Classic Music Review: Early Girl 7″ Hits, Part 2

merillee-ketty-gale

Okay! JFK has saved the world from destruction and we can go back to our study of women in music in the pre-and post-liberation era from 1955 and 1968. You’ll remember that we ended the first half of the review of Early Girl 7″ Hits with a painful look at the idiotic “Johnny Get Angry” by Joanie Sommers. I neglected to mention that Joanie was a familiar face on the game shows of the era, including Hollywood Squares and You Don’t Say. Does appearing on idiotic game shows cancel out recording an idiotic song, based on the theory of double negatives? I’ll let my readers ponder that conundrum while I move on to artists with way, way, way more talent and substance.

1962 “Love Letters” by Ketty Lester, Billboard #5: Though there are other good tunes in this collection, this is the one that truly makes the investment worthwhile. Ketty Lester had already played at the Purple Onion in San Francisco and toured Europe with Cab Calloway, so by this time she was a professional singer with extraordinary phrasing and command. “Love Letters” had been relegated to the B-side of her second single, but the disc jockeys of the time united in revolt and began playing “Love Letters” instead (the single was actually released in 1961 but the revolt and success did not occur until 1962). Backed by a sparse arrangement featuring the multi-talented Lincoln Mayorga on piano and the fabulous Earl Palmer on drums, “Love Letters” stands out as a work of exceptional sophistication at a time when pop music was almost completely absorbed with dance crazes. The structure is fascinating, especially the change from C to F#m on the first verse, a change you would normally only hear in post-Charlie-Parker jazz (the original was recorded by Dick Haymes back in 1945). While neutral in terms of message, “Love Letters” is a strong piece by a strong, multi-talented woman. Hooray!

1962 “Party Lights” by Claudine Clark, Billboard #5: Flipping to the dumb side of the ledger, let me present Claudine Clark’s “Party Nights.” Claudine is certainly an enthusiastic singer but could have benefitted from some basic training in phrasing, for not only do the lyrics spill out in a chaotic rush but she has an annoying habit of adding growl to her voice at all the wrong moments, like on that emotionally-laden word “in.” It’s like the producer told her before the take, “Don’t forget to growl” and the reminder popped up in her little head at random intervals. The lyrics describe a situation where momma won’t let her go to the party where all the kids are doing The Fish, The Mashed Potatoes, The Watusi and The Twist. What a fucking tragedy.

1962 “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” by Barbara Lynn, Billboard (made top ten): Oh, yeah! Barbara Lynn is an amazing talent on so many levels, and one of the great limit-defying women of her time. She wrote most of her own songs. She played lead electric guitar. Accomplished in both straight blues and R&B, she toured with many of the stars of her time: Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and B. B. King. What happened to this incredible talent? She found herself getting burned out on record company bullshit, decided to raise a family and went on a long hiatus in the 70’s and 80’s. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” is about a woman who isn’t going to take any more shit from her man. Her tone is not threatening or bitter, but confident and secure:

This is my last time
Not asking any more
If you don’t do right
I’m gonna march outta that door

And if you don’t be-lie-eve me
Just try it, daddy
And you’ll lose a good thing

1963 “Just One Look” by Doris Troy (née Higginsen, grew up as Doris Payne), Billboard #10: Doris escaped her Pentecostal parents with the help of James Brown and co-wrote this hit that has been covered multiple times. None of them come close to the original because none of them had Doris’ natural feel for the song. While her adoption of the “schemin’ woman” role here is a distraction, it’s compensated by the genuine passion of love at first sight. Doris sang backup for The Stones, Pink Floyd and others, and was one of the artists signed by The Beatles to Apple Records, co-producing her first Apple disc with George Harrison. She also co-wrote a stage musical based on her life, Mama, I Want to Sing. Doris was another remarkable talent from the era who deserves more attention than she’s received from music historians.

1963 “Mama Didn’t Lie” by Jan Bradley, Billboard #14: Written by Curtis Mayfield, the theme here is that men are to be treated with suspicion because they have many sneaky methods at their disposal to get down a girl’s pants. Jan’s mama doesn’t want her to wind up like Tess Durbeyfield, so mama reminds her that she’s “got a whole lot of growin’ and learnin’ to do,” which was half of my mother’s message to me when she told me about sex (she figured that I could handle the guys without any help). I love how Jan goes up an octave to begin the chorus, a clever little variation that sticks in one’s mind. Jan left the business to raise a family and do social work, bless her heart.

1963 “My Coloring Book” by Sandy Stewart, Billboard (made top 40): Sandy was a regular on popular variety shows of the 50’s and 60’s like Perry Como’s and Eddie Fisher’s. Barbra Streisand’s version is probably the better known, but let’s be honest: this song sucks. The idea behind it is contrived, to say the least: the singer wants you, the listener, to imagine her life is a coloring book, and instructs you in how to color it in that annoyingly pleasant voice used by kindergarten teachers everywhere: “Crayons ready? Very well. Begin to color me.” That turns out to be a bad set of instructions, because the first thing you have to color are the eyes of the guy who dumped her. For some reason, you color them gray. Then you color her heart blue. Then, because the idiots (Ebb and Kander) who wrote this song didn’t have their Crayola box handy, they couldn’t think of a color, so you’re instructed to color her arms “empty.” How do you color something empty? Does that mean not color them at all? Golly gee whiz, that’s no fun! The writers suddenly remember another color and have you color the woman’s beads green (with envy, I guess), but then abandon all attempts to hold the metaphor together and have you color her room “lonely” and her man “gone.” So much for two heads being better than one. They should have gotten Donovan on the phone—now there’s a guy who knows his colors!

1963 “Please Don’t Talk to the Lifeguard” by Diane Ray, Billboard unknown: Oh, for fuck’s sake. This cutesy-wutesy ditty is a sister song to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” which pretty much says it all. Sung in a high-pitched little girl voice reeking of bubblegum as she drools over the “dark and handsome, golden tan” in the era when tans were considered healthy, this is the definition par excellence of “unlistenable.”

1964 “I’m into Something Good” by Earl-Jean McCrea, Billboard #38: Earl-Jean left The Cookies after they’d scored a couple of hits with “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby) and “Chains,” one of the worst Beatles covers of all. Her version of this Goffin-King number is pleasant, but is performed at a more relaxed tempo than Herman Hermits’ version and lacks the joyful enthusiasm of Peter Noone’s vocal. Apparently the listening public felt as I do, as Herman’s Hermits’ rendition made it to #13 in the U. S. and #1 in the U. K.

1964 “The Wedding” by Julie Rogers, Billboard #10: Double oh, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t think anything could be as bad as “Padre,” but I guess I have a limited imagination. Interspersed with snippets from Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and bursts from another angelic host, this turkey celebrates the concept that a woman’s potential can only be achieved through holy fucking matrimony. Let me ask my older viewers something: did women of that era want to get married because a.) they were programmed to believe that this is what it meant to become a woman, or b.) it was the only legitimate means of getting laid. If b.), how did they reconcile such impure thoughts with the alleged holiness of a church wedding? Anyway, there’s something very strange in these lyrics that I believe might have escaped the attention of the enthralled morons who thought this horrid piece of work was the most beautiful piece of music ever created:

You by my side, that’s how I see us,
I close my eyes, and I can see us,
We’re on our way to say I do-oo
My secret dreams have all come true-oo.

Why were her dreams secret? Was this wedding the result of some nefarious female scheme to stick it to another broad? Or, even better, was she a KGB agent posing as an airhead female in order to secure top-secret information from her intended? I’d really love this song if that were true-oo.

1964 “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett, Billboard #4: Finally! A breakthrough moment in the collective female consciousness! Gale Garnett had only entered the music business reluctantly, as she had her heart set on an acting career. Her unusually deep voice attracted the attention of record company executives forever in search of gimmicks and RCA signed her to a contract. “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” is her own composition, and an incredibly frank and direct declaration of female independence—the exact opposite of the philosophy of “The Wedding”. Gale sets the parameters—I’ll never love you, I’ll live with you one year (outside of marriage!), and when it’s over, here’s the deal:

And when our year has ended
And I have gone away
You’ll often speak about me
And this is what you’ll say

We sang in the sunshine
You know, we laughed every day
We sang in the sunshine
Then she went on her way

Gale stayed in the business a few more years, found the music industry draining and despicable, and returned to her acting career. She authored several books, and now goes by the name Gale Zoe Garnett. To my knowledge she has never married, and those of you who believe that deep-voiced women must be lesbians will be disappointed to learn that Gale’s main squeezes have been men . . . and I suppose the relationships last for as long as she decides they’ll last.

Given the norms of the time, I’m rather astonished that “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” topped the Pop charts, the Adult Contemporary charts and the Country charts. I find it hard to believe that the ethnocentric sexist Americans of that period in history were too dumb to understand the lyrics, although it is likely that they assumed she was American because everybody who doesn’t speak English with a noticeable accent must be an American (Gale was born in New Zealand and moved to Canada when young). Perhaps they focused on the chorus and thought it was about picnics or camping trips instead of a manifesto of women’s sexual liberation.

1966 “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” by Norma Tanega, Billboard #22: We finally arrive at the place where we began. If you liked Spanky and Our Gang, you’ll love this inoffensive, whimsical little number. It’s a perfect fit with the gentler songs that characterized the early Hippie movement like Sopwith Camel’s “Hello, Hello.” There’s even a nonsensical set of lines that I’m sure nascent flower children loved to contemplate: “Dog is a good old cat/People, what you think of that?/That’s where I’m at/That’s where I’m at.” Deep.

1968 “Love Makes a Woman” by Barbara Jean Acklin, Billboard #11: Barbara Jean’s contribution to the album is pretty standard soul fare highlighted by her ability to sing precise notes on shortened vowels, making for a nice fluttering effect. The message is that love is more important to a woman than money, but since women remain horribly underpaid in comparison to men, it’s a classic moot point.

1968 “Angel in the Morning” by Merrilee Rush, Billboard #7: Merrilee’s contribution to social progress had to do with legitimizing extramarital sex for the general public via the power of pop music (the song was written by the same guy who wrote “Wild Thing”). She had two credentials that enabled her to assume this role. First, she had the smoky, expressive and authentic voice that you need for a song like this. Second, she was seriously fucking hot, a girl that anyone would want to wake up to in the morning. The important point of the song is that the woman chooses to spend the night with a man with full understanding of the consequences: “If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned/Well, it was what I wanted now.” I like the doubt and hesitation in the song, because it reflects a reality of culture change: it doesn’t happen overnight. Everybody didn’t start fucking with abandon the day after the FDA approved The Pill (at least there’s no evidence of that in the historical record). The Pill may have liberated the body, but the female psyche remained uncertain.

The video below captures Merrilee’s vocal without the harmonies and overdubs, adding a dimension of raw emotion to her performance:

A little more than a decade later, both Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde would be openly celebrating not only sex but BDSM sex . . . quite an acceleration in the sexual liberation process. I was curious about this, so I contacted my aunt, who grew up during this period in the United States. She told me that there was still a general stigma attached to extramarital sex until Burt Reynolds posed nude for Cosmopolitan. “After that, women became wild savages,” she said. “Flirting became less coy and more out there. Women started talking about it more openly, especially at work. It made the day go by faster. We still had boring jobs, you know.”

I found it fascinating and more than a little disturbing that the entertainment industry could have such a powerful influence on individual behavior. In that sense, popular music has the power to reinforce existing cultural traditions and sanction new ones. Looking at it from that perspective, perhaps the airheads of the 50’s and 60’s were not unique in their inability to think for themselves . . . because most women (most people, really) today don’t think for themselves either.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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