Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 29
1969 — the year we landed on the moon. The year the New York Jets and Joe Namath changed the landscape of professional sports in North America. The year Sesame Street made its television debut.
And it’s also the year Hair dominated the American airwaves. Specifically the original Broadway cast recording, which was released in 1968 and had sold three million copies in the U.S. by the end of ’69. So popular were the songs from the album that artists from Diana Ross to Barbra Streisand to Bob McGrath from the aforementioned Sesame Street hopped on the bandwagon with their own cover versions.
The first Hair-inspired cover song makes its AM Gold appearance this week, and there will be more.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#1: Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations, “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” – #2 U.S., #3 U.K.; released in November 1968.
David Lifton – If you take away the breathy asides and the now-obligatory spoken section, you have one of Diana’s best vocal performances. For all the criticism we’ve thrown in her direction, she takes her verse well and sails into the chorus beautifully. Unfortunately, there’s little chemistry between her and Eddie Kendricks, whose falsetto, impressive as it is, provides no contrast to Diana, and it doesn’t even sound like they recorded it at the same time. I’m guessing that it was a Temptations session and Berry Gordy forced Diana on them.
Besides, the lyric makes no sense as a duet. If they’re both going to make the other love them, then why are they fighting it?
Jon Cummings – I don’t know this track — the version of the song that I’m familiar with is the Madeline Bell hit from ’68 — so bear with me. Eddie’s vocals are pretty awesome in the verses, but excruciating in the choruses. Same is true of Diana’s. What that says to me is that the notes on the chorus are just too damn high, as that guy running for NY governor used to say. It’s hard to fathom a chorus going too high for Kendricks’ falsetto … though it’s not so difficult to imagine a song exceeding Diana’s range.
Anyway, the most interesting thing about this recording is how UNinteresting it is. One might imagine that a Supes/Temps hookup would produce something cataclysmic — at least something on the Marvin & Kim scale, if not quite Marvin & Tammi. One might wish that these two groups could produce a moment on the level of “Love Child” (the Supes’ previous single) and “Runaway Child, Running Wild” (the Temps’ next single). Alas, this track combines the most middling of the groups’ tendencies, rather than the greatest. And despite its high chart placement, it hasn’t ascended to classic status, or even the level of oldies-radio staple. I’m amazed that radio listeners in ’69 were willing to see it past that first chorus, which sent me scrambling for the fast-forward button.
Jack Feerick – Motown continues its most extraordinary streak. Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations was an “event” record, and this actually feels like an event. Miss Ross is at her best — lively, warm, and engaged in a way that wasn’t always the case as her career went on — but Eddie Kendricks’ astonishing falsetto is the real star here.
And it’s a a textbook example of how the shape of a melody can accentuate the emotional contour of a song — from the low, murmured assurances if the verse scaling high into the chorus, both frantic and ecstatic.
One moment where I could scarce believe my ears: We’re so used to hearing perfect diction from Motown stars — there are all those stories of elocution lessons and charm school for the ladies, all because Berry Gordy didn’t want Motown music to sound “ghetto” — I was stunned that Otis Williams could get away with that “for each day that we apart” in the spoken-word breakdown. Well I never! Jeeves, my smelling salts!
#2: B.J. Thomas, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” – #1 U.S., #38 U.K.; composed by Bacharach/David and featured in the soundtrack to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Lifton – I admit a soft spot for this because this is the first song I can remember as being my favorite. I think I was three or four at the time. Now I listen and think, “Why did they think they could write a cowboy song?” Still, I like the laid-back vibe, which suits Thomas’ voice pretty well, and the coda, where Burt can’t help throw in a bar in 2/4.
Cummings – Hellooooooo, Katharine Ross! I have to say that until listening to this song in the context of this series, and all the Bacharach/David/Warwick dreck we’ve (I’ve) suffered through, I had never identified “Raindrops” with any of them. “Butch Cassidy” is one of the first films I ever saw in a theater, and “Raindrops” is one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar. Two friends of mine butchered it (intentionally, and comically) during a high-school talent show, got suspended for their trouble, then repeated their performance at graduation. Lately I’ve been whistling it to our new dog, who goes crazy over whistling (or at least MY whistling). All of this is to say, I was happy all those years when I wasn’t noticing how those trumpets at the end of this recording sound a lot like the arrangement on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” And I was content never to notice those moments when the melody apes “Walk on By.” And now I’m slightly less happy, and slightly less content. Damn you, AM Gold!
Feerick – More Gay Nineties-style parlor-song flapdoodle, complete with ukelele, barrelhouse piano and string bass. Wholly appropriate, in this case, given the Butch Cassidy connection. And I’m not immune to the charms of the nickelodeon and the jug-band, but “Raindrops” cannot quite commit fully to the period stylings. B.J.’s vocal, laryngitis or no, is pure show-business smarm, and that appalling outro vamp sounds like a piece of unused segue music for The Mike Douglas Show.
Also: I prepare for these write-ups by listening to these songs on my iPod while walking the dog, and I happened to hit this one while actually walking in the rain; and I wear a size 14 shoe, thus making my feet too big for my bed, so I think I speak with some authority here when I say that, although crying may not be for me, talking to the sun has done my situation nogood at all.
Lifton – Complaining about having size 14 feet? That’s what we call on Twitter a #humblebrag.
Feerick – You know what they say: big feet…
#3: The Cowsills, “Hair” – #2 U.S.; the group’s last major chart success.
Feerick – The pop charts this year are full of songs from Hair, and we’ll be covering a couple of them. Now’s as good a time as any for a referendum on the show. Hair billed itself as “a tribal love-rock musical.” Show of hands: Do you buy that? Do you think of the music from Hair as “rock” at all?
Lifton – I love rock music. I love Broadway shows. I usually hate when they mix. This is no exception.
Cummings – It’s troubling enough that the counterculture was co-opted by the musical-theater set as quickly as it was … though Hair, the musical, was suitably risque and challenging to the mainstream audiences of its time. But were the COWSILLS really the group to bring the show’s title song into the pop realm? The family band weren’t exactly credible as hippies. And yet … one must admit they did a pretty great job on a song that isn’t radio-friendly by nature, with its fractured melodic structure and multiple lead vocals.
Anyway, the timing for the explosion of songs from Hair climbing the pop charts is interesting. This single and the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” hit the chart within a week of each other in March ’69, while Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshine” and Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard” followed within a few months. All of that action, however, took place a full 18 months after the show had debuted off-Broadway, and nine months after the Broadway cast album had been released. That cast album hung around the top 10 on the LP chart for nine months — then hit #1 two weeks after “Aquarius/LtSI” did, and stayed there for 13 weeks. More impressive is the list of stars to emerge from various Hair casts in the late ’60s: Diane Keaton, Ben Vereen, Keith Carradine, Ted Lange(!), Meat Loaf, Melba Moore, Vicki Sue Robinson, Jennifer Warnes, Dobie Gray, Joe Mantegna, Philip Michael Thomas, Paul Nicholas, Elaine Paige, Tim Curry, and Donna Summer (in Munich!).
Feerick - Impressive pedigree or no, I really don’t buy it as rock. It’s wordy Broadway pop, Gershwin roughed up with guitars and a 4-4 stomp. That’s especially evident in this cover, which includes the silly theatrical intro and the even sillier “O say can you see…” interlude.
Dig the production on those vocals, though! With the stereo separation and those airbrushed harmony parts, there are moments here that sound like a Queen record — and that’s not a comparison I ever expected to draw.
#4: Jackie DeShannon, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” – #4 U.S., her second and last U.S. Top 20 single.
Lifton – A bit simplistic, but maybe you can say that it rendered hippie sentiment palatable for the Silent Majority. Plus, it’s pleasant enough and is over in 2:30.
Cummings – As I said several weeks ago, this song is infinitely superior to DeShannon’s drecky Bacharach/David hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love” … so, second time’s the charm, Jackie. Still, I’d rather listen to Annie Lennox & Al Green’s version, imperfect and ’90s-fied though it is.
Robert Cashill – And the Lennox/Green version is more properly 80s-fied, as it came from the soundtrack of Scrooged (’88).
Cummings – Sorry — mixed up my timeline, and thought Scrooged came after Groundhog Day, not before.
Feerick – Surprised at how relatively plain and unadorned the groove is. Under the strings and horns, there’s a Wurlitzer piano playing page 44 of Blues For Dummies, with bass and drums no more complex than your typical Ramones record (albeit played at quarter speed).
The thing is, I find myself half-expecting it to turn into “We Can Work It Out.” That’s only a problem because after a while I find myself hoping for it to turn into “We Can Work It Out.”
#5: The Flying Machine, “Smile a Little Smile for Me” – #5 U.S.
Lifton – There’s so much in here that I want to hate, and yet I can’t for reasons that completely elude me. I like the electric piano and low harmonies have been my Achilles heel throughout this series. Maybe I could drum up some phony outrage for the idea of this guy trying to nail Rosemarie while she’s vulnerable, but that’s just silly.
Cummings – I dunno, Lifton — something about the nursery-rhyme quality to this song’s chorus hook, and the general lo-fi quality of the production, leaves me thinking that Rosemarie is 11 years old and our protagonist is a perv. I was getting a serious “Clair” vibe out of this song. Otherwise, there’s so little to comment on — except to wonder how many girls born (or conceived) in late ’69 and ’70 got saddled with a certain name because of this song and “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.”
Lifton – I get what you’re saying but it’s not enough for me to get worked up over. It would just be phony outrage for the sake of a cheap joke. I’d rather save the good material for when I mean it.
Cummings – What the hell is wrong with phony outrage? I can’t BELIEVE you would say such a thing!!!!! Where do you get off?!?!?!?!?
Lifton – We regret to inform you that Jon Cummings will no longer be participating in these discussions, as the prolonged exposure to Burt Bacharach during the GOP primary season appears to have broken his brain.
Cummings – Well, having already had my heart broken by Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, I’m now virtually certain that Newt Gingrich is the best thing that could possibly happen for our country. So if my brain’s broken, at least I’m not alone.
Feerick – Face it, Rose Marie — Morey Amsterdam has abandoned you forever, and there’s no one in New Rochelle who can ever take his place.
(See, now that’s how you do a cheap joke.)
I am, surprisingly, in full agreement with Dave Lifton on all points. This is pretty maudlin, but it’s tastefully-arranged, at least — a nice blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and that little electric piano figure, down low in the bass, pushing things along — and with the raggedy vocal harmonies, it could almost pass for some lesser outtake from The Who Sell Out.
But phony outrage aside, this whole subgenre of rebound ballad is undeniably kind of icky. You know this guy’s got motivations other than friendly sympathy. “Poor baby, your boyfriend’s left you — come rest you head on my shoulder. Then, maybe later, in my lap.” Ugh.