What Would You Say

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(Pictured: Hurricane Smith, unlikely singing star and later, a breeder of horses.)

Norman “Hurricane” Smith was first a recording engineer, best known to history for his work on the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul, and later producer of Pink Floyd’s early material, including the single “See Emily Play.” But he was not of their generation—he was pushing 40 when the Beatles came up—and so when he began recording himself at the age of 48, his work reflected a different taste. In the winter of 1972, the deeply odd “Don’t Let It Die” went to #2 in the UK, but a much bigger hit was to come.

“Oh Babe What Would You Say” hit #4 in the UK in the summer of 1972. It hopped the Atlantic and landed at two of America’s most influential radio stations, CKLW in Detroit and WFIL in Philadelphia, at the end of October. It was mostly an East Coast hit for a while, not getting much action farther west until December. For example, it’s a top-five hit at WRKO and WMEX in Boston before it ever charts in Chicago, at WCFL in mid-December. It doesn’t appear on a WLS chart until the second full week of January. By the end of January, it’s in the Top 10 in dozens of cities, and it spends the weeks of January 20 and 27 at #2 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, behind Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It records its first local #1 at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, during the week of February 5, and it goes #1 at KXOK in St. Louis for the week of February 17, 1973. In the same week, it hits #1 in Cash Box and peaks at #3 on the Hot 100. Also in February, Julie Andrews performs it with a giant blue Muppet on a TV special, and Smith himself sings it on The Tonight Show. But every record runs its course sooner or later, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is gone from most charts by the end of March. For all of 1973, its highest local ranking is #8 at KRUX in Phoenix and WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina. On Billboard‘s 1973 Top 100, it’s #57; in Cash Box, it’s #31.

Although I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45. (I am continually baffled by the buying choices of the younger me.) And I wish knew whether “Oh Babe” got much radio play after 1973. I don’t remember hearing it a lot, although there’s no reason it would have made any greater impression on me than anything else from the winter of 1973, if I heard it in the few years following.  It would occasionally resurface: Peggy Lee occasionally sang it in her nightclub act, and comedienne Kaye Ballard did it, with the same giant blue Muppet that had duetted with Julie Andrews, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. (The Muppet Show debuted on Disney Plus last week, so you can’t say this website isn’t topical every so often, if only by accident.)

It wasn’t long, however, before “Oh Babe” took a place among the largely forgotten hits of the past, at least for most people. In the early 80s, when I started sneaking records home from my radio job to record them to cassette, “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was one of the first ones I grabbed. And when it appeared on Rhino’s Have a Nice Day 70s anthology in 1989, that volume was one of the first ones I grabbed.

The sax player on “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is a guy named Frank Hardcastle, who had served with Smith in the Royal Air Force. The dude had chops: the solo in the middle sounds like it’s improvised. It’s the hook of that horn as much as Smith’s old-timey vocal that made the song into a hit. It’s easy to visualize Smith and Hardcastle in the 1940s, young men sitting in some club, eyeing the local girls, and listening to a band that honks like they would on a future day.

In the winter of 1973, not-quite-13-year-old me hears “Oh Babe” without a clue about how it refers to the bygone time when its musicians were young. Instead, I think about a particular pretty girl and imagine saying to her, “Have I a hope or half a chance to even ask if could I dance with you?”

I have neither.

If you’d like to hear “Oh Babe,” I recommend this clever version of it, which features the moment not-quite-13-year-old me dreamed of, at about one minute in.

(Note to Patrons: The comments on Wednesday’s post were far more interesting than what I wrote originally, and I thank all who participated.)

Bread and Beer

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(Pictured: Reg Dwight buys lunch.)

In the late 60s, as a scuffling artist trying to make a name for himself, young Elton John played every session he could get. His best-known pre-fame recordings have been released under several titles, most famously Chartbusters Go Pop!. They were covers of popular hits that were intended to sound like the originals, and they appeared on budget-priced, quickie compilations. Upwards of 50 songs on which he played or sang have been documented, recorded between 1968 and 1970, the last of them cut during the same month Elton traveled to Los Angeles for his famous American debut at the Troubadour.

While Elton was preparing to record his first album, Empty Sky, he was invited to join a group being put together by producer Chris Thomas. It included two members of his Empty Sky band, guitarist Caleb Quaye and drummer Roger Pope, as well as Bernie Calvert, who played bass in the Hollies, and two percussionists, Lennox Jackson and a guy known only to history as Rollo. Thomas and another colleague, Tony King, hoped that the group might end up a powerhouse studio outfit, maybe England’s answer to the Funk Brothers—and they would be its impresarios.

In August 1968, Thomas and King, who worked for George Martin, had some down time at the office while the boss was on vacation and the Beatles weren’t around much, so they assembled their guys at Abbey Road. They recorded mostly at night following afternoons down the pub, with studio ambience provided by colored lights the Beatles used when they worked. The group ended up with a dozen songs, mostly reworked instrumental covers of past hits, including “Wooly Bully,” “The Letter,” “Needles and Pins,” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” Decca was sufficiently interested to release a single, “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” backed with “Breakdown Blues.” It came out in February 1969 under the name of the Bread and Beer Band. The record got some brief and positive notices in the British music press, but Decca decided not to release anything more. So the stuff went into the vaults, just another job that came and went for Elton and his mates, leaving behind only a small paycheck, if that. And Elton went looking for his next gig.

Seven years later, in 1976, Elton John was on top of the world. Tony King was running Elton’s label, Rocket Records, and he gave the boss a birthday gift that year: an acetate of the never-released Bread and Beer Band album. King told a reporter that when he listened to it for the first time in seven years, he was ready for it to be “god awful.” It was instead “halfway decent,” King said. “Everybody who played on it still likes it.”

Elton’s management team had no plans to release the Bread and Beer Band stuff, and in fact, Elton’s birthday acetate was the only physical copy in existence, apart from the studio master tapes. But “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” and “Breakdown Blues” finally appeared on last year’s Jewel Box collection of Elton’s deep cuts. “Breakdown Blues,” with Quaye’s blazing guitar, is the better side, but on “Dick Barton Theme,” Elton’s piano style is easily recognizable.

(You can hear all of the Bread and Beer Band album here. If you’d prefer only a sample, here’s “The Letter,” with ghostly Elton vocals, the extremely reimagined “Wooly Bully,” and a version of the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” that smokes. If you are inclined to get a bootleg mp3 version of the album, go here.)

On some of Elton John’s earliest anonymous recordings, his talent is impossible to contain. You can hear it on some of the Chartbusters stuff, which was intended to be disposable product and not lavished with a great deal of love and care in the studio. Even there, however, the chops and charisma that made him a superstar are audible. Similarly, the Bread and Beer Band had the potential to be the kind of virtuoso outfit that could play anything, sound good doing it, and thereby never be out of work. Perhaps, in some alternate universe, instead of becoming the flamboyant ruler of the 70s pop world, Elton John became one of the most in-demand studio musicians in Britain.

Note to Patrons: A new edition of The Sidepiece went out yesterday. Check your spam filter. To see the Sidepiece archive, go here. To receive it in your e-mail, go here. Also, thanks to the commenters who kept the discourse going around here this week despite the lack of new posts. I appreciate your contributions. 

Let ‘Em Play

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(Pictured: Meat Loaf, who is not the subject of this post, on stage in 1978.)

This New Year’s Eve, it will be 25 years since my first all-request show on the classic-rock station in Davenport, Iowa. It was a one-time thing that later became a regular gig on Saturday nights for much of 1996 and 1997. As I’ve written before, the program director trusted me to know what was appropriate to play and what was not, and if I skated over the line, he was willing to forgive me. I built a collection of literally hundreds of my own drops and sweepers too. It was highly produced, interactive, and fun for everybody, including (especially) me.

There were certain songs I could have played every week and more than once—“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “American Pie,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You”—but I didn’t. I wanted to please the people who didn’t call as much as the regular callers. And I wanted to take advantage of the fact that for every five listeners who wanted to hear fking Meat Loaf again, there would be one who would surprise me with something cool, something I couldn’t get on the air fast enough.

This post is about two of my favorite listener requests.

Continue reading “Let ‘Em Play”

Super Soul Sure Shot

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(Pictured: Pete Wingfield.)

Forty-five years ago this week, an especially beloved but still obscure 70s hit achieved a bit of perfection that was too good to be an accident.

Pete Wingfield is one of the most prolific musicians in the history of rock. He came up as a blues musician in a band called Jellybread, but when it failed to find success, he got into session and concert work as well as songwriting and production. His list of credits is extremely long: B. B. King, Lightnin’ Slim, Memphis Slim, Nazareth, Keef Hartley, Colin Blunstone, Van Morrison, the Hollies (with whom he was associated for a very long time), Freddie King, Al Stewart, Maggie Bell, Edwin Starr, Lindisfarne, Richard and Linda Thompson, Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton-John, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the Everly Brothers (whose band he joined for its 1980s reunion), the Alan Parsons Project, and Paul McCartney—and that is undoubtedly an incomplete list. He played so many sessions—over a thousand sessions in all—that he can no longer remember them all. He once told a journalist, “Well, I must have been there because my name’s on the sleeve.”

But apart from the long list of credits, what most people best remember about Pete Wingfield is one indelible record: “Eighteen With a Bullet.” In Billboard chart jargon, records that show potential for greater growth and a higher chart position are marked with what’s known as a bullet. So the phrase “eighteen with a bullet” refers to the #18 position on the chart, with the potential to go higher. Wingfield uses it as a metaphor for a budding relationship with the potential to get stronger.

“Eighteen With a Bullet” was a big hit in the UK during the summer of 1975. It first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WWIN in Baltimore at the end of June, but it takes a while to catch on. It starts getting traction across America in mid-September, and becomes particularly big at WCFL in Chicago, where it gets to #3 as October turns to November—although WCFL’s crosstown rival, WLS, didn’t chart it at all. It’s even bigger at KMBY in Monterey, California, where it spends a couple of weeks at #1 in November. In December, it tops local charts in San Bernardino and Sacramento.

There is little doubt that lots of radio stations would have been sorely tempted to rank “Eighteen With a Bullet” at #18 on their weekly music surveys at some point, and many of them did. WWIN was first, then KYA in San Francisco, WRKO in Boston, KTKT in Tucson, WHB in Kansas City, WFIL in Philadelphia, KTLK in Denver, KRIZ in Phoenix, and a few smaller stations. And Billboard gave in to the temptation too. During the week of November 22, 1975, “Eighteen With a Bullet” ranked #18, with a bullet. During the week of November 29, “Eighteen With a Bullet” peaked at #15 in Billboard—a remarkably high placing for something so quirky and original. I suspect that radio stations and record-industry people loved it more than the public did, and that couldn’t have hurt it one bit.

The lyrics to “Eighteen With a Bullet” could only have been written by a man with experience in the music business, somebody who spoke the language of records, record marketing, and radio, and who had the talent to turn that jargon into a love song. The music could only have been written by somebody who knew his way around the blues, New Orleans R&B, and doo-wop. In a world where every piece of music is described by comparing it to something else, there’s nothing quite like “Eighteen With a Bullet.”

I first wrote about “Eighteen With a Bullet” in 2006, and it was this website’s most popular post for a long time. This post is partially rebooted from material posted in 2012.

Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.

A Year With Gale Garnett

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(Pictured: Gale Garnett.)

I have written many times about songs I knew before I knew that I knew them, and another one popped up on shuffle the other day: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett. It’s an easy-rockin’ singalong from 1964 that featured just enough harmonica to qualify it as a folk record back then, plus an orchestra, acoustic guitars, and a small chorus of what sounds like overdubbed Gale Garnetts:

We’ll sing in the sunshine
We’ll laugh every day
We’ll sing in the sunshine
Then I’ll be on my way

I must have heard it on Mother and Dad’s radio; it’s a song our hometown station would have been quite likely to play, and for years thereafter.

“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” is the slow-cookin’est single I’ve seen at ARSA lately. It first appears on several northern California radio stations in June and July 1964 and gradually creeps east. It hits the Top 10 at a couple of stations in San Francisco in mid-July, and while it rides high at a lot of stations for the next several weeks, it doesn’t hit #1 anywhere in the west until the last full week in August. It continues to cook across the country into September, going #1 at KLIF in Dallas in early September, at KIMN in Denver a week after that, and at both WKNR and WXYZ in Detroit at the end of the month. By the time October begins, most every city that’s listing it has it in the Top 10.

During the week of October 17, 1964, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” reaches its peak of #4 on the Hot 100, part of a killer Top 10 that also includes “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song,” and the Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” It hits #1 in Cash Box during the first week of November. In Bluefield, West Virginia, it’s still in the Top 10 come December.

“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” ran the Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 for 17 weeks each. In Billboard, only the Louis Armstrong “Hello Dolly” and Barbra Streisand’s “People” charted longer. It did seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard Pop-Standard Singles chart (later Easy Listening, still later Adult Contemporary), from late September through mid-November. Billboard ranked it at #8 for all of 1964. The song would win Best Folk Performance at the 1965 Grammys. Garnett’s followup single, “Lovin’ Place,” would reach #54 on the Hot 10 early in 1965, but it would be her last visit to the American charts.

Music had interrupted Gale Garnett’s acting career. She had started working on television while she was still a teenager before a 1963 singing gig in a New York City club led to a record deal. After “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” a handful of busy years followed. She frequently played Greenwich Village clubs and college campuses, and she opened for stars including Bill Cosby, but after all that, she returned to Hollywood. In the late 60s, she fronted a psychedelic rock band called Gale Garnett and the Gentle Reign. They made two albums whose titles could not have been more pop-psych perfect: An Audience With the King of Wands and Sausalito Heliport. Still later, she wrote novels, reviews and other journalism pieces, and she appeared on the stage, usually under her full given name, Gale Zoë Garnett. She’s still with us, at age 78.

Unusual for a female singer in 1964, Gale Garnett wrote “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” She said it was about “settle-down fear,” but also “a happy approach to personal independence.” It’s also pretty bold for its time. We’ll do everything that lovers do, she says, and while “everything” isn’t explicitly defined, it’s reasonably clear that it includes acts that in 1964 were not yet considered respectable without the benefit of clergy. And nothing about it is permanent. “Although I’ll never love you, I’ll stay with you one year,” she says. And then:

And when our year has ended
And I have gone away
You’ll often speak about me
And this is what you’ll say
We sang in the sunshine . . . . 

Translation: “I’m gonna ruin every woman who comes to you after me, son. But I mean that in the most benign way possible.”