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.

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…”

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.

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

Bo Diddley, Checker 1019, 1962, #48 Pop and #21 R&B

I remember hearing this overpowering song when it came out in 1962. Even on my parents’ crappy, tinny car radio it blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“Diddley Daddy,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled. The guitar rocks, the bass rolls, and those maracas are relentless! “I look like a farmer but–I’m a lover!” You go, Bo.

I came across a copy of the single in the late seventies. My record’s label has a printing error: The title, split into two lines, reads “A Book By The Cover / You Can’t Judge.” Does that flaw make this a sought-after, rare collectible? Not so much. It’s a bit more valuable than the correctly printed version, but my copy’s pretty scratchy anyway. So it’s merely a nice curiosity piece. And it’s a good little time-waster to imagine melodies and rhythms into which the stilted phrase would fit.

It’s a late Diddley hit, one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write. That credit goes to ace blues songwriter Willie Dixon, and this number is all about that bass, which Dixon plays on the song, caroming above and below and around Bo Diddley’s slashing guitar chords, propelling the song to and through the fade. (The record’s producer was Ralph Bass, but he no doubt pronounced his last name to rhyme with ass.)

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” doesn’t feature the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it is unmistakable Bo Diddley, and it sits right up there with his best. He only had one more single, “Ooh Baby,” on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it just barely slipped in at #88 in 1966. I enjoy a song he issued as a single the following year, “Wrecking My Love Life,” and count its flipside, “Boo-Ga-Loo Before You Go,” among my favorite song titles.

There is a flubbed guitar chord on one of the verses of “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” on a five-chord-to-four-chord move. The sticklers among us may ask, “Why didn’t they do another take?” But the sticklers may find it difficult to tolerate rock and blues and country recordings that tend to allow clinkers, out-of-tune guitar strings, and imprecise vocal lines and lyrics. There certainly is a joy in listening to the take-after-take perfection of a Steely Dan song, or the multi-layered productions of Brian Wilson, but it’s a different listening experience. The flubbed chords and cracking voices are left in some of the great rhythm & blues and country & western recordings because the feel of those moments is so good it may not be capturable again. The imperfections add to the effect, like a Cajun stew, as opposed to a French soufflé. Both tasty, but completely different sensory experiences.

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.