Meet the Swingers

By 1966, the youth market was growing exponentially. Moguls and money-men had dollar signs in their eyes. For The Youth themselves, there was the allure of stardom, of hearing your songs on the radio, singing on TV, posing for magazine covers, being the name on everyone’s lips. (And dollars, too.)

And into this exciting era came the Swingin’ Six. Their album For the First Time!, released in January 1967, was a mix of original songs and covers. The music is mostly in the pocket for 1967, if not all that distinctive; a couple of Internet writers compare them to the Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas, but they lack the edge of those groups, and some of their song choices are a little suspect. At the time, absolutely everybody was recording “The Impossible Dream” regardless of whether it was a good idea, and there is no way to make “Round and Round” sound like anything other than ripe cheese. Their busy cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” is, well, I don’t know what the hell to call it.

But it isn’t all uncomfortable. A couple of originals give the group a more interesting personality, especially “Pack Your Bag” (which was released as a single) and “For the First Time.” Another original, “Bad News,” wants to be trippy but doesn’t really get there, although I like it. The contrast between the folk rock the Six wrote and the adult standards they covered indicates that may have been some push-and-pull between what the Six themselves wanted to do and be, and what their producer, record-industry veteran Harry Meyerson, and their label, Decca Records, wanted them to do and be. If so, it’s a familiar story.

The Swingin’ Six were put together by a wannabe mogul named Ronn Cummins, and nearly all of what we know about them comes from the liner notes Cummins wrote for their album. Steve Burnett, John Fisher, Pat Lanigan, and Richard Neives were all musicians who had done Broadway, television, and nightclub work. Ann Rachel and Carol Richards were stage actresses and sang on commercial jingles. If Cummins inflated the significance of his group’s credits (and he almost certainly did), he also makes clear that the Six were ambitious kids who were already putting in the work, chasing success in showbiz. Cummins himself had been such a person, with Broadway and recording credits of his own before (and after) becoming a talent manager.

On December 24, 1966, Billboard reported that the Swingin’ Six would appear at a New York club before the release of their album in January. Cummins was confident that they would be big. Billboard wrote that he was already auditioning musicians for two more groups, “and he will also create a ‘farm system’ for the Swingin’ Six to provide replacements for the group should it become necessary.”

Spoiler alert: it would not become necessary. The Swingin’ Six made some TV appearances, but their single did not hit (although WWDC in Washington listed the B-side, “The Green Door,” for at least one week). Their album did not hit. In fact, no member of the Swingin’ Six went on to anything like stardom, although Burnett had a few post-Six musical credits.

The only reason to remember them today is for a separate gig. In 2021, I wrote about how the federal government enlisted popular TV shows to promote savings bonds. Shows from Father Knows Best to WKRP in Cincinnati were part of the effort. But the feds produced public service announcements and short films for many other purposes. The short films might appear on TV as interstitials, to fill time between the end of a game or a movie and the next scheduled program, or they might be shown by community groups for public education. In 1967, the Post Office was launching the ZIP Code program, and part of the task was explaining to Mr. and Mrs. Average American what the codes were and why it was important to use them. So they hired the Swingin’ Six to appear in a 15-minute film introducing ZIP Codes, with production numbers and original songs by Steve Burnett. The film is both cheesy and charming, and it’s educational, too: I was today years old when I learned that each five-digit ZIP Code breaks down into three parts with specific meanings.

I am not the person to write a book about how governments use popular culture to sell programs and ideas to the governed, but I’d read it. And if somebody wrote it, the Swingin’ Six should be in it.

4 thoughts on “Meet the Swingers

  1. mikehagerty

    I’m pretty sure they showed us the Swingin’ Six ZIP code film in eighth-grade civics class (for me, 1968-69) on 16 mm film.

    Given that ZIP codes launched in mid-1963, the fact that they needed this much promotion four years on suggests there was a struggle in getting people to use ZIP codes.

    1. Chris Herman

      The USPS still had TV and radio commercials reminding people to use ZIP codes in the late ’70s, so it ended up taking a lot more time and effort.

  2. – Fifteen minutes! Mon dieu, to have that kind of attention span again. Today this would be a series of TikTok videos or infographics.
    – Interstitials! I miss seeing random stuff show up to fill programming gaps, usually at odd hours.
    – My local post office still has one of those goofy-looking Mr Zip cutouts in the front lobby, holding an envelope with the local ZIP code on it.

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