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.

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.

I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys , Columbia 20459, 1947

This song helped dislodge several prejudices I’d long had against bluegrass music. I’d listened to and enjoyed quite a few Bill Monroe records over the years, including “Little Georgia Rose,” “Gotta Travel On,” and the original ¾-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but never owned any and never sought any out. Then I came across the 78 of “Little Cabin on the Hill” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and brought it home for a spin. I enjoyed “Cabin” about like I had other bluegrass songs, appreciating the instrumental breaks, tapping along to the steady beat. But when I turned the record over, it stayed there for a while.

It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass.

The song starts out with pretty ordinary musical structure on the verses. Bill Monroe, taking the lead vocals with his sharp tenor, out-Dickenses Dickens’ melodramatic Little Nell scene as he pines about a young girl on her deathbed trying to console her bereft parents. “Tell Mommy to come to me quickly / I want to kiss you both then go.” That piqued my interest.

But then a series of escalating surprises unfolds during the chorus. First, the instruments drop way down, and three vocal parts come in, with Bill on top. Next, on the second line of the chorus, the voices swoop way up, with Monroe on a high B, and the effect is startling. Then, on line three, the vocalists entwine themselves in a “steel-guitar” harmony, going in and then out of discordance. Line four brings us back to reality, and the instruments rejoin for verses four and five. Every time I listen to the record and it gets to those last two verses, I know that three-part-harmony chorus is about to come around one more time, and I’m spellbound waiting for it. It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass. What a revelation!

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this key period included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. They were soon to break away to become a bluegrass-novelty act of great renown. In fact, when I was growing up, I was familiar with Flatt & Scruggs, thanks to their theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and their appearance on the show as themselves, come to visit old flame Pearl. But I don’t think I was aware of the great Bill Monroe until way into my adulthood. If he’d only made an appearance on Petticoat Junction…but I don’t reckon t’were Bill’s kinda thang, do you?

Before the few Bill Monroe 78s I recently acquired, I owned no bluegrass music, other than a Dave Grisman LP or two and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. But now I listen to bluegrass a little differently, and I’m at long last a Bill Monroe convert.

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.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.

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.”

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?

Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees)

The Ink Spots, Decca 3258, 1940, #10 Pop

Back in 1985, my friend and musical associate John Wilson came up with the idea of the Gentlemen’s Club, a four-part-harmony group modeled on The Four Freshmen. We still do very occasional gigs here and there, complete with the plaid pants, blazers, and dickies we’d worn since the beginning. When we were thirty, the clothes made us look campy and retro; in our sixties, they just make us look old. (Perhaps now we should dress like hipsters.) The group was kind of a relief project from Wilson’s highly-charged, high-decibel nasty rockin’ country band Bowley & Wilson. I was doing my stint with B&W as bassist/ vocalist at the time, and Wilson knew I really thrived on close-harmony stuff from hearing some home recordings I was working on when he first met me.

I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter.

One saccharine song on The Gents’ very first set list was the Ink Spots classic “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” I sang lead, and although I didn’t exactly impersonate the melodramatic crooning of Inks lead singer Bill Kenny, I did schmaltz it up quite a bit. I realized quickly, singing this type of song for the first time, that it felt very natural, much more natural than I felt singing Beatles songs, or James Taylor or Wilson Pickett. It’s strange to think that the music style I have the greatest affinity for is the smooth, sweet sound of the black vocal groups of the forties and fifties, but it’s true: I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” has stayed with me ever since, even separate from the Gentlemen’s Club, even when my pants aren’t plaid, even when I am dickie-less, and it led me to other Ink Spots classics, most notably “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees).”

I have to figure that when Fred and Doris Fisher wrote it they were having a little fun with this odd ballad of nature-as-prattling gossip-monger: the whispering “green grass,” the “blabbering breeze,” the snow that buries lovers’ secrets. Whatever their intent, it sure gets a laugh, or at least some puzzled looks, when I sing it now.

German-born Fred Fisher was at least partly responsible for such novelty classics as “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?,” “Pull the Cork Out of Erin, Let the River Shannon Flow,” and “Wee, Wee, Marie (Will You Do Zis for Me?)” Doris was his daughter. She also wrote “Put the Blame on Mame,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (which Spike Jones made into a novelty classic), and other hits. So, it was a father-daughter team with a sense of humor.

Others, including Ringo Starr, have recorded “Whispering Grass,” but it’s The Ink Spots’ version that is special, and it’s all because of the lead vocal of Mr. Bill Kenney. Like nearly all Ink Spots hits, it starts with a finger-picked guitar playing a D / Eb diminished / Em / A pattern. The other Spots are barely heard oohing as Kenney warbles. Very formulaic, but addictive—if you find Bill Kenney’s crooner voice as appealing as I do.

Another part of the formula, one reason their songs don’t date well, is the verse that follows the chorus. It’s usually spoken by bass Hoppy Jones, with an Amos-and-Andy-ish delivery sprinkled with “honey chile” and “honey lamb” and “mm-mm-mm” commentary. (The flip side of this record, “Maybe,” obediently follows this pattern, except that Hoppy’s spoken break is replaced by another member’s looser sung delivery.)

I sometimes wonder about the group’s name. Everything I’ve read about them seems to indicate they came up with the name themselves, but I figured the term “ink spots” was generally applied to black people by white people as a belittling description. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Best just to enjoy the special sounds The Ink Spots created and hope they had as good a time singing the songs as I have listening to them.