“Body Surfing With the Jet Set”: Anyone for Beach Bums?

The words of Rod McKuen and music of Anita Kerr effortlessly intertwine on this breezy romp through the Pacific Coast of one’s mind:

“Body Surfing With the Jet Set” by The San Sebastian Strings    1970

Body Surfing With the Jet Set” serves, fittingly, as side one’s closing track of 1970 album, Soft Sea.  Sadly, this song nor any other tracks from this album would be issued as singles.

Soft Sea LP

Phil & Don: “Talking to the Flowers”

How sad to learn of Phil Everly’s passing – he and his brother Don were once knocking at Paul McCartney’s door, you know.

Looking at the Everly Brothers’ chart history, I’m impressed by the broadness of their appeal in the early years of their career when they recorded for the Cadence label.  Their first single, “Bye Bye Love” went #1 country; #2 pop; #5 R&B, while their next single – “Wake Up Little Susie” – went to #1 on all three charts.  “All I Have to Do Is Dream” has the distinction of topping all 3 charts – country, pop and R&B – as well as Canada & the UK.

What’s intriguing is that every one of the Everly Brothers’ singles for Cadence went Top 40, if not Top 10, and usually in multiple markets – pop, country, R&B, Canada, Australia, and/or the UK – and yet their previous label, almighty Columbia, dropped them after their first and only single failed to chart.

Also interesting to note that once the Everly Brothers began recording for Warner Brothers in 1960, action on the country charts immediately ceased, with the R&B market to follow by 1961.  By 1963, the Everly Brothers struggled to hit the Top 40 and went several years without doing so until “Bowling Green” hit #40 in 1967.

Their next single, I am convinced, would have been just as successful commercially had they used “Talking to the Flowers” as the A-side:

But alas, Warner Brothers released, as the A-side, “Mary Jane” – a paean to pot that, unsurprisingly, failed to chart in any market, domestic or overseas – and “Talking to the Flowers,” a great single and fine production from one of pop’s best years, 1967, got relegated to the B-side and somewhat lost in the shuffle.  Which is a real shame.

Everly Brothers WB 45Did Terry Slater (or Did Not He) Write This Song?

As Rhino points out in the liner notes to their Warner Brothers anthology, Come to the Sunshine:  Soft Pop Nuggets from the WEA Vaults:

“Talking to the Flowers” comes from 1967’s The Everly Brothers Sing album, which was their bizarre psych-pop melange of originals like “Mary Jane” and a cover of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.”  “Flowers” is credited to Everly friend and bassist, Terry Slater, but the song may very well have been written by one of the brothers.  Both were in a dispute with their publisher at the time and placed songs in Slater’s name as a way around the situation.  Featuring vocal accompaniment from Ron Hicklin and assorted studio vocalists (architects of the early Patridge Family sound), the song focuses on a lovelorn individual who finds solace in search of ivory towers and talking to the flowers.  The song was later covered by Move/Wizzard member, Rick Price, on his solo album of the same name.

“Hello Yellow Bug”: First-Rate Tot Pop

The Johnny Mann Singers channel their inner child to optimal effect in “Hello Yellow Bug” from 1968’s Love is Blue album on the Liberty label.  Somewhat surprisingly, this song did not enjoy single release:

Hello Yellow Bug – Johnny Mann Singers

Is it possible that The Johnny Mann Singers were taking a page from young upstarts, The Free Design, whose debut album had been released the previous year?

Johnny Mann

“Junk Maker Shoppe”: Hard-Edged Sunshine Pop

One of the lesser-known practitioners of West Coast sunshine pop is Yellow Balloon, a group formed after-the-fact as a performing and touring vehicle for songwriter/producer, Gary Zekley, who released his own version (#25) of debut single, “Yellow Balloon,” in direct competition with Jan & Dean, whose version (#111) he felt to be lacking.  Yellow Balloon released one album and 3 singles in 1967 for Canterbury, a label owned by Ken Handler – and financed by his Mattel Toys co-founder father, Elliott Handler.

Drummer Don Grady, in the middle of his 12-year run playing Robbie Douglas on TV’s My Three Sons, wrote the final track – “Junk Maker Shoppe” – on Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album, which was recorded at Western and Sound Recorders in Los Angeles and featured such top session musicians as Carol Kaye, Jerry Cole, Jim Gordon, Mike Post, Bob West, and Don Randi.  “Junk Maker Shoppe,” interestingly, is the only song on the album where the band members play all the instruments themselves:

“Junk Maker Shoppe”     Yellow Balloon     1967

Yellow Balloon - 45             45s Whose B-Side Consists of the A-Side Played Backwards:

– “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” b/w “Aaah-Ah ,Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er’yeht” by Napoleon XIV  (1966)

– “Yellow Balloon” b/w “Noollab Wolley” by Yellow Balloon  (1967)

– “Honey Love” b/w “Evol Yenoh” by Burt Walters [Lee “Scratch” Perry production]  (1968)

Mason Williams: Music + Comedy + Art

From David Bianculli’s history of 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:

“Baroque-a-Nova”     Mason Williams     1968

Billboard deemed the album a “Special Merit Pick” and posted this review in their March 23, 1968 edition:

TV comedy writer Mason Williams, known for his clever, satiric material on the ‘Smothers Brothers’ show, has put together a wacky and whimsical ode to musical styles, touching on all bases — classical, pop, folk, jazz, and compositions for orchestra.  Williams shows off a pleasant voice and a wealth of talent in “Wanderlove,” “She’s Gone Away” and “Long Time Blues.”

“Baroque-a-Nova” would faithfully serve as the b-side for “Classical Gas” worldwide.

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

“South American Getaway”: Sunshine Pop’s Case of the Blahs

This track sounds like a collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson – only it isn’t.  Although it wants to be:

Just like The 5th Dimension’s “Dimension 5ive,” this is technically a vocal tune yet one without lyrics.  It also has that sunny Southern California vibe – at first – but by song’s end, I would have to describe the overriding emotion as closer to melancholy.  Sunshine pop contemplating its navel … orange.

I found this Burt Bacharach composition – “South American Getaway” – on the soundtrack to the film, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid – released 1969, roughly the same time period as “Dimension 5ive.”  These two songs together might comprise sunshine pop’s “progressive peak.”   But are there other songs that merit inclusion in such an elite group?

Paul Tanner: Musician-of-All-Trades & Oddball Instrumentalist

Paul Tanner, who just recently passed, lived to the ripe old age of 95.  I was delighted to learn that this one-time trombonist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra went on to play the pivotal theremin part on the Beach Boys’ worldwide 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations” – as well as on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from 1965’s Pet Sounds plus the title track from 1967’s Wild Honey.

According to Bruce Weber, Tanner went to California in the early 1950s to do film soundtracks, as well as live musical performances on ABC TV, and it was during this period in which he “became something of a musician-of-all-trades, taking up a variety of oddball instruments and performing on them when a quirky score called for them.”

Tanner became interested in the theremin – Leon Theremin’s self-named futuristic 1920s electronic musical instrument – as a result of having witnessed its effective implementation in the soundtracks of such 1950s science fiction films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World) click here to hear a theremin recording session for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tanner, after noticing theremin performers struggling with the instrument to obtain correct intonation and dynamics, contracted with a TV repair shop owner and friend, Bob Whitsell, to construct for him an instrument that would replicate the sound of a theremin but include manual levers that would allow the player to have greater control over volume and pitch.  Thus was born the “electro-theremin” (also known as the Tannerin) and first employed on Tanner’s 1958 “ambient” album, Music for Heavenly Bodies.

Heavenly Bodies - Paul Tanner

Here is an early work-up of “Good Vibrations” that features Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin part more prominently in the mix than the 45 version released in October 1966:

Alternate Vibrations – The Beach Boys

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin featured in an early mix of “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.]

Incredibly, Tanner donated/sold his one-and-only prototype of the electro-theremin in the late 60s “to a hospital to use for audiology work, because he believed that newer keyboard synthesizers made it obsolete.”

Extra Credit:  memorize the chart listings for “Good Vibrations” for various countries outside the United States.

National Chart (1966–67)            Peak Position
Australian Singles Chart                  2
Belgian Singles Chart                     6
Canadian Singles Chart                    2
Dutch Singles Chart                       4
German Singles Chart                      8
Italian Singles Chart                    12
Malaysian Singles Chart                   1
New Zealand Singles Chart                 1
Norwegian Singles Chart                   2
Rhodesian Singles Chart                   1
UK Singles Chart                          1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100                    1

“Dimension 5ive”: Sunshine Pop’s Progressive Peak?

There’s something special about the song, “Dimension 5ive” by The 5th Dimension.     Lush vocals from start to finish – and yet it’s technically not a “vocal” tune, as there are no lyrics.  Yet, neither is it an instrumental.

This song is the closing track on the 5th Dimension’s 1970 album, Portrait, for which LeRoy Neiman provided an impressionistic color portrait for the front cover, a minimalist black line drawing for the back cover, and 8 color sketches of the group at work in the studio for the album’s gatefold: Fifth Dimension-aa

Bones Howe is once again behind the board, but there’s a new person to appear prominently in the credits on a 5th Dimension album:  Bob Alcivar.  Not only did he arrange all the album’s vocals, but he also wrote the song, “Dimension 5ive.”   Here’s the group rehearsing at Bob’s house:Fifth Dimension-bb

Check out the song:

The Other Ray Charles

I picked up this album primarily due to its cover art – which suggests a Peter Max/Yellow Submarine sensibility that really captivated me as a kid – but also due to this project being associated with the legendary singer, songwriter, and musician who famously signed with Atlantic Records in the 1950s:

Slices of LifeAs it turns out, there’s another Ray Charles – one who primarily interprets and arranges other people’s material for the “easy listening” crowd, shall we say.  But that would be doing a disservice to the quality of effort that went into the making of this 1969 album.  On Slices of Life, the Ray Charles Singers attempt to imbue this collection of “the latest hits” (as the LP’s liner notes explain) with “the new social-awareness” that was all the rage in popular music at that time.  Furthermore, “to interpret the intensely personal attitudes of these songs,” the Ray Charles Singers (usually configured in groups of 16 to 25) “showcase their new, ‘contemporary’ appearances here as an octet.  Two octets, actually – one superimposed over the other.  This smaller group can perform with more intimacy, more nuance, more personal involvement, and more in keeping with the new ‘young’ rhythm patterns of today’s song hits.”

The result, to my ears, is a definite notch above “elevator music”  One obvious highlight is the group’s playful arrangement of album-opener, “The Straight Life” by Sonny Curtis (one of Buddy Holly’s original Crickets and the songwriter behind the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around”).  But the standout track for me is “1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero” – declared to be the album’s “essence” and authored by “the renowned” Bobby Russell, famous for “Honey,” “Little Green Apples,” and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” among others.  It’s a funny lyric about a superdad of sorts who would love nothing more than to decompress after a hard day’s work alone with his beloved “Baltimore Colts” but, inevitably and unfailingly, gives his all to the kids who live on his block:

1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero – Ray Charles Singers

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero.”]

Bonus video link to Ray Charles’ magnum opus, “The Nifty Fifty United States.”

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.”