I hadn’t intended to write about two so-called novelty songs in a row, but I was recently reminded of how much I enjoy this track…
Johnny Cymbal (born John Hendry Blair in Scotland on February 3, 1945) was a fresh-faced 15-year-old when he released a pair of singles — “Always, Always” and “The Water Was Red” — on the MGM label to little fanfare or success. They were pleasant enough pop songs, and Cymbal’s voice and style was not unlike either of the Everly Brothers. After the two sides flopped, MGM declined to pick up his contract option.
Success proved elusive for the teen singer-songwriter until late 1962, when his demo of a song called “Bachelor Man,” caught the attention of Vee Jay Records. This was a decidedly more upbeat tune and a preview of things to come. Cymbal provided his own deep-voiced backup and channeled his inner Buddy Holly on this fun cut. Vee Jay released the side in February 1963, but it was on the strength of the demo that Cymbal scored a deal with Kapp Records.
And that brings us to Cymbal’s first Kapp single and his only real hit, “Mr. Bass Man” (b/w “Sacred Lovers Vow”). It was recorded in December 1962 and released the next month, but this time Cymbal handed bass vocal duties to another singer. Veteran doo wop singer Ronnie Bright (of the Valentines, the Cadillacs, the Deep River Boys, and the Coasters) is in fact the Mr. Bass Man you hear.
On a side note, I always think of this mid-century period TV ad for Ajax when I hear this song. And no, that’s not an insult.
Anyway, perhaps Bright was the missing ingredient that propelled “Mr. Bass Man” to success, or maybe it was Alan Lorber’s rather Coasters-like arrangement. Whatever the case, the track debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #99 on February 16, 1963 and peaked at #16 for the week ending April 13.
Cymbal’s next two singles for Kapp, “Teenage Heaven” and “Dum Dum Dee Dum,” failed to crack the Top 40, and subsequent efforts didn’t chart at all. While working as a producer and in-house songwriter Cymbal kept plugging away for another chance at solo success, and he finally broke through again in 1968. Taking his younger brother Derek’s name, he released “Cinnamon” that year and hit #11. Derek’s Bang Records followup, “Back Door Man,” stalled at #59.
While Cymbal found much success writing songs for the likes of Elvis Presley and Gene Pitney, his last best shot at stardom was as one half of the Cymbal and Clinger duo (with Peggy Clinger, one of the Clinger Sisters). The pair released a self-titled LP on Chelsea in 1972 but it went nowhere.
Johnny Cymbal moved to Nashville and established himself as a successful country songwriter in the early 1980s. He died of a heart attack on March 16, 1993 at the age of 48.
The Before We Was Fab playlist on Spotify and Rdio now features the original version of “Mr. Bass Man,” as well as a studio outtake with Johnny Cymbal providing his own backing bass vocal.