(Pictured: Vince Taylor at work.)
“Goin’ Down Geneva” is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. It opens his 1999 album Back on Top, and the groove is a killer. The words have been chosen more for sound than for sense (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as far as it’s about something, that something seems to be a bluesman’s lament about life on the road and a fear of being forgotten. At one point, Van sings, “Vince Taylor used to live here / Nobody’s even heard of him / Just who he was / Just where he fits in.”
Van’s right. It’s likely you don’t know who Vince Taylor was, or just where he fits in. He never had a hit in America; his best-known song, “Brand New Cadillac,” is famous for being covered by the Clash. Should you know one thing about him, it’s this: he is said to have been the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. “I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties,” David Bowie told a reporter in 1996, “and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.” But that was after Taylor has developed a famous taste for booze and acid.
Taylor was born Brian Holden in England in 1939, but his family emigrated to New Jersey and eventually to California, where he attended Hollywood High School. Like others in the late 50s, he was seduced by rock ‘n’ roll, adopting a performing style patterned after Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and played a few gigs in the Los Angeles area. On a trip to London, he met a couple of other musicians at a concert, and they impulsively decided to form the Playboys. It was at that point Holden ditched his birth name and became Vince Taylor, a leather-clad hip-shaker. This was a time when British “rockers” tended to be clean-cut boys a young girl could take home to Mother—your Tommy Steeles and Billy Furys—but Vince Taylor was a lot more kinetic, a lot more dangerous, a lot more everything.
It was never a smooth ride for Taylor and the Playboys—Taylor was famous for missing shows, leaving his bandmates to perform without their charismatic front man. (The original Playboys included Tony Sheridan, who would be backed by the Beatles within a few years, and Tony Meehan, later of the Shadows.) After the group split, Taylor went to Paris, where one memorable 1961 gig turned him into a star. He got a record deal from a French label and laid audiences dead in the aisles during the first half of the 60s. That he was called “the French Presley” should surprise nobody. He sang original songs, but his setlists were peppered with covers, including “Memphis Tennessee,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Tutti Frutti.”
In 1965, Taylor and his band opened for the Rolling Stones at a show in Paris, but his career was about to crash. He had discovered LSD earlier that year, and it wasn’t long before his drug habit was consuming most of his bankroll. A month after the Stones show, he went onstage claiming that he was a Biblical prophet, or the son of Jesus, or somebody, and nothing was ever the same after that. Although Taylor would continue to perform from the late 60s into the 80s, he was a classic acid casualty, often put on stage by unscrupulous promoters, and occasionally rumored to have died. He spent the last few years of his life as an airplane mechanic in Switzerland, and died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 52.
Honesty compels me to report that it’s a little hard to hear why Taylor drove the kids so nutty, at least from “Brand New Cadillac,” which has a rockabilly clatter that sounds pretty generic nearly 60 years later. (It was originally released as a B-side, so even Taylor and his label likely considered it a throwaway.) His appeal is easier to grasp when you can see him, as on this Scopitone performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” and a TV performance of “Shakin’ All Over.”
But even those clips fail to get at why Dangeous Minds described Taylor as “the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. He was Iggy before Iggy Pop.” For that you apparently had to be there. For those who were, as Morrison’s 1999 invocation of him indicates, Vince Taylor left an impression that lingered for years.
(Pictured: Don Ho on ABC’s Hollywood Palace, January 21, 1967.)
The_60s_at_50 Twitter feed has it right, referring to “a decade of anniversary fatigue.” We’ve been drinking from that particular firehose for a long time now, and sometimes certain anniversaries slip through unnoticed. For example: 50 years ago this past weekend, Don Ho appeared on the TV show Hollywood Palace to perform his then-current hit, “Tiny Bubbles.”
You probably need to be at least somewhat elderly for “Tiny Bubbles” to resonate, or to find the name of Don Ho in your internal informational filing system. Neither he nor his song is as well-known today as it used to be. But for a long time, Don Ho was to Honolulu what Wayne Newton is to Las Vegas—the city’s unofficial official entertainer, the must-see act for tourists—and “Tiny Bubbles” was his theme song.
Ho was born in Honolulu in 1930, attended college on the mainland, and then spent six years in the Air Force flying cargo planes. In 1960, he started playing music in a bar owned by his parents. His Hawaiian fame grew during the first half of the 60s, and a series of gigs at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in 1966 made him a mainland star. He eventually played big American nightclubs (including Las Vegas) and made lots of TV appearances, including cameos on Batman and The Brady Bunch. He had his own 30-minute daytime variety show on ABC between October 1976 and March 1977, taped in Hawaii. During the 1980s, Don Ho’s broader fame diminished, but not in Hawaii, where he remained a popular entertainer and restaurant owner until his death in 2007 at age 76. He fathered 10 children; one of them, Hoku, has a recording career of her own.
“Tiny Bubbles,” billed to Don Ho and the Aliis, hit the Billboard Hot 100 on November 26, 1966, rose to #57 during the week of March 25, 1967, and topped out at #14 on the Easy Listening chart. Seventeen weeks on the Hot 100 without making the Top 40 is the longest such run of any song released during the 1960s (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows). Fifty years ago this winter, “Tiny Bubbles” was a Top-10 hit in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Troy, New York; Des Moines, Iowa; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Ho often said from the stage that he didn’t like the song, although he opened and closed his shows with it. “We sing it twice because people my age can’t remember if we did it or not,” he would joke, and “I sing it at the beginning in case some of you don’t make it to the end of the show.”
If you know anything else by Don Ho, it’s probably “Pearly Shells” (which was nicked for a C&H Sugar jingle at some point in the 70s), or maybe “I’ll Remember You.” But given that some amongst the readership may not even know “Tiny Bubbles,” that may be a moot point.
Listening to “Tiny Bubbles,” “Pearly Shells,” “I’ll Remember You,” and others, it’s easy to hear how Don Ho became a star. His voice is soft and expressive, and he’s just ethnic enough to seem exotic to mainlanders. His songs, “Tiny Bubbles” chief among them, are pleasant earworms. There may even be an argument that “Tiny Bubbles” benefited from appearing in an era when casual drinking, even in the workplace during the day (as on Mad Men) was never more popular. Ho himself was famous for sipping Chivas Regal onstage. But that’s more half-assed social history than I want to attempt today.
(Tip of the cap to The_60s_at_50, on Twitter and Blogspot, a fabulous work of ongoing scholarship, for posting periodic snippets from Billboard, one of which inspired a Twitter exchange that led to this post.)
(Pictured: the Four Seasons in the mid 1970s, with Frankie Valli in the middle.)
The Four Seasons had at least one Top 10 hit every year between 1962 and 1967, and some of those rank among the greatest hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Working My Way Back to You.” Frankie Valli launched a solo career during that stretch that included “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
As fashions changed, the Seasons tried updating their sound to fit the more psychedelic times, but the hits didn’t come. In 1971, the group signed to Motown, where an album and several singles bombed. By early 1974, a new album was in the can but the label wouldn’t release it. After the Seasons’ contract with Motown was up, Valli tried to buy all of the masters the Seasons had cut for them, but could afford only one, “My Eyes Adored You.” He released it on the Private Stock label as a solo single at the end of the year, and it went to #1.
(Valli’s solo career would truck along nicely for the next few years. “Swearin’ to God” was a Top-10 hit in the summer of 1975, and “Our Day Will Come” made #11 that fall, but Valli’s biggest solo hit wouldn’t come until 1978 with “Grease.”)
After five years without an American hit single of any sort, the Four Seasons signed with Warner Brothers in 1975. Valli’s partner Bob Gaudio had retired from performing by that time, although he continued to write and produce. New members had joined the group, including Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone, who shared vocal duties with Valli. The Seasons been absent long enough that nostalgia had a chance to work some magic. And where their late-60s recordings had them sounding out of place, their mid-70s update put them right on the cutting edge of AM radio pop.
A new album, Who Loves You, produced three great singles. “Who Loves You” made it to #3 in November 1975. It evokes the old-school Four Seasons sound, although Valli sings only the verses and none of the high harmonies. The record features a disco break in the middle that sounds like it came from some other record, after which it careens back into the refrain like a car going around a curve at high speed on two wheels, one of the most exciting moments on record in the 70s. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” went to #1 in March 1976. “December 1963″ (with Polci on lead and Valli on the bridge) might be the last great AM radio record. It’s never sounded as good to me coming out of big stereo speakers as it did on a little transistor radio.
You know both “Who Loves You” and “December 1963” because both of them are still on the radio. But what about the third single?
“Silver Star” tries to be neither “Who Loves You” nor “December 1963,″ and it surely ain’t “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or “Let’s Hang On,” either. It’s the Four Seasons’ nod to singer/songwriter rock. You rarely heard an acoustic guitar on a Four Seasons hit, although you hear it here. French horn, too. It might have done better with a more obvious disco beat. Although it’s got plenty of drive, it rose only to #38 on the Hot 100 during this week in 1976. Edited down from an album version that ran over six minutes, “Silver Star” is as ambitious a single as the Four Seasons ever tried to make. And one that is unjustly forgotten.
(Rebooted from a 2007 post.)
(Pictured: Peggy Lipton with her Mod Squad co-stars Michael Cole (L) and Clarence Williams III (R). Lipton was a singer as well as an actress, and one of her singles was on a few radios 45 years ago this week.)
OK, this is just fantastic: the Fun One Plus 49 survey from WOSH in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1490 on your AM dial, dated February 1, 1970. The top of the chart includes the big national hits of the moment (Shocking Blue, the Guess Who, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mark Lindsay, the Hollies, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.), a dollop of adult-contemporary flavor (Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the fabulously trippy “Midnight Cowboy” by Ferrante and Teicher), the Johnny Cash version of “If I Were a Carpenter” right next to “Whole Lotta Love,” and the chart debut of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It also includes the sort of forgotten singles we really dig around these parts. A few of them appear on the flip.
(If you stare at this long enough, it becomes 1973 again.)
Around the turn of the 1970s, a band from Mt. Vernon, New York, called Gun Hill Road played the Bitter End in New York City. The club’s owner, Paul Colby, was sufficiently impressed by them to become their manager. They got a record deal at Mercury and made an album called First Stop in 1971. It got a bit of radio airplay in a few places (and the song “42nd Street” was apparently big in New York City), but the album was nothing like a hit. It had done well enough, however, for Buddah Records to take them on for another one, to be released on the Kama Sutra label. It would be produced by Kenny Rogers, recently of the First Edition. The album, Gunhill Road (reflecting a slight change in the band’s name), came out early in 1973.
Buddah impresario Neil Bogart heard something in Gunhill Road’s brand of folkish pop music, particularly in the song “Back When My Hair Was Short.” But he knew that in the radio environment of 1973, “Back When My Hair Was Short” would never fly as it originally appeared, with its references to reading Screw magazine, using LSD, and dealing pot. So Bogart brought in producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who would later produce the first two albums by KISS, to rework some of the songs, including “Back When My Hair Was Short.”(You can compare the lyrics of the two versions here.)
Once their revised song hit the radio, Gunhill Road (a trio: Glenn Leopold, Steve Goldrich, and Gil Roman) played American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and shared bills with acts including Jim Croce, Poco, Harry Chapin, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Charlie Daniels. They also opened for an impressive list of comics, including Robert Klein, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Martin Mull, and Andy Kaufman. Sometime during this period, Roman, who had sung lead on “Back When My Hair Was Short,”was replaced by Paul Reisch.
“Back When My Hair Was Short” peaked at #40 on the Hot 100 for the week of June 2, 1973, although it ranked higher in both Cash Box and Record World. Billboard noted that it was “top 10 in more different markets at more different times than any other record that year,” so its diffuse chart action kept it from rising higher on the national chart. ARSA only shows a few top 10s, however: at KUDL in Kansas City in March (where it looks to have stayed for two solid months) and at WIXY in Cleveland in May before it reached its Hot 100 peak, and at KOMA in Oklahoma City toward the end of July.
But when no second hit materialized and the touring opportunities dried up, the young men of Gunhill Road got on with separate lives. Glenn Leopold wrote scripts and music for dozens of kids’ TV shows. Goldrich and Reisch went into business and left professional music careers behind. And Gunhill Road was remembered, if they were remembered at all, as a one-hit wonder. Their song appeared on one of the volumes of Rhino’s Have a Nice Day series of 70s hits, and it got some play on oldies stations, including the Sirius/XM 70s channels.
In 2011, their eponymous second album got a CD release, and about the same time, they were invited to play at a benefit for Paul Colby. The older men of Gunhill Road enjoyed the experience so much that they started talking about making a third album. In the fall of 2013, Leopold, Goldrich, and Reisch went back into the studio and recorded 19 songs, some of which had been in the can since the early 70s. Those songs are now out on an album called Every Forty Years.
It’s one of the more unlikely comebacks ever. It has some nice moments, especially “Everything Passes,” “Selling Apples” (being pushed as a single), and “Bridgeport Monochrome.” Nineteen songs might be more Gunhill Road than we need at this point, but their enjoyment at playing together again is easy to hear. You can listen to the band members talk about their history, their band’s rebirth, and their new album here. Listen to some of the new tracks at the band’s website, which is here.
(Pictured: country singer Don Williams, 1980)
When I was a country DJ back in the late 70s and early 80s, Don Williams was one of my favorite singers. While other country stars churned out singles as if they were stamped out of a form, Williams’ records seemed more carefully made, with deeper lyrics and greater emotional resonance. He didn’t write many of his biggest hits—that list is otherwise studded with the work of Bob McDill, Wayland Holyfield, and Roger Cook, as well as John Prine, Dave Loggins, and Don Nix. But once he sang a song, in that big, warm, grandfatherly voice, it belonged to him.
Williams’ tally of hits is remarkable. He first charted in 1973, and he scored his first Top 10 with “We Should Be Together” in 1974. His next 32 singles would hit the Billboard country Top 10, and he would add 16 more between 1985 and 1991. In all, 17 would hit #1 on the country chart, including his version of Eric Clapton’s “Tulsa Time” in 1979. His biggest country hit, 1980’s “I Believe in You,” crossed over to the pop chart and reached #24. As country fashions changed in the 1990s, Williams fell out of favor, and he hasn’t charted a single in the States since 1992. He released an album every couple of years until 2004, but not again until 2012. Just this year, he released another, Reflections. At age 74, he’s one of those guys who seems as though he’ll keep doing what he’s always done forever, because he’s earned the right, and he’s damn good at it.
The song I want to write about here, however, is an anomaly. It’s the one that broke his decade-long streak of 33 straight Top 10s 30 years ago this fall. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking “Maggie’s Dream” is just another song about a truck-stop waitress. She goes to work every day, banters with the truckers, collects the tips they leave, and dreams “a dream she’s had since she was 17 / To find a husband and be a wife.” But because one of Don Williams’ gifts is infusing a song with emotional subtext far beyond the mere words on the page, you soon realize there’s much, much more going on.
The mountains around Asheville
She’s never seen the other side
Closer now to 50 than to 40
I know a few things about music, but I don’t know the first damn thing about songwriting. I do know that what Dave Loggins and Lisa Silver do on “Maggie’s Dream”—or maybe it’s how Williams and his co-producer Garth Fundis decided to arrange it—packs a remarkable emotional wallop. I don’t know if you can call it a bridge or a middle eight or a verse performed differently or what it is precisely, but it comes at the very of the song. And given what we have learned about Maggie, and the mood Williams has created, it’s devastating:
And she relies upon the jukebox
0n the lonely afternoons
When the business starts to slow down
She plays the saddest tunes
And she stares off down the highway
And she wonders where it goes
Nobody to go home to
And it’s almost time to close
As we listen to the instrumental fade, and we watch Maggie looking out the window down the North Carolina highway, we realize what she must surely know—that the life of which she dreams will remain as mysterious to her as the other side of the mountains. That her dreaming will be as endless as the highway.
We don’t know the time of year in which “Maggie’s Dream” is set, but it’s got to be October.