Rascals in knickerbockers

Four young men, looking moody and  wearing knickerbockers and short ties. The cover picture on this EP is strange. What is this? Little Lord Fauntleroy Does Motown?

young rascalsI had not heard of the Young Rascals, the gents in the strange gear. But they were genuine stars in the late 1960s, with five US number 1 hits, including Good Lovin’, Groovin’, and People Got To be Free, a civil rights song.

LLF

An early-model Young Rascal

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes the Young Rascals as “one of America’s finest pop/soul ensembles” and explains:

Despite a somewhat encumbering early image – knickerbockers and choirboy shirts -the group’s soulful performances endeared them to critics and peers … one of the east coast’s most influential attractions, spawning a host of imitators

Most of their songs are smooth and soul-tinged, but the track I have chosen here has a rougher edge. It’s a stomper, a break-up song with strong vocals and nice harmonies. Ignore the knickerbockers, and just listen.

  • Artist: Young Rascals
  • EP title: How Can I Be Sure
  • Track: A2 You Better Run
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Atlantic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AX-11,407
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

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The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Give Peace a chance

On the fringes of the R&B and soul scene of the 1950s were hundreds, maybe thousands, of talented singers and musicians who inhabited the land of Neverquite. It is often hard to chart their careers. They would shift from group to group, perform under different names, a minor hit here, an under-appreciated release there.

Such a one is Elroy Peace, aka Elroy Peade, and perhaps some other names. I have been able to learn that Elroy had the nickname “Shadow”, that he fronted a group called the Bow Ribbons, and that he sang the odd duet with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Almost certainly he performed on many other recordings, credited or not, under one name or another.

elroy peace via discogs

Elroy Peace. Image via Discogs

So, I know almost nothing about him. There is a photograph, and there is this record. From the photograph we learn that Elroy was black, and had a flashy stage suit. From the record – well, he really, really could sing.

This single’s A-side is a novelty dance track, Elephant Walk. Doubtless the hope was to start a dance craze and rocket to stardom, but it didn’t and he didn’t. It is well-done, but lightweight fun.

The B-side, though. Here Elroy Peace drops the silliness and just lets a fine singing voice caress a torch song. The lyrics are trite, but it does not matter. The result is magical. Hints of Nat King Cole, but not an imitation – in fact, maybe better?  I do not know Elroy’s story, but this fragment of recorded sound, washed up on Planet Vinyl, suggests that had the breaks gone his way he could have been a star. Just listen.

  • Artist: Elroy Peace
  • A Side: Elephant Walk
  • B Side: Our Hearts Will Sing
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 101528
  • Year: unknown [mid-1960s?]

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Cross-over Man

Cross-over. It was a buzz term in music marketing, back in the 80s. Like many things from that decade it was applied cynically. Industry executives were worried that Micheal Jackson would not make them quite enough money because, well, he was black, n’ all.  So they hired Eddie van Halen, with impeccable redneck street-cred, to play the guitar solo on “Beat It”. This would ensure radio airplay in the Southern states, you see.

Just one of many examples of such cold calculation, which brought the whole idea of cross-over into disrepute. This is a shame, because, at core, music which crosses over between cultures, or even sub-cultures, is surely a good thing. Elvis. Dylan. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. All cross-over in one way or another. It means reaching out, breaking down barriers of prejudice.

“Prejudice”: literally, to pre-judge, decide without a fair hearing. Which is to say, without just listening.

Jim_Reeves

Jim Reeves. Image: WikiMedia

Which brings us to Jimmy Reeves. “Gentleman Jim”, they called him. Starting out as a shrill hillbilly country singer, Reeves changed his singing style, brought in elements of pop, elements of swing jazz, and became something of a crooner – but still country, and in many ways much more than that.

Born in 1923, Reeves served a long apprenticeship working the country music circuit. He performed on the great radio shows of the 1950s, Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, and was already established in country before he broke through to the pop charts in 1957, with the hit “Four Walls”.

And did he cross-over, or what? It is one thing to record in Nashville and make the US pop charts. It is quite another to become a revered, genuinely loved artist across nations and cultures, most of which have never seen a Stetson hat outside of a movie theatre. And that is what Reeves did.

Reeves was listened to and loved – and is still remembered fondly if fan websites are anything to judge by – in the UK, in Norway, in the Netherlands, in South Africa (he was so big there that he recorded songs in Afrikaans), in India, in Sri Lanka, and in a whole host of other places you would not expect. Reeves died tragically young, killed in an air crash in 1964, but his music lived on.

The secret of  Reeve’s appeal? Part was his pure, smooth vocal style. Part was his ability to give emotional conviction to the (let’s face it) sentimental lyrics which are country music’s core. He was a Christian, too, and he expressed his faith in his music without being bombastic or preachy.

This track “Suppertime” is the B-side to a 1965 single. It is sentimental to the extent it needs a heart-health warning, but Reeves carries it off. He was already dead when the record was released, which makes the message all the more poignant: there is a loving God, at whose table all of us are welcome. Just listen.

  • Artist: Jim Reeves
  • A Side: How Long Has It Been
  • B Side: Suppertime
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: RCA-1445
  • Year: 1965

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Beatle

If, like me, you grew up listening to the Beatles you may have wondered about the strange-sounding “piano-or-is-it-a-harpsichord” solo on the song “In My Life,” on the Rubber Soul album. It goes like this:

This was the work of the “Fifth Beatle,” George Martin, so called because of his work playing, producing and arranging many of the Beatles’ finest recordings. Both classically-trained and open-minded, Martin engineered subtle soundscapes which complemented and enhanced the band’s work, especially Paul McCartney’s melodies – including “In My Life”. Hunter Davies reveals the secret to that puzzling keyboard sound in his book The Beatles Lyrics (which I recommend as a fascinating insight into both song-writing generally and the Beatles canon in particular):

The music is greatly helped by what sounds like a harpsichord, tinkling away like a Bach minuet, giving it a classical timeless quality. This was George Martin, on a piano with the sound speeded up.

rubber soulHere is the solo, slowed down by 25% (very nearly the same as playing a 45rpm record at 33⅓), the speed at which it was originally played.

(Full disclosure: this processed segment was taken from a different, stereo release. This meant I could separate the piano from the other sounds, such as the drum track.)

Nice enough. Dignified. But it has nothing of the magic which the speeded-up version drops into the finished song. And here is the whole song – as released. The record has been bashed about a bit, but that is okay. It shows that someone once loved this LP, and played it over and over. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Beatles
  • Album: Rubber Soul
  • Track: B4 In My Life
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol-EMI
  • Made in: USA
  • Catalogue: T 2442
  • Year: 1965

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie

I am not a TV soap kinda guy. Nothing against the soapies – they give work to lots of actors and entertainment to millions of people, and are mostly harmless. Give me Neighbours over the latest vile reality-TV blood sport any day. Anyway, not being a watcher of soaps, I had not heard of Michele Lee but she was seriously big. She appeared in all 14 seasons of Knots Landing, playing Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie, a Texan society-matriarch with a string of husbands.

KFC etc

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie not, from the look of things, having a great day.

It is that for which Lee is chiefly remembered, but she did a lot of other stuff besides: as well as acting she was a singer, dancer, producer and director. One of her early successes was in the 1962 Broadway musical, Bravo Giovanni, about an Italian restaurateur facing bankruptcy because of a big “chain” eatery setting up next door. The production was primarily a vehicle for one of the star opera singers of the day, Cesare Siepi. Lots of booming baritone among the bocconcini and basil.

bravo

Bravo Giovanni was a Broadway hit show in 1962.

But for mine, Michele Lee’s lower-key take on the song “Steady, Steady” steals the show. Hints of Peggy Lee in the delivery – a strong, assured performance. Long before she became the First Lady of Knots Landing, Michele Lee had star quality. Just listen.

  • Artists: Cesare Siepi, Michele Lee
  • A Side: Cesare Siepi, “Rome”
  • B Side: Michele Lee, “Steady, Steady”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono, promo
  • Label: Columbia
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: JZSP 57428
  • Year: 1962

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

‘Greater commercial success expected …’

There is an entire continent of Planet Vinyl called Neverquite. This is where we find the recordings of those honest toilers in the vineyard of song who “never quite” made it big. There is sadness here, but less than you might expect. There are those who were crushed along with their dreams, and whose ghosts are bitter. But more often there is pride in having done something good, and a mature acceptance that failure in terms of fame and showbiz is not failure in life.

The patron saint of Neverquite is Dick Contino. He was a talented piano-accordionist from L.A., who had a hit or two in the late 1940s. He later became friends with crime writer James Ellroy, who wrote a novella about Contino. Right at the end Contino muses:

My career never regained its early momentum. Lounge gigs, dago banquets—I earn a decent living playing music I love.

So many artists who pop up on Planet Vinyl belong in this space: happy enough living in Neverquite.

Here is another. Jackie Lee. No, not the handsome young country singer of recent times. This Jackie Lee was female, born Jacqueline Norah Flood, in Dublin in 1936. She was a child prodigy, enjoying success first in Ireland and then after moving to London. She sang with dance bands and vocal groups and was a fixture on variety shows. She sang backing vocals on international hits, including Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass of Home”.

jackie_1

Jackie Lee. Image: The World of Jackie Lee

She had extraordinary vocal range, and she was good looking, and a decent actor. She seemed set for stardom  … but it never quite happened. If you are interested, some loyal fans have established a website, The World of Jackie Lee which tells her story. Meantime, have a listen to the two sides of this single, an Australian release from 1962.

There’s No-One In The Whole Wide World

(I Was The) Last One To Know

The website says of this record:

The fact that these … recordings were issued overseas suggests far greater commercial success was expected than actually happened.

Never quite … but she earned a decent living playing music she loved. Nothing wrong with that.

  • Artist: Jackie Lee and The Raindrops
  • A Side: There’s No-One In The Whole Wide World
  • B Side: (I Was The) Last One To Know
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: W&G
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: WG-S-1361
  • Year: 1962

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs