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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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ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby 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


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

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