Vocal exotica never quite carved out the niche that its popular instrumental sister did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A popular singer might toss the occasional “Bali Hai,” “Moon of Manakoora” or “Caravan” into the mix, but rarely did exotica a singer make.
Not so for instrumental orchestra and band leaders like Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, of course: their jungle fantasia sold by the million, with dozens of album-length variations on the same eternal themes.
America’s post-War popular singers conjured mood and place, too. But they interpreted themes and emotions as well, relating stories, relating, in the process, to an audience. A Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughan demanded a broader songbook than just grass shack paeans and meditations on tropical love. Torch singers like Julie London or Jeri Southern were all perfume-and-cigarette-smoke atmosphere, but even their songbooks were based around love. Rarely did they sing about the tropics.
Still, plenty of vocalists did have their exotic moments, even if they were worn chestnuts like “Jungle Drums.” Vic Damone (Strange Enchantment), Bing Crosby (Return to Paradise Islands) and Frank Sinatra (Come Fly With Me) made travelogue-style albums with some nominally exotic themes, while, with assistance from Martin Denny, obscure singers like Sondi Sodsai and Ethel Azama made full-fledged exotica albums.
Such records might transport you to a South Seas paradise, too. Just not in quite the same way that a jazzy instrumental tone poem and your living room Barcalounger could. Rather, these transport you to a nightclub that looked a lot like that South Seas paradise.
That said, I can’t promise that this week’s selections will get you even that far. They’re showing Paradise, Hawaiian Style later tonight on TV. That might be a better place to start.
1. Don Sargent and the Buddies, Voodoo Kiss (Catalina)
A teen-oriented rock ‘n’ roll singer from California, we know Don Sargent from a handful of obscure 45s from the late ‘50s, but, other than that, there’s very little to work with. It’s easy to imagine Sargent as a sort of a Ricky Nelson-type, though, a good-looking guy with a perfect white smile, a pleasant voice, and a dad who worked in the film industry. You know, the guy who always played the older brother’s best friend on television. The senior class treasurer, maybe.
And, somewhere in that chasm between white bred American wholesomeness and sadomasochistic energy throbs the irrepressible, kinky heart of “Voodoo Kiss.” That’s the beauty of this selection: it’s pure American product.
“Voodoo Kiss” was recorded in 1959 for the tiny Catalina label based in Los Angeles.
2. Darla Hood and the Fabulous Modesto Orchestra, My “Quiet Village” (Ray Note)
Darla Hood was a cast member on The Little Rascals, director Hal Roach’s wildly successful series of comedy shorts about America’s favorite plucky pipsqueaks. The show began in the early ‘20s as Our Gang and soldiered on into the mid-‘40s under various auspices (and with ever renewed supplies of rascals). The original series was syndicated for television finally in the ‘50s under its better-known moniker The Little Rascals.
From mid-‘30s onwards, Darla Hood was one of the show’s featured characters, playing herself, basically, from age four to age ten. After Our Gang, she continued to make singing and acting appearances, sustaining a show business career with better luck, if nothing else, than most of her former colleagues.
Hood’s 1959 vocal version of Les Baxter’s exotica standard “Quiet Village” was recorded at the seasoned Hollywood age of twenty-eight. It’s pretty much what you’d expect any Little Rascal to sound like after a few decades at the margins of the spotlight: bigger, brassier, the original Mel Leven lyric drained of its subtle obsessiveness and replaced with searing vibrato.
3. Paul Leader and H.B. Barnum’s Circats, Devils Pad (Tropical Isle)
Hope springs eternal, and so does misery. Women are perpetually the death of a guy like Paul Leader, and so, alas, are booze, horse racing, and cheap cologne.
Released around 1963, this seems to have been Leader’s only record, with a Latin combo assembled for the occasion by the rising West Coast studio man H.B. Barnum. Leader’s whereabouts and identity remain completely unknown, unfortunately. Both parties were obviously at critical stages in their lives here, though, with Barnum continuing on to a successful career in Los Angeles as a freelance jazz, pop, and soul producer and arranger, and, later, television composer, and our man Leader, I’d like to think, moving on to his third divorce.