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ROCK MUSIC — BEACH BOYS JOIN CAPITOL RECORDS, MAY 1962

In celebrity, history, music on February 11, 2008 at 10:40 am

Excerpt #3 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008

Early Capitol publicity shot of the Beach Boys, May 1962

Early Capitol publicity shot of the Beach Boys, May 1962. Top row, from left, Brian Wilson, Mike Love; bottom row from left, Carl Wilson, Dave Marks, Dennis Wilson.

Problem #1: According to Nick Venet (in Tom Nolan, 1972), as the company wallahs celebrated their twentieth anniversary in Hollywood, he was at this time the only one of Capitol’s management aged under 62; the others are therefore older than Bing Crosby, Capitol’s most famous client among a roster of legends but now retired golfing at Palm Springs. Among numerous investments that would make him almost as rich as his pal Bob Hope, he went into tv production (Hogan’s Heroes).

From the current generation, just to get on the rock’n’roll bandwagon, scouting and auditioning of hundreds of prospects in 1956 had netted Gene Vincent & his Blue Caps. But Gene was long gone to the UK where he was hero-worshipped, and had not been replaced—unless the pretend “rock and roll” of Tommy Sands counted (‘Teenage Crush’, 1957). LA’s top r&b performer, Johnny Otis (‘Willie and the Hand Jive’, 1958), had trouble crossing over to the pop market. Country chanteuse Wanda Jackson remodelled herself into a rock’n’roller—‘Let’s Have a Party’—and added young glamor to the Capitol lineup through the sixties. While replicating the gruffer side of Brenda Lee she never managed top twenty, switching back to country and still releasing on Capitol into the seventies.

So, far removed from the priorities of youth, tuned out from rock music and the special requirements of the Beach Boys, Capitol bosses were heavily committed to a mature market for such prestigious ‘young’ artists in their portfolio as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat ‘King’ Cole—all just one generation adrift in their mid-forties—and the spritely Al Martino, 35, ten years later awarded a comeback in The Godfather by Marlon Brando making an offer that couldn’t be refused. Capitol’s jazz greats Judy Garland and Peggy Lee were entering middle age and still popular with the veteran audience but, established for more than twenty years, could hardly be called promising prospects. There was nothing the Beach Boys could do apart from Murry’s constant cajoling to get the company’s attention, short of severing the head off Bing’s putter for some big shot’s bed.

It must have been all these seniors could do to pretend any kind of empathy even with the straight, collegiate-style Four Freshmen & Preps and Lettermen already on Capitol’s books.

The Kingston Trio, c.1961

The Kingston Trio, c.1961

What relationship they could find with their most popular young incumbents is anyone’s guess: folk group the Kingston Trio, prone to left-wingish social statements in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and other proletarian, people’s troubadours—of whom Peter, Paul & Mary were the latest, but on Warner Bros. The Kingstons—hailing from Hawaii and Southern California but named after Jamaica’s capital of Calypso Folk—had in the spring just past celebrated their biggest hit in three years, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’—and would have three top forty hits in 1963 plucked from popular albums.

Bing, the most successful recording star of the quarter-century from 1930, and the biggest box-office star in movies through the middle of that period, had come to Capitol when his hit-making days were over, other than drives, chips and putts; he would die on a golf course in Spain. Lowlights he had to look forward to in 1962 were a return of his ‘White Christmas’, which had sold 30 million—but on Decca—and a minor Xmas outing next year for Capitol, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’, much later remade by Mike Love in solo career.

But, as Capitol would advertise on the dust-slips of Beach Boy albums through the Sixties, Bing remained one of the label’s prides along with acts as diverse as recently deceased thespian Charles Laughton, operetta show-tune belter Gordon McRae, Pasadena parodier Stan Freberg, Soul crooner Lou Rawls, black and soulful Nancy Wilson and Ketty Lester, jazzman Cannonball Adderley, country & western stars Sonny James and Buck Owens, and the orchestra of Carmen Dragon, musical director at the Hollywood Bowl and father of Daryl Dragon, later to feature prominently as a session man for the group, a collaborator with Dennis Wilson and the husband and Captain of Tennille.

In other words, the Beach Boys were not exactly the single-minded focus of this major label that wanted to be all things to all listeners. Capitol tended to poach established stars, and many former staffers from the sixties have been scathing about the company’s lack of insight in picking quality in new performers. As one put it, as one might expect from a company represented by Bozo the Clown, “They threw stuff at the wall to see what would stick.” New York vocal group the Tokens, coming from their one huge hit, were hired by Capitol early in 1962 as producers on a one-year contract. Learning to produce as they went along, all ten demo recordings they submitted were rejected including the last, a lively r&b number which they got the Chiffons to record independently on Laurie. Having been knocked back on this song by other labels, a simple rejection letter wasn’t enough for Capitol and the Tokens were treated to a full description by Voyle Gilmore memo of just “how bad it stunk”, according to Token Phil Margo who played drums on the record. ‘He’s So Fine’ became the most durable no.1 of 1963, and copying the melody for ‘My Sweet Lord’ landed Beatle George Harrison in trouble years later.

Of the middle-agers Frank Sinatra had recently founded his own label, Reprise, breaking out of a long fallow period that wasn’t bringing many residual sales for Capitol. “Old Blue Eyes”‘s bestselling albums from the fifties, including Come Fly With Me, would wait for a new millennium to be certified gold. Hollywood-Las Vegas “Rat Pack” buddy Dean Martin followed him from Capitol. Near-namesake Martino stayed a company man sharing in the middle-aged market: ‘I Love You Because’, ‘I Love You More Everyday’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Mary in the Morning’—as did Cole: ‘Ramblin’ Rose’, ‘Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer’, until cut down by cancer early in ’65.

None—young, old or in between—could live in the same ballpark as the Beach Boys: rookies of the year promising a third-base hit every time up at bat, thickly peppered with high-flying homers. The softening of the way for later rock groups arriving at Capitol—including the Beatles—might be jotted under “Beach Boys: runs batted in”. Capitol’s runner-up harmony act, the Lettermen, whose pristine but low-energy sound was already spacing their top 40 hits out three years apart, couldn’t compete. The Four Preps, popular on campuses for their satirical revues, had started strong with the almost rock’n’roll “I was a ‘Big Man’ yesterday—but boy you oughtta see me now” amid gentler fare. Now they were noted for satirical parodies ‘The Big Draft’, and to come, ‘A Letter to the Beatles’.

From the day they signed it was obvious (if only to Nick Venet at Capitol) that the Beach Boys would be the most important thing to happen to the company for the foreseeable future—i.e. over the next year or so. He disdained their youthful cockiness though only 23 himself, and at the time even he doubted their durability. But Capitol had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going all out on the group. It didn’t happen that way.

bobby-darin[Bobby Darin: Mr Cool of 1962 and supposed successor to Frank Sinatra]

BOBBY DARIN, ROCK’N’ROLLER THROUGH ‘SPLISH SPLASH’ and ‘Queen of the Hop’, switching to crown prince of the teen idols with ‘Dream Lover’, had restyled himself as a junior Sinatra by redoing classics ‘Mack the Knife’, ‘Beyond the Sea’ and ‘Up the Lazy River’ in a swept-up jazz style, not even the so-called rock and roll beloved of teenieboppers. In late summer ’62 came his biggest hit for some time, the self-penned (“Thinkin’ about”) ‘Things’, and Capitol lured him from the home of Drifters/Coasters r&b, up-and-coming Atlantic where creative conditions were right to make all Darin’s hits. Capitol must have suspected they didn’t have the producing scope to match Atlantic and his star dimmed within a year. The time and energy they spent on Bobby went to waste though Venet, seeing the Beach Boys handle themselves in the studio, relished his time in New York recording him. Bobby would return to Atlantic when it had grown into a major. For the burgeoning career of the Beach Boys it meant just one more distraction for their new record label that they couldn’t afford.

Hard up against Motown, girl groups, the Beach Boys and Four Seasons, the time for crooners was over. They were slow to get the message from young record buyers, insulated by continuing high play by radio stations as a hopeful alternative to rock’n’roll. Yet by late 1962 Fifties survivors Pat Boone and Paul Anka disappeared from even Billboard’s top twenty, Darin following in another six months—the most youthful, Ricky Nelson, reprieved for a further semester.

There would be little recognition from the management of the fact that within a year of the group joining Capitol the company was boosted from lowly eighth place to second in singles sales figures (Murry Wilson in Tom Nolan). 1963 would see it overtake such industry giants as RCA, Decca, Philips, Mercury, Warners and ABC-Paramount and drive clear of hungry youth specialists Atlantic, Motown, Cameo-Parkway and Philles—thanks to the Beach Boys’ seven songs in and around Billboard’s top twenty that year: exactly half of Capitol’s biggest hits.

The prior claims of the sedate, white vocal quartets signed by Gilmore and Venet (who had to sneak even the unchallenging Lettermen in through the back door) explains why Capitol repeatedly through the Sixties attempted to tone down the Beach Boys’ rock sound—by eliminating the instrumental grunt from the group’s recordings by electronic processing, sanitising them into pale reissues, resembling as far as practicable the old-styled groups’ mannered, almost monastic harmonies. In early ’63 Brian went in tears to Murry, complaining, “They’re changing our sound.”: a situation not wholly remedied by ‘going independent’ in the middle of that year; Capitol still owned the master tapes. It was the opposite of what they did for the Beatles, beefing up the volume and other rock-enhancing effects. Listeners always had to tweak up the volume knob on a gramophone to even hear the Beach Boys. Aside from consistently castrating the drums and bass, and boosting the treble-scale giving them an anaemic ‘whitebread’ taint, the most notorious specific example of wanton interference has to be hacking off the ending, the climax, of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ as heard on the Brian Wilson-produced single— Brian’s wailing falsetto refrain backed up by Dennis’s thumping-good drum flourishes: mindlessly deleted and not restored until the 1990s.
If not exactly cultural vandalism ranking with drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, such interference in an artist’s work can hardly have had a parallel since the Renaissance. Did 18th Century sheet music salesmen ‘improve on’ Haydn or Mozart scores for publication? The attitude would worsen—undoubtedly a factor in the Beach Boys being written off in many circles as lightweights: a speeded-up version of the insipid offerings that proved readily acceptable to Middle America from Capitol’s college glee club foursomes. But, come to that, they were white, with whatever advantages (and later disadvantages) that brought.

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