Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 3
The thing about AM Gold, if you haven’t figured it out already, is that it really should be approached not as offering the best music of a particular era or year; just the most popular. Case in point: this third batch of songs from 1962. It runs the gamut from timeless classics that deserved every bit of success they achieved (“Love Letters”), to cute period pieces that probably sounded dated by 1963 (“Soldier Boy”), to songs whose popularity make you wonder if hard drugs weren’t already in wide use by ’62 (“Things”).
#11: Ketty Lester, “Love Letters” - #5 U.S., #4 U.K.; covered by a host of artists, including Elvis Presley in 1966.
Jeff Giles – Oh my God, what a voice. Listen to that, would you? That’s singing. Like Kenny Mayne said: Cool as the other side of the pillow.
Also, she was in Blacula. Ketty Lester wins.
David Medsker – Actually, Stuart Scott says that.
Chris Holmes – Great, another black man has his material credited to a white guy.
Giles - It’s the circle of pop culture life! Can I just credit it to Ray Romano instead?
Robert Cashill – You may remember “Love Letters” (an Oscar-nommed best song from 1945, minus lyrics) from its use here, about 1:40 minutes in:
Jack Feerick – See, now this is what I’m talking about. The sparsity of the arrangement is a relief — no strings, no horns, no harpsichord, not even backing vocals. By avoiding all the musical signifiers that mark it as a product of its time, “Love Letters” still sounds brand-new.
What’s interesting here is how clearly this comes out of the jazz idiom, and how permeable the worlds of pop and jazz still were, even at this late date. By 1962, jazz was already in its last days as a Music Of The People, but crossover could still happen. The vocals are still kind of affected, but it’s a different kind of affectation than most of what was on the pop charts, and it “reads” as much more modern than, say, Brenda Lee.
Holmes - I get much more an R&B/gospel vibe from “Love Letters” than I do jazz – maybe it’s the organ – but I agree on all other counts. It’s the most honest song of this bunch, and I love Lester’s relatively understated vocal delivery.
Feerick - The jazz feeling in “Love Letters” I’m getting mostly from the drums.
Jon Cummings – “Love Letters” is the “gold” in a series like “AM Gold.” Here’s a record that doesn’t get any play on oldies radio, probably because it’s too slow, and so it’s in danger of getting pigeonholed by Gen Xers and beyond as a “David Lynch song.” As such, it works great, but it’s really lovely in its own right. This is another song I have several different versions of — including older versions by Dick Haymes and the Four Preps as well as more recent ones by Sinead O’Connor and Diana Krall — but this is the best one I’ve heard. It’s impossible to imagine a song like this getting airplay anywhere now.
Dave Lifton – I just got a great version of this by Nora O’Connor on Bloodshot Records free Valentine’s Day Sampler on Amazon.
#12: Bobby Darin, “Things” – #3 U.S., #2 U.K.; by my count this was his 11th Top 20 U.S. single.
Giles - If this hasn’t already been used for an ironic montage in some horrifically violent flick about a guy stalking his ex-girlfriend, I’m sure it’ll happen soon.
Feerick - I can’t make my mind up about Bobby Darin. The guy had about as many musical phases as David Bowie, and his fans take that as evidence of his chameleon-like genius and versatility. Me, I’m not so sure whether Darin was a trendsetter, or simply a naked careerist, hopping any bandwagon that he thought would keep him relevant. It’s all about context.
In any case, I can’t imagine anyone holding up “Things” as a high point in his career. It’s a showbiz brat’s idea of C&W crossover, blatantly phony and smug. Darin’s condescension to the material is palpable, and the obnoxious backing vocals torpedo the whole, um, thing.
Holmes - I’m not really sure about Bobby Darin myself. I can’t reconcile the fact that he had a hit with steaming pile like “Things,” in light of much better and substantial fare like “Beyond the Sea” or “Mack the Knife.” In any case, he still seems like Sinatra Lite to me.
Cummings - Bobby Darin approached “Things” all wrong — somewhere between Rat Pack and country. I don’t think I’d ever bothered to listen to his version more than once before this — but I love the version by Robbie Williams and Jane Horrocks from his Swing When You’re Winning album. He gives the song the goofy irony it deserves — and while Horrocks is no great singer, her vocals on the chorus are perfect — I adore the way she sings the word “things.”
Lifton - The Rat Pack singing country is a perfect description. As I was listening, my thoughts were of Nick Tosches’ bio about Dean Martin where Dino laughed at method actors, saying something like, “If you want me to play a cowboy, give me a hat and I’ll be a cowboy.”
Jack, I do think Darin was a careerist. He didn’t, like Bowie or Madonna, take any existing sounds and make them acceptable to a mainstream audience. I’d say acts like Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas and The Papas had a lot more to do with “legitimizing” folk-rock than he ever could. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a very talented and versatile singer, especially when he had good material. This just wasn’t one of his best moments.
#13: The Shirelles, “Soldier Boy” – #1 U.S., #23 U.K.; the group’s second #1 after “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1960.
Giles - A cute little shuffle with a Duane Eddy clone on guitar. I think I prefer “Mercedes Boy,” though.
Dunphy - It says a lot that the only, and I mean ONLY, song of this batch I know is “Soldier Boy.” Wow, talk about falling off the pop-culture map!
Feerick - Another “be true” / separation anxiety anthem. This one’s a little unusual in that cause of the separation is made explicit, and the singer’s feeling of hurt is not softened by any appeal to honor or duty, as it doubtless would be if the song were written today. The growing pop-culture fetishization of the armed services over the last thirty-some years — the post-draft era — is a fertile ground for analysis, but it’s beyond my scope here; I’ll just say I find the ambivalence here interesting, She’s stoic about the loss of her loverman, but she’s not filled with any patriotic pride. By today’s pop standards, she fails to properly recognize the “necessity” of her sacrifice – in fact it never even occurs to her to do so, which shows how much things have changed. I mean, it’s no “Masters of War,” but then, it doesn’t have to be.
On a musical note — listen to those voices. No vibrato, no harmonies, just plain singing in unison. It’s like they purposely eliminated anything that might smack of “technique.” It’s aggressively simple, like kids singing on a playground, and from a marketing standpoint it’s brilliant; it encourages you to identify with the group, instead of being awed by them.
Cummings - “Soldier Boy” is an archetype of the Girl Group sound, and rightly so. The harmonies, the drama, the tinny sound perfect for AM radio. Having had no chance to deal with this song on anything but a historical level, I wondered as a kid why a song like “Soldier Boy” would resonate during this particular period, when Korea was 10 years in the past and Vietnam was a few years in the future. In the jumble of facts and ignorance that is a kid’s early education in history (and pop music), I thought Elvis was pretty much the only guy in the Army in the early years of rock’n’roll, so the Shirelles must have been singing to him. It wasn’t til a bit later that I put “Soldier Boy” and the Cuban Missile Crisis together, and learned that there were more than a half-million soldiers in Germany at the same time Elvis was.
#14: Jay & The Americans, “She Cried” - #5 U.S.
Giles - This song is making me die.
Feerick - One thing that strikes me about the pop of this era is how hard everyone seems to be working. I noticed it in the Duprees’ version of “You Belong to Me” last week, where the teenage lead singer is groping for notes just out of his range. Mr. Jay American seems to be having the same pitch problems here, and the leaden plod of the melody only makes things worse. This is pop’s Bataan Death March.
Knowing that this was what the popscape sounded like makes me appreciate the Beatles that much more. Their early records are impeccably-crafted, yeah, but up against the likes of this, they sound as fresh and unaffected as breathing. “She Cried” never lets you forget its artifice; every note the singer produces seems to be dragged out of him with a punch to the stomach. Not coincidentally, listening to this record left me, too, feeling as if I’d endured a savage beating.
Cummings - I actually like “She Cried” quite a bit — those echo-laden drums, those overwrought vocals, the whole minor-key thing. Imagine the drama blasting out of the transistor radio when this song was on late at night.
Lifton - I can’t hear anything by Jay & The Americans without thinking of the stories that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had about being in their band on the oldies circuit in the pre-Steely Dan days. They used to take bets on whether or not he’d hit the high note on “Cara Mia,” or they’d secretly drop the songs down a half-step so the guitar player would get in trouble for being out of tune. And apparently Jay had quite a gambling problem, so a few of those secondary and tertiary characters in Goodfellas were always hanging them.
All of this is preventing me from having to say something about this song, about which I have no opinion.
#15: The Angels, “‘Til” - #14 U.S.
Feerick - I had to listen to this twice before I could even place it. Not a very sticky melody, is it? It’s pretty much ballad-by-numbers — from those opening notes, this could have turned into one of a dozen different songs. These days it’d be an album track. The way the lyrics fit into the melody seems a little off – like the music is written in six, and the words are written in eight, or something. And even in a genre noted for over-the-top, this is pretty pathological: I will worship you . You are my reason to live. Somebody buy that girl a copy of Codependent No More!
Cummings - I couldn’t wake ’til “‘Til” was over. I had never heard this song ’til now, and I wish I could take back the experience. I’ll continue to think of the Angels solely in the context of “My Boyfriend’s Back,” if you don’t mind.
Lifton - I love hearing the second or third hits of acts who have been relegated to “one-hit wonder” status but oldies radio. Sometimes they get it wrong, but here they got it right. I put on “My Boyfriend’s Back” immediately after listening to this.
#16: Johnny Tillotson, “It Keeps Right on A-Hurtin’” - #3 U.S., #4 Country; according to Wikipedia Tillotson’s inspiration for this was his father’s terminal illness.
Giles - This might be the blandest song ever inspired by a loved one’s terminal illness. I mean, it’s pleasant enough, but I kind of think Johnny may not have loved his father all that much.
Feerick - There’s nothing wrong with good old well-crafted countrypolitan Nashville music, but there’s nothing here we haven’t heard a million times before – the big, pillowy strings, the sighing choir, the gentlemanly vocals. There’s Floyd Cramer on piano, playing all your favorite Floyd Cramer licks. As a piece of songwriting, this is nothing special. But what’s with that double-chop rhythm guitar? It sounds like the rhythm section is trying to assuage its boredom by inventing reggae, five years ahead of schedule and 1400 miles northwest; dude, these Nashville cats are skanking!
Cummings - “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” is so uninteresting that it takes some of the edge off my enjoyment of Tillotson’s biggest hit, “Poetry in Motion,” which is the only song by him I’d heard before this. Before this song he had been something of a teen idol in the Anka/Avalon mode, and I suppose this was his big “maturity” move, professionally speaking. It was also a big move toward country, and while this top-fived on country radio it was his only big hit there — though he kept trying for years afterward. Hearing that it was inspired by his father’s death only makes it sadder that his performance is such a flatline. You really had to have a distinctive voice to cut through that Nashville Sound gloss, and Tillotson just couldn’t cut it. To come full circle, though, there’s a video on YouTube of him singing “Things” in 1965 — and while it’s not particularly good, it’s better than Bobby Darin’s version.