Whither the hard-luck lounge singer?
The dark-lit cocktail lounge at city limits, its few patrons and the décor both well past their prime. The nightclub singer, somewhere between down-on-his-luck and end-of-his-rope, staring pathos in the eye.
This week: everything that gets idealized, if that’s the word, about old Vegas. (It’s also sort of a follow-up to this earlier post.)
Our historical revisionism aside, none of these three singers was from Las Vegas. Nor, probably, were they nightclub performers. But the overwrought vocals and haplessness are there. It was a shtick that would become even more of a caricature, reaching a nutty crescendo in the ‘70s, when every huge-lapels-and-sideburns duo from here to Elko self-released an album: Steve and Cozy Sing!
Photo courtesy of Tom Spaulding’s excellent NorCal Explorer blog
But these three souls are downright compelling, if not good. Unlike a lot of previous Office Naps posts, they’re gathered together without a shared lineage to unambiguously connect them, or any obvious commercial antecedents. The Rat Pack – Dean Martin especially – may have played the part to a certain extent, but they were the boozy, free-spirited playboys, debauched rather than dejected. These, on the other hand, were the guys who always hung out down near the end of bar with an inevitable refrain: no car, no woman, no money.
1. Henry Thome, Wolf Bait (Viv)
I’ll begin with a bit about Phoenix’s Viv Records.
Viv was a label founded by Lee Hazlewood in 1955, when he was still a local country music DJ, and fledgling producer and songwriter, his “Some Velvet Morning” still a decade away, his hip drifter persona only beginning to develop. (Hazlewood’s ‘50s credits are nonetheless impressive, including “The Fool,” recorded by Sanford Clark, and a series of twangy instrumentals by guitarist Duane Eddy.) Viv was typical of the better independent regional labels that flourished in post-war America, the sort that chronicled hinterland music otherwise neglected by the labels in Chicago, New York City, Nashville, or Los Angeles, the sort run by individuals with certain ambitions, if not an idiosyncratic ear for music.
And that individual was Loy Clingman, a folk/country musician and songwriter who himself had recorded for Viv Records and who, by the late ‘50s, had bought the label from Lee Hazlewood. In addition to operating Viv (and several tiny affiliates), Clingman – a junior high teacher by trade – also ran the Baboquavari coffeehouse in Scottsdale with his wife. Given what must have been considerable strains upon his time, he managed it all with an enviable persistence. From the late ‘50s onwards, Clingman released a schedule of Phoenix-area 45s through Viv: country and rockabilly, folk, and, later, garage bands – as well as a smattering of local R&B; and soul along the way.
Which brings us to Henry Thome. The almost comical sung-spoken asides, the lonesome piano, the 3 am trumpet solo: “Wolf Bait” could have had its own talk show. Thome plays the lovelorn sap brilliantly here, but, strangely, he was by all accounts a folk-singer who performed around Scottsdale and Phoenix in the early ‘60s. Thome was a regular at Clingman’s Baboquavari coffeehouse, apparently, a relationship that resulted in Thome’s three Viv 45s released between 1962 and 1963. This was the first of the three records, though none, of those I’ve heard, are particularly folk-y.
Nor were any of the Viv releases particularly successful. This record, from 1962, would be one of the label’s better performers – not for “Wolf Bait” but for its flipside “Scotch and Soda,” an oddly jazzy reading of an unattributed song from the Kingston Trio’s debut album a few years prior.
In addition to Thome, both “Wolf Bait” and “Scotch and Soda” feature Mike Condello (bass) and Bob Morgan (playing “drums” on a cardboard box). Notable Arizona musicians both, Condello in particular released some excellent late ‘60s psychedelic records, and was musical director for The Wallace and Ladmo Show, a local children’s television show.
2. Bobby Blue and the Love Orchestra, Black & Blue (Love)
Though presumably based in the New York City area, many questions will likely never be answered about Bobby Blue and this excellent version of “Black & Blue.” Including the thorny one of race. I only bother to mention this because “Black & Blue” is a well-known song, actually, one written by African-American lyricist Andy Razaf during the Depression, and famously performed by Fats Waller, Razaf’s great interpreter. Razaf penned, among hundreds of others, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” but “Black & Blue” is especially poignant, with understated commentary on racial injustice.
But Bobby Blue, in this version, crucially changes one of the original’s lines, and one of its most poignant: “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case / Cause I can’t hide / What is on my face.”
Anyway, Blue’s version barely sold, which is a different type of poignant.
Love Records was a small Brooklyn-based label owned and operated by Alan Hartwell, a jazz bandleader. Hartwell produced the label’s sole hit: drummer Cozy Cole’s hip instrumental “Topsy.” (Cole, incidentally, would revisit “Topsy” several times in coming months for Love Records, including “Turvy,” parts I and II, and “Topsy-Turvy,” parts I and II – never too much of a good thing, that.) A full-length Cozy Cole album (Cozy Cole Hits), a few 45s from jazz singer Savina Cattiva – plus this week’s mystery selection, recorded in 1960 – would round out the label’s short, happy run of releases.
Surprisingly, Love Records has been reactivated by Hartwell himself in recent years.
3. Trey Barker, Valley of Tears, Part II (Fifo)
The songwriters here are Bob Markley and Baker Knight.
Bob Markley – self-styled bohemian, scion of Oklahoma oil wealth – first appeared in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s with a law degree and a burning desire for fame. Markley wrote a song or two (including this selection), and released one dire teen-pop 45, but his dreams only reached any sort of bloom as part of one of the stranger phenoms of ‘60s L.A. psychedelia: the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Most of this group preceded Markley, actually – core members Michael Lloyd (later a big-time producer and industry executive) and Shaun and Danny Harris had already been making home recordings together – and fell in with Markley after an introduction through notorious Hollywood rock impresario Kim Fowley in 1965. Markley desperately wanted to play frontman, and the group was impressed enough with Markley’s well-heeled circles and financial leverage to take him aboard. Thus was one of the stranger bonds in ‘60s pop music forged.
Baker Knight is an entirely different entity. A guitarist, singer and prodigious songwriter, the Alabama-born Knight journeyed to Los Angeles in 1958, where Ricky Nelson would make his fabulous “Lonesome Town” a big hit. From some ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll 45s to, later, some strange psychedelic pop, Knight would continue to release records under his own name, but his bread and butter would always remain songwriting. Ricky Nelson in particular would record Baker Knight songs, though several of the pop stars of the Frank Sinatra-owned Reprise label – Dean Martin, Nancy Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sinatra himself – would also record Knight’s material in the ‘60s.
“Valley of Tears”: something is clearly working here. Like “St. James Infirmary,” “House of the Rising Sun,” or, for that matter, “Lonesome Town,” this is just as much a state of mind. A great, weird blend of high atmosphere and bluesy hard luck, “Valley of Tears” could have shown that ham Presley and his “Heartbreak Hotel” a thing or two about creating a mood. Likely recorded around 1960 or ’61, Knight’s involvement here is not entirely confirmed, actually. Given the lyric’s similarity to “Lonesome Town,” though, this is almost certainly his handiwork. (Baker and Markley were acquaintances, moreover – Baker later contributed the song “Shifting Sands” to the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.)
The story behind “Valley of Tears” will, I suspect, always remain obscure. This was only one of hundreds of songs that Baker wrote or co-wrote, and no, and I do mean no, information is available about singer Trey Barker. (I have the sneaking suspicion that Trey Barker is Baker Knight.) Also murky is the extent of Markley’s involvement with the mysterious Fifo label, which had a short, spotty run of obscure 45s in the early ‘60s, finally bringing everything full-circle with a lone album release in 1966, the ultra-rare debut by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Classic puzzle-wrapped-in-an-enigma stuff here.
Either way, Baker would continue writing songs. Elvis had a hit with his “The Wonder of You” in 1970, and Knight wrote country and pop songs with success in ‘70s, including Mickey Gilley’s 1976 version of “Don’t the Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Baker retired from the music business in the ‘80s and moved back to Alabama, passing away in 2005.
As for Markley, despite artifice and his all-around dubious talents, his connections paid off to the extent that the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band released five interesting, if wildly uneven, albums for Reprise Records. However, Markley, according to legend, also later tangled with the police and, later still, drifted into dementia. The saga of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band is thoroughly chronicled here.