Saturday, October 15, 2011

Count Me In, Gary Lewis & the Playboys (1965)

Writing for so long about the music of "my time" (as my darling Millennial friend Melissa likes to call it) has shown me that I can easily play "Six Degrees of Separation" with certain people, especially if their names are Al Kooper or Leon Russell.

I'm reading Kooper's memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards right now, and my next several dozen blog posts could be inspired by the intersections therein. As my friend Mark observed to me earlier in the week, Kooper was the Zelig of the 60s and 70s, and as such he had a dizzying array of experiences producing, writing and playing with seemingly everyone. Russell's background in a similar capacity I've written about previously. Which brings me to Gary Lewis & the Playboys.

Son of the comedian Jerry Lewis, Gary Lewis got a drumset when he was 14, formed a group and got a gig playing at Disneyland. He also got a producer, Snuff Garrett, and a recording contract, for himself and his group, the Playboys. This led to an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show, where they became an overnight sensation with This Diamond Ring, a song co-written by none other than Al Kooper and heavily arranged by Leon Russell. It went to the top of the charts and stayed in that vicinity for weeks and weeks.

In the days before FM radio, a well-crafted song of any kind was always a pleasure to listen to, and This Diamond Ring was well crafted to be sure (although Kooper had had the Drifters more in mind when he banged it out, he says). But their next song Count Me In is my favorite of their short-lived canon. It's just a perfect pop song, although not a Russell composition. It was written by Glen Hardin, who was once a member of the Shindig! house band, the Shindogs (as was Russell), and who himself worked with the likes of Elvis, Gram Parsons, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris and many others.

Believe it or not, the buzz about Gary Lewis & the Playboys back in those days was huge. Their record label, Liberty, had an agreement with Ed Sullivan that the next song released by the group would debut exclusively on that iconic variety show, that's how much buzz there was. (According to an old Billboard article I found, that plan was thwarted by Los Angeles radio station KBLA, which had an anguish-inducing habit of breaking singles before their national release dates.)

I didn't know it then, of course, but it's pretty obvious to me now that Russell, as sideman, arranger and sometime songwriter for the group, had a big hand in expertly concocting songs that could have been pure sap into glorious pop songs. But their run of seven hit singles was cut short when Lewis was drafted at the end of 1966. When he returned two years later, he found a music scene starkly different from the one he had left behind, although he continued to record and perform for awhile. In the mid-80s, when the 60s made a comeback permanently, Lewis got back into it with a vengeance and a form of the group has been performing ever since.

And just because I can, I will end with this gem of a video of a young Leon Russell on Shindig! Where would musicologists be without YouTube?


Anonymous said...

I'm hooked! I've started working my way through your earliest posts from 2007. It's so much fun!!

Holly A Hughes said...

Aw, I loved Gary Lewis and the Playboys! This Diamond Ring was first of the first albums I ever owned, and I played the grooves off of it. It vaguely disturbed me later to realize that I'd been so hooked on what was clearly an artificial act, so a couple years ago when I learned the Leon Russell connection (as a kid, of course, I never read production credits), it suddenly all made sense.

Wendy, I'm currently reading the Phil Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, so I'm sure some of this same era will begin to leak into my posts as well!

Holly A Hughes said...

PS I'd say my favorite GL&TP track was "Save Your Heart For Me" -- purely classic teen pop.