Monthly Archives: May 2011

I owe it all to the 45rpm record

Office Naps is officially five years old.

Office Naps is five years old

Office Naps is five years old this week. Thanks to foxgrrl's flickr stream for the photo.

Thank you, dear reader, for all of your support, stories and positive feedback over the years!

Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam, Personal natter | 8 Comments

Beyond Boettcher

Curt Boettcher, ‘60s wunderkind producer and arranger, has gotten some attention at Office Naps before.  The creative force who infused songs like the Association’s “Cherish” and Eternity’s Children’s “Mrs. Bluebird” with echt-Aquarian sensibilities, Boettcher played no small role in the southern Californian psychedelic sunshine sound, making, at his best, some transcendent pop along the way.

This week we look at three more examples of the ’67-’68-era sunshine pop phenomenon, gathered together not because they’re obscure or rare – and they’re neither – but because they so strongly reflect the Curt Boettcher aesthetic.

It’s not as if the musicians, arrangers, producers and engineers behind these particular selections were analyzing Boettcher’s handiwork with any particular fervor.  There would have been awareness, though, of Boettcher – or Boettcher’s successful productions – everywhere within the pop industry at the time; these selections are exemplary rather than merely derivative.

This was music forged and realized in the studios – a front line of skilled musicians, singers, songwriters and creative types supported by a cadre of session talent and commercially-minded, if forward-thinking, arrangers, producers and engineers with a bank of technologically advanced equipment at their disposal.

That so much of the same studio talent would have been involved in so many of the era’s psychedelic pop productions ascribes some sense of uniformity across the board, perhaps again misrepresenting the extent of Boettcher’s direct influence.  But Boettcher’s work was so much on the cutting edge of pop for a year or two that, just to make a certain type of radio-friendly, harmony-and-sunshine-soaked music was, inevitably, to be synonymous with the Curt Boettcher sound.

The Collection, Both Sides Now (The Hot Biscuit Company P-1455)1.  The Collection, Both Sides Now (The Hot Biscuit Company P-1455)
There are several different music industry forces at work here.

“Both Sides Now” is an early Joni Mitchell composition.  Though at this point essentially unrecorded, Mitchell’s reputation was already widespread due to high-profile versions of her songs and some terrific word-of-mouth publicity.  This blissful version of “Both Sides Now” would have been recorded and released sometime in early 1968, shortly after Judy Collins’s popular version.  (Mitchell herself wouldn’t release a version of the song until her 1969 album Clouds.)

Ensconced in the ‘60s New York City music industry, the team of Charles Koppelman and Don Rubin added, in 1967, record label operation to their various pop publishing, management and production concerns.  Their Hot Biscuit Disc Company Records (as well as the We Make Rock and Roll Records label – see below) would be a brief-lived quasi-independent subsidiary distributed by Capitol Records.  A relatively small number of rock, pop, R&B and soul recordings were released by these labels over the next year or two, none very successful, though many notable New York City-based songwriters and session musicians were enlisted, including – and remember this name – Eddie Simon.

His claim to fame as an early promoter of the Woodstock Festival notwithstanding, Artie Kornfeld, given the producer credit here, was in his mid-twenties and already working at Capitol Records under the honorific “Vice President of Rock Music” at the time of this selection’s release.   His portfolio of various production and songwriting co-credits notably included work for Jan & Dean (“Deadman’s Curve”), Crispian St. Peters (“Pied Piper”) and the Cowsills (“The Rain, The Park, and Other Things”), along with various pop titles for groups like the Shirelles and Tokens.

Finally, there is Jimmy Wisner, who, as arranger, probably had the most direct involvement in the sound of this recording.  Wisner got his start as a Philadelphia-based jazz pianist, but, following his fluke 1961 instrumental hit “Asia Minor” (recorded under the alias “Kokomo”), found greater commercial success as a composer, producer, arranger, songwriter and label operator.  Among his countless credits, Wisner had a hand in big hits by Tommy James & the Shondells (“I Think We’re Alone Now”), Len Barry (“1-2-3″), Miriam Makeba (“Pata Pata”), Alive ‘n Kicking (“Tighter and Tighter”), Jay and the Techniques (“Keep the Ball Rolling”), Spanky and Our Gang (“Lazy Day”) and, with Kornfeld, the Cowsills (“The Rain, The Park, and Other Things”).  Later a house producer and A&R executive at Columbia Records, Wisner tended towards a big, sophisticated, pop-oriented sensibility.  Though you wouldn’t guess that here.

This 45 is an interesting study.  It is characterized by many Boettcher trademarks – fanciful imagery, lighter-than-air, almost androgynous vocals, chiming, echo-y production and an unnervingly child-like quality.

It was also the comparatively rare sunshine pop 45 that was not produced in southern California.

Finally, nowhere am I able to detect even the faintest pretense of a real group.  The record’s convergence of established and emerging industry players leaves hardly any room for such.   It goes without saying that wholly studio-bound projects have long been a staple of popular music, but only rarely – after psychedelic pop’s late ’60s zenith -would they ever be so consistently artistically successful again.

The Parade, This Old Melody (A&M 841)2.  The Parade, This Old Melody (A&M 841)
A trio at their core, the Los Angeles-based Parade was composed of aspiring singer-songwriters and actors Murray MacLeod and Allen “Smokey” Roberds along with the young Los Angeles arranger, producer and composer Jerry Riopelle.

MacLeod – known, at least amongst fans of California sunshine pop, for his concurrent role in Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends – and Roberds were already working together as a commercial songwriting team when they met Jerry Riopelle.  Riopelle, previously a session musician and Screen Gems staff songwriter, was working at the time in the unenviable position as a producer for Phil Spector.

The Parade's Sunshine Girl: The Complete Recordings, available on Rev-Ola/Now Sounds

The Parade. From the cover of Rev-Ola/Now Sounds's definitive (and highly-recommended) Parade anthology.

The Parade were very much a real group in the sense of working and forging music together as a unit.  If they get a perhaps too much credit for defining sunshine pop – like the Sunshine Company, Yellow Balloon or Love Generation, they would have comprised part of the second wave of such Los Angeles groups after the Association or the Mamas and the Papas –the core trio was nonetheless comprised of genuinely good songwriters and musicians.   (Separately and together they helped pen songs for the Clique, the Electric Prunes, Davy Jones, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the American Breed, the Forum and Al Martino, among others.)

Dreamy, slightly folky, with layers and layers of harmony and hooks, “This Old Melody” would be the first, darkest and best of the group’s six different 45s.  (It would also feature a songwriting assist from group friend and contributor Stu Margolin.)  All originals, the Parade’s sides were released in quick succession in 1967 and ’68.  Backed by Los Angeles session elite, they tended towards the soft and sophisticated end of the ‘60s pop spectrum.  This 45’s a-side, the cheerier “Sunshine Girl,” was more representative of the Parade’s discography, and was a good seller, too, making it to number twenty on the national pop charts in 1967.

The Parade dissolved in 1968, its three members going on to interesting, sometimes intersecting, careers, music-related and otherwise.   Incidentally, in 1970, Roberds would be the first (as Freddie Allen) to record Paul Williams and Roger Nichols’s “We’ve Only Just Begun,” for White Whale Records, a song that, in the Carpenters’ hands, would become a mega-hit a few months later.

The always-reliable UK-based Now Sounds (part of Rev-Ola Records) compiled the definitive Parade collection a few years back.  A highly-recommended investment.

The Guild Light Gauge, Cloudy (We Make Rock ‘n Roll Records P-1600)3.  The Guild Light Gauge, Cloudy (We Make Rock ‘n Roll Records P-1600)
The Guild Light Gauge involved many of the same parties involved with the Collection 45 above – Artie Kornfeld, the Koppelman-Rubin team and the label itself – the awkwardly-named “We Make Rock ‘n Roll Records” – sister to the Hot Biscuit Disc Company.

But the Guild Light Gauge, led by one Eddie Simon, was closer to a real, working entity.

Eddie Simon is Paul Simon’s younger brother.  Their relationship obviously factored into the choice of “Cloudy,” one of several mid-‘60s gems originally co-written by Paul and Australian songwriter Bruce Woodley.

The Guild Light Gauge’s version of “Cloudy” was released in May of 1968.  Featuring Simon’s delicate guitar – he was the superior player of the brothers, by all accounts – and some otherworldly mixed harmonies, it’s a similar but slightly trippier arrangement than the original version of “Cloudy” that appeared on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon & Garfunkel’s third album from 1966.

Eddie and Paul Simon

Brothers Eddie (left) and Paul Simon (right) making a 1968 television appearance together.

Eddie Simon would only step from behind-the-scenes a few other times in his career. At this point, there’d already been an early ‘60s teen pop 45 – the surf-inspired “Beach Boy.”  Later, in 1969, as one half of the duo Crib and Ben, he’d record the gorgeous Simon & Garfunkel-styled “Emily” with Paul Gelber for Decca Records.  (Incidentally, Simon and Gelber would be listed as executive producers on Canadian singer Terry Black’s strange 1969 psychedelic album, An Eye For an Ear.)

There are other scattered songwriting and session co-credits to Eddie Simon’s name, especially during the ‘60s, as well as appearances over the years backing his brother, but Eddie Simon is perhaps chiefly known as one of the founders of, and teachers at, Manhattan’s Guitar Study Center, which closed its doors only a few years ago.

Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 3 Comments

Primitiva

Some raw, wild instrumental combo rock ‘n’ roll from the late ‘50s this week. Contemporaries, these three selections embody the type of sound that would keep rock ‘n’ roll vital and interesting before the British Invasion.

While there’s no highly specific theme to otherwise link them, there are some shared sensibilities here.  Hovering about them is a vaguely Latin tinge, the kind that rock ‘n’ roll instrumentalists like the Champs and Preston Epps would mine with great success in the late’ 50s and early ‘60s.  There is, too, a wonderfully overdriven sound that owes something to the fearless guitar riffs of Link Wray and Bo Diddley.

Moreover, there’s a healthy dash of bongo-rattling exoticism.  It’s a great illustration of a phenomenon that gets a lot ink here at Office Naps and the Exotica Project: Namely, how some idea of the exotic – even if expressed in song title alone – gave license to groups like these to push the instrumental rock ‘n’ roll form into ever darker, weirder, more daring territory.

Marty Wyler and his Quartet, Chalypso No. 8 (Planet X 9623)1.  Marty Wyler and his Quartet, Chalypso No. 8 (Planet X 9623)
Marty Wyler and his Quartet were a New York City-based group, their “Chalypso No. 8” recorded in late 1957 or early 1958.  It would be among a handful of interesting 45s issued by the short-lived Planet X Records, a label that also released, in quick succession, Bernie Moore’s “Rock Guitar, Rock” and “It Takes Two,” a rare R&B vocal group side by Henry Sawyer and the Jupiters.

An October 1958 issue of Billboard connects Marty Wyler to Holland Records, another tiny New York City label with a small discography divided between rock ‘n’ roll and vocal group R&B.   But all other leads dry up early on with Marty Wyler and company.

This is Rock ‘n’ Roll 101.  Even at this early stage, the chord changes are breaking no new ground, and a thousand other instrumentals would follow the same essential formula.  But few would do it so well.  Lean, mean, all attitude, biting guitar and torrid, squealing saxophone, “Chalypso No. 8” exemplifies what makes a lot of early rock ‘n’ roll so brilliant.  It wasn’t necessarily what you did, but how you did it.

Gene Sikora & The Irrationals, Tanganyika (Coin 45-1506)2.  Gene Sikora & The Irrationals, Tanganyika (Coin 45-1506)
Milwaukee-based guitarist Gene Sikora is arguably the best-known of this week’s three artists.

Born in 1932, Sikora’s work seems to have happened largely behind-the-scenes, and not as your typical rock ‘n’ roller.   In addition to work as a guitar instructor, Sikora would play for a time with accordionist, polka maestro and Milwaukee institution Louis Bashell.

Sikora cut loose in 1959 with two churning, highly original solo 45s, both recorded by Chicago-based promoter and producer Paul Geallis and released on Frank McNulty’s Coin Records.  (In its time Coin Records would also feature some good teen pop and rock ‘n’ roll releases by Sonny Williams, Clyde Bowie and Marv Manning.)

An exoticized, percussive, noisy workout, “Tanganyika” was the first of Sikora’s Coin 45s.  Sikora’s follow-up 45 – “Non Comprendo” (and “Mystery,” its flipside) – is similar in style, his sleek guitar sound a bit reminiscent of a Chet Atkins or Nicky Roberts at their most electric and echo-drenched.

Sikora would resurface as a solo recording artist in the early ‘70s with two more 45s, both – the instrumental “Green Bay Picker” in particular – reflecting a slightly-updated version of the gorgeous style observed on his late ‘50s sides.

Thanks to Gary Myers’s On That Wisconsin Beat and Dominic Welhouse for the information.

The 4 El-Moroccos, To-bango (Alton 500-A)3.  The 4 El-Moroccos, To-bango (Alton 500-A)
Another group that seems to have come and gone without a trace, the mysterious 4 El-Moroccos unleashed this wild instrumental upon the world in July of 1959.

The salient detail here is that both “To-bango” and its flipside “El Mambo Cha Cha” were recorded under the aegis of one Julius Dixson.

Dixson got his start as a deejay but is better known as a prolific and versatile New York City-based commercial songwriter.   Among his dozens of songs placed with various aspiring vocal groups and teen singers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number would become pop or R&B hits, including 1955’s “Dim, Dim the Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)” for Bill Haley and the Comets, 1957’s “It Hurts to Be in Love” for Annie Laurie and ”Begging, Begging” for James Brown and, biggest of all, 1958’s “Lollipop” for the Chordettes.

The seemingly tireless Dixson also owned and operated several small independent record labels devoted to teen rock ‘n’ roll and commercial R&B, including Deb Records and Alton Records.   Among Alton’s discography was a sizeable hit – 1959’s “The Clouds” by the Spacemen.   The fact that the “The Clouds,” not to mention several follow-up instrumentals by the Spacemen and the Skyscrapers (another Dixson session group), was a studio-only affair leads me to believe that the 4 El-Moroccos may have been the same – that is, a Dixson project comprised of for-hire New York City musicians.

None of this detracts from the “To-bango” experience, of course, which doesn’t so much rock as swagger.  Primitive, clanging, this is where the rock ‘n’ roll instrumental stood before its final incarnation and creative peak as surf music.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf | 6 Comments

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