Monthly Archives: January 2009

The War of the Roses

Boys and girls singing duets: not a new thing. You can probably trace an unbroken line from show tunes like “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” (1937’s On the Avenue) and “Do I Hear You Saying” (1928’s Present Arms!) backwards to 17th or 18th Century opera; Pamina and Papageno in The Magic Flute or Nero and Poppea in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.

A “Hey Paula” benefits from the same thing that made a “No Two People” special a few decades earlier. Chemistry, namely – the warmth and harmonics of the male and female voice added together, the sweet frisson of flirtation.

The ‘50s and ‘60s were golden decades for male-female duets in all different quarters – pop, folk, R&B;, country, even jazz (think “Girl from Ipanema”). There are plenty of enduring examples: Louis Prima & Keely Smith’s “That Old Black Magic,” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” – “I Got You Babe,” of course. They captured the male-female thing in its carefree or deeply inspiring moments. Even the ribbing of Otis Redding & Carla Thomas’s “Tramp” or Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “Jackson” is affection in the guise of mere sauciness.

And there’s your problem: love is not all sunshine and strawberries. For every ten “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”’s, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recorded only one “Give In You Just Can’t Win,” a wildly implausible ratio in the scope of romantic dalliance.

To that there would always be country music, where the brokenhearted were part of the genre’s biological fabric. Kitty Wells & Roy Drusky’s “I Can’t Tell My Heart That,” Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton’s “Holding on to Nothing,” Dottie West & Kenny Rogers’s “Two Fools Collide,” George Jones & Tammy Wynette’s “Cryin’ Time.” Believe me, the list is endless. You cry in your beer, the jukebox keeps on playing, things get worked out.

But if those wistful, grown-up discussions seem a bit old-fashioned in their restraint, then this week’s selections offer something more in the way of epithet-screaming catharsis. These spread the bitterness all around, verse by combative verse, with the raw sound to match. This phenomenon – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style combat – would be pretty limited, unfortunately. But how could it not be? It was sort of like sitting at a table with a bickering couple, one just tries to stay out of the crossfire.

Time to reopen some old wounds.

1. Bud & Kathy, Hang It Out to Dry (Downey)
A mystery duo, Bud & Kathy recorded “Hang It Out to Dry” for the Los Angeles-based Downey Records.

Downey Records embodied all that is great about local, independent labels. Begun in the early ‘60s by Bill Wenzel and son Jack in Downey, California, the label took root in Wenzel’s Music Town record store. Downey would release a number of great instrumental 45s, including the Rumblers’ “Boss” and the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” two definitive early ‘60s Southern California surf hits. By 1965, the Wenzels transitioned to briefly take advantage of the suburban garage band phenomenon, issuing 45s by the Sunday Group, the Last Word and the Barracudas before shutting down the operation in 1967.

Among those releases would be this great raver from 1966, written by Pat McGowan, the man behind Pat and the Californians’ “Be Billy,” an earlier Downey release. Kathy is thrilling here, her voice an icy-cool dagger of reason. Bud is… being Bud. You have to love the basic conceit of “Hang It Out to Dry,” though. It’s not like there aren’t easier ways to tell off your lover, but sometimes only duet form will do.

2. Jon & Robin, You Don’t Care (Abnak)
Texas duo Jon & Robin were John Howard Abdnor Jr. and Javonne (Robin) Braga.

In the early 1960s, Abdnor’s father, Dallas businessman-turned-record-baron John Abdnor, Sr., started Abnak Records, a label that would earn its greatest national notice with some sterling rock 45s by the Five Americans, including “Western Union.”

Abnak’s initial 45 releases mostly indulged Jon Abdnor Jr.’s own songwriting and performing ambitions. The label would expand to accommodate favorite sons the Five Americans, and would add the R&B-oriented; Jetstar Records subsidiary, too. And Abdnor would continue recording: from the teen pop of his first 45 to the country-rock and strange psychedelia of 1969’s Intro to Change LP, Abdnor’s series of records encompassed the entire Abnak timeline, if not the general arc of ‘60s pop.

But Abdnor’s best, and best remembered, records were with local teenager Javonne Braga, henceforth known as “Robin” (to fulfill the lingering obligations of the duo’s original female half, a vocalist named Robin). As a duo, Jon & Robin would have a run of interesting pop records for Abnak between 1965 and 1969. In a strictly ‘60s pop sort of way, their dozen 45s and two LPs were nothing if not eclectic, incorporating folk-rock, soul and AM radio stylings with a pleasant, vaguely Southern aesthetic. This would include their crowning achievement from 1967. “Do It Again A Little Bit Slower” was Jon & Robin capitalizing on the gimmick of Sonny & Cher. Neither were particularly telegenic, but the song’s charm was enough to make it a sizeable pop hit.

Jon & Robin’s second album, Elastic Event. Thanks to Strider’s Journal for the image.

Jon & Robin also tried out other styles, dabbling in the more aggressive tones of the garage band sound. There would be the jangly, “Gloria”-influenced “Love Me Baby.” And th
ere was this selection, also from 1967, a laundry list of grievances set to a pounding beat. Minus the white lip-gloss all over the microphone, every relationship will have its “You Don’t Care” moments.

Jon & Robin’s productions were polished, their performances – backed often by the Five Americans – excellent, and their songs occasionally great, especially material written by Wayne Carson Thompson (author of the Boxtops’ “The Letter”). But, even if their voices were better, without the momentous melodic hooks or Los Angeles industry connections, they never quite escaped the “regional act” taint. Plus they just looked so tragic in their psychedelic duds. Jon & Robin would release more good records together – and some apart, too, singing solo – but only with middling success.

The Abnak label itself folded in 1971. Robin reportedly married Five Americans drummer Jimmy Wright, and seems to have retired from music. Jon, sadly bedeviled by bouts of mental illness, was convicted in the murder of his girlfriend in the early ‘70s.

3. The Gas Company, Get Out of My Life (Reprise)
The Gas Company was the vehicle of Los Angeles songwriter Greg Dempsey and his longtime collaborator, Kathy Yesse.

Greg Dempsey’s first credits turn up in 1965. There were a few independent songwriting credits: Los Angeles garage band the Purple Gang recorded his “I Know What I Am,” for instance. Dempsey also produced an obscure 45 by Junior Markham & the Tulsa Review, an R&B-oriented; group of studio musicians that included the young Leon Russell and Levon Helm.

In 1965 Dempsey would also join forces with the brilliant Jack Nitzsche, a Los Angeles studio wizard with a gift for dramatic arrangements and productions. This partnership would spawn a few co-authorship credits over the next year or two, including P.J. Proby’s “Sweet Summer Wine” and Don & the Goodtimes’ “I Could Be So Good For You.”

More to the point, Nitzsche would also produce several 45s by Dempsey’s group the Gas Company. The group’s roster featured more session musicians – guitarist Ken Bloom, bassist (and future Crazy Horse guitarist) Greg Leroy, drummer Gary Greene – suggesting a studio project rather than a working band. Either way, the Gas Company’s four singles records between 1965 and 1967 were commercial California pop and folk-rock, and were neither successful nor, this selection aside, especially noteworthy. Nor is Nitzsche’s involvement here necessarily a measure of success: he had a hand in a prodigious number of ‘60s pop sides, many of them quite obscure. Still, these activities give one a sense of Dempsey’s milieu.

Even less, or no, information about the early career of Kathy Yesse exists. Yesse sang with Dempsey on all of the Gas Company’s output, including 1966’s “Get Out of My Life,” the third and best of four singles. The accompaniment here is mid-‘60s Los Angeles folk-rock to the bone, if deceptively cheery, considering the song does not mince its words, except to rhyme them.

Dempsey and Yesse would continue to record into the mid-‘70s, sporadically but nearly always together. One of these efforts was quite memorable: a 1968 album of baroque psychedelia as the Daughters of Albion (again, basically a studio project), now a minor cult collector’s item. Others, like Kathy Yesse’s 1973 album Amazing (credited to her as Kathy Dalton), have not held up as well. Except for a few appearances by Yesse as a background singer on a some obscure Van Dykes Parks dates in the ’80s, the duo since seems to have largely settled for obscurity.

Posted in Garage Bands | 4 Comments

Cool, man, cool

These selections are noteworthy not only for their curio factor, but also for their contributions to the same aesthetic that made Cozy Cole’s “Topsy” (hear excerpt here) and the Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” popular. They seem to speak the same Lonelyville argot, conjuring clichés and swirling them about in a cocktail of inflamed passions, bongos and street smarts.

West Side Story and Mike Hammer and The Nervous Set was post-War America besotted with the image of the city as alternately dangerous, bohemian and craaaazy. Certain subcultures suited this image more colorfully than others, and pop culture would be right there, ready to fire the suburban imagination with a confusion of stereotypes and garbled slang. Nowhere did pop culture’s various creations – its jazz musicians, its detectives and underworld types, its juvenile delinquents, its beatniks, especially its beatniks – turn up more mangled and mixed than in popular music. From the jazz-punctuated chases of Johnny Staccato and Perry Como ridiculously crooning “Like, Young” to the gangland theater of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” it was a good time to be a cliché.

If they didn’t satisfy some deeper level of middle class fantasy, then the macho action and sexual license were all still pretty exciting at least. Which is not to say hard-boiled detectives were mere invention or that there wasn’t anything by way of “authentic” poetry readings or recreational drug use in certain quarters – there was. But realism was plainly not why viewers turned to Peter Gunn every week. Allen Ginsberg wrote in editorials and spoke on radio, defending his cohort against the insult of the term “beatnik.” To which the Life magazine readers of America distinctly answered: less “Howl,” more “Kookie’s Mad Pad,” please.

This week: little authenticity, plenty of fantasy. These three achieve a sort of hat-trick by offering no fantasies specifically, yet many fantasies all at once, and vaguely. Sometimes you can be all things to all people.

1. Fleet & Freddy, Pad (Protone)
Fleet & Freddy were Fleet Tomlinson and Freddy Countryman.

Fleet Tomlinson had a forgotten 45, “Bumping Knees,” on Los Angeles indie label Arlen. He also produced, wrote and played on Bobby Hicks’s rocker “Hassle It Jack,” a 1958 single on the hip Skyway label. Freddy Countryman – a guitarist, I believe – had a handful of early ‘60s rockin’ country numbers and twangy guitar instrumentals on yet another tiny Los Angeles label, Western Electronic Divisions.

So what happens when two aspiring spirits on the fringes of the record industry knock heads?

1959’s “Pad” clearly never set out to be any sort of pop masterpiece. Nor, sadly, did it have much of the bounce of popular contemporaries like “Tequila” or “Topsy,” instrumental hits with commercial appeal and, of all things, drums. “Pad” was just too weird. But there is something beautiful about the way juvenile delinquency, slang, drugs, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll – all the sideshow clichés of the beatnik craze – are woven together so deftly.

As if trying to prove the limitations of the concept, there are actually three different recordings of “Pad.” Fleet & Freddy’s is less manic than the Bobby Summer’s original version (hear excerpt here), by far the most popular – to misuse the word – version, which came out earlier that year on Capitol Records. Fleet & Freddy’s version was also more atmospheric than the song’s third and final incarnation (hear excerpt here) by Fritz & Jerry on Los Angeles’s RIP Records.

Fleet & Freddy had one more record together, 1961’s “Drag Race Boogie,” again on Arlen.

2. The Madmen of Note, Peppermint Fink (Ra-O)
Appleton, Wisconsin. Plattsburgh, New York. Albuquerque. Wherever. Wherever there were towns and hinterland cities and teenage abandon – that is where the sound of regional rock ‘n’ roll of the late ‘50s and pre-British Invasion ’60s will take shape. There will be armory halls to be rented cheaply, bands in matching suits every Saturday night, teenagers to dance.

The Pacific Northwest had its network in these transitional years – the record shops, recording studios and teen dances from Portland to Pullman. It had the sympathetic DJs, small-time record label owners, producers and entrepreneurs – all the teen scene prerequisites. If only the Kingsmen, the Raiders and, to a lesser extent, Tacoma’s Wailers (with 1959’s “Tall Cool One”) ever enjoyed much in the way of national chart success, the region in its time was a paradise garden of rock ‘n’ roll combos, teeming with cheap guitars and overdriven amplifiers. Bands like the Wailers, Dynamics, Viceroys and Galaxies defined the sensibility: raucous instrumentals, ballads and shouting R&B-edged; party numbers.

Except for sometimes being racially integrated, it must be pointed out here that there was nothing unique about the Northwestern combo itself. Rather, it’s just that the Pacific Northwest was the most cohesive and crazily fertile of all the regional scenes of the transitional era. This would eventually change with psychedelia and the new infrastructure of Rock.

Before that, though – before the British Invasion, even – there were the Madmen of Note, one of hundreds of groups breaking strings across the region’s dancehalls and ballrooms. On pape
r, other Seattle-area 45s like the Exotics’ “Oasis” or the Night Peoples’ “Zazerac” promised hip exotica but had a way of winding up closer to “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” or “Night Train.” A peppermint fink sounds like some Doctor Seuss phantasm, but this 1963 selection is the real thing, a booming drama somewhere between striptease grind and Middle Eastern raqs.


The Madmen of Note, live. George Lind, Elliot Wakefield, Bob Delgato, Charlie Johnson, Larry Evans. (Photo from Pacific Northwest Bands.)

Consisting at various times of Robert Delgado (drums), Larry Evans (keyboards), Charlie Johnson (bass), George Lind (guitar), David Raby (guitar and organ), Ken Raby (bass), and Elliott Wakefield (saxophone and vibraphone), the Madmen of Note hailed from Lake Stevens, just north of Seattle. All in their late teens, they played local clubs in the early ‘60s, and recorded this one exceptional 45. As was typical of the age, many of the Madmen’s members played with other area groups. Additionally, both “Peppermint Fink” and its flipside “Club 21” were co-written by saxophonist Ray Guyll, who played in Lake Stevens compatriots the Cherchers.

Nowhere is early ‘60s Pacific Northwest rock ‘n’ roll documented better than Norton’s Northwest Killers series. Thanks also to Pacific Northwest Bands for the Madmen of Note information.

3. The Rockbusters, Tough Chick (Cadence)
Soundtrack composer and “Barry” of the Tamerlanes, Barry De Vorzon was born in New York City in 1934. Like his parents, De Vorzon was musically inclined; his family moved to California, and there, De Vorzon, clearly taken with the allure of pop music success, set about finding it.

De Vorzon was first, though not necessarily foremost, a pop singer. He released a few teen-oriented 45s in the late ‘50s, a fairly short-lived arc that hit paydirt in 1963 with “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight,” by Barry and the Tamerlanes, the group he’d assembled with songwriting partners Bodie Chandler and Terry Smith.

It would be songwriting and music publishing that proved the more durable line for De Vorzon. Initially his royalties owed more to songwriting – Marty Robbins and Johnny Burnette squeezed minor hits out of his “Just Married” (’58) and “Dreamin’” (’60) – than to musical compositions, which were not unqualified successes. In late 1958, De Vorzon, operating under the nom de plume John Buck and the Blazers, released the “Forbidden City” instrumental 45 on New York City’s Cadence Records. “Forbidden City” (hear excerpt here) was especially hip, but its release on Cadence – as well as its inexplicable re-release a few months later on Warner Brothers – failed to arouse any interest. (Except in Germany, where flipside “Chi Chi” was a fluke hit – another story altogether.)

Which brings us to 1959’s “Tough Chick.” The Rockbusters’ sole release, it was released six months after “Forbidden City” and another twelve hours before it went out of print. Certain clues suggest that the Rockbusters and John Buck and the Blazers are the same. “Tough Chick” appeared on Cadence Records, and, moreover, it was another De Vorzon composition. Not to mention the atmospherics of both.

But De Vorzon had bigger fish to fry. Since 1960, he and partner Billy Sherman had run Valiant Records, a Los Angeles label with a string of hits running from the pre-Beatles era – Shelby Flint (“Angel on My Shoulder”), the Cascades (“Rhythm of the Rain”), and, of course, Barry and the Tamerlanes – to the Association’s sunshine pop to some nifty garage band and psychedelic records.

Ever the prolific songwriter, De Vorzon’s career solidified in the late ‘60s with his film and television music credits. Among them would be the films Xanadu and Private Benjamin and the themes for television’s S.W.A.T., Rolling Thunder and Simon & Simon. One tune, “Cotton’s Theme” (originally heard in Bless the Beasts and Children), was re-recorded as “Nadia’s Theme,” the eternal opener of The Young and the Restless.

De Vorzon also scored cult soundtracks like 1970’s R.P.M. and 1979’s The Warriors. So often with career music-types, their most interesting work is clustered near the beginning. This was the case with De Vorzon: deadly and deliberate, “Tough Chick” came before all the nutty impulses were quashed by record industry protocol and life’s little details, like earning a living.

De Vorzon has won a total of six daytime Emmys for his music for soap operas Another World and Guiding Light, and one Grammy (Best Instrumental Arrangement) for “Nadia’s Theme.”

Posted in Instrumentals/Surf | 9 Comments