Monday, April 23, 2012
I am a BIG Four Seasons fan. I almost HAVE to be. I was born in Newark, NJ. Everyone from that area (everyone I knew) talked about them. I constantly heard their songs on the radio. Their records were everywhere - in my dad's closet, at my aunt's house, in local garage sales and flea markets, they're even in old family photos. In fact, the Philips Records logo was one of the first ones I can really remember becoming fascinated with.
Unlike most folks, I don't have to look through the glass wall that Broadway provides for the tourists to get into the "real" story of the Seasons. I grew up with it all around me. I have been to Stephen Crane Village (on the Newark/Belleville border - where Valli was from) on numerous occasions - it's a slum, always has been a slum, and always will be a slum. I know the exact spot where the "Lookin' Back" LP cover was shot (down on the old Newark City Subway tracks, just past the Grafton Avenue bridge). Hell, Frankie Valli himself used to fill up his car at my dad's old gas station on Union Avenue in Belleville (using his credit card that said "Seasons' Four, Inc." - my dad used to save the receipts for my mom). Whenever I go to Tony's Barber Shop in Belleville, there's always at least ONE old paisan talking about Frankie - "VALLI? DAT GUY'S SO CHEAP, HE'S STILL GOT HIS FRIGGIN' COMMUNION MONEY!!!"
Another connection I had to The Four Seasons was more personal - one of my aunts was married for a time to one of the cousins of Nick Massi, original bass player for the Seasons until he left abruptly in 1965. My aunt's husband was a good guy, but he was definitely one of those Nicky Newark types - with the leather jacket, perfect Italian hair (exactly like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) and the Joe Pesci-style voice, constantly saying things like "I know a guy dat can take carradat faw ya" and "You tink you know dis guy? You don' know dis guy! Dis guy'll KILL ya! He'll hitcha wit' a friggin' BAT!" Anyway, one night, when I was about 17, my aunt came over with her husband, and he saw that I had some Four Seasons records out. He never really mentioned records or music in conversation (so of course we had NOTHING to talk about), but he looked at the LPs and said, "Oh, you like dese guys? You know dat I know dese guys, right?" At first I thought he was bullshitting me, but then he said, "yeah, Nick Massi, dat's my cousin, his real name's Macioce" and told me about the family. Then he pointed to Tommy DeVito and said, "you tink you know dat guy? He's just a singer, right? No, you don' know dat guy, dat guy's a gangster!! He'll rob ya as soon as look at ya!!"
I don't know if Tommy DeVito's a gangster or not (I've never met the man personally), but I do know quite a bit about the Seasons' history. Frankie Valli started out as a solo, waxing his first record for the Corona label in 1953 ("My Mother's Eyes") and then hooking up with NJ lounge group The Varietones. They changed their name to The Four Lovers, and signed with RCA Victor in 1956. They had a hit almost immediately with "You're The Apple Of My Eye", but the six follow up singles (and an LP, "Joyride") stiffed, and RCA dropped the group a year later. After making one more single for Epic in 1957 (a record so rare that mint copies go for about 1500 bucks), the group dropped their name and played the NJ club circuit under various other names (The Four Passions, Frankie Valli and The Romans) and recording the occasional single ("Come Si Bella" as Frankie Valle and The Romans on Cindy, "Please Take A Chance" as Frankie Valley on Decca).
Their fortunes changed in 1961 when a friend of the group's, Joe Pesci (yeah, that Joe Pesci), introduced them to Bob Gaudio, who had recently left The Royal Teens (of "Short Shorts" fame). Gaudio was working with successful producer Bob Crewe, making records for Crewe's Topix label. Gaudio introduced the group to Crewe, who was knocked out by their sound, and used them as backing vocalists on records by Hal Miller and The Rays and Turner Disentri (who was really Bob Gaudio). Unfortunately, Topix Records went bankrupt in mid-1961, and Crewe became an independent producer, a la Phil Spector.
By now the group had renamed themselves The Four Seasons, after a Union, NJ bowling alley where the group tried - and failed - to get a job as the house group for the alley's lounge. Crewe, having no established acts to work with, decided to record a single by his favorite backing vocalists. The result, "Bermuda"/"Spanish Lace", became the first-ever Four Seasons single. Leased to George Goldner's Gone label and released in December, 1961, the record died a quick death, and little wonder - the record owed less to the doo-wop-meets-Phil-Spector sound that the group would become known for than to their earlier, Italian-lounge sound. It's also the ONLY Four Seasons 45 (besides the Warner Brothers hits of the mid-70s) where Frankie Valli's storied falsetto is not used. The only thing that makes this recognizable as a Four Seasons record is Crewe's fill-it-up-to-the-brim production style.
Eight months after this was released, the group put out their second single, "Sherry", and we all know what happened next. But this first single remains buried in the recesses of time, a fascinating document bridging the gap between The Four Lovers and The Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons - Bermuda (Gone 5122) - 1961
Monday, April 16, 2012
The only thing missing from the essay is, well, the music itself. There was no such thing as a blog in 1971 (if there was, Lester would probably have the noisiest one of all), so you had to do things the old-fashioned way - you read the article, then hit the STREET to SEARCH OUT whatever Lester was writing about, instead of YouTubing it or downloading it or going on Amazon to order the CD. Or clicking on the sound link below.
This record was originally released as a 45-only stopgap between the Godz' second LP, "Godz Two" and their third LP, "The Third Testament". It was eventually re-released on the "Godzundheit" LP in 1973, but of course we all know the #1 rule of rock and roll record collecting - EVERYTHING sounds better on the mono 45.
A little history here: "The Whiffenpoof Song" is the theme song of The Whiffenpoofs, Yale University's traditional a capella group. The tune was written in 1909 by Tod Galloway, with lyrics by Meade Minnigerode and George S. Pomeroy. Rudy Vallee had the first hit version of it in 1927, and Bing Crosby had the biggest seller with it in 1947. Since then, there have been countless versions recorded (supposedly, even Elvis Presley did a version, though I've never heard it). But The Godz' version stands completely on its own (which probably accounts for the deliberate misspelling of "Whiffenpoof" as "Wiffenpoof", and also for lead guitarist/flautist Jim McCarthy's writing "credit").
So here it is, in all its cacaphonic glory, the best sheep record ever made.
(NOTE: please excuse the noise on this record; like most material originally released on the ESP label, it's ridiculously rare.)
The Godz - Wiffenpoof Song (ESP 4547/4548) - 1967
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
I'm about to sound racist here, but I don't care. I think that the reason why Burke, Carr and Tex don't get the ink that Gaye, Redding, Franklin, etc. get is that the first three didn't chart that high on the pop (white) charts - most of their success was on the R&B, or "soul" side (I also DO NOT think it is a coincidence that Burke, Carr and Tex were WAY more church-based than Marvin or Otis or JB - Aretha's quite another story, though you could make the argument that the closer she got to church-based music, the less popular the records were). So basically, because white folks like 'em, Aretha, Marvin and Michael get all the press. Don't believe me? I lived through the '70s. You WERE NOT hearing Otis Redding's or James Brown's records on the radio.....but after James Brown appeared in "Rocky III" (or was it "IV"?) in 1986, EVERYBODY became "hip" to James Brown. People who couldn't name ONE of his records (besides "Living In America", of course) were suddenly dropping his name in conversation. Late-night talk shows were fighting to book JB. Otis Redding's records got a big boost from "The Blues Brothers" and, later, "Dirty Dancing". Now, it's taken for granted that Otis and JB were two of the greats of "classic soul" music - and they ARE - but it shouldn't be because the mainstream (white) media says so! (and by the way, this isn't just a white/black thing; the same phenomenon happened with Patsy Cline, who by the late 70s was all but forgotten - until Jessica Lange played her in the film "Sweet Dreams"; now she's considered one of the "cornerstones" of C&W music).
That's one of the reasons I like Joe Tex so much - he's like a dirty little hip secret to those of us who REALLY love soul music. Plus if I had to name the most TALENTED soul singer of all time, Joe Tex would certainly be the one I'd point to. Tex (b. Joseph Arrington, Jr. on August 8, 1933 in Baytown, Texas) could do it all - sing the deepest soul, make great dance records, blow ANYBODY off the stage (James Brown basically stole, among other things, Joe's microphone trick of pushing the mike stand away from him and, as it fell, catching it with his foot and bringing it back to him), and even do comedy bits! He could also sound like anyone he wanted to - check out some of his early sides like "Charlie Brown Got Expelled" or "You Little Baby Face Thing" (both on Ace, in which he sounds EXACTLY like The Coasters and Little Richard, respectively). After ten years in the business, Joe finally had his first hit in 1964 with "Hold What You've Got". After that, to paraphrase Bill Drake, the hits just kept on comin', with great tunes like "Show Me", "I Want To (Do Everything For You)", "Skinny Legs And All", "Buying A Book" and his biggest seller, "I Gotcha".
This record, recorded in 1962, was one side of one of the BADDEST records Joe ever released. The A-side of this 45, "You Keep Her", was written by Joe about his feud with James Brown - basically, James had a fling with Joe Tex's wife, Bea Ford, when they were touring together. After James had gotten what he wanted from Bea, he told Joe HE COULD HAVE HIS WIFE BACK! Joe wrote "You Keep Her" in response - not only did Joe steal the "Lost Someone" horn riff, he even calls James out (first name only) on the record! The hostility didn't end there, though - sometime in 1964 Tex and Brown were on the bill together at a show (some sources say New York City, others say JB's hometown of Macon, Georgia). Tex opened the show (he hadn't had his first big hit yet) and came out wearing a ratty blanket screaming, "please, please, please - somebody get this cape off me!!!" The audience went into convulsions, and James was so incensed by Joe's imitation that he went looking for him after the show - with a gun. James found him in another nightclub, and squeezed off six shots - reportedly, Tex was so cool he just sat there and COUNTED the shots out loud in James' face - not only that, after James emptied his gun, Joe said, "Jimmy, those high heels you wear make you shoot too high!!"
The story behind "You Keep Her" is pretty wild, but the song itself isn't all that hot. However, this B-side, "Don't Play", is one of the best tracks Joe ever did. Over a KILLER backbeat, Joe sings about all the ways he "don't play" - culminating with the line "When I was a baby, I wanna tell you/that I wasn't like the other boys/I hated playin' so doggone much/I told my daddy not to buy me no toys!" Of course, Joe ends the song by doing a letter-perfect James Brown scream and the band does a JB-style cold-end flourish.
Joe Tex, after an amazing career, retired in 1972 - though he did make several "comebacks", most notably with his 1977 hit "Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)" - and passed away at the relatively young age of 49 on August 13, 1982, at his home in Navasota, Texas.
If you've never heard Joe Tex, go find a used record store (they're drying up quickly, so go NOW) and pick up some of Joe's singles on Dial. You can still get 'em cheap, but the music contained within is anything but - after listening to a few of them, you'll really know the true meaning of soul. No, not Beyonce or Christina Aguilera doing Aretha-styled melismatic runs in the upper stratosphere, not today's male R&B smoothies who sound like they REALLY need to take an Ex-Lax and be done with it. Nope. It's about a singer, telling you about where he's been and what he's seen. Giving you the message as straightforward as possible. No smoke, no mirrors, just truth. None were more truthful than Joe Tex.
Joe Tex - Don't Play (Checker 1055) - 1963
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Oh, and that it's GREAT for twisting!
Big "C" and The Galaxies - Then You'll Know (Monza 101/102) - year unknown
Oh, and that it's GREAT for twisting!
Big "C" and The Galaxies - Then You'll Know (Monza 101/102) - year unknown