The Yiddish Are Coming

It is said that on the night of November 22, 1963, Lenny Bruce went through with a previously scheduled club date. (Nobody seems to know exactly where.) He walked on stage, looked at the audience for a moment, and then said (again, nobody is precisely sure, but this is a cleaner version), “Poor Vaughn Meader.”

Meader was the voice actor famed for his John F. Kennedy impersonation, the star of two wildly successful comedy albums written and produced by Bob Booker and Earle Doud. Cadence Records nearly scrapped the planned release of The First Family in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but going ahead proved to be a wise decision. The album spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s monaural album chart in December 1962 and won Album of the Year at the 1963 Grammys. The First Family Volume Two, recorded in March 1963 and rushed out to capitalize on the success of the first, went to #4. But after Kennedy was assassinated in November, the label pulled the First Family albums from stores, and even went so far as having the unsold copies destroyed out of respect for the Kennedy family.

Meader wasn’t the only person involved with the First Family project whose career was derailed by the assassination. Bob Booker was also left figuring out what to do next. In 1965, Booker and a writing partner, George Foster, hit upon You Don’t Have to Be Jewish. The cast included Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi, whose faces you would likely recognize; Bob McFadden and Frank Gallop, whose voices might be familiar; Betty Walker, a character actor and comic who had released a couple of albums featuring a one-sided telephone routine; and Arlene Golonka, then a Broadway actress who would later appear on practically every famous TV comedy show, including a co-starring role as Millie on Mayberry RFD. Booker and Foster didn’t duck the fact that most of the routines were based on material that was ancient even in 1965. As puts it, “Those with a lowered tolerance for nagging-mother jokes should consider themselves warned.”

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish was a hit, going to #9 on the Billboard album chart in a 34-week chart run that started in September 1965. A sequel was inevitable: When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish reunited most of the cast of the first album with the exception of Gilford and Golonka, who recommended a young New Yorker named Valerie Harper to take her place. Phil Leeds also joined the cast, another character actor who did literally every TV comedy from the 50s to the 80s. When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish did not equal its predecessor’s performance but it did OK, making #22 in an 18-week run starting in April 1966. It also produced an actual hit single: Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving,” which is at the top of this post. It became a top-10 hit in Seattle and Denver, and it made #34 on the Hot 100 in May 1966. Valerie Harper got her own spot on the album on “A Call From Greenwich Village,” a telephone routine also featuring Betty Walker, which foreshadows the relationship between Rhoda Morgenstern and her mother (played by Nancy Walker) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Much of the same cast went back to the well in the fall of 1967 for The Yiddish Are Coming, the Yiddish Are Coming. This one scraped up to #165. One last album, The Jewish-American Princess, with Jacobi, Gallop, McFadden, and a Broadway veteran named Bea Arthur, came out in the fall of 1971. It made #183, and after that, the Booker/Foster Jewish comedy boom was good and truly over.

Some comedy is timeless, and some is timebound. These Jewish comedy albums are definitely in the latter category. Even in 1965, the audience often seems to be laughing in recognition of a particular sort of reality and not because the stuff is straight-up funny. Even the “The Ballad of Irving” doesn’t have much going for it beyond the amusing premise of a Jewish gunfighter in the Old West. A listener in 2020 may wonder why people are laughing at all. But 50 years ago, in a time not far removed from Allan Sherman’s heyday, when a great deal of stand-up comedy was heavily Jewish in outlook and the Borscht Belt was still a thing, the You Don’t Have to Be Jewish Players were right on time.

My Love You Didn’t Need to Coax

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(Pictured: young Rod Stewart hangs out.)

(Optional soundtrack for this post.)

This happened just the other day, on the kind of afternoon we get in September, warm, a lovely breeze, beautiful light. I stop by my neighborhood convenience store, step inside, and all of a sudden I’m not there anymore. That is because the in-store music is playing Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”

I have an annual rendezvous with Maggie, the first time I hear her every fall, when she takes me back to the first time I ever heard her. It is 1971. I am back at Northside School for the sixth grade. I have been in love with pop music and the radio for a year. But an equal passion at the moment involves the organized city park-and-rec touch football games after school. At Recreation Park, we play on the field where our fathers played high-school ball in the 40s and 50s. Occasionally we play on a half-grass, half-gravel field across the street from Lincoln School, which I attended until halfway through second grade. Each game is a rabble of boys, running and yelling and grabbing and falling and getting back up again in the September light, soft and golden then as now, which crowns the trees and slowly lengthens the shadows. “Maggie May” brings back those images of 1971; it isn’t the only song that does it, but it’s one that has never left me. And it was probably late September, like in the song, when I went to the store and put down my 94 cents to bring Maggie home.

The 1971 Northside Browns, champions of the Grade Football League. I am in the back on the far left, and how my mother let me out of the house dressed like that I do not know. (Click to embiggen.)

WMEX in Boston and KRLA in Los Angeles, both rock-leaning Top 40 stations, were playing “Maggie May” as an album cut in early July 1971, and it was #1 in Boston as July turned to August. It was issued on a single with “Reason to Believe,” which was the original plug side; “Reason to Believe” is listed alone for its first four weeks on the Hot 100. On August 14, 1971, it appears for the first time as “Reason to Believe”/”Maggie May,” and the next week, as “Maggie May”/”Reason to Believe.” That’s the way the record is listed through five weeks at the top of the Hot 100, beginning on October 2, until it drops off the chart following the week of December 4, 1971. WLS, the only station that mattered to me, charted both sides of the record during the week of August 30, just as we went back to school, ranked both at #1 for four weeks starting September 27, and listed it through November. WLS ranked it at #4 for the entire year; Billboard had it at #2 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Maggie May” was the #1 record for all of 1971 on radio stations in New York City, Buffalo, and San Jose; WFIL in Philadelphia listed “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” as co-#1s.

(“Reason to Believe” is a pretty potent memory trigger itself, with its piano chords tolling out the years.)

Rod and guitarist Martin Quittenton wrote “Maggie May” about how Rod lost his virginity to an older woman, but before I knew what it meant, I loved it for the sound of it on the radio. After many years had passed, I started associating it strongly with how it felt to be alive in the fall of 1971: not just hearing it on the radio, not just experiencing band practice and enjoying touch football, but being truly conscious of the change of seasons for the first time in my life, the sights and sounds of crops being harvested, the need to wear a coat to school, the earlier coming of sunset, and the welcome weight of an extra blanket at night. I also hear “Maggie May” as a song about the pull of home, our reluctance to let the days of our lives slip away—how we hold tight to the good ones and even a few of the bad ones—and how we are compelled to revisit them. We love those days and the songs that soundtracked them because they tell us about ourselves: who we have been, who we are, and now that we’re older, who we’re going to be.

And there’s something else about how much that song means to me, something I’ve said here before: The Mrs. and I have no children. But if we’d had a daughter, I’m pretty sure she would have been named Maggie May.

The Heights of ’75

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(Pictured: Elton John gets airborne, October 25, 1975.)

I’ve written here before about Elton John’s best year ever—from the release of his Greatest Hits album and bringing John Lennon back to the stage at the end of 1974 to playing the Pinball Wizard in the Tommy movie to a pair of #1-debuting albums at a time when nobody had ever done it. The summer of ’75 also featured the fabled Midsummer Music show in London, at which Elton and his new band played all of the new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

That’s not even a whole year. That’s six months.

It’s hard to fathom the pressure Elton was under during the summer of 1975. After making Captain Fantastic, he fired his longtime bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who had been with him since he was living in his mother’s house. On June 21, the Midsummer Music show was his new band’s first live gig, and in Elton’s words to the crowd at the end of the show, “We were shit scared.” Back in the States a week later, Elton appeared onstage with the Doobie Brothers in Oakland. One night in July, as the band finished Rock of the Westies at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, he came on with the Rolling Stones at their show in Fort Collins, and, as he admitted in his autobiography, he overstayed his welcome onstage thanks to loads of cocaine.

Elton’s brief West of the Rockies Tour opened in San Diego on September 29, 1975. That show, at the San Diego Sports Arena, has been extensively bootlegged, and it recently turned up at the fabulous ROIO. On that night, the band played for nearly 3 1/2 hours (although the show would get shorter as the month-long tour went on). Elton opened with “Your Song,” and the setlist had all the classics Elton fans of ’75 would have expected. He played several cuts from Captain Fantastic and two from Rock of the Westies, including “Island Girl,” his new single, which Elton said from the stage had been released just that day. He played some deep cuts: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and “Empty Sky,” the title song from his 1969 album, which had gotten its first American release earlier in 1975. The bootleg closes with “Pinball Wizard,” although some shows on the tour ended with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” (I have a bootleg of the October 14 Portland show, and it ends with “Pinball Wizard” too.)

It is not unusual for a band on the road to require a few dates to warm up, and at this show, the band sometimes comes off awkward and lumbering. Elton is strong and clear but he sometimes struggles to hit high notes, and he occasionally launches into a painful-sounding falsetto. But it’s by no means a bad show: the Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies songs are reinvented minus the Cheez Whiz slathered on them in the studio, and Elton alone at the piano, as he was at the beginning of the show, playing some of his earliest songs, is always worth the price of admission.

The bootleg contains a lot of Elton’s stage banter. At one point, a fan who sent him a gift is thanked by name and seat number: “She got my hat size wrong but I’m going to wear it anyway,” he says. He’s almost obsequious sometimes, as if he were begging the audience to like him, as if he were not already the most popular rock star on Earth.

The West of the Rockies tour consisted of single shows in San Diego, Tucson, Las Vegas, Tempe, Salt Lake City, and Portland, and two-night stands in Denver, Seattle, and Vancouver. The first 12 shows were at indoor arenas, but the last five were in baseball stadiums: three nights at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles shows, on October 25 and 26, 1975, featured opening acts Emmylou Harris and Joe Walsh, plus a gospel choir and a crowd in excess of 55,000 each night. If there’s a moment when Elton John went from #1 to whatever’s higher than that, the Dodger Stadium shows, and the end of the West of the Rockies tour, were that moment. But there’s only one direction you can go from the highest high. Elton would again play in America during the summer of 1976, score his biggest hit single to date (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and release another album that fall, Blue Moves. But he’d never again scale the heights of ’75.

Past Masters

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The Beatles released their last album of new material, Let It Be, in April 1970. But by that time, the re-purposing of Beatles content (not a phrase anyone would have used, but an idea whose time had come nevertheless) was underway.

—Even before Let It Be, in February 1970, Apple released Hey Jude, a compilation mostly of singles and B-sides that had been hard to find in America since their original release, thanks to Capitol’s practice of reprogramming Beatles albums for North America. Although it’s completely forgotten today, Hey Jude went to #2 on the Billboard 200.

—In 1973, in response to the success of a copyright-violating Beatles compilation called Alpha Omega, came the fabled “red” and “blue” releases: The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970. During the week of May 26, 1973, the two albums sat at #3 and #1 respectively on the Billboard 200. They were critical in the musical education of kids who had missed the 60s. Young me bought the blue one; the young Mrs. bought the red one.

—In 1976, responding to the success of a couple of Beach Boys compilations and a cresting wave of nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s, Rock and Roll Music hit the stores. It was boosted by an honest-to-goodness hit single, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” repurposed from Revolver. Rock and Roll Music went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Wings at the Speed of Sound kept it from #1.

—A year later, some sketchy 1962 recordings made at the Star Club in Hamburg and released on a couple of obscure European labels started getting some traction, to the point at which the Beatles sued to keep them off the market. Capitol dipped into its vaults for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, recorded in 1964 and 1965. Although prominent critics praised it, what listeners heard most clearly was the frenzied screaming of the audiences. It went to #2 on the Billboard 200 during the summer of 1977, but was quickly forgotten and fell out of print for 30 years. (The album was reissued in 2016, remixed to clean up the sound.)

—At the end of 1977 came another two-disc compilation in the mold of Rock and Roll Music: Love Songs. (In his book Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield differentiates the two albums as the one with fast songs and the one with slow ones.) It hit record stores just in time for Christmas, but made it only to #24—the first Beatles album of any sort to place below #3 on the American charts since Capitol’s first repurposing effort, the 1964 album The Early Beatles.

—In 1980, Rarities collected songs that were, for various reasons, hard to find in America, including alternate versions and rare mono or stereo mixes. Most notable among these were “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which had been the flipside of “Let It Be,” and the German-language version of “She Loves You,” “Sie Liebt Dich.” Rarities went to #21 in Billboard.

—In 1982, Reel Music collected songs from the soundtracks of A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Several songs appeared in stereo for the first time in America. Released with the album but not appearing on it was “The Beatles Movie Medley,” a cheesy and overlong montage that rose to #12 on the Hot 100 mostly on curiosity value at the height of the medley craze. (On the whole it’s not good, but some of the transitions from one song to another are well done.) This was Capitol, and its British parent company, EMI, scraping the bottom of the Beatle barrel: the band remained the most popular of all time, but EMI was running out of ways to monetize them.

—At the end of 1982, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniverary of the band’s first hits but also just in time for holiday shopping, came 20 Greatest Hits which, in pure Capitol/EMI fashion, was released in separate UK and US configurations. Perhaps America was Beatled out at that point, as the album made it only to #50.

—In 1987, the Beatles’ original albums began coming out on CD, in their UK configurations. This necessitated a series of albums to catch up on the non-album singles: Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2, which were released in 1988.

—In the CD era, Beatles compilations remained thick on the ground. Three volumes of Anthology went to #1 in 1995 and 1996; the compilation titled simply 1 went into millions of Christmas stockings in 2000 and was Billboard‘s #1 album of the year in 2001.

Fifty years after the Beatles’ breakup, with streaming the main mode of musical consumption, this kind of catalog chopping and channeling will happen no more. (At least not at the behest of a record company. Playlisting is another thing altogether.)

Stuck With You

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(Pictured: Huey Lewis and the News show off an award in Britain, 1986.)

I cannot tell you the first time I heard “Stuck With You” by Huey Lewis and the News. I am not sure anybody could, actually, because it’s the kind of thing that you feel like you’ve heard before even when you’re hearing it for the first time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—instant familiarity combined with freshness is how many mega-gazillion-selling hits are made. “Stuck With You” was guaranteed to be a mega-gazillion-selling a hit for another reason: it had been three years since the release of the mega-gazillion-selling album Sports, and in that time, the band had released only “The Power of Love,” which became the band’s first #1 single in the summer of 1985. People were ready.

“Stuck With You” shows up on a couple of radio surveys from Canadian stations in mid-July 1986. A few days later, stations in Hartford, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Providence, and Los Angeles are on it. Indicative of just how hotly anticipated it was, it enters the Hot 100 way up at #42 on August 2, 1986. It cracks top tens across the country in mid-August, and makes #1 in Buffalo, Providence, Minneapolis, Louisville, and a few smaller cities in early-to-mid September. Despite its hot start, it takes a while before it gets to the top of the Hot 100, on September 20, 1986, where it stays for three weeks. After that, the record then slow-cooks its way out, not gone from the big chart until mid-December. At WPHD in Buffalo, it ranks #3 for the entire year; at WNTQ in Syracuse, it’s #4. On Billboard‘s Top 100 of 1986, it ranks #21, behind several records that never made #1 at all. (It was somehow four slots behind “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds.) “Stuck With You” was also all over MTV that summer and fall, and it couldn’t be more typical of the music video form at that moment in history, full of whimsical images and beautiful women.

The album Fore! followed the single, released on August 20. Like Sports, it also hit #1, but unlike Sports, it didn’t take nine months to get there. It spent the week of October 18, 1986, at #1, just as the second single “Hip to Be Square” started up the chart. The third single, “Jacob’s Ladder” would also make #1, and two succeeding singles would hit the Top 10 as well.

(When I was writing for Popdose, I proclaimed “Hip to Be Square” to be one of the world’s worst songs. “The protagonist of ‘Hip to Be Square’ is the same guy from ‘Stuck With You,’ although he’s no longer enjoying a self-deprecating laugh with his spouse over their life together,” I wrote. “Now, he wants everybody to know how he’s achieved that life: by cutting his hair, working out, eating better—giving up that old hippie bullshit, in other words—and thereby reaching a new level of cool through middle-class conformity. And although he never says it, he is clearly a guy who never voted Republican in his life until Ronald Reagan came along.”)

Fore! is not an album I listen to much. It sounds great, sure, even more commercial than Sports, which is really sayin’ something. But “Stuck With You” is head-and-shoulders the best song on it, which is not the case with Sports—I could be argued into naming any one of several songs as the best on that album. There’s a sameness to the tracks that Sports doesn’t have. I should listen to Fore! backwards sometime, because the album-ending tracks, “Forest for the Trees,” “Naturally,” and “Simple As That” might be better than they seem by the time I get to them. (The band’s next album, Small World, is much more likely to get into the player around here, as is Plan B, which nobody heard when it came out in 2001 despite the fact that it’s got some of the band’s best songs and Huey’s most likeable performances. Hear it all here.)

But “Stuck With You”—dang, that record is still such a pleasure after all this time. I remember hearing it over and over again on one particular weekend, about the time it went to #1, married three years with my life and career figured out (or so I thought), and thinking that if I ended up as happy as Huey sounded, everything in the world would be all right. Thirty-four years later, everything in the world is most certainly not all right, but “Stuck With You,” the most perfectly constructed four minutes in the Huey Lewis catalog, is still great.

Pushing the Rock

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(Pictured: until I can again be one of the people in this picture, I’ll have to spend my time writing.)

Tomorrow is this website’s 16th anniversary. Here’s the customary rundown of some of my favorite posts since the last anniversary.

I wrote more about American Top 40 than in any previous year, I think. This post featuring an especially wack Long Distance Dedication was fun to write. So was the one about the Christmas songs Casey played. Find all of my posts about the show here. Find the companion feature about the bottom 60 records on the same week’s Billboard chart here.

The Re-Listening Project continued, in which I write about albums we’ve all heard a million times. Subjects included Tusk, The Stranger, A Night at the Opera, and The Long Run. Find all of those posts here.

With the coming of the plague in March, I started writing Life on Lockdown, which has become an intermittent series now (mostly because I write stuff and then have second thoughts about posting it), but I expect it to reappear eventually. I’m especially proud of what I wrote about the message of the BLM/police brutality protests.

The series Inside Billboard (which is sometimes Inside Radio and Records) is one of my favorite things to write. Find the past year’s trades here.

Shortly before last year’s anniversary, I launched a podcast, which is on indefinite hiatus now. If you’d like to revisit the series, you can find it here.

What follows are some favorite posts appearing here since last July that aren’t covered by any of the categories above:

Continue reading “Pushing the Rock”