(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)
From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.
While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)
There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.
During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.
Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:
5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.
4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.
3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.
2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.
1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.
Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”
In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.
(Pictured: Canadian singer Ginette Reno, who has come out of semi-retirement several times in recent years to sing national anthems during the NHL playoffs, seen here in 2017.)
ARSA, frequently mentioned here, is the Airheads Radio Survey Archive. It has over 91,000 radio station music surveys in its collection now, an unmatched resource for the history of popular music and pop radio in last half of the 20th century. The other day, while looking for something else, I found a year-end survey for 1970 from CKLG in Vancouver, British Columbia. CKLG was at 730 on the AM dial, but instead of listing the Top 73 for the year, CKLG listed the Top 173. And it’s actually even bigger than that: CKLG’s Top 173 includes six two-sided hits, so it’s actually 179 songs. Three of the six are by Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Travelin’ Band”/”Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door””/”Long As I Can See the Light,” and “Up Around the Bend”/”Run Through the Jungle.” Three others are by the Guess Who: “American Woman”/”No Sugar Tonight,” “Share the Land”/”Bus Rider,” and “No Time”/”Proper Stranger.”
CKLG’s Top 173 of 1970 includes a number of Canadian acts besides the Guess Who with hits south of the border: Anne Murray, Andy Kim, the Poppy Family, Mashmakhan, Gordon Lightfoot, Edward Bear, the Original Caste, Tom Northcott, and Ronnie Hawkins (who was born in America but has lived most of his life in Canada). The 1970 list also has a couple of acts that would eventually hit in America but hadn’t yet, including the Bells and Terry Jacks (who was part of the Poppy Family). But what interests us more are those Canadian acts who remain unknowns down here. Such as:
71. “I Must Have Been Blind”/The Collectors. A Vancouver act with a handful of late 60s hits in Canada, the Collectors eventually morphed into the better-known and more-successful Chilliwack.
91. “One Way Ticket”/McKenna Mendelson Mainline. A blues band made up of musicians from four prominent Toronto bands whose album bore the rather unfortunate title Stink. By the time 1970 had dawned, the band had already begun to fall apart. Future funk legend Rick James was a member for a while during its later stages.
123. “Life Is a Song”/Gainsborough Gallery. The lone black member of this five-piece group left soon after they recorded their album, allegedly because certain American clubs didn’t want to book a mixed-race band. Their album, described as “experimental melodic and psychedelic garage pop,” was produced by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, at the same studio where Buddy Holly recorded. “Life Is a Song” is about as substantial as a soap bubble, and you can hear it at the bottom of this page.
124. “We Were Happy”/Jason Hoover. A meandering bit of prog rock that’s credited incorrectly on the CKLG survey. This band was properly known as The Trials of Jayson Hoover, one of several identities assumed by various combinations of Vancouver musicians of the 1960s, always fronted by one Jayson Hoover.
125. “My Home Town”/Seeds of Time. Another Vancouver act, some members of which would move on to the more successful group Prism, best known in America for “Don’t Let Him Know,” as well as the ridiculous and awesome “Armageddon” and “See Forever Eyes.” “My Home Town” is the first song on this list so far that I’d be interested in hearing again.
129. “Beautiful Second-Hand Man”/Ginette Reno. Reno is from Quebec and would become a much-decorated star of music, movies, and TV through the course of her long career, which began in the 60s. Thanks to her anthem performances at National Hockey League playoff games over the last several years, she might be the best-known performer on this list. Celine Dion considers Reno one of her idols.
142. “Ten Pound Note”/Steel River. It’s not correct to say this Toronto band was utterly unknown in the States. We’ve mentioned them at this blog once before, during one of our earlier forays into Canadian content. Two of Steel River’s singles, including “Ten Pound Note,” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 and 1971.
158. “We Will Find Love”/Ann Attenborrow. This record was produced by Tom Northcott, whose fingerprints were on a fair number of Canadian hits of this period. Apart from that, the Internet knows nothing.
172. “As Feelings Go”/Spring. Still another Vancouver band, Spring seems never to have recorded an entire album, only a few singles in 1969 and 1970. “As Feelings Go” sounds like Badfinger, and I like it.
If you are interested in the Vancouver music scene (scoff if you must, but somebody amongst the readership might be), there’s plenty here.
(Pictured: a look inside my head, and maybe yours too.)
Certain songs seem to have been in my head forever. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a house where the radio was always on. When I hear those songs now, they come with associations positively ancient, from the beginning of time and possibly before. A lot of those songs date back to the late 50s and the early 60s, to what I have called “time without a calendar,” before I started listening to my own radio stations and could use the record charts to mark my passage through the years. A lot of them call up rainy Saturday afternoons, Mother bustling around the house doing the endless chores required while raising two and later three young boys, those young boys with Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys spread out across the living room, Dad periodically coming in from whatever he was doing outside, and all of it soundtracked by our hometown radio station, or maybe by WGN from Chicago.
This post is about one of those songs.
Doris “Dotty” Babb was in showbiz early, having performed at Carnegie Hall in the late 1920s, when she was 13 years old. As a girl, she also performed on Broadway and radio. But showbiz was not going to be her life. She was attending business school when she met Art Todd, a fellow musician from her hometown, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and married him the same year, 1941. After Art got home from the Second World War, they relocated to California, where they worked in radio, and played hotels and casinos.
Art and Dotty Todd eventually got a record deal from RCA; in 1953, “Broken Wings” did big business in the UK but nothing at all in the States. In 1958, songwriter/producer Wayne Shanklin brought them “Chanson D’Amour,” and they cut a demo in the style of Les Paul and Mary Ford, who had recorded a string of successful duets going back to 1951. But no record label wanted it until a small label called Era decided to bite. (Even then, one of Era’s owners told the other that “Chanson D’Amour” was, in his words, a “piece of shit.”) Rather than recutting it, Era released the demo as it was.
“Chanson D’Amour” rose to #6 on Billboard‘s Top 100 in May 1958, and was a #1 hit at WOKY in Milwaukee and at WGR in Buffalo. Art believed that its popularity was partly driven by the resistance of some DJs to rock ‘n’ roll, and their preference for more traditional sounds. (In Buffalo, it ran the Top 10 alongside the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Twilight Time” by the Platters, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and David Seville’s novelty “Witch Doctor.”) “Chanson D’Amour” got its first big boost when it was featured on the TV show Your Hit Parade. Art and Dotty themselves appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and on American Bandstand as well; I have seen a clip of their Bandstand appearance, which featured Dick Clark introducing them from horseback for some reason, but it’s not at YouTube anymore.
Six decades later, it’s easy to hear the appeal of “Chanson D’Amour”: Art and Dotty’s close harmonies, the ever-so-slightly lascivious saxophone (which honks just enough to appeal to rock ‘n’ roll fans of 1958), and “rah-ta-ta-ta-da.”
For all their success in 1958, Art and Dotty Todd never returned to the big Billboard chart, although they continued to record and perform. They were regulars at casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, and in 1980 moved to Hawaii and opened a club there. Dotty Todd died in 2000 at age 87; Art died in 2007 at age 90. Wayne Shanklin, who had written Frankie Laine’s big 1951 hit “Jezebel,” went on to write “Primrose Lane,” a 1959 hit for Jerry Wallace (another song that comes to me with associations from the deepest past). He died in 1970.
In 1953, Art and Dotty’s “Broken Wings” was outdone in the UK by a version by the Stargazers, which went to #1. Their “Chanson D’Amour” was bested in the UK as well, but not until years later. In 1977, Manhattan Transfer took a version to #1. While it imitates Art and Dotty, it doesn’t capture whatever was the indefinable something that made the original insinuate itself into my head years before, when I was too young to know it.
On Wednesday I wrote about the American Top 40 show from April 12, 1975. The rest of the Hot 100 from that same date has some records worth hearing and discussing. Some of them had been in the Top 40 earlier in the year and some of them would make it later, while others would not.
41. “Young Americans”/David Bowie
42. “Beer Barrel Polka”/Bobby Vinton
How could a juxtaposition such as this fail to spark joy?
45. “Shaving Cream”/Benny Bell. This 1946 novelty would eventually make #30 on the Hot 100 as one of the weirdest one-shots ever. Credited to Bell but sung by Paul Wynn (who later got label credit, although few radio stations were all that precise about mentioning his name), its first listing at ARSA is from KQV in Pittsburgh at the end of January 1975. WAKY in Louisville and WNBC in New York were on it in late February. In March, it took three weeks for “Shaving Cream” to hit #1 at CKLW in Detroit, and in May it would stay #1 for four weeks at WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. WLCX also ranked it at #9 for the entire year, which makes me think that in 1975 at least, the portal to Hell was somewhere in western Wisconsin.
58. “The Immigrant”/Neil Sedaka. According to Wikipedia (so who knows), lyricist Phil Cody wrote this song about his father. According to Sedaka himself, it’s about John Lennon’s struggle to get his green card. Sedaka said that Lennon called it “beautiful,” and I have no reason to doubt him. But Sedaka’s cheery, begging-to-be-liked delivery undercuts its message, and it’s positively painful to listen to.
79. “Pinball”/Brian Protheroe. At Allmusic, the estimable Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls “Pinball” “exquisite.” And it is in fact pretty damn great, although it would be hard for me to dislike a song that starts with the lines “I have run out of pale ale / And I feel like I’m in jail.”
97. “The Pill”/Loretta Lynn. I could write a whole post about Maren Morris, who used her spectacular 2016 country single “My Church” as an entree into pop music (most famously “The Middle” with Zedd), and has never recorded anything remotely as good since. Her current single, “Girl,” is being praised as a female empowerment anthem, partly because its sentiments are entirely absent from mainstream country right now, and so it’s a positive development for that reason. Were it on adult-contemporary radio, however, that audience wouldn’t find it much different from records of similar ilk by Rachel Platten, Sara Bareilles, Kelly Clarkson, and others over the last half-dozen years. In 1975, “The Pill” was a feminist empowerment anthem with practical, real-life effects in some parts of rural America among women who had never before considered birth control as an option for them.
99. “All Right Now”/Lea Roberts. You will want to play this R&B cover of the 1970 hit by Free as loud as you can. It’s the first track on Roberts’ 1975 album Lady Lea, which is fabulous. Other covers on the album include “She Don’t Love You,” a gender-flipped version of Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart” by way of Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” which comes off far more romantic than his version. (Had she tried, she could not have failed to improve “The Immigrant.”)
109. “Pick Up the Pieces One by One”/A.A.B.B. A.A.B.B. stands for “Average American Black Band.” Larry Grogan told the story of this record way back in the day, and you should go read his post. The short version is that James Brown supposedly disliked the way the Average White Band had pilfered his style for “Pick Up the Pieces” earlier in 1975, so he made his own answer record under the A.A.B.B name.
The whole summer of 1975 was outside the Top 40 during that April week, full of songs that will, 44 years later, remind a listener of what it was like back then, “Bad Time,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Bad Luck,” “Only Women,” “Magic,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Black Superman,” “Wildfire,” and “Dynomite” among them, his last summer without a car or a driver’s license, on the edge of one life and close to beginning another.
(Note to Patrons: There’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. If you are not a regular reader and subscriber over there, please become one. And if there’s a particular date coming up that you’d like me to write about, find my e-mail address at the top of this post, make a request and we’ll see if we can get it on for you. Also please honk if you get the radio joke in the preceding sentence.)
(Pictured: Ronnie McDowell with Dick Clark on American Bandstand.)
On my travels this spring I am carrying a 16-gig USB stick on which I have loaded most of the compilations I have. And so it came to pass that I was on a deserted highway somewhere in rural Minnesota when “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell came up.
McDowell was a self-described “working boy earning a living in clubs around Bowling Green, Kentucky,” 27 years old, on August 16, 1977, when he heard about Elvis Presley’s death on the radio. Within 15 minutes, he started composing a song in his head; two days later he played what he had for another musician, and together, they finished the song. Not long after, McDowell recorded it with a band including a guitarist named Bucky Barrett, who had been scheduled to join Presley’s band for some tour dates in late August. In a classic showbiz story, McDowell took an acetate to a radio station in Madison, Tennessee, and asked them to play it. He had to talk his way past the receptionist but finally got “The King Is Gone” on the air. The response made McDowell and his record company believe they were onto something.
“The King Is Gone” was released on Scorpion, an independent label whose most famous acts in 1977 were country veterans Roy Drusky and Jean Shepard. McDowell, who had begun writing songs while serving in the Navy, had placed songs with both artists, as well as the Wilburn Brothers and Porter Wagoner. He had recorded only a couple of singles himself before “The King Is Gone.”
“The King Is Gone” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from KFI in Los Angeles on August 29, less than two weeks after Presley’s death. On September 12, WAKY in Louisville debuted it at #1. The same week, in Kansas City, it went from #10 to #1 at KBEQ and from #34 to #1 at WHB. (In November, it recorded its only other #1 listing, at CFGO in Ottawa.) It made the Top 10 at a number of influential stations, including WLS in Chicago, KTKT in Tuscon, and WDRC in Hartford. It peaked at #13 on both the Hot 100 and on Billboard‘s country chart, and it crept into the lower reaches of the Easy Listening Top 50.
The record’s success led McDowell to appearances on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special in the fall of 1977. He says it sold six million copies, a million of them in a single week shortly after its release, but he banked only about $28,000 from it. (He jokes that he’s grateful that his manager/label owner Slim Williamson covered the hot checks he wrote to pay the session musicians.) He has enjoyed some good paydays since then, however, because “The King Is Gone” led to a successful career. He performed the voice of Elvis in numerous commercials, movies, and TV programs, and was one of the top stars in country for a while. He put 15 singles into the Billboard country Top 10 between 1981 and 1987, and a 16th peaked at #11.
Unlike many country stars from the 70s to the 90s, who have given up recording new music and rely on touring to make a living, McDowell has embraced the Internet as a way of reaching the audience. He calls it “an outlet that has nothing to do with radio and all those omnipotent God program directors” who won’t play songs by older artists.
McDowell still performs “The King Is Gone” at every show, but it’s never been a part of radio oldies libraries. In fact, I don’t remember hearing it after it dropped off the air at the end of 1977. Its greatest exposure after that might have been in the early 90s when Rhino put it on a late volume of their Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series. To our ears today, it sounds overwrought and cheesy. But in the fall of 1977, we did not have much experience losing cultural icons, and certainly not icons as big as Elvis Presley. And “The King Is Gone” helped us cope.