Posts Tagged ‘Red Bird’

The Ad Libs: The Complete Blue Cat Recordings

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Astonishing stereo re-masters and demos of Brill-era vocal group

Blue Cat was a subsidiary of the Red Bird label started in 1964 by legendary Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The parent label cashed in on the girl group craze with the Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las, but Blue Cat also cracked the Top 10 with the label’s second single, “The Boy from New York City.” Written by saxophonist John T. Taylor, the song had a jazzy swing that gave the then-recently rechristened Ad Libs a distinct sound. The New Jersey quintet featured Mary Ann Thomas singing lead and a smooth male quartet providing backing vocals. A second single, “He Ain’t No Angel,” was penned by Red Bird’s house team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (and previously waxed by the Lovejoys for Tiger), but label turmoil stalled the single on the bottom rungs of the Top 100. Two more singles, “On the Corner” and “I’m Just a Down Home Girl,” fared even worse and led to the group’s departure from Blue Cat.

Judging solely by the charts, the Ad Libs were a four-single, one-hit wonder; but as this twenty-three track collection shows, there was a lot more to their catalog than found broad public acclaim. In addition to the group’s four A’s and B’s, Real Gone’s gathered a clutch of unreleased tracks, alternate versions and a cappella demos that give full testimony to the group’s vocal talent and their production team’s ability to craft memorable melodic and instrumental hooks. The B-sides are anything but throwaways, with “Kicked Around” sporting an incredible jazz bass line, sly organ bed and maddeningly memorable triangle figure behind Thomas’ thirsty flower vocal. “Ask Anybody” is a dance tune touched by doo-wop, blues and gospel, and the male leads on “Oo-Wee Oh Me Oh My” and “Johnny My Boy” show the group had more than one vocalist capable of holding the spotlight.

The finished track “The Slime” went unreleased, and, sadly, was deprived of the opportunity to ignite a worldwide dance craze based on melting like butter down in the gutter. The set’s other unreleased master, “You’ll Always Be in Style,” adds a touch of Latin soul. The set’s most arresting find, however, are seven mono a cappella demos that starkly highlight the group’s melding of doo-wop and vocal jazz. In addition to demos of singles sides (including a take on “The Boy from New York City” that shows the hit single’s more relaxed tempo to have been the right choice), four additional titles are featured, including the holiday-themed “Santa’s on His Way.” The five alternate takes include a version of “The Boy from New York City” with a distractingly present trumpet riff, and the disc is filled out with seven tracking sessions that provide a rare peak inside the studio.

Reissue producer Ron Furmanek has re-mastered many of these tracks (1-4, 6-9, 18-30) in stereo from the original 3- and 4-track master session tapes. At times, particularly on the singles, the separation and clarity of the vocals and instruments is disconcerting to ears trained by original mono singles heard through AM radio. That said, even with handclaps and backing vocals panned hard left and right, the soundstage still hangs together reasonably well, even when individual elements (such as the honking saxophone on “He Ain’t No Angel”) stand a bit forward. The tracking sessions are interesting, but fresh re-masters of the original mono singles would have been a more long-lasting treat. Real Gone’s four-panel slipcase includes a 12-page booklet with lengthy liner notes and an introduction by the Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

The Shangri-Las: The Complete Collection

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Nearly complete collection with some stereo bonuses

With so many cheap Shangri-Las compilations arriving on digital download lately, you have to wonder if someone forgot to renew the copyrights. This set is a nearly complete accounting of the Shangri-Las official releases, including the tracks from their two albums (Leader of the Pack and Shangri-Las ’65), their pre- and post-Red Bird singles for Spokane, Scepter, Smash and Mercury, the well circulated alternate take of “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” two ads for Revlon, and Mary Weiss’ period “good taste tip” radio spots. All that’s missing is their cover of “Twist and Shout,” as it appeared on their first album and single B-side. Perhaps the second, lo-fi version of “It’s Easier to Cry” that’s included here was supposed to be the missing track.

These appear to be all original recordings, mono except for 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 17 and 26. The stereo mixes exhibit some differences from the mono versions anthologized on RPM’s Myrmidons of Melodrama [1 2], particularly in the instrumental balance. “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” is 2:41 rather than the mono version’s 2:15, with the backing vocals panned left the handclaps and finger snaps panned right, and an ending that stretches the bass riff and backing vocals past Mary Weiss lead vocal. After the motorcycle crash sound effect, “Leader of the Pack” includes two extra vamps that aren’t present on RPM’s mono master. Assuming these are original stereo performances, they’re great bonuses for Shangri-Las collectors, but it’s a shame Goldenlane doesn’t provide any explanation of where these came from.

Track ordering mostly front-loads the group’s Red Bird era singles, though not uniformly. This leaves their pre-Red Bird singles as bonus tracks at collection’s end. Track-to-track volume levels aren’t perfectly balanced, though most MP3 players will fix this for you in playback. The packaging, or complete lack thereof, keeps this from reaching the pinnacle of reissue heights, but it’s hard to argue with thirty-nine girl group classics for less than the cost of a typical 12-track CD. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Mary Weiss’ Home Page
Mary Weiss’ MySpace Page
Unofficial Shangri-Las Web Site

RIP Ellie Greenwich

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Various_DoWahDiddyDiddyI don’t actively read obituaries, as I expect the passing of anyone of import will filter to me through regular news channels. Apparently not. Ellie Greenwich passed away a week ago, and I just happened upon the news today. Brian Wilson said, “She was the greatest melody writer of all time.” Quite a compliment from anyone, but even more so from such a terrific melodicist in his own right. My affection for Greenwich isn’t tied only to specific songs, but also to the craft that she helped define as part of the Brill Building stable.

Several years ago I was listening to the Shangri-Las “The Train From Kansas City” and marveling at the lyric “I’ll be back in the time it takes to break a heart,” I started searching the web to see if I could find Greenwich’s address so I could see if there was a back story to this song, and on her home page found a link to a contact page. I expected a canned reply or a note from a publicist thanking me for writing, but a couple of days later I got a response directly from Ellie Greenwich. She couldn’t remember what inspired her and Jeff Barry to write the song, but was touched that someone would seek her out to ask about a 40-year-old lyric to a song that was never a hit.

I still find it difficult to wrap my head around one person writing or co-writing:

And Then He Kissed Me
Baby, I Love You
Be My Baby
Chapel of Love
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Da Doo Ron Ron
Do Wah Diddy Diddy
Good Night Baby
Hanky Panky
He’s Got the Power
He Ain’t No Angel
I Can Hear Music
Leader of the Pack
Not Too Young To Get Married
Out in the Streets
River Deep, Mountain High
Then He Kissed Me
(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry
Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?

Not to mention lesser-known gems like Connie Francis’ “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” The Shangri-Las “Give Us Your Blessings,” The Chiffons’ “I Have a Boyfriend” (remade to perfection by Reparata & The Delrons) and dozens of sides for the Blue Cat and Red Bird labels that never made the charts. She recorded fine singles and albums under her own name and as part of the Raindrops, and discovered Neil Diamond.

Diane Warren said, “Those songs are part of the fabric of forever.” They’re certainly part of my forever.

Ellie Greenwich was 68 when she passed away on August 26, 2009. RIP.

Listen to Ellie Greenwich sing “Hanky Panky”