(Pictured: Swamp Dogg, who didn’t need to cover Sinatra to declare he did it his way.)
I am still working my way through Matt Hinrichs’ monumental Outside the Top 40 Spotify lists for 1970, 1971, and 1972. They contain hundreds of songs that placed on either the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under singles charts without making it to #40 or better. They’re a damn treasure and that’s no joke. Even though I’ve spent countless hours poking around in dusty corners all these years, these lists keep revealing records I’ve never heard and performers I’ve never bothered to notice.
For example: Bill Deal and the Rhondels. I’d heard of them but never paid much attention. Although they emerged at a moment in history when horn bands like Chicago and BS&T were getting hot, they were different, a raucous show band, and two of their biggest hits were covers of songs from an earlier day: “May I,” and the biggest, “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” which went to #23 late in the summer of 1969. The band placed among Billboard‘s top 10 artists of 1969, a list populated by a remarkable number of acts who barely flourished beyond 1969—the Brooklyn Bridge, Oliver, the Friends of Distinction, the Winstons, and Checkmates Ltd. featuring Sonny Charles—and the Rhondels were one of them, bagging one last Hot 100 hit before returning to the Virginia/Carolina beach-music scene from which they had come. That last hit is toned down a great deal from their customary party honk, and it’s pretty good: “Nothing Succeeds Like Success” got up to #63 in the spring of 1970.
“My Way” is one of the most famous songs in American pop, but it strikes me that it’s a difficult one to do well given that Frank Sinatra owns it. Sinatra’s version is prideful in a way unique to him; the second-most-famous one, by Elvis, made a few months before his death, comes off bathetic—like a lot of late-period Elvis recordings, there’s emptiness at the emotional center of it. Brook Benton recorded “My Way” in 1970, made it as personal as Sinatra did but in his own imitable way, and took it up to #72.
On the subject of personal and inimitable, there’s Bettye Swann’s cover of “Little Things Mean a Lot,” originally made famous in 1954 by Kitty Kallen. Swann moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the early 60s and scored a #1 R&B hit with “Make Me Yours” in 1967, and four other Hot 100 hits between 1967 and 1973, plus four others that bubbled under. “Little Things Mean a Lot” reached #114 in February 1970.
Don’t confuse Doris Duke with Doris Troy. Troy famously recorded “Just One Look” and had some late recordings released on Apple; Duke was a gospel singer who had cut some demos for Motown and sang on sessions for Gamble and Huff before she made an album at Capricorn Studios called I’m a Loser, with songs by Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams. Swamp Dogg also produced it. The album contained two singles, “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman),” which went Top-10 on the soul chart and #50 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1970, and “Feet Start Walkin’,” which bubbled under, reaching #109 in the summer. The tiny label on which I’m a Loser was released went tits-up shortly thereafter, and Duke didn’t record again until 1975. After three albums in six years, she retired from music, and as Allmusic.com puts it, “at the time of this writing her whereabouts and activities are unknown.”
During the week of June 6, 1970, while “Feet Start Walkin'” bubbled under at #117, a Bonds/Williams song performed by Swamp Dogg hisownself sat directly above at #116: “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” from an album called Total Destruction to Your Mind. According to Allmusic.com, the album is what resulted after Williams, an idiosyncratic character to begin with, experimented with LSD. “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” is a deep Southern blues groove, and the whole story of the lyric is right there in the title.
There will be future installments along this line, because how could there not?