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.

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.

Cab Driver

The Mills Brothers, Dot 17041, 1968, #23 Pop

Just to say that something is hip marks one as being unhip. Even hipsters don’t say things are hip. (What do they say? I’m happy to say I’m too out of it to know.)

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers were cool.

The least-hip thing Peter, Paul, and Mary ever did was record “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” It was 1967, Rock music had supplanted folk music, and the trio wasn’t any too pleased about that. Paul co-wrote the song, which is a combination pandering exercise and critique of The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, and others who had taken PP&M’s spots on the charts. Sure enough, the song got them on the pop charts, at number nine.

The late sixties and early seventies were a tough time for folkies, and were even worse for the pre-rock acts whose labels were struggling to remain hip. Rock-song covers by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and other Golden-Era warblers make up a goodly portion of the tracks on later album anthologies of bad covers. The Mills Brothers had to line up in the rock-song queue, too. They covered “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” accompanied by Count Basie and his Orchestra. I know they probably were forced by some A&R guy to include it, a promo man who really believed he could connect the Brothers to the hip set. I presume that they emphatically did not dig rock ‘n’ roll music, but I still thought it was pretty dang groovy. So incongruous that it truly was hip.

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers, John, Herbert, Harry, and Don, were cool. Others concede that they were at least somewhat cool in their early days, the thirties. They were jazz then and hadn’t yet been exiled to the easy listening category. I love the ‘30s songs of The Mills Brothers—“Sweet and Slow,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” “Rockin’ Chair.” That earliest era may qualify as cool music because it was long-enough ago that it has some retro cachet. And, well, it is really great stuff. I also love their big hits of the ‘40s and ‘50s, like “Paper Doll” and “Glow Worm” and “Lazy River,” but by that time they were a little too MOR, alongside rising R&B and jump-swing artists. I’m afraid the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm” would’ve been driven off the stage pretty quickly if Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five had cranked up “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”

After that came their leisure-suit era and the big 1968 easy-listening hit “Cab Driver,” with its snap-along “do-doot-‘n’-do-doot” parts. I love this late stuff, too! It was in this waning period that the Brothers recorded “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.”

I had the opportunity to see The Mills Brothers at The Venetian Room when I was in my early twenties. The Venetian Room was at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown Dallas. (“Downtown Dallas” was a magical place to me when I was a kid. My mom told me that when our family was traveling I’d get homesick and say, “I wanna go to Downtown Dallas.” No matter that we didn’t live downtown, or even in Dallas; we lived in a suburb. But I wanted to go home to Downtown Dallas.)

In 1969, when the Venetian Room opened, I was a teenager too young to appreciate their brand of entertainer. The Venetian and its ilk were very, very un-hip. I was listening to a lot of Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and Mungo Jerry while Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls and Miss Peggy Lee were gracing that local stage. Within twenty years, as times changed, the Venetian discontinued its big-name line-ups. The Dallas history journal Legacies quotes Tina Turner, who performed there in the ‘80s, as saying the place had become “a graveyard for burnt-out entertainers.”

I did see two classic shows there in the late ‘70s, though, thanks to the fact that my friend and bandmate Wildcat had parents who were big on seeing lounge shows. They had become fast friends with my parents while coming to see Wildcat and me on gigs. Our first excursion to The Venetian was to see Ella Fitzgerald, aging and frail but still warbling like a schoolgirl. The second was The Mills Brothers, also toward the end of their many-decade performing careers. (They had singles out from 1931 to 1968!)

I had passed on seeing The Police live in order to see the Brothers Mills. I was torn about it at the time, but I know now that I made the right choice. After all, four decades later I still see Sting everywhere I look. Is Sting hip? I think not. He plays Celtic Woman music!

The Mills Bro’s—they’re the hip ones. As I recall, they did a hip-as-all-get-out rendition of “Cab Driver” that night. (It was their last hit, after all; well, there was one later that year that got to #83 called “The Ol’ Race Track,” but do you remember that one at all? I thought not).

So I put on the 45 of “Cab Driver” now and then and revel in our mutual unhipness as the Brothers croon: “Cab driver, take me ‘round the block.”