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.

Baby, We’re Really in Love

Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys, MGM K11100, 1951, #4 Country

My Aunt Kay had left a few 78 rpm records at her parents’ house—my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s farmhouse. Grandma gave me one of them to take home: Hank Williams’ “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” with “I’d Still Want You” on the B-side. I loved both songs, and played them on my little record player often. One day, I played the record for my neighborhood friends. Donny picked it up off the turntable after we’d listened and read on the disc “This Is a Non-Breakable Record.” He said, “Non-breakable? Cool!” and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into a dozen pieces.

no one else writes simple so perfectly

I did recently find a 45 of the record, and it sits proudly in my little collection. “Baby, We’re Really in Love” is a fine song (favorite couplet: “I run around in circles and laugh at fire alarms / I’m nutty as a fruitcake when you’re not in my arms”), and the flip side, “I’d Still Want You,” is just as wonderful. Of all the singer-songwriters whose work I cherish, Hanks’s songs are the ones whose value and appeal I’m least able to explain. They’re not that different in substance from countless other three-chord songs with catchy hooks. I think: so simple—anyone could write that stuff! They are simple, yes—but no one else writes simple so perfectly. The best of his songs are like elements: They are basic but solid and unimprovable. And it doesn’t have to be Hank delivering them. Great covers have been recorded by singers outside the C&W field. I think of Tony Bennett’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (or Norah Jones’ version), Ray Charles’ “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Al Green’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Two of Hank’s best involve trains. I, like so many others, have always felt the mystique of trains (although I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago), possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. That used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. (Kinda like a kid today saying, “My dad and both of my grandpas are computer programmers.”)

“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” (the Hank hit that preceded “Baby, We’re Really in Love”) and “Ramblin’ Man,” which Hank recorded as Luke the Drifter, are train songs, but trains have little to do with my preference for them. Trains, though, may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

A friend recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter songs. In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit.

Among Hank Williams’ stellar output, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”

But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to hear the whole story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams. Or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas.

The Things I Love

The Fidelity’s, Baton 252, 1958, #60 Pop

Once I had had discovered my musical kinship with The Ink Spots, it was only a matter of time before I revisited The Platters. “Only You,” a favorite of mine, was the first collaboration between The Platters and their manager, the song’s writer, Buck Ram. It was the first of their many hits (although their follow-up “The Great Pretender” was the first to hit number one). Tony Williams was to The Platters what Bill Kenny was to The Ink Spots: a strong, melodramatic tenor to lead them to pop glory. And his vocal gymnastics turn “Only You,” a mediocre love song, into a love-drenched classic. (And from the sublime to the ridiculous: The B-side was a ditty called “Bark, Battle, and Ball,” a take-off on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Obviously, the group hadn’t yet figured out their path.)

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch?

The other Platters tune I perform is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” at least partly because it’s the only pop song I know that contains the word “chaff.”

Once I’d added some Platters into my repertoire, I sought similar songs from their contemporaries. The most similar—and the best—is The Fidelity’s “The Things I Love.”
This sentimental big-band favorite, written by Harold Barlow and Lewis Harris and introduced by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, is a love song couched in observations of the natural things the singer loves: sunset’s glow, fireflies at play, nodding tulips—and, of course, a lady’s “sweet voice” and “lovely eyes.” The version by The Fidelity’s (their apostrophe, not mine) was released in 1958. It is a soaring, gorgeous melody. The repetitive nature of most songs of the doo-wop era made songs revived from earlier eras, with their less predictable chord patterns, stand out. (Although, at a peak of only #60 on the Billboard pop chart, you couldn’t really say that this one stood out very much.)

The group is augmented on this recording by the Teacho Wiltshire Orchestra. “Teacho Wiltshire” is my second-favorite showbiz name, even above Hermes Pan, Blossom Dearie, and Harry Reasoner. My favorite showbiz name is Minto Cato. Ms. Cato was a singer/dancer who introduced “Memories of You” in the Broadway show Blackbirds of 1930. The song was written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. That’s another couple of great showbiz names. (And Minto, who went with Razaf for a while, could have become Minto Cato Razaf—wow!) The Fidelity’s Platters platter stayed at the lower reaches of the Billboard charts, and further attempts at hits fizzled, but lead vocalist Emmitt Smith makes “The Things I Love” a record that The Platters would’ve been proud to have in their repertoire, right alongside “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Only You.” Emmitt is right up there with Tony and Bill.

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch? Has anyone in the past sixty years pulled off anything in this vein outside of an oldies show on public television? Who were the successors to The Ink Spots and The Platters, hugely popular groups who seem to have influenced nobody at all? And why are The Fidelity’s and their wonderful cover of “The Things I Love” all but forgotten?

Castin’ My Spell

The Johnny Otis Show, Capitol F4168, 1959, Pop #52

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another.

This recording covers a song written and originally recorded by the Johnson Brothers (not the Brothers Johnson, entirely different Johnson brothers who came along later). It was assembled, produced, and sung by Johnny Otis, fronting The Johnny Otis Show. It followed his big hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” and has the same beat, but this time overlaid with pulsing, repetitive phrases sung by Johnny Otis and Marci Lee. It has more to offer than the infectious “Hand Jive,” but it wasn’t nearly as big a hit.

Johnny Otis created a masterpiece with this recording, which improves on the Johnson Brothers’ original version from the same year. “Castin’ My Spell” not only has the quick close-harmony vocals over the hand-jive beat, but it is punctuated by fine electric guitar injections provided by Jimmy Nolen, who went on to play in James Brown’s fine mid-to-late sixties band.

I was telling my stepdaughter Alicia about watching the documentary Rachel Divide, about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be black. Even when confronted with incontrovertible proof she was white, she continued to deny it, much to the consternation of her biracial son, and to most everyone else. I had some sympathy for Ms. Dolezal, up to a point. She truly seemed to feel more natural as a black woman. But she went too far when she insisted she wasn’t white, I told Alicia. She could’ve just said that she felt more comfortable, felt more herself, living among black culture and community. “She could just say she identifies as black, and that would be acceptable,” I said.

“Oh, no,” Alicia said, “that isn’t right either. A person from a privileged race can’t just step in and ‘identify’ as a member of an oppressed race. She hasn’t earned the right to identify as black.” And that’s what a lot of the black people interviewed in the documentary said. A white person who “crosses over” can step right back into a world of privilege any time.

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another. But I imagine Johnny Otis, who was of Greek heritage (real name: Ioannes Veliotes), would’ve put his own situation that way. What he did say was, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” Unlike Rachel Dolezal, though, he never lied about his background. He just preferred the company of black people, understood the black culture better than the white, married a black woman (in 1941!), with whom he had four kids, and made his name in predominantly black music styles. He worked closely with a great number of black artists, all of whom appeared to have been totally accepting of Johnny Otis. Johnny’s mother was not so accepting.

(Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish jazz musician who immersed himself in the black community personally and professionally in the ‘30s, didn’t write any of my favorite songs, but he did write one of my favorite memoirs, Really the Blues. It’s well worth wading through his hepcat language just to be surprised by where he goes with it. Mezz probably would’ve also said he identified as black.)

You could say, I think, that “Castin’ My Spell” is not easy to identify as black or white. Its composers were black, and its performers were black, except for Johnny Otis. But it’s as much a rockabilly number as an R&B number, and its defiance of pigeon-holing is certainly among its charms.