It’s possible, as Joseph Lanza did in his Vanilla Pop: Sweet Sounds From Frankie Avalon to ABBA, to trace an unbroken lineage of effervescent vocals from the Four Lads all the way to ABBA, counting groups like the Chordettes, the Lettermen, the Fleetwoods, Chad & Jeremy, the Sandpipers and the Carpenters along the way. Lanza argued, convincingly so, for such artists’ place along a vanilla continuum of smooth, ethereal studio pop.
It’s pretty easy to dismiss unapologetically clean-cut harmoneers like the Lettermen. Uptempo choral fare like 1971’s “Everything Is Good About You” seems as square now as it did at the time. More than just their soothing qualities and easy palatability, such groups understood the potency of vocal harmonies, though. The same crew, for instance, might deliver something at a slower tempo, and there the effect of the Lettermen was entirely different. A ballad like 1966’s “Our Winter Love” (hear excerpt here) is hypnotic and transcendent. With a sympathetic engineer and a narcotic cascade of studio echo, groups from the Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes For You,” excerpt here) and the Association (“Never My Love,” excerpt here) to the Anita Kerr Singers (“Forever,” excerpt here) could transform dog-eared ballads.
This is one of the unappreciated beauties of harmony-pop: it can be pure Valium. Harmony-pop summoned twilight reverie and wistful romantic fantasia for the hi-fi escapist. The fact is that this week’s artistes didn’t have to strive to sound like drugs. They already sounded like drugs.
1. The Ultra Mates, Pitter Patter (CRC Charter)
A dirge tempo, eerie female harmonies and cavernous echo evoke dark nights of serious teen melodrama. The cold rain never felt so warm and inviting.
What can be said of Ultra Mates? They were in reality a group comprised of for-hire female session singers – Darlene Love, Jean King and Fanita James – singers who’d also record together occasionally as the Blossoms. (Jean King would enjoy a solo career in the ’60s as well.) Recorded at Gold Star Studios in 1963, where Phil Spector realized his finest work, it’s King providing the lead voice on this atmospheric and pre-psychedelic relic. The songwriter here is likely the same Debbie Stanley responsible for another obscure girl-pop confection, 1964’s “Gary’s My Love” (with “It’s Him I Wanna Go With Mama” on the flipside).
CRC Charter Records was around for a few blips in the early ‘60s. A West Coast subsidiary of MGM Records, the label existed long enough for one hit, Johnny Beecher’s nocturnal instrumental “Sax Fifth Avenue.”
2. Mercy, Love (Can Make You Happy) (Sundi)
The Mercy saga began with a group assembled by Jack Sigler, Jr., who wrote this selection as a high school student in Tampa Bay, Florida.
The group’s biggest hit, “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was ultimately released in two different versions. The first version – this version – was recorded and released in 1968 on Sundi Records, a label run by Florida impresario Gil Cabot. At some point in their story, however, Mercy would attract the notice of the powerhouse label Warner Brothers, who signed Sigler and company on for a full-length album (1969’s Forever) while simultaneously releasing a remastered “Love (Can Make You Happy)” for 45 release. A somewhat ill-advised move on Warner Brothers’ behalf, perhaps, but both versions of the song proved popular, their cumulative sales landing Mercy the number two slot for a week on 1969’s pop charts.
Vying record labels meant that the band that toured as Mercy in the late ‘60s was not necessarily the same crew who recorded as Mercy, however. Furthermore, Gil Cabot, eager to seize upon the fame of his recently departed charges, rushed out a competing album attributed to Mercy (The Mercy and Love Can Make You Happy) that was comprised of cover versions, Jack Sigler demos and various odds and ends.
Mercy’s story, though complicated, was certainly not atypical in the exploitative tumult of the ’60s entertainment business. Nor was “Love (Can Make You Happy)” atypical of harmony-pop in general, and it’s impossible here to resist comparing it to another sunrise meditation, the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.”. Both songs bubble with sensuality and hypnotic instrumentation.
3. The Shannons, Mister Sunshine Man (L&M)
Little is known about the Shannons, who released this confection around 1968. From its warm ripples of harmonies and tremolo guitars down to its dazzlingly naïve lyrics and vaguely Baroque touch of the harpsichord, “Mister Sunshine Man” is pure California sunshine pop.
Undoubtedly from Los Angeles, the Shannons’ “Mister Sunshine Man” was written by Johnny Cole, an obscure studio songwriter who also penned songs for the Sound Sandwich, a California psychedelic group (who also covered “Mister Sunshine Man” in 1968, incidentally)