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ROCK MUSIC — TWIST’N’SURF! FOLK’N’SOUL! (Part 1)

In music on June 5, 2009 at 11:29 pm

— another excerpt from a chapter of G. A. De Forest’s book ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’, published November 2007 by Booklocker.com and available from Amazon.com, where it listed #23 on its sales list of Music: History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008.

Chubby Checker demonstrating The Twist, late summer 1960

Chubby Checker demonstrating The Twist, late summer 1960

As the world bleached itself blonde, daydreamed of waxing ironing-boards or bikini lines to go surfin’, hitched up its collective swimsuit and pondered on converting the family runabout into a woody or hotrod, the Beach Boys hung ten over a cauldron of pop sounds. The vocal surf sound they invented superseded both Elvis Presley and “The Twist” that had ruled under the perpetual-motion hips of Chubby Checker.

By the time the sizzling Twist tempo simmered down to a ‘Mambo Twist’ and ‘Twistin’ USA’ those with an ear knew it was time to move on; just as Capitol wouldn’t know when surf music passed its prime. By summer ’63 when the Beach Boys had left the field Chubby had moved on too—but to ‘Surf Party’; and the Isley Bros from ‘Twist and Shout’ to ‘Surf and Shout’. Rock iconoclast Frank Zappa conquered and held the Mexican charts most of that year with ‘Tijuana Surf’. For the next four years, as he sustained his creative momentum, the world would not catch up to—but for an idealistic minority, did not want to catch up to—Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson. It had new champions in the Beatles, much better at keeping pace with even the slow, retro-inclined audience.

FATS DOMINO WAS SOLE ORIGINAL ROCK’N’ROLLER to make it with a hit catalogue to the end of 1963. Then he faded, ironically to forge a comeback in the late Sixties showing up the Beatles with raunched-up takes on ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Lady Madonna’. Chuck Berry and Little Richard both revived in 1964 after five years of relative obscurity—still with old-style rock’n’roll, as a direct result of imitations by the Beatles.

Dion DiMucci: the first Bandstand teen idol to be more than a sweater-wearer

Dion DiMucci: the first Bandstand teen idol to be more than a sweater-wearer

Del Shannon: American rock is reborn in 1961, cloaked in a sweater. The Beach Boys could have taken the rocker image further.

Del Shannon: American rock is reborn in 1961, cloaked in a sweater. The Beach Boys could have taken the rocker image further.

Shunning the sappy teen idolatry of the Frankies and Fabians, white rock’n’rollers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, were too rebellious to be tolerated by the Establishment though continuing popular in the UK, and especially France, just catching up with the play. Here they were treated as current, even after Cochran was deceased, shown by their huge chart success into the mid-sixties. Closest in toughness—but judged marshmallow enough for vulnerable American teens—were Del Shannon and Dion (DiMucci). Del was far less consistent in the States but, unlike Dion, hugely appreciated in Britain, where he passed as an almost-leather-clad rocker touring there over the Beatles in 1963. His lukewarm cover of ‘From Me to You’ that introduced Beatle music to America was a comedown after ‘Runaway’, a couple of soundalikes and his latest, ‘Little Town Flirt’. Reduced to remakes, ‘Keep Searchin’’ kept him alive a year into Beatletime.

Coming from Italian-American Doo-Wop humming on Bronx street corners, Dion by ’63 was the most respected of all teen idols in Elvis’s trail. ‘Runaround Sue’—like Bobby Darin on speed— and even better his convincing r&b growling on ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Ruby Baby’, set new marks for white singers. The complex cyclical harmony-and-percussion of ‘Donna the Prima Donna’ was an exciting arrangement the Beach Boys would later use. He then attempted Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’—in too-direct competition with British groups, who had (apart from the Beach Boys) cornered the market on Berry refrains.

While English groups from London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle—and West Coast US groups from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA—merely extrapolated on old forms of r&b and blues, black artists were developing a new form, “Soul”, often as African as the original Blues and Gospel. Black singers and musicians in distinctive African form were rarely given the limelight, James Brown & the Famous Flames being the shining exception—in America, not Britain, which has forever cherished its tuneful pop, Beatle music coming to serve as its epitome. A new strength was showing in black music in 1963, building on a base created by Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, their former lead singer Jerry Butler (often coupled with Betty Everett) and Gene Chandler at Vee Jay and the Isley Bros. All of these were habitually successful on the r&b charts but only fitfully on the pop charts. A whole array of talent at Atlantic/Stax so far undiscovered by the white audience but for instrumental group Booker T & the MGs, and a new direction in girl groups and male vocalists (notably Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson) headed by Motown, would change all that. Brown and 13-year-old Stevie Wonder were even now rising to the very top of mainstream pop with hard-out r&b—an initiative effectively stifled and set back years by the Brit conquest of America.

Barred from contributing to black music for obvious reasons, the Beach Boys took r&b rock in a divergent direction over several years, from garage-band rock to psychedelia. The white world of 1963 in which they infused their music was an ill-fitting one dominated by tv’s Bandstand, the first teen-oriented pop show. Given the setting of their songs’ images their music was inevitably dubbed white and therefore middle-class, avoiding any deeper thought on the subject.

Dick Clark pretending to take a call.

Dick Clark pretending to take a call.

Chubby Checker, a protégé of Dick Clark (and named by Mrs Clark), the most popular performer in rhythm & blues— was the first ‘colored’ rock’n’roller to come anywhere near Elvis Presley, dominating the Twist as Elvis had original rock’n’roll. He was made all the more important by Elvis deserting rock for balladeering. Grooving on a rhythm similar to the dormant Little Richard, Chubby was arguably the biggest contemporary influence on the Beach Boys in their formative stage.

‘The Twist’ was huge in America and after ‘Let’s Twist Again’ it came back even bigger. In Britain the four big twist tunes (including the watered-down ‘Twisting the Night Away’ and ‘Peppermint Twist’) hit in a bunch early ’62, leaving Frankie Vaughan and Petula Clark to carry on with minor entries. Afterward Chubby was hardly heard from there, bowing to Pat Boone’s milksop twister ‘Speedy Gonzales’. In fact, Chubby’s genuine ‘Twist’ had been considered far too raucous for English ears on first release and missed top ten on re-release. No wonder English reviewers had no taste for ‘Surfin’ Safari’—they couldn’t recognise r&b authenticity when they heard it. The Brits preferred their own diluted covers of Twist songs, and their r&b groups were still infatuated with long-gone Lonnie Donegan and rockabillies Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It was fitting as per the cyclical nature of pop culture that, after Cash Box named his ‘Limbo Rock’ top hit of ’63 and then years in rock’n’roll revival shows, Chubby returned with a version of ‘Back in the USSR’, written by Paul McCartney for the Beatles, but sounding like the Beach Boys.

The American group’s special aspirations were later summed up by Chapple & Garofalo in Rock’n’Roll is Here to Pay (1977): “The surfing music that appeared in the early sixties should not be seen as just another fad that softened rock’n’roll. Rather it was a precursor to the psychedelic and underground progressive rock of the sixties. Several of the important people involved in surfing music—especially the Beach Boys (‘Surfin’ Safari’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Surfer Girl’) and Lou Adler, one of the first producers of Jan & Dean, became central figures in sixties rock. Surfing music represented an authentic West Coast rock’n’roll culture that differed in one important way from earlier rock’n’roll produced by urban blacks and Southern rockabillies: it was made by middle-class whites.” The Beatles and other British groups of the mid-Sixties attempted to reproduce the earlier rock’n’roll.

The Four Seasons in 1962, of 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

The Four Seasons in 1962, of 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

Bandstand‘s update of teen idols—in light of the turn away from solo vocalists to groups wielding their own instruments, a develop-ment toward independence diametrically opposed to what the industry wanted—was the Four Seasons, Dick Clark’s new favorites from just down the New Jersey turnpike. Modelled on doo-wop vocal quartets and stopping short of adding a drummer meant they didn’t qualify as a rock’n’roll band and so appealed to the conservative music industry bosses of 1962-63 as a halfway stop; still desperately seeking an alternative to rock’n’roll, for a while they thought they’d found it in folk music.

Self-determining like the Beach Boys, the Seasons recorded in their choice of studio, or rather producer Bob Crewe’s—in New York—and did a pressing, distribution and promotion deal with Chicago’s Vee-Jay for 16 cents per single—about 21%, around sixty times what the Beatles were now getting from their songs licensed to the same label. One estimate of Four Seasons career sales is 175 million worldwide.

Under Crewe they showed just the right combination of toughness and sophistication in the studio, described as “technically brilliant” by an English reviewer who visited them, though in person up against laddish English boys came across as overly mature squares though hardly older than the Beatles or, especially, Stones. It was an image that would hamper them all too soon, considering the assets they drew together to offer Pop, combining modern r&b—hear departing member Nick Massi’s vocal arrangement of ‘Ain’t That a Shame’—with Tin Pan Alley, often employing composers Denny Randell & Sandy Linzer (‘Let’s Hang On’, ‘Working My Way Back to You’, ‘Opus 17’). Their arranger, Charles Calello, incorporated classical touches on piano and harpsichord to add Noo Yawk class. Keyboard player Bob Gaudio was sole or main writer of breakthrough no.1 ‘Sherry’, ‘Marlena’, ‘Dawn (Go Away)’, ‘Big Man in Town’ and ‘Beggin’’, and created with Crewe ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Save It for Me’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Rag Doll’ (their biggest gobally) and ‘Bye Bye Baby’, later blanded out by the Bay City Rollers.

FEW SOLO STARS—THOUGH THE SEASONS’ FRANKIE Valli was distinctive and well enough known to be a teen idol, and did issue solo discs—continued strong into 1963. Bobby Vee, come from an association with Buddy Holly, from whom he continued the trend of orchestrated pop, was little seen after ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ early in the year. Brian Hyland (‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’, ‘Sealed With a Kiss’) returned at four-year intervals: ‘The Joker Went Wild’ and remaking the Impressions’ ‘Gypsy Woman’; Lou Christie, emulating Frankie Valli’s shrill falsetto and now in the last intake of idols with ‘The Gypsy Cried’ and ‘Two Faces Have I’, every three years—‘Lightnin’ Strikes’, ‘Rhapsody in the Rain’— then ‘I’m Gonna Make You Mine’. Bobby Rydell (‘Wild One’), counting as almost a major star for four years, pegged out with ‘Forget Him’ late ’63, as did Johnny Tillotson (‘Poetry in Motion’, ‘Judy, Judy, Judy’), a prolific but minor ‘idol’, with ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’. Rick Nelson, a rock’n’roll stylist cum teen idol who featured top-notch backing musicians, bowed with a bossa nova treatment of ‘Fools Rush In’.

Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

Brenda Lee: "Little Miss Dynamite"Urban-Italian-sweet Connie Francis (‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, ‘My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own’, ‘Where the Boys Are’, etc) and country-Georgia-sassy Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothin’s’, ‘I’m Sorry’, ‘Dum Dum’) remained top teen princesses, each mounting nearly twenty top 20 US hits—and then their head-to-head contest came to a dead halt. While ’63 was a great year for Brenda—two international multimillion-sellers in ‘All Alone Am I’ and ‘Losing You’, the belter ‘My Whole World Is Falling Down’—her last real big one, ‘As Usual’, was leaving the charts as the Beatles landed. That was really the end. Connie treaded water in beach movies (Follow the Boys), and Brenda—succeeding Connie—retained her Cash Box world’s top female vocalist crown for two more awards, but it was only the wan impact of their British equivalents that enabled the two to stay recognised names, just submerged under the new group scene.

Connie Stevens and Annette Funicello, recording actresses, were their runners-up in popularity polls. Precocious acting talent Patty Duke, with her own teen sitcom, would succeed them in the pop market and last four hits. Big for a while in ’63 were Marcie Blane’s ‘Bobby’s Girl’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ and melodramatic ‘I Will Follow Him’ (“wherever he may go”) emoted by Little Peggy March, all following up award-winning ‘Johnny Get Angry’ from Joanie Sommers the year before. All were one-shots until Lesley Gore (‘It’s My Party’, ‘Judy’s Turn to Cry’, ‘You Don’t Own Me’) made the teen girl vein her own.

Virtually all teen idols, female and male, were gone before the arrival of the Beatles—thanks to the dominating presence of the Beach Boys and Four Seasons driving the pop industry away from sometimes puerile, often sentimental, mush into a much tougher group-oriented scene. In the new world of male groups, alternately male rights were demanded and male longing for “the right girl” was openly expressed. All had melted away, that is, but for the resistant strain of Bobby Vinton, in America; and Gene Pitney, more popular ex-USA.

Gene Pitney: a Euro-ising influence on American pop, with Burt Bacharach

Gene Pitney: a Euro-ising influence on American pop, with Burt Bacharach

Pitney hit through movie themes Town Without Pity and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ending ’62 in ‘Only Love Can Break a Heart’, a no.2, backed by jukebox favorite ‘If I Didn’t Have a Dime’—as big as he ever got in America though through ’63 he continued to define Sixties pop: ‘True Love Never Runs Smooth’, ‘Half Heaven, Half Heartache’, upbeat ‘Mecca’ and signature tune ‘Twenty-four Hours From Tulsa’. All fell short of top ten but by now a superstar in Britain he switched to suit the market from the Bacharach-David writing team to big ballads ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’ and ‘Looking Through the Eyes of Love’ from Spector favorites Mann-Weil. His pseudo-operatic pleading style hit a chord world-wide. Spending a deal of time in the UK with publicist Andrew Loog Oldham and thus the Stones and other new figures at the centre of the industry, he came to adopt, and was adopted by, the British Invasion with trans-Atlantic sounds ‘It Hurts to Be in Love’ and ‘Last Chance to Turn Around’. But while staying a fixture there—‘Princess in Rags’, ‘Backstage’, etc—he also sank with the Brits.

The new Bobby had only been around a year (‘Roses Are Red’) but dominated second-half-of-’63 charts: ‘Blue on Blue’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘There! I’ve Said it Again’ all reaching top and spanning into Beatletime. Sticking to slow, melodious Easy Listening as a sort of white Johnny Mathis, he went all the way again with ‘Mr Lonely’ (hear the dire rehash c. 2005) but stuck fast in glutinous remakes thereafter. Like Mathis, he defied the trends— and uniquely for a teen idol scored better in sales than in airplay. But the fact that the Brits ignored him made him an anachronism, never figuring in the development of Sixties Music.

Bobby Vinton: sweetly retro, pointing the way 'forward' to Beatle ballads.

Bobby Vinton: sweetly retro, pointing the way 'forward' to Beatle ballads.

Vinton’s sentimental sweetness and total lack of rock impetus—a male Patti Page—kept sleepy Middle America in the Fifties, though strangely well in tune with the sentimental Beatle ballads everpresent through the Sixties. Of Middle European extraction, nicknamed the Polish Prince, his Polka-paced melodies brought out the Old World tradition the Beatles were so fond of. Vinton’s album Tell Me Why revealed his affinity with many Lennon-McCartney tunes. He carried the stream of comfortable-sweater Bobbys to Bobby Goldsboro mid-decade, on to Shindig resident Bobby Sherman—Las Vegas style, not hinting even at the cleaned-up version of “rock and roll” but successfully passed off as such.

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