Boys and girls singing duets: not a new thing. You can probably trace an unbroken line from show tunes like “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” (1937’s On the Avenue) and “Do I Hear You Saying” (1928’s Present Arms!) backwards to 17th or 18th Century opera; Pamina and Papageno in The Magic Flute or Nero and Poppea in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.
A “Hey Paula” benefits from the same thing that made a “No Two People” special a few decades earlier. Chemistry, namely – the warmth and harmonics of the male and female voice added together, the sweet frisson of flirtation.
The ‘50s and ‘60s were golden decades for male-female duets in all different quarters – pop, folk, R&B;, country, even jazz (think “Girl from Ipanema”). There are plenty of enduring examples: Louis Prima & Keely Smith’s “That Old Black Magic,” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” – “I Got You Babe,” of course. They captured the male-female thing in its carefree or deeply inspiring moments. Even the ribbing of Otis Redding & Carla Thomas’s “Tramp” or Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “Jackson” is affection in the guise of mere sauciness.
And there’s your problem: love is not all sunshine and strawberries. For every ten “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”’s, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recorded only one “Give In You Just Can’t Win,” a wildly implausible ratio in the scope of romantic dalliance.
To that there would always be country music, where the brokenhearted were part of the genre’s biological fabric. Kitty Wells & Roy Drusky’s “I Can’t Tell My Heart That,” Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton’s “Holding on to Nothing,” Dottie West & Kenny Rogers’s “Two Fools Collide,” George Jones & Tammy Wynette’s “Cryin’ Time.” Believe me, the list is endless. You cry in your beer, the jukebox keeps on playing, things get worked out.
But if those wistful, grown-up discussions seem a bit old-fashioned in their restraint, then this week’s selections offer something more in the way of epithet-screaming catharsis. These spread the bitterness all around, verse by combative verse, with the raw sound to match. This phenomenon – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style combat – would be pretty limited, unfortunately. But how could it not be? It was sort of like sitting at a table with a bickering couple, one just tries to stay out of the crossfire.
Time to reopen some old wounds.
1. Bud & Kathy, Hang It Out to Dry (Downey)
A mystery duo, Bud & Kathy recorded “Hang It Out to Dry” for the Los Angeles-based Downey Records.
Downey Records embodied all that is great about local, independent labels. Begun in the early ‘60s by Bill Wenzel and son Jack in Downey, California, the label took root in Wenzel’s Music Town record store. Downey would release a number of great instrumental 45s, including the Rumblers’ “Boss” and the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” two definitive early ‘60s Southern California surf hits. By 1965, the Wenzels transitioned to briefly take advantage of the suburban garage band phenomenon, issuing 45s by the Sunday Group, the Last Word and the Barracudas before shutting down the operation in 1967.
Among those releases would be this great raver from 1966, written by Pat McGowan, the man behind Pat and the Californians’ “Be Billy,” an earlier Downey release. Kathy is thrilling here, her voice an icy-cool dagger of reason. Bud is… being Bud. You have to love the basic conceit of “Hang It Out to Dry,” though. It’s not like there aren’t easier ways to tell off your lover, but sometimes only duet form will do.
2. Jon & Robin, You Don’t Care (Abnak)
Texas duo Jon & Robin were John Howard Abdnor Jr. and Javonne (Robin) Braga.
In the early 1960s, Abdnor’s father, Dallas businessman-turned-record-baron John Abdnor, Sr., started Abnak Records, a label that would earn its greatest national notice with some sterling rock 45s by the Five Americans, including “Western Union.”
Abnak’s initial 45 releases mostly indulged Jon Abdnor Jr.’s own songwriting and performing ambitions. The label would expand to accommodate favorite sons the Five Americans, and would add the R&B-oriented; Jetstar Records subsidiary, too. And Abdnor would continue recording: from the teen pop of his first 45 to the country-rock and strange psychedelia of 1969’s Intro to Change LP, Abdnor’s series of records encompassed the entire Abnak timeline, if not the general arc of ‘60s pop.
But Abdnor’s best, and best remembered, records were with local teenager Javonne Braga, henceforth known as “Robin” (to fulfill the lingering obligations of the duo’s original female half, a vocalist named Robin). As a duo, Jon & Robin would have a run of interesting pop records for Abnak between 1965 and 1969. In a strictly ‘60s pop sort of way, their dozen 45s and two LPs were nothing if not eclectic, incorporating folk-rock, soul and AM radio stylings with a pleasant, vaguely Southern aesthetic. This would include their crowning achievement from 1967. “Do It Again A Little Bit Slower” was Jon & Robin capitalizing on the gimmick of Sonny & Cher. Neither were particularly telegenic, but the song’s charm was enough to make it a sizeable pop hit.
Jon & Robin’s second album, Elastic Event. Thanks to Strider’s Journal for the image.
Jon & Robin also tried out other styles, dabbling in the more aggressive tones of the garage band sound. There would be the jangly, “Gloria”-influenced “Love Me Baby.” And th
ere was this selection, also from 1967, a laundry list of grievances set to a pounding beat. Minus the white lip-gloss all over the microphone, every relationship will have its “You Don’t Care” moments.
Jon & Robin’s productions were polished, their performances – backed often by the Five Americans – excellent, and their songs occasionally great, especially material written by Wayne Carson Thompson (author of the Boxtops’ “The Letter”). But, even if their voices were better, without the momentous melodic hooks or Los Angeles industry connections, they never quite escaped the “regional act” taint. Plus they just looked so tragic in their psychedelic duds. Jon & Robin would release more good records together – and some apart, too, singing solo – but only with middling success.
The Abnak label itself folded in 1971. Robin reportedly married Five Americans drummer Jimmy Wright, and seems to have retired from music. Jon, sadly bedeviled by bouts of mental illness, was convicted in the murder of his girlfriend in the early ‘70s.
3. The Gas Company, Get Out of My Life (Reprise)
The Gas Company was the vehicle of Los Angeles songwriter Greg Dempsey and his longtime collaborator, Kathy Yesse.
Greg Dempsey’s first credits turn up in 1965. There were a few independent songwriting credits: Los Angeles garage band the Purple Gang recorded his “I Know What I Am,” for instance. Dempsey also produced an obscure 45 by Junior Markham & the Tulsa Review, an R&B-oriented; group of studio musicians that included the young Leon Russell and Levon Helm.
In 1965 Dempsey would also join forces with the brilliant Jack Nitzsche, a Los Angeles studio wizard with a gift for dramatic arrangements and productions. This partnership would spawn a few co-authorship credits over the next year or two, including P.J. Proby’s “Sweet Summer Wine” and Don & the Goodtimes’ “I Could Be So Good For You.”
More to the point, Nitzsche would also produce several 45s by Dempsey’s group the Gas Company. The group’s roster featured more session musicians – guitarist Ken Bloom, bassist (and future Crazy Horse guitarist) Greg Leroy, drummer Gary Greene – suggesting a studio project rather than a working band. Either way, the Gas Company’s four singles records between 1965 and 1967 were commercial California pop and folk-rock, and were neither successful nor, this selection aside, especially noteworthy. Nor is Nitzsche’s involvement here necessarily a measure of success: he had a hand in a prodigious number of ‘60s pop sides, many of them quite obscure. Still, these activities give one a sense of Dempsey’s milieu.
Even less, or no, information about the early career of Kathy Yesse exists. Yesse sang with Dempsey on all of the Gas Company’s output, including 1966’s “Get Out of My Life,” the third and best of four singles. The accompaniment here is mid-‘60s Los Angeles folk-rock to the bone, if deceptively cheery, considering the song does not mince its words, except to rhyme them.
Dempsey and Yesse would continue to record into the mid-‘70s, sporadically but nearly always together. One of these efforts was quite memorable: a 1968 album of baroque psychedelia as the Daughters of Albion (again, basically a studio project), now a minor cult collector’s item. Others, like Kathy Yesse’s 1973 album Amazing (credited to her as Kathy Dalton), have not held up as well. Except for a few appearances by Yesse as a background singer on a some obscure Van Dykes Parks dates in the ’80s, the duo since seems to have largely settled for obscurity.