Where and When

By 1960, the first flush of rock ‘n’ roll was past. The payola scandals had helped corporatize radio programming and standardize radio playlists; record companies had figured out a formula for fabricating hits and stars that would sell. As a result, the pop scene was as bland as it had been since the early 50s, before the rock era began. The Cash Box chart dated February 27, 1960, shows it. There is indeed not much rock ‘n’ roll on the chart. The Everly Brothers are there, but “Let it Be Me” is a ballad. Dion and the Belmonts are flying the doo-wop flag with “Where or When.” Johnny and the Hurricanes’ “Beatnik Fly” provides guitar twang, but it’s all the way down at Number 32. Chuck Berry and Bill Haley lurk in the even-lower reaches, with minor-to-insignificant hits. There is plenty of R&B on the chart—Jimmy Jones, Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, Marv Johnson, Lloyd Price, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Nat Kendrick and the Swans, Ray Charles—although few of the records they are hitting with that week are heard much today, either. The country stars are doing better than the rockers—Jim Reeves, Johnny Preston, Marty Robbins, and Conway Twitty are legitimate pop stars. Apart from that, it’s mostly either manufactured idols (Bobby Rydell, Johnny Tillotson, Frankie Avalon, Freddy Cannon, Fabian), MOR stars (Percy Faith, the Four Preps, Perry Como, Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers, Teresa Brewer), or novelties (“Teen Angel,” Alvin and the Chipmunks). Not an especially noteworthy week, from a not-especially-memorable era.

Choosing what to post was fairly easy, though. My favorite song on this chart is also one of the most obscure: “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. It was featured in a December 1959 TV production of The Philadelphia Story and features somebody named Jimmy Abato playing about six notes on alto saxophone. The provenance of Ross himself is almost entirely lost, except that he is apparently not the longtime New York sportscaster of the same name.

I’m posting this song because I have concocted a bit of mythology about it over the years. I doubt that it’s true, but I’d like it to be. When I hear “Tracy’s Theme,” I picture a sunny but cold late-winter day, with snow covering the farm fields and hills. A young couple hurries from their car into their house. In the woman’s arms is a baby boy, their first child, born only a few days before. They get inside the house, unbundle the baby, and put him in a little crib in the sunny kitchen where he will spend his days, at least for a while. Soon, the young couple turns on their radio. At some point during that winter afternoon, “Tracy’s Theme” plays, and it imprints itself on the little fellow’s little brain. He doesn’t remember hearing it, of course, but, somehow, he never forgets it, either.

The identity of the little fellow is yours to figure out. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

“Tracy’s Theme”/Spencer Ross (buy it here)

12 thoughts on “Where and When

  1. Sean Carroll

    Nice story, the mythology. Also nice to have a wee bit more background on the song. I see I’m not the only one who has come up empty looking for info on the mysterious Spencer Ross.

    I first heard “Tracy’s Theme” 26 years ago, on a cassette entitled “Those Wonderful Fifties, Volume [something-or-other].” Someone else’s, and I regret not trying to find my own copy much earlier than now. There were a number of good well-before-my-time tunes on it, in particular this song and a version of Percy Faith And His Orchestra’s “Swedish Rhapsody” WITH DRUMS that has proven impossible to find. I’ve remembered “Tracy’s Theme” as an absolute gem of a simple, lovely song, demonstrating the power of a few well-chosen notes. The accompaniment Is nice, but it would be nowhere without the alto sax (which I always thought was a clarinet – sweet tone).

    Neither “Tracy’s Theme” nor the version of “Swedish Rhapsody” I want are available through the iTunes Store or anything like it. I’m leery of file sharing sites, but I sure do want those songs before they’re entirely lost to history. Aside from that, I’m also just curious about Spencer Ross and who the fantastic drummer on “Swedish Rhapsody” was and how that version came to be and why it is now the “obscure” version when it is so clearly better. Big band music that ROCKS. So ahead of its time that I wonder whether if it wasn’t a re-recording done much later than 1959 or 1960.

    1. Pebey

      The “Swedish Rhapsody” version you seek is on the double Lp “All-Time Greatest Hits”, from 1972, and nowhere else. I don’t know why they re-recorded it – I like it too, but I imagine some others were disappointed.

      Yes, I know this is two years late, but maybe you’ll see it anyways.

  2. whiteray

    The LP was titled “Those wonderful 50’s”. Here, courtesy of the University of Virginia Libray, is a link to its catalog entry, including the track list.

    http://virgobeta.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/u3913820

    The album is at this moment available on cassette at Ebay. At least it looks like the same album.

    http://cgi.ebay.com/THOSE-WONDERFUL-50s-Vol-3-cassette-20-original-hits_W0QQitemZ250227402069QQcmdZViewItemQQptZMusic_Cassettes?hash=item3a42b72555

  3. Dean

    In 1960, the year i graduated from high school, rumor had it that Tracy’s Theme had originally been a Philadelphia DJ’s theme song as many had their own back then. As soon as “Baker Street”, performed by Jerry Rafferty, was released, it resonated in my mind with Tracy’s Theme. I’ve always felt that whoever wrote Baker Street, sub-consciously borrowed the aura of Tracy’s Theme. I have a feeling that “Spencer Ross” will never be revealed. I wonder what label he recorded on.

  4. Bill

    I’ve always loved “Tracy’s Theme” and had been looking for it on cd for quite some time.
    I found it about a year ago: “Joel Whitburn presents Top Ten Treasures 1960” Put out by Curb Records # D2-78968. I found it on ebay.
    I just googled Jimmy Abato. He just died in 2008 at age 89. Apparently a VERY famous clarinest. Taught at Julliard.
    If anyone wants Tracy’s Theme and can’t find the cd, let me know….I’ll be happy to burn it for you.

    1. Steve

      Bill, I would be most grateful if you could burn me a CD that includes Tracy’s Theme by Spencer Ross. I would be happy to reimburse you for the cost of the CD and your time. Please let me know at your earliest convenience and then I can give you my mailing address. Steve

  5. Newton C Braga

    I found this on YouTube: “This is Spencer Ross’s 1959 version–Columbia 45 #41532. first charted on Jan 4, 1960 and went up to #13 on Billboard–14 weeks on the charts. Spencer Ross was really musician Robert Mersey. The great Jimmy Abato did the unforgettable Sax work on it. Great job for the video.” (Lorract, YouTube)

  6. Steve Owen

    I believe there was no such person(as you all know) I have heard it was a pseudonym for Robert Mersey, the record arranger and producer…who also recorded for Columbia.

  7. Steve Owen

    Now th web is saying there was a Spencer Ross who did arrangements for Gordon JEnkins n the 1940’s…but I don’t know…it still seems a bit dubious!

  8. Lindsey

    I was six years old when I first heard “Tracy’s Theme”. It was a Sunday and my Dad was deep into his music, having tuned out the rest of us and retreated into his vinyl world. He played it almost every Sunday after that, so it became comfort music for me. It has haunted me over the years, I think, because I was hypnotized by that recurring A that just wouldn’t go away. That note was in some way a kind of torture, but it absolutely made the song!

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