Monday, July 26, 2010

Dad, Carmen Basilio and Charlie Parker

I’m writing this just before 7:00 A.M. Arizona Time on the 26th of July, 2010. My father, Clayton Edward Machen Jr., would have turned 81 years of age today. (He died of a heart attack in February 2004.) As I told a few folks on Facebook that I would, I spent a few of the wee hours of this morning with three things he loved throughout his life – 1950s boxing, bebop jazz and green tea.

During his final few years, I was my dad’s main caretaker, and as a result I would tape some things from overnight cable TV that I knew my dad would want to watch during the day, including the old boxing kinescopes that ESPN Classic would run. One of those VHS tapes that survives is a two-hour dose of Carmen Basilio, “The Onion Farmer,” who courageously bucked the corruption rampant in 1950s boxing, was harassed by the Genovese Family, and was great enough to win two world championships (welterweight and lightweight) in spite of the Genoveses.

When Dad and my grandparents first got a TV in 1953, there were only two stations they could get in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, WBAY-TV/2 out of Green Bay and WTMJ-TV/4 out of Milwaukee. WBAY was a primary CBS affiliate at the time, running occasional NBC, ABC and Du Mont material from time to time; WTMJ was a wholly NBC affiliate, with CBS, ABC and Du Mont being seen in Milwaukee on UHF stations that required a special tuner to receive and couldn’t be seen as far north as Oshkosh. Dad had two choices every week to satisfy his boxing jones, the Wednesday Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts on CBS/Channel 2, and the Friday Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (on which the only sport was boxing) on NBC/Channel 4. Both of these were controlled by a promotion called the International Boxing Club, whose primary promoter was Jimmy Norris and silent partner was mobster Frankie Carbo. Had Dad been able to pick up WOKY-TV Channel 19 from Milwaukee, he could have gotten a third, ABC’s Fight of the Week on Saturdays, but that franchise evaporated when promoter Ray Arcel was attacked by a mobster wielding a lead pipe outside a Boston hotel and he decided he needed to quit the boxing game for a couple of decades. The IBC took that franchise over as well, and ABC moved it to Wednesdays, picking up Pabst sponsorship (the CBS fights had been cancelled in 1954) and bringing Mennen (a Gillette competitor for male-oriented toiletries) in as a secondary sponsor.

It was on ABC’s renamed Wednesday Night Fights that the 1956 rematch for the welterweight championship was carried. The challenger and former champion was Canastoga-born Carmen Basilio, who was a favourite son at Syracuse’s War Memorial that night; the then-champion was Brooklynite Johnny Sexton. They’d first met in a Chicago ring, when Basilio was on his first welterweight championship; after Basilio led the fight for the first three rounds, Sexton’s left glove split open and its padding started coming out. It took about twenty minutes to find a replacement, by which time Sexton had recovered and eventually was able to take the championship from Basilio. No such shenanigans were involved in the Syracuse rematch; it went nine rounds, with Basilio pounding the snot out of Sexton by 1:31 of the ninth to win the championship back by TKO. Basilio retired five years later; Norris and Carbo were convicted of assorted forms of corruption and jailed, the IBC ordered to sell its interests (including a good chunk of Madison Square Garden) and dissolve, and while in prison Carbo’s last champion, heavyweight Sonny Liston, had his ass handed to him by Cassius Clay.

The bebop was supplied via a couple of old radio airchecks from 1948-9, when the champion of the new music coming out of Manhattan’s 52nd Street clubs was Symphony Sid Torin, host of the “all-night all-frantic one” over WMCA New York. Every Friday and Saturday night Sid would take his WMCA mic to the Royal Roost, a fried chicken restaurant that had added a jazz stage, to broadcast whatever sounds were being created there. A frequent participant in the sound creation was The Yardbird himself, Charlie Parker; in memorable Christmas and New Years broadcasts on Symphony Sid’s show, The Bird took his alto and pushed through it the hippest “White Christmas” you have ever heard, before joining a great little all-star jam on “How High The Moon/Ornithology.” Not only was it from an age when the newest musical trends were embraced by commercial radio, it was also common at the time for the most interesting radio programming to be heard in the middle of the night courtesy of some people who were actually at the radio station at 3:00 in the morning instead of being on an hours-old recording because the station was too damned cheap to program live broadcasting after 6:00 at night, like nowadays.

Friday, July 23, 2010

“What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John” by Tom Clay

“What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John” by Tom Clay

Mowest Records 5002, 45 r.p.m. single, 1971

Man: “What is segregation?”

Little Girl: “I don’t know what seggerashom [sic] is.”

Man: “Ah, what is bigotry?”

Little Girl, uncomfortably: “I don’t know what biggery [sic] is.”

Man: “What does, uh, hatred mean?”

Little Girl: “I don’t know what that is.”

Man: “Uh, what is, uh, prejudice?”

Little Girl: “Uhm…I think it’s when somebody’s sick.”

In the late 1970s, I knew a man named John Moen who was a sales rep for WYNE Radio in Appleton, Wisconsin. John also, for a while, had a talk show on WYNE in 1979 that aired weekdays between 11:00 a.m. and Noon. I would occasionally lend him records to drop into his program if he needed to fill the full hour on a particular day. On June 5, 1979, the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I lent him a copy of the Tom Clay record “What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John.” John indicated that he didn’t think he’d ever heard it before, but he’d give it a play. He played it at the very beginning of his program that morning. John was so moved by the record that he couldn’t say anything on the air until after the first (early) commercial break.

Spoken word records, although not particularly common, were occasionally hits on the Billbosrd Hot 100 in the first two decades of the rock era. Most were stand-up comedy pieces or novelties that would later become staples of Dr. Demento’s radio show, like Stan Freberg’s merciless 1957 lampooning of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” in which Peter Leeds keeps interrupting Stan’s vocal “interpretation” and an argument erupts. In November 1964, Lorne Greene, then the star of the popular NBC-TV Western series Bonanza (and a former newscaster for the CBC network in Canada known as “The Voice of Doom” during the Second World War), hit #1 with a piece of Western poetry titled “Ringo,” ostensibly inspired by 1880s Arizona outlaw Johnny Ringo (although the fact that a certain rock drummer was having amazing commercial success that very same year, also using the name Ringo, certainly didn’t hurt matters); a year and a half later, TV announcer Frank Gallop offered a parody, “The Ballad of Irving (The 142nd Fastest Gun in the West),” of Greene’s record, which also cracked the Top 40 for about a month.

However, a few of them were indeed serious, and frequently those of a conservative political bias were given radio airplay. A news commentator for Grand Rapids, Michigan, radio station WMAX, Victor Lundberg, recorded a Paul Harvey-type monologue about his disapproval of elements of the then-growing youth counterculture, “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” that reached the Top 10 at Christmastime of 1967 (ironic that the record had been issued on the Liberty label, considering the disapproval of liberties taken that the thing was based on). And in the winter of 1974, two different versions of a Gordon Sinclair commentary over Toronto radio station CFRB from the previous year hit the Top 40; under the title “Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion),” Sinclair’s original broadcast, atop a bed of an orchestra playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” made it to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, at the same time that a remake by CKLW Windsor newscaster Byron MacGregor, laid over “America the Beautiful,” made it to #1 on Cash Box’s pop singles chart.

Arguably the most memorable of all such records – on which, interestingly, the man credited as its performer is heard only for a handful of seconds out of its over six minutes of length – was created by a one-time co-worker of MacGregor’s at CKLW. Many recall Tom Clay today as a complex man, whose transgressions could be as troubling as his aural creations were moving. Very few who came into contact with him, even if only from afar over radio carrier signals, were not moved by his talents.

It was as Thomas Clague that he was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1929. By the time rock ‘n roll arrived in the mid-50s, Tom wanted into it. He took a few minutes off from his job – washing windows on buildings in downtown Buffalo – to talk his way into the afternoon drive airshift on WWOL, an otherwise Polish-language ethnic radio station. Clay, not unlike other early radio disc jockeys (Alan Freed, Hunter Hancock, Dick Biondi) plugging the rock ‘n roll beat, was an overnight success in Buffalo and Southern Ontario, leading to bigger gigs at WSAI Cincinnati and WJBK Detroit.

It was while at WJBK that Clay, as Jack The Bellboy, got caught up in the “payola” anti-rock ‘n roll witch hunts of 1959-61; he’d taken over $6,000 from record promoters for playing certain tunes at a time when the practice was perfectly legal. Payola was a practice that actually went all the way back to Vaudeville and minstrelsy; during the Congressional hearings about payola in rock ‘n roll, one Ohio disc jockey admitted that, after he had helped popularise a record by the non-rocking Perry Como, RCA Victor kept sending him cases of cheese that, since he had a lactose allergy, the jock simply stuck in a corner of his basement, “stinking up the house for weeks.” The only thing the scandal ever proved was that radio disc jockeys have always been criminally underpaid in relation to the income they generated for their radio stations.

Like several other Eastern U.S. disc jockeys caught up in the scandal, Clay moved to the West Coast in 1961 and took a job at KDAY Los Angeles, where, coincidentally, Alan Freed had also popped up after WABC and WNEW-TV New York canned him for his payola activity. An example of the kind of thing he did at KDAY was the time he took a Jackie Wilson record, played it for a verse or two, then opened the mic and shouted, “Man, did you hear that? Can this cat sing or what?! And listen to that horn section behind him! Listen when the horns come in." And then he started playing the record again. He’d do this for an entire 20-minute section of the show. Unfortunately, KDAY was a daytime-only station trying to compete against the 24-hour powerhouses KFWB and KRLA, already established as rock ‘n rollers since the ‘50s. Freed didn’t last very long there, but Clay continued at KDAY until April 1962, when station management canned everybody on the air staff, replaced them with a Soul music format and all Black disc jockeys in an effort to compete against KGFJ. After a little while as a part-timer at KRLA, and then at KDEO San Diego (co-owned at the time with his old employer, WSAI), Tom had to skedaddle back to Detroit.

Fortunately, Detroit had several other rock ‘n roll stations at the time, one of which was right across the drink in Windsor, Ontario, CKLW. At 800 kHz on the AM dial, CKLW had a Canadian clear channel signal that covered most of North America at night (WJBK, on U.S. local frequency 1490 kHz, had a signal you couldn’t pick up in Grand Rapids). Clay had built a huge following across eastern Canada and the U.S.A. over CKLW by the time November 22nd, 1963, rolled around. It turned out to be an extremely important date in Clay’s life, in multiple ways.

A few days after President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on that date, a girl from a Detroit suburb, Candy Greer, wrote a poem reflecting her impressions of that terrible weekend. Titled Six White Horses, it is not connected to Tommy Cash’s 1970 Country hit record of the same title, although both touch upon the John Kennedy assassination. Tom Clay, who always wanted to have something of deep meaning to say between the rock ‘n roll records, found a copy of the Candy Greer poem in early 1964 and read it on his program. CKLW was deluged the following day with requests for a record of Clay’s reading of the poem; before long, CKLW put out a record of that tape, with proceeds of the record’s sale going to a local charity.

1964 was also, of course, THE Year of The Beatles, and like every other disc jockey working at a rock station that spring – well, maybe not Mort Downey in San Diego – Tom Clay cooked up an idea to plug himself into Beatlemania. He announced to his listeners that they could join the International Beatle Booster Boobies if they sent him one dollar at a Windsor post office box. Over 80,000 members were logged into the IBBB, and while there were legitimate items the members could get – among them being a record of an interview with The Beatles that Clay had recorded in England and a chance to meet John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves when they played Olympia Stadium that September – it appears that Clay hadn’t set up the business correctly, leading to his being canned by CKLW (and fellow CKLW air personality Dave Shafer doing a little jail time for his involvement in the IBBB, which the Canadian government considered to be “international fraud”). CKLW replaced Clay with Terry Knight, who later had some recording success with a backup band called The Pack (a 1967 single updating Ben E. King’s 1963 hit “I Who Have Nothing” barely missed the Top 40 in ’67) before The Pack broke away and morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. After making the rounds of the remaining Detroit rock stations – including WWWW, the same outfit that later gave Howard Stern his first major market morning show – Tom went back to Los Angeles again.

This time, Clay landed at KBLA, a one-lung outfit on 1500 kHz that could barely be heard in some parts of Los Angeles. While at least KBLA was a 24-hour license, not only did it have little chance of beating KRLA or KFWB in the ratings, shortly after Clay joined KBLA, KHJ – co-owned at the time with CKLW by RKO General – rolled out its revolutionary “Boss Radio” format, which trounced its three Top 40 competitors in the ratings by years’ end. KBLA’s reaction was to can the entire air staff, Clay included, and go with an automated, jockless Top 40 format. When that got even worse results, KBLA went back to live disc jockeys playing the hits – including Humble Harve Miller, whose evening show served as the basis for his appearance in the 1980 movie comedy The Hollywood Knights (about car club hijinx on Halloween Night of 1965), former KRLA morning man Emperor Bob Hudson, and KHJ cast-offs Roger Christian in middays and Dave Diamond’s “Diamond Mine” psychedelic rock show late at night – but the weak signal doomed its possibilities, and in late 1967 KBLA switched to a Country format as KBBQ. In the 1970s, KBBQ gave way to another rock format as KROQ, but that format would only become successful once it took over KPPC-FM Pasadena’s old frequency and started playing ‘70s punk rock. KBLA’s old frequency of 1500 kHz has long been silent in Los Angeles.

Tom Clay, on the other hand, did his best not to stay silent. He went back to KRLA for a little while, and it was during that period that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the latter murder taking place at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Only a few feet away from RFK when he was shot had been an acquaintance of Tom’s, a news reporter named Andrew West. West had been a reporter at KHJ during its first months as a Top 40 station, and was now working for KRKD, the Los Angeles affiliate of the Mutual Broadcasting System. The tape of West describing the immediate aftermath of the shooting in that ballroom kitchen remains a landmark of broadcast journalism.


In 1969, Clay joined WCBS-FM New York, but he didn’t last very long in that job, either. He moved to Los Angeles a third time the following year, taking a part-time job at KGBS, a combination of a 24-hour FM signal and an AM signal that usually broadcast during daylight hours only but had special permission to turn the AM transmitter back on for a few hours every Sunday night when another station on its 1020 kHz frequency, KDKA Pittsburgh, shut its transmitter down for weekly maintenance. While Clay was still in New York, CBS’ record label, Columbia Masterworks, put out a documentary album by Walter Cronkite called I Can Hear It Now: the Sixties. Tom had a copy of that album when he returned to Los Angeles, and while the KGBS gig didn’t offer much in terms of air time or pay rate, it did give him access to a production studio, where he edited together a batch of sounds from that album into an audio collage that he’d play on his show.

The collage started out with the conversation between the man and little girl quoted at the beginning of this essay. It immediately fed into recordings of U.S. Marine drill instructors calling cadence, separated by the sound of automatic rifle fire. The sounds spoke for themselves, with the U.S. war against Vietnam having become bitterly unpopular by 1971.

Next was an audio clip lifted from the Cronkite album. It was of news reporter Ron Jenkins, who, on November 22, 1963, was covering President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas for local radio station KBOX. Jenkins was waiting for the Kennedy motorcade at Dallas’ new Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to speak that noon hour. Jenkins says, “We’re at the Trade Mart, the motorcade is coming by here. I can see many, many motorcycles coming by now, police motorcycles. We just heard a call on the radio for all units along Industrial to pick up the motorcade, something has happened here, we understand there has been a shooting. The Presidential car coming up now, we know it’s the Presidential car, I can see Mrs, Kennedy’s pink suit. There’s a Secret Service man spread-eagled over the top of the car, we understand Governor and Mrs. Connally are in the car with President and Mrs. Kennedy. We can’t see who has been hit if anybody’s been hit, but something is wrong here, something is terribly wrong. I’m in behind the motorcade trying to follow them, it looks as though they’re going to Parkland Hospital…” Then Clay himself cuts in with the words, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin. Dallas, Texas. The flash, apparently official: President John F. Kennedy died at 1PM, central standard time.” This was actually lifting the text of Cronkite’s own reading of the bulletin officially announcing Kennedy’s death, but as Clay couldn’t get the rights from CBS News to use that clip, he simply re-did it himself.

Next was a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final public address, at Memphis’ Masonic Temple on April 3, 1968: ”[We’ve got] difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind! Like anybody, I would like to live!” Immediately after that, we hear Senator Robert Kennedy, then running for President, two days later, after Dr. King was assassinated: “No one can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.”

Finally, we come to a section dealing with Robert Kennedy’s assassination. We hear Kennedy’s last public words to the crowd cheering on his victory in the California Democratic Primary of June 4, 1968: “[Los Angeles] Mayor [Sam] Yorty just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” After the crowd cheers, Clay inserts part of Andrew West’s tape from that night. West says, “Senator Kennedy has been sh—Senator Kennedy has been shot, is that possible? Oh my God. Senator Kennedy has been shot. Rafer Johnson has a hold of the man who apparently has fired the shot. [amidst pandemonium] Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the gun! His hand is frozen! Take a hold of his thumb, and break it if you have to, get his gun! All right? That’s it Rafer! Get it! Get the gun, Rafer! Hold him, hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

The next voice heard is Senator Edward Kennedy, the brother of John and Robert, delivering his eulogy at Robert’s funeral. “Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. That is the way he lived, that is what he leaves us. My brother need not be idealized, nor enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, but be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw hurt and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched, and who sought to touch him, “Some men see things as they are, and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were, and say, ‘Why not?’”

Then, again, the conversation between the man and little girl at the beginning, given a new sense of poignancy by the sounds of history we’ve just listened to. Eventually, the collage was edited over recordings of the vocal group The Blackberries performing the Burt Bacharach – Hal David song “What the World Needs Now is Love,” which had been a hit for Jackie de Shannon when Tom was at KBLA in ‘65, and “Abraham, Martin & John,” a Dick Holler song that had been a Top 40 hit for Dion in 1968 and twice, for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Moms Mabley, the next year.

It was the greatest work Tom Clay ever constructed. After a few plays over KGBS, Clay got several offers to issue the collage as a commercial record. He turned down several labels’ offers of up to $20,000 in advance money and instead placed it with his old Detroit acquaintance, Berry Gordy, at Motown Records. It was released on Mowest, a Motown subsidiary label, in mid-1971. Radio stations around the United States began playing it, and by August, it was a Top 10 hit. It even got radio airplay in Australia; and Radio Nordzee International, a “pirate” radio station playing pop music from a few miles off the coast of The Netherlands, began getting requests for the record before the station ever played it.

The record eventually sold over four million copies in the United States, but Tom Clay never got an official Gold Single for that feat. Official Gold Singles were issued by the Recording Industry Association of America after its own accountants audited sales receipts received by the releasing label, but since Motown didn’t join the RIAA until years later, Clay’s record was never audited. And, in a tape Clay sent to a fan in 1982, Clay complained that, while he was supposed to be paid eight cents per record in royalties by Motown, the label hadn’t paid him one nickel of the $300,000 he was owed. (Whether or not he got paid after ’82, I know not; the record was out of print by then.)

Tom’s radio career picked up a little after that. He got another full-time gig at KPPC-FM Pasadena, a while before the station morphed into KROQ-FM, but even that didn’t last very long. He eventually went back to his old home in Buffalo. Although his record sold phenomenally, very few stations bothered playing it in their oldies rotations, which explains why my pal John Moen was unfamiliar with it when he played my old copy of it eight years later. It would frequently get airplay on radio talk programs on the anniversaries of the Kennedy and King assassinations; Larry King sometimes played it on his overnight talk show on the Mutual network in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In the ‘80s, Clay, who still did the occasional voice-over work in radio and TV, put together a second audio collage, which he titled “Time for a Change.” Like “What the World Needs Now is Love/Abraham, Martin & John,” it was made up of actuality clips, but this time relating to events during the Reagan Years – the assassinations of John Lennon and Anwar Sadat, the shootings of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, The U.S. military activity in Lebanon, Grenada and Central America. By the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he’d updated it to include pieces of “What’s Going On” by both Marvin Gaye (another old acquaintance from Detroit) and Cyndi Lauper. He’d run the thing past various record companies, which were all impressed – but, by that time, singles were dead and none of them could imagine a whole album of this stuff would appeal to a mass audience. He didn’t get paid for selling four million copies of one record, and couldn’t get the follow-up put out because there’d be no money in it.

Tom’s son Ron Clay went on to become a locally successful disc jockey on WQMF in Louisville, Kentucky, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, occasionally putting the old man on the air when he drove down from Buffalo to visit. Ron Clay died of cancer in 1995. By then, Tom was himself battling the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that would take his own life over four years later, on November 22, 1999 – the 36th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

At this point in my life, there are four records that can still bring a tear to my eye. There’s Eva Cassidy’s immaculately soulful interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” made even more poignant by the circumstances by which it became a hit for her after her death from cancer. There’s the great John McDermott’s incomparable version of Eric Bogle’s First World War story “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda’.” Harry Chapin’s story of loneliness among common folks, “A Better Place to Be,” also does it. But those three are based in fiction, the historical inspiration for the Bogle song notwithstanding. Tom Clay’s meditation on the political violence of the 1960s, on the other hand, is completely based in fact, and just as emotionally powerful. It is, and remains, an artwork by which other artworks are measured.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 22, 1972, WCWC (Ripon, WI) Record Survey

TW LW Title/Artist(Label)

1 4 HOW DO YOU DO?/Mouth & Macneal(Philips)

Now this was truly an odd pairing. Willem “Mouth” Duyn was apparently the Joe Cocker of Holland, delivering pop hits with a voice loaded up with even more gravel than The Cooker was doing. Sjoukje Van’t Spijker was a sexy blonde rocker in the Gayle McCormick/Chi Coltrane manner who adopted the pseudonym Maggie Macneal and had a huge European hit with a version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that pilfered the Creedence Clearwater Revival arrangement of that tune. Somebody at Philips Records in Amsterdam obviously thought the two would make a dynamite vocal duo (perhaps that Philips A&R exec was hitting Amsterdam’s hash bars a little too frequently?). Well, at least in the case of this record, which took a somewhat novelty-tinged approach to a mediocre pop song, it obviously worked, although the #1 position that WCWC gave “How Do You Do?” was distinctly higher than either Billboard or Cash Box gave it. The Australian group Jigsaw, who’d already had a hit down under with a cover version of Christie’s “Yellow River,” also rode this one to Aussie chart success in a more conventional performance.

2 3 TOO LATE TO TURN BACK NOW/Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose(United Artists)

3 5 TAKE IT EASY/The Eagles(Asylum)

4 1 BRANDY (YOU’RE A FINE GIRL)/The Looking Glass(Epic)

With this song, the New Jersey-based band The Looking Glass took the premise of a verse of Phil Ochs’ marvellous 1967 record “Pleasures of the Harbor” (which itself had been inspired by the 1940 movie of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Long Voyage Home) and applied it to a tune that bore more than a passing resemblance to Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride,” itself a big hit in 1970. Fittingly, “Brandy” would itself be given the retread treatment in 1986 when the Swiss duo Double came out with “The Captain of Her Heart.”

5 9 ALONE AGAIN (NATURALLY)/Gilbert O’Sullivan(MAM)

In the early ‘70s, British pop music producer and manager Gordon Mills saw a split emerge in the one-time friendship of his two biggest performing properties, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. It seemed that Eng thought Gordon was paying more attention to Tom’s career than his own; after all, Humperdinck’s string of U.S. Top 40 hits had dried up by the end of 1970 while Jones’ kept chugging for a few years past that, and This Is Tom Jones was a three-season smash hit for ABC (and saw rerun life in syndication for a year after that) while the same network only gave The Engelbert Humperdinck Show the first half of 1970 before cancelling it. Engelbert was convinced something was radically wrong with that state of affairs. Mills distracted himself from Humperdinck’s ego with his latest find, an Irish tunesmith named Raymond O’Sullivan who Mills promptly renamed Gilbert O’Sullivan. In early 1972, Gilbert recorded one of his prettiest melodies, which he’d fitted with some of the most downright depressing lyrics ever to crack the American and British pop charts. A tale of parental death, a widow’s depression and a son’s contemplation of suicide by jumping off a church steeple, this was undoubtedly the most sorrowful Top 40 hit since The Shangri-Las discovered “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (1965) or Keith Barbour noticed the old man on a bench in “Echo Park” (1969). Depressing as it was, “Alone Again (Naturally)” turned out to be an even larger hit single than either Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck would ever have in the States, so Gordon Mills could more easily tell Humperdinck to go cool his jets in Vegas and Tahoe for a while. A few weeks after “Alone Again (Naturally)” faded from the Stateside pop charts, O’Sullivan hit again with “Clair,” an ode to Mills’ youngest daughter, Clair Mills, whose favourite babysitter was none other than O’Sullivan himself. “Clair” also hit #1 on some of the U.S. and Canadian charts. After a few more chart appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, O’Sullivan noticed that his contract with Mills was an awful little affair, especially as he’d sold more records than Jones and Humperdinck combined in 1972-73. O’Sullivan proceeded to sue Gordon Mills for control of his publishing rights and master recordings – and, to the astonishment of the music industry (and horror of Gordon Mills), won his case, as well as his catalogues. This, as well as the loss of The Rolling Stones to Atlantic Records, ZZ Top to Warner Brothers and Thin Lizzy to Mercury, was considered the virtual death knell of London Records, MAM’s distributors in the United States, as a major label here. Past The Moody Blues and Al Green, London handled very few bankable recording artists, and by the time either Jones or Humperdinck themselves had any more American hits, their contracts had been transferred from London’s Parrot subsidiary to CBS’ Epic. O’Sullivan has since made a nice steady income by licensing his early ‘70s recordings to reissue labels like Rhino, and his works remain notably popular in Japan (after all, the Japanese seem to love being depressed as much as the Irish do; Japan and Ireland were the two national markets that made the 1971 film of Dalton Trumbo’s tragedy Johnny Got His Gun profitable). And Claire Mills still loves her “Uncle Ray,” even if his lawsuit against her father meant that she won’t automatically inherit the royalties of the song she inspired.

6 2 OUTA-SPACE/Billy Preston(A&M)

In 1967, jazz pianist Dick Hyman, best known for his updating rags and Dixieland for the soundtracks to certain Woody Allen movies, bought one of the very first Moog synthesizers ever manufactured. (Micky Dolenz, Buck Owens and Walter/Wendy Carlos all bought Moogs before Hyman.) The following year, Hyman released the first jazz album completely recorded with a Moog, titled MOOG: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman, on ABC’s Command subsidiary label. From that album was taken an edited version of Hyman’s composition “The Minotaur,” which promptly became the first completely synthesized Top 40 hit in the United States. It took another four years, but jazz synthesizers would return to the pop charts with this thoroughly funky Billy Preston smash. Preston, before civilising the contentious Let It Be sessions for The Beatles (and becoming, on “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down,” the only performer The Beatles would share a performing artist credit on one of their records), had cut an album for Capitol titled The Wildest Organ in Town! What he did with the synthesizer here, and on his sequel single “Space Race” a couple years later, was wilder than anything he’d done with an organ on any of his Capitol albums.


8 14 COCONUT/Nilsson(RCA Victor)

9 6 SONG SUNG BLUE/Neil Diamond(Uni)

10 12 LEAN ON ME/Bill Withers(Sussex)

11 15 CONQUISTADOR/Procol Harum(A&M)

12 7 TROGLODYTE/The Jimmy Castor Bunch(RCA Victor)

13 13 WHERE IS THE LOVE/Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway(Atlantic)

14 16 I WANNA BE WHERE YOU ARE/Michael Jackson(Motown)

Not nearly as good as his first solo credit on a single, “Got to Be There,” but still proof that he was the biggest star among Joe Jackson’s brood from Gary.

15 10 NICE TO BE WITH YOU/Gallery(Sussex)


One of the big hits of 1972 that you could have sworn was recorded by someone else; here, The Hollies sounded more like Creedence Clearwater Revival than John Fogerty’s Blue Ridge Rangers did. Earlier in 1972, America’s “A Horse with No Name” sounded uncannily like Neil Young, whose “Heart of Gold” it knocked out of #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

17 21 SCHOOL’S OUT/Alice Cooper(Warner Brothers)

Naturally, this ode to teenage terrorism was banned from many American radio stations’ oldies rotations after the Columbine High School Massacre; somewhat ridiculously, it was also one of the records the Chump Channel Brain Trust banned from airplay for months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. That it got radio airplay at all so soon after Kent State and the University of Wisconsin bombing is itself amazing.

18 11 ROCKET MAN/Elton John(Uni)

19 24 DUNCAN/Paul Simon(Columbia)

20 17 METAL GURU/T.Rex(Reprise)

The follow-up to T.Rex’s only U.S. Top 40 hit, “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” back in the Winter. Interesting that WCWC would even play this record, let alone chart it as highly as it did; it never cracked the Billboard Hot 100.

21 30 WHEN YOU SAY LOVE/Sonny & Cher(Kapp)

One of the worst things this duo ever perpetrated on its audience, a song-length restructuring of a Budweiser commercial.


23 – DAY BY DAY/Godspell(Bell)

24 19 CAT’S EYE IN THE WINDOW/Tommy James(Roulette)

Even more interesting than this record was the career of the man who owned the company that put it out, Morris Levy. The thoroughly “mobbed-up” owner of several early rock ‘n roll classics, Levy threatened the lives of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers when they asked for royalty payments on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and “Goody Goody,” and helped himself to a composer’s credit for the former tune, as well as dozens of others that he probably didn’t contribute one note of melody or word of lyric to. But Levy also owned the greatest of all jazz nightclubs, New York’s Birdland, and when Coral Records and WABC and WNEW-TV New York dumped Alan Freed amid the payola witch hunts, Levy helped Freed out by hiring him to narrate a couple of LPs of Roulette-controlled doo-wop hits as if they were Freed’s radio show. He also recorded the last truly great big jazz band ever created, Maynard Ferguson’s “Message from Newport” unit. By the late ‘70s, Levy was bold enough to start reissuing other labels’ property as Roulette oldies; I used to have a copy of The Grass Roots’ “Heave Knows,” a Dunhill/ABC master, on Roulette. The last performer he tried to make into a recording star was porn legend Marilyn Chambers, with a disco song named after a chain of Japanese restaurants, “Benihana.” After merging his labels with MCA and a 1989 racketeering conviction, Morris Levy died of cancer while awaiting sentencing. The character of Hesh Rabkin on the TV series The Sopranos was based on Levy.

25 – GARDEN PARTY/Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band(Decca)

The title refers to a 1971 nostalgia concert at Madison Square Garden in New York at which Nelson performed some of his newer Country material as well as his 1950s rockabilly hits. The newer stuff was met with almost universal disdain by the audience, and the show was a curious mirror image of Phil Ochs’ 1970 Gunfight At Carnegie Hall concert, at which he performed “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and “Pleasures of the Harbor” to enthusiastic applause but got jeered when performing the Conway Twitty arrangement of “Mona Lisa” and a Buddy Holly medley on the same stage. Unlike Ochs, whose performing career never recovered, Nelson wrote a memorable song about the experience and logged his first gold single in eleven years. Interestingly, this record and Jerry Wallace’s “If You Leave Me Tonight” were two of the last #1 hit singles (on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary and Country charts, respectively) to ever be released on the Decca label in the United States; by the end of 1972, Decca, Kapp, Coral and Uni would all be merged into the newly-minted MCA Records, with Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” being MCA’s first release.


27 29 WE’RE FREE/Beverly Bremers(Scepter)

28 – MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB/Wings(Apple)

Curiously, this was the second single credited to his backup band rather than Paul McCartney, and the second of McCartney’s Apple singles to not display the Apple logo (it’s alleged that it was McCartney himself who came up with the Apple name and the Granny Smith logo images). The first single, “Give Ireland Back To the Irish,” displayed a row of five shamrocks across the top of the spindle hole. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” displayed a nursery rhyme illustration. The single to come after this one, “Hi, Hi, Hi,” bore a plain red label, and after that, “My Love” showed the “Red Rose Speedway” album logo against a black label. That last one led Nevil Gray to announce over the Radio Nederland program “What’s New,” once the single entered the Dutch pop charts, that Red Rose Speedway was the name of McCartney’s new label. Actually, each of the former Beatles had already issued Apple releases without the usual Granny Smith Apple label images – John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Mother” had a ghostly white apple image, some pressings of George Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass used the same red apple image as the U.S. release of Let It Be, and Ringo Starr’s “Back Off Boogaloo” used a blue apple image. But it seemed as if McCartney was the ex-Beatle who most wanted to escape what Apple had become. He’d eventually return to the usual Granny Smith logo a year later with “Live and Let Die,” but abandon Apple altogether before the rest of his partners in the label with “Listen to What the Man Said” in May 1975, which not only used the Capitol logo against a black label (on both sides of the Atlantic, even avoiding the Parlophone logo of The Beatles’ first years with EMI), but even seemed to be based on the black-label design of Capitol’s original 78 r.p.m. releases of the mid-1940s. In 1979, McCartney would go so far as to take his U.S. and Canadian releases away from Capitol completely and put them out for the next five years on Columbia (a trademark then controlled by CBS in the Americas and EMI in the rest of the world) while maintaining his relationship with Parlophone throughout the rest of the world.

29 22 DIARY/Bread(Elektra)


See yesterday’s post.


SATURDAY IN THE PARK/Chicago(Columbia)

GOODBYE TO LOVE/The Carpenters(A&M)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"You Don't Mess Around With Jim" by Jim Croce

“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by Jim Croce

ABC Records ABC-11328, 45 r.p.m. single, 1972

Also released in several Latin American and European territories on the Vertigo label; subsequently reissued in various markets on the Philips, Lifesong, Castle, Atlantic, 21 and other labels

The first time I ever heard Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was in the early summer of 1972, while listening late at night to the Chicago “Top 40” radio station WCFL. The staccato rhythm guitar, bass and snare drum pattern that starts the record off for four measures in 4/4 time had an immediate effect on me that I can only liken to a quote I heard over 25 years later, on a TV documentary about the legendary “Cinema Fist!” film director Samuel Fuller. In that documentary, the great modern-day director Jim Jarmusch (whose Down By Law has much of the same flavour that a compilation tape of Croce’s character songs would) recalled Fuller’s advice on writing a screenplay:

“When you start your script, if the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamned thing away.”

Considering I was eleven years old and already experiencing puberty, I probably had a hard-on and was dealing with it when the record started playing. But that intro, stabbing through WCFL’s audio compression and over 200 miles of AM signal propagation from their suburban Chicago transmitter to my Oshkosh, Wisconsin, bedroom, indeed gave me the “hard-on” that Fuller was talking about. Fuller’s movies frequently started with an image or sequence that held so much power that its kinetic energy pushed the rest of the picture along in its wake. (My favourite example is the title sequence to Forty Guns, wherein a horse-drawn cart on the trail to some 19th Century Arizona town is suddenly engulfed by dozens of horsemen riding that trail in the other direction. The dust kicked up by those dozens of horses seems to linger throughout the remainder of the picture.)

I doubt that Jim Croce ever met Samuel Fuller; by the time of the release of “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” Fuller had been a long-time resident of France, where the young cinephiles of the ‘60s looked upon him as a god to behold in terror and awe. But it was obvious that Croce knew a few of Fuller’s movies, as Croce’s songs told their stories in the same vivid, and often violent, manner as Fuller’s pictures. The opening of “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” at the right – or wrong – volume was the aural equivalent of Smokin’ Joe Frazier playing conga with your breastbone.

Jim Croce’s first taste of public performance had been as a member of The Spires, the semi-official folk singing group of Villanova University upon Jim’s beginning his freshman year at the Philadelphia school. Another member of The Spires was Tommy West, with whom he would develop a friendship that led to West co-producing Croce’s records ten years later. Croce also ventured into radio, becoming a blues disc jockey on Villanova’s radio station. One of Croce’s earliest recordings was something he titled “Charlie Green, Play That Slide Trombone,” which had been recorded in the 1920s by Bessie Smith as “Trombone Cholly.” The Charlie Green of the song was a New Orleans jazzsmith who had indeed played trombone on many recordings of the period by Smith, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Buster Bailey and James P. Johnson. By the time he married Ingrid Jacobsen and started performing with her as a folk duet act, Croce was as well-versed in Ma Rainey and Lonnie Johnson as he was in his two modern-day idols, Gordon Lightfoot and Merle Haggard. (Among the ‘60s folk crowd, Jim vastly preferred Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton to Bob Dylan, who Jim thought was almost criminally vague in his lyrics. Ochs and Paxton would come out and state positions boldly in their songs, while you began to wonder where you stood with Dylan after a few years.)

Jim and Ingrid Croce began writing songs together during their courtship. A few months back, I was startled to encounter a version of one of these songs, “Age,” in the middle of an hour-long 1969 aircheck of Frankie Crocker’s show on WMCA New York; Joel Whitburn’s Pop Singles Annual 1955-1986 doesn’t list “Age” as having ever entered Billboard’s Hot 100, let alone at any time in 1969, and I can’t figure out the name of the performer from the telephoned listener’s request for the song on the tape (Crocker himself never mentioned the name). Around the same time, Jim & Ingrid Croce recorded the song for Capitol Records, on an album titled Croce; when the album was reissued by Pickwick after Jim’s solo success on ABC, the album was retitled Another Day, Another Town, after the first song on Side One of the Pickwick version. Jim would record the song again for his I Got a Name LP in 1973; curiously, while Ingrid was listed as one of the composers of “Age” on the Capitol and Pickwick albums, her name was absent from the label of the ABC album. This became the basis on which Ingrid successfully sued West and his business and artistic partner, Terry Cashman, for ownership of Jim’s master recordings for Cashman & West’s Interrobang Productions (Interrobang leased the material to ABC Records in the U.S. and Canada and Vertigo Records throughout the rest of the world); Ingrid successfully argued that Cashman and West illegally removed her credits from songs that were jointly copyrighted by Jim and herself. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The Capitol LP was a commercial flop, and the Croces returned to Pennsylvania, where Jim worked as a school teacher, construction worker, telephone lineman and truck driver to support himself and Ingrid. The Croces lived on a farm near Lyndell, a rural community north of Philadelphia; the cover illustration on the You Don’t Mess Around with Jim LP showed Jim looking out a window of an outhouse on the farm. He also showed an insatiable curiosity about people; on one of the various TV specials about Jim in the years since his death, Ingrid recalled one incident in which, although Jim despised the Ku Klux Klan, he invited a known Klansman to stay at the farm for a weekend so that he could possibly gain some insight through conversation as to why anyone would be so moved to join the Klan in the first place.

On one of those construction jobs, Jim injured his left hand while operating a jackhammer; after it healed, he found he had to alter his guitar playing style. Around the same time, Cashman & West produced an album by a young folkie named Maury Muehleisen, Gingerbread, a copy of which had been sent to Croce. Jim became entranced by Maury’s lyrics and guitar picking, and before long Maury was acting as Jim’s lead guitarist while Jim himself played rhythm. Working with Muehleisen inspired a new sense of lyricism in Croce, arguably most pronounced in “Time in a Bottle,” a song Jim wrote for his newborn son Adrian in 1971. (Adrian is now better known as A.J. Croce, the blues pianist and vocalist.)

This didn’t mean that Jim’s love of the blues was taking a back seat, however. In the autumn of 1971, Cashman & West brought Croce and Muehleisen back to New York’s Hit Factory studio to cut a new album. Almost immediately, it was decided that one of Jim’s blues tunes, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” would be the lead cut on the LP and its first single. That driving rhythm that hooked me upon my first listen led into a meaty pulp fiction about a Manhattan pool hustler who finally meets his match in an Alabama-bred drifter out for revenge. Croce named the Manhattan hustler Jim Walker, lifting the name from New York’s flamboyant but corrupt mayor of the 1920s; by the time the boy from ‘Bama, named Slim, was through with the unfortunate Mr. Walker, Jim had been “cut in ‘bout a hundred places and shot in a couple more.” At a time when reruns of Batman and Mannix were being curtailed from American television because of their violence, Jim Croce’s first hit single was simply bringing that violence back to radio, where, curiously, a revival of old reruns of The Shadow, the notoriously violent weekly crime melodrama of the ‘30s and ‘40s, was proving to be a surprise hit at the same time.

“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” seemed to owe quite a lot to a blues single of 1968, “Cadillac Jack” by Andre Williams. That song was the story of a Chicago pimp (the song itself used the phrase “mack,” a street term for pimp that had not yet become widely circulated among white audiences, which probably explains why a lot of white-oriented pop music radio stations gave that record airplay) who gets gunned down after bothering another fella’s babe. Croce was obviously familiar with that record; his later hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” virtually pilfered the story structure of “Cadillac Jack” and had a climax almost as explicitly violent as “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” (A piece on “Cadillac Jack” is planned for posting on this blog sometime in the next few weeks.)

Unfortunately, just over a year after “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was a hit, Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen themselves became the victims of an incident that could have easily fit into one of Jim’s pulpish story lyrics. During their U.S. tour of early 1973, Croce and Muehleisen had to postpone a concert at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, because they were snowed in at Philadelphia. September 19th was the make-good date, after which the duo were to fly to Houston for a concert there. The pilot of their chartered plane chose to catch up on his sleep at a motel while Jim and Maury performed their concert. As it turned out, the pilot overslept and ran the three miles to the airport after checking out of the motel in order to make the trip on time. The pilot, who had cardiac disease, suffered a heart attack during takeoff, crashing the plane into a grove of pecan trees just beyond the runway. There were no survivors. Ingrid Croce, who’d moved with Jim from Philadelphia to San Diego a few weeks earlier, was informed of Jim and Maury’s deaths by her mother, who’d seen a report about the crash on the East Coast feed of NBC-TV’s Today program, aired while Ingrid was still asleep in California.

By sheer coincidence, Jim’s I Got a Name LP was slated for release a week after the crash, and advance copies of the single of the LP’s title song were already being shipped to radio stations for airplay. “I Got a Name” was Jim’s venture into film music; an early mix of the song appeared on the soundtrack of The Last American Hero, which starred Jeff Bridges as a North Carolina moonshine driver turned stock car racer, proving his individuality against The System on both fronts. It would be the only hit single Jim ever had that he didn’t compose; it had been written for the film by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, who had already written music for The Harrad Experiment, and whose song “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (about the experience singer Lori Lieberman had gone through upon hearing Don McLean perform his song “Bad Girl” in a 1972 concert) had become a #1 hit for Roberta Flack a few months earlier.

Arguably the biggest irony of Jim’s entire career was that, a few days earlier, ABC-TV had aired a Movie of the Week titled She Lives!, a low-rent Love Story retread that had used “Time in a Bottle” on its soundtrack (ABC owned the publishing rights to the song through its Wingate Music subsidiary at the time). The next day, radio stations around the country were deluged with requests for the song, which was then merely a track tucked inside the You Don’t Mess Around with Jim LP, which had dropped off most U.S. album charts months before. After the “I Got a Name” 45 finished its chart run, ABC reissued “Time in a Bottle,” this time as a single; the power inherent in the idea of the recently-deceased Croce singing his line “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them,” propelled the single into a couple of weeks at New Years’ at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made You Don’t Mess Around with Jim one of the best-selling albums of 1974, two years after its release and one year after it first dropped off the LP charts.

After the plane crash, Jim’s records got so overplayed by radio stations that WCFL’s star disc jockey, Larry Lujack (himself an admirer of Croce’s music), went so far as to crack a well-pointed but tasteless joke on the air one February 1974 afternoon. After one listener wrote him, saying that he should play more Jim Croce records, Lujack cracked, “I’ll play more Jim Croce records once he goes back into the studio to record them.” The wisecrack became headline news in Chicago, where Lujack’s program was the #1 afternoon drive radio show in town at the time. Even Lujack recognised he’d gone too far and apologised on the air for the comment, but the point of his frustration was still valid; at Christmastime of 1973, with “Time in a Bottle” still climbing the charts, ABC tried to wring more drops out of the Croce catalogue by issuing “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” as the A-side of a single (it had already been the B-side of Croce’s third chart hit, “One Less Set of Footsteps,” which itself spent only one week in Billboard’s Top 40 that March). It became the only one of Croce’s ABC singles not to crack the Top 40 in either Billboard or Cash Box’s charts. ABC had oversaturated the market with Croce releases, and Lujack was simply getting bone tired of it.

One person who wasn’t burnt out by that oversaturation was Jerry Reed, the brilliant guitar picker and Country crooner whose own recording career shifted easily between comedy (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”) and tough blues (“Amos Moses,” a hit in early 1971 that did for the Louisiana swamps what “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” did for the seediest of New York pool halls). Reed was so heavily a Croce fan that, in 1980, as one of his last projects for RCA Victor, he cut the album Jerry Reed Sings Jim Croce, the only tribute-type LP Reed ever recorded. (Ingrid Croce wrote a brief thank-you note for that album’s back liner.) On that LP, Reed performs “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by approaching it as a straight-up blues, adding a honking blues harp to the arrangement.

Now, it’s going on four decades after Jim’s death (he only walked the planet for 30 years), and my two oldest daughters report they still love Photographs and Memories, the “Greatest Hits” compilation that ABC released of Jim Croce tracks in 1974. And dozens of current Country performers list Croce as a primary influence, itself ironic as Croce himself couldn’t get Country radio airplay until several months after his death (“Workin’ At the Car Wash Blues”) and several labels tried cover versions of Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” when Country radio stations wouldn’t play Jim’s original. As for me, the memory of that first listen to “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” is still amazingly vivid. It remains a personal landmark.