Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, has always been a gentle soul. Throughout his career with his band, a lot of that gentleness and his behaviour in general was due to undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder.
On the other hand, Mike Love, lead singer of the Beach Boys, has always been an alpha male. The one time I met him, he called me a ‘bastard’. He was tall, muscular and good-looking although bald (he may have only had hair on top of his head for, like, ten years of his life).
While Brian was the artist of the band, Mike was the businessman. When Brian was evolving as a composer and producer and began to transition away from surf and hot rod songs to make some of the most beautiful pop music in history, Mike would yell at him and tell him not to mess with the formula. Mike Love has become, along with Col. Tom Parker, one of the biggest villains in the music business
Mike has a brother, big and handsome as well. Stan Love played basketball in the NBA for four years in the early 1970’s. After retiring from the NBA, Stan went to work for the Beach Boys predominately as a bodyguard for Brian. In the late ’70s, Brian’s life basically hung in the balance. His health deteriorated as his drug use increased. But most significantly, his mental illness was mistaken for the eccentricities of an artist and the group often resorted to force to get Brian to function as a Beach Boy.
Stan, as Brian’s ‘bodyguard’, often employed a great deal of physical force when dealing with his charge. Brian – his whole life tormented by voices in his head – was terrified of Stan as he was a physical brute and an extension of Mike’s macho bravado and disregard for Brian’s music. It had always been Brian vs. Mike only now Mike was twice as strong. Stan at one point even filed for conservatorship of Brian’s life and affairs claiming that he would look after his beloved cousin who could not do so himself.
There’s so much more story here but the point I’m trying to make is that the Love Family are perceived as villainous. Now you may be getting an inkling of what all this has to do with this year’s NBA Finals. Well, Stan Love has a son – Mike Love’s nephew. His name is Kevin Love and he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that was just swept by the Golden State Warriors.
I watched the series with my son, a big GSW fan. It was really like darkness vs. Light. Every time Kevin Love missed a shot and after every game Cleveland lost I’d nod my head knowingly and say “that’s what you get when you’re mean to Brian”.
Now you know what really happened in this year’s Finals. No way a team with a Love on it could lift the trophy.
So many great artists are buried by celebrity. I wrote recently about ‘paying the bills’; the idea that an artist can sometimes get stuck doing what he is popular for as opposed to what he likes to do or can do well. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Virtuoso guitarist Glen Campbell gets ‘stuck’ being a country singer. Michael Nesmith found himself in a similar situation at the start of 1967. An earnest songwriter and guitarist, Michael found himself on television playing a quiet country boy hanging out with three goofballs. He also found his name on a record that he said was the worst album in history.
Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. When he was only four years old, his parents divorced. Bette Nesmith took Michael – an only child – to live near family in Dallas. Bette worked many clerical jobs to support her and her son before ending up at Texas Bank and Trust, eventually reaching the elevated position of executive secretary. Like many secretaries, she was constantly frustrated by the inability to properly correct mistakes made while typing on the typewriters of the day. Bette got an idea. She took some water-based paint with her to work one day and started using it to ‘paint over’ her mistakes. Some bosses gave her static about it but her co-workers used it and loved it and Bette carried on this way for five years. Eventually, she decided to market and sell her correction fluid as “Mistake Out” in 1956. She began a ‘factory’ of sorts in her kitchen and changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper”. She was boss of her own revolutionary company until 1979 when she sold it to Gillette – for $47.5 million. Mike’s life was off to an interesting start.
Mike was an indifferent student and did not graduate high school before joining the Air Force. Once he got out, he began to focus on writing songs and performing in clubs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and entered in to a publishing deal for the songs he was writing. One day, an associate brought in an ad asking for young men to audition for a television show centered around a fictitious rock band; “The Monkees”.
Now, I don’t know Michael Nesmith personally but, having been a fan of the Monkees for more than 30 years, I think I can make a few assumptions about his feelings about being involved in this fledgling television show. Maybe the same could be said for how Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork – the other Monkees – felt as well. Mike was a songwriter. He was a singer and guitarist who had been operating in the music business for a while. I will assume that his desire was to be allowed to make records; get a record deal, take his songs into a studio with a band, record them and put out records. But anyone can understand that as you begin to feel your way at the dawn of your career, you will take any opportunity that comes your way.
Mike found himself playing a wool-hat wearing, quirky country boy – a variation on himself – on a weekly television show. The intention of the producers all along had been to put out records under the name “The Monkees”. The original ad for the auditions did stipulate that successful candidates would have musical abilities; songwriting, singing, instrument playing, etc. so obviously the four boys who would make up the group would be utilized somehow when it came to making the records. The Monkees get a bad rap and are referred to as the ‘Pre-fab Four’. They are not considered a real band because they didn’t play their own instruments. But here’s the thing – it was common practice in the music industry at the time for producers to ‘create’ bands and then utilize session musicians to make the records. If you’ve ever heard of the Wrecking Crew than you know that this crack group of L.A. session musicians played on the bulk of the hit records released in the mid-1960’s. Fully functioning bands like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders used these seasoned studio players to create music in the studio. Producers of the time wanted perfect recordings in the shortest amount of time possible – this meant bringing in the pros. It was not uncommon and it was not just the Monkees that employed session musicians. But because it was supposedly so obvious – I mean, it was a TV show, not a ‘real’ band – the Monkees had a stink on them from the get-go.
All this would have rankled a musician like Mike Nesmith. He was in the business to make records – NOT act on TV, playing air guitar to music performed by others. You can see from the outset, from the very first album, that Mike was doing his best to focus on his music as opposed to engaging in the hit-making combine that comprised songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and producer Don Kirshner. This is borne out by taking a look at the first album, “The Monkees”, released in October of 1966.
Micky Dolenz does NOT get enough love. He had perhaps the perfect voice and vocal delivery for the pop/rock of the day and was called upon to sing lead on the majority of the group’s hit singles. Such was the case with the first 45RPM, the #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville”, released shortly before the first album. Mike is represented on the first LP by two songs. “Papa Gene’s Blues” perfectly exhibits Mike’s country/rock leanings. “Twangy”, you might say, or “jangly”. “Sweet Young Thing” is more of a rocker with the added touch of fiddle. Mike had been promised by the powers-that-be that he could have a modicum of control over his songs in the studio. What’s interesting is that, although Mike could be considered a neophyte, he was producing sessions featuring the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the country. Also interesting; his two songs are VERY “Mike” and stand out from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Mike does not participate in any other song on the album. However, on his own compositions, that he produced, he utilizes Micky (vocals) and Peter Tork (guitars). Micky sings harmony with Mike on “Papa Gene” which started a pairing I love. Michael often would call on Micky either to sing lead on a song he had written or to sing some wonderful-sounding harmony with him. This tells me that, from the outset, Michael wanted to make his own music and to use the others in the group whenever possible.
The Monkees’ second album – “More of the Monkees” – was released January 9, 1967. It came as a complete surprise to the boys in the band. Svengali Don Kirshner had rushed the album out to capitalize on the Monkees’ massive success. The album being compiled and released without the band’s knowledge coupled with Kirshner’s liner notes, in which he praises his songwriters and producers before he mentions the Monkees themselves, confirmed Mike’s assertion that the boys were not in control of their own fate and sent a disturbing message to the other three guys. At a meeting in which the boys vented their spleen to the powers-that-be, Mike became so enraged that he punched a hole in a wall, exclaiming to the record company’s lawyer in attendance “that could’ve been your face!”. In the aftermath, Michael’s lobbying was successful and the boys were given artistic control of their next album. Don Kirshner was eventual fired. (He would go on to ‘create’ The Archies)
Mike was quoted in a magazine interview saying that “More of the Monkees” was “probably the worst album in the history of the world”. It’s apparent, though, that it was the state of affairs that made him feel this way about it. The album is better than their debut and fared even better on the charts. “More of the Monkees” displaced “The Monkees” in the #1 slot and the sophomore effort would spend 18 weeks on top. Mike’s contributions are again very “Mike” and very interesting. He sang lead and played steel guitar on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”. He again produced the Wrecking Crew and the backing vocals feature all four Monkees. “Mary, Mary” is a great song and an example of one that Mike wrote but gave to Micky to sing. Peter plays guitar, joining the Crew in the studio. The song was eventually covered by Run-D.M.C. Again, Mike does not appear in any way on any other track on the album.
Their third album, “Headquarters”, was made by the boys operating as a proper band. Mike plays guitar throughout, bringing his soon-to-be-trademark 12-string electric sound to the fore. He also plays some great organ on “For Pete’s Sake” – co-written by Peter but, again, given to Micky to sing – which was used as the closing credits song during season 2 of the show. Mike wrote and sang the album opener, “You Told Me” and also “Sunny Girlfriend”. “You Just May Be the One” is quintessentially “Mike” and is one of his best songs. It’s another great example of how good Mike and Micky sound singing together, Micky again taking the harmony line. “Headquarters” peaked at #1 but was overtaken the very next week by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. They would be 1 and 2 in the land for the next 11 weeks. “Headquarters” is often cited as the only one of the Monkees’ albums to be considered “essential”.
I would be remiss to not mention what is maybe – with “Sometime in the Morning” – my absolute favourite Monkees song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”. This song, released as the B side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in March of ’67, is notable as being the first track that the Monkees took charge of themselves. They all played instruments and recorded the track alone in the studio with producer Chip Douglas, who also played bass. Michael wrote the song and took the lead on an early version. Another take was recorded with Micky singing lead and this became the master. It is perfect pop. Perfect pop. I tend to short shrift Peter Tork and his contributions to the band but he lays down some stellar harpsichord on this song. It is a gem.
Mike had a success outside the Monkees in the fall of 1967. A 2-year-old song of his, “Different Drum”, became the first hit of Linda Ronstadt’s career. Her group, the Stone Poneys, took Mike’s tune in to the Top 20. They had been rehearsing the song as a slow ballad but their producer, Nick Venet (credited as producer on the Beach Boys’ first two albums), re-envisioned it as baroque pop with prominent harpsichord. He wanted a specific sound and employed seasoned session musicians to play on the record. In the end, Linda was the only Stone Poney to perform on the recording. Sound familiar? It is interesting to note that this is what happened in the early days of the Monkees and supports the claim that it happened all the time to many different groups.
Their fourth album, I think, is just as good if not better than “Headquarters”. “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.” was released at the end of 1967 and also reached #1. Mike’s lead vocal is featured prominently on this alum and it contains another gem from him although in this case it’s just a vocal and not a composition. Again, the opener goes to Mike although he did not write the song, “Salesman”. One of the best Monkees songs ever, “The Door Into Summer”, was not written by Michael but features his lead with Micky coming in to sing harmony. The two have never sounded better together. Mike and Micky give out with more of the same on the very next track, “Love is Only Sleeping”, written by the formidable team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Maybe the greatest “Mike” song in the Monkees catalog was not written by him but given to him to sing because of it’s country sound. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” is 3 minutes and 9 seconds of bliss taken at a rolling gait accentuated by banjo. Michael wrote the intriguing “Daily Nightly” but again turned the vocals over to Micky. Mike’s lyrics are a veiled commentary on the recent Sunset Strip riots and the song is one of the first rock songs to feature the Moog synthesizer. Micky was the third person to ever own one and he plays it on this track. By contrast, the next cut on the album is “Don’t Call on Me”, written and sang by Mike. It is a gentle track that starts off as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard number.
“The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” was released in April of 1968. By this point, an odd thing had happened. After fighting to work together and alone and doing so on their last two successful albums, the boys decided they wanted to work separately from each other. Yes, they had proven the critics wrong and could do things well themselves – it’s just that they didn’t want to do them together anymore. Michael was still pioneering country/rock and also exploring psychedelia. His contributions to this album included the outstanding – if ridiculously titled – “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. A glorious guitar orchestra opens the track before Mike’s oft-chosen vocalist, Micky, comes in singing the lead. As a rarity, it’s Mike singing the harmony here to Micky’s lead. “Tapioca Tundra” was a far-out excursion on which Mike plays almost all the instruments including some typically stellar 12-string. “Writing Wrongs” is more of the same; only less so. “Magnolia Simms” was more experimentation from Mike, this time emulating a 1920’s sound. The album was very successful for the boys as it included the hits “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” but Peter Tork left during the making of the album and the three remaining were working – as often happens with bands – as three solo artists. Staying together though was somewhat of a necessity. Neither of the three were big enough to make it on their own but they were more than able to ply their individual trades under the umbrella of “The Monkees”. Michael’s songs were beginning to show signs of an eccentricity that would mark his music throughout the rest of his career.
The soundtrack to the Monkees’ movie, “Head”, was released near the end of 1968. The film defies understanding but the soundtrack contains some fine moments (Rolling Stone ranked it the 25th best soundtrack). Mike’s lone contribution was the energetic rocker “Circle Sky” on which he plays some excellent guitar and delivers some of the best grunts in rock history. The “Instant Replay” album is the first output of what could be called the Monkees’ ‘second phase’; the show was now off the air and this was the first record to be made after Peter Tork had left the group. Michael’s songs include “Don’t Wait For Me” which is VERY country and includes prominent steel guitar and was recorded and co-produced in Nashville with Felton Jarvis, who had only recently started working with Elvis Presley. “While I Cry” is absolutely devastating. One of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear, it is another example of Mike’s specific brand of fine guitar playing. The swan song of Mike’s initial period with the Monkees came with the next album, “The Monkees Present”. Released in October of 1969 into a music scene that had long since left the boys behind, it was another patchwork of songs from three individuals. The twelve tracks were divided up evenly, 4 a piece. Mike brought one more great track to the Monkees’ fold with “Listen to the Band”. Here Michael is producing crack session men in Nashville, taking them through a trademark Nesmith country/rock number with steel guitar again prominent. “Listen to the Band” was the last song resembling a hit from the original run of the group, charting at #63. Shortly after the release of this record, Mike announced he was leaving the group to start his own outfit called The First National Band.
Michael had released records before joining the Monkees under the name Michael Blessing. Also, in 1968, he released the hard-to-explain orchestral album “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings”. The instrumental album was made over two sessions in Hollywood with the Wrecking Crew and featured versions of lesser-known Monkees songs. With the First National Band, however, Mike Nesmith was stepping out for the first time as a solo artist with the cache of having been a Monkee and with all the attendant expectations.
Finally out from under the umbrella of the Monkees – Michael paid out the remainder of his contract – Mike was now free to completely ply his trade as he saw fit. His trade was “country/rock”, a genre that he did not invent but you can certainly count him among it’s pioneers. Mike had built up a back log of songs during his time with the Monkees so much so that his new band was able to release three albums in an 18-month period. Mike teamed with steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes who’s playing defined the sound of the First National Band. The group’s first album, “Magnetic South”, yielded the Top 40 hit “Joanne”, a surprise for the fledgling band. However, country/rock was not commercially viable and Mike was concerned not one bit with writing a “hit song” so after the First (and Second) National Band had petered out, Michael carried on, following his muse and releasing albums that virtually no one heard. Mike struggled to keep his career solvent and had difficulties with the IRS until a sad event helped him out. His mother, Bette, passed away in 1980 and Mike inherited half of her $50 million estate. This freed him up to pursue his next venture.
“The Monkees” television show had been directly inspired by the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”. The idea of “The Monkees” was to have the manufactured band live together and get into adventures. But also there was records to be sold and the TV show could pump the music into living rooms every week. And while the record would play – as in “A Hard Day’s Night” – the Monkees would get up to a lot of zany antics: somersaulting through a park, running along the beach, chasing the bad guys around the house, etc. This all sounds like what would eventually become “music videos” and, indeed, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, is considered a sort of ‘godfather’ of the music video. And rightfully so. But also the producers of “The Monkees” television show should also get recognition as pioneers as they presented these “clips” week in and week out for two years.
No doubt this experience was in Mike’s mind when he decided to make a “clip” to accompany his song “Rio” from his 1977 album “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing”. He began to explore the idea of “music videos” and of releasing his subsequent albums as “video albums”. Problem was that there was nowhere to show these “videos”, except for maybe on a late night talk show that Mike happened to be a guest on. Subsequently, Mike would find a home for his “music videos”. In 1981, he released an hour-long program called “Elephant Parts” which was made available on VHS and LaserDisc and was one of the first new programs made available for home viewing. “Elephant Parts” was a collection of comedy skits, commercial parodies and five full-length music videos for recent recordings of Mike’s. At the Grammys the following year Michael won the first ever award given out for a “music video” and the success of this innovation inspired Mike to take his music video idea further.
Many other artists began to make music videos and Michael came up with the idea for “PopClips”, a show that featured videos by some popular and emerging artists. Early videos shown on “PopClips” were for songs by George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and the Police – but also Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Tycoon. “PopClips” ran on Nickelodeon – owned by Time-Warner – for one season. Michael then sold the show to Time Warner, who subsequently redeveloped the show into the “MTV” network.
Through the rest of the ’80’s and the 1990’s, Mike continued to release albums. He also started a production company responsible for music videos by other artists and feature films. He also continued to avoid returning to the Monkees. Mike did not join the boys for the Monkees’ 20th anniversary reunion but the four Monkees did get together in 1996 to release “Justus”, an album that harkened back to “Headquarters” in that it was completely written and performed by the four of them alone. (The lead-off track was a re-recording of “Circle Sky”) Starting in 2012 and continuing after the untimely death of Davy Jones, Nesmith toured with Micky and Peter although he did not join the two other remaining Monkees for the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Also that year the band released “Good Times!”, a critically acclaimed album that featured one composition from Mike and three vocals.
In early 2018, Mike performed a handful of concerts with a revamped First National Band that included two of his sons and later in the year he hit the road with Micky for a series of shows billed as “The Monkees Present the Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show”. It seems that now, 52 years after the band’s formation, the death of Davy Jones and the apparent ‘retirement’ of Peter Tork, the Monkees has finally ceased to exist as an entity. Contrary to the perception that Mike Nesmith has ill feelings towards the Monkees and the ‘box’ the band put him in, Mike’s statement in 2012 about the experience wraps things up nicely: “I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.”
Mike Nesmith’s legacy is an interesting one. In some respects, he never truly has emerged from under the umbrella of the Monkees. But, really, that’s OK. Some artists, as I’ve said, get trapped by celebrity; typecast, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe in the end these artists never get to spread their wings as they may have liked but the one role they played or the one group they were in are cherished by many people. Many people love and adore the Monkees; the show and the group’s music truly ‘mean something’ to many people. That is no small thing.
I think to understand Mike as a solo artist, it helps to look at his perception of his time plying his trade as one of the original country rockers with his First National Band. I have read that Michael “was agonized” when he heard the first album from the Eagles, a band that was recording music in the same vein as the First National Band. He has said that he was “heartbroken”: how are the Eagles moving so many units when my albums are invisible? I understand his pain but I have to say that the Eagles’ first few albums contain a wonderfully accessible sound. “Tequila Sunrise” and “Take It Easy” are infinitely easy to like. The First National Band was much more “country” than the Eagles and the FNB lacked the ability to deliver the gorgeous harmonies that Glenn Frey, Don Henley, et al. could deliver.
In my opinion, Mike’s music in general always seemed to lack that one final ingredient. That elusive something that makes the masses embrace an artist or an album or a song. And his persona was never easy to grasp. His intelligence and dry humour made him a challenge to “get”. If you were browsing the record shops back in the day and came upon an album called “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” or “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” or “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma” you may have looked askance – it was especially hard to understand that the craziness of the titles was not reconciled to the music; the music on the records was not as crazy or avant-garde as the titles suggested. His was an eccentric talent, he was on his own path and the music he made and the persona he projected simply could not be easily processed by the average young person listening to his radio in his pick-up truck. That’s not to say that Mike was and is not possessed of innate talent and ability as a songwriter and musician. Mike Nesmith belongs in that rare group of artists that are greatly respected by the industry and those who “know” but that are misunderstood by the general, record-buying public: Lee Hazlewood, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and others. These are artists that ‘travel to the beat of a different drum’.
Michael was the true artist of the Monkees. He had the talent to write and record music himself. He didn’t need to join the group but he took the opportunity for the advancement it could provide. He battled for his artistic individuality while with the Monkees and then, when he left, he had a hand in pioneering country/rock. Later, his vision lead him to not create the music video but to become an early proponent of the concept of presenting videos in a regularly recurring format; indeed, the iconic “MTV Network” was based on an idea of his. And before any of this happened, his mother invented a product that virtually everyone in the developed world has used either in school or business. And yet it seems he will always be remembered as “Monkee Mike”, “Wool Hat”. And that’s OK.
The Best of Mike Nesmith: The Monkees and Beyond
Honourable Mention: “Different Drum” – the Stone Poneys — lovely song with a sweet vocal from a young Linda Ronstadt.
5. “Joanne” – the First National Band — surprise hit for the fledgling country/rockers. Nice vocal from Nez.
4. “You Just May Be the One” – the Monkees — nice strumming. One of the highlights of the Nesmith/Dolenz vocal tandem.
3. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – the Monkees — not written by Mike but a very “Mike” sound. An exciting, banjo-laden trip south of the border.
2. “The Door Into Summer” – the Monkees — another one not written by Mike but a joyful jaunt. Micky shines again in his role as Mike’s vocal shadow.
1. “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – the Monkees — like I said: perfect pop. Mike was savvy enough to give the lead to Micky. They again sound great together. An absolutely delightful song.
Herb Alpert is 83 years old. You probably don’t know who he is. Or maybe you’ve heard of him but don’t know much abut him. My “Stayin’ Alive” series attempts to shine a light on legends who are still with us. It’s surprising how many major contributors to pop culture are still alive but, the way ‘celebrity’ works, they don’t get near as much love as they deserve. After they die, the tributes fly but I am hoping to point out the impact these people had before they go to meet Houdini.
First and foremost, Herb Alpert is a trumpeter. However, the list of other things he is goes on for quite some time: composer, arranger, producer, songwriter, singer, record executive, painter, sculptor, philanthropist, actor… I like to refer to him as a mogul. I’ve seen mogul described as “a great personage, an important or powerful person, especially in the motion picture or media industry”. “An influential person: big gun, big hitter, high level honcho, superior”. My favourite is “power derived from experience and skill, not popularity (most celebrities, while called moguls, are in fact not)”. An apparently low-key guy like Mr. Alpert would likely cringe at being described as such and I think in Herb’s case, I would tend to use the word “influential” more than “powerful”. Definitely, though, he was a major player in a major market at a major point in the history of the music business.
Herb was born near the start of spring in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles to Tillie and Louis, two Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine and Poland. When Herb was growing up, Boyle Heights was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Later, the area saw an influx of Latinos. While today Boyle Heights is made up of 95% Latinos, the neighbourhood has a history of Jews and Latinos working together, politically and civilly, to improve living conditions. As a musician, Herb embodies this combination of Jew and Latin; he was of Jewish heritage and immersed himself in a Latin sound that he sought to share with the world. Record producer Lou Adler also grew up in Boyle Heights and became an associate and good friend of Herb (Adler, once married to Shelley Fabares, is also ‘stayin’ alive’ at 84 years of age). Other notable one time residents of the area include: Verve’s Norman Granz, will.i.am, Mickey Cohen and Anthony Quinn.
Herb’s whole family was musical and Herb began to play trumpet at age 8 and he experimented at an early age recording himself. He went to Fairfax High School which, at the time, had a predominantly Jewish student body. The school boasts an impressive list of notable alumni, everybody from Carole Lombard and Darla Hood to Mickey Rooney and Ricardo Montalban and up to Phil Spector, Anthony Kiedis and Demi Moore. Herb graduated in 1952 and then joined the Army. After his hitch, he tried his hand at acting, appearing as an extra (“drummer on Mt. Sinai”) in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.
In 1957, Herb took to songwriting and wrote hits for Jan & Dean (“Baby Talk” – #10) and Sam Cooke (“Wonderful World” – #12) before starting a recording career of his own. Herb took his son’s name, Dore, and released a handful of singles, none of them making much of an impression on the charts. It was at this point that he joined forces with his good friend, Jerry Moss. The two buddies decided to start their own label to release Herb’s recordings and also to record other artists they hoped to discover and develop. A&M Records was born.
The fledgling record company set up shop in Herb’s garage where Herb started working with a song a friend had written called “Twinkle Star”. On a break from working on this track, Herb went to Tijuana, Mexico to watch the bull fights. Alpert was taken with the atmosphere and the enthusiastic roars of the crowds. When he got back to his garage he took a different direction with “Twinkle Star”, adding crowd noises and double-tracking his mournful trumpet. He was happy with the sound which was decidedly “Mexican”. Alpert released the single as A&M’s first, renaming it “The Lonely Bull”. Still using their own money to fund operations, Alpert and Moss shopped the single around to various radio stations. The song began to receive airplay and eventually struck fire, reaching #6 on the pop charts in the fall of 1962. Oh, to be back in an era when a song like this could be Top Ten in the country. Now that they had a hit on their hands, Alpert needed an album. “The Lonely Bull” LP was released at the end of the year credited to “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass”; in reality this was Herb’s trumpet backed by the legendary session band, the Wrecking Crew.
For later releases and live performances, Herb would put together an actual band and released “Volume 2” in 1963 and “South of the Border” in 1964. “South of the Border” may be considered the first “essential” TJB album. The disc signaled a move away from predominantly Spanish flavoured songs to a more easy listening style which would become their trademark – the style is more easy listening. However, 8 of the twelve titles contain Spanish/Latin references. Their versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “All My Loving” pointed the way to a lighter, middle-of-the-road sound.
Their fourth album was a legendary release and remains their most popular record. “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” has been called the “Sgt. Pepper” of easy listening. It is the pinnacle of the early style of the genre and is firmly entrenched in pop consciousness. With this record, mass audiences became aware of Herb Alpert’s music. Songs from this album were used on “The Dating Game” which started a trend of hip, contemporary music being used incidentally on television. The cover alone is iconic and features model Dolores Erickson – three months pregnant at the time – covered in what is supposed to be whipped cream. The quality of the music and Alpert’s arranging both peaked with this album as best heard in the stunning and emotional “Lemon Tree”. The album reached number one and sold 6 million copies. It is the quintessential adult LP of the mid-1960’s. The sound and the cover spawned scores of imitators.
Other albums that deserve mention are “What Now My Love” and “Christmas Album”. The title track of the former won Herb two Grammy awards – one for arranging – and is the example I always use when I talk about what a great arranger Alpert is. This song – and you can hear it in many different forms from Sinatra to Presley – is just gorgeous in Herb’s hands, one of my favourites. “What Now My Love” was the #1 album in the country for 9 weeks – the longest stay at the top for any Brass album. The Christmas album may be an acquired taste. Most of the songs feature wordless vocals arranged by Shorty Rogers. This whispering chorus will gently introduce a song and then Herb and the boys come in with their jaunty TJB sound. This technique threw me at first but now all I can tell you is that it is one of the albums – not just Christmas albums – that I am most fond of. Herb has written some special arrangements of seasonal chestnuts that make for wonderful fireside listening. With many significant LP releases then, Herb and the TJB became among the first of the great “album artists” and they became known for their album releases – a full program of music as opposed to singles. In the days of the “hi-fi” and the bachelor pad, their records sold impressively and charted well. Seven of their first nine albums reached the Top Ten, five of these reaching #1. 1965 through 1967 was a particularly successful period for Herb and the Brass. In this era that is remembered for the cultural and musical contributions of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the hippie movement and the origin of hard rock, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass outsold them all, winning six Grammy Awards along the way. For 81 consecutive weeks during this time, the Brass had at least one album in the Top Ten. And the oft-quoted fact is true – in 1966, the TJB sold 13 million records, more than the Beatles did. Also in ’66, the Guinness Book of Records acknowledged that, at one point, Herb had 5 albums in the Top 20 at the same time, a feat that has never been repeated. Consider that, in April of 1966, four of the Top Ten albums in the land were Herb Alpert records. Even more ridiculously, Herb took a rare vocal on the Bacharach/David song “This Guy’s in Love With You” and it went to #1.
Herb’s original record-setting run with the Tijuana Brass came to an end in 1969. He disbanded the group, reforming the band for a few album releases over the next 15 years. Having conquered the pop charts with the Brass, Herb – and partner, Jerry – now turned their attention to expanding their label, A&M Records. Headquartered at the famous Charlie Chaplin Studios at 1416 North La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, A&M’s roster grew to include an impressive list of artists across different genres. Herb himself discovered Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, an act that enjoyed colossal success with their mod brand of jazzy Brazilian pop. Sergio and Herb began a lifelong friendship and business relationship and Herb married Lani Hall, one of the vocalists in the group. Herb and Lani – who has also released albums on A&M – are still married 45 years later.
The list of artists who recorded for A&M Records is as impressive as it is long. To be fully appreciated, though, you have to remember that most of the major record labels of the time were off-shoots of or owned by large movie studios or conglomerates. They had buckets of money to place at artists’ disposal. Herb and Jerry – remember, this label was started in a garage – were able to attract some very big names because of their reputations in the industry, because of their savvy and because of their ability to personally deal with artists and take care of their needs, both in the studio and out. The list of artists on the label includes: Burt Bacharach, Baja Marimba Band, the Sandpipers, We Five, the Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, Quincy Jones, Stealers Wheel, Liza Minelli, Gino Vanelli, Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, Paul Williams, Joan Baez and Billy Preston. Later, A&M added to their roster Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, Humble Pie, Fairport Convention, Carole King, Cheech and Chong, Nazareth, Styx, Supertramp, Chris DeBurgh, Chuck Mangione and Peter Frampton. The 1980’s saw the label continue to sign notable acts including Janet Jackson, the Police and later Sting, the Go-Go’s, Bryan Adams, the Human League and Amy Grant. Next time you’re looking through some records at a garage sale, look for records with the A&M Records logo – the one with the trumpet.
Throughout the 1970’s, Herb continued to record as a solo artist. His records from this era have a wonderfully smooth sound. Today’s listeners may dismiss them as lightweight but they all possess Herb’s particular brand of exquisite musicianship and are infinitely listenable. With the Brass in the mid-’60’s, Herb was tops among the artists that were purveyors of a “middle-of-the-road” sound that began to be favoured by a specific demographic. “Easy listening” can trace it’s roots back to the early ’50’s albums of Paul Weston and others but through the 1960’s, Herb and the TJB took this sound to the masses. Into the ’70’s, Herb was still practicing his brand of jazz-flavoured easy listening. Actually, his sound at this time helped give rise to what came to be known as “smooth jazz”. Significantly, smooth jazz can trace it’s roots to three albums that guitarist Wes Montgomery made with producer Creed Taylor. These three albums, from 1967 and 1968, featured Wes’ incomparable playing on renditions of pop hits of the day. What label were these three albums released on? A&M Records. Though the sound of today’s smooth jazz may have gone in an unfortunate direction, the origin of the genre is a further example of Herb Alpert being instrumental in yet another aspect of the industry.
My regular readers have heard me reference the “victory lap” that can occur in a performer’s career. After the initial blaze of popularity, often an artist’s career will wane. Then, sometimes circumstances will align and a singer will make a sort of comeback – release an album that cements his or her place in history and elevates them to “legend”. It allows their earlier work to be reassessed and appreciated all over again. Sinatra and Bennett both wrote the template for the “victory lap”. Think also of Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Herb Alpert’s victory lap – as a recording artist, at least – came quite out of the blue. After years of releasing quality albums of jazz/pop, Herb teamed with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela for a couple of interesting albums. Then, in 1979, Herb was given a song by his nephew, Randy Badazz Alpert. “Rise” was a departure of sorts for Herb. Randy Alpert and his production partner Andy Armer had written the tune as an up-tempo dance number. At the recording session, it was decided to slow it down – this decision has been credited to both Herb and the drummer on the session, Steve Schaefer. The slower tempo was key. A highlight of this slow funk groove is the bass line laid down by studio legend Abe Laboriel – it is my all-time favourite bass line. Clocking in at 7 minutes and 40 seconds, the tune is an aural delight combining a disco/early hip-hop mood with Herb’s flawless, ethereal playing.
The single was released in the summer of ’79 and was immediately picked up by club DJs who would play it on two turntables at once, imaginatively staggering the records to make the song play longer and playing one off the other. As the song began it’s ascent up the charts, it received an unexpected boost in it’s promotion from it’s use as a back-drop for the relationship of “Luke and Laura” on the daytime soap opera, “General Hospital”. With the success of the single, Herb went into the studio to record an LP. The result – also titled “Rise” – is one of my favourite albums of all-time. It’s a fantastic record that manages to sound like the late ’70’s but still sound engaging and somehow relevant almost 40 years later. The album starts with the fanfare “1980”, which had originally been commissioned for use during the Summer Olympics but was instead used as the official theme of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. “Rotation” is another Badazz/Armer track that shimmers along at a nice easy pace. It also was released as a single and hit the top 30. I heard it used once on an episode of “Sex and the City”. “Rotation” has been called one of the first “chillout” tunes making Herb a pioneer in yet another sub-genre. The glowing gem of side two is undoubtedly “Angelina”. The gorgeous song features lyrical playing from Herb and steel guitar. Co-written by Gary Brooker, founder of Procol Harum, this song sounds like sunset looks. This song sounds like a young California guy in love with a Mexican girl. Her family doesn’t like him and her brothers want to kill him but the two lovers manage to steal away for walks down by the water, watching the boats come back in while the sun dips golden behind the horizon. *sigh* The album closes with Herb’s interpretation of “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo. The guitar piece, written in 1939, is considered the pinnacle of Spanish music. Miles Davis had done a version of it on his “Sketches of Spain” album and here Herb takes it to the night club. The piece is titled “Aranjuez (Mon Amour)” here and is an exhilarating piece that combines the drive and flair of Spanish music with the snapping hi-hat of disco and the R&B/funk of the late 1970’s. The album is, simply put, fantastic and the single release of the title track went to Number One. As if Alpert hadn’t achieved enough, this chart-topper makes him the only artist in history to have a number one song as a vocalist (“This Guy’s in Love With You”) and as an instrumentalist. “Rise” was notably sampled by Sean Combs for “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G.
Herb Alpert and his partner and friend Jerry Moss decided to sell A&M Records in 1989. There’s a really interesting interview with Jerry Moss that I can highly recommend. In this interview, Jerry explains that he and “Herbie” (as Jerry affectionately refers to Alpert), while they weren’t ‘shopping’ A&M, had a good relationship with PolyGram when that company offered to purchase A&M. Purchase price? $500 million. Jerry says the purpose of selling A&M was to expand it, to make it bigger. By the mid-’90’s, artists were getting huge advances from record companies and A&M simply couldn’t compete. And PolyGram liked Jerry and Herb and wanted them to stay on and run the label. It’s an interesting story and I’ll try to give it to you in a nutshell. Jerry had a good connection with a guy at PolyGram. This guy, though, soon retired and his replacement wasn’t into A&M and didn’t like Jerry personally. This type of breakdown was the opposite of what Herb and Jerry had been promised when they sold. Instead of working with Alpert and Moss, PolyGram bought them out of their agreement. For $200 million. So, in the end, PolyGram purchased the organically birthed and nurtured label, a label with humble beginnings, that started with two employees and a garage, a label that had built a reputation as one that treated their employees and the stars on their roster well, for $500 million. Add to that the $200 million buy-out money and the total is $700 million. Think about that. This is a part of Herb’s story that I love and it puts me in mind of Berry Gordy, Jr. who started Motown Records with an $800 loan and sold it 25 years later for $61 million. Regular Joes who thought they’d try their hands at making records. In the end, not surprisingly, considering today’s record industry, A&M was absorbed into it’s parent company and A&M Records, as an active entity, was no more. The lot on La Brea was shuttered. Jim Henson Productions took over the old Chaplin studios and Herb and Jerry’s adventure was over – and they were $700 million dollars richer.
Herb Alpert’s “retirement” years have been busy. He has indulged his love of creating abstract expressionist art and sculpture and has enjoyed exhibits of his work. He and Moss (at Jerry’s urging) started another record label – Almo Sounds – predominantly to release Alpert’s subsequent albums. But here again they ran a label that nurtured new acts, signing Garbage and Lazlo Bane. In 2000, Alpert regained the rights to his past albums and began lovingly remastering and re-releasing them. Alpert has been embraced by purveyors of electronic music and many of his tracks have been remixed by DJs. The “Whipped Cream” album was remixed in it’s entirety in 2006 with Herb offering up some new trumpet work. Yet another genre that has thrown a nod to Herb Alpert.
Herb has received several lifetime achievement awards and in 2012 the National Medal of Arts award from then President Obama. Sting inducted Alpert and Moss into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 as non-performer lifetime achievers. Today, Herb continues to maintain a social media presence and still releases what he calls “positive” music. In 2017, he released “The Christmas Wish” and “Music Vol. 1” with more volumes on the way.
Herb himself may be most satisfied with his work as a philanthropist. In the 1980’s, Herb founded the Herb Alpert Foundation, which supports youth and arts education as well as environmental issues. Herb and wife, Lani, have donated millions in scholarships to various arts schools in the US. This includes $30 million to UCLA, $24 million to the California Institute of the Arts, $10 million to Los Angeles City College and $5 million to the Harlem School for the Arts. All of these gifts are aimed at providing education to youths who otherwise may not have the opportunity to pursue these avenues of learning.
Herb Alpert’s career has checked all the boxes. He may not be regularly referred to or often heralded but the fact remains that he is a legend of serious weight, one that is still active in the fields he loves. Herb’s fingerprints are all over the record industry and through his foundation, he and Lani are doing what they can to ensure that the next generation has a chance to excel. For me, Herb’s greatest legacy is the music. Constantly seeing Tijuana Brass records in thrift stores fascinated me and got me into collecting vinyl. “Rise” means the world to me. And all this is capped off by the fact that Herb Alpert is ‘stayin’ alive’ – still with us, still making us feel good. Thanks, Herb.
Postscript: I’m a “ranker” so I can’t close out this tribute without running down Herb Alpert’s Top 5 Best Songs. OK, maybe not his best but here’s five tracks that can serve as a sampler of Herb’s work. Check out these tunes and see if you’re not hooked.
5. “Jerusalem” (1971 – from “Summertime”) — From the final stages of the initial run of the TJB, this dramatic track was written by Herb.
4. “Lemon Tree” (1965 – from “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”) — Trini Lopez’ jaunty version has nothing on Herb’s arrangement. This song – and #2 on this list – are the best examples of Alpert’s expertise and unique touch as an arranger. The TJB’s version of “Lemon Tree” is mournful yet beautiful with gentle playing from Herb and some great chord changes.
3. “Angelina” (1979 – from “Rise”) — I can’t say much more about this track than I already have. It is sublime and can evoke an extreme flutter in the chest. Emotional. Wonderful.
2. “What Now, My Love” (1966 – from “What Now My Love”) — This French song has been done many different ways by many different singers, from Sinatra to Presley to Andy Williams. All excellent. But again here Herb adds his special touch with a fine arrangement. The bouncy joy of this track does not totally avoid the wistfulness of the chord changes and the melancholy of the lyrics – omitted here, of course. Herb’s playing is clipped and precise while still exhibiting warmth. Delightful acoustic guitar from, I’ll assume, John Pisano. Probably the finest Tijuana Brass song.
1. “Rise” (1979 – from “Rise”) — Just perfect. A stone groove. Drama in the song structure while maintaining a relaxed playfulness. Exciting electric guitar punctuations and a thrilling bass line, my favourite ever. Very “’70’s” and timeless at the same time. This tune has heavy street cred as Herb expertly blends ’70’s dance music with the R&B origins of hip-hop.
We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.
Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.
I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old. Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.
By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.
This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.
People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.
The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.
Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.
Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.
Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.
Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.
(Note: I’m thrilled to be writing this post as a part of Chris Sturhann’s “Summer Movie Blogathon” on his Blog of the Darned https://chrissturhann.blogspot.ca/)
I discovered the Beach Boys when I was 12 years old. Soon I began to grow enamored of mid-century Southern Californian culture in it’s entirety. This quickly and obviously led me to the “beach party” movies, especially those produced by American International Studios in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The first film I discovered in this genre was 1964’s “Muscle Beach Party”. On a personal note, I had taped it off TV when it was broadcast on the late, late show on CITY TV in Toronto where I grew up. It was part of their line-up of “Not So Great Movies”. You often hear people say ‘I’ve watched that movie 100 times!’. While I may not have seen “Muscle Beach Party” 100 times, I must’ve watched that video tape dozens of times.
“Muscle Beach Party” was released in March of 1964. It was the second in American International’s “beach party” movie series which began the previous year with “Beach Party”. This second film also features the most unlikely looking beach types in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as Frankie and Dee Dee. Also returning are John Ashley, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Morey Amsterdam, Jody McCrea and many of the “beach party” guys and girls. The film opens with three car loads of kids beginning some vacation time on the beach at Malibu. Frankie and Dee Dee are the leaders of this troupe but early on we see a hint of trouble as Dee Dee seems to be withholding affection from Frank.
It’s Easter vacation and the gang is heading to Malibu where they’ve rented a house on the beach. Morning finds them hitting the surf and discovering a yacht anchored just offshore. Relaxing on the beach, Frankie talks to Dee Dee about some of his dreams. He loves being free to surf and feels like there is an ’80 foot wave’ out there just waiting for him. A gym full of muscle men has set up shop next to the kids’ house lead by ‘trainer’ Jack Fanny. The kids watch the men doing their morning exercises and heckle and mock them.
Out on the yacht, “Bella Contessa”, we meet S.Z. Matts who is the business manager and traveling companion of the very rich Julie Giatta-Borgini. Julie has dragged S.Z. to this neck of the woods in her desire to “buy” Flex Martian, the head muscle man, whom she has fallen in love with while looking at his picture in a magazine. She heads to the beach for a look at Flex and the other muscle men and takes Flex back to the yacht for lunch. Next we see Frankie and Dee Dee stealing away for some alone time by the fire on the beach. Instead of reverie, the discussion gets heated. Dee Dee wants Frankie to grow up, settle down and accept responsibility. Frankie, of course, bristles, declaring he wants no strings. He asks nothing of the world and only takes what’s free: sun, sky, beach and ocean.
Back at the muscle house, S.Z.’s assistant, Theodore, continues to negotiate the purchase of the muscle men with Jack Fanny. Jack seems reluctant. When Julie and S.Z. return with Flex, they find that there are still some details to hammer out. Bored with such details, Julie decides to walk on the beach. She overhears Frankie sing a song and kisses him, smitten. This is witnessed by Dee Dee and the two girls trade barbs. Frankie gets slapped and Dee Dee storms off. Meanwhile, S.Z. and Jack have concluded their deal. S.Z. tells Julie the good news but now she says she doesn’t want Flex and Co. She’s in love with Frankie! When Jack, Flex and the muscle men find out they have been jilted, they are none too happy.
Later, the kids are hooting at Cappy’s while Dick Dale entertains. Frankie and Dee Dee are trying to patch things up when Julie comes in asking Frankie to sing. Dee Dee sits down in a huff and Julie records Frankie’s song, telling him she’s going to make him a recording star. This infuriates Dee Dee but before she can punch Julie out the muscle men barge in. Jack Fanny declares war on the surfers in order to restore his and Flex’s honour. Before the fists can fly, Deadhead announces that the surf is up and the gang splits. That night, the kids further mock the muscle men and Jack Fanny commits himself to destroying them. Later, in a significant scene on the beach at night, Frankie discusses with Julie whether or not they would be right for each other. Frankie says he’s got paradise right here, right now. Julie tells him he can have all of that and more if he goes away with her. Frankie realizes that Julie and her plans for him are the 80 foot wave he had talked about earlier. This is his dream supposedly coming true. Frankie meets the gang on the beach saying they can all come with him on his adventure. The gang, however, is not having it. They are happy where they are. Thanks but no thanks.
Julie and S.Z. run into Dee Dee. Julie explains that Frankie and her are going away together. Dee Dee says that is fine. She is angry but wants Frankie to be happy. Dee Dee storms off and S.Z. wonders aloud if Julie has done the right thing, taking Frankie away. Julie gets upset and asks why can’t she have what these kids have just because she has money. S.Z. wisely suggests that’s it’s a case of “people for people” and that Julie and Frankie don’t fit together. Frankie arrives and begins to pack. S.Z. takes matters into his own hands explaining how Frankie will live off Julie and be “kept”, describing in harsh terms how things will be. Frankie has second thoughts and takes off. S.Z. explains himself to Julie by telling her he was trying to save Frankie and Dee Dee from broken hearts. Frankie runs down to Cappy’s to apologize to Dee Dee and explain to the gang that he was dazzled by Julie’s promises but now he’s come to his senses and realizes that his paradise, his 80 foot wave, is right here with Dee Dee and his friends. Julie arrives to hear the end of his speech and tells Frankie she understands and all is cool. Until the muscle men come in and a ridiculous brawl ensues. The surfers survive the rumble, watch as Julie’s yacht sails away and party the night away on the beach!
The first sequel to “Beach Party” (1963) is probably the best of all the ‘beach party’ movies. Perhaps it’s the absence of Harvey Lembeck as the excessively imbecilic Eric Von Zipper that elevates this film. Certainly the cast is the best of the series. In the previous film, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were billed 3rd and 4th behind ‘mature’ leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but in this second installment they take top billing and center stage.
Frankie and Annette may not look like typical Californians but they carry off the roles well. Avalon definitely had personality and he handles the humourous material naturally. When he is called upon to play it serious or angry, he’s also very convincing. When you think about it, for a guy who’s legacy may be lightweight, he sure had a fair amount of acting – and singing – ability. Annette is pretty and bubbly and you can easily buy her as the girl who is planning for the future and encouraging her man to do the same. One thing about American International; they seemed to be able to attract pretty female talent. Case in point is Luciana Paluzzi as the Contessa. The Italian Paluzzi – still with us at 80 – is possibly best known for portraying SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe in “Thunderball”. She also appeared in “Return to Peyton Place”. John Ashley returns as Johnny (formerly Ken). Small and dark like Avalon, Ashley comes off well as a teen-aged surf bum. He later married “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” actress Deborah Whalley. In the ’80’s, he produced the television show “The A-Team” and provided the narration over the opening credits.
Don Rickles appears as trainer Jack Fanny. Rickles is exactly how you’d like him to be – delightfully zany. Jody McCrea plays Deadhead. McCrea – son of Joel McCrea – obviously knows what he is doing onscreen despite getting stuck playing the moron. He is also exactly in the type of shape guys wanted to be in, maybe even more so than the bodybuilders. Dick Dale is actually a straight-up guitar legend. His rep is so huge that it actually suffers from being in these “beach party” movies. His music in the films is not his own and nowhere near indicative of his virtuoso playing. Here he’s cool, though. Virile. Candy Johnson and her crazy dancing? I’m sorry. Terrible. Real life bodybuilder Peter Lupus appears as “Mr. Galaxy – Flex Martian”. Lupus is billed here as “Rock Stevens”, as he was in the many ‘sword and sandal’ films he made in the 1960’s. He is given idiotic lines and doesn’t particularly shine in delivering them but it’s all good. We give Peter a pass because of his work in the television series “Mission: Impossible”, where he shone delivering few lines but effectively portraying the team’s ‘muscle’.
Valora Noland and Delores Wells deserve special mention. Fresh-faced and attractive, it’s fun to watch them as they decorate every scene they are in. It is difficult to find any info on the internet about Noland but Wells was a prominent Playboy model in the early ’60’s. Singer Donna Loren doesn’t have any lines and only duets with Dick Dale on one mediocre song so there’s not much to say about her in this film. But she turns in a great performance singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a wonderful voice but a decidedly unsuccessful singing career. She is still thriving in the fashion industry in Hawaii. Morey Amsterdam is loony as Cappy, owner of the kid’s hangout. He was funnier in “Beach Party”. Curiously, Buddy Hackett has a low billing in this film. He is great as the oddly named “S.Z. Matts” and while here he is much less manic than he usually is, he is obviously in control, understands his character – such as he is – and plays him well. Little Stevie Wonder actually sings a song. 13 years old at the time, Stevie here puts me in mind of James Brown in American International’s ‘winter beach party’, “Ski Party”: a whole lot of soul in an extremely white environment. Don’t think Stevie built his rep on having been in “Muscle Beach Party”. Keep an eye out for future “Grizzly Adams”, the late Dan Haggerty as one of the muscle men, cutey Amadee Chabot as one of Jack Fanny’s assistants and Peter Lorre, in his last film, as the silent partner, Mr. Strangdour, the strongest man in the world. I take the time to go over the cast because I think each of the above is worth pointing out. It’s actually a great cast with everyone playing their parts well. It’s interesting to me to note that seemingly everybody in this type of film went on to make either terrible movies, terrible movies in Europe or no movies. Ever seen John Ashley in “Black Mamba”? Or Valora Noland in…like..nothing? But the thing is – that’s OK. We love these actors in these roles. They become our friends. We become one of the gang.
“Muscle Beach Party” was filmed in part at Paradise Cove in Malibu. The location now is the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. They have an excellent website (http://www.paradisecovemalibu.com/) and a really good social media presence. Nice to know that you can plan a trip to the actual place where this and other films were made. It’s also great while you watch this movie to look around in the background and see what the land and homes were like at the time. The painting used over the opening credits I call the “Muscle Beach Mural”. It was painted by cartoonist Mike Dormer, whose surfer cartoon character “Hot Curl” can be seen on sweaters throughout the film. I’d kill for one of those sweaters and certainly for the mural. Dormer also created the children’s show “Shrimpenstein” who was a miniature Frankenstein’s monster that was created when his creator dropped a bag of jelly beans in his monster machine. Apparently Frank Sinatra and the boys never missed an episode.
Dr. Pepper was prominently placed in the film, which was why Donna Loren appeared to sing a song; she was the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and sang in their commercials. Legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson – genius behind the band’s music – co-wrote six songs for the film. With frequent co-writers Roger Christian and Gary Usher, Wilson penned the excellent opener “Surfer’s Holiday” sung by Frankie and Annette and the equally good “Runnin’ Wild” that Frank sings in Cappy’s. Although American International did not capitalize by issuing a soundtrack LP, Frankie Avalon did sing these two songs and others on his album “Muscle Beach Party and Other Movie Songs” on United Artists Records. A quality recording, the first side features songs from the “beach party” movies and side two showcases Avalon’s great voice on songs from other popular films.
Here’s the thing about this film. Of all the “beach party” movies – including movies in the same vein made by other studios – “Muscle Beach Party” is really the only one that has a script with any merit. I’m referring mainly to the Frankie-Dee Dee-Julie storyline. Early in the film, we see Frankie on the beach talking to Dee Dee. Keep in mind how old these kids are. We are never told specifically but I think it’s safe to assume they all are at the ‘pivot point’ in life – the time when you begin to turn away from your childhood and look forward to being an adult and assuming your role in society. I’ve always felt strongly about this point in life. It is heavy. It is rife with storylines about how well or how poorly people make the transition. I think of John Milner in the great coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. In that film, it is said of him “y’wanna be like John?! You can’t stay 17 forever”.
In our film, Frankie is dreaming out loud on the beach, sharing part of himself with Dee Dee, his girlfriend. “I think about it sometimes”, he says, “out there, way beyond that white boat, there’s a wave building…maybe it’s 80 feet”. Avalon does well getting the viewer to realize that this is his dream in life – maybe not exactly an 80 foot wave but he has dreams of fun, adventure and accomplishment for his life. The more realistic Dee Dee gently shoots him down saying that that wave is in his head. Even a seagull has to come down once in a while. Frankie disgustedly shakes his head: “Girls don’t fly!”. Later, again on the beach, Frankie and Dee Dee have an argument. Dee Dee again encourages Frankie to start making his life count for something. Sidebar: I own the novelization of “Muscle Beach Party” that came out slightly before the film. It’s written by Elsie Lee, a female author, who punches up the idea that Dee Dee is, of course, the more mature of the two. She is – step by step – making Frankie into the man she wants him to be – the man she knows he CAN be. She uses subtle feminine wisdom to get him to begin to be ready to assume responsibility and be an adult. And – most importantly, a husband.
Back on the beach, Frankie counters with the simple fact that he is happy. He’s living the way he wants to live. He says that Dee Dee is starting to sound like a wife. He expresses his desire to avoid “time-payment city…being in hock, working 8 to 5”. Dee Dee comes back with the fact that they could have a nice home and fill it with kids. Then Frankie delivers a classic line: “Look, this beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own. Now, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t, Dee Dee answers. All you do is take, she says. I only take what’s free, Frankie answers. It’s actually a really well written scene and one that virtually everyone can relate to. Women will smile knowingly and think of how much more grounded and sensible – and, let’s face it, more right – they are. Guys will remember their youthful freedom and how reluctant they were to give it up and face reality. In the midst of all this hassle with Dee Dee, in comes Julie, the Contessa who is gorgeous and filthy rich. She takes a shine to Frankie.
Later comes the important scene I alluded to in the synopsis. It’s night and Frankie and Julie are on the beach. When Frankie asks Julie “where do you go on that big, white boat?”, Julie talks about all the wonderful places she can take him. He asks about surf and she replies “the riders look like gods skimming the crest of the waves”. Frankie looks off into the distance and it hits him: “it’s an 80 foot wave”. He realizes that Julie is handing him everything he’s ever wanted. It’s a dream come true and Frank is all in. Until S.Z. shines a bit of light on the realities of “life with La Contessa”. Frank’s second thoughts lead him to a realization. Frankie realizes that he is already living his dream life. He loves Dee Dee. He loves being leader of the gang. He loves his life: living, working, saving for holidays like this and dreaming. Taking him away from all that is not a dream come true. He has been asked a question that is seemingly easy to answer: what is your perception of paradise? I have a special place in my heart for this idea as it formed the basis of the novel I started writing in my early 20’s and have yet to finish (20+ years later).
Let’s get one thing straight: I understand that most surf movies (except “Big Wednesday”) are lame. I know how none of them accurately depicted true surf culture and how “Gidget” resulted in the glutting of Malibu, ruining it for real surfers. And I know that the American International pictures in particular are goofy and kind of dumb. I’m not suggesting that the Academy take another look at these films. They are guilty pleasures, I always say. I’m a fan not a critic. And what I am saying is that these films are really enjoyable if only as snapshots of a wonderful time in American history. The location shooting, some of the things you see in the background or the furnishings in the beach houses, the cars all combine to make these films delightful especially to those of us immersed in mid-century culture. “Muscle Beach Party” is a great example of one of these films. Films I like to call “delightfully ridiculous”.
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Chuck Berry has died at age 90. I was happy to see tributes to him all over the internet because here is a performer that has become a true legend with almost no peer in the history of rock music. As I’ve said before, to fully understand where you’re at at any given point in time, you need to understand and appreciate where things have come from. There may be some degrees of separation, yes, but Chuck Berry is at the heart – at the absolute core – of popular music as we know it today in the 21st century.
To track the origins of “rock ‘n’ roll”, you have to go back to the early 1950’s to records like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Rocket 88”. Then, in 1954, you had Bill Haley and His Comets recording the immortal “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s first record, “That’s All Right, Mama”. In these four instances you had 1) black rhythm and blues groups having success and getting noticed by white high school kids and 2) you had country boys channeling a “black sound” while still exhibiting a southern look (Haley) and/or a decidedly southern sound (Scotty Moore’s guitar). When you add in the gospel flavour of an artist like Ray Charles, you have all the ingredients for what would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll”, the first music that was made specifically for young people. So, here you have the foundation of the music. But let’s consider this: there’s a difference between blending R&B, gospel and country to make rock ‘n’ roll and actually making rock ‘n’ roll. In the spring of 1955, Chuck Berry took the results of the ‘experiment’ that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley had been conducting and added certain key things. The result of the additions he made emerged as nothing less than the blueprint of rock music. In fact, he was the first to combine all of the necessary elements that are essential to rock music. These elements include showmanship, for starters. Chuck played the guitar and the very fact that his instrument was strapped to him allowed him to move around while playing it and therefore engage in the type of showmanship rock ‘n’ roll is known for. Another main element is the guitar itself. Because the guitar was his instrument, he, of course, featured it in his songs, starting most of them off with an energetic ‘riff’ taking both the guitar and the riff to the forefront of this new music. He also established, two years before Buddy Holly, the singer performing songs he himself had written. And then there’s the subject matter of these songs. Something else he was the first to popularize was singing with humour about teen life, often telling a story in his songs. He wisely considered the audience for this new music consisted of kids so he wrote joyful, happy songs about cars, about school, about getting out of school, about getting in your car and going to the local hang out and pumping dimes into the jukebox. He sang about being a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, about taking this music with you as you grew up, got a job and got married. He was like a reporter, reporting on kids’ lives while they were happening. From 1955 into the early 1960’s, Chuck laid the foundation for what rock music would become.
The proof is in the covers. Chuck’s story is told, for the most part, by looking at who covered his music. Suffice it to say that any group of guys who got together and plugged in in the garage were following Chuck Berry’s lead but when you look at the artists that have covered a Chuck Berry song you understand the immensity of his contribution. It’s interesting to note that you cannot name me one significant cover of an Elvis Presley song. There are no other notable versions of “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock”. Those songs are so indelibly connected to EP that no one else dared to attempt them. The wonderful thing about Chuck is that his songs were really for everybody. Every important rock artist after Chuck had to try their hand at one of his songs. If for no other reason than to make it clear what their intentions were: if you cover “Johnny B. Goode”, it tells the world what kind of band you are.
The connection may not be readily apparent but we’ll start with the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson may be the most successful songwriter ever who was least influenced by black music but Brian, his brother, guitarist Carl and their cousin, lead vocalist Mike Love were all enamored of doo wop and – mostly Carl, natch – Chuck Berry. Brian Wilson enjoyed Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” so much that he took the melody and changed the lyrics to include popular surf spots across the country. Initially, the songwriting credit listed only Wilson. Then it was changed to credit Berry only. I remember, when I was 12, owning the popular Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer” and noticing that it listed Chuck Berry as the writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A” which was a real head-scratcher for me. Nowadays, both Wilson and Berry are credited. It’s always been published by Chuck’s Arc Music publisher. Chuck was a major influence on Carl’s playing and the Beach Boys released an early tribute to Chuck and others called “Do You Remember?” in 1964: “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along. He made the guitar beat and wrote the all time greatest songs”. Then, in the 1970’s, the Beach Boys emerged from a creative valley with the album “15 Big Ones” that featured, as it’s lead-off single, Chuck’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The single went to #5, which was their highest charting single since the landmark “Good Vibrations” in 1966.
Like every other beat group that emerged in England in the early 1960’s, the Beatles were heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. If you had seen them in pre-stardom days on stage in Hamburg or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, you would have seen a gnarly bunch of greasers crunching their way through a set list loaded with covers of their favourite records. Chuck Berry loomed large. Their raucous cover of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was featured on their second album, 1963’s “With the Beatles”. This track of Chuck’s was a favourite of the boys’ since even before they were called “the Beatles”. Just as exciting was their cover of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. This track appeared on “Beatles For Sale” in ’64 and features an excellent, frenetic vocal from John. Another litigation episode involves the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” was targeted by the owner of the copyright to Chuck’s tune “You Can’t Catch Me”. The owner claimed the two tracks were similar musically (they aren’t) and that the first two lines of the Beatles song – “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” – was too close to a line of Chuck’s: “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”. They settled out of court with John promising to record three future songs that were controlled by the same copyright owner. The result was Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” for his excellent 1975 album of covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (his “Stand By Me” is spectacular).
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. I mean, that’s it, right? The two legends together are probably the most influential artists in rock history. EP covered Chuck in early 1964. Presley was experiencing his first dry spell on the charts and he had latched on to Chuck’s “Memphis, Tennessee” for his next single. Memphis, after all, was Elvis’ hometown and he worked hard on getting just the right sound for his recording, a recording Presley believed would restore his standing on the pop charts. At this time, Elvis and his buds were living in Elvis’ Los Angeles home and when they were not at the studio working on “Memphis”, they were kicking it around in the living room and talking excitedly about the track. Hanging around the house at the time was singer Johnny Rivers. Elvis biographers and many ‘Memphis Mafia’ books report that Elvis felt betrayed when, after sharing his hopes about the song with the boys with Rivers in attendance, Rivers himself released a version of “Memphis” of his own and watched it rise to #2. Elvis was deflated and felt that releasing his version now would just seem exploitative. Rivers and Chuck Berry himself have claimed that the move by Rivers was not malicious but simply orchestrated by Rivers’ record label. No matter. Johnny Rivers became persona non grata with Elvis and the boys and is a minor villain in ‘Elvis World’. Presley went to Chuck again for a track that easily ranks among the top ten Elvis Presley recordings of all time; 1973’s “Promised Land”. In terms of energy and flat-out, driving, pedal-to-the-metal power, it’s hard to find an EP recording that tops this. Adding to the coolness level of this recording is the fact that it was recorded at the famed Stax Studio in Memphis and features some stellar clavinet. It’s hard to do justice in words to Presley’s recording of this track; you have to listen to it. A lot. Interesting to note that Berry wrote this song while incarcerated in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He has said that while writing the song he wanted to study an atlas to confirm some of the lyrics but one wouldn’t be provided. It may prove too helpful in planning an escape route.
There’s been many other fantastic covers of Chuck’s songs. They make for great listening because when you’ve got a well-written rock song and an artist who wants to pay homage and at the same time sink his teeth in and put his own stamp on a song, the results quite often are good. Cases in point include the Animals and their scintillating “Around and Around”, Electric Light Orchestra’s soaring version of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rod Stewart (back when he was cool) tearing a strip off “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, with the help of a rabid dog. I’ve tried here to provide details on some of the earliest stand-out covers of Chuck Berry’s songs. The three artists we looked at here are as big as you get and it’s telling that they’ve all notably – NOTABLY – tackled Chuck Berry’s music with interesting and exciting results. But the list of other artists to cover Berry is extensive. And varied. Everyone from Wyclef Jean to Uriah Heap. From Tanya Tucker to Peter Tosh. I haven’t even touched on the Rolling Stones’ fantastic Chuck run-throughs in their early days and gritty bluesman George Thorogood’s devotion to Chuck’s songs. But if you check the lists of artists who have covered Chuck, you’ll see that his music has been visited most by three of the biggest artists in music history. What does that tell you?
“Wait’ll you see my Gidget. You’ll want her for your valentine.”
– Johnny Tillotson
“Gidget” is a person, a novel, a film, a film franchise, a song, a television show and a cultural phenomenon. In 1957, Frederick Kohner, an Austrian-born Jew working as a screenwriter, wrote a novel based on the beach adventures of his under-sized, surf-obsessed daughter, Kathy. The nickname the boys at the beach gave her served as the title: “Gidget”. Half-girl, half midget. The tale depicted in the novel and subsequent film is basically true: Kathy was a petite, young girl who, at an impressionable time in her life, fell in love with the beach and surfing. An outgoing tomboy, she attached herself to a group of surfer boys at Malibu at a time when surfing was still an obsessive pursuit enjoyed by few. A niche next to the Malibu Pier housed a small, dedicated colony of young surfers, many of whom went on to become legendary in the sport and/or the industry.
The novel was an instant success. So much so that it largely contributed to a boom in surfing that began in the late 1950’s. Soon, many hardcore surfers were lamenting the increase in crowds at surf spots up and down the West Coast. Kohner eventually wrote five sequels to his first novel although they were not successful. The little known fact that they were written at all is no more than an eyebrow-raising bit of trivia. He also novelized the two subsequent film sequels and these have become collectible items of the genre.
The film “Gidget”, released by Columbia in 1959, is landmark in a way that few films can be landmark. It was truly a first: Hollywood’s first surf movie. Putting “Hollywood” and “surfing” together is anathema to any true, self-respecting surfer. Real surfers bemoan the release of “Gidget”, and blame it for exploiting their wave-riding lifestyle and causing a glut of “hodads” and “gremmies” (wannabes) on any and all beaches where there were breaking waves. The Beach Boys and American International’s “beach party” movies soon followed. Gidget and a true phenomenon was born. Surfers have long been hostile to an industry that depicts them as Spicoli-types: stoned vagrants who contribute zero but instead leech off society. They point to films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Point Break” as failures in Hollywood’s attempt to portray the surfing lifestyle. But this is no fault of “Gidget”‘s. The 1959 film is truly engaging. It made stars of Sandra Dee and James Darren, boasted a cast of notables such as Cliff Robertson in the iconic role of Kahuna, Arthur O’Connell, Yvonne Craig, Joby Baker and Tom Laughlin. More than just a surfing movie, it is a delightful slice of life circa 1959. Suburban homes, front yards, living rooms, Saturday nights. A lovely time capsule. The beach scenes are also great images of the summertime living of the era. The requisite burger stand sits atop the hill. Beach goers descend and come upon the surfer’s enclave: Stinky’s surfboard ‘shaping bay’ sits next to the Kahuna’s shack. Inside is all you’d ever need: exotic pictures on the wall, cot, chair and hot plate with coffee pot. Outside, the boys loiter, waiting for surf. Reclining in a hammock, playing chess, plinking on a ukulele or beating a drum. With these indelible images, you could watch with the sound down and still be enthralled.
The “Malibu” scenes were actually shot 20 miles up the highway at Leo Carillo State Beach (which is a wonderful aside for us classic movie fans. Leo Carillo was a wonderful Spanish actor in many old films. In later life, his work as a preservationist was honored with this beach and state park being named after him. Fitting, too, that many films were shot here, including the aforementioned “Point Break”). The sequels, as most sequels do, decline in quality. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian”, however, is another delightful film with many things to recommend it. Sandra Dee is absent and in her place is Deborah Walley, on whom the jury is still out. She is sprightly, bubbly and good at handling this material but at the same time she can be hammy and irritating. Watching with hindsight though you can keep in mind her performances in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Spinout”. James Darren returns as Monndoggie as does Joby Baker albeit as a different character. This excellent cast is rounded out by pretty Vicki Trickett, Michael Callan, Carl Reiner as Gidget’s dad and the actress JEFF Donnell (Jeff?) as the mom. The script is pleasant and deals with the damage loose talk can do to a girl’s reputation. Not much to say about “Gidget Goes to Rome”. James Darren is, as always, reliable as he completes the trilogy as Moondoggie. The bland Cindy Carol becomes Gidget #3. Interesting note: Don Porter appears as Gidget’s father. He would return to the role on the small screen. Caesare Danova (“Viva Las Vegas”) and Danielle De Metz provide the Roman eye candy. Not much surf in Rome, though, so this film is OK but maybe not as a vehicle for the beach bunny Gidget.
Music from movies doesn’t have to be good. I can enjoy it simply because it puts me in mind of the films I love. It so happens, though, that the songs spawned by the films are pretty good. The first film featured an appearance and two songs from the Four Preps, a collegiate-type vocal group that featured Glen A. Larson who would become a heavyweight TV producer in the ’80’s (“Magnum, P.I.”, “Knight Rider”). They sang the delightful title track over the opening credits. James Darren also had a crack at it in the beach shack. The Four Preps added “Cinderella” and Darren the excellent “The Next Best Thing to Love”. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” was a snappy song done well by Darren and in an instrumental version by Duane Eddy.
The small screen featured several incarnations of “Gidget”, however none of the actresses chosen to play the role are notable in any way; except the fact that they once played Gidget. Television’s first Gidget, however, was played by fresh-faced, 18-year-old Sally Field. The series is delightful and features many changes from the films. The series begins where the first film left off: Moondoggie is heading back to Princeton and Gidget is sweating the thought of their separation. The differences between series and films are many. First off, Moondoggie (played blandly by Stephen Mines) does not feature in the events of the series. Also, suddenly Gidget’s mom has died and Professor Lawrence is raising Gidget on his own. Gidget’s sister and her husband are always throwing in their two cents where Gidget’s rearing is concerned. Gidget’s best friend, Larue, plays Ethel to Gidget’s Lucy. It’s interesting to watch the show and see that a lot of it revolves around how father and daughter relate to each. Their relationship is clearly defined and it’s charming to see how they love each other and form a partnership and navigate adolescence. I have to think that this abbreviated family was a rare depiction on television of the day. The most significant thing about the series is this: here we have a character who is synonymous with a beach lifestyle and the freedom that comes with summer but we’re seeing her IN SCHOOL. The “Gidget” series serves as a bridge between the frivolity of the “beach party” movies and real life: school, homework, week nights. With the series we get that great post-Labour Day salve. We’re all back to school and so is Gidget. Bottom line: Sally Field is effervescent and delightful to watch. The show did poorly in its first season but began to pick up and showed a big following with summer reruns. The network, however, had already cancelled it and that was that.
Gidget as ‘phenomenon’ has been with us for almost 60 years. It’s cool, by the way, that the word ‘gidget’ was simply invented by a bunch of regular joes hanging out at the beach. “Gidget” has come to refer to any light, bouncy and young beach girl. It’s used as the name of a cute camper trailer and some girl rocker. Gidget is also a feminist icon. Women might disagree owing to her perceived airheadedness. But Gidget was a vivacious young woman who took life by the horns, had a positive attitude and was sure there was nothing she couldn’t do. She had unapologetic fun and endeavored to help those around her. Not to mention the obvious fact that she was a proponent of athleticism and an outdoor lifestyle. Coolest of all though is that it’s a homegrown phenomenon. Kathy Kohner Zuckerman was a real girl, nicknamed by friends, immortalized in her father’s book. Novels, films, television, cultural phenomenon, feminist icon, cutie. Quite a girl.