Wednesday, August 22, 2012



This group from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, led by Brian Ballestrieri, released two incredible psych 45s on Capitol in 1968 - this was the first.

It was a good idea at the time - US group becomes the "answer" to the psych groups out of merrie olde England........

Unfortunately, the group's timing was a bit off. As Beatles' publicist Derek Taylor famously said in late 1967, "the only people that will be using the word 'psychedelic' in 1968 are TV comedians and brain-dead disk jockeys." The other problem was that Capitol tried to promote them as a SINGLES band. Psych singles were a staple in the UK, but in the US, record buyers wanted psych LPs, not singles. It also didn't help that Capitol made damn sure that you knew this was an AMERICAN psychedelic group in their publicity - full page-ads in the music trades introduced them as "The Sidewalk Skipper Band (of AMERICA)" and contained phrases like "America is ready for the SSB" and "they have made themselves ready for America". So their two Capitol singles failed miserably, though they are held in very high regard with psych collectors these days. After one final 45 for the Teen Town label in 1969, the group disbanded.

Check out the (always cool) Flower Bomb Songs blog for more info about this undeservedly obscure band here.

Sidewalk Skipper Band - Strawberry Tuesday (Capitol 2127) - 1968

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


“There's really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” - Dolly Parton

I fell in love with Connie Smith before I ever saw her. No other female country singer could pack as much heartbreak and hurt into a single note (without artifice) as Connie. Thankfully, her voice has never lost that quality. The 1967 LP "The Best Of Connie Smith" is one of my "desert island discs" - if (God forbid) I ever had to sell my collection, I'd still keep that one, with a handful of others.

By the way, Connie STILL holds the record for the longest run at #1 for a debut single (her first 45, "Once A Day", stayed at #1 for 8 weeks in 1964). Eat your heart out, Taylor Swift.

"The Hurtin's All Over" was the first song I ever heard by Connie Smith. It was the first song on an old reel-to-reel tape that my father had in his collection (discussed earlier on this blog in this post). It was sort of a surreal experience; the tape was recorded from an AM radio broadcast and Connie's song kept cross-fading in and out with a football game on another station on the dial. But through the football announcer and the 12 KHz whine, I heard a voice of such purity, mixed with incredible heartbreak, which just POPPED out of that old Scotch 7-inch reel. Unfortunately, I had no idea who it was that was singing.

It took a year or two, but I eventually found out it was Connie Smith. Since that day, I have been scarfing up every piece of Connie Smith vinyl (and CD plastic) I can find. When I had the radio show, I was one of only two DJs in the NY/NJ area (the other was my girlfriend Jess) that played Connie's 2011 release, Long Line Of Heartaches (you can find it here).

"The Hurtin's All Over", for me at least, towers above all of her other hits. If there ever was such a thing as "country soul" with emphasis on the country, with a little "girl group" heartache mixed in, this is it. The backing is pure country, but Connie's vocal is so soulful that it takes the record to another dimension.

Unfortunately, like most soul singers, Connie Smith drew her inspiration from hard times. Born Constance June Meador, August 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Indiana, Connie's childhood was not a happy one. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, causing Connie to have a nervous breakdown when she was just in her teens. Also, while in her teens, she nearly severed one of her legs off in a lawnmower accident. While recuperating in the hospital, she learned to play guitar. She was soon entering herself in various talent contests, and was already a seasoned performer by the time she graduated high school in 1959. By this time she was living in Ohio, and at the age of 20 Connie married for the first time, to Jerry Smith. They had their first (and only) child together in March of 1963.

Shortly afterward, though, Connie's life began to change in ways she could not have imagined.

In August, 1963, Connie entered another talent contest at the Frontier Ranch park near Columbus, Ohio, where she was heard by Bill Anderson, who encouraged her to go to Nashville and record. Connie couldn't, with a new baby in the house, but she continued to play concerts in the Columbus area. It was on another country show in January, 1964 that she ran into Bill Anderson again, and this time he invited her to sing with him on Ernest Tubb's "Midnite Jamboree" program in Nashville. Connie went this time, and returned to Nashville a few months later to record some demos of a new batch of songs that Bill Anderson had written. The purpose of the demos were to get established female artists to record the songs. Bill's manager sent the dubs to Chet Atkins at RCA Victor, who immediately asked who the singer was. Once he found out, Atkins signed Connie to RCA Victor on June 24, 1964. About a month later, she had her first session with the label, out of which came the record that put Connie in the stratosphere, "Once A Day". The record shot straight to #1 on the country charts. It had been a year to the day Bill Anderson first saw Connie in that talent show.

The hits just piled up after that; "Then And Only Then", "I Can't Remember", "If I Talk To Him", "Nobody But A Fool (Would Love You)", "Ain't Had No Lovin'", "The Hurtin's All Over", "I'll Come Runnin'", "Cincinnati, Ohio", "Burning A Hole In My Mind", "Baby's Back Again", "Run Away Little Tears" - ALL which hit the Top Ten from 1964-1968. But by the end of that incredible run of hits, Connie Smith was a mess. The pressures of stardom and the long periods of time away from her family had taken its toll. Her first marriage ended in a shambles in 1966, and she ended up marrying the lead guitarist in her band, Jack Watkins. One year (and another child) later, she and Watkins divorced. She began to contemplate suicide.

That's when Connie Smith made the decision to save her own life. She decided that God and family were more important than stardom and a career. In 1968 she became a born-again Christian, came off the road, and reconnected with her children. Her chart career suffered, but not much - she did manage another six Top Ten country hits from 1968 to 1972 - but her personal appearances became less and less frequent, and when she did appear, you were just as likely to get a gospel show as a program of Connie's greatest hits. In fact, she was nearly fired from the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1970s for sermonizing at length from the stage at the Ryman Auditorium.

Connie married again, to a telephone repairman named Marshall Haynes, and brought her family on the road with her (in a much-truncated schedule). They had three daughters together. In the meantime Connie left RCA Victor for Columbia Records, but managed to score only two Top Ten hits while there. She then signed with Monument in 1977, who tried to update her sound (her biggest hit on the label was a cover of Andy Gibb's "I Just Want To Be Your Everything", if you can imagine that), and when the contract ran out in 1980, she basically withdrew from the business, spending her time doing her favorite job - being a mother, though she did record an LP in a one-off deal with Epic in 1985.

Unfortunately, Connie's marriage with Haynes ended in 1992, and, with her children grown, Connie decided to get back into the business. She signed with Warner Bros. in 1996, and she was immediately paired with Marty Stuart, a country star in his own right, who co-wrote and produced the resulting LP. Their collaboration must have sparked a fire, because Stuart, a Smith fan since he was a child, married Connie the next year, and they're still married today. Stuart also produced her 2011 LP Long Line Of Heartaches, which received much critical acclaim, but not much in sales, probably because it was REAL country, not the country-rock that Nashville pushes today. It was her first album in 13 years, and we may have to wait another 13 for her next one, but it'll be worth it (guess this makes Connie Smith the Scott Walker of country).

Connie Smith could have gone down the path that so many other stars had gone down - depression, drink, drugs, an early death - but, lucky for us, she took stock of her life and made the decision to save her life, instead of giving it to her career.

Today (August 14, 2012) is Connie's 71st birthday, and she is still (in the words of a 1965 LP title) "cute 'n' country".

Happy birthday, Connie, and thank you.

Connie Smith - The Hurtin's All Over (RCA Victor 47-8964) - 1966

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I just got back from Traverse City, Michigan, where I was lucky enough to attend the premiere screening of Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story at the Traverse City Film Festival, thanks to my buddy JT and especially his lovely wife Heidi, who gave up her ticket so I could see it (thanks again, Heidi). It's an excellent documentary about Detroit's Grande (pronounced grand-ee) Ballroom, which was THE place to be for Detroit rock and roll in the late 1960s. The phrase "kick out the jams" was COINED at the Grande. Everyone played there: Mitch Ryder, Iggy and The Stooges, Alice Cooper, The Who, SRC, The Amboy Dukes, The Rationals, The James Gang, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Dick Wagner and The Frost, Cream, Bob Seger, and, of course, the MC5, who were more or less the house band there.

One of the many great things about this film is that it makes a really great argument for the Grande as the premier ROCK ballroom, as opposed to the premier arena for the music of the counterculture. The mid-1960s saw Detroit begin to have its problems (race riots, urban decay) and so the people of that city began to take on a hard-edged stance just to be able to survive. Plus, it was (and still is) a blue-collar, industrial place, where machinery, noise and ugliness were just part of everyday living. Detroit rock and roll always had a bit of toughness to it, but by the heyday of the Grande, the noise and (dare I say it?) grunginess in the music was pushed more and more to the forefront, and Detroiters embraced it as their own. As a result, the Grande kicked ass - you weren't gonna see Crosby, Stills and Nash or Melanie at the Grande - somebody (probably one of the MC5) would have kicked them right off the stage and given them an ass-whipping they'd not soon forget. When Janis Joplin first played there with Big Brother, the audience (and the other acts) gave the group what for until they amped it up! That was the prevailing wind at the Grande - kick out the jams or get the FUCK off the stage so somebody else can.

Perhaps someday there'll be a documentary about the early Detroit rockers from the late 50s and early 60s; the original badasses like Jack Scott, Bill Haley, The Royaltones, Danny Zella & The Zell Rocks......and Del Shannon.

Del Shannon (1934-1990) was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His mother taught him the ukelele at a young age, and soon he became proficient on guitar. By 1958, he had joined a rockabilly band in Battle Creek, where he changed his name to Del Shannon. Del became a familiar face in clubs in Battle Creek and Ann Arbor, and in 1960 Ann Arbor deejay Ollie McLaughlin introduced Del to producers Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik, who signed him to their EmBee Productions company, who had a lease deal with Bigtop Records in New York.

We all know what happened next. Shannon's very first 45, "Runaway", became a #1 national hit, and he became a star. For the next two years, Del racked up hit after hit on Bigtop and toured the world, meeting The Beatles on a tour of the UK in 1963. He really liked their tune "From Me To You" and recorded and released it as a single when he got back to the States - it hit #77 on the charts in July of 1963, becoming the first tune penned by Lennon-McCartney to chart in the US. Unfortunately, that was his last single on Bigtop; a feud with Balk and Micahnik came to a head at that time (seems they weren't paying him his correct royalties) and Del broke with EmBee Productions. He formed his own label, Ber-Lee Records, but EmBee had his records blackballed throughout the industry, and Ber-Lee folded after just two releases; Del gave in and returned to EmBee. By this time Bigtop had been bought out by the Amy/Mala/Bell group of labels in New York, and so Del's recordings were now leased to Amy Records.

The hits continued: "Handy Man", "Do You Want To Dance", "Keep Searchin'" and "Stranger In Town". Del also had a hit with his song "I Go To Pieces" when Peter and Gordon recorded it. But by mid-1965, the winds of change really began to hit the rock and roll scene. Del saw it coming. Living and playing in the Detroit area, Shannon undoubtedly heard the harder rock that had yet to hit the mainstream, and decided that this was the direction to go into. Pairing with Motown session man and guitar legend Dennis Coffey, they wrote "Move It On Over", possibly one of the LOUDEST records ever made, and released it on Amy in August of 1965.

Unfortunately, it was waaaaay to early in the game for Del to release a monstrosity like this. The record flopped, only reaching #128 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" chart. People must have thought that Del had lost his mind. It didn't help that the song shared a title with a Hank Williams classic, since Del had released an LP of Hank Williams songs several months before, and folks probably thought it was just a remake (like I did when I first saw this 45). But MAN ALIVE is this an aggressive record! Del sounds like he's trying his damnedest to completely blow his voice out, while Dennis Coffey and the band churn out some NASTY punk-rock (and the briefest guitar solo in history).

I'm sure the crowd at the Grande Ballroom would have loved this.....if they only knew about it.

Del Shannon - Move It On Over (Amy 937) - 1965