Heartbreak and loneliness, as topics, had already been beaten to death in teenage popular music on the eve of the British Invasion. But that wasn’t necessarily the problem. Rather, it was that heartbreak and loneliness were always so poorly and superficially conveyed. At least on the national pop charts, these were big years for throwaway commercial pop arrangements and teenage sentimentality of the most maudlin variety. Where was all the existential despair, bleakness and bad decisions?
It took a special treatment to conjure melancholy and youthful despondency effectively and attractively – to make it, in effect, cinematic again. The archetypes will always be timeless tracks like Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” Eddie Cochran’s “Dark Lonely Street” and Elvis Presley’s reading of “Blue Moon.” Good lyrics were important, of course, though not absolutely crucial. It was interpretation and, above all, the production that were paramount. “A Cheat” by Sanford Clark or “Lonely Saturday Night” by Don French are spare to the point of nothingness, slowed down to a dream-like beat, and otherworldly, almost exotic at points. This week’s selections, though performed by singers of wildly different pedigrees, all subscribe to the same basic vision in the end. Crackling with shadows and atmosphere, there is some special, serious art to their loneliness.
1. Joe Gaston and the Crew, Without You (Brass 162 B)
Likely recorded in the early ‘60s – I’d guess 1961 – in Kansas City, there’s little information to be dredged up about singer Joe Gaston, alas, or the magnificent “Without You.”
All the components are there, though. The aesthetic is redolent of some pure, lost surf instrumental ballad, the beautifully modulated echo chamber guitar and whistling conjuring solitude to great effect. Again, it’s all very cinematic – an edge-of-town-at-sundown mood. It would have sounded good coming through an AM radio.
“Without You” (and its flipside, the goofy rockin’ pop number “How Do You Know?”) seems to have been among the earliest releases for Kansas City businessman George Hodes’s Brass Records, a label that would go on to release a clutch of other country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll and instrumental releases into the ‘60s, including, most notably, an LP by folk group the Surf Riders (where future Byrd Gene Clark got his start), some cool ’64 country sides by Larry Good and Gene McKown and, a year or two later, three 45s by the Fab Four, a popular local garage band.
Incidentally, the Crew, Gaston’s backing band here, released a wild jungle exotica-type instrumental 45 (“Jaguar Hunt”) of their own around the same time on Brass Records that, speculatively, was recorded during the same session as “Without You.” Decades later, the Norton Records team also turned up an excellent acetate by the Crew for the label’s Kicksville, Vol. 2 compilation, a track that features Gaston, I believe, again on vocals.
2. Johnny Williams, Another Love (Cinema 1001)
A Texas singer and entertainer in the Gulf Coast blue-eyed soul tradition, Johnny Williams will probably always be best known for his 1965 hit version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”
Born in the early ‘40s in Baytown, Texas, Williams’s “Long Black Veil” followed a haphazard, if felicitous, route into music. He grew up on R&B, country, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll. Williams himself was a late-blooming musician, though, picking up guitar in college but quickly insinuating himself, with enviable pluck, into Austin’s early ‘60s east side R&B scene and the bands of the young Joe Tex and local favorite Blues Boy Hubbard.
Upon returning from a stint in the Air Force in 1964, Williams fell in as vocalist with the Houston-area band the Jokers, who, as serendipity would have it, found themselves recording for the infamous Huey Meaux and, even more serendipitously, soon had a hit on their hands with a swampy, R&B-laced version of the great Lefty Frizzell ballad “Long Black Veil.” A follow-up 45 and an album (with Williams and company covering of hits like “Miller’s Cave” and “The Last Letter”) was rushed out to capitalize on the single’s success.
It is Williams’s 1966 side “Another Love,” though, that stands apart as his finest effort. Penned by the Houston-based songwriting team of Jerry Wright and Larry O’Keefe, “Another Love” borrows a bit of “Long Black Veil,” taking it to some sort of hypnotic extreme in the process. The arrangement here is beautifully realized, its ghostly chorus, muffled floor toms, spare guitar work and mounds of echo a triumph of mood.
“Another Love” would also be an early, in not the earliest, release for Houston’s Cinema Records, a label behind some good psychedelic and garage band sides in the latter half of the ‘60s. Oddly enough, both sides of this 45 were re-released the same year by legendary Houston-based psychedelic label International Artists.
Johnny Williams stayed around Houston, recording sporadically – and these mostly as a country singer – with his own groups in the ‘70s. His energies would generally be directed to his role as a live performer, his ongoing association with musician-turned-club-owner Mickey Gilley making Williams a fixture in Houston-area clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Williams returned to recording music in 2005 with Johnny Williams Volume 1, an album of blues vocals.
You can read more about Johnny Williams at his website.
3. Bill Osborn, Bamboo and Rice (Camelot CS-129-A)
Bill Osborn, born William Robert Osborne in 1940, was a pop singer and songwriter, fairly well-known in the Seattle area in his time.
His handful of 45s (including this) recorded for the great local labels Seafair and Jerden were largely released under the pseudonym Billy Saint, though he’d also record as Johnny London (for the soul-inspired “Watching Over You” 45). And, of course, he’d record as Bill Osborn.
The pop sensibilities of the various Osborn sides that I’ve heard put him somewhat at odds with the Pacific Northwest’s raucous rock ‘n’ roll scene. But his penchant for penning unusual songs is also rather striking. His “Tanganyika,” for example, is pure exotica; the quasi-mystical “Who Walks in the Garden” could have been an Eden Ahbez composition; “Tear Down the Wall” features cryptic lyrics about “the other side.”
“Bamboo and Rice” is perhaps the most remarkable. A strange love song about the American war in Vietnam (or Korea or Japan, just as easily), the glacial, pseudo-martial tempo and exotic touches are nothing if not atmospheric, adding to some sense of haunted drama. The 45’s flipside – an instrumental version with local musician Doug Allen’s deep, booming guitar lines supplanting the vocals – is also highly worthwhile.
Arranged, produced and impeccably recorded by indefatigable drummer-turned-engineer Jan Kurtis for his Camelot label, “Bamboo and Rice” was released in 1966, near the tail end of Camelot’s brief-but-prolific existence.
By the ‘80s, Bill Osborn seems to have largely foregone recording for business. He passed away in 2009.