Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 7
And now we come to the especially sweet portion of our program. This week’s batch of songs are here to show you that no matter how much turmoil may have been going on in the real world in ’63, everything was just A-OK on AM radio. So put your headphones on and your cares away, and come back with us once again to the world of Time-Life’s AM Gold — 1963 style!
(For those with Spotify accounts, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#11: Lenny Welch, “Since I Fell for You”; #4 U.S. Hot 100 – Written by jazz bandleader Buddy Johnson in 1945 and popularized by his sister Ella.
Jack Feerick – This must have sounded like an anachronism even in 1963. This sort of string-heavy ballad is part of an earlier tradition of pop. What’s contemporary about it is the naked emotionalism of Welch’s vocal, which would have been unthinkable without the ten years of “race” records and early rock ‘n’ roll that preceded it.
Imagine a Sinatra or a Tony Bennett — singers who know a thing or two about wringing all the heartbreak from a lyric — listening to “Since I Fell For You.” They would dismiss Welch’s huffing and sobbing as gaudy, vulgar showboating. And the thing is, they’d be right. The hybrid approach — pop classicism interpreted with bluesy gusto — is problematic from the start. In the crooner tradition, much of the emotional heavy lifting is done by the songwriter, and understatement is one of the singer’s most important tools.
It’s an art of enormous delicacy, where a subtle change of inflection can alter the mood shading of the song. If you’re going to go big with it, you’ve got to commit to going all the way big. James Brown can whoop and shriek his way through “September Song,” because he’s got the whole band plunging in along with him and devil take the hindmost; the result is ridiculous, but it’s a magnificent kind of ridiculous. Lenny Welch, aping the surface tics of a vocal style he hasn’t fully absorbed while the orchestra plays it straight behind him, just comes off sounding like a putz. In fact, the whole thing sounds like a stunt cooked up by Steve Allen to discredit this crazy “rock ‘n’ roll” fad.
David Lifton – Does this mean we can blame Lenny Welch for Michael Bolton? Thankfully this is such a beautiful song that it holds up to this kind of treatment. it helps that I’m a sucker for a rubato verse — the eight bars or so that precede the first verse — which have become pretty much extinct in the rock era thanks to bridges and instrumental solos (“If I Fell” and “Here, There, And Everywhere” notwithstanding).
Dw. Dunphy – Okay, maybe it is overwrought, but it sure is pretty. I suppose I’m a sap, but everything sounds better when you plop some strings behind it.
Jon Cummings – I’m kind of astonished at Jack’s negative response to this track. In the first place, the sound of this record was hardly anachronistic in a year when Bobby Vinton had two #1 singles and a #3, and in which Steve Lawrence topped the charts, as did “Dominique” and “Sukiyaki.” There’s a reason why the Beatles seemed so revolutionary when they touched down at JFK in ’64 — and why so many artists like Vinton & Lawrence complained about chart placements drying up during the British Invasion. And I would rather hear this exquisite song, and Welch’s excellent (if melodramatic) vocal, 50 times in a row than listen to “Mr. Lonely” or “Blue on Blue” even once. I like the way Welch overplays the emotions — it ties what is essentially a swing-era retread to such early-’60s dramas as “Duke of Earl” and “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
Jeff Giles – I love, love, love this song, but I’ve never heard this version — my favorite cover is the one Al Jarreau cut with David Sanborn and Bob James (I wrote about it here), which I initially heard on the Moonlighting soundtrack. Funny how musical gateways pop up where you least expect them.
#12: The Drifters, “On Broadway”; #9 U.S. Hot 100, #7 U.S. R&B – That’s Phil Spector on guitar.
Feerick – Another one I’ve heard almost too many times to write about objectively. A wonderful song, in all its many incarnations, and this is a fantastic performance Ben E. King. But still, to me it still sounds a trifle confused about what kind of record it wants to be. See, there’s a part of me, the writer part of me, that hungers for thematic unity; that wants a degree of convergence between the style of a song and its substance; that wants, in short, for “On Broadway” to have a shitload of guitar. The twangly little runs we do hear don’t do much to justify the narrator’s confidence, and they’re fighting for space with the strings, the horns, and the sudden female choir.
(It’s even more surprising given that Phil Spector was the guitarist here. He of all people should understand the effect of arrangement and space on the emotional reading of a song. He didn’t produce, though, did he? That would be an irony; Phil Spector, musician, undone by the production…)
Of course, that may be the point. It’s possible, even tempting, to read those other elements as representing the myriad sights and sounds of the big city, into which narrator’s performing voice will vanish without a trace — in other words, to read “On Broadway” as a tragic song, in which the delusional narrator’s future holds only bitterness, failure, and degradation. There’s always George Benson’s version, I suppose.
Lifton – This was a Leiber-Stoller joint. Spector was apprenticing with them at the time.
By the way, those half-step key changes into every verse is the common thread behind this song and “Surrender” by Cheap Trick.
Dunphy – I love this one too. It’s this weird combination of simplicity and the complicated. Listen to how the backing track moves from complementing the strong vocal-group arrangement into something absolutely lush.
Cummings – Not to pick on you, Jack, but Ben E. King was gone from the Drifters by this point — Rudy Lewis sang this track. And while I get your thematic desire for more guitar, even a solo the length of Spector’s here was pretty rare among the 2 1/2-minute pop symphonies concocted for AM radio at this time. (Think of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which is Roy Orbison’s most guitar-driven hit from the era, and even it only had about 10 seconds for a bridge repeating its central riff.) I suppose when one compares the Drifters’ original with George Benson’s cover, and all its guitar noodling, one can say that Benson’s is more in keeping with the theme — but I still think this is the better record.
Giles – Just about a perfect song, and one that I think bridges the gap between vocal pop and the rock era pretty deftly. The strings are syrupy, but sharp; the vocals are square, but not too melodramatic; the lyrics wedge a bit of social commentary into a sleepy, instantly memorable melody; and then there’s that guitar.
#13: Nino Tempo & April Stevens, “Deep Purple”; #1 U.S. Hot 100, winner of the Grammy for Best Rock & Roll Recording
Feerick – Dunt-nunt-nuh, dunt-nunt-na-nuh, dunt-nunt-nuh, nunt-nuh… What? It’s not that Deep Purple? Well, shit. Let’s give a listen…
What the fuck is this? It sounds like a Gay Nineties parlor song filtered through a weird, sub-Gainsbourg Eurotrash porn filter, and the harmonica player will not keep his damned organ out of my ear. And there’s a spoken-word interlude, because, hey, why not? This song is nothing if not bold in its utter aesthetic incoherence.
Annnnd now it’s over. I’m utterly baffled as to what just happened. This song is like an act of violence. I feel violated, in a simultaneously-sleazy-yet-
Lifton – This was a Grammy winner for Best Rock & Roll Recording? Have those people ever gotten anything right? I need to put on “Highway Star” to get the thought of this Deep Purple out of my head.
Dunphy – There’s no reason for this to have achieved as much as it did. Blah. And that spoken-word bit in the middle? Did anyone actually buy into that back in the day? All I imagine is Tempo and Stevens in the studio, after recording, high-fiving everyone like they just recorded “The Great Pretender.”
Cummings – I hadn’t listened to this record in about 20 years until just now, when I listened to it twice in a row. The first time I hated it, and thought it an unworthy companion to our last installment’s atrocious “Walk Right In.” But then I listened to it again, searching for the hook that might have snagged audiences 48 years ago — and damned if the thing isn’t both catchy and charming when you let it worm its way into your head. I find April Stevens’ voice oddly compelling — I had called up her ’50s hit “Teach Me Tiger” on iTunes just this morning. “Deep Purple” is a resilient song — it was a huge #1 hit back in 1939 as a big-band ballad, and Brian Wilson mangled it on that never-released “Adult Child” album in ’72 before Donny & Marie revived it a few years later. And Wikipedia says that Ritchie Blackmore gave his band the name Deep Purple because his grandma kept requesting the song.
Dunphy – A thought question for all: “Since I Fell For You” and “On Broadway” have both been covered (a lot, actually). Are there any artists who could actually do something with the rest of this pack of songs? Who might be able to turn these sow’s ears into, if not silk purses, then at least moderately acceptable Chinese knockoffs?
I think I want to hear the Flaming Lips take a stab at “Deep Purple.”
Lifton – I’m sure Me First And The Gimme Gimmes have considered “Hey Paula” at some point in their career.
Giles – Pretty sure this is going to pop up during an Austin Powers 4 montage. An inexplicably popular song, but I dig some of Nino’s later work, especially 1990′s Tenor Saxophone, which includes a killer version of Irving Berlin’s “Always.”
Feerick – Product placement, Sixties-style! Both Popsicle and Levi’s get shout-outs on this one. Nice work, Don Draper!
I should no longer be mildly surprised when I hear the organ turn up in pop hits of this era. I shouldn’t be, but I still am. The reinvention of the instrument via prog and psychedelia was still years away, and if I think of the organ at all in this time frame I’m thinking of the easy-listening hell of Lawrence Welk, or (at best) of Dave “Baby” Cortez, or Perez Prado’s “Patricia.”
It’s such a dated sound, though — especially the thin, rinky-dink Farfisa tones on this thing. State-of-the-art at the time, I’m sure. I mean, sure, pop is meant to be disposable on one level; but it’s still a pity to put so much into something that would fall out of fashion so quickly. Good thing I skipped out on my organ lessons and learned the sitar instead!
Lifton – I have nothing to say about this. I can’t even be bothered to make a joke about Jeff Giles’ mom built around the phrase “organ lessons.”
Dunphy – I’ve always known this song, but never knew it was called “Popsicles and Icicles.” Melodically, it’s not that bad, but man those lyrics are just friggin’ pointless. It probably could never have been great, but it could have been better if it wasn’t just a list of “stuff my boyfriend digs.”
Cummings – Autumn 1963 sure was sweet on pop radio… this song followed “Candy Girl” and “Sugar Shack” up the charts, even though it debuted the week JFK was assassinated. Other than that, I have nothing else to say about it, except … David Gates went from THIS to Bread? Well, of course he did.
Giles – Oh my God. David Gates probably thought he was rocking out with Bread after writing this. The most interesting thing about the song is the fantastically awkward cover photo on the 45. That poor girl on the right — what was going through her head?
#15: Paul & Paula, “Hey Paula”; #1 U.S. Hot 100 and #1 U.S. R&B
Feerick – Annnnd we’re back in A Mighty Wind territory. This is the real-life “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” the songwriting equivalent of a bad devotional tattoo. And like a homemade tattoo, it is excruciatingly painful to experience.
Knowing that the song came first, and that the “Paul” and “Paula” pseudonyms and stage personas were crafted solely to promote it, does nothing to ameliorate the pain, although I am somewhat consoled to learn that the original Paul, neé Ray Hildebrand, quit the music business in the middle of a Dick Clark-produced package tour. He did so ostensibly because he wanted to complete his college education, but more likely he just got sick of having to sing this stinkburger every goddam night.
Lifton – I almost wish I had never seen Animal House, because then I would never have heard this until today. It’s not even the subject matter that makes it so horrible. You only need to listen to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to hear how it can be dealt with beautifully. But when I hear this, I have this horrible vision of evangelical Christians using this in the background when they get married, take off their stupid abstinence rings and get down to their equivalent of hot monkey sex (lights off, clothes on, one eye open).
Dunphy – “Hey, Paula. Don’t wanna marry you.”
“Hey, Paul. I’m pregnant. And my dad is an avid gun collector. And ex-military. And has anger management issues.”
“Hey, Paula. Maybe I wanna marry you after all (please don’t hurt me).”
Cummings – You fellas are just too cynical. I adore this single, mostly because I love “Paula’s” vocal. I imagine being 10 and hearing it on a transistor radio, or 15 and dancing to it at a high school sock hop, and I can’t think of anything more sublime. By the way, since there’s not much folk-revivaliness involved here, I think a better comparison is to the great “Love Is Strange” rather than “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.”
Giles – I’m intrigued to learn that Paul & Paula recorded a Christmas album called Holiday for Teens. Oh Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaason…
#16: The Cascades. “Rhythm of the Rain”; #3 U.S. Hot 100, #1 U.S. Easy Listening, appears in the soundtrack to Quadrophenia.
Feerick – I’m still fond of this one, as cheesy as it is with the twinkly celesta and the sound effects. Still, who knew that “the rhythm of the falling rain” would turn out to be a bossa nova?
Lifton – Is this the first Mellow Gold song? It’s pleasant enough to make you appreciate how quaint things were in 1963, but it’s still incredibly wimpy. Maybe if it was by a girl group it would have a little more emotion to it.
Dunphy – Another pretty song, but somewhat feckless. ‘T’is sans feck. Baron Von Zerofeck.
I’m shocked Tarantino hasn’t used it as ironic audio backdrop for some horrendous scene of violence.
Cummings – This is another song that immediately calls to mind one of thse TV-advert compilations of songs from this era that aired constantly during syndicated shows in the ’70s and ’80s. The full song brings no firing of memory circuits, but I’ll take that initial downward-scaling line to my grave, along with the words “Heeeeeeeyyyyyy, hay-ay bay-bay” and “I couldn’t sleep at AWWWWWL last night” and 38 other Original Hits By The Original Artists! This is a cute but inconsequential song, another (like so many of the early ’60s) that feels like it was written by a focus group.
Giles – It shames me to admit that I first heard this song through Dan Fogelberg’s 1990 cover. I think I need to recuse myself from this discussion.
- Soul Serenade: The Ronettes, “Be My Baby” (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 3 (popdose.com)
- Ronnie Spector Turns 68 (wncx.radio.com)
- Phil Spector: 7-CD Box Set Due Out in October (jambase.com)