycle crossover).
The album leans heavily toward traditional jazz, with a healthy dollop of Duke Ellington (“In a Mellow Tone”; “Sophisticated Lady”; “Satin Doll” & Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”) and a pinch of Woody Herman (“Early Autumn”), balanced by more contemporary fare via Neal Hefti (“Flight of the Foo Birds” & “Fantail”) and Horace Silver (“Opus de Funk”).
Check out this toe-tapping jazz standard, “Four Brothers,” composed by Jimmy Guiffre and brought to life originally by the Woody Herman Orchestra:
Four Brothers – The Barclay Stars
[Pssst: Click on the triangle to play “Four Brothers” as picked by The Barclay Stars.]
One and Done?
It appears that Guitars Unlimited would be the first and only guitar summit from five of France’s finest — an outcome whose likelihood was signaled in the last sentence of the liner notes by the phrase, “chances are”:
“The sound they generate is so unusual that chances are there will be many more albums by the Barclay Stars.”
Dionne Warwicke’s first album for Warner Brothers in 1972, sadly, was her last with masterful songwriting duo, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, their partnership in the process of dissolution. How perplexing that Warner Brothers would lure Dionne with a 5-million dollar contract (big money in 1971) but then only release one single from 1972 album, Dionne – and not even include “If You Never Say Goodbye” as the B-side:
Such an obvious radio contender, the song would appear to be one that got away from them.
Besides “Tequila” by The Champs, I know of one other instance where an A-side was roundly disregarded in favor of its B-side. As Robert Pruter, R&B editor for Goldmine, writes in the accompanying notes to the Atlantic soul music anthology, The Golden Age of Black Music (1970-1975):
King Floyd’s “Groove Me,” from 1970, was produced by Elijah Walker and Wardell Querzerque in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the first hits of the fledgling Malaco organization. “Groove Me” was the B-side to a song released on Malaco’s Chimneyville label, but the deejays found the funky jerk-beat of “Groove Me” irresistible and flipped the record. The song, with Atlantic distribution, went to position 6 and lasted an outstanding 20 weeks on Billboard’s pop chart.
From poking around on the web, I’ve learned that “Beth” by Kiss is another example of a B-side successfully shoving aside its A-side. The song, despite strong objections from Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, was included on Kiss’ 1976 album, Destroyer, at the insistence of their manager. “Beth” had been brought to the band by Peter Criss, who had written the song with Stan Penridge, back when they were bandmates in early 70s NYC group, Chelsea. Despite early chart success with “Shout It Out Loud,” Destroyer was a new direction for the band that was not immediately embraced by fans, and enthusiasm for the album was starting to wain – until AM radio juggernaut, CKLW, added the song to its playlist at the prompting of the daughter of program director, Rosalie Trombley (both pictured here). The single took off, eventually going gold (500,000 sales), giving the album a massive new sales injection, thus making the album Kiss’ first to go platinum (1 million).
End of an Era for The Big 8
In his review of the 2004 documentary, Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8, Bill Harris of the Toronto Sun recounts the beginning of the end for Windsor Canada’s once mighty CKLW:
Canadian-content laws came into effect in 1971 that required stations to play at least 30% Canadian music. Given the benefit of hindsight, those laws did what they set out to do (whether they still are needed today is another debate). But 35 years ago the policy cut CKLW at the knees, since there wasn’t a lot of Canadian music that appealed to the rhythm-and-blues-loving audiences in Detroit.
CKLW somehow maintained its top-drawer status for another decade. But The Big 8’s open mocking of Can-con rules — playing the shortest Canadian songs possible, holding overnight Can-con marathons, saying “Here’s one for the CRTC” rather than even bothering to announce who the band was, etc. — hardened the government’s resolve to bring the cocky station down a notch.
Check out these jingles for CKLW – just across the river from “Motor City” — back when radio was fun:
Phasing is a special effect in recorded music that gives the mix an Alice-Through-the Looking-Glass, otherworldly sound and has been famously employed, for instance, on 1967’s “Itchycoo Park” by The Small Faces [first occurs around the 0:48 mark]. As the blog, Let Your Hair Down, helpfully explains:
The effect as used on “Itchycoo Park” was, at that time, an electro-mechanical studio process. Two synchronized tape copies of a finished recording were played simultaneously into a third master recorder, and by manually retarding the rotation of one of the two tape reels using the fingers, a skilled engineer could subtly manipulate the phase difference between the two sources, creating the lush ‘swooshing’ phase effect that sweeps up and down the frequency range. Because the original single version was mixed and mastered in mono, the flanging effect in “Itchycoo Park” is more pronounced in its original mono mix, and is noticeably diluted in the subsequent stereo mix.
Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and Caleb Quaye‘s over-the-top “Baby Your Ph(r)asing Is Bad” – both from 1967 – are other noteworthy examples from this particularly adventurous pop period, however, as Rhino points out in the liner notes to the Nuggets II box set, phasing was used as early as 1959 on Miss Toni Fisher’s hit, “The Big Hurt.”
Or possibly even one year earlier – so say researchers at Zero to 180 – on the #14 hit “Lucky Ladybug” by Billy and Lillie. Check out the special effect on the muted trumpet, as well as the bright hand claps that answer the vocal lines on this 45 from Philadelphia’s Swan label:
The early 1970s I remember to be a particularly fertile time for catchy radio pop that preached the Good Word. Researchers at Zero to 180 initially pegged Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” – a compelling mash-up of gospel and psychedelic rock that moved 2 million copies in 1969 & 1970 – as a catalyst for much of the “God Pop” that followed. Further examination, however, revealed popular culture to be reflecting a broader hunger for spiritual and religious guidance in a time of great social tumult.
1969, for instance, saw the release of The 5th Dimension’s worldwide hit, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which foretold of an imminent age of love, harmony, and understanding. 1969 would also see The Byrds’ country rock version of “Jesus Is Just Alright” – the A-side of a Columbia 45 – barely manage to squeak into the US Top 100.
But wait – 1969 would also witness the unexpected commercial success of an 18th-century hymn given a fresh gospel reworking: Edwin Hawkins Singers’ international smash hit, “Oh Happy Day” (#4 U.S., #2 U.K.).
God Pop in the Early 1970s
In the early 1970s there was no escaping the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar – 1971’s #1 album that also produced two Top 30 radio hits: “Superstar” by Murray Head with the Trinidad Singers, and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” by Yvonne Ellman. According to the Rhino 70s Box Set, “Superstar” stayed on the charts for 31 weeks, “longer than any other single since Chubby Checker’s early 60s smash, ‘The Twist.'”
Nipping at the heels of Jesus Christ Superstar was Godspell, the musical based on the Gospel of Matthew that yielded an original cast album on Bell, with the single “Day by Day” spending 14 weeks on the charts (peaking at #13 in 1972).
Against the backdrop of Superstar and Godspell a surprising number of religious-themed songs would appear on pop & rock radio in the early 70s:
– “Love One Another” (1969 single) and “United We Stand” (#13 1970 hit) by Brotherhood of Man.
– “Let’s Give Adam & Eve Another Chance” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap: the group’s final charting single (#41) on Billboard’s Top 100 the week of April 4, 1970.
– “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before” by Harpers Bizarre: a single that appeared to have cracked the Top 100 (based on this regional sample) in October 1970.
– “Valley to Pray” by Arlo Guthrie: single that “bubbled under” (#102) the pop chart in October 1970.
– “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison: love letter to the Lord that topped the charts in many countries worldwide in 1971.
– “Put Your Hand in the Hand” by Ocean: million-selling single that was released March 1971.
– “Magnificent Sanctuary Band“: Dorsey Burnette’s song, as covered by David Clayton Thomas (of Blood, Sweat & Tears), hit the Top 40 in 1972.
– “Speak to the Sky“: Rick Springfield’s debut single hit #14 on the Billboard pop charts in 1972.
– “God Gave Rock and Roll to You“: Argent’s kick-off track to 1973’s In Deep did well as a single in the UK (#18) but much less so here in the States (#114).
– “The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead: a million-selling hit from 1974.
-+- Honorable Mention -+-
While not strictly God Pop, “Judas to the Love We Knew” by Spiral Starecase nevertheless deserves special attention for its curious use of a charged biblical reference for the song’s lyrical hook:
“Judas to the Love We Knew” Spiral Starecase 1969
I’d have to agree with the legal team at Mclane & Wong, who observe that “the last Spiral Starecase single, “She’s Ready,” kept the name alive by also reaching the charts (Billboard #72); but sadly, Columbia did not focus on the incredibly hit-worthy Pat Upton original on the flip side – ‘Judas To The Love We Knew’ – which equals or surpasses ‘More Today Than Yesterday’ [their 1969 million-selling hit] in hooks and vocal performance.”
A fellow music fanatic once let me check out a stack of old 45s from Jamaica he had just acquired, and one of the singles that caught my ear was a dance-oriented track from the early reggae period that had a curiously lowdown sound even with all the uptown trappings – “Heavy Heavy Reggae” by the Roosevelt Singers out of the Harry J Recording Studios:
Originally released in 1971 on the Roosevelt label, this single was also released the following year in the UK under a variant title on the Sioux label:
Harry J Fun Facts:
– Harry Zephaniah Johnson, famed Jamaican reggae record producer, was of African, Sicilian, and Scottish descent.
– The Staples Singers classic 1972 hit, “I’ll Take You There,” features an introduction that was actually lifted from “The Liquidator” by The Harry J All-Stars (a 1969 Top 10 UK hit).
– Harry J’s studio appears in the 1977 feature film, Rockers.
Two songs were recorded in 1971 that featured toy piano lines: “Butterfly” by Danyel Gerard – a big international hit – and “Only You” by NRBQ, a song from their Scraps album that was released as the B-side to “Ain’t It All Right.”
For the longest time I thought 1971 might have possibly been the year in which toy piano made its first appearance on a pop record. But then I happened to hear Neil Diamond‘s “Shilo” – written and recorded in 1967 – which features a toy piano in the song’s instrumental bridge:
“Shilo” Neil Diamond 1967
Can anyone point to a popular musical recording prior to 1967 that includes toy piano?
Toy Piano Update (Nov. 2013):
Wow – the story has suddenly gotten really complicated. On the one hand, we know Neil Diamond recorded “Shilo” in 1967, and there even is(was) a video on the web purporting to be an early live performance of “Shilo” at The Bitter End in New York City from August 1967. However, Tommy James and the Shondells released a string of five singles in 1967 – the final one of the year being “Out of the Blue,” which (I recently discovered) features some toy piano accompaniment. So, two songs from 1967 – Neil would still seem to be, given the chronology noted above, the likely winner of the toy-piano-in-pop-music-contest, right?
Not so fast. As it turns out, Bert Berns, the owner of Neil’s record label, Bang, adamantly refused to release “Shilo” as a single despite Neil’s protestations. This was a deal-breaker for Neil, so he left the label and signed with MCA imprint, Uni. Bang would eventually release “Shilo” as a 45 – but not until 1970 (which then prompted Neil to re-issue his 1968 debut album for Uni but then add a brand-new arrangement of “Shilo”). Complicating matters is chart information on Wikipedia saying that “Shilo” was released as an A-side in September 1968, even though by then Neil had already signed to Uni, who had released his first album – which did not include “Shilo” (told you it was complicated). Even if “Shilo” had been issued as a 45 in the summer of 1968, it is now clear that “Out of the Blue” by Tommy James was first on the radio airwaves – we have a new winner!
Toy Piano as “Serious” Instrument: On Philip Glass’ website the accompanying notes to 1997’s, The Art of the Toy Piano, provide some fascinating historical background:
In Philadelphia, 1872, the German immigrant Albert Schoenhut began manufacturing toy pianos according to his own newly-invented design. Wooden mallets struck sounding bars made of metal, replacing the fragile glass sounding-pieces used in toy pianos at that time. His new instrument could better withstand a child’s rough handling and its gamelan-like timbre is the sound of the toy piano as we know it today. By 1935, the A. Schoenhut Company had produced over forty styles and sizes of the toy instrument with prices ranging from fifty cents to twenty-five dollars –“a piano for every purse and taste”, boasted its 1903 catalogue…
The toy piano was intended as an educational tool. The more expensive models stood nineteen to twenty-four inches tall, had raised black notes instead of imitation painted ones, full-width wooden keys and a range of two to three octaves. An instruction manual taught a child such American favorites as Home Sweet Home and Yankee Doodle.
In 1948, John Cage composed his whimsical Suite for Toy Piano. Using nine consecutive white notes, this became the first “serious” piece ever written for a toy piano.
Not too long ago I picked up 20 Heavy Hits, a bubblegum-leaning collection of radio hits from 1968 that appears to be the predecessor to Crystal Corporation’s, 20 Solid Gold Hits. Even though it was only a buck, I almost didn’t get it since I already had most of the tunes on other albums. But in the end, it was the cover – specifically, the sumptuous Victorian-era elevator – that convinced me:
In the end, I’m glad I picked up this collection, if for no other reason than to hear Ricardo Ray‘s hip Latin take on Shirley Ellis‘ 1963 top 10 hit, “Nitty Gritty“:
“Nitty Gritty” Ricardo Ray 1968
This song is the lead-off track from The Ricardo Ray Orchestra’s 1968 album of the same name – released on Alegre, an imprint of Roulette.