29 March 2006

Billy J. Kramer, Del Shannon and The Beatles

The way I remembered it, the first Beatles songs I ever heard - before I’d even heard of The Beatles - were Do You Want To Know A Secret by Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas and From Me To You by Del Shannon. Both songs were on Australian radio around June 1963.

I first heard Billy J. Kramer's Do You Want To Know A Secret in the middle of the night, around 3.00 am, when I'd got up to fix a snack and had pulled in some distant Top 40 station on the kitchen radio, turned down low so I wouldn't wake up the folks. The station might've been 2SM, from Sydney, one of those stations that used to come in only after dusk.

I liked it in the same way I liked other melodic pop songs of the early 60s: George Hamilton's Abilene, The Everlys' So Sad, or Joe Brown's That's What Love Will Do.

I had no idea that Do You Want To Know A Secret originated with an approaching cultural hurricane, The Beatles.

I’ve always had this picture of myself, alone in the late-night kitchen and hearing - through the static and fade-outs of a distant station - a first breeze, a faint stirring of something greater, still unimagined.

This was a few months before the summer vacation of '63-'64, when Beatlemania would hit us properly, when I Want To Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There would be all over the radio. The Beatles wouldn’t really enter my consciousness until the Australian Spring of 1963.

Back in the winter, when I’d heard Del Shannon's version of From Me To You on 3DB, the announcer - Barry Ferber - had made it sound as if this was just another Del Shannon gem, and he’d added, "There's also a version of that out by Britain's Beagles."

Beagles? As in Donald Duck comics, the Beagle Boys? Ferber probably did say Beatles and I misheard him, but it gave me a picture of some eccentric English band who wore black eye masks and shirts with prison numbers.

Thing is, it didn't matter, because this was a Del Shannon record and, Beagles or Beatles or whatever, who would care if they covered one of Del's records?

Before the British Invasion, Del Shannon was already one of the greats, always on the radio, always coming up with pure, enjoyable pop, song after song: Hats Off To Larry, Two Kinds Of Teardrops, Swiss Maid.... and has Runaway ever not been on the radio since 1961?

We used to sing Here she comes (here she comes) from Little Town Flirt when we saw our English teacher, Miss Phillips, coming down the walkway. Even into 1964, the Year of Beatlemania, Del's churning versions of oldies like Handy Man and Do You Want To Dance added new life to them, updated them for the moment.

So I also liked to think that Del Shannon, with his cover of From Me To You, was a messenger who reached me with distant news of what was to come.

The other day, though, when I checked the Melbourne charts for 1963, I realised that my idea about Del’s cover version overshadowing the original was a mistake.

In fact, The Beatles’ From Me To You must have been the better-known version in Melbourne, entering the charts in May and eventually peaking at #4. There is no trace of Del Shannon’s version in the Melbourne charts. (It did chart in Sydney and Adelaide in June, alongside The Beatles. Billy J. Kramer charted in Brisbane and Adelaide, also in June.)

What’s more, The Beatles’ Please Please Me had already charted in Melbourne the previous month. It only got to #29, so maybe I wasn’t the only one it failed to make a huge impression on.
And I guess your memories of music are of what made an impression on you, of what you noticed at the time, and that might not be reliable music history. I must have heard the Beatles around April or May ’63, and some kids around me were actually going out and buying their singles, but until about September I wasn’t taking any notice.

It does turn out that Del Shannon's From Me To You was the first US cover of a Beatles song, and the first Beatles composition to chart in the US (it got into the 90s, a bit higher than the Beatles' own initial release), and he'd heard it while touring Britain with The Beatles. So he must’ve been the Beatles' advance scout for a number of Americans.

As for the supposed Beagles: there were at least three US singles by bands called The Beagles in the mid-60s, and at least two of them were Beatles-related. One was a 1964 cover of Can't Buy Me Love on the Hit label, the other was I Wanna Capture You, a 1966 Columbia single from an animated dog cartoon, a cash-in on the British Invasion.
At last, The Beagles!
Full story at Toon Tracker.

Da Doo Ron Ron? Are you kidding me?

One New Year's Eve - 1963, I guess - when I phoned up the request show on our local radio station 3SH in Swan Hill, the station's manager Harry Lithgow was holding the fort. He must've been a nice boss, letting his staff go out partying while he stayed back at work all night.

When I requested Da Doo Ron Ron, the Crystals' song I'd heard on 3SH, Harry didn't believe me. He didn't believe there was such a song - "No, no, not Da Doo Ron Ron, that wouldn't be right" - and politely hung up.

Should've tried for Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, which would've just been appearing around then.

The Crystals: #3 on Billboard, puzzling in Swan Hill.

18 March 2006

Owing it all to Pamela Brown

The happy guy in Tom T. Hall’s 1972 song Pamela Brown is a ramblin’ man, just roamin’ around the world and having good times.

He had a close shave all those years ago: if he’d married Pamela Brown, he’d probably be back home driving kids to school. He’s "the guy who didn’t marry pretty Pamela Brown", and he’s glad to be shot of all that.

You get a different slant, though, if you listen to Leo Kottke’s 1974 version of Pamela Brown on 1974's Ice Water.

The way Kottke tells it, the guy sounds kinda glum thinking about Pamela Brown. He might be trying to crack hearty, but it's clear that he regrets not marrying Pamela Brown: maybe he wouldn’t have minded driving kids to school after all. When he sings “I guess the guy she married was the best part of my luck” he doesn’t sound convinced.

There's a change of emphasis here between the two versions:

Tom T. Hall:
I guess I owe it all to Pamela Brown
All of my good times and all my roamin' around
One of these days I might come ramblin' through your town
And I guess I owe it all to Pamela Brown

Leo Kottke:
I guess I owe it all to Pamela Brown
All of my good times - all my roamin' around
One of these days I might be in your town
And I guess I owe it all to Pamela Brown

Tom T. Hall’s guy really sounds like a ramblin’ man, and the whole arrangement is more upbeat, introduced with a jaunty guitar bit that’s missing from Leo Kottke’s version.

Even TomT. Hall's guy might be protesting too much, because there’s irony enough in the song just as it was written. From the first line it’s clear that this is an anti-love song, about the guy who didn’t marry Pamela Brown. He's grateful to Pamela Brown’s husband for stealing the girl of his dreams, and he’s glad she dumped him because she saved him from the small town domestic round.

The trouble is, you can’t help catching a picture of what might be domestic bliss: driving pretty Pamela Brown’s kids to school mightn’t be all bad.

What's more, although the last verse has a final throwaway line, it shows the guy could still ache a bit at the thought of Pamela Brown:

I don't have to tell you just how beautiful she was
Everything it takes to get a country boy in love*
Lord, I hope she's happy 'cause she sure deserves to be
Especially for what she did for me

(*Kottke distances himself from the country genre here, changing the line to:
Everything it takes to get a guy like me in love.)

Leo Kottke has picked up on the wistfulness, dropped the carefree air, and made his guy sound sad about not marrying Pamela Brown, even jaded by his ramblin' lifestyle.

Because the original guy sounds so happy and carefree, though, you could think the irony is Leo Kottke's idea, but I'm thinking now that Tom T. Hall planted the ambiguity there from the start, and Leo Kottke ran with it

17 March 2006

Northern Soul formula breakthrough

Phil X Milstein emailed from the lab to say he's refined his formula for identifying a Northern Soul track (mentioned previously). Now it goes:
Bari sax and vibes included, Northern Soul; no bari or vibes, no Northern Soul.

Or, BS + V = NS

Let's hope he's got it right this time. In the meantime, be careful about trying it in your own home.

11 March 2006

Red Sovine, Tom Waits and Big Joe: Phantom 309

Phantom 309 is a trucking ghost song, a 1967 country hit for Red Sovine (right), but written by North Carolina singer-songwriter Tommy Faile. It's about a hitchhiker who's picked up at night by a big-hearted guy called Big Joe in his semi, The Phantom 309. After he's abruptly dropped off at a truckstop, the hitchhiker finds out that Big Joe and The Phantom are both, well, phantoms.

It's more a recitation than a song, a narrative poem with an oldtime country backing: a foot-tapping rhythm, punctuated by guitar licks and some wistful fiddling.

I got to know it through Tom Waits's version (he uses its full title, Big Joe And Phantom 309) on his 1975 live album, Nighthawks at the Diner. Being Tom Waits, he tells it in that half-sleepy barkeep's voice, over an after-midnight jazz backing, and he takes his time: around 6½ minutes, compared with Red Sovine's under 3½. Tom Waits here is leisurely and conversational, savouring the story in that world-weary, regretful way he has.

Going back later and hearing Red Sovine's original recording is a revelation. The first surprise is how brisk it is, almost perky by comparison with Tom Waits's smokey nightclub feel (his album's title presumably refers to another late night scene, Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks) .

Red Sovine gets in and tells the story in a straightforward and businesslike way, without much emotional display, letting the words speak for themselves. Where Tom Waits has a conversation with the audience, you can hear the rhyming couplets in Red Sovine's version, much as you would with a traditional bush balladeer.

Here's the part where the hitchhiker first mentions Big Joe in the truckstop, when he tries to buy a cup of coffee with a dime from Big Joe:

Red Sovine:
Well, I went inside and ordered me a cup
Told the waiter Big Joe was settin' me up
Oh, you coulda heard a pin drop, it got deathly quiet
And the waiter's face turned kinda white
Well, did I say something wrong?
I said with a halfway grin

Tom Waits:
So I walked into this stop
Well I ordered me up a cup of mud
Sayin' Big Joe's settin' this dude up
It got so deathly quiet in that place,
Yeah, it got so deathly quiet in that place
That you coulda heard a pin drop
And as the waiter's face turned kinda pale
I said, whassamatter, did I say somethin' wrong?
I kinda said with a halfway grin...

Sovine more or less states the last two lines: with Waits you can hear the sheepish grin in his voice as he looks around the diner.

On the page, too, you can see how Waits's embellishments and repetitions draw the tale out, and the way he plays with the structure of the lines in favour of a more conversational feel.

See how Waits adds repetition for dramatic effect in the closing lines:

Red Sovine:
Here, have another cup
And forget about the dime
Keep it as a souvenir
From Big Joe and Phantom 309

Tom Waits:
So here son, he said to me...
You get yourself another cup of coffee
It's..'s'on the house..
I kinda want you to hang on to that dime...
Yeah I kinda want you to hang on to that dime as a souvenir...(yeahmmm)...
I want you to keep that dime as a souvenir of Big Joe...
Of Big Joe and Phantommm...
Big Joe and Phantom 309.

You have to hear it, of course, to get the full impact: you can hear the hitchhiker's awe at the story, and Waits's awareness of the impact of the story on his audience.

When I first heard Tom Waits's version I was vaguely aware of the original, and I naturally suspected irony, but I don't think this is tongue-in-cheek, and I believe that Waits is sincere about the song.

Is it an improvement on the original? Waits has reimagined the song, seen further possibilities in it, and I prefer his version, but I can't say how I would have felt if I'd already been a fan of the original.

I can imagine that some fans of manly, forthright country style might think Tom Waits is making too much of an entertaining song, but for me he has turned it into a masterpiece.

10 March 2006

Embassy label shots

British online record store Vinyl Tap has a number of UK Embassy 45s. The site includes several Embassy label shots.

08 March 2006

More on the Embassy label

I heard from Michael White, who has researched the Embassy label, sold in the UK through Woolworths stores from the early 50s till the mid-60s (see previous three posts).

You can contact Michael by email if you have any information for him.

He has yet to publish his full account of Embassy and its artists, but in the meantime here are some items of interest:
  • Johnny Worth who, as Les Vandyke, wrote a number of hits for Adam Faith and Eden Kane, recorded covers of his own songs under his own name for Embassy;
  • Elvis Costello's father Ross McManus, a vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, recorded for Embassy using the names David Ross and Hal Burton;
  • Ray Pilgrim was a vocalist with the Oscar Rabin Orchestra. He also recorded for Embassy as Bobby Stevens, and recorded with Embassy groups including The Jaybirds (not to be confused with another, later band called The Jaybirds that included Alvin Lee). He also recorded for associated label Oriole.
  • A song co-written by Ray Pilgrim and recorded by Dick Jordan, Little Christine, charted Top 10 in Belgium, was covered by other Belgian artists, and was released in the US on Everest (#19360, 1960).
Fascinating stuff, I reckon.

07 March 2006

Cheapo Labels: some links

See my Links page at the website for some of the links I've found about cheapo/budget/soundalike labels, including the British soundalike hits albums Top Of The Pops.

Rikki Henderson's appearance on Oh Boy! on 21 February 1959 is listed at the Oh Boy! Diary website. (Archived page. Also appearing: Gerry Dorsey, before he was Engelbert.)

06 March 2006

Embassy Records

I just found a great thread at Vinyl Vulture forum, kicked off by Michael White with lots of information about artists who recorded for British label Embassy, the source of Golden Fleece's Top Hits records.

Michael writes, for example, about Rikki Henderson:
I have recently read that Rikki Henderson won his contract with Embassy through a competition run by Mirabelle magazine, but I have also seen a reference to a resident vocalist with the Denny Boyce Orchestra called Rikki Henderson (Rikki also apparently made one appearance on TV's 'Oh Boy').

(Oh Boy! There's another Trevor Peacock connection!)

05 March 2006

Golden gassers: an Aussie cheapo label

I found this record in amongst my bedraggled 45s. How it got there, I can't imagine. (Surely I didn't buy it? Nah, must be one of my brother's...)

This was a cover of Herman's Hermits' Mrs Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter (written by Trevor Peacock of Vicar of Dibley fame). The B-side was a version of The Seekers' hit A World Of Our Own, by The Jaybirds. This places GF-1025 in 1965.

It's one of a series sold in the 60s at service stations by Golden Fleece, the Australian petrol company later bought out by Caltex. John Maloney has also posted a shot of this one, and the B-side, along with three others from Golden Fleece, to the Odd Labels forum at Whirligig.

Welcome to the world of the cheapo label, companies that put out cut-price soundalike versions of current hits. There's a group at Yahoo! called Cheapo Labels: it's fairly inactive at the moment, but its home page usefully lists about 40 cheapo or budget labels.

One of the fascinations of the cheapos is the discovery of well-known artists recording under other names. The Hit Records Project, devoted to one of the better-known US cheapos, mentions Sandy Posey and Bobby Russell, both of whom recorded for Hit under a number of names.

There is also some interest in the cheapos from soul fans: see, for example, Soulful Kinda Music's discography for Herbert Hunter, aka Leroy Jones, who recorded for Hit, and Jeff Lemlich's post to Bomp about soul recordings on Hit and Spar.

Australia's Golden Fleece Top Hits singles were recycled from the Embassy label, recorded in Britain and sold there at Woolworths stores (see the follow-up post by Brian at the Odd Labels forum). British site 45rpm.org.uk has a label shot of an Embassy single by Johnny Worth, better known by his pseudonym Les Vandyke, who wrote for the likes of Adam Faith and Eden Kane, and also wrote, for example, Little Pattie's Australian hit Dance Puppet Dance. (See also The Flies - Doin' The Mod.)

Into the 70s, albums of soundalike tracks were issued, some of which famously included pseudonymous recordings by a young Elton John. His efforts have even been reissued, on the Chartbusters Go Pop! CD (see Richie Unterberger's review at All Music Guide).

Golden gasser? On Top 40 radio, that was an oldie, aka a blast from the past, a mouldy oldie. Golden Fleece, petrol, gas... Get it?