This week’s three selections represent one particular dimension of the ’60s garage band phenomenon, one that doesn’t get much attention from collectors.
These are laments. And they tended to take shape – in the form’s most effective examples, at least – in a discrete set of aural motifs. That sound is one of the reasons I love this type of plaint so much: Tempos are slow, almost glacial, vocals are doleful, resolute in their despair, extra instrumentation (e.g., guitar solos) is minimal and the levels of echo, as if to compensate, are cavernous. The sound can be quite striking.
Moreover, in their unsparing detail of emotional vicissitude – related, always, to girl troubles – these selections dig beyond the mere pathos of the average minor-key ballad into something more desperate and anti-social.
There was little chart precedent for this sort of very raw emotion. And these – not only is there something almost defiantly non-commercial about them, but, because this stuff was produced on such a limited, local basis, they’re sort of like using your high school yearbook profile to detail your various romantic travails. And that is the other reason I love this odd corner of teenage rock ‘n’ roll so much. There is great poignancy in the real, if over-the-top, vulnerability here.
1. Fantastic Dee-Jays, This Love of Ours (Sherry TR-Series Teen Sound 196)
An excellent mid-‘60s rock ‘n’ roll group popular in the Pittsburgh area, the Fantastic Dee-Jays recorded prolifically in their time before evolving into that rawest of all ‘60s garage bands, the Swamp Rats.
Formed in 1964 in McKeesport, south of Pittsburgh, the Fantastic Dee-Jays consisted at the start of teenagers Dick Newton (guitar and vocals), Tom Junecko (drums) and Denny Nicholson (guitar and vocals). Discovered early on by popular local WMCK DJ (and producer, promoter and club and label operator) Terry Lee, the Fantastic Dee-Jays would, with Lee as manager, establish themselves as a major attraction in Pittsburgh’s vibrant teen dance circuit.
“This Love of Ours,” recorded in 1965 and released on Terry Lee’s own Sherry Records imprint, was the group’s first release. An original composition, it digs deep on all fronts, pushing into stark emotional territory with a dramatic vocal, its effect increased – even as the words become somewhat difficult to understand – by its slow tempo and the extraordinary echo. “This Love of Ours” is the absolute archetype for this type of sound. (Its flipside, sadly, is a fairly dry reading of the guitar instrumental classic “Apache.” )
At this point it must be noted out that the Fantastic Dee-Jays were driven by two electric guitars and drums but no bass, an almost unheard-of configuration in its time – or ever, really. While “This Love of Ours” didn’t necessarily fit into the logic of the group’s discography – which was similarly original but more Merseybeat-oriented – all of their recorded output had an aesthetic that was instantly identifiable, a sound driven by almost experimental masses of jangle – best heard on their roaring 1966 version of the Golliwogs’ “Fight Fire.” Nor was it just the Dee-Jays pushing sonic boundaries. Terry Lee’s penchant for echo – which he applied liberally to his own broadcasts – worked its way into the Dee-Jays’ recordings, which, in turn, he helped produce in the WMCK studios.
Still, if would-be impresario Lee made for a somewhat unorthodox match, it all somehow worked, at least for a year or two. The Fantastic Dee-Jays proved popular, charting locally with their “Love Is Tuff” 45, opening for the Rolling Stones in 1966 as well as releasing a rare full-length LP, a costly investment, even with Lee’s patronage, in the era’s singles-driven marketplace for rock ‘n’ roll.
After five terrific 45s and one album, the Fantastic Dee-Jays disbanded in 1966. Drummer Bob Hocko, who had replaced Junecko as drummer that same year, would continue with Dick Newton – again, under Terry Lee’s aegis – in the Swamp Rats, a volatile group who recorded some intense punk 45s in next year-and-a-half before they too dissolved.
2. The Stairway to the Stars, Cry (Brite-Star 17910)
From 1966, and likely from eastern Ohio, little can be stated conclusively about the Stairway to the Stars or Messrs. Sollosi and Benard, except that this 45’s origins lie along some of the more fascinating margins of the commercial record industry.
Brite-Star Records, run by one Tex Clark, was a mysterious, though not atypical, label operation that worked through its “offices” in Newbury, Ohio (east of Cleveland) and Nashville. Largely in operation during the ‘60s, its discography includes a couple of weird records by fading country stars like Little Jimmy Dickens and Red Simpson, but it otherwise seemed to function as an outlet for aspiring musicians and songwriters who paid the label in exchange for some nominal promotion and distribution and, in some cases, for handling pressing and studio time. Given both the general obscurity of Brite records (as well as releases on Roy, Brite, Bryte – all labels affiliated with Tex Clark) and some vague sense of unscrupulousness about the labels, it seems unlikely that they ever did much to sell actual 45s.
It makes sense, then, that Rite Record Productions pressed this record. Based in Cincinnati, Rite Records was one of the better-known post-War custom-pressing plants. The company would inexpensively produce small batches of 45s and LPs for various artists (who often included school and church groups along with aspiring singers and groups) and entrepreneurial spirits who approached them with tapes and demo recordings.
In both cases, low barriers to entry were assumed. But, among the dozens of artless country singers and church group warblers, a lot of terrific and incredibly obscure music would see release on Rite-pressed labels such as Brite-Star.
“Cry” was most certainly among those. Here the tempo is peppier and arrangement a bit more structured, but the booming echo and general levels of despair – the baleful spoken word interlude really enhancing the drama – again have a very strong effect.
This selection’s flipside is “Dry Run,” an excellent surf-style instrumental with hints of early psychedelia and lots of fuzz guitar. A fantastic record.
3. The Jades, Till I Die (Ector DAS-101)
A popular local draw on the Fort Worth teen music circuit, the Jades – originally vocalist and guitarist Gary Carpenter, bassist Ronnie Brown, keyboardist Jack Henry, guitarist Larry Earp and drummer Alvin McCool – first came together in 1964 as high school students in the surrounding Haltom City and Richland Hills areas.
The Jades’ live reputation – in short time they’d be winning battles-of-the-bands, touring the state and opening locally for the likes of the Byrds and the Hollies – is perhaps more representative than their body of recorded work, which suffers in retrospect only because their three 45s were largely comprised of cover versions. (Like many popular local rock ‘n’ roll groups in the mid-to-late ‘60s, the Jades focused on a crowd-pleasing live repertoire rather than original compositions.)
Released in 1965, “Till I Die” is the flipside to their first 45, the better-known “I’m All Right,” a raw, energetic reading of the Rolling Stones song that, in the Jades’ hands, performed well on hipper local radio stations like KFJZ.
“Till I Die,” written and sung by guitarist Larry Earp, is wholly uncharacteristic of the Jades’ oeuvre, and I can’t imagine it saw much live performance. The dirge-like tremolo guitar, Earp’s rough-but-heartfelt vocals and, perhaps most of all, the lyric, with its profoundly macabre final verse, are all teenage lament de rigueur, though.
Two more Jades 45s – spirited versions of British Invasion-style R&B, mainly – would follow over the next year, including their third and perhaps best 45, a tough 1966 version of Them’s “Little Girl.”
Despite their considerable live reputation, the band – like many other groups who formed as teenagers – began to lose members as the ‘60s wore on. Lead singer Gary Carpenter was the only original member by the time the group split in the early ‘70s, with only Carpenter and Jack Henry remaining involved in the professional music world.
Be sure to check out Norton’s Fort Worth Teen Scene series (which includes several Jades tracks), a brilliant document of the mid-‘60s suburban garage band phenomenon. Also check Gary Carpenter’s website for some wonderful early photos of the Jades.