Thursday, July 28, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Five 60s Pop Bands

The recent passing of Rob Grill, the former lead singer of The Grass Roots, got me to thinking about how many great American pop-rock bands there were in the mid to late 60s. To any baby boomer glued to the radio during the golden age of Top 40 these hitmakers were a big part of your listening experience. Most of these artists had the usual shelf life of two to four years on the charts and, while many continued to tour and record, most took to the oldies circuit to survive (if they survived at all). So, as a tribute to Grill let’s take a look at some of these groups who haven't had a hit in over forty years and are mostly unknown outside of their generation.

We’ll start with Grill's own band. The Grass Roots were a quartet that didn't have a permanent horn section but most of their best singles featured horns. Early hits such as "Where Were You When I Needed You" and "Let's Live for Today," were produced with just the standard guitars, bass, and drums but they quickly became one of the earliest white, mainstream bands to regularly offer listeners a brass section. All of their vintage stuff had horns. Grill was a fine singer who had a little bit of blue-eyed soul in his voice. All of the group's assets meshed together nicely on records such as "I'd Wait a Million Years," "The River is Wide," "Sooner or Later," "Temptation Eyes," and their signature piece, "Midnight Confessions," a song they are lip-syncing here.

The Association, a septet best known for their vocals, had a brief run on the charts, and while they came to fame with the catchy riff filled rocker, "Along Comes Mary" and the bouncy, boisterous, wall-of-sound hit, "Windy," they were best known for their harmony laden ballads. "Cherish" is considered one of the most romantic songs of all time and it was played at virtually every wedding in the 60s. My personal favorite was the organ filled, "Never My Love." Other minor hits included the ballad "Everything That Touches You," and sunny soft-rockers "Time for Living," "Goodbye Columbus," and the psychedelic "Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies." Listen to "Never My Love."

Paul Revere and the Raiders were sometimes sneered at as a gimmick because of their leader’s name (His real name is Paul Revere Dick) and because they wore American Revolutionary War military uniforms on stage including the famous tri-corner hats popular during the colonial era. They also became TV stars with a regular gig on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is. The slapstick comedy bits they performed on the show didn't help their reputation any but don't let any of that fool you. In 1965 they were one of the hardest rocking outfits around. Singles such as "Hungry," "Kicks," "Good Thing," "Just Like Me," and "Him or Me, What's it Gonna Be" flat out kicked ass. Later hits such as "I Had a Dream" and "Too Much Talk" were more pop oriented.  Eventually lead singer Mark Lindsey used both his good looks and his even better voice to become a solo star who charted with "Arizona." In the 70s The Raiders returned with the topical "Indian Reservation." Here are the Raiders in full slapstick mode rocking out to "Good Thing" with a Goldie Hawn lookalike dancing up a storm and then a slightly more serious performance of "Kicks."

Gary Puckett and The Union Gap mimicked the Civil War both on stage and in their photos. The band was really superfluous. On their singles they were drowned out by Puckett's very good but melodramatic lead vocals and a full orchestra the producers utilized on every one of their hits. The Gap's songs were very popular but they kept retreading the same territory on every record both with their sound and subject matter. Nobody seemed to mind in 1967 but by twenty-first century standards their lyrics appear downright creepy. Both "Young Girl" and "This Girl is a Woman Now" referred to potential forbidden love. What did Puckett want to do with those young ladies? On "Lady Willpower" he gave the woman an ultimatum: "It's now or never give your love to me." Not one of the better bands of the period but they were extremely popular for a couple of years. Other big hits included "Woman Woman" and "Over You." Listen to them on TV, in uniform, playing their best song here.

The Happenings were not a band. Instead they were a white vocal group that blended Beach Boy style harmonies, Do Wop, and Rock n' Roll into one of the biggest hits of the 60s. "See You in September" is hardly forgotten but they also took songs from pre-war America and turned them into smashes that fit their style. Most notable among them are the loudest versions of George Gershwin's "I’ve Got Rhythm" and Al Jolson's "My Mammy" that anyone had ever heard. They also had a hit with a cover of Steve Lawrence's "Go Away Little Girl." I saw them live a few years ago harmonizing in an oldies revue. Lead singer and founding member Bob Miranda formed a new version of the group in the 90s and he still has the same great voice that led the original members to the top of the charts way back when. Here they perform Gershwin's song on The Smothers Brothers Show.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ben Vaughn - Vaughn Sings Vaughn, Vol 1, 2, & 3 (2005 - 2007)

Ben Vaughn is not a household name but I have a feeling it's OK with him because the grin on his face never seems to fade. It's probably because he has had a successful career as a producer (count the legendary Arthur Alexander among his credits) while writing music for TV shows (He's responsible for the original music for Third Rock from the Sun and That 70s Show) and still touring and maintaining a recording career.

Retro-rocker Vaughn began recording in the late 80s when he acquired a cult following in Philadelphia and his native South Jersey. Now residing in California he still returns home frequently to play in front of audiences who know him well. He is quite entertaining live.

While most of his earlier CDs have been worthwhile, the best way to experience Vaughn is through the three discs he released in succession over the last five years, Vaughn Sings Vaughn, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 (VSV). His latest band, Ben Vaughn's Desert Classic, is a tightly knit unit that uses his fine baritone voice to bolster thirty-six roots rock and pop songs. Most of his music has a sense of humor without becoming too campy because it also has a touch of seriousness, maybe even some sadness, below the surface. Vaughn is not a novelty act.

The VSV series contains rerecorded versions of his better known older tunes as well as a bunch of new ones to keep things fresh. Vaughn’s music comes from the 60s and even though he incorporates a lot of other influences into his arrangements he is definitely a roots musician. All of the instruments he uses are real, there are no synths, so he and Desert Classic aren’t faking it anywhere.

Vaughn’s repertoire includes "I’m Sorry, but so is Brenda Lee," "Shingaling With Me," "Beautiful People (Need Love Too)," "Rhythm Guitar," and "When Free Love Reigned." Two tunes he performs live that aren’t on any of the VSV releases: "Seven Days Without Love Make One Weak," from Rambler 65, and a song he never recorded, the hysterical "I Want to Kill Mike Love," reveal his smirking personality.

You can buy each volume of VSV separately, or as a complete set at a reduced price, through Vaughn’s website.

Here is the original recording of Brenda Lee, not the version on the VSV set, Darlene, and two early songs not on any of the three CDs, Daddy's Gone for Good, and My First Band.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Greatest Album Never Made?

Quite a few posts and four years ago Bloggerhythms posted a three part series on guilty pleasures in which I said that my number one guilty pleasure of all time was the Carpenters. In it, while acknowledging their god-given talents, I lamented that the duo should have used their gifts to make better music than the bubblegum pop they frequently pushed into the upper reaches of the Top Forty.

Proving my point is a recently discovered YouTube video of Karen Carpenter singing standards with the great Ella Fitzgerald in 1980 on one of the siblings’ TV specials.  The video easily suggests that the greatest album never recorded was The Carpenters Sing and Play the Great American Songbook. (The fact that they never recorded these songs while Rod Stewart did four times makes me want to cry.) The show clearly indicates that by this time Fitzgerald's age had taken its toll on her voice and Carpenter uses the advantage to kick the jazz queen to the musical curb. More importantly, the performance also proves that the brother and sister act should have driven down that musical road long before this program aired.

Carpenter and Fitzgerald open the set with "This Masquerade," a more contemporary song previously recorded by Karen and Richard and written by rocker Leon Russell, yet it easily fits right in with the rest of the duet. Older tunes include "I'll Be Seeing You," "My Funny Valentine," and George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." Then the tempo picks up as the ladies join forces on "As Time Goes By," Duke Ellington's "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore" and "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart." You can see the whole duet here.

It's well known that Karen Carpenter was also a talented drummer who played less and less as her fame spread as a singer. However, to drive the point home even further that she and Richard could have cultivated a successful career in mainstream jazz here is another fine TV performance from 1968 featuring a seventeen your old Karen beating the skins while Richard blasts out a dynamic electric piano solo on a jazz inspired take of the rocker "Dancing In The Street."

The Carpenters would have had no trouble mining the wealth of material most of the Great American Songbook has to offer. Add to the mix a few Richard Carpenter jazz originals and the world would have been treated to one of the greatest albums never made.