Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 5
Welcome to 1963, loyal readers! This year we see some subtle but important changes in the American pop music landscape. While love and romance continued to be dominant themes, more socially conscious fare started to appear on the charts. On the flip side, the Beach Boys — with their joyful celebrations of girls, cars, and surfing — were just getting warmed up for their assault on the charts.
Elsewhere in America, 1963 was a year of incredible highs (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August) and devastating lows (President Kennedy’s assassination in November). On the pop culture front, the first James Bond feature film (Dr. No) debuted, James Brown’s legendary Live at the Apollo album was released, and Patsy Cline died at age 30 when her plane crashed near Camden, Tennessee.
#1: Trini Lopez, “If I Had a Hammer” – #3 U.S., #4 U.K.
Jack Feerick – My son is singing this in his third-grade chorus, and I recently rounded up a bunch of versions for him—but I’d never heard Trini’s version before now. It’s just become my favorite.
“Hammer” is a profound song, self-consciously so, and its imagery is mythic. And most performers, from Peter, Paul and Mary to (God help us) Leonard Nimoy, treat it earnestly, even reverently. Lopez, though, turns it into a party song, a hand-clapping singalong. And he’s right to do so, for a couple of reasons. He’s capturing the moment when social justice is morphing from a movement into a counterculture—a cohesive social cohort with its own shared values, its own cultural signifiers, its own music. Lopez’s “Hammer” is not a cry for action or a wake-up call aimed at the square world; it’s a celebration of belonging, shared by those within the scene.
And if its easygoing charm is at odds with the urgency of Pete Seeger’s original vision, that too is appropriate. The task of creating a finer world is not necessarily grim—it can be joyous. In fact, if it’s going to succeed, I think maybe it needs to be.
Jon Cummings – I like this track just fine, and I like what Jack says it, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of early-’60s folkies and movement types didn’t see it that way. Did the people who chastised Dylan for going electric appreciate Lopez turning the Weavers’ iconic “If I Had a Hammer” into “La Bamba”? (Speaking of which, the same live album that features this track also features Lopez’s “Latinized” takes on “This Land Is Your Land,” “What’d I Say,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and “Unchain My Heart,” as well as “La Bamba” itself.) Of course, Lopez’s most memorable hit was “Lemon Tree” — which always reminds me of George Costanza’s “safe word” when he’s trying to switch the tape in a woman’s answering machine on a classic Seinfeld episode.
Dw. Dunphy – I recently rewatched Martin Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home – Bob Dylan, and was once again amazed by the earnestness and naivete of the folk culture. I suppose you had to be to survive those turbulent times. If they were as cynical then as we (I) are (am) now (now), nothing would have ever happened. Even so, the overall belief that their songs were changing the world and were a force for good, well, I still don’t buy into it. The music made for a great soundtrack, but the movements could have survived without them.
And it is through the tri-focaled lenses of cynicism that I have to view this version of “If I Had a Hammer.” It certainly does groove and as a piece of music, I think it is more enjoyable than some of the stridently political versions I’ve heard in my lifetime. Yet I also believe the proliferation of the track among artists had less to do with spreading a message than it did with latching onto the spirit of the times and hoping for a hit. For some it meant the message, for others it was a way to a hit.
I personally love Lopez’s live take on this because there’s something bizarrely endearing to him singing “Eef I Yad a Yammer.”
Chris Holmes – I never even knew what the hell this song was about, so learning that it’s so tied up with the Progressive and Civil Rights movements comes as a shock to me. In Trini’s hands this just sounds like a fun little ditty, with no greater meaning. But to me this song will always be Leonard Nimoy’s.
Tony Redman – At first I thought this uptempo version of the song seemed inappropriate somehow. But as I thought about it, I realized maybe that’s what the song needed. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about justice, freedom, and the love between my brothers and my sisters, is there?
David Lifton – See, I went the opposite way. I guess this makes sense in that it combines the two sounds big on college campuses at the time – folk music and frat party rock – but I’m not getting the sense of righteousness that I get from Peter, Paul & Mary’s version. Maybe it’s the heavy drums and Lopez cutting off the final syllable of every line. I guess that makes him the anti-Kevin Cronin.
#2: The Kingston Trio, “The Reverend Mr. Black” – #8 U.S.
Feerick – What the narrator neglects to mention is that his old man, the Reverend Mr. Black, is also the son-of-a-bitch who named him Sue.
Cummings – I had never listened to this before. I can’t imagine hearing it on the radio alongside, say, Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” (which was out at the same time). I’m a huge Carter Family fan, though, so it’s interesting to imagine “Lonesome Valley” (a Carter hit from 1931) being sung … badly … on pop radio in ’63.
Dunphy – Definitely the grandaddy to “A Boy Named Sue” but, at the same time, I kept waiting for someone to say, “Ea A ‘oe’s!”
Holmes – If the original trio was still around today, you just know they’d be recording a stripped down, dark rootsy album with Rick Rubin or T-Bone Burnett.
Redman – It’s nice to see the Rev held fast to what he was taught, unlike that “Coward of the County” jerk. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that the singer didn’t turn out to be the lumberjack that whaled into him, though.
Lifton – I was expecting it to be Drunken Ira Hayes, myself. And that falsetto singer in the last chorus? Yeah, that wasn’t a good idea.
#3: Bobby Darin, “You’re the Reason I’m Living” – #3 U.S.
Feerick – I know I keep yammering on about Floyd Cramer in these write-ups, but really—once you learn to recognize the guy’s style, you can’t un-recognize it, and you start to hear him everywhere. His piano elevates the material here, but he hasn’t got much to work with. Darin tries hard—too hard, I think; his growl on the verses aims for blues, but lands squarely in bluster. The acoustic rhythm guitar—Darin himself, I assume?—is barely competent. The harmonica is a nice touch, but really, there’s nothing much here to get excited about.
Cummings – Why, Bobby, why? Were you such a record-sales whore that you felt the need to jump from “Splish Splash” to “Mack the Knife” to this awful Nashville Sound dreck within a 5-year period? In an earlier installment of this series we talked about how Darin’s Rat-Pack-go-Nashville shtick didn’t work on “Things,” and here he is having dropped even the pretense of Rat Pack swing.
He’s just not convincing as a country singer — and this song didn’t even catch a whiff of the country charts. I mean, Bobby, dude, we’ve all heard how you were convinced that you wouldn’t live long, because your dad died young from a heart defect — but did your I’ve-got-to-do-everything-NOW attitude really require you to do such a sucky job dabbling in country before you could move on to folk? (His version of “If I Were a Carpenter” was a top-10 hit three years after this.) Of course, Darin did die young, at 37, so I suppose we have to forgive him for this.
Dunphy – We’ve talked about Darin’s baldfaced opportunism before, but this time out, Darin doesn’t strike me as being different from Nat King Cole singing “Ramblin’ Rose” (kind of a favorite of mine).
But maybe Darin looks so bad due to the compression of time. After all, how many pop stars in the past couple decades have sought refuge in the once-easy-pickings of the country charts? I remember a doc about the country music fan fest (do they still run it?) in Nashville, and I recall an artist talking about the loyalty of their followers. It was downright creepy how he took them for granted, and yet there was a lot of truth to it.
Then you think about Bon Jovi and Tommy Shaw and, even though he seems genuine about it, Darius Rucker and this phase of Darin’s whoring doesn’t seem like an uncommon deal.
Holmes – Another singer with a true country pedigree probably could’ve lent the grit needed to make this a really good song. Darin sounds totally out of his element here other than the drippy verses.
Redman – A poor man’s version of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” To me it just sounds like Bobby Darin is making fun of country music. It doesn’t sound sincere at all.
Lifton – I think that’s a good assessment. He’s even phrasing like Ray Charles, which speaks to what we said last week about both Darin’s versatility as well as his opportunism, as Dw. pointed out above. Darin does a professional, if unspectacular, job here, but I think the main problem is that it’s not a very good song.
#4: Barbara Lewis, “Hello Stranger” – #3 U.S., #1 U.S. R&B
Feerick – What a fantastic interplay of voices. Barbara steps back for long bars and lets the backing group handle the heavy lifting, but when she steps up, she’s instantly commanding—barely rising above a croon, but squeezing those notes out long and slow, with that sweet tremble. It’s easily the most modern-sounding lead vocal performance in this batch. There are even a few bits of melisma in there. The vibrato is quick by today’s standards, but the blueprints for modern R & B are in place, all the more arresting for their contrast with the Ink Spots-style harmonies.
Cummings – This is such a great song. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ballads … of the late ’70s, when it was covered by Yvonne Elliman. Lewis wrote the song herself, which is kinda awesome — but her recording is just a little too laconic for me, compared to Elliman’s more sensual vocal (on a track that otherwise imitates the original as closely as possible). Interesting fact about Lewis: She had dinner with Sharon Tate the night Tate was butchered by the Manson family.
Dunphy – Love this one. Lots of memories here because my mom used to listen to NY’s CBS-FM religiously. It was an “oldies” station (still is, even though their added spectrum of oldies include songs that were brand new when mom was listening to CBS-FM. Fetch me my walkin’ stick). “Hello Stranger,” in its many incarnations, was a staple of their playlist so hearing it brings back nothing but good memories.
Holmes – Ahhhh, finally some sweet, sweet R&B. I’d say it was a coup of sorts to get the Dells to sing background on this, as it really provides an extra dimension (love that slide into slight minor-key tonality at points). Lewis’s style puts me in mind of Smokey Robinson, and that’s never a bad thing.
Redman – This seems to be the transitional period between traditional doo-wop and groups like Gladys Knight and the Pips. Very nice.
Lifton – I guess this is the second song that we’ve done that’s caused me to say, “Oh, that’s what this song is.” There’s a lot to like here. It makes me want to drive with the top down on a Bel Air convertible, pick up my baby and park somewhere, which only reinforces the fact that I don’t have a car or a girlfriend.
#5: The Beach Boys, “Surfer Girl” – #7 U.S., #8 Australia
Feerick – Hard to even listen to this one objectively. Not a masterpiece of songwriting, maybe, but the simplicity of it works in its favor. And those voices—so breathy, those distinctive pinched vowels (the title phrase comes out more like “seerfeer geerl”) because they’re barely moving their lips as they sing, full portamento as they slide from chord to chord—it sounds like one long sigh.
Lifton – Brian moves “When You Wish Upon a Star” a few miles from Hollywood to the ocean by way of Hawthorne and becomes something equally magical.
Also, fuck Mike Love.
Cummings – Yes, but…”Surfer Girl” is also an easy target for juvenile ridicule, in which we engaged endlessly when I was 8 years old and first heard the song on the Boys’ Endless Summer compilation. “Leeeetel surrrrrfur, leeeeetel one…” It’s a sweet and beautiful song, but every time I hear it I think, “Will you PLEASE speed things up a bit?” It’s such a dirge. When aliens examine Western culture thousands of years from now, they’ll find this indistinguishable from Gregorian chant.
Dunphy – I fear our trip through the AM Gold vaults are going to come off like unending fan-service to Brian Wilson, but what the heck. If this track was just a vocal group demo, it still would earn the band a seat with immortality. Those are harmonies you can cut a tin can with and still make paper-thin tomato slices afterward.
Cummings – Yes, but only with the Everly Brothers’ harmonies can you make julienne fries.
Matthew Bolin – You can also make awesome fries with Michael Nesmith’s Live at the Palais album:
Dunphy – But wait, there’s more!! If you call in the next five minutes, we’ll send you the entire recorded work of the New Monkees absolutely free (just pay shipping)!
Robert Cashill – Trini Lopez, in 1967 one of THE DIRTY DOZEN (singing “The Bramble Bush,” then dying.)
Holmes – While the arrangement on “Surfer Girl” definitely shows that Brian keep a foot in the past, the level of vocal sophistication cannot be denied. The scary thing is that they were just getting started at this point. Most bands would sell their souls to produce just one track like this.
Redman – Going off to college was my first time to be away from home, and some days were pretty rough for me. Whenever I had a horrible or frustrating day, I would put on my headphones and listen to this song as loud as I could. The beautiful harmonies had a calming effect on me. I just tried it again to see if it would have the same effect on me. The results: it gave me goosebumps. Thank you, Brian Wilson.