Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 4
And thus ends our journey through all 22 tracks that make up AM Gold: 1962. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned so far — and there may just one — it’s that songs about teenage love seemed to be just as popular as songs about teenage breakups and death.
But fear not, loyal Popdose readers, as we’re just getting started. Next week we tackle 1963 and that’s when things get… well they get something.
#17: The Lettermen, “When I Fall in Love” – #7 U.S. Hot 100, #1 U.S. Adult Contemporary
Jack Feerick – We’ve go some very familiar material this week. And let me get this out of the way; I think this record is flat-out gorgeous. The arrangement is relatively understated, and the way the pulse kind of comes and goes, it’s positively ethereal.
And those vocals! This kind of lush, swoony harmony style has been out of vogue for years — listeners today associate it with the Beach Boys, but even they were self-consciously hearkening back to an earlier tradition of pre-rock vocal pop that peaked in the late ‘50s with the Four Freshmen et al but that has its roots in pre-war African-American gospel — but I’ve still got a soft spot for it. The dominant harmony style that emerged out of rock ‘n’ roll is the Everleys / Louvin Brothers two-part model, and most of the time it works well enough; it’s got a primal, adrenaline-rush appeal. But those Lettermen barbershop chords — it’s like sipping a fine bourbon, and all the complexities and shades of flavor emerging as you hold it on your palate. Pure class.
Dave Lifton – I’m so used to Nat King Cole’s version that I’m not used to hearing it sung right against the beat like that. I think the lyric suits Cole’s phrasing better, but this is still a beautiful version.
Dw. Dunphy – I agree that Nat King Cole pretty much nailed this song. I like this version by the Lettermen a lot, but there’s very little Cole has done that hasn’t become definitive.
Chris Holmes – As milquetoast as a lot of the music from this period can be, one thing I love about it is the emphasis on vocal harmony. I guess it’s too “sweet” for some people’s tastes, but I never get tired of it. Hell, I even sang in a barbershop choir for a brief period.
Speaking of the Four Freshmen, if there was ever song that demonstrated the unique beauty of group singing it’s this one:
Tony Redman – Man, this is nice! I love close harmony, and this is a great example of it. The chords just flow so effortlessly. The only thing that would have made this song better is ditching the instruments totally and letting this ride as pure a cappella.
Jon Cummings – I had the distinct honor — as far as he was concerned — of interviewing the Lettermen’s big cheese, Tony Butala, back in 1986. It was one of those interviews when you basically say to the guy, “You’re in town for a concert, you haven’t had a hit in 25 years, just go ahead and give me your spiel.” And he does — and he’s so well-practiced, and oozing with the self-confidence that comes from preaching to the converted for a quarter-century on the oldies circuit, that you just take dictation for 15 minutes and think the whole time, “Can this end now, please?” He was at that auto-pilot point in his career when he imagined he was still relevant because, as he put it, “The fans who come out still love us. If you come to the show, you’re guaranteed to see at least five standing ovations.” All of that said, this track is fine — in that Reader’s Digest “Beautiful Songs That Will Live Forever” kind of way. Which is pretty much all the Lettermen ever were.
#18: Brenda Lee, “Break It to Me Gently” – #4 U.S. Hot 100
Feerick - Hi there, nice to be with you, glad you could stick around. Like to introduce Buddy Harman; Buddy’s hittin’ the skins for us tonight. And here’s Floyd Cramer, tickling the ivories. Tasty. Let’s see, we’ve got J. Edgar Hoover on the gut bass, looking lovely in a Bob Mackie gown. All the way from Paris, Salvador Dali with us on clavés. Muchas gracias, Sal! On the washboard, Miss Christine Jorgensen. The Reverend Harry Powell on tenor sax, everybody. Bless my soul, there’s Joan Crawford on the six-string! Play that thing, Joan! We’ve got Henry Miller playing his organ — that’s Anais Nin, turning the pages for him. The Monsanto Con Agra Marching Band and DDT Choral Society, under the direction of J. Peter DuPont — take a bow, Pete. And the star of the show, four foot nine in her stocking feet, Little Miss Dynamite herself…
…what? It’s over? Already? Well, fuck. Thanks for coming, everybody! Goodnight!
Lifton - Shit, I think Jack had too much of the bourbon from that Lettermen song. Can somebody please pick him up off the ground?
Dunphy - Do I get kicked out of the tree house if I say I like the Juice Newton version better?
Holmes - This number is dying to boil over at some point, but instead it just sort of puts along like a fishing boat with a half-busted motor. Juice Newton’s take gets closer to the song’s gut-wrenching potential, but that glossy, ’80s countrified production sucks the life out of it. This was dying for a proper remake by Etta James or Tina Turner.
Redman - It sounds like Brenda is letting everybody else do the heavy lifting here. She doesn’t even hold out most of the long notes. I just listened to Juice Newton’s version again, and I agree that hers is much better.
Cummings - I said the last time we heard Brenda Lee that I have an almost irrational affection for her stuff — but for me “Break It To Me Gently” is Juice Newton’s song, and Brenda’s version sounds like a Nashville Sound demo. I just don’t think she did it justice, emotionally speaking, whereas Juice wrung every bit of agony out of it — as though she knew there was no way in hell the guy was actually going to let her down easy. Actually, I think we should take any opportunity we can to talk about how terrific Juice’s run of singles was — she blew away Merrilee Rush’s original of “Angel of the Morning,” too. (To complete this tangent, I’m always freaked out when I remember that the same guy who wrote “Angel of the Morning” — Chip Taylor, who happens to be Angelina Jolie’s uncle — also wrote “Wild Thing.”)
#19: The Miracles, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” – #8 U.S. Hot 100, #1 U.S. Hot R&B Sides; The Beatles released their version just over a year later.
Feerick - This is another one that’s been much-covered. This take isn’t bad, but it’s a little lumpy — the hammering piano and the horns are crowding the melody, and it doesn’t really breathe like it should. It’s an odd-sounding record — the drums are mixed ridiculously hot for a record if this era, to begin with — and the musicianship is pretty rudimentary; the guitar’s out of tune, the saxes sound like duck calls, and the beat gets turned around a couple of times. R & B with a garage rock aesthetic. It’s charming in its way, but it doesn’t suit this particular tune very well.
Lifton - The song is flat-out brilliant in every respect, melodically and lyrically, but maybe the record suffers because it was too early in Motown’s history for its potential to be realized. Can you imagine what this could have sounded like a few years later when they were at their peak?
I often offer this as one of the exceptions to the oft-made statement that every song by a black artist was watered down when covered by whites. Although I like this version probably a little better than Jack does, I prefer the Beatles’ take. They were equally as inexperienced in the studio, but Smokey sings this as a pop song, while Lennon sings it as a soul song. Listen to the difference in the second “Tighter” if you don’t know what I’m getting at. But I’m still a sucker for the way the guitar riff comes in underneath in the chorus.
Dunphy - I can’t go against Smokey Robinson. Sure, this recording may be harsh (it is, after all, one of Motown’s earliest hits), but when Smokey sings, I hear violins.
Holmes - I kept expecting the Miracles to bust out the “shoo dop, doo be wop” background vocals at any time.
Cummings - I wonder if some of the responses to the Miracles’ performance on “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” has anything to do with hearing the Beatles’ version first and/or more frequently. I agree with Lifton in preferring Lennon’s vocal on this song to Smokey’s — which is an astonishing statement, considering that Smokey is responsible for several of the greatest vocals in pop history (“Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Cruisin'”). But this song is so … primal in its emotions, it’s irresistible.
#20: Paul Anka, “Love Me Warm and Tender” – #12 U.S. Hot 100, #19 U.K. Singles
Feerick - Anka’s an interesting transitional figure — born either slightly too soon or slightly too late, depending how you look at it. His vocals on the verses flirt with a full-throated rockabilly yelp, but when the bridge rolls around he pulls back, and the minimalist Latin shuffle gives way to a careful horns-and-strings arrangement, and we ride out on a vamp that sounds like a slightly impolite take on “Strangers in the Night.” Like most exercises in trying to split the difference, this doesn’t entirely work either as rock ‘n’ roll or as Sinatra-pop. It tries to forge a middle path, but ends up sounding like it can’t commit. That doesn’t make it an embarrassment — just a curiosity.
Lifton - I’m too busy laughing at the drum fill at the 1:00 mark. Was John Densmore doing studio work in New York in 1962?
Dunphy - Why am I hearing a mash-up of Jay and The Americans with Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem?”
Holmes - I can’t even hear Anka over that ride cymbal. Holy crap is that thing loud.
Redman - I’ve heard a lot of music from this time period, but this one doesn’t ring a bell with me at all. His performance seems like the opposite of Brenda Lee’s performance earlier. He’s pushing way too hard for a song as slight as this.
Cummings - Tony noted that Paul Anka “was pushing way too hard for a song as slight” as “Love Me Warm and Tender” — which is absolutely right, but it’s the way he sang all of those awful early hits of his. (Actually, “Diana” wasn’t too awful, though it was creepy, but “Lonely Boy” just makes me wretch.) When one of these young-Anka hits comes on, I like to close my eyes and think of the older, close-cropped, Adult Contemporary, “You’re Having My Baby”-era Anka singing with that gawky voice. Now that I’m thinking of it, there’s a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF2ed8FGO0Q) of Anka singing this song just a couple years ago, in more straightforward Rat Pack fashion without all the trumped-up melodrama. It’s not good, but it’s not half as bad as the single.
#21: Dickey Lee, “Patches” – #6 U.S. Hot 100
Feerick - Man, even for an era when teen death ballads ruled the airwaves, this is one sick piece of work — and this from a guy who loves Joe Meek. Check it: the narrator’s passion for Patches apparently doesn’t extend to ever learning or using her real name. More than anything, he’s got a hard-on for Death itself. “Patches” never achieves the pure sonic weirdness of a Meek record; Lee’s vocal is wildly affected, which amps up the campy craziness, but the arrangement (absurd key changes aside) is ten-a-penny Nashville standard. It’s cut from the same twisted, maudlin cloth, though, and the name “Dickey Lee” even sounds like it could be out of the Holloway Road roster.
Lifton - I think the best thing about his eternal love for his deceased Patches is that he’ll never reproduce.
Dunphy - This is like the early ’60s version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” only this one hurts more when I listen to it.
Holmes - WTF kind of name is Patches for a girl? I would’ve sworn he was singing about a lost Cocker Spaniel.
Redman - Oog. I think this song is second to “I Want My Baby Back” in unpleasant teen death ballads (although you at least feel like “I Want My Baby Back” shouldn’t be taken seriously). How would these two have even met? What occasion would your average teenager have to go to Shanty Town anyway, especially if you have to go “down by the river that flows by the coal yards” to get there? And if this girl is so poor, do you really think she appreciates the man she’s going to marry calling her “Patches”?
Cummings - Dickey Lee’s “Patches” is like being lowered into a vat of molasses. What drives me craziest about it is the poor use of imagery, for a story song — every description is a cliche. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m just old enough to have been in college during the anti-apartheid protests of the mid-’80s, when we built a “shantytown” on the plaza outside the university administration building. (Not that a bunch of white kids building a shantytown at Northwestern University was any less condescending than this song’s use of the word.) Whenever I’ve heard this song in recent years — which, thankfully, has been rarely — I’ve wanted somebody to mash it up with Clarence Carter’s song of the same name, which has a sensibility about as rough-and-ready as this song is milquetoasty.
Dunphy - I agree that someone was pretty sick in the head to write a song where the girl’s most tragic aspect got stuck being her name. How about, “My Australian wife was taken right out of the nursery by dingoes. Hey, honey, could you come over here and tell the people your story? This is my wife, Stumpy.”
And let us never speak of “The Ballad of Chlamydia Johnson.”
Meanwhile, another poor kid got stuck with the name Patches in later years…
Clarence Carter, “Patches” (1970)
I was born and raised down in Alabama
On a farm way back up in the woods
I was so ragged that folks used to call me Patches
Papa used to tease me about it
‘Cause deep down inside he was hurt
‘Cause he’d done all he could
My papa was a great old man
I can see him with a shovel in his hands, see
Education he never had
He did wonders when the times got bad
The little money from the crops he raised
Barely paid the bills we made
For, life had kick him down to the ground
When he tried to get up
Life would kick him back down
One day Papa called me to his dyin’ bed
Put his hands on my shoulders
And in his tears he said
He said, Patches
I’m dependin’ on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it’s all left up to you
Two days later Papa passed away, and
I became a man that day
So I told Mama I was gonna quit school, but
She said that was Daddy’s strictest rule
So ev’ry mornin’ ‘fore I went to school
I fed the chickens and I chopped wood too
Sometimes I felt that I couldn’t go on
I wanted to leave, just run away from home
But I would remember what my daddy said
With tears in his eyes on his dyin’ bed
He said, Patches
I’m dependin’ on you, son
I tried to do my best
It’s up to you to do the rest
Then one day a strong rain came
And washed all the crops away
And at the age of 13 I thought
I was carryin’ the weight of the
Whole world on my shoulders
And you know, Mama knew
What I was goin’ through, ’cause
Ev’ry day I had to work the fields
‘Cause that’s the only way we got our meals
You see, I was the oldest of the family
And ev’rybody else depended on me
Ev’ry night I heard my Mama pray
Lord, give him the strength to face another day
So years have passed and all the kids are grown
The angels took Mama to a brand new home
Lord knows, people, I shedded tears
But my daddy’s voice kept me through the years
Patches, I’m dependin’ on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it’s all left up to you
Oh, I can still hear Papa’s voice sayin’
Patches, I’m dependin’ on you, son
I’ve tried to do my best
It’s up to you to do the rest
I can still hear Papa, what he said
#22: Shelley Fabares, “Johnny Angel” – #1 U.S. Hot 100; the first of Fabares’ two Top 40 singles.
Feerick - Now this is just dazzling. There’s a big dollop of the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” in the vocal arrangement here, which is A-OK with me — most obviously in the intro, but also check out the way the bridge modulates around before arriving back at the original key as if by accident. Just masterful. And Shelley is in fine voice. It’s not an easy song to sing, but for all the technical chops in evidence her performance sounds effortless, almost conversational, and the whole thing comes off appropriately feather-light. Heavenly, indeed.
Lifton - I never really thought much about this song until now, and you’re absolutely right. I’m also loving the hi-hat work. That’s definitely not John Densmore.
Dunphy - It is certainly beautiful, but man, in a world with “Fucking Perfect” in it, this sounds almost like an alien transmission.
Holmes - I’ve got nothing bad to say about this track, but this is a perfect example of how the early ’60s were really an extension of the ’50s in a lot of ways. I can only imagine that as a teenager around this time I’d be bored to tears with music like this, which had none of the spark that early rock ‘n’ roll had.
Redman - A fine example of double tracking, wherein a person sings a song through once, and then sings again to their own recorded voice to give it more fullness. I read somewhere that this was known as the “Annette sound,” since arranger and sound engineer Tutti Camarata first used it for Annette Funicello. You hear this a lot among celebrity singers of the ‘60s. If you think about it, double tracking was sort of the Auto-Tune of its day (except that you had to sing it right twice, instead of singing it wrong once).
Cummings - I love “Johnny Angel.” What’s not to love? And Shelley Fabares was actually kinda hot for a TV teen back in the early ’60s. I remember watching The Donna Reed Show once in awhile back when I was a little kid — I think it was on right when I got home from school, before The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island reruns started — and I had little-boy crushes on Shelley … and Donna. If you look at a clip from the show on YouTube, it was actually quite brilliant casting Shelley as Donna’s daughter, because there’s a strong resemblance between them.