Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 6
Like sands through the hourglass, time marches inexorably on in our look back at Time-Life’s AM Gold series. And like sand in your swimsuit, you won’t be able to completely get rid of this next batch of tunes from 1963. We’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing or not.
(For those with Spotify accounts, feel free to subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#6: Skeeter Davis, “The End of the World” – #2 U.S. Hot 100, #2 U.S. Country, #1 U.S. Adult Contemporary
Jack Feerick – While celebrated in country circles, Skeeter is unjustly neglected in the broader pop scene. That’s a pity, and not just because of the quality of her individual performances—although man, did she know how to sell a weeper like this one!—but because of how she changed the sound of country and pop music. Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette took her vocal style and rode it to tremendous crossover success.
As for the song itself: sometimes, the reason clichés become clichés is because they work, dammit. This is about as sturdy a piece of songcraft as ever came out of Nashville. Sweet production by Chet Atkins, too—that discreet pedal steel is just lovely. And while Skeeter certainly didn’t originate the idea of stacking her vocals through layers of overdubbing (that would be Les Paul and Mary Ford), the imagination and sophistication of her harmonies can still raise the hair on my arms. When the bridge comes in on this one, I get tingles.
Dw. Dunphy – I have a fascination with this song. It is exactly the kind of desperate, tear-jerk, love-has-gone sort of track that’s lived forever in pop music, but it sounds innocent in this song. Later examples of this lyrical bent have ranged from near suicidal to obsessive (I’m thinking Dido’s “White Flag”). I don’t know if it is because the song is older or that people were more sensible, but in this case, innocence equals maturity.
It is very much a product of the studio. Here’s a clip of Davis singing it live and it is kind of raw in this state.
Matt Springer – Like Dw, I’m drawn in by the pedigree on this one, such an early “if you don’t love me, I’ll die” track. I love the desperate gulf between reality and the mental state of the singer–it’s not just bad to be dumped, it’s not just painful. IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD. All wrapped up in a deceptively sweet package.
David Lifton – Right, and we’re about to see the first Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs of this series pretty soon, and that was kind of their trademark. Between all that and stuff like Little Anthony & The Imperials we’re beginning this idea that American pop was already maturing and becoming more complex.
But I disagree with Jack’s love of the harmonies. Yes, they’re gorgeous, but if she’s all desolate and alone, why bring another voice into it?
Jon Cummings – This is one of the greatest heartbreak ballads ever, and I like that it doesn’t toil in metaphor or euphemism but gets right to the point. Its use in the JFK assassination episode of Mad Men was just perfect. Davis’ recording topped the country chart, went to #2 on the pop chart (as Jack noted), AND went top-five on the R&B chart — an extremely rare accomplishment for a white artist, never mind a country artist. But I have to say that I get the giggles whenever I hear this track, because the way Skeeter says “end” more like “ind” always reminds me of Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, and her awful diction (“I ciiiiiiiin’t stind ‘im!”).
#7: The Rooftop Singers, “Walk Right In” – #1 U.S. Hot 100 for 2 weeks, #10 U.K. Singles, #1 Australia
Feerick – The down-tuned guitar work is surprisingly, pleasingly rough, and I like the gang vocals. But while all the songs on these compilations sound, of necessity, somewhat dated, it’s the pop-folk stuff like this sounds the most embarrassingly of-its-time. I blame A Mighty Wind for making it impossible to listen to this kind of thing with anything approaching objectivity. Just hearing it, I can’t stop imagining the matching sweater-vests.
Also: V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N, in the summer sun!
Let me say one more thing about “Walk Right In.” It’s a remake, of course, learned from a 78 by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and a pretty faithful remake to boot. So there’s a clear, bright line to be drawn between the likes of the Rooftop Singers and the English blues revivalists studying old Robert Johnson and Otis Rush sides. Two concurrent, related movements. So why did one flourish and the other dead-end? Why did U.S. folk-pop and folk-rock ultimately fail to produce anything on the order of a Cream, or a Led Zeppelin — bands steeped in the tradition but taking it to a new, epic scale?
Dunphy – If this song had a drum and, maybe, some tweezy, Farfisa organ on it, it would have been indistinguishable from the future psychedelic pop. Yeah, they look like Peter, Paul and Mary, and they sound slightly like the Weavers, but listen to those lyrics. Even if this is a song culled from folk’s past, “Daddy, let your mind roll on” and “Do you wanna lose your mind?” grabs the consciousness of the Beats by the scruff of the neck and drops it on the charts. If a couple years had passed, it would have landed in Timothy Leary’s lap.
As for why folk revivalism staggered while the UK blues revivalism went to the next phase, I think it has to do with fashionability. When Dylan went “rock,” the jarring aspect was not only volume, but of forsaking traditionalism. But then you look to the Laurel Canyon folks and the DNA of the old folkies is pretty evident. They just had to have the cache of their musical identity, so Woody Guthrie sang about the country’s ills while James Taylor sang of his own personal ills.
Springer – I’m with Jack on this one; hearing it now, with no contemporary context, it sounds incredibly dated and almost like a parody of itself. And yes, I also blame Christopher Guest.
It’s also hard to hear this type of pop-folk tune and not instantly think, “SQUARE.” I always imagine these were the kind of records that boring kids were listening to while their edgier, “cooler” peers were tracking down early R&B and rock music with an AM radio under the blankets. I think that’s the reason the pop-folk era got quickly left behind: This group is using the tools of authentic music to create something very inauthentic and easily parodied. Remove the emotional reality of actual folk artists like Guthrie from their music, and you get the Rooftop Singers, or the Kingston Trio, or etc. There’s no “there” there, and to think that within a few years, Dylan would just blow combos like these out of the water, then forever drive the nail through the heart of it armed with the Band and an electric guitar…it’s easy to see why pop-folk got completely left behind.
Lifton – Also remember that, for the past decade, the folk and blues movements had been interconnected thanks to Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. And someone more scholarly than I can probably tie the difference in the authenticity of both genres in with the height of the civil rights movement — meaning that the leftists who were listening to both began gravitating more towards blues in search of a greater understanding of the African-American experience.
But I first heard this tune through a rewrite on an annoying commercial for White Castle that was on incessantly when I was growing up, so I can’t objectively discuss this song. The charms that Jack points out are completely lost on me, and I was thrilled when I saw it lampooned in A Mighty Wind, despite the awesome talents of the legendary Ramblin’ Sandy Pitnik.
I should point out that I’m so tortured by this song that I originally typed A Mighty Wing, and now I’m picturing Wing covering this.
Cummings – This song conjures up so many reactions, musicologically/sociologically/etc., we could probably go on all day. (I know I could.) To me, it’s a blues-into-folk equivalent of what Pat Boone did to Little Richard. I adore Gus Cannon’s original version — it’s got a friggin’ kazoo, or something! — which I somehow managed to hear before I heard the Rooftops’ version in full (though I had heard snippets on a million folk-compilation TV commercials). In comparison to Cannon, the Rooftops’ vocals come close to draining all life out of the song, though the 12-string guitars rescue the track nicely. (Roger McGuinn owes the Rooftops a huge debt — 12-string guitars were rarely heard in pop — and apparently hard to come by — before this single became huge.) The lineage of this single is quite typical of the folk & blues revivals — the Rooftops’ leader, Erik Darling, heard Cannon’s original on a compilation called “The Country Blues” in ’59 that was as crucial as Harry Smith’s anthology (maybe more) in helping to jump start both revivals.
I disagree with Jack’s premise that “folk-pop and folk-rock ultimately fail(ed) to produce anything on the order of a Cream, or a Led Zeppelin.” I think you have to see the arc of Dylan’s career, at least through 1969 if not all the way through, as an evolution (and explosion) of the folk ethos that was simultaneously hugely popular. I’d argue that the Byrds (folk-rock evolving into seminal alt-country), the Band (and the birth of “Americana” music), and Paul Simon’s long history of genre- and ethnicity-hopping are all as important — if not as loud — as Cream or Zeppelin. (I’d also note that much of Zeppelin’s best music, and Robert Plant’s best solo work, emerged as much from their obsession with Anglo-Saxon “folk” as from the Delta & Chicago blues.) But even before all of that, it’s also crucial to remember the massive popularity of Joan Baez in the early ’60s — even though she didn’t have big radio hits, her albums were HUGE, and the way her career intertwined with Dylan’s was a big factor in his own eventual popularity and development. A whole lot of folks under the age of 50 still hold something of a grudge against Baez because she was so condescending at Live Aid (all that “this is your Woodstock” b.s.), but she and Dylan were a fascinating tag-team in the early-to-mid ’60s, dragging the folk revival along in their wake and propelling it beyond the novelty of hits like “Walk Right In” into something much more influential.
Lifton – You also had Fairport Convention and their compatriots making searing rock music out of British folk.
And none of this changes the fact that I have had this song stuck in my head ALL FUCKING MORNING! I hate you people.
#8: The Caravelles, “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” – #3 U.S. Hot 100, #6 U.K. Singles
Feerick – This one’s kind of silly, to be honest — it’s got the dashed-off feeling of a novelty song—but there’s plenty about the sonics that I like; the breathy close harmonies, the brushes and finger snaps, the overgenerous use of reverb. At the end of the day, though, it begs the question: why?
Someone took a square country-pop song and recorded it in an intentionally-bogus “jazz” style — to what purpose? The effect is rather like watching one of the old Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1940s, where there will be some gag that flies over your head — “Monsters are the most innnn-teresting people,” perhaps, or “Of course you realize, this means war” — that you can only assume was a then-current pop-culture reference. But you’ve got no context for it now, and so you’re left with only the vague feeling that this was meant to be amusing; but you couldn’t really say how, or why, or to whom.
Dunphy – I’ve never heard this before and I know why. Talk about a lyric that totally is mismatched with the music. Fiddle-dee-dee, I got dumped. Anybody got some Juicy Fruit gum?
Springer – Paging Marty Scorsese: I’ve got the backing track for a really gory gangland hit.
Lifton – No, that’s Tarantino’s bag to juxtapose sweet tracks with violence. Scorsese is contractually obligated to use obscure Rolling Stones songs.
I can’t answer Jack’s question as to why this was done, but it seems cut from the same cloth as “Mister Sandman.” I kinda like it.
Cummings - I hadn’t heard this before, either. It’s a pleasant-enough trifle — you have to wonder how some British producer pulled this song out of the hat for, but I’m glad it sent me looking for Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version, which is a bizarre amalgam of country and jazz in a less-competent, yet intriguing Les Paul & Mary Ford kind of way. (I also giggled my way through Ernest Tubb’s original. How did a man with a voice this horrendous become so popular? Check out the cringe-inducing low notes!) I agree that the Caravelles’ one-hit wonder is just waiting for its movie moment — it reminds me of the use of Connie Stevens’ “Sixteen Reasons” in Mulholland Drive.
#9: Ruby & The Romantics, “Our Day Will Come” – #1 U.S. Hot 100, #11 Australia, #38 U.K. Singles
Feerick – This is marvelous. The organ is pure roller-rink / Lawrence Welk schmaltz, but the vibes are kind of wonderful. And I love the contrast of the rhythm section, skanking busily away on quasi-Latin groove, with the smooth, serene vocals floating above it. And the joyous certainty that yes, our day will come, that yes, young love will triumph—how could it be otherwise?—is a thing of beauty. This song kept Skeeter Davis from the #1 slot on the pop charts; and as much as I like “The End of the World,” if it comes down to heartbroken despair vs. confident optimism, there’s some justice in that.
Dunphy – Another track I love, but there’s no question in my mind that, without it, we wouldn’t have had George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” either.
Springer – This is such a great song. It’s not so much that it swings as it is that it shuffles. Either way, it gets me moving every time.
Lifton – I like how the melody works in contrast with the rhythm. The music is trying to push it along but Ruby keeps saying, “Relax, we’ve got plenty of time.” That’s a tough trick to pull off, and it’s done marvelously here.
Cummings – I think the organist signed on to perform this song just after ending a lucrative career playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Brooklyn Dodgers games. That element hasn’t helped the track date well, but Ruby’s vocal is so effortless and confident that I quickly stopped imagining all the people who probably used to go into those shopping-mall Hammond-organ stores and try to play it. The songwriters desperately wanted to give “Our Day Will Come” to an easy-listening artist first, but I’ve always thought that the (very slight) R&B edge Ruby gave the song was the best setting for it. I have several other versions, from Julie London to Cher to Frankie Valli’s hit from 1975 — but all those artists seemed to feel like they had to work harder, and turn the song into something more substantial or dramatic.
#10: Freddie Scott, “Hey Girl” – #10 U.S. Hot 100; another Gerry Goffin/Carole King writing credit.
Feerick – Man, the engineer was going crazy with the slap echo on this one. It’s most noticeable on the snare—every hit sounds like a whipcrack—but the guitar is well into Duane Eddy territory, too. The song, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, is sturdy enough, but it’s really about the singer, not the song. Although I’ll admit, when the bridge came around I misheard the line “I’m not ashamed to get down on the ground” as “I’m not ashamed to get down underground,” causing me to wonder briefly if this was a song about necrophilia, or perhaps a pop-soul version of the Orpheus myth.
That I could entertain either notion, even for a second, is a testimony to how gloriously unhinged Freddie Scott’s vocal is. He just about wrings himself dry here; there is so much grit, so much soul in the voice, it’s almost shocking by the standards of the time. And a man who could sing like that might just be capable of anything.
Dunphy – The first person who says, “I thought Billy Joel wrote that” gets an atomic wedgie.
I’m ashamed to say it, since I’m so anti-saxophone, but how good is that sax solo in the instrumental bridge? Not too much, not too little, and the tone fits Scott’s voice which is pretty darn husky.
Cut to 1969 and Eddie Holman’s “Hey There Lonely Girl,” or later in the ’70s with the Stylistics, and that meaty sort of soul delivery has been completely supplanted by a nice-but-pinched falsetto.
Springer – I love the singing here too, and I love it because it’s got that grit and power and sincerity lacking from pretty much all the other choices here, but also because it’s an amazing journey Scott takes the listener on. It’s not just a soul tear through a gut-wrenching ballad; there’s modulation here, drawing back, then amping up the intensity, and then back again. Amazing control.
Lifton – I’m picturing the break room of the Brill Building where Carole King is looking over Bacharach’s shoulder as he feverishly works on some charts, undetected through the fog of cigarette smoke. She thinks, “Oh, that’s how he does it” and goes back to her office and comes up with this. I love how the strings harmonize with the sax for a few notes on the solo. And yeah, that incredible vocal by Scott.
Cummings – It’s interesting to hear this back-to-back with “Our Day Will Come,” which is often mis-remembered as a girl-group classic simply because of the gender of the singer, the name of the group, and the era in which it was released. But “Hey Girl” is actually much more of a girl-group type of song — dramatic and pleading, riding that fantastic backbeat that sounds like it was recorded in a locker room — though we’re all lucky that we get to hear Freddie Scott sing the hell out of it. Goffin & King really had it going on — contrary to what Lifton wrote, I would suggest that they hit their peak (with songs like this and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and many others) slightly before Bacharach & David reached theirs with Dionne Warwicke, Dusty Springfield et al. (Oh, by the way — in my opinion Bacharach’s best song that pre-dated “Hey Girl” was “Any Day Now,” which he co-wrote not with David but with Bob Hilliard … who also co-wrote “Our Day Will Come.”)
Lifton – Maybe, but there are so many things in the music here — the lushness of the rhythm, starting the verse on a suspended tonic, the way the melody line rises and falls to create tension and release — that were always trademarks of Bacharach regardless of when he wrote his best work. So I’ll stick with my fantasy, thank you very much, Cummings.