January 2022 – By John Apice
GROOVES & CUTS – PART 1 – RETRO SINGERS WHO ROCKED…FOR AWHILE
Sometimes I like to explore things that are a curiosity.
This month, easy listening, middle-of-the-road (MOR), pop vocalists who did not rock, sing folk music or country — but took a risk, gave it their best shot, & recorded something slightly different from their comfort zone standards.
Some for a moment actually had a hint of a rock voice — Pat Boone.
Right from the start during his novelty hit “Speedy Gonzales,” Boone let loose with a flurry of clever lyrics & a remarkable rock vocal…”You better come home Speedy Gonzalez…away from Cannery Row…stop all of your drinkin’….with that floozy named Flo….” Excellent lyrics.
Not to forget Elton John lifted the catchy female la-la-la melody line in “Speedy Gonzales,” for his “Crocodile Rock,” hit years later.
Boone had many fine songs: “Moody River,” (a #1), “Love Letters In the Sand.” These weren’t recorded in that white-bread cover mode that basically derailed him as a serious rock vocalist & led to some ridicule. Songs like “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Tutti-Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” & “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Too bluesy & rollicking for a Pat Boone. He never got into it. The originals were far more exciting (though it could be argued that the originals were not at the time — commercially viable. They were cruder).
Pat Boone was for a while second only to Elvis in record sales & Boone still holds a Billboard record for spending 220 consecutive weeks on the charts with one or more songs per week.
Pat’s later career misstep: recording a 1997 LP called In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. 12 classic heavy metal rock songs you’d never think Boone would touch. Some are cheesy with their big band arrangements; some aren’t bad at all considering the source.
Who’s involved with this LP may surprise you: Deep Purple’s Richie Blackmore, Dweezil Zappa, Ronnie James Dio, Merry Clayton, Tom Scott, Lenny Castro, & Sheila E among many others. It got some good reviews, & it charted. Boone did look convincingly metal in the photographs.
Further down in South America in 1963, the bossa nova (a cross between jazz & samba) was brewing. Eydie Gorme’s lively & infectious hit “Blame It On the Bossa Nova,” was written by rock-pop songwriters Cynthia Weill & Barry Mann (not Eydie’s regular songwriting well). This should’ve led to more rambunctious tunes from the energetic middle-of-the-road singer Gorme. She had the voice & personality to do it. But she didn’t. She continued to record good songs throughout her career but was always in her comfort zone until 1997 – read on.
The cheesy Vox organ was in vogue at the time, but it dates the tune now. Eydie & the female backup singers were superb. The mix on “Blame It On the Bossa Nova,” could’ve been hotter, upfront with the percussion. Her voice, intonation, phrasing & tonality – are marvelous. Exciting singing. A well-arranged, melodic pop hit based on a new dance craze that followed The Twist. This lady pushed through to score #7 in the rock Top 10 (on charts & radio).
Though I’ll admit commercial rock/pop music didn’t have a lock on the 1963 Billboard/Cash Box/Record World charts some MOR singers did manage to chart (Andy Williams, Al Martino, Henry Mancini, Nat King Cole, & Steve Lawrence), etc.
A heavy-end note: Eydie Gorme & her husband Steve Lawrence covered Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” in 1997. You heard right. It was in a lounge-jazz style that gave it a standards treatment. In 2005 Paul Anka did the same thing with the Soundgarden song. Temporary insanity maybe, that started with Pat Boone.
Of course, Frank Sinatra then conjured his dynamic, excellently arranged “That’s Life,” in 1966 — with sultry female backup similar to Ray Charles’ Raelettes. Frank’s voice whipped up the finest muscular saloon-singer/rock pipes I ever heard. His intonation, tone, phrasing & power was noticeably incredible – more than before. He was dirtier & used a rock voice Frank never used before. Obviously inspired by the lyrical structure.
It led to The Four Season’s Bob Gaudio & singer-songwriter Jake Holmes to produce & co-write his concept 1970 LP “Watertown.”
The song “I Would Be In Love (Anyway),” reached #4 on Billboard. The Four Season’s Charles Calello arranged/conducted (an orchestra that didn’t play live with Sinatra. A first for Frank & last. He tracked his voice later to the pre-recorded orchestrations).
Why didn’t Frank do another like “That’s Life?” Well, he did follow it with the equally vibrant “Summer Wind,” the career-defining “My Way,” & the classic “New York, New York.” All solid. So, perhaps he did. They weren’t rock-oriented, but they had muscle. Sometimes that’s all that’s required. “That’s Life,” is one of those songs that should never be covered by anyone else.
Sammy Davis Jr in 1968 put out a rollicking “I’ve Gotta Be Me” but the flipside was the tune that rocked. He cruised through “Bein’ Natural, Bein’ Me.” with excellent phrasing, sang every word as he meant it – a great song & not a novelty one which Sammy started to issue more of.
Dean Martin (country-inspired tune “Houston” – 1965) originally didn’t care for Elvis Presley though Sammy Davis, Jr. & Sinatra warmed to the Pelvis earlier. Dino, a stylist himself, seemed to lean more towards Elvis later — in an entire LP The Nashville Sessions, of bluesy country numbers, he finally recorded in 1983. He did it excellently. Relaxed. Not forced or chintzy with carefully selected tunes.
From the LP Dean covers Ivory Joe Hunter’s classic “Since I Met You Baby,” & does it well. Martin did add more of a country-edge to the accompaniment, but the bluesiness of the tune is there, with saxes & Dean’s sexy voice. Dean was certainly always a good interpreter & this blues classic fit the bill. He must have enjoyed doing the songs because he never sounded awkward.
Not to be left out, MOR mainstream singer Jack Jones took the well-written & arranged vibrant 45 “I’m Indestructible” onto rock radio in 1967. Briefly, but memorably. A typical commercial vehicle Jack added punch & vitality & proved, like Pat Boone earlier, that he had the pipes for rock if need be. Although it’s weighed down by Vegas orchestration (with good charts), the sax solo justifies it. Jack’s voice returns from the brief instrumental break with rock n’ roll power all over the lyrics. Quite dramatic & not too overblown. Impressive. Many rock singers don’t have that huskiness & power. A vivid lead vocal by Jack Jones. I was just a kid; I bought a Jack Jones record. Go figure.
These were all generous stabs at the R&R market of the 60s by personalities that weren’t of that genre. Many succeeded admirably. But in many respects, these easy listening singers were also Americana singers. They often pulled melodies from an American songbook & made newer ones’ standards. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Red Roses For a Blue Lady,” “Both Sides Now,” to name a few. Not chansons, torch ballads. Songs that America popularized as standard pop songs.
Next month (Feb), other non-rock artists take a chance, roll the dice & record rock-oriented tunes in their respective styles. Ronnie Dove, Barbra Streisand, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Tiny Tim, Brook Benton & even Captain Beefheart goes more commercial with a fine MOR voice.
Nico Padden – Pirate Queen – Independent
A piano-heavy tune “Pirate Queen,” sounds like it may have been a silly novelty song, but Nico Padden creates an atmosphere in her tune with touches of cello & big production values. Enjoyable.
There’s nothing earth-shaking here but Nico has the required pipes & an effective show-tune vocal style. If she doesn’t score with her folk/pop songs she’d be an ideal music hall or theater vocalist. She’s enjoyable.
The drummer on “Pirate Queen,” lays down some heavy-duty beats too & the bass is a sandstorm of sound.
Wonderfully produced. The 9-cut “Pirate Queen,” drops on Jan 28. “The Last Time,” released as a single is arranged in a very soulful 60s-70s style. Enjoyable.
Did I say it was enjoyable?
That’s it. That’s what it is. https://www.nicopadden.com/
Isabel Fryszberg & The Uncommons – Distance – Independent
Through the years I found this young Toronto lady’s videos/songs compelling stories. This effort set for a Feb. 11 release “Distance,” performed by Isabel Fryszberg & the Uncommons adds a bit of a Spanish tango. Coincidently & ironically a dance that requires the participants to maintain intimate contact with one another. Contrary to what the song is about since it explores conveniently what many are probably experiencing today due to the Covid circumstances. A yearning for connection in a time of separation & maintaining a distance.
A beautiful airy Latin-inspired trumpet seeps in & the 60s pop confection melody ala a slowed down bossa nova paints musical notes throughout the video alongside its watercolors by Isabel. While she adds sugar through her warm sensitive vocals the trumpet remains subtle & effective. It’s simple, but a well-arranged piece of music performed with disciple & polish.
Produced by Mitch Girlo it features Isabel (vocals), Steve Briggs (electric/acoustic & bass guitars/arrangement), Rebecca Hennessy (trumpet), Gary Craig (drums/percussion) & Rebecca Campbell (vocal harmony). The animation was by Ronley Teper & Saul Lederman. All paintings by Isabel. Available @ https://www.isabelfryszberg.com/music-1
In recent years the award-winning Isabel Fryszberg basically stepped away from country-type music & contemporary comparisons. She has dutifully & creatively found her voice & style. Much of what she produces is well-thought-out & applied in an engaging manner. Her previous videos “End of an Era,” & “Each Day a Little Less,” are marvelous stand-alone songs. Image of Isabel courtesy of Isabel Fryszberg.
Ian Lake – Easier – Independent
Ian Lake is another Toronto singer-songwriter/Canadian actor who releases a prestigious collection on “What It Is,” (drops later in 2022). But a single “Easier,” (drops Feb 4) is a letter of encouragement that’s a pleasant introduction. The song’s a contemporary slice of pop with a beautiful blue-eyed soul approach. Lake utilizes his heartbreaking vocals effectively & the backup vocalists are prominent & hot. The beat is Muscle Shoals deep. Lake’s vocal cruises nicely through the melody & words.
Recorded at Union Sound in Toronto, Lake explores with an impassioned voice personal stories of love, struggles, & lessons learned. Mr. Lake (Wurlitzer piano) is joined by Steve Zsirai (bass), producer Matthew Barber (drums/guitar/mellotron). The soulful harmonies are courtesy of Anika Johnson, Jewelle Blackman, & Barb Johnston.
In this era of electrified, techno & processed vocals Ian Lake offers a genuine shimmering showcase that goes to the heart more often than it goes to the feet.
B&W Image courtesy of Ian Lake website. Available @ Apple Music & https://www.ianlake.com/
Lots of good music coming in 2022 keep an eye on Americana Highways. All music is available as noted or on the artists’ website.