Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mickey and His Mice - "Cracker Jack" (1970)

Mickey and His Mice - "Cracker Jack" (Billboard regional breakout hit: Washington D.C., entered 6/27/70). Written by Mickey Fields, Eddie Drennon, and Martin Cantine. Produced by Martin Cantine. 45: "Cracker Jack"/"Abraham, Martin and John" (Marti, 1970). No album appearance.

Q: Hey baby, what is this 'cracker jack' thing?
A: Ain't nothin' but the popcorn with some sweet jive on it.

The "popcorn" was a James Brown concoction - a dance he'd started doing onstage in 1968, according to some accounts, to "Bringing Up the Guitar." He then recorded a stack of popcorn-oriented records, including "Mother Popcorn" (1969), an unassailable highlight in the James Brown hall of finest funk. But "popcorn" might have had more to do with the Godfather's personal lexicon of booty synonyms than with any specific dance moves.

"Popcorn music" has also become a term adopted by soul music aficionados in Europe to describe a sweeter strain of the obscure vintage sixties dance cuts you see categorized as "Northern soul" (so named for their popularity in certain Manchester clubs). It's safe to assume, though, that Mickey Fields, the man answering the lady's question at the beginning of "Cracker Jack," is referring to the James Brown popcorn sound.

The single showed up on Billboard as a regional breakout hit in Washington D.C., but never climbed higher, which can likely be blamed on the red-hot tenor sax man's refusal to ever leave Baltimore.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Andy Williams - "Joanne" (1970)

Andy Williams - "Joanne" (did not chart). Written by Michael Nesmith. Produced by Mike Post. LP: The Andy Williams Show (Columbia 1970).

In the late sixties Columbia records discovered that the way to keep its classic voices like Andy Williams and Tony Bennett commercially viable was to keep the movie themes and contemporary hit covers coming. (Clive Davis, in his 1975 autobiography, reports Bennett being none too happy about the strategy, favoring the Great American Songbook.)

The Andy Williams Show LP gathered up a handful of previous Williams covers of hits from the late sixties and added six freshly recorded ones ("Joanne," "Make It With You," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," "Close to You," "El Condor Pasa," and "Snowbird"), then added applause tracks and segue music. The album sold enough in the US to make it worthwhile and went top ten in the UK. "Joanne" is Williams's countrypolitan version of ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith's yearning #21 hit from earlier in the year.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The 5th Dimension - "One Less Bell to Answer" (1970)

The 5th Dimension - "One Less Bell to Answer" (Billboard #2, entered 10/24/70; easy listening #1). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Bones Howe. 45: "One Less Bell to Answer"/"Feelin' Alright" (Bell 1970). LP: Portrait (Bell 1970).

The plush "One Less Bell to Answer" is the sound of an abandoned housewife reclining on her personal crushed velvet chaise lounge; she'll miss her man and his company but she won't be going anywhere or losing anything else other than him. It's definitely a more complicated economic iteration of the breakup songs that were otherwise populating the soul and country charts in its day.

The other four members of the 5th Dimension are virtually absent on "One Less Bell to Answer," which was the group's first hit on the Bell label after switching over from Soul City. Marilyn McCoo contributed the lead vocal as she would do on all of their biggest subsequent hits. A classic entry in the Burt Bacharach-Hal David catalog, the song originally appeared as a 1967 Keely Smith vehicle, employing an opening doorbell gimmick and projecting an aura of despair. McCoo's version, in contrast, featured her cool composure and an elegant arrangement that gave the song a more sophisticated range of interpretive possibilities.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Nancy Wilson - "Now I'm a Woman" (1970)

Nancy Wilson - "Now I'm a Woman" (Billboard #93, entered 1/2/71; soul #41). Written and produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. 45: "Now I'm a Woman"/"The Real Me" (Capitol 1970). LP: Now I'm a Woman (Capitol 1970).

The release of Nancy Wilson's Now I'm a Woman album coincided with her distingué performance in an episode of Hawaii Five-O's third season ("Trouble in Mind"), in which she played the heroin-addicted jazz vocalist Eadie Jordan. In one scene, the no-nonsense Steve McGarrett confesses to being an Eadie Jordan record collector and fanboy.

Otherwise, it's a sad episode, and it's sad that her "Now I'm a Woman" single, a broken-family tale given the Philly soul treatment by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, would be her final Hot 100 appearance. Happily, she'd make classy appearances on the R&B charts until 1994.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bobby Goldsboro - "Watching Scotty Grow" (1970)

Bobby Goldsboro - "Watching Scotty Grow" (Billboard #11, entered 12/26/70; easy listening #1). Written by Mac Davis. Produced by Bob Montgomery and Bobby Goldsboro. 45: "Watching Scotty Grow"/"Water Color Days" (United Artists 1970). LP: We Gotta Start Lovin' (United Artists 1971).

Bobby Goldsboro's #1 hit "Honey" (1968), with its maudlin arrangement, gawky narrative, and crocodile tears, established him as one of pop music's emperors of melodrama. He'd been vying for the crown as far back as 1962, when his first charting single ("Molly") expressed the words of a soldier returning home and revealing to his family that he could no longer see.

Even so, throughout his entire eleven-year run of hits, Goldsboro's material would demonstrate the odd ability to yo-yo from bathos to pathos, drawing listeners into a realm of meaningful reflection against their better judgment. With "Watching Scotty Grow," for example, you hear its grin-face trumpet hook and Mac Davis's lyrics about a little boy doing little boy things, then you grimace. And then you find yourself lost in thought. "You can have your TV and your nightclubs and you can have your drive-in picture show," Goldsboro sings. "I'll stay here with my little man near and we'll listen to the radio, biding my time and watching Scotty grow."

Because I considered the song, as I still do, to be a perfect signature record for the era's pop music preoccupation with children, I titled the first chapter of my Early '70s Radio book "Watching Scotty Grow: The New Top 40 and the Merging Spheres of Parents and Preteens." The song even presented the very scenario I was discovering, a world where kids and adults hung around together and listened to the same station, with everything that implies. ("This mutual radio-listening environment," as I put it then, "was a contradictory affair.")

"Watching Scotty Grow" originally appeared on a Goldsboro album called We Gotta Start Lovin', but, presumably because of its radio success, it became the title song to a new album released shortly thereafter, with a cover depicting Goldsboro and a youngster in father-son mode.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 - "For What It's Worth" (1970)

Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 - "For What It's Worth" (Billboard #101, entered 8/29/70; easy listening #10). Written by Stephen Stills. Produced by Sergio Mendes and Herb Alpert. 45: "For What It's Worth"/"Viramundo" (A&M 1970). LP: Stillness (A&M 1970).

This sultry cover version of Buffalo Springfield's 1967 hit was the last chart appearance of Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 before they would update their name to Brasil '77. After a steady chart run through the late sixties and early seventies, they flirted with the Hot 100 only one more time with "Love Music" (1973) before dissolving in 1978. Under his own name, Mendes would later become an '80s wedding-ballad VIP with "Never Gonna Let You Go" (1983).

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Gabor Szabo - "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (1971)

Gabor Szabo - "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (Billboard easy listening #40, entered 12/19/70). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Tommy LiPuma. 45: "(They Long to Be) Close to You"/"Love Theme from Spartacus" (Blue Thumb 1971). LP: Magical Connection (Blue Thumb 1971).

The prolific guitarist Szabo mostly channels Wes Montgomery in this reinterpretation of what was then the latest Bacharach-David standard. But you do hear his own distinctive style manifesting itself in bends and chitters. "Close to You" had been floating around since 1963 in versions by Richard Chamberlain, Dionne Warwick, and Dinah Washington, but the Carpenters' 1970 hit recording became the definitive one, prompting this cover by Szabo. It would be his only appearance on any of the Billboard charts.