Jay and the Americans: The Complete United Artists Singles

JayAndTheAmericans_CompleteSinglesExhaustive collection of ‘60s vocal group’s singles

Jay and the Americans had an unusually long chart run for a pop vocal group, racking up ten top-40 hits, and many lower charting entries, over the course of nine years. Having sprouted from roots in 1950s doo-wop, the group was signed to United Artists by Leiber & Stoller who quickly had them cut a Drifters-styled cover of West Side Story’s “Tonight.” This first outing was a respectable local hit in New York, but it was their second single, “She Cried,” that established them on the national charts, peaking at #5 in 1962. Unusually, just as the group was finding its commercial footing, lead singer John “Jay” Traynor left to get a “real job.” Replaced by David “Jay Black” Blatt, the group continued to ride the charts through the rest of the decade.

The newly fronted group hit again with the Brill Building sound of Mann & Weil’s “Only in America.” Written as a social criticism for the Drifters, and rewritten as a satire when Atlantic balked, the song became an optimistic anthem in the hands of Jay & The Americans. Originally released as the B-side to “Dawning” (which stiffed), the song rose to #5 after radio jocks began flipping the single. It wasn’t the last time the group would have a hit B-side, as 1964’s “Come a Little Bit Closer” and 1965’s Roy Orbison-esque “Cara Mia,” the group’s top charting singles, both started life as flipsides. As musical innovation swirled throughout the 1960s, the group tasted additional styles but never really abandoned their traditional vocal roots. Their last major hit, 1969’s #6 “This Magic Moment,” brought them back full-circle to their Brill Building roots with a cover of the Drifters’ 1960 single.

Throughout the 1960’s Jay and the Americans remained a step out-of-time. They hung on to their doo-wop inspired sound long after the genre had faded from pop’s main stage, stuck with orchestrated, theater-inspired vocals as the British Invasion pushed the guitar up front, and returned to their Brill Building roots just in time for the nostalgia wave of the late ‘60s. For each commercial breakthrough, however, there were several formulaic reiterations or nondescript follow-ups that failed to capitalize on or sustain the group’s chart success. Their early years with Leiber & Stoller gave way to successful years with UA house producer Gerry Granahan, and ended with a stream of less sympathetic producers and songwriters.

After a clutch of four top-20s in 1965 and a #25 cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in 1966, the group hit a drought in 1967 and 1968. The revolving door of producers and songwriters picked up speed, pushing the group outside their comfort zone with a mish-mash of commercially failed attempts to find workable contemporary grooves, including baroque pop and the rock-funk “Shanghai Noodle Factory.” The latter, courtesy of shared producer/songwriter Jimmy Miller, turned up as a cover on Traffic’s Last Exit album! Jay Black released a solo cover of the Johnny Mathis hit “What Will My Mary Say” in 1967, but with his voice so defining the group at that point, the absence of his band mates is hardly noticeable.

It wasn’t until the band’s fortunes ebbed to an all-time low that they shucked off external pressures to find a contemporary sound. They regrouped to self produce the 1969 album Sands of Time, which reworked twelve of their favorite songs from the original doo-wop era. Three singles were spun from the album, with a terrific interpretation of the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” climbing to #6, and enthusiastic covers of “When You Dance” and “Hushabye” charting lower. The group that had drifted out of doo-wop into the tumult of the 1960s had come back to its roots with a fresh injection of swagger and energy. Sadly, financial and personal hurdles would sink the group within a year, but not before having one last top-20 hit with a soaring 1970 cover of the Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain.”

Casual listeners may be better off with the superb hits collection, Come a Little Bit Closer: The Best of Jay and the Americans, but the band’s fans will treasure the opportunity to hear all the lower- and non-charting singles along with their B-sides. Lesser-known highlights include the working man’s anthem “Friday,” written by Ellie Greenwich and her early songwriting partner Tony Powers, the horn-lined rocker “Goodbye Boys Goodbye (Ciao Ragazzi Ciao),” the folk-rock “If You Were Mine, Girl” and “Girl,” the baroque pop “(He’s) Raining in My Sunshine,” the uncharacteristically sharp-tongued “You Ain’t As Hip As All That Baby,” the light-psych “Gemini,” and the Phil Spector produced public service release “Things Are Changing.” The latter, with vocal coaching from Brian Wilson and sung to the melody of Wilson’s “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” was also waxed by the Blossoms and Supremes.

The group had artistic, if not commercial, success with original material as well, including the emotional ballad “Stop Your Crying,” the country-rock “(I’d Kill) For the Love of a Lady,” the vocal-psych “Learnin’ How to Fly,” and the A-side “Livin’ Above Your Head.” The latter’s original recording stalled on the charts but became a UK hit for the Walker Brothers. Collectors’ Choice’s 3-CD set pulls together sixty-six sides in crisp mono (just the way the AM radio gods intended) and adds a 20-page booklet filled with liner notes by Ed Osborne, release and chart details, and archival photos. It’s not all gold, but there are several tracks that match up to the group’s hits, and a great deal of excellent material that’s only been heard by those who own the original 7” singles. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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