By Jeff Burger
There’s a modicum of truth to the notion that rock and roll hit a slump in the late 50s and early 60s—from around the time that Elvis entered the Army and Buddy Holly died until the Beatles-led British Invasion and psychedelia arrived to shake things up. But don’t believe anyone who tells you that that in-between era was just a vast wasteland peopled by the likes of Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Bryan Hyland. Some excellent music was being made at the time, and much of it issued from the so-called girl groups that first flourished during this period.
You can trace the roots of their R&B- and doowop-influenced sound back to at least the mid 50s and outfits like the Teen Queens and the Chordettes. But this genre really took off a few years later, with the emergence of groups like the Shirelles, the Jaynetts, the Dixie Cups, the Cookies, and the Shangri-Las. Then, of course, came all the Phil Spector–produced acts, including the Ronettes and the Crystals, and the Motown explosion that introduced names like the Supremes and the Marvelettes.
The work of most such outfits is well documented on albums of their own, so the lion’s share of the many girl-group compilation albums that have appeared in recent years—including Rhino’s monumental four-disc One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found—have mixed tracks from well-known acts with one-wonders and no-hit notables. The recently issued Basement Beehive: The Girl Group Underground, a two-CD set, digs even deeper, focusing exclusively on obscurities. Ever hear of the Petites, the Monzas, or Dot and the Velveletts? How about the Para-Monts, the Mellow Dawns, or the Four J’s? Neither had I. But you’ll find two cuts from each of them and a whole lot of other chartless acts on this 56-track collection, whose contents were culled from records released on small regional labels throughout the U.S. during the 1960s.
If you like the genre, you’re bound to appreciate a great deal of the music here, which mixes ballads with uptempo numbers and focuses almost exclusively on young love; there are songs about yearning for it, searching for it, finding it, defending it, losing it, crying about it, refusing to cry about it, and more. The records variously sound as tough as the Shangri-Las, as sweet as the Chantells, and as sexy as the Ronettes—and many of them are as good as the girl-group material that did ride the charts.
Granted, the program includes a few train wrecks, like Bernadette Carroll’s inane ditty about a dance called “The Humpty-Dump” and Vickie and the Van Dykes’s discordant “I Wanna Be a Winner.” Listening to the bulk of Basement Beehive, however, you may well conclude that what separated these acts from the hit-makers of their time had less to do with talent than with luck and connections. Among the many highlights: the Belles’ garage-rocker, “Melvin,” which is Van Morrison’s “Gloria” with a new name; Paulette and the Cupids’ “Teenage Dropout,” which boasts a lead vocalist who could compete with Mary Wells; the Chapells’ “Help Me Somebody” and the Passionetts’ “My Fault,” which sound redolent of the Supremes’ hits; and “Will You Be My Love” by the Four J’s and Judi and the Affections’ sax-spiced “Dum Dum De Dip,” both of which would have fit right in on Spector’s Back to Mono box.
Good Old Boys, Drink Up & Go Home. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia appeared on a fine live 1975 self-titled bluegrass album by Old and in the Way, which featured singer/guitarist Peter Rowan and mandolinist David Grisman. Garcia also produced Pistol Packin’ Mama, a 1976 studio album by the Good Old Boys, a group that featured David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage, mandolin master Frank Wakefield, and three other players. When two of those other three were unavailable for live shows in the wake of the album’s recording, Nelson, Wakefield, and original bassist Pat Campbell added Garcia on banjo and a few lead vocals and fiddler Brantley Kearns (Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam). This well-restored, 24-track recording, on two CDs, preserves 1975 concert material from this quintet that was recorded at a joint called Margarita’s Cantina in Santa Cruz, California. The program includes such bluegrass chestnuts as “Ashes of Love,” “Deep Elem Blues,” “Wildwood Flower,” “T for Texas,” and the set-closing “Orange Blossom Special.” The performances, which recall those on Old and in the Way’s album, are loaded with high-spirited vocalizing and lightning-fast mandolin and violin work.
The Cleverlys, Blue. You wouldn’t expect to find Rod Argent’s “She’s Not There” (the 1967 Zombies hit)—not to mention Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Beyonce’s“Irreplaceable”—sharing a program with a tune by first-generation bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley. But that’s what you’ll encounter on this set from the Cleverlys, who are nothing if not clever. The group consists of the five Cleverly “brothers,” who are in fact as related to one another as Joey Ramone is to Tommy Ramone. There’s humor in this bluegrass/pop fusion, but mostly there’s just good bluegrass, with virtuoso fiddle and banjo work and fine harmony vocals.
Mitch Woods, A Tip of the Hat to Fats. Recorded live last year at New Orleans’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, this vibrant set from longtime pianist/vocalist Mitch Woods and his band will have you turning up the volume and tapping your feet. As the title suggests, the album pays tribute to the great Fats Domino—Woods does full justice to both “Walking to New Orleans” and “Blue Monday”— but classics from other artists get their due as well, including Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (often cited as the first rock and roll record), and Ella Mae Morse’s “House of Blue Lights.” Expect lively swing/boogie-woogie piano, amiable vocals, and tasty sax work.
Mary Lane, Travelin’ Woman. Though Chicago blues singer Mary Lane has been singing since childhood, she didn’t release her debut album until she turned 63, and she waited another 20 years to produce a follow–up. Yup, she’s an octogenarian, but she sure doesn’t sound ready to slow down. Lane—who has shared stages with giants like Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells—can still belt out the blues. She cowrote all the tracks on this sophomore release, mostly with her Grammy-winning producer Jim Tullio, who has worked with artists ranging from Richie Havens and Rick Danko to Steve Goodman and David Bromberg. In most cases, Tullio would supply the music and, while the band played, Lane would ad lib the lyrics, some of which sound autobiographical. The instrumentalists can really cook, but Lane shines brightest on the cuts where her voice is most prominent, such as “Make Up Your Mind,” where Colin Linden’s acoustic slide dobro provides the only accompaniment, and the soulful “Let Me in Your Heart”. Buddy Guy has called Lane “the real deal,” and after listening to this album, you’ll understand why.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.