The second part of the chapter excerpt from Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published November 2007 by Booklocker.com, posted at #23 on April 26th 2008 on Amazon’s sales list for the category of Music History & Criticism and available for around $17.95 through your local store.
FRUSTRATING REAL ROCK’N’ROLL FANS, SICKENING from the milksop diet served up by their elders, lounging in the way of energetic, progressive sounds on the radio were single-shots Steve Lawrence (‘Go Away Little Girl’), Japanese torch singer Kyu Sakamoto (‘Sukiyaki’), proto-bubblegum ‘Sugar Shack’ (Jimmy Gilmer) and sanitised brother-and-sister acts Nino & April, Dale & Grace and pretend siblings Paul & Paula. Novelties that went all the way to the top included comedian Allan Sherman’s ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ and ‘If You Wanna Be Happy’, so-called “calypso-soul”. Public inertia had proven immovable by Chubby Checker, already fading, and would be by any but the most attractive figures to the most buyers, sporting unprecedented novelty value and covering all genres, primed and detonated by industry powers. Namely, in one package, the Beatles.
From on high descended a world phenomenon as the first con-tender, monopolising the six weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to the Beatles’ second coming. ‘Dominique’ was a folk song rendered entirely in French by “The Singing Nun”, who also wrote it, a.k.a. Belgian Sister Luc-Gabrielle, a.k.a. Soeur Sourire. She might have been sent by God but her message came in a foreign language utterly meaningless to America. Conspicuously garbed as a sacred image, could the Catholic sister, if properly promoted, have been the savior Americans were looking for on the recent death of Pope John XXIII and the destruction of their own spiritual leader, JFK? Her later suicide suggested depths never explored by the media. Instead, turned into a circus act by entrepreneurs, she was soon extinguished by another impresario-driven European novelty, a rock and roll group who had thought up their own cute name that would go down in history but were called “The Mopheads” by those who would make fortunes off them.
It was certain Elvis wasn’t looking like himself—his single sales down more than a third on 1962. His biggie, ‘Devil in Disguise’, sounded like a movie-filler but no movie promoted it and it sold only 700,000. Movie songs did worse: ‘One Broken Heart for Sale’, and ‘Bossa Nova Baby’. Album sales were hit harder, down to about 300,000 for each US release (figures Peter Guralnick). All but his most faithful Brit fans too were turning away. ‘Devil’ won a solitary week at top but it was his sole entry in the ten—a steep comedown from the year before when all four singles scored among career best. The first quarter his English counterpart Cliff Richard and the Shadows held top for ten weeks. For the rest of the year Elvis was decimated by the Beatles and Gerry & the Pacemakers—30 weeks at top between them. The best thing about his movies lately was Ursula Andress, Hollywood’s latest continental sex goddess coming clinging-wet out of the surf for James Bond to turn Elvis on in Fun in Acapulco. No longer considering demanding roles, his manager and the studios colluded in giving his fans all they wanted in Elvis: songs and hokum, nonstop.
A few genuine rock artists found room to bloom, showing through the morass of carnie attractions by creating their own music and/or determining how it was recorded, including Elvis’s Texas buddy Roy Orbison. ‘In Dreams’ from early 1963 had a timeless feel about its production, so endured. Orbison’s generosity saw each side of his singles grooved with a classic performance. An unlikely looking star, his trademark dark glasses hid myopic, beady eyes in the middle of anything but chiseled features, like two raisins looking out of a suet pudding. Stock still, gently strumming his guitar, he delivered drama on stage solely through a distinctive voice often reminiscent of Elvis’s low down—but quavering, purring and soaring to the heights. ‘Dream Baby’, that the Beatles had sung on the BBC the year before because ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ weren’t up to it, perfected his distinctive style of country pop tinged with r&b. Months later he put out ‘Working for the Man’, and B-side ‘Leah’ was the bigger hit. ‘Mean Woman Blues’ was one more in his string of million-sellers—not quite as mean as Elvis’s and held back by the attention given to great ballad ‘Blue Bayou’. He was the only country singer to retain superstardom in 1964—because less country than ever. ‘It’s Over’ could have been done (less dramatically) by Jim Reeves, but ‘Pretty Woman’ was pure rock.
Johnny Cash was probably best of all: the genuine article, far more convincing as a people’s troubadour than Bob Dylan because he’d lived life and sang about it in the simplest, most straightforward way, didn’t intellectualize it. Singing from well springs as deep as they come, he was a charismatic performer who happened to choose country & western as his medium of soul-to-soul communication. “The Man in Black” came up with ‘Ring of Fire’ summer ’63, atypical for him in its Tex-Mex feel. Writing in the first person as a spokesman of the unwanted, identifying with a hard-bitten persona, he was mainly silent—maybe dumbfounded— through the upbeat, gimmicky Brit years, to make a comeback at decade’s end. By then the Beatles were hailed for writing and recording genuine folk songs about real people—something Cash had been doing since the mid-fifties, and better. Others silenced after the height of that Indian summer were Grammy winners with affecting country ballads, George Hamilton IV (‘Abilene’) and Bobby Bare (‘Detroit City’).
Over the radio, on records and from diner jukeboxes distinctive styles grabbed attention. Real artists like Patsy Cline (‘Crazy’, ‘I Fall to Pieces’)—the Queen of Country killed in a plane crash in March 1963 (with Cowboy Copas, a boyhood hero of Carl Wilson) —and Loretta Lynn, rarely broke the pop fifty. This in the face of foreign novelties selling a quick million: Anglo-Aussie Frank Ifield and ‘I Remember You’, the Springfields’ ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ and Aussie Rolf Harris’s ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’. Facing a growing stranglehold from producer pop, the biggest country-flavored homegrown sellers were Ned Miller’s ‘From a Jack to a King’ and from gingham-pleated songstress Skeeter Davis—but ‘End of the World’ was disowned by Country Music authorities as too pop.
Like Orbison and a select few others, the Everly Bros had a five-year career at the top in America before carrying on in Britain. And here they had been knocked down a peg or two when outmaniaed on tour by their support act, the Beatles. They had not so much influenced the Beatle sound as determined it right down to their tone of vocal harmony, guitar rhythm and lead guitar licks, and the format of Simon & Garfunkel and English duos Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, David & Jonathan….
IN A NATIONWIDE SURVEY OF US TEENS BY GILBERT Youth Research at the end of 1963 Folk Music was by far the most popular of musical tastes—the participatory, singalong aspect being the decider according to Eugene Gilbert: it only took a campfire to start things off, and the last thing to worry about was individual voice quality. This was the route Ringo Starr took to introduce himself as occasional lead singer with the Beatles. Enquiring who was the most popular singer of westerns in America, he was told Buck Owens, and so set about learning his songs.
Pete Seeger of the Weavers had served his country in World War II and, though frequently banned by America media for raising controversial issues like civil rights, inspired the Kingston Trio and was influencing sixties folkies. The Highwaymen had released the massive world hit of 1961 in ‘Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)’—a ready standard for Christian-educated school children everywhere. By bringing folk music into fashion they made possible new folk groups Peter, Paul & Mary and later the Seekers, both sustaining huge popularity around the world while remaining acoustically pure when everyone else was plugging in his guitar.
The Kingstons returned with Seeger’s protest about the dead of wars, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’, and stood against corporate America: “I don’t give a damn about a ‘Greenback Dollar’ —spend it fast as I can. For a wailing song and a good guitar’s the only thing that I understand.” In May 1963 ‘The Reverend Mr Black’ went up against ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, and in the UK the Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’ and the Pacemakers’ ‘How Do You Do It?’.
The big new artists, Peter, Paul & Mary, had closed ’62 with a stirring rendition of ‘If I Had a Hammer’. This and other decent folk songs were coopted and dumbed down by singalongster Trini Lopez: ‘Lemon Tree’, ‘Michael’ and more, all to the same pace, for bigger hits: the Johnny Rivers of Hispania—a double whammy out of LA. ‘Puff’, written by Peter (Yarrow), was huge around the world despite rumors it was a drug fable instead of a children’s one. They borrowed from Dylan: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’—“It’s all right”, their last big hit for some years. Others in ’63 folk style were ‘Walk Right In’ (the Rooftop Singers) and ‘Green, Green’ “on the far side of the hill”—the New Christy Minstrels with Barry McGuire and Kenny Rogers and sounding like the Kingstons.
Peter, Paul & Mary set a tone against show business excess, for musical integrity. And they celebrated Americana: ‘This Land is Your Land’ from Woody Guthrie. Enough of the hard-working self-discipline and grassroots Americanism of this, and the other trio, the Kingstons, rubbed off on the Beach Boys to make them an anachronism in the trendy era just around the corner. The female-male vocal blend was duplicated by another Greenwich Village folk group, the Mamas & the Papas, to go Hollywood when they got to California.
Folk songs emerging in New Year ’64 would be swamped by a first wave of Britons—and pure folk strangled in one stroke as the mainspring of American music. The Beach Boys—‘Sloop John B’, ‘Cottonfields’—would attempt to revive it in rock form. Recognized as standards around the world but hardly fitting the new Top 40 diktats were Tom Paxton’s ‘Marvelous Toy’ recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio and Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’. The year would see just two big folk hits, the Serendipity Singers sounding like the Minstrels on ‘Crooked Little Man’ (‘Don’t Let the Rain Come Down’), and New Zealand-born Gale Garnett’s declaration of sexual freedom, ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine’ (“and I’ll be on my way”), astonishingly going all the way in Cash Box; no.4 in Billboard, deferring to much greater airplay given Brit acts. The Beatles had taken over with Boy-Girl Lite.
‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ from P, P & M was as telling a performance as ever but stalled under a swarm of Beatle tunes. At the Invasion’s height ‘Early Morning Rain’ barely made the hundred; at its end they must have got some satisfaction in ‘I Dig Rock & Roll Music’, parodying the Beatles’ voices and contrived recording effects. ‘Leaving On a Jet Plane’, as the Beatles broke up, finally gave them a no.1.
From blonde, full-lipped, wide-hipped, chicly casual Mary Travers came the model for female folk singers—half intellectual, half earth mother; more sensual, less didactic than Joan Baez, admired as much for their poise as their voices. Hers rose to the heights of intensity as the pivot of the group sound. The trio headed the Folk Establishment when Dylan was booed off the stage at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival on switching to electrics— “selling out” to Beatleism and a Byrd brainchild.
THE GIRL GROUP SOUND—AND THERE COULD BE NO wider social, economic and musical gulf—was everywhere in 1963. Folk had neglected ‘Negro’ music evolving into regional styles of Blues: Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, Mississippi Delta, Harlem…. Artists like acoustic bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (‘See See Rider’, ‘Cottonfields’) had been forgotten by all but a few. Black performers were excluded from recognized forms of Country and Folk and barred from the teen idol club. Girl groups, overwhelmingly African-American, represented an essential outlet.
This shortlived, early-Sixties rage inhabited two-minute singles while it lasted; folk music filled half-hour l.p.s. It was accessible to young teens’ budgets, unlike the folk popular with older, upper middle class youth who were after an instructive experience maybe even more than a musical one. And the guarded intellectual independence of the socially conscious folk artist was anathema to the strict (read ‘control freak’ for Phil Spector) management setup governing the girl groups. Ponderous intellect was banned altogether from the genre for hormone-driven, teenage emotions. On disc The Girl alternately pleaded for mercy from a boyfriend or otherwise strutted in triumph, and always purred in self-absorption.
Nurtured and then pushed by Eastern labels, impressionable teens in a once-innocent after-school pastime came to be molded to appeal to fans their own age. The creative units that were the Shirelles, Bobettes, Chantels and Marvelettes—composing, writing and arranging vocals for their own songs—were taken over by professional writers, producers, corporate middlemen and retailers, who took the lion’s share of returns on the ‘product’. While most scored a string of hits, one-hit wonders followed up with a soundalike that spelt their doom. Striking one-offs on DJs’ platter-racks came from up-and-coming record entrepreneurs, producers taking over the reins of pop. These mavericks used artists as conduits to creative and business ends. With such a cavalier attitude taken to their careers, it was rare for group members to make it as real stars. Those who did could be counted on three fingers—Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight. The rest, used as interchangeable makeweights by producers who could swap personnel among established groups at will for purposes of cutting a 45, were anonymous to record buyers and to rub in their employee status were usually paid per hour of studio time on a union scale.
The ’62-63 girl groups owed nothing to passive fifties sweeties the McGuire Sisters (‘Sugartime’) and Chordettes (‘Mr Sandman’, ‘Lollipop’). The Chantels (‘Maybe’), whose soaring gospel tones had set the standard, inspired New Jersey’s Shirley Owens to call her group the Shirelles—and to also write their own hits. For more than two years it was a two-horse race until late in 1960 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ the Shirelles were snatched up by the big time—Brill Building Pop and composer Carole King. Black girl groups took off as an industry, though it took almost a year for other major acts to arrive: the Marvelettes and self-penned ‘Please Mr Postman’, and the Crystals, ‘There’s No Other’. These were remade by the Beatles and Beach Boys. Not merely paying tribute to current American culture, with ‘Boys’, ‘Chains’ and ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’, the Beatles adopted it.
The Shirelles reigned for two years as the top group, male or female—manager Flo Greenberg owned Scepter Records—continuing with ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ (remade by the Mamas & the Papas), ‘Baby It’s You’ (Beatles) and ‘Soldier Boy’, a Beatle live favorite. But as black rock’n’rollers they were unacceptable to network tv, the most racist of the mass media. People had prejudices about whom they “invited into their living rooms”. Through ’63 the Shirelles gave ground to the sounds of Phil Spector and then to big media machinery—EMI, backing Britain. They were last seen in the US top fifty the very week the Beatles arrived in America. Months later their ‘Sha La La’ flopped only for Manfred Mann to run strong with it. In fact, all existing girl groups—but the strongly supported, highly drilled and adaptable Motowners—would be wiped out by the Brits.
Hot on the heels of Spector’s Philles in exploiting a girl group sound was Philly’s Cameo-Parkway, Dee Dee Sharp and the Orlons —launching them with ’62 dance crazes ‘Mashed Potato Time’ and ‘Wah-Watusi’. And there was ‘The Loco-Motion’ intended by Goffin & King for Dee Dee but passed on to Leiber & Stoller protégée Little Eva.
Small labels who knew how to improvise and innovate often incorporated male voices to broaden the two-minute dramas. The Orlons (also ‘Don’t Hang Up’, ‘South Street’) and Exciters (‘Tell Him’, United Artists) had a male voice in their lineups; Sensations (‘Let Me In’ on Argo), Ruby & the Romantics (Kapp) and the Essex (Roulette) a female lead backed by males. The Essex was comprised of off-duty US Marines—a fun, semi-professional element was still essential to the entertainment business.
Soloists were produced to sound like groups by backing singers or double-tracking the lead’s voice: Mary Wells’/Motown’s ‘My Guy’. Before that Detroit sister Barbara Lewis was (like homegirl Aretha Franklin) claimed by Atlantic, creating the highly attractive self-penned ‘Hello, Stranger’. Shirley Ellis from New York City was on small indie Congress: ‘Nitty Gritty’, ‘The Name Game’. Branching out from the Four Seasons, Bob Crewe took one more New Jerseyite to the top—a double-tracked Lesley Gore and her pleas to boyfriend Johnny, declaring independence in ‘You Don’t Own Me’—blocked from no.1 by the Beatles in their first sales rush. Darlene Love was a member of LA’s Blossoms but as a freelancer was used anonymously by Spector as one of the Crystals—lead voice on ‘He’s a Rebel’ and ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ before stamping her mark with ‘A Fine Fine Boy’ and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, now a perennial on The Late Show.
In twenty months up to the end of ’63 thirteen acts recording in girl group mode reached no.1. Dee Dee Sharp’s and the manbait Ronettes’ were disputed chart toppers, as was ‘Sally Go Round the Roses’ by the Jaynetts—a highly advanced theme (insanity over love loss) and sound released by tiny Tuff. The Chiffons (Laurie), the Essex based in North Carolina and New Jersey’s Angels (Smash) ruled for multiple weeks in a fickle year.
The Crystals—whether using Lala Brooks or Darlene Love as lead—and the Chiffons from The Bronx and Upper Manhattan with personality-plus, were now the top girl groups, though hardly long enough for a reign. Between them they defined the genre in ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’—and ‘He’s So Fine’, a five-week no.1 through April, and equally famous classic ‘One Fine Day’, ‘Sweet Talkin’ Guy’ sneaking in three years later. At Motown the Marvelettes (‘Playboy’, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’) lay fallow through ’63 but revived fitfully through the Brit era with ‘Too Many Fish in the Sea’ and more. New girls Martha & the Vandellas had a similarly patchy stardom: ‘Come and Get These Memories’, then true classic ‘Heat Wave’. A year later they and Motown’s house band delivered a shining milestone, ‘Dancing in the Street’, then ‘Nowhere to Run’—but again at the height of the British Invasion their impact was blunted.
The Ronettes, unlike the Crystals, survived into 1964, but were unceremoniously pushed to the margins. New girl group releases went begging: the Secrets’ ‘The Boy Next Door’ and ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ by the chronically ignored Supremes—laboring under the harsh male r&b line introduced by ‘Louie Louie’ and extended by English arrivals.
The Beatles and Beach Boys, more than any other male groups of the mid-sixties, owed the girl groups. Brian and Carl Wilson, and Al Jardine, could be mistaken for women, on vinyl, when the occasion called for it. But while they nurtured and developed the style, the Beatles rather exploited it. The UK scene was instead geared to provide bulk, redone r&b from the many hundreds of groups scattered from Liverpool to London; its studios were technically capable of little else. As major production outfits only Motown (and later Atlantic) had the impetus to take on the British Invasion. Three teenagers from the Brewster Projects on the east side of Detroit, showing signs of life after four years, would suffer a further nine months before living up to their name in commercial success.
SO, AS HAS BEEN AGONIZED OVER OFTEN, WHEN DID Fifties music end and The Sixties really begin? Official histories tell us that Rock music was dead and America was left somewhere between slumber and coma until the Beatles breathed new life into it in ’64. But evolution was all around and had never stopped, in innovative recordings by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, then the Leiber-Stoller productions for the Drifters—‘There Goes My Baby’ and its orchestration of r&b—and the coming of Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison, girl groups…. This was known by, was obvious to, those who rejected the Beatles as well as the Liverpudlians themselves, who tried at every stage to emulate—copy— current music and recorded sounds coming out of America. It was quite apparent to many people around the world, who kept buying American records in preference to any others. The Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Motown and the Four Seasons brought new forces to bear in 1962-63, and were picked up on and absorbed by the English groups—the Beatles no less than anyone else, long before their arrival in America. And the Beatles found at least as much kinship with pure pop from Bert Kaempfert, Burt Bacharach and Don Kirshner as with its progressive creatives.
There were still divisions in radio between stations along race lines or, more accurately, according to how black/white the music. Black acts had been crossing over the racial barrier into broad popularity since blues/jazz artists Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in the Roaring Twenties, when ‘lude’ delivery wasn’t a problem. In the hung-up Fifties when interracial sex was more of a possibility and therefore more threatening, only balladeers engendering genteel romance were accepted: the Platters, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis. The barometer of societal pressure was measured by tv ratings counters, and that meant Ed Sullivan, since the Thirties the arbiter of what was okay on radio. Into the Sixties he barred black rock’n’roll groups from appearing on his tv show—maybe fearing like other tv bosses it would appear to Southern viewers as an on-screen race riot—while welcoming ‘cultured’ black performers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. More cultured than virtually anyone in the country had been Paul Robeson—opera star, actor and all-star football player, but a one-time admitted ally of Russia and therefore reviled, blacklisted and exiled from home.
Black music was tougher. While the popularity of Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis—‘Gina’, ‘What Will Mary Say?’—got old in ’63 r&b’s Sam Cooke continued to thrive. One of the great Gospel-Soul singers, he was a mainstay of r&b-pop through ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Chain Gang’, ‘Cupid’ and Grammy-winner ‘Twisting the Night Away’. Cooke was the spearhead of Soul singers in the American mainstream and going strong into the mid-sixties—so needing no reviving by English acts. Still, they queued up to use his material: ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, ‘Another Saturday Night’, ‘Little Red Rooster’. But the British imperative—the necessity of looking and sounding so 1964 through 1966—would stifle the emergence of new Soul stars, while those who didn’t have a sufficiently ‘African’ element to claim a distinctive niche were swept away: Chubby Checker, Ben E King, the Drifters, the Shirelles….
Intended by RCA to be the black girls’ Elvis, Cooke’s subdued tone and laidback image—unlike some others he was not banned by BBC Radio—did almost fit a sweater-wearing pretty-boy image. Yet he got involved in civil rights and founded a record label, keeping pace with blues shouters James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding who had more the image of what a black male singer should be in the mid-Sixties. At his handgun murder late in 1964 the B-side of ‘Shake’, his classic Gospel-styled protest song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, earned him joint ownership with Ray Charles of the title “Fathers of Soul”. His vocal tone and timbre were reproduced through the rock career of Brit invader Rod Stewart, his number one fan.
Charles, blind behind dark glasses but a restless mover behind the piano, was taken as a model by highly energetic and sexually charged James Brown and Otis Redding. More popular with the white public than even Cooke—and through four numbers topping the Cash Box r&b chart twenty-one weeks ’61-63—Charles’ impact on white musicians came in 1959’s ‘What’d I Say’, which might have started Sixties Music and that the Beatles and Beach Boys incorporated into their live repertoires. Both, understandably, declined to record it for fear of too obvious an authenticity gulf. Between huge Country standards ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ “The Genius” inspired the Soul explosion: ‘Unchain My Heart’, ‘Hit the Road Jack’, 1963’s ‘Busted’. His brittle, controlled voice can be heard in Bill Medley of the Righteous Bros, taught to sing by Charles, Eric Burdon (Animals) and Joe Cocker, who covered many of his standards.
James Brown and Jackie Wilson were double attractions, gifted dance stylists with potential to be universal rock showmen, only held back by dark-chocolate voices and visages—two ‘handicaps’ avoided by Michael Jackson, who was heavily influenced by both. Wilson was a perpetual-motion machine on stage, mixing spins, graceful leaps and splits all in one movement. So were the two responsible for Eighties Music? Jackie Wilson only captured world attention twice—with 1957’s ‘Reet Petite’ (popularly revived ex-USA after four decades), then ten years later, ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’, though in ’63 he offered the hard driving r&b #1‘Baby Work Out’. Jackie’s exquisitely controlled vocal gymnastics on his first hit—many claimed fellow Detroiter Aretha Franklin was his only equal—made it big also in the UK; Brown never did have a UK hit of any size, being just too black to taste. Mentored early on by Berry Gordy, had Jackie gone to Motown everlasting fame would have been his, but probably at the cost of stylistic castration.
Brown’s first sizable pop hit, ‘Prisoner of Love’, didn’t come until ’63 and was accompanied by huge sales for Live at the Apollo—such a breakthrough for black popular culture that it was played in its entirety by black radio stations. He posed a viable, stark alternative to the white rock’n’roll of the Beach Boys and ultimately the Beatles with a no.1 album to prove it.
World fame was further delayed for two years and ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’—bringing further musical tumult to the summer of ’65, followed at year’s end by ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, his iconic chart-topper. With his accompanying dance he was the personification of funky as funk can be (avoid Robin Williams’ tribute in Good Morning Vietnam). In advancing the cause of black music without the compromises of Motown’s top artists, his multilayered rhythms and staccato horn backing pointed the way to Sly & the Family Stone.
Brown’s explosion on to the scene as an alternative to the mainstream at the height of Brit Beat was propelled by listeners who had heard Motown’s response to the Beatles—the Supremes and Four Tops—and wanted something more authentically black. James Brown was by the end of the decade “Soul Brother Number One”, his ongoing dominance of African-derived r&b seeing him elevated to “Godfather of Soul”.MORE ACCESSIBLE TO WHITE LISTENERS, THE TOP black male group to late ’64—until the Four Tops and the Temptations—was the Drifters. Evolving from Doo-Wop combos and produced by Leiber & Stoller, they posted ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ as a massive hit in fall 1960 only for lead singer Ben E King to solo and take the brand with him in ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Stand By Me’. Anyway, they proved a pillar of Sixties music combining r&b and pop in innovative ways for Atlantic —though for a time overshadowed by the preponderance of girl groups. They came right in ’63 with ‘Up On the Roof’ and ‘On Broadway’, followed up by ‘Under the Boardwalk’. It was a startling success at the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, which through the Searchers was regurgitating their ‘Sweets for My Sweet’ and ‘I Count the Tears’. By ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’, a popular party number, they were sounding dated. Their new producer, Bert Berns (a.k.a. Russell, writer of ‘Twist & Shout’, etc), who had dragged out the baion rhythm past its welcome, went to the UK to be part of the Invasion.
The contemporary force compelling the Beatles and Beach Boys to pay hommage was a mainstream sound they could approximate without the vocal contortions of turning into a black man (though McCartney and Lennon strained to do that on occasion). Motown of Detroit was under its founder multiplying into the wealthiest independent record company by the mid-Sixties.First harnessed were the formidable talents of singer-songwriters Smokey Robinson (‘Shop Around’) and Barrett Strong (Beatle favorite ‘Money—That’s What I Want’), then prolific team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier & Eddie Holland and Stevie Wonder (‘I Was Made to Love Her’). Robinson, admired for his fine, evocative lyrics—called by Dylan “America’s greatest living poet”—would have been the envy of Dylan for mastering the musical side of the art too in composing-recording the emotive ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and ‘Tears of a Clown’, ‘My Guy’, ‘I Second That Emotion’ and ‘Get Ready’.
Instead of enslaving mass instruments into a lump of sound as did the Spector-Nitzsche-Levine team at Gold Star, the Motown studio wizards featured individual talents and idiosyncracies of working Detroit jazz and r&b musicians, kept them upfront at the mikes, and left fully intact the live response of the snare drum, saxophone, etc, and avoided Spector’s everpresent drum muffling, echo and other elaborations. Based on an intimate working pool known as the Funk Brothers, Motown broke the mold of pop production. Gordy’s hands-on Svengali management with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barrett Strong or Henry Stevenson producing, dwarfed the scale of Spector’s one-man Philles operation.
Before striking a compromise ‘black pop’ formula exemplified by the Supremes (the Isley Bros’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, sounded very much like the model for late-sixties Brit pop) that would bring it two dozen Billboard number ones, the early Motown records were raw and convincing, including those from its girl groups. To ensure inroads into the white market the appealing but recognizably black Mary Wells was introduced in 1962, two years later replaced by the breathlessly cooing Diana Ross, on every track sounding like Marilyn Monroe gasping ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ and squealing every now and again for effect, supposedly signalling the height of passion.
Holland-Dozier-Holland were now in ’63 making their mark with ‘Heat Wave’ and Supremes protohit ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’. Smokey Robinson was more versatile. As the one highly talented string to Gordy’s bow at the fledgling company he had become a co-director of the label and catered to his group the Miracles and the demanding vocal artistry of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
An array of talents was flourishing within the broad limits of Motown for three years before the Beatles hit America. While the Beatles attempted to duplicate its sound on record they never came close, and afterwards the “Sound of Young America”, displaying shrewd cross-racial marketing by Gordy, only expanded its popularity and influence through the so-called British Beat Boom.
Atlantic, as an artist-driven enterprise, avoided direct competition with Motown’s factory of craftsmen. Led by closely cooperating Muslim and Jewish figures (God Bless America), it emerged as the definitive label of Soul Music, in ’64 blowing off its rival the troubled Vee-Jay. Producer Jerry Wexler under Turkish-American brothers Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun was the preeminent creative force with, briefly, Leiber & Stoller, the Coasters—featuring “The Yakety Sax” of King Curtis—the Drifters and Ray Charles, Carla Thomas and father Rufus, Barbara Lewis, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha. The Mar-Keys, racially integrated—white Memphis guitarist Steve Crop-per and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn with drummer Al Jackson (see The Blues Brothers, 1980)—joined a local organist as Booker T & the MGs for ‘Green Onions’ and backed tracks for Atlantic-Stax.
It goes without saying both Beatles and Beach Boys owed much to black music. Lennon and McCartney nurtured an ability to simply regurgitate it rather than adapt it. But in trying to render it faithfully they can be seen to more often parody it. It is a rarity to find a cover that matched the original in quality of feeling; poor choice of material unsuited to their strengths was another failing early on that betrayed a stubbornly untrained, at times amateurish, approach.