When I Stop Dreaming

Ray Charles, ABC-Paramount 45-11170, 1969, #112 Pop, #25 Adult Contemporary

My idea of the perfect party: having a few beers, sitting around with a group of friends singing harmony. In the Dallas area there’s an acoustic jam group of thirty-five-plus years run by a woman who is a wonderfully earthy singer and force of nature, and for several years of Sundays, I didn’t miss it. It was in this jam group that I met another force of nature, the late Jimmy Lee. Poor, bedeviled Jimmy Lee had a powerful voice, which he was able to masterfully control in order to convey intense longing on a ballad, and then follow it with hilarious irreverence.

Jimmy Lee brought a song to the jam circle once and requested that I harmonize with him on it. It was the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” a sweet and soaring ¾-time ballad that I’d heard but only vaguely remembered. We enjoyed our first, fumbling try so much that I learned the words, and we did the song every time we met thereafter. On every occasion, it was a thrill to sing: a well-wrought song with the strong, sure voice of Jimmy Lee laying the foundation. Yes, he sang happy-go-lucky brother Charlie Louvin’s lower melody part, and I sang the high harmony that crazy, drinkin’, wild-man brother Ira Louvin did originally. We all found out later how much more Jimmy Lee was like Ira than Charlie when Jimmy went to jail for murdering a business partner, and died there of cancer, well before his time.

It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original

The Louvins were the influential example of the filial harmony that the Everly Brothers carried to pop-rock immortality. Their commingling voices were sweet and pure, but their repertoire tended toward songs of death and despair—enough so that one collection of their songs is entitled Tragic Songs of Life. They could’ve sung the story of Jimmy Lee.

I recently came across a couple of other single versions of “When I Stop Dreaming.” In 1971, Charlie Louvin, now without his ill-fated brother, sings with perennial duetter Melba Montgomery. (She got around: In addition to Louvin, her recording partners included George Jones and Gene Pitney.) With only one Louvin Brother, it just ain’t the same. It’s a beautiful song that’s hard to tarnish, but a little too saccharine without Ira on hand. Another thirty-six years later, Charlie duetted on the song with Elvis Costello. Others who’ve covered “When I Stop Dreaming” include Roy Orbison, Emmy Lou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Louvinites Phil and Don Everly. Even The Everlys’ recording can’t compare to the original. The Louvins were just too perfectly suited to interpret the song, one of the few that they wrote.

But I also found Ray Charles’s version of the song, recorded for his Tangerine label in 1969. It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original, but it’s a gorgeous song that Ray puts his stamp on, and so it is worthy. Ray Charles transforms show-tunes, like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” standards, like “Georgia on My Mind,” even anthems, like “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles could take any song from any genre and make it his own.

Ray had had his way with C&W songs before, of course, but he’s holding back a little here when I’m thinking he could be less restrained; the strings and backing vocals are a little too sweet, and the pacing is sedate. But the vocal performance is moving and true, and I imagine Charlie, like me, may have preferred it to his own duets with Melba and with Elvis. But, of course, would still rank brother Ira over Brother Ray.

My True Story

The Jive Five, Beltone 1006, 1961, #3 Pop and #1 R&B

If I could pin down any doo-wop song as my favorite, it would be The Jive Five’s “My True Story.” Its verse is nothing special; it follows the usual “ice-cream changes” that 90+% of doo-wop songs do (you know: C down to A-minor, to F and then G, like “Heart and Soul”). But each chorus’s repeated falsetto up-swoop is rapturous, and I get lightheaded every time I hear it. I always find myself whistling it long after listening to it, much to the chagrin of those around me.

The Jive Five had three more singles that made the Billboard charts, but much farther down, and they produce no chills when listened to. One-hit-wonderful songs like “My True Story” are little miracles, marvels of the collaborative process that very occasionally creates one gem, never to be equaled.

The “true story” involves a love triangle that includes a guy named Earl, which not only conveniently rhymes with “girl” but also happens to be the first name of quite a few doo-wop singers (though not any of the Jive Five). The sad story that makes the singer “cry, cry, cry” is a sensitive one for him. Taking off on the Dragnet intro, he sings, “The names have been changed, dear, to protect you and I.” (As a grammar nerd, I can’t help but sing “me” to myself every time I hear the line. But as a doo-wop fan, I un-correct my correction, quickly enough not to screw up the meter.)

The song is credited to Eugene Pitt, The Jive Five’s lead singer, and a fellow named Oscar Waltzer. I’m guessing Oscar got co-credit for doing some of the business of getting the song published and/or broadcast. Oscar Waltzer—I’m sorry—is just not the name of a doo-wop/R&B songwriter. (Was it a name made up as a little joke? After all, “My True Story” is in waltz time.)

A side note about Eugene Pitt: Prior to forming The Jive Five, he had a group named The Genies. Two of the Genies went on to have a ’62 top-ten hit, “What’s Your Name?,” as Don and Juan. Another late-doo-wop-era goodie. I recall a long-ago sing-along party, during which we singing partiers had had way too much of something or another to drink. We sang “What’s Your Name” and milked the song’s big finish (What’s your na-a-ame? What’s your na-a-a-a-ame? Shooby-do-wah-wa-ahhh”) for all we could get out of it. Then one of us tagged the next song we sang with that ending, and after that it was every song for the rest of the evening, from “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to “In My Life.” It happened spontaneously and delighted us. When I tried doing that at another sing-along party years later, I just got annoyed looks. You can’t go home again.

Feeling Good

Ahmad Jamal, Argo 5504, 1965

Jazz is not for 45s.

Prior to the introduction of the 45 rpm and LP formats in the late ‘40s, jazz was recorded and heard on 78s, and there is still no better way to listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, or Django Reinhardt. Then, the LP came along and changed the way people listened to jazz and changed the way jazz artists delivered their music. Monk, Mingus, Miles, and other lights of the ‘50s and ’60s created albums of songs, mostly longer than a 78 or 45 side allowed, that flowed and created a sustained mood. In the CD and streaming eras, the LP format is still the way to listen to jazz.

Yes, there’ve been some jazz instrumental singles that charted in the 45 era. Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (written by band-member Joe Zawinul) made it to #11 Billboard in 1967, and Cannonball had a couple of charting singles before that one and a couple after. It stands on its own as a powerful 45, compacting a succession of dramatic tension-release waves into a three-plus-minute live performance captured nicely—if enhanced somewhat in post-production—on record.

Ramsey Lewis did Cannon even better, with a whole string of moderate hits and a couple of blockbusters, “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On, Sloopy.” All of these songs fall into the funky-groove mode, and they all were also big vocal hits by pop singers. “Feeling Good” meets all of these criteria—except that it wasn’t an instrumental hit.

“Feeling Good” started out in Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Ahmad Jamal transforms it. His piano pattern is hypnotic, the bass punctuation keeps things going, the drums never intrude. There’s space. It’s the kind of groove song that could go on and on, but it’s just perfect under the length restrictions of the 45. (“Leave them wanting more”—advice quite a few jazz performers might’ve benefited from.) I always sigh immediately after Ahmad and the band hit the final beat. I haven’t heard the album the song appears on, The Roar of the Greasepaint–which covers of all of the songs in the musical–but it’s the closer. Perfect.

In the same year of Jamal’s recording, Nina Simone put it on her I Put a Spell on You album, and that’s the version most people remembered—at least until Michael Buble did it decades later. Many others have covered it, from Traffic to Lauryn Hill.

As much as I love Nina Simone, and as strong as this number is in her body of work, I keep coming back to Ahmad Jamal’s combo and their understated and entrancing recording.

So Young (Love Theme from “Zabriskie Point”)

Roy Orbison, MGM K14121, 1970, #122 Pop

Before I came across this Roy Orbison single not long ago, I didn’t even know it existed. It’s called “So Young” and, in parentheses, “Love Theme from ‘Zabriskie Point.’” Really? Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic desert critique of American lifestyles had a “love theme” sung by Roy the Orb? Wacky but true. Roy hadn’t had any hits in a couple of years and may have been up for anything. Antonioni probably hadn’t ever heard of Roy Orbison, but maybe had a staffer who threw the idea out there as a gag, and it stuck. Roy does indeed sing the song over the movie credits (I don’t know how I could have forgotten that—oh, wait, yeah, I saw it in the early ‘70s with my pot-dealer dorm-mate), but it didn’t make it onto the Zabriskie Point soundtrack album, which is mostly made up of the predictable folks: Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones.

…not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

Zabriskie Point’s love theme is a nice little song, written by Orbison, along with record exec-turned Republican politician Mike Curb and Brian Wilson’s former car-song collaborator Roger Christian. It follows the same arc as those young-love mini-melodramas from the early ‘60s: a lower-register set of verses that gradually build in intensity and rise in pitch to an operatic big finish. “So Young” is not quite up to the level of Roy’s timeless classics, but it’s not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

When I joined Bowley & Wilson as a member of their Blue Bathroom Humor Band, I knew I was getting into something out of my comfort zone. I was an introvert among extreme extroverts, a reader among party animals. But it was an opportunity, the first in a long while, to make a steady income playing music. Of course, it wasn’t like the music I had been playing. I went from pursuing the sensitive singer-songwriter route to playing bass and singing backup on B&W originals like “Let’s Do It Dog Style” and “Oh Shit, Wouldja Look at Them Tits?”

John Bowley and John Wilson, who’d met in the late ‘60s as frat-mates at SMU, developed and honed their shtick over the years to transform from a progressive country duo into a raunchy-rock-‘n’-country stage show with a rabid regular following, many of them the next generation of SMU students. They were loud and nasty, but they thought of their show as a variation on vaudeville, with a magician, instrumentalists to showcase, and lots of bits involving the audience. I was the serious relief.

With the band moniker Creepy Steve, I was the nerd of the group, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. My predecessor on bass, Champagne Billy King, had been the nastiest, partyin’est band guy of all, and we all knew I could not fill that role. I was instead the misfit, the guy who didn’t quite belong, maybe a little embarrassed to be naughtily singing about tits and ass. During each set, I’d get a feature song, a chance to go from Creepy to The Voice by singing some bravura number. There were several over the years, but the one I got saddled with for long afterward was the Roy Orbison melodramatic mini-opera “Crying.”

The song was a favorite of mine for many years already when, while I was performing with my sixties cover band Circumstance, a regular customer told me he’d bump me some coke if I’d learn it. I did learn it, he rewarded me, and then continued to do so every time I sang it. In 1979, the cocaine was a great incentive. I sang the song a lot. After the coke phase, it was still exhilarating to sing, aided only by Cuervo Gold, Guinness Stout, or even just tap water. When we added it to the Bowley & Wilson show, it worked, night after night. Set in contrast to the dirty songs, it stood out: coeds swooned, frat rats cheered, bikers wept.

I went on to sing it at karaoke bars, in other bands, at parties—so many times that it lost its charm, lost its pathos, lost its power. Somewhere, there’s a videotape of me singing it, as I did every year by popular demand, at a family reunion. Listening to it, I can hear passion and verve, but the video exposes my empty, beerlogged expression. I was just going through the motions.

Bowley & Wilson broke up back in the late eighties, but over the succeeding years were booked for numerous “Final Reunions.” In each one, my showcase was “Crying,” sandwiched between B&W classics like “Baby Shit” and “How Can I Get You Off My Mind If You Won’t Get Off My Face.” It continued to work like a champ, until the first final reunion following my development of bronchiectasis. I was having voice problems and had not yet come to understand what exactly was going on and how to deal with it.

At our rehearsal for the final reunion, I informed Bowley and Wilson that I would not be able to sing “Crying.” “Oh no,” they protested, “you have to sing it!”

I suggested other songs I’d done with them, “Only You,” “Born to Run,” even as I realized it had to be “Crying.” I was getting paid a lot of money for this gig; I needed to fulfill my obligation. I came up with a compromise: moving the song down a step, so that instead of hitting the full-out, ringing high A note at the end of the song, I’d be hitting a not-quite-full-out but still-somewhat-ringing high G. It worked, and the audience members, I’m sure, had no idea I’d wimped out on the key. But I knew, and the band knew. I felt guilty getting paid for singing “Crying” in G.

I finally retired “Crying” a few years ago, after age and my respiratory condition made it too difficult for me to reliably sing it. At the most recent Final Reunion, probably the actual final Final Reunion, I sang “Only You,” and it went over just as well.

It’s a testament to Roy’s ethereal voice and exceptional song-craftsmanship that the shy and homely West Texas boy was the voice of young love in the early sixties. He had a string of six perfect works, recorded in the space of four years, that are among the greatest legacies of pop music.

In addition to “Crying,” here are Roy Orbison’s “Young Love Mini-Melodrama” masterpieces:

  • It’s Over (1964, #9)—my favorite Roy performance
  • In Dreams (1963, #7)—made creepily famous by Dean Stockwell’s pantomime in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet
  • Running Scared (1961, #1)—“Oh, Pretty Woman” was Roy’s only other #1
  • Falling (1963, #22)—a lesser-known hit fully on a par with the others
  • Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) (1960, #2)—another well-known oldies-collection staple

There are others that come close to making this list: “Leah” has the trademark upper-register intro statement and stratospheric big finish, but the story is too specific, and doesn’t really fit Roy. One can see him pining over lost loves, mistakenly fleeing from romance, agonizing over bad choices. But it’s just hard to picture him diving for pearls. But I think I can add “So Young”—classic Roy melodrama that remains obscure.

On the Road Again

Canned Heat, Liberty 56038, 1968, #16 Pop

The only two Canned Heat songs I really love are “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country.” Since both of these songs are wonderful because of Alan Wilson’s lead vocals (a role usually handled by Bob Hite), I guess I’m an Alan Wilson fan but not a Canned Heat fan.

I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.

I was drawn to the eerie spell of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica (also Alan Wilson) and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal complemented the instrumentation. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the group its name. The droning music of “On the Road Again,” based around an E chord, features, in every third bar, the E – G – A riff popularized by John Lee Hooker.

The other Canned Heat road-song hit, “Going Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, and had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.

Quite a few of my all-time favorite recordings are country blues songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, but I’m afraid I’ll never own them in their primary, essential state. I have Bukka White’s “Shake ‘em on Down” on an LP, but the 78 rpm in any playable state would cost me thousands. At least hundreds. It would be the same for any record by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and any of their peers. These records are unaffordable treasures not only because they are so damn good, but because so few people back in those days thought they were any damn good. Few were pressed, and very few survive. It’s a rarefied group of old white guys who’ve bought these up, and when they die, others who may be interested and have a lot of “walkin’ money” can grab the records they’ve coveted.

Of all the 78s out there, the percentage of valuable ones is minute; the supply of most 78s exceeds the demand. I am fortunate to be broad of musical scope and forgiving of disc condition. (Another reason I wouldn’t pay two grand for a blues rarity is that my player is a $49 portable hooked up to computer speakers. I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.) So I happily buy five-to-twenty-dollar 78s by The Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Johnny Hodges, Bill Monroe, Memphis Minnie and others who were popular enough that quite a few records survive today. And listening to these recordings on 10-inch shellac discs is just glorious—the best of cheap thrills. (But I would pay twenty bucks for someone who owns a clean copy of “Shake ‘em on Down” on 78 to just let me listen to it one time.)

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone, Epic 5-10497, 1969, #2 Pop and #3 R&B

My favorite song of summer and probably my strongest contender for best single of all time is “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” The song does a lot of blending: strings against Larry Graham’s funky bass; lush four-part harmonies against belted-out solos; straight-eights against syncopated rhythms. Not to mention the band’s diversity of personnel: black, white, male, and female. It all manages to work together and make magic happen, like most of the band’s output during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It did make Dave Marsh’s list of the “1,001 best singles ever made,” in his 1999 book The Heart of Rock and Soul. But it only came in at #314, barely in the top third. Marsh talks about the corny beginning of the record that seems to represent the middle-class, halcyon image of summer in America, which sets you up for the funky trade-offs in the bridge that represent unrest and defiance, kind of “Dancing in the Street” meets “Street Fighting Man” (two other great “summer” songs, by the way). I love both aspects of the song, and prefer not to read any meaning into them. The best summer songs of my era are about memories, and this one brings back a flood of them every time I hear it.
Sly Stone’s 1969 hit grabbed me instantly (along with a lot of other folks—it hit #2 on Billboard) and has never let go. I’ve heard covers of it that were OK, but the song as originally produced by Sly cannot be improved. “Everyday People,” another great example of a perfect record, is further evidence that songwriter/singer/bandleader/ keyboardist Sly was probably most talented as a producer. Covering these songs is like remaking Psycho—why mess with perfection?

Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate representation of racial unity in pop music. Their lineup was interracial, and songs like “Everyday People” and many others on their albums Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On promote racial harmony or lampoon intolerance.

Duke Ellington was often criticized for not being vocally opposed to segregation and racism back in the day. He would respond that he not only had suffered the indignities of being black in America but had long portrayed black life and culture in his music. Music was his way of supporting black culture and, as one of the most popular artists of his time, exposing white audiences to it. His longer work Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” as Duke said), and songs like “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Creole Love Song,” and many others celebrated black life.

My all-time favorite Ellington recording, out of many contenders, is from his meet-up with John Coltrane. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a beautiful song written by Duke (with a big assist from early band-member Toby Hardwick) in 1935 and recorded many times by his Orchestra and by other artists. But the 1962 recording of the song trumps them all. Duke’s influence (and his compositions) brought out Coltrane’s lyricism and soulfulness on Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. And I think Coltrane made Duke a bit more adventurous than usual.

There’s an interesting tidbit about this song in the fine 2013 Terry Teachout bio Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Duke chose “In a Sentimental Mood” when a white friend asked him which of his compositions he felt was “a typical Negro piece.” When the friend said he was surprised by the answer, the composer of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and Black, Brown, and Beige explained: “Ah, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” has always seemed to me to be the most perfect slice-of-black-life song of its time—over all the great contenders from James Brown or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, but Duke (and maybe even Sly) would probably say, “You don’t know what it’s like…”

Paper Cup

5th Dimension , Soul City SCR-760, 1967, #32 Pop

You may be inclined to lump 5th Dimension into the “soft rock” category, Their outfits matched, and tended toward leisure suits with flared pants. They did at least one cornball variety special with lame skits and showbiz guests. They sang a little more legit than edgy. Their rock wasn’t rockin’; their soul wasn’t soulful.

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock.

But they went beyond soft rock: They all were great singers and always had interesting harmonies, inventive arrangements. As coverers and not songwriters, they made some very good choices of songwriters to cover, notably Laura Nyro, but also Bacharach & David, and Jimmy Webb, composer of my favorite 5D song, “Paper Cup,” as well as their first hit, “Up, Up and Away.”

“Paper Cup,” in fact, comes from The Magic Garden, a collection of Jimmy Webb songs the group issued in ’67 as its second album. The song is the best sort of ear candy, very bright and upbeat, with unison singing breaking up into harmonies and echoes. It’s quintessential sunshine pop, and it far outshines the rest of the album, which—OK—may be rock of the somewhat soft sort. (The other songs include the sappy, drippy “The Worst That Could Happen,” which was a hit for Brooklyn Bridge. Now there—there is a soft rock group.)

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock. About twenty years ago, my stepdaughter Alicia put a call in to Super-Psychic Sylvia Browne. For $50, Sylvia herself would get on the phone and spend a few minutes discussing the caller’s problem, and would throw in a quick answer to one question about three other family members. The question Alicia asked Sylvia Browne on my behalf was, “Will my stepdad ever make it in music?” Sylvia’s immediate response: “Yes, he’s going to have a successful career in music playing soft rock.” Great, thanks a bunch, Sylvia. My wife took to calling me Soft Rock Steve.

A singer friend named Gary recently recruited me to form a duo, which he called Timeless. Hundreds of music acts must’ve already used that name before us, but it seemed to fit, and it’s not like we were aiming for any notoriety. We did a mix of songs from the thirties through the seventies. It was American Songbook swingy numbers, some doo-wop, some country. We did have several of those ‘70s songs some like to call soft rock in our repertoire, but it was really just a small fraction of the list.

We had been doing a weekly gig at a café for a few weeks when we got booked at a club, a listening place that wanted to promote our appearance with a poster. Gary put one together and forwarded it for my OK. I opened the PDF, and there it was across the top: “Enjoy the soft rock stylings of Timeless.” Oh boy. Not only were we soft-rockers, but we had “stylings.” I diplomatically responded to Gary that for a lot of people our age, soft rock is a pejorative term, a putdown. Sigh, Now I really am Soft Rock Steve.

Soft Rock. It’s an oxymoron. Rock’s gone a lot of directions since Chuck Berry and friends formalized it, but when it has gone soft, it has become something other than rock. Chuck Berry would never play soft rock. Even in his eighties, his rock was not soft. (Of course, “My Ding-a-Ling” didn’t rock, softly or otherwise. But it was a novelty number, an aberration in the Chuck Berry canon, albeit his only #1 hit.)

There’s rock music, and then there’s the soft stuff—easy listening, countrypolitan, mellow sounds, adult contemporary. Soft or rock, but not soft and rock.

Before the psychic hotline call and since, I’ve played many kinds of music, but for the most part managed to avoid the type of MOR stuff that is referred to as soft rock. (Also managed to avoid “having a successful career in music.”) But I have occasionally, as I listened to 5th Dimension’s “Paper Cup” or “Puppet Man,” fantasized about getting a few music pals together, getting matching bright-colored outfits, and harmonizing a la 5th Dimension.

Iko Iko

Dixie Cups, Red Bird 024, 1965, #20 Pop and #20 R&B
(My copy is a 1987 Antilles reissue that tied in with the movie The Big Easy.)

I love New Orleans. My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building almost three decades ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. When the wife and I went to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, we stayed in the same guest house where we’d stayed then, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue, and it seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer, and my grown-up daughter no longer drinks milk.)

…it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

A few decades later, The Dixie Cups made music that was every bit as N’Awlins as Jelly Roll’s. The single format suits their song “Iko Iko” perfectly. It sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. And, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Mardi Gras Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started singing while tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio didn’t realize they were singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s song “Jock-A-Mo,” which Grandma had heard back in 1953. Crawford’s song has almost the same tune and lyrics, full of the lore of the Indians, with spy boys and flag boys, kings out for blood, and the distinctive patois of the marching tribes. Sugar Boy sued the Dixie Cups and won, kind of. He got little financial reward and little recognition. (The songwriter credits on the 1965 single are B. Hawkins, R. Hawkins, and J. Johnson, The Dixie Cups; the credits on the 1987 reissue add Joe Jones, their former manager, and his family members, who claimed authorship. The Dixie Cups sued in 2002, got all the rights back, and are once again listed as the songwriters. Still no Sugar Boy Crawford.) Any way, you look at it, though, it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

At the end of the song, near the fade, you can hear that the girls weren’t sure whether or not to keep singing. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans, just like Jelly Roll, The Dixie Cups, and, yes, poor Sugar Boy Crawford.

Once Upon a Time

Rochell & the Candles, Swingin’ 623, 1961, #26 Pop and #20 R&B

A true head-spinner is Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time,” from 1961. When I discovered it last year, I couldn’t recall ever having heard it before. But the sound of the 45 was electrifying, and I play it often. It’s among my very favorite doo-wop recordings, despite its melody and structure being pedestrian and repetitive. What catapults the song into the top tier? The lead vocal.

The smooth falsetto voice that glides clearly and sweetly throughout the song, along with the name Rochell, may cause a listener to think that this was among the rare doo-wop groups fronted by a woman. (In fact, it’s similar to the great 1958 hit “Maybe” by The Chantels, led by Arlene Smith.) But group-leader Rochell (Henderson) was male, as was the entire group. Rochell did not sing lead on this number; that duty fell to first-tenor Johnny Wyatt, whose falsetto is a doo-wop-era diamond.

There’s a cliché sound to the doo-wop ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of them, like “Once Upon a Time,” feature “ice cream changes”—the 1 / 6 minor / 4 / 5 chord pattern of “Heart and Soul”—and piano triplets. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are, like those of “Once Upon a Time,” usually sappy and unoriginal.

There are a couple of options that can help a doo-wop ballad transcend the genre. One is to doo-wopicize a song from the American Songbook era—remaking it with all of the rhythmic and vocal trappings. Fine examples of this include The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (written by Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach in 1933), The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” (written by Harry Warren & Al Dubin in 1934), and Dion and the Belmonts’ “Where Or When” (written by Rodgers & Hart in 1937).

Another pretty surefire way to rise “out of the commonplace, into the rare” was to inject a sharp, clear falsetto vocal into the mix. There are many fine falsetto turns in doo-wop, of course, that are better-known than Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time”: Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” (one of my first 45s), “Gloria,” by The Cadillacs. And The Marcels, with “Blue Moon,” pulled off the hat trick to hit #1: they took another Rodgers and Hart American Songbook favorite, written in ’34, and added a bright falsetto.

As much as I love the Rochell & the Candles record, there’s another falsetto feature that wins my Most Dramatic Effect Award.

I snagged a copy of The Fiestas’ debut single “So Fine,” which hit #11 on Billboard in 1959, because I wanted to learn it for a group I was in. It was several years before I thought to listen to its flipside, “Last Night I Dreamed.” (Apparently, quite a few people never thought to listen to the B-side when the record came out.) Through the first two lines of its verse, “Last Night I Dreamed” seems like the cliché ice cream-changes doo-wop number. And then, on the fourth word of line three, the divine happens: an out-of-nowhere two-octave leap by singer Tommy Bullock that thrills and chills. I don’t think I’ve played “So Fine” since I discovered its flip.

The doo-wop falsetto is often parodied and derided, and it’s pigeon-holed into a brief, long-gone period in American pop music. But the best songs of Rochell & the Candles, The Fiestas, The Diablos, and others are among the greatest creations in pop music, and deserve to be heard as timeless classics—not as out-of-date curiosities.

Little Green Bag

George Baker Selection, Colossus C 112, 1969, #21 Pop

“Little Green Bag” is one crazy little international record. It was a 1970 debut release by George Baker Selection that became a hit in the US. But George Baker was actually Johannes Bouwens, of the Netherlands, where the song was recorded. Mr. Bouwens cowrote the song with Jan Visser. The song reached #1 in Japan, has been used as a theme song on a South American soap opera, was covered by Italians and Canadians, and has been heard on British and Turkish television programs. A Spanish-language song, “Paloma Blanca,” was George Baker Selection’s only other top hit.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?

The music of “Little Green Bag” is eccentric, to say the least, and very modishly entertaining, with amped-up bass riffs, twelve-string guitars, and percussion galore. Burt Bacharach meets the Tijuana Brass. The vocals are the epitome of grooviness. When I listen to it, I’m seeing lots of sideburns, tinted prescription glasses, mustard-colored Apache scarves, and large-pane plaid flairs. And somehow, for the duration of this song, that’s a good thing.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?The Netherlandish, Eurovision kind of air about the song may go a long way toward explaining why it seems one-of-a-kind in the US pop pantheon, but still I’m thinking “Little Green Bag,” in all its demented pop frivolity, should’ve led to a profusion of Euro-pop-rockers on our charts. The group ABBA, which won the Eurovision contest one year, doesn’t count. Their string of slick, saccharine megahits were so ubiquitous in ‘70s American pop that they were a key element in defining what seventies American pop was. Not like the previous decade’s British Invasion groups, which always seemed to counter American beach pop, Motown, and hippie music rather than meld with it.

Like so many other records in my collection, the unclassifiability of “Little Green Bag” is its primary asset.