Sunday, October 26, 2008

96 Tears, Question Mark & the Mysterians (1966)

One of my favorite ways to waste time in the mid-60s was calling up Washington/Maryland/Virginia radio DJs and making requests or trying to score an open phone line for a contest. In 1966, I finally was the '10th caller' and won my first vinyl 45. Damned if it wasn't 96 Tears by Question Mark & the Mysterians. Why do I remember that? Who knows - I just do.

I've always harbored a fondness for a certain kind of hard-bitten, testosterone-driven garage-ish rock. Give me quality fare by the Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger System or Standells and I was in some kind of heaven that helped me tap into the male side of my psyche, I guess. The Troggs, Them and Yardbirds from the other side of the pond had similar effects on me. Though a girl, I was as disaffected a youth as any, so the sensibility that oozed from the pores of this kind of music suited me just swimmingly. It wasn't trying to be pretty, it wasn't pretty, and yet it was alluring.

Question Mark and the Mysterians has been described as one of the first garage or punk-style bands to emerge in the U.S. and 96 Tears was a definite anomaly at the time it scaled the charts. The week it was #1, the group shared the Top 5 with the Monkees, Four Tops, Johnny Rivers and Left Banke. Like many such songs, 96 Tears started out as a local hit (they lived in Bay City, Michigan), but the British Invasion had opened up a mass market for bands that up until then were pretty much hanging out in their garages and basements. It got coveted airplay on CKLW in Detroit, and a recording contract with national distribution soon followed.

I loved playing it on my dinky turntable, especially because I knew my mother hated it, probably even feared it. That exotic Link Wray-like guitar (his theme song for the Batman TV show was big that year)! The organ riff! The seductive rhythm! They were Latino - even better! Nothing like my sanitized suburban existence - it just didn't get any better than that, some days.

Rudy Martinez (or ? as he is apparently legally known) and his Mysterians are still out there recording and performing, and have a bit of a following, although they never really had other commercial success of this magnitude.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

RIP Levi Stubbs (1936-2008)

It seems I've already written most of what I'd want to say about the soul paragon Levi Stubbs in my July 6, 2008, post about Ask the Lonely. So I'll just repeat it below and maybe a few new people will read it. By all accounts, Levi was an uncommonly decent and certainly talented soul, and his passing is a bittersweet reminder of those days of baby boomer innocence that seem so far away now, when his inspiring voice was so much a part of the musical backdrop of my own lonely existence. I'll just add in two other favorite Four Tops songs that were perfect showcases of the instrument Levi was blessed with: It's the Same Old Song and their beautiful interpretation of the Left Banke's Walk Away Renee.

Sometimes it's hard to believe what it takes for people with mammoth talent to hit the big time. If we had to guess, we wouldn't imagine, for example, that a Levi Stubbs, with his magnificently evocative baritone, along with his fellow Four Tops, would have had to spend more than a decade finding an audience when they started singing together after high school. But that is in fact what happened.

Along with his boyhood friends Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton, the Detroit-based Tops, originally known as the Four Aims, were the hardest working men in show business for years and years while they worked the club circuit, often as a backing group for the likes of Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton and Della Reese. One single each with Columbia, Red Top and Chess Records didn't even get them the exposure they needed.

As with so many talented acts, it took being discovered by Berry Gordy in 1963, taken under the Motown tent, and given the right material for the rest of the world to catch on. At first, though, the Tops were used in a jazz subsidiary Gordy had, which didn't pan out, and later contributed only backing vocals to other acts, as on the Supremes' When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.

But in 1964, house songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland had the necessary epiphany and Baby I Need Your Lovin' launched them as an act to be reckoned with. All those years perfecting their dance moves and vocal arrangements paid off in ways even they probably could never have predicted. (Atypically for any successful act of that time, the Tops' original lineup remained constant for 40 years although they left Motown in 1967.)

Of all the Four Tops songs, I think Ask the Lonely, their second hit (not an H-D-H composition but rather written by Mickey Stevenson, Motown's A&R director, and songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter), woke people up to the group's enduring possibilities. I know it did me.

Though the many songs that followed generally charted higher than Ask the Lonely did, Stubbs' heartbreaking delivery and the silky smooth harmony line of Fakir, Benson and Payton made this one cathartic and downright irresistible. The Four Tops at their absolute best.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh, Pretty Woman, Roy Orbison (1964)

"With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes ... He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal ... His voice could jar a corpse, always leaving you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.'" - Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Roy Orbison died on my birthday, December 6, 1988. I was sitting in an establishment in Dayton, Ohio, where I was traveling for work, and the news came in over the TV. (What was to be his final performance had been two days prior, in Akron, where I didn't live then but do now.) I was absolutely stunned and kind of despondent for days afterward. I think I played Mystery Girl, his glorious posthumous album, until the vinyl reverted back to the original resin state.

From the perspective of an 11-year-old girl, Oh, Pretty Woman was a song with startling guitar riffs and a beat you could dance to sung by a decidedly peculiar-looking guy with a killer falsetto. Looking back at it now, really listening to it, I can see that it had a very complex and nuanced arrangement, especially for that particular time in rock's evolution, which is probably why it has stood the test of time and was such a chart-buster.

When he sang, Orbison barely moved a muscle, but the emotion came out in a deluge. It must have been intense being in his presence on stage. He had some similarity to Johnny Cash, in that musicians of considerable talent fell all over themselves wanting to be in his orbit and perform with him. In the above link to the Black & White Night special, watch the sheer delight of the assembled luminaries jamming with him; the Traveling Wilburys were another example of a star-studded crew who basked in being with Roy.

Interestingly with regard to Cash, it was he who may have propelled Roy and his then-band, the Wink Westerners, on to future stardom. They were minor celebrities on various West Texas TV shows, and met Cash on one such show, wherein he encouraged them to seek a contract with the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, also Cash's producer. The story goes that they were rejected by Phillips at first, but eventually a relationship was forged and the rest is history.

For as many hits as he had, the full spectrum of his catalogue far exceeded what most of us have actually heard, and is just now being showcased in the new CD box set of 107 cuts, The Soul of Rock and Roll. I guess I should start dropping hints now at what a great gift that would be for the 20th anniversary of Roy's death and my next birthday!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cool Jerk, Capitols (1966)

We all looked pretty goofy when we danced in the 60s, and never goofier than when we got down to the fabulous soul ditty Cool Jerk by the Capitols. But who cared - this song was pure kinetic energy that converted instantly to joy - which can happen when you're, as the song said, cookin' and smokin.'

The person we have to thank for this is Ollie McLaughlin, one disc jockey and record producer who refused to be dwarfed by the Motown juggernaut. Based outside of Detroit in Ann Arbor, not exactly an urban hotbed, McLaughlin started three record labels, named them after his daughters Karen, Carla and Moira, and started to turn out and promote artists that captured the attention of young America, including Del Shannon and Barbara Lewis.

Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers, were known to moonlight, and if the instrumental arrangement of Cool Jerk sounds vaguely familiar, it's because some of the Funk Brothers were serving it up in their spare time. That's Bob Babbitt on bass, Johnny Griffith on piano and Eddie Willis on guitar, and it was as tasty as tasty could be. The Capitols themselves were singer and drummer Sam George, guitarist Donald Storball (who wrote the song), and keyboardist Richard McDougall.

Nothing much happened for the Capitols after Cool Jerk, and I don't recall ever seeing them even perform it anywhere. However, Parliament/Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins gives it all he's got with the surviving Funk Brothers in their documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Catch it if you can.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eve of Destruction, Barry McGuire (1965)

Yeah, my blood's so mad feels like coagulatin'
I'm sitting here just contemplatin'
I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation.
Handful of senators don't pass legislation
And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin'
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'

And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

I've been wanting to write about this song for a while, and I won't wait any longer. Eve of Destruction blew the doors off people's complacency when it was released and caused a firestorm of controversy in the culture - was Barry McGuire the ultimate patriot or an enemy of the people, someone to be ostracized for having the gall to speak truth to power? Rarely has a song tried so little to sugarcoat what was happening in the world.

McGuire was working as a young pipefitter when he stumbled into a cafe in Laguna Beach, saw someone singing his heart out, and decided to pursue the musical life. After leaving the New Christy Minstrels in early 1965, McGuire found himself at a Byrds concert where he met P.F. Sloan (the song's composer) and the legendary producer Lou Adler.

One thing led to another, and Adler offered to produce a McGuire solo album. With only 20 minutes left in that recording session, McGuire pulled out the crumpled lyrics to Eve of Destruction, found them hard to decipher in places and delivered a roughish first take, fully expecting to perfect the vocal track later. Through a chain of events described on McGuire's website, that never happened, and the memorable raw version was on the radio just days later and exploded onto the charts. Few people who heard it could look the other way. The rage Sloan put onto the page and into which McGuire breathed life was palpable.

Let's see: what's changed in nearly a half century? Well, it took five years, but the voting age was eventually lowered to 18 so that the kids who put their lives on the line for us could also select the people who run the country they're fighting for. In fact, somewhere I saw that the lyrics to Eve were read on the floor of Congress when the legislation was enacted.

But the truth of the matter is that the times are, in many respects, even more frightening now than they were then, and sadly, Eve of Destruction doesn't feel all that dated to me. Who'd have predicted just 8 years ago that the United States would have devolved into a shadow of its former self, a house of cards mortgaged to the hilt, its citizenry plagued by social and economic problems that have been utterly ignored while a neocon agenda was unleashed on the world?