Take It Off

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One purpose of art is to show people things they can’t necessarily see for themselves, whether the artist carves a figure out of a block of marble, puts colors on a canvas, words on a page, music on tape, or something else. Similarly, an artist can take people to places they’ve never been, from the bottom of the ocean to the mountains of the moon, create a whole world and then transport us there. The greatest artists do this without being bound by time. Shakespeare, Mozart, Austen—and Howlin’ Wolf and Kurt Vonnegut and Frida Kahlo and others—are long dead but still showing us worlds of theirs.

That is a long-winded and highfalutin way to get to what I really want to write about today: a record made over 60 years ago that still evokes the vivid image of a lost world.

David Rose got into the music business as a teenager in the 1920s and became musical director at MGM Studios in 1941 (the same year he married one of MGM’s biggest stars, Judy Garland). He scored movies and was also the bandleader on Red Skelton’s radio show. When Skelton moved to TV in the 50s, so did Rose, where he scored a number of successful shows. (You may know his themes from Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.) In the late 50s, Rose began releasing albums of show tunes, movie themes, and mood music to capitalize on the popularity of stereo. Rose’s sound was often heavy on strings; his 1944 hit “Holiday for Strings,” Skelton’s theme and Rose’s best-known song, is a prime example.

In 1958, Rose scored a TV special called Burlesque, where he wrote a bit of incidental music to play offstage while the two lead characters did a scene. Not long after, he was in the studio cutting an album that featured a hired brass section along with strings. With 10 minutes left in the session, he had the brass musicians cut that incidental bit, calling it “a funny piece of music with no title.” He invited them to clown around with it, and then had it pressed into souvenir recordings for them.

Four years later, MGM was getting ready to release Rose’s version of “Ebb Tide” to help promote the movie Sweet Bird of Youth. It needed a B-side, so somebody at MGM looked through Rose’s unreleased masters and found the “funny piece of music with no title.” Los Angeles radio and TV personality Robert Q. Lewis heard the B-side and started using it on his radio show as a joke, and it caught on.

According to author Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, the song was #1 in Los Angeles before it made the national charts. That could be true, but I can’t confirm it myself. Although Lewis was on the air at KHJ in 1962, the first listings for the song at ARSA are from Bakersfield and San Diego. The first Los Angeles listings are from KFWB and KRLA in late April 1962. KDEO in San Diego is the first to show it at #1 on May 4, 1962; in that same week, it shows up on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #109. KRLA ranks it #1 one week later. The song would gradually take the country by storm until it reached #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of July 7, 1962.

The song is, if you haven’t figured it out by now, “The Stripper.” And although it was tossed off first as incidental TV music and second as a 10-minute studio goof, it does indeed show listeners a world they can’t necessarily see for themselves. The anonymous studio musicians on “The Stripper” had doubtlessly had spent time in burlesque houses, and through their lascivious horns and sleazy, sensual drumbeats, they give listeners a peek inside that bump-and-grind world as it existed in the late 50s—a very different world than the one you’d see at a modern-day club in your town.

Despite being a #1 hit, “The Stripper” probably reached an even bigger audience thanks to its use in a famous TV commercial that started in 1967 and ran for years after. And for a long time—maybe a whole generation, and as late as the turn of the 90s—movies and TV shows could punctuate a scene, make a joke, or evoke a world with no more than five or ten seconds of “The Stripper.” And that’s a powerful sort of art.

Howdy Again

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(Pictured: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell.)

In 1969, Steve Dworkin, a staffer at the Jerry Kasenetz/Jeff Katz bubblegum factory Super K Productions wrote a song called “Bring Back Howdy Doody.” The Howdy Doody kids’ show, starring Buffalo Bob Smith, his puppet friend Howdy, Clarabell the Clown, and other characters, had been off the air for nine years, and Dworkin says he wrote it as a joke. Then Dworkin and his songwriting partner Gary Willett got a directive to record as many songs as possible in one day for their bosses to use as a tax write-off. They never expected “Bring Back Howdy Doody” would see daylight—“had we known the track was going to be released we would have made it a lot better!” It ended up as the flipside of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” under the title “Pow Wow,” but it was pressed backwards, a trick Kasenetz and Katz used to make sure radio stations played the plug side only. The songwriting credit went not to Dworkin and Willett but to Kasenetz, Katz, and Fruitgum Company lead singer Mark Gutkowski. Later, Kasenetz and Katz had the song recut (forwards this time) as “Bring Back Howdy Doody” and released it under the name of the Flying Giraffe. It went nowhere, but Dworkin sent a copy to Buffalo Bob Smith and got a friendly letter in return. “Soon after,” Dworkin says, “he started touring colleges.”

Whether “Bring Back Howdy Doody” actually caused Smith’s comeback is arguable. What is not arguable is that by 1970, many of the kids who had grown up on Howdy Doody, which had aired from 1947 to 1960, were in their late teens and 20s. So in that year producer Burt Dubrow packaged Buffalo Bob and Howdy for a touring show. It was sufficiently popular to result in a live recording, Buffalo Bob Smith Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. (Hand to god, I am not making that up.) The May 29, 1971, edition of Billboard described the album as an “outstanding live performance” of familiar show material. It also “stands out with [Bob’s] unique performance of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’.” The tour traded on nostalgia, but new material like “Raindrops” nodded to Buffalo Bob’s older, more sophisticated audiences. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), one popular joke in the live show involved Buffalo Bob finding a package of rolling papers that belonged to Clarabell. Billboard goes on to say that the album is “sure to prove a top best seller.” It did not, however—Billboard was famous for raving like that about almost everything.

(Just once I’d like to read a capsule review that says “this record blows and should be shot immediately into the sun.”)

But in May 1971, there was a Howdy Doody tribute better fitted to Top 40 radio. “Do You Know What Time It Is” by the P-Nut Gallery got its own breathless capsule review in the May 22, 1971, Billboard: “This clever bubblegum item has all the potential to break through and go all the way.” That same week, WLS in Chicago listed it as “hitbound” (along with “Get It On” by Chase, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, and “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds). By the week of June 14, it was in the Top 10 at WLS, eventually making #8. It also made the Top 10 in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and a handful of smaller cities. By mid-July, it made #62 in Billboard and #54 in Cash Box.

“Do You Know What Time It Is” is enthusiastically sung, maybe by one of its two writers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, but maybe not. It was probably inevitable that it would include a chorus of shouting children. But it’s pure novelty and should be judged as such, and there must have been listeners in the summer of 1971 who punched the dial hard when it came on. Yet as the very existence of this website indicates, nostalgia can make us behave in strange ways.

Flax and Lambert would return to the chart a few months after “Do You Know What Time It Is” with a record that has endured a little better: they wrote and produced “White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet.

Buffalo Bob would revive Howdy Doody briefly in the late 70s. He did some acting, owned some radio stations, and died in 1988 1998 at age 80. Today, Howdy Doody himself is a kind of Jungian archetype: one of those things millions of people know without actually knowing why they know it.

There’s a good story about the role “Do You Know What Time It Is” played in one fan’s life here.

English Mist

If the name of Roger Whittaker isn’t familiar to you, see if the TV compilation spot up there, from the early 90s, refreshes your recollection of that kindly looking English gentleman, with an impossibly resonant voice and perfect diction, who made the sort of music your mother or grandmother would have liked.

Whittaker’s life story is kind of interesting. He was born in England but grew up in Kenya after his parents moved there for the more salubrious climate. He served in the Kenyan army during the late 50s, then moved back to England to attend university. At the same time, he began a singing career, and landed a record deal in 1962. He recorded throughout the 60s, finally cracking the UK charts with “Durham Town” in 1969. “New World in the Morning” was an easy-listening hit in the States in 1970. He became popular in Scandinavia and Germany, and recorded a long streak of albums in phonetic German.

In 1975, Whittaker’s American label released a 1971 recording, “The Last Farewell.” There must have been something in the air late that spring and into the summer: it’s hard to imagine “The Last Farewell” becoming a pop hit in any other season. It got a boost from WSB in Atlanta, after the program director’s wife heard it on a Canadian station, possibly CKLW, which was one of the first to chart it. After hitting #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, it became a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations not just in Detroit but in Philadelphia, Dayton, Houston, Columbus, Denver, Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Hartford. At WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, it was #1 for five weeks in June and July, stayed in the station’s Top Five for four weeks after that, and ended up #2 for the entire year. On the Hot 100, it peaked at #19 for the week of June 21, 1975, doing a total of nine weeks in the Top 4o and 15 on the Hot 100. It went to #2 in the UK. Around the world, “The Last Farewell” moved something like 11 million copies.

For the next several years, Roger Whittaker was an easy-listening star in America, with six more chart hits, including a reissue of “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore,” which made the Easy Listening Top 10 in 1975 after being a relative stiff in 1970; “Durham Town” got an American release late in ’75 and made #23. He charted six albums: The Last Farewell and Other Hits was the biggest, making #31 on the Billboard 200. Although he never charted after the early 80s, he was a consistent seller, and claims to have received over 250 gold, silver, and platinum awards. It’s easy to understand how mail-order compilations like the one in the ad at the top of this post might have found a very rabid, loyal audience: ultra-familiar songs, most of them very romantic, quietly sung in a traditional and completely unthreatening way.

Roger Whittaker retired from performing in the early 00s, but he has continued to record a little, most recently a German-language album in 2012. (No more phonetic singing; after his earlier success in Germany, he learned the language.) He lives in Ireland now and is still among us at age 84.

When I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s, “Durham Town,” “New World in the Morning,” and “The Last Farewell” were in the library. They’re maybe not your cup of tea and maybe not mine, but they were surely somebody’s. Although in the summer of 1975, “The Last Farewell” was my cup of tea. The introduction of it—that lush, rich, orchestrated thing. (Cable TV viewers got very familiar with it in the late 70s and early 80s; WGN-TV in Chicago used it for station IDs several years running.) That very romantic lyric—brave sailor stoically leaves his beloved to fight a war and hopes he won’t get dead and can return to her one day. And Whittaker’s voice, which certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. I liked it, and I still kind of like it now, on those rare occasions when I hear it.

Though death and darkness gather all about me
And my ship be torn apart upon the sea
I shall smell again the fragrance of these islands
In the healing waves that brought me once to thee
And I should I return safe home again to England
I shall watch the English mist roll through the dell
For you are beautiful
And I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

When Someone Way Down Here Loses Someone Dear

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(Pictured: Benny, Frida, Agnetha, and Bjorn, on stage in 1979.)

Back in 2012, it was reported that science had determined Adele’s “Someone Like You” to be the near-perfect sad song. In 2013, Rolling Stone published the results of a reader poll that chose the 10 saddest songs of all time, including George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which clocked in at #1. In 2015, Paste cast the net a little bit wider, picking 50, and it caught some good ones: several from the Rolling Stone list plus “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” by Tammy Wynette, “Whiskey Lullaby” by Alison Krauss, and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” among others.

My personal picks for saddest songs ever are not on either list, and on the flip. (Please add your favorites in the comments.)

Continue reading “When Someone Way Down Here Loses Someone Dear”

Am I That Easy to Forget

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(Pictured: a summit meeting: Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, 1970.)

In the spring and early summer of 1967, when several legendary hits were atop the charts—“Respect,” “Groovin’,” Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”—riding high with them was an MOR ballad by a singer with a weird name. “Release Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 in June, and hit #1 in Boston, Providence, Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto, Milwaukee, Houston, Winnipeg, Hartford, and smaller cities, including LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where it was #1 for five straight weeks at WLCX.

Engelbert Humperdinck was not born Engelbert Humperdinck. His birth name was Arnold George Dorsey. He was born in India, the son a British military officer stationed there. In the early 50s, he became known professionally as Gerry Dorsey, thanks to a popular Jerry Lewis impression he did on stage. At some point around 1965, pop impresario Gordon Mills, who managed Tom Jones, suggested he adopt the name Engelbert Humperdinck, which had once belonged to a real human being, a German opera composer who had died in 1921. Odd as it was, the name must have helped him cut through the clutter of the 1960s music scene in England. “Release Me,” an oft-recorded country song that dated back to the 1940s, ended up a #1 hit in 11 different countries, including six weeks at #1 in the UK, where it held the Beatles’ double-A sided “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” out of the top spot.

Despite the massive success of “Release Me” on the Hot 100, it made only #28 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. But I suspect it gained new popularity on easy-listening radio over the next four years, because Engelbert’s next 11 singles, through 1971, all made the Easy Listening Top 10. Two went to #1: the very Tom Jones-like “Am I That Easy to Forget” in 1968, and “When There’s No You” in 1971. Two others went to #2. Of those 11 singles, all made the Hot 100, and four of them climbed into the Top 20. Some elderly readers might know “A Man Without Love” and/or “The Last Waltz.”

A lot of people who enjoyed Tom Jones would have been primed for Engelbert, although his style was cooler and less histrionic. He could sing softly in your ear but also step back from the microphone and blow the roof off the studio. (He is said to have said, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”) His rugged good looks didn’t hurt his career, either. They helped get him a TV variety series, produced for a British channel and seen in the States on ABC in 1969.

While getting a TV series often signals a decline in a performer’s fortunes on the record chart, it didn’t happen to Engelbert right away. It was 1972 before his hits ceased to be quite as big as they had been, although he would hit the Adult Contemporary chart in every year through 1981. Only two of his singles in that period were big hits, but both went to #1 AC: “After the Lovin'” and “This Moment in Time.” “After the Lovin'” became his biggest pop hit since “Release Me,” going to #8 on the Hot 100 early in 1977. It got a little bit of country radio airplay too, as did later singles “Love’s Only Love” and “Til You and Your Lover Are Lovers Again.” The latter, in 1983, was Engelbert’s last chart single.

Between 1967 and 1970, Engelbert was also a success on the album chart. Three of his albums made the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, and two more peaked at #12. (His album Release Me was in my parents’ record collection.) At the end of the 70s, three more albums would reach the Top 10, including his two highest-charting: Christmas Tyme in 1977 and This Moment in Time in 1979 would both make #4.

When we tell the story of the late 60s, we’re more likely to talk about Aretha Franklin and the Jefferson Airplane than we are about Engelbert Humperdinck. But he was there, too, and people dug what he did. His late 60s and 70s success made him one of the superstars of easy listening, and it gave him a career that continues today. Since the early 80s he has continued to record, repackage and reissue his library, and tour, including frequent residencies in Las Vegas, right up until the virus crisis took everybody off the road earlier this year. Engelbert Humperdinck is now 84 years old.

Cats of Different Colors

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(Pictured: Waylon Jennings, pre-outlaw.)

One day last fall I wrote about a gender-flipped country version of Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” that came out while the original was still getting pop-radio airplay. It was, however, far from the only instance in which 70s Top 40 cheese got repurposed for the country market that way.

—Based on the stature of the songs he chose and his success with them, Johnny Carver might be the Big Cheese. Carver was discovered by Del Shannon and scattered a few hits across the lower reaches of the Billboard country chart between 1967 and 1972. In 1973, his version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” retitled simply “Yellow Ribbon,” went to #5 on the country chart. In 1976, he would make #9 with a version of “Afternoon Delight.”

—Not to be confused with Johnny Carver is Bobby Wright (because I nearly did). His parents, Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, were both successful country singers; Kitty Wells charted 64 times between 1952 and 1964, most famously with her first hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Johnny Wright did three weeks at #1 in 1965 with “Hello Vietnam.” Bobby Wright didn’t hit much—only four singles between 1969 and 1974—but the last one was a version of “Seasons in the Sun.” (It’s even more bathetic than the original, hard as it may be to believe such a thing is possible.) Wright got it to #24 country while the Terry Jacks original was still on pop radio.

—“Yellow Ribbon” was not the first Tony Orlando and Dawn song to inspire a country cover. After “Knock Three Times” went to #1 in January 1971, it was covered by North Carolina singer Billy “Crash” Craddock, and it went to #3 country that spring. “Knock Three Times,” which twangs harder than any of the other covers we’ve discussed so far, started Craddock on his way to becoming one of the biggest country stars of the mid 70s. In 1974, he had back-to-back #1 country hits including “Rub It In,” which did two weeks at #1 in the summer and crossed to #16 on the Hot 100.

—Margo Smith had a couple of minor hits before taking on a cover in 1976 that made her a star. She took a version of the ultra-sappy “Save Your Kisses for Me” to #10 country about the same time Brotherhood of Man was making #27 on the pop chart. Over the next three years, Smith would hit the country Top 10 with several cover songs, mostly from the pre-rock 1950s.

—Billie Jo Spears, best-known for the 1975 #1 country hit “Blanket on the Ground” (which you really ought to hear if you don’t know it, although I ain’t saying why), got a country radio hit with her own soulful version of “Misty Blue,” reaching #5 only a few weeks after Dorothy Moore’s version peaked at #3 pop in ’76. Moore’s version itself was a cover; both Wilma Burgess and Eddy Arnold had previously hit with it on the country chart.

—Anthony Armstrong Jones charted with covers five times between 1969 and 1973, including the top-10 “Take a Letter Maria” in 1970, plus versions of “Proud Mary,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Sweet Caroline.”

—In 1973, about the same time Gladys Knight and the Pips made “Neither One of Us” a #2 pop hit, country veteran Bob Luman took a version of it to #7 country.

—With a folk-rock group called the Kimberlys, Waylon Jennings went to #23 in 1969 with a version of “Mac Arthur Park.” If all you know is outlaw Waylon, “Mac Arthur Park” will be a surprise.

Waylon’s “Mac Arthur Park” was released over a year after the Richard Harris version and not contemporaneous with it, so it’s not a precise fit with a lot of the other songs in this post, but it comes from the same place: performers, labels, and publishers seeing a way to capitalize on proven commodities by aiming for different audiences. The rebooting of pop hits for other genres is something we’ve discussed previously. Many, many pop hits were covered for the R&B market, and some of those crossed back over to pop. (One might speculate why such a thing has largely fallen out of fashion in the last two or three decades, but I’m not getting into that today.)

I might have included here several instances in which artists covered successful songs years after they first appeared, but it seems to me that rushing out a country cover while the original is still on pop radio, or within a few months, is a cat of a different color. If you know of some others, add ’em in the comments.