Gary Lewis & The Playboys: The Complete Liberty Singles

garylewis_completelibertysinglesEndearing legacy of overlooked mid-60s pop hit maker

Despite major commercial success in 1965 and 1966, including a chart-topping debut, five top-five and ten top-twenty singles, Gary Lewis’ music career was all but over two years after it began. His 1967 induction into the army left his label to release stockpiled tracks and record Lewis on occasional leaves; by the time of his discharge a phalanx of bubblegum bands had taken his place in the hearts and minds of young listeners. Though Lewis’ initial connections may have been eased by the fame of his actor/comedian father, Jerry Lewis, it was an inviting personality and a dream team of writers, arrangers and producers that made his vocals the center of an incredibly compelling string of singles.

The Playboys began public life in 1963 with a summer gig at Disneyland. Lewis initially played drums and rhythm guitarist Dave Walker handled lead vocals. But once in the studio with producer Snuff Garrett, Lewis found himself up front singing the group’s first single, “This Diamond Ring.” Co-written by Al Kooper, the song was originally released as a low-charting R&B single by Sammy Ambrose, but re-imagined by Garrett it became an unforgettable dollop of earnest pop, with Lewis’ vocal thickened by double-tracking and dramatized by Hal Blaine’s tympani. The double-tracked vocals would become a group trademark, with the second voice often provided by session singer Ron Hicklin.

Lewis, Garrett and arranger Leon Russell became a hit-making machine throughout 1965 and into 1966 as they reeled off “Count Me In” (written by post-Holly Cricket Glen D. Hardin), “Save Your Heart For Me” (originally a Brian Hyland B-side), “Everybody Loves a Clown,” “She’s Just My Style,” “Sure Gonna Miss Her” (with superb flaminco guitar by Tommy Tedesco), “Green Grass,” “My Heart’s a Symphony,” and “(You Don’t Have To) Paint Me a Picture.” All are superbly written, arranged and produced, turning Lewis’ limited vocal range into loveable approachability. Even today it’s impossible to resist Lewis’ immensely charming performances.

Lewis’ hit singles still turn up on oldies radio and compilations, and the single-disc Legendary Masters Series collects all ten of his charting A-sides; what sets this collection apart is the inclusion of rarities, B-sides, and later non-charting singles, many of which are as good as the A’s. Lewis’ jingle for Kellogg’s, “Doin’ the Flake,” is a Freddy Cannon-styled rocker that was originally available for box tops, and the title song from his dad’s 1966 film “Way Way Out” was issued only as a promotional single. The B-sides harbor some typical flipside fodder, including go-go instrumentals (“Hard to Find,” “Tijuana Wedding” and “Gary’s Groove”), novelties (“Time Stands Still,” on which the Lewis slips into an imitation of his dad’s wacky voice), and the celebrity-impersonation filled “Looking for the Stars.”

But the B’s weren’t always throwaways. Early flips, mostly penned by Garrett and Russell, include the terrific Jan & Dean styled “Little Miss Go-Go,” the Robbs-like harmony rocker “Without a Word of Warning,” and the moody organ-backed “I Won’t Make That Mistake Again.” Each has deftly crafted hooks that memorably complement lyrics of summer love and autumnal broken hearts. The songwriting team of Sloan & Barri served up their trademark folk-rock sound on “I Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight,” complete with chiming 12-string and a Brill Building styled chorus. The 12-string is even better on the Searchers-styled “I Can Read Between the Lines.”

As 1966 turned into 1967, Lewis’ material started to slip. An unreleased cover of “Sloop John B” is a pleasant sing-along, but without the magic of earlier hits. Still, there were some lower- and non-charting A’s and B’s that had something to offer, including light-psych harmony-pop (“Where Will Words Come From”), country-soul (“The Loser (With a Broken Heart)”), and California production pop styled production (“Girls in Love” and “Jill”). Lewis’ bubblegum sound reemerged on “Ice Melts in the Sun” and “Let’s Be More Than Friends,” turned to Monkees-styled pop on “Has She Got the Nicest Eyes” and Partridge Family harmonies on “Hayride.” A cover of Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss” managed to hit #19, but additional covers ( “C.C. Rider,” “Every Day I Have to Cry Some,” “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Great Balls of Fire”) had both middling artistic and commercial success.

Lewis’ hitch in the army kept him from touring in support of his releases, and discord between his lawyer and label scuttled any real promotion. As quickly as he’d established himself with the chart run of 1965-66, he found top-notch releases in 1967 ignored by a fickle pop market. His last single, the self-produced, Box Tops-styled “I’m on the Right Road Now,” sports a snappy horn-arrangement and soulful backing vocals, but the quality only heightened the irony of the title’s failure. The market had moved on and so did Lewis, releasing a couple of solo singles (one on Scepter, one on Epic) in the mid-70s, continuing to tour and remaining a popular draw on the oldies circuit to this day.

Collectors’ Choice pulls together forty-five Liberty 45s, all remastered in sterling quality from the original mono tapes. Ed Osborne’s excellent liner notes are supplemented by release and chart info, and collector/producer Andrew Sandoval supplies numerous picture sleeve reproductions. This is a terrific package for anyone who craves lovingly produced, effervescent 1960s pop, and especially for those who’d like to hear how Lewis was presented to the public during the 45’s last gasp of uncontested dominance. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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