Grooves & Cuts February 2022 – By John Apice
GROOVES & CUTS – RETRO SINGERS WHO ROCKED…FOR AWHILE – Part 2
Continued from last month. Middle-of-the-road/easy listening artists take the plunge to sing songs a little rockier, edgier & darker.
Ronnie Dove was a good-looking Virginia-born 60s pop stylist who had a string of 60s hits (he charted 20 times in the Top 100). He hit with a cover of Wanda Jackson’s “Right or Wrong,” & “One Kiss For Old Times Sake,” both #14. On the R&B Cashbox charts “Right or Wrong,” went as high as #4. Some were arranged by singer-songwriter Ray Stevens (that may be Dove’s link to his later career in country music).
Dove’s hits came on the Diamond label (where Johnny Thunder recorded “Loop-de-Loop”). He was good enough to be invited on The Ed Sullivan Show & signed later to major labels (Decca, MCA & Melodyland (Motown country label).
However, long before that, the pop singer tried a more rock-oriented style from his pop tunes. I feel he carried it off admirably when he recorded Neil Diamond’s “My Babe” (Charted #50) with radiant-soul & Neil’s obvious late 60s vocal style. Though that may have been the pitfall. He sounded too much like Neil. It played on NYC radio stations as well as the flip — also a Neil Diamond rocker “Put My Mind At Ease.”
Dove, despite releasing many LPs had artistic class, was respected, but was never a player with other artists, or part of an entertainment clique. Upon a return to singing in the 90s after a layoff, his song “Happy Summer Days,” was used in an Amazon commercial.
Photo courtesy of Dove’s Twitter with legendary Brenda Lee & Cameron Robertson. http://www.ronniedove.com/
Then Barbra Streisand — who had hits with songs from musicals & standard songbooks. In 1971 someone must have introduced her to the Laura Nyro repertoire since she recorded Laura’s classic “Stony End” along with a few others. I’m not a big Streisand fan but Barbra did a fine job on Laura’s material. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the thrust of the lyrics, but the issue was trying to apply her showbiz instincts with showboating pipes into what she believed were soulful tones. They weren’t.
She over-emphasized, embellished, was too over the top where she should’ve focused more on being expressive. Maybe that was the fault of the producer Richard Perry who always tried to go big guns with his productions.
Barbra did sing the song with her usual professional polish, but my biggest question is this: she had a hit with Laura’s song & the album was a hit as well. Why then didn’t she record more Laura songs, or explore the other female singer-songwriters like Judee Sill in her subsequent albums? She didn’t. She fell back to the showbiz hack songwriters, Brill Building & Tin Pan Alley remnants, & the basic musical tunes from a variety of Broadway shows. Her saving grace was that she always performed with power, authority & had a huge loyal fan base. Many former Judy Garland fans probably. I went back to Grace Slick.
But I’ll admit surprise when she released “Stony End.” This wasn’t her territory. I was even more surprised when I liked it. She stepped out of her comfort zone & scored. The LP artwork was also superb for Streisand with her seated in the back of a rugged pickup truck. But she never revisited that coolness. A missed opportunity for sure.
Then there was R&B singer Brook Benton. Class personified. One of Elvis’ favorite artists. I wasn’t really listening to this music in 1962 at 10 years old but it sounded good. “I’m checking out of…hotel loneliness, all my lonely days are through.”
The whole song by Leon Carr & Earl Shuman with noir lyrics, slippery blues/jazz intonation & sexy female voices was gripping. Benton’s finale when he goes full-throttle to the coda is spine-tingling. Brook was always a great singer, but this was exceptional.
Then NY-born Tiny Tim (Herbert Buckingham Khaury – 1932-1996). Yes, the novelty singer who made a career of the 1929 song “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips.” Khaury was actually an accomplished singer/musician/archivist. No fool.
Biff Rose, an accomplished folk singer/songwriter of the era wrote “Fill Your Heart,” with Paul Williams (writer of many songs for The Carpenters & others). Rose recorded the song, then Tiny Tim covered it followed by David Bowie.
The song was good, with a great chart arrangement & barrelhouse piano. Reprise Records probably used the same studio orchestra they used on Sammy Davis, Jr.’s hit 1968 records. This was one skillful orchestra. With tongue in cheek — Tiny Tim was at times excellent & he works well in an orchestrated context.
Tim’s LP version starts hokey with narration & a silly intro. But the 45 gets to the point quickly. There are hints of Tiny Tim’s comic voice but for the most part, he uses his straight voice to his advantage & it’s imbued with power. It shows listeners that if he had to sing straight he could do it – with a superb orchestra. I like Biff Rose, but he lacked what Tiny Tim had. Tim clearly had show-biz expertise & pizzazz. Rose’s orchestra & sax support was good, but his voice was too thin to carry it. Tiny Tim later in his career even recorded & performed with Brave Combo.
A big shift in gears by a singer who turned from what made him famous was risky. Fans abandoned, ignored the LP. But some new fans came. This was resultant of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart (who years later disowned this LP despite it being quite good to ears that couldn’t grasp his original avant-garde experimental concepts).
Bluejeans & Moonbeams, (Mercury Records) – both the LP & song — was filled with good music by the Captain’s proficient musicians. It was well-recorded & the material had melodies with exceptionally warm, understood, vocals by Beefheart. Still, devoted fans called it the “sell-out” album.” To pay the bills.
But I think it proves Vliet’s diversity. He could’ve released LPs with an Americana-pop twist anytime. He could’ve shared the stage with many roots-blues artists. He chose not to. He was eccentric. Singer-performance/artist Kate Bush said she loves this album.
You have to enjoy this song & LP for what it is. Normally, Captain Beefheart wouldn’t really be Americana-Roots music, but this collection shows & shares the possibility. Yes, his die-hard fans were disappointed, expected more weird stuff but Beefheart turned serious for a moment in a more commercial vein, proved he could, then went back to being the innovative artist he always was. He sang in his original earlier voice like a white Howlin’ Wolf (that influenced Tom Waits). There must’ve been something to this man’s musical chemistry. I’ll risk saying that even though Captain Beefheart was innovative he also didn’t fully realize his potential. His audience wanted him to remain locked in the character he created.
Two peculiar song twists from Was (Not Was) convinced jazz-crooner the late Mel Torme & the late easy-listening Frank Sinatra, Jr., to sing in their respective styles with an added bit of edginess that the singers never exhibited before. The songs were written expressively for their detour into strange lands.
The dapper, scat-singing Velvet Fog didn’t approach this session as a novelty but a challenge. The piano-driven Zaz (Turned Blue), is exactly that. A kid who started to turn blue, what could we do? It has dark quirky humor, but Torme narrates/sings it with cocktail-jazz angst. You don’t laugh though it’s funny, it’s like you’re in a Gahan Wilson cartoon. Mel was in a Tom Waits world at the steering wheel, driving with the headlights off.
PJ Harvey did a cover of Zaz as well. The songs’ available on Was (Not Was) “Born To Laugh At Tornadoes.” B&W photo of Mel courtesy Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images.
Was (Not Was) wasn’t finished. Their next CD What Up, Dog? included a studio take of “Wedding Vows in Vegas,” but the live performance on David Letterman is delicious. Frank Sinatra Jr backed by a rock band & their cool black doo-wop/R&B vocalists in colorful threads lay down a backup Frank Jr. or his Dad never had. At no time does Frank sing with novelty or tongue in cheek. It’s all straight-faced, serious & impressive.
The lyrics are serious, clever & performed. It’s still easy listening & sounds almost like his father (talking & singing) in a saloon joint. The tune has a nice solid flute solo toward the end & maintains ambiance & atmosphere. Frankie was far better than many gave him credit for. He’s got the phrasing, intonation, & tone down.
I’m happy Frank Jr. had the balls to team with Was (Not Was). He did a great job. I think Mel Torme may have encouraged him. The lyrics are online — follow along. It’s an interesting middle-of-the-road melody that tells an engaging story. Color image of Frank Jr. courtesy of UPI.
Scott Metzger – Too Close To Reason
Acoustic guitar-aficionados may find interest in this stylistic guitarist’s 12 solo guitar tunes on his debut (RPF Records-Drops March 4). The music is pastoral/ambient but somewhat (not all the time) reminiscent of John Fahey, who was a little more rural/rootsy & traditional. Metzger’s influences are as diverse as Django Reinhardt, Jim Hall, Danny Gatton, Richard Thompson & Chet Atkins.
Scott, while not as flamboyant as Australian master Tommy Emmanuel, the late Glen Campbell or Roy Clark has a fluid way of playing that can be easily appreciated by those who enjoy well-played, accomplished, proficient acoustic guitar performances.
The first single from the LP is the countrified “Don’t Be a Stranger.” Quite enjoyable. Color photo courtesy of Andy Hess.
Sylvia Rose Novack – A Miss / A Masterpiece
February 18th saw the release of the first single from Ms. Novack (bass/producer/multi-instrumentalist). The bravura alt-country sizzler “Man I Used To Be,” that though it doesn’t sound like Lucinda Williams does have that Lucinda affirmation. Ms. Novack manages to successfully get her catchy pop fused into her intense lyrics with rock projection — it all works effectively.
The single comes from her upcoming 5th album, the 10-cut “A Miss / A Masterpiece,” (Independent-Drops May 20th) that is apparently a transitional album for Sylvia.
The Alabama-born Sylvia Rose is still trying to find her comfort zone though what she has done is distinguishable. Perhaps this new LP will be more rock-oriented but if it’s anything like this first single it will be of interest. Sylvia has a Sheryl Crow-type appearance but she’s closer to the heart & grit of Lucinda. Color image courtesy of her website. https://sylviarosenovak.com/
Elle Sera – Little Fire EP
This set of 4 distinctive songs is a genre-bending extended play that focuses on inspiration & connection. Elle has a strong unique voice that’s instantly attractive. She may be hard to classify but then most potentially great, creative & compelling artists are.
This independent EP release of “Little Fire” drops Feb. 25 & starts with “Sunshine Twilight,” a good acoustic tune with a little touch of Aimee Mann/Natalie Merchant tonality. Though she doesn’t have the rough edges of the legendary English singer Marianne Faithful I hear some Marianne in Elle’s pronunciation of certain words.
Nonetheless her style has continuity. What’s fine is her smooth ability. Different from many other contemporary female vocalists. Her singing & how she weaves through her melodies are skillful. She starts “Never Give Up,” with a funky-guitar lick, a snap of drums & Elle adds a pinch of soul to her smokier vocal. Excellent. It’s a toss of the dice that comes up to 7s for her.
“Simple Life,” – to lose distractions, just exist & enjoy the journey that is this life. It certainly will pass quickly. What she’s created is a set of expressive tunes, with some optimism. The finality is memorable.
Press photos by Hernan Restrepo. A full LP could be equally compelling. https://elleseramusic.com/
All CDs are available as noted or on the artists’ website.
Grooves & Cuts — February 2022