Posts Tagged ‘Roulette’

Frankie Lymon: Rock ‘n’ Roll

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Teenager steps out for 1958 solo debut

After two successful years fronting the Teenagers, vocalist Frankie Lymon stepped into a surprisingly unsuccessful solo career with this fine 1958 studio album. Having lost his childhood soprano to adolescence, his 16-year-old voice still had plenty of punch, and continued to leap from the grooves. His out-of-breath delivery of “Waitin in School” has an adolescent everything-is-happening-at-once fervor that Ricky Nelson’s cool-cat style didn’t match. It doesn’t hurt to have an ace guitar player – Mickey Baker, perhaps – tearing thing up in the breaks. Producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore double the vocals on “Wake Up Little Suzie,” creating a more saucy mood than the Everly’s original, and though covers of the Rays’ “Silhouettes” and the Coasters’ “Searchin’” aren’t particularly inspiring, there’s still plenty here to impress. Lymon’s adolescence adds a note of sweet longing to Nat King Cole’s “Send for Me,” and the R&B “Next Time You See Me” and “Short Fat Fanny” give Lymon a chance to really wail. Most impressive are original approaches to “Jailhouse Rock” and “Diana” that pay each song its due without imitating the hits. Several of these tracks were released as singles, but none had the success of the early Teenagers’ sides; worse, with a heroin habit eating away his abilities, Lymon was dropped by Roulette in 1961. He’d record a few sides for other labels, but this album and a handful of non-LP singles for Roulette (that should have been included here as bonus tracks) represents the end of Lymon’s run as a bright thread in the rock ‘n’ roll tapestry. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Tommy James: Me, the Mob, and the Music

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

The education and seduction of a rock ‘n’ roll hit maker

Tommy James came of age just as pop was giving way to rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s performance on Ed Sullivan provided the initial epiphany, and five-days-a-week of American Bandstand, a job in a record store, junior high school talent shows and a prototypical garage band steeped him in both music and the music business. The early pages of this autobiography provide a great sense of what it was like to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band in the summer of 1963, from the joy of making music to the grind of trying to make a living. But once “Hanky Panky” caught fire in 1966, James was introduced to most of his fans as a fully-formed star; here you get to read about the dues he paid.

James’ rise to fame has been told before, but the details of his first single’s belated success – its initial failure, fluke resurrection in Pittsburgh, and canny national reissue on Roulette – is a great story. It’s also the lead-in to the book’s main thread: the difficult, father-son-like relationship between James and Roulette founder Morris Levy. In contrast to his co-dependency with Levy, his relationships with wives, children and band members weren’t nearly so sticky. James’ first wife and their son are ghosts in the narrative, nearly abandoned in his move to New York and divorced as he takes up with the Roulette Record secretary who eventually became his second wife. His second wife eventually meets a similar fate as he cheats on her and eventually moves on.

He forms and dispatches several iterations of the Shondells, with little expressed emotion. He fires half the band after they fight for monies owed in the wake of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and is complicit in helping Levy cheat songwriters Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry by demanding songs they were pitching to artists whose labels would actually pay royalties. As with the affairs presaging his divorces, these episodes seem to be evidence of a self-centeredness learned from Levy rather than explicitly cruel behavior. But there’s surprisingly little remorse offered here, and what there is – five sentences when his first wife reappears for a divorce – doesn’t measure up to the affronts. Perhaps James wasn’t ready to share his innermost thoughts and personal feelings in an autobiography.

His telling of stories from the music side of his life is a great deal more compelling. Threaded throughout – and really, most successful musicians’ careers – is a surprising amount of luck; for James this includes the revival of “Hanky Panky” in Pittsburgh, the discovery of songs for two follow-up singles, a chance meeting with songwriter Ritchie Cordell, the creation of “Mirage,” and the incidental knowledge of arranger Jimmy Wisner. What you realize is that James put in the work from a very young age, studied and rehearsed, and put himself in a position to make these opportunities pay off. The crossing of paths may have been serendipitous, but the knowledge and ability to execute was hard-earned. The writing is more anecdotal than nuts and bolts accountings of music making, but you get a good feel for how James navigated changes in the industry to maintain a hit-making career across two decades.

As one might expect from a book entitled “Me, the Mob and the Music,” James spends a great deal of time writing about his relationship with Levy and his underworld associates. It’s not clear if he fully understands why his relationship with the godfather of the music industry became the center of his adult life, but it’s evident how it tainted his relationships with friends, wives, family and associates. Now twenty-four years sober and drug free, James seems at peace with who he was (characterizing his second divorce with “she was a good person, I was a flaming asshole”), and he’s still exciting fans with regular gigs. This isn’t the most personally revealing rock ‘n’ roll biography, but it adds some welcome detail to the career of Tommy James. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Tommy James: My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Tommy James’ third solo LP offers Nashville-bred country-soul

After charting fourteen Top 40 hits with the Shondells, Tommy James began a solo career on the heels of a temporary group hiatus that turned permanent. His second solo release, Christian of the World, yielded two big hits (“Draggin’ the Line” and “I’m Comin’ Home”), but this third solo effort – recorded in Nashville, produced by Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, and featuring the talents of Music City’s finest studio players – didn’t catch on with either pop or country radio. And that’s a shame, because it may be James’ most fully realized album. With a band that included Moore and Ray Edenton on guitar, Pete Drake on steel, Pig Robbins on keyboards, Charlie McCoy on harmonica and DJ Fontana and Buddy Harmon on drums, James cut a dozen originals, mostly co-written with co-producer Bob King, and a cover of Linda Hargrove’s “Rosalee” that features some fine fiddle playing by Buddy Spicher.

There are numerous country touches in the instruments and arrangements, but also the sort of country-soul B.J. Thomas, Joe South and Elvis recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. James didn’t re-fashion himself a nasally country singer, instead finding the soulful style he’d developed on the Shondells’ Travelin’ fit perfectly with the textures created by the studio players and the gospel-styled backing vocals of the Nashville Edition. James’ voice is easily recognized as the one that graced the Shondells’ hits, but it sounds just as at home in this twangier setting. The productions are remarkably undated (except, perhaps, Pete Drake’s talking guitar on “Paper Flowers”), and though not up to Nashville’s current classic rock volume, they still feel surprisingly contemporary.

James and King wrote songs of faith, romance, lost-love and lovable scoundrels, but in the pop idiom rather than the country, so while their topics fit Nashville norms, the words didn’t ring of 17th Avenue. In James’ hands, even the Nashville-penned “Rosalee” sounds more like Memphis or Muscle Shoals than Music City. The religious and spiritual themes of Christian of the World are revisited in songs contemplating the hereafter, the call to community, and the sunny warmth and peaceful satisfaction of belief. Unlike the preceding album, however, none of these songs managed to grab the ear of radio programmers or singles buyers. Perhaps no one was ready for James to fully graduate from his career with the Shondells, but in retrospect, divorced from the pop and bubblegum hits that led him to 1971, one can readily hear the new level of artistry he achieved.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up reissue clocks in at nearly 44-minutes, making this the longest of the four Shondells/James reissues in a batch that also includes I Think We’re Alone Now, Gettin’ Together, and Travelin’. The six-page booklet features full-panel reproductions of the album’s front- and back-cover, and newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne that includes fresh interview material with James himself. While Shondells/James neophytes might pick a greatest hits album (such as Anthology or Definitive Pop Collection) as a starter over the Shondells’ original albums, anyone who enjoys country-rock with a soulful backbone should check out James terrific accomplishments on this release. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Tommy James and the Shondells: Travelin’

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Pop band’s swansong muscles up heavy rock and soul

By the time of this album’s 1970 release, Tommy James and the Shondells had morphed from the garage/frat-rock of “Hanky Panky” to the bubblegum of “I Think We’re Alone Now” to the pop psych of “Crimson and Clover” to the gospel-soul of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” For this last album as a group – James would fly solo with a self-titled album later in the year – they reduced the psychedelic quotient from Crimson & Clover and experimental flights of Cellophane Symphony and muscled up some heavy rock ‘n’ soul. The album is surprisingly funky and progressive, especially when compared to what the band had been recording just a few years earlier.

Opening with the near-instrumental title tune, the sound is funky progressive rock, complete with a lengthy syncopated organ-and-drums breakdown and even a short drum solo. The heavy sounds continue with James effectively refashioning himself into a soul shouter and blues crooner. Mike Vale propels the album’s second single “Gotta Get Back to You” with his bass line, and arranger Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner deploys a backing chorus to terrific effect. The band’s mid-60s garage-rock roots turn up in the “Little Black Egg” riff of “Moses & Me,” but topped with a processed vocal that’s very end-of-the-decade, and the bluesy “Bloody Water” borrows the guitar hook of “Tobacco Road” and roughs it up nicely.

The album’s pre-release hit, “She,” is also the tune that fits least with the album’s heavy vibe. Co-written with Richie Cordell and bubblegum kings Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, the lush ballad is a throwback to the Shondells’ earlier work. James and Bob King’s originals were significantly more grown-up and gritty than the pop songs the group recorded a couple of years earlier, and suggested the expanded horizons James would explore in his solo career. Traces of the group’s earlier studio experiments are still to be heard here, but with the psychedelic fog lifting, the focus is more firmly on song craft. Casual listeners may want to start with the hit anthologies Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection, but fans will want to hear the distance the group traveled to this final collaborative album.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up reissue clocks in at under 34-minutes, leaving one to wish they’d doubled-up with a second album (or add bonus tracks), as they did for recent reissues of Jackie DeShannon, Waylon Jennings, B.J. Thomas and others. The six-page booklet includes full-panel reproductions of the album’s gatefold front cover (with a terrific Ron Lesser western painting depicting James and Shondells’ stagecoach being chased on horseback by Roulette label head Morris Levy), but the thematic inside cover panels aren’t included. The track list restores the album’s intended ordering, swapping the two album sides and leading off with the album’s title track. Newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne include fresh interview material with James himself. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Tommy James and the Shondells: Gettin’ Together

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

James and company solidify and refine their pop

Capitalizing on the success of the previous year’s pop-oriented I Think We’re Alone Now, Tommy James and the Shondells paired again with producers Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell to cut their second album of 1967. The album cover depicts the group in a field of blossoms, but that’s as close to flower-power that the Shondells came on this album. There are production touches of the era, including the tight segue between the first two tracks, the feedback, fades and false endings of “Happy Day,” and the audio markers closing “Side 1” and opening “Side 2,” but the melodies and lyrics remain teen-pop. The seeds planted here would fully bloom the following year on 1968’s Crimson & Clover.

For now, the band polished the transition from garage and frat rock to production-oriented pop they’d begun earlier in the year. James finds more space to unleash the power of his vocals, the band’s harmonies fit together more tightly, and arranger Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner’s touches add decoration without distracting from the chewy pop-rock center. The title hit opens with a riff copped from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” but lightened to the tone of a 1910 Fruitgum Company production. James and Shondells’ bassist Mike Vale contribute four originals, including the galloping rocker “Love’s Closin’ in On Me” and the frenzied “You Better Watch Out.”

Though many of the tracks verge on bubblegum, as Ed Osborne’s liner notes point out, the album’s ballads reach to the more sophisticated vocal arrangements and considered tempos of what would become known as West Coast Sunshine Pop. Like their previous album, these sessions were recorded on a 4-track at Allegro Sound, and though most of the instruments are still panned hard left-and-right, the sound is smoother, the band sounds more settled into their surroundings, and the album more cohesive. For many listeners the hit collections Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection are better places to start, but fans interested in getting past the hits will enjoy finding that the group’s albums are fleshed out with more than the typical singles-band filler.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up 12-track reissue clocks in at under 30-minutes, leaving one wishing they’d doubled-up with a second album (or add bonus tracks), as they did for recent reissues of Jackie DeShannon, Waylon Jennings, B.J. Thomas and others. This is one of four albums (also including I Think We’re Alone Now, Travelin’ and James’ third solo release, My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar) billed as an initial offering from the entire Shondells and Thomas solo catalogs. The six-page booklet includes full-panel reproductions of the album’s front and back covers, and newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne that add fresh interview material from James himself. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Tommy James and The Shondells: I Think We’re Alone Now

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Rock singles-band transitions to studio pop

Tommy James and The Shondells kicked around their Michigan stomping grounds for several years before finding regional success in 1963 with a cover of Barry & Greenwich’s “Hanky Panky.” By the time the single was rediscovered two years later by a Pittsburgh radio station, the original Shondells had gone their separate ways. James recruited a band to be the new Shondells, and in 1966 toured behind the single, cut a deal with Roulette Records and turned their flop into a chart-topping hit. Line-up changes ensued and the band hooked up with songwriter Richie Cordell who gave them the hit title track of this 1967 release, their third studio album.

Cordell wrote or co-wrote (often with an uncredited Bo Gentry) ten of this album’s dozen songs, filling out the track list with covers of the Riviera’s “California Sun” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Like the title tune, Cordell’s songs tended to pop melodies and adolescent professions of love, creating strong appeal for teens and pre-teens. Cordell later contributed more explicitly to the bubblegum genre with songs for Crazy Elephant and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, but the seeds were sewn here as he helped Tommy James and The Shondells’ transition from garage-styled frat-rockers to studio-produced pop. The album’s second hit, “Mirage,” borrows most of the hooks from “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and they were fetching enough to merit a second visit to the Top 10.

The album’s songs stood in contrast to the psychedelic works of 1967 (Sgt. Pepper’s, Are You Experienced?, Surrealistic Pillow, et al.), but unlike the group’s previous albums, which consisted mostly of material drawn from the label’s publishing catalog, these titles were fresh. Better yet, the band and their arranger, Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, added some great instrumental touches. Wisner’s strings and horns lift “Trust Each Other in Love” beyond its bubblegum roots, and the ‘50s-styled ballad “What I’d Give to See Your Face Again” is given a terrific twist by the country piano and fuzz-guitar break. There’s a Stax-styled rhythm guitar on “Baby Let Me Down,” and the harmony vocals of “I Like the Way” are topped with a perfect horn-line.

The sound quality of these tracks varies, with most in stereo that suggests 3-track recording (instruments panned left and right and vocals in the middle), despite the 4-track studio. Tracks 1 and 11 are mono, with the latter subtly shifted to one side, moving sloppily towards the center at the 24-second mark, and popping fully into the center at the 35-second mark. The original mono single mixes of “Mirage” and “I Like the Way” can be found on the collection 40 Years: The Complete Singles (1966-2006). For most listeners, the singles collection, or hit anthologies Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection are better places to start; but starting with this album, the band and its writers and producers had something more to say than would fit on the singles charts.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up 12-track reissue clocks in at under 30-minutes, leaving one to wish they’d doubled-up with a second album (or add bonus tracks), as they did for recent reissues of Jackie DeShannon, Waylon Jennings, B.J. Thomas and others. This is one of four albums (also including Gettin’ Together, Travelin’ and James’ third solo release, My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar) billed as an initial offering from the entire Shondells and Thomas solo catalogs. The six-page booklet includes full-panel reproductions of the album’s front and back covers, and newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne that add fresh interview material from James himself. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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