Saturday, November 22, 2014

Pacific Gas & Electric's God Rock


Pacific Gas & Electric - "Are You Ready?" (1970, Billboard #14)
Pacific Gas & Electric - "Father, Come on Home" (1970, Billboard #93)
PG&E - "Thank God for You, Baby" (1972, Billboard #97)

The Los Angeles soul rock army Pacific Gas & Electric are best known for their 1970 God rock hit "Are You Ready?," which acknowledges the Vietnam War and ecological concerns ("There's rumors of war/Men dying and women crying/If you breathe air you'll die") before launching into a fuzz guitar/gospel choir frenzy. The group's other two lesser-known charting hits - "Father Come on Home" and "Thank God for You, Baby" - also evoked the Almighty.

Featuring lead vocalist and Arthur Lee lookalike Charlie Allen along with former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz, Pacific Gas & Electric likely had Schwartz to thank for its Jesus tendency. He had been converted to Christianity by street preacher Arthur Blessitt, the "Minister of Sunset Strip" who is now best known for carrying a cross through every nation of the world.

As for the wince-inducing album cover for the group's Are You Ready?, I'm curious if there's any more to the story than Columbia Records wanting to shake up perceptions of the band being strictly what their breakout hit suggested. My favorite of their three chart hits is "Father Come on Home," a 45-only follow up to "Are You Ready" that uses the fashionable early '70s sound of a gospel choir to addictive effect.

By 1972, the irritated Pacific, Gas and Electric utility company compelled the band to abandon its name, which might have contributed, along with public tastes drifting away from God rock, to the newly christened PG&E's chart demise. Acknowledging the Man Upstairs in title only, the group's "Thank God for You, Baby" scrapped its way up to #97 as their final chart visitation.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Grand Central Shuffle" Mystery

Johnny Griffith, Inc. - "Grand Central Shuffle" (1972, Billboard Regional Hit: New York City)

Johnny Griffith was the keyboardist for the Funk Brothers, Motown's house band until the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. Left behind, Griffith adopted the label lingo of Motown, which had been giving songwriting and production credits to "The Corporation," and kept busy recording, arranging, and producing for the GeNEVA label in Dearborn. As far as I can tell, the "Shaft"-like "Grand Central Shuffle" was his biggest post-Motown record. Picked up by RCA, it racked up enough airplay and sales in New York City to get listed as a "breakout" hit in Billboard.

Mysteriously, the original label for the track shows the following: "From the Neil Sullivan movie, 'The Candidate'." No such movie exists, as far as I can tell, although one starring Robert Redford and directed by Michael Ritchie, about a Senatorial race in California, certainly did. This is the one Joel Whitburn lists under the single's heading in Top Pop Singles, but nothing in the soundtrack for the Redford film sounds remotely close to Griffith's slick number, nor would any scene seem to call for it. Some other Candidate movie - possibly directed by the same Sullivan whose Why Russians Are Revolting found no love at the New York Times - likely fizzled in time for RCA to give Griffith's single some attention on its own merits.

Monday, November 10, 2014

RCA Soul Ad

Early '70s child imagery in a Billboard ad for RCA's soul roster (1/29/72, p. 33):

"Tonight after dinner, when the dishes are all washed and the new young one is tucked in, a lot of young families are going to settle back and listen to our artists' music. We salute them, and thank you."

First on the artist list: Jimmy "Troglodyte" Castor.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Three versions of "Mammy Blue"

Pop-Tops - "Mamy Blue" (1971, Billboard #57)
James Darren - "Mammy Blue" (1971, Billboard #107)
Stories - "Mammy Blue" (1973, Billboard #50)

A year before the Euro singalong smash "Butterfly" cracked the US charts (see previous post), another one called "Mamy Blue" had done the same thing with somewhat better results. Written by a Frenchman named Hubert Giraud in a Paris traffic jam, the song saw its first release in Italian by the singer Ivana Spagna. A Spanish group called Los Pop Tops, who'd taken a reimagination of Pachelbel's Canon called "Lord, Why Lord" to Billboard's #78 in 1968, gave Giraud's song English lyrics after which most of the world pretty much went bonkers for it. A scan of Billboard's "Hits of the World" section in 1971 and 1972 shows additional international high charting versions, using the alternating spellings of "Mamy Blue" and "Mammy Blue," by Joel Dayde, Nicoletta, Roger Whittaker, Charisma, Ricky Shayne, Johnny Dorrelli, Nanesse et les Nanas, and Kirka, among others.

Although US chart positions for "Mamy Blue" were comparatively modest, it did make its mark. The original English version, credited to the name-tweaked Pop-Tops and using the original spelling of "Mamy Blue," hit #57, while a follow up by "Moondoggie" James Darren, spelled "Mammy Blue," bubbled under at #107. The song had a surprise revival in 1973, when Stories chose the song as the follow up to their #1 smash "Brother Louie" and gave it its best US showing at #50. (The single was credited to Stories, while the album it appeared on, Traveling Underground, was credited to Ian Lloyd and Stories). After that, I know from personal experience that the song lived on in US-marketed TV ads for the UK's beloved Roger Whittaker.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Two English Versions of "Butterfly"


Danyel Gerard - "Butterfly" (English, MGM) (1972, #78)
Danyel Gerard - "Butterfly" (English, CBS) (1971, did not chart)

French singer songwriter Danyel Gerard made a lifelong career out of his widely-covered song "Butterfly," which had the melodic sentiment European schlager fans loved and also the kind of campfire singalong chorus US audiences in the early '70s ate up. (Watch for a future post on this phenomenon.) Originally recorded in French, the song's popularity compelled Gerard to record versions in Spanish, English, and German (possibly more). The "butterfly, my butterfly" vocal hook, though, was sung in English on every version, including the original French. This was a clever move on Gerard's part, who perhaps saw an international hit on the horizon. The words for "butterfly" in French (papillon), Spanish (mariposa), and German (schmetterling), all would have fit the song's musical cadence just fine.

After topping the charts all over Europe, Gerard found that his English version of the song, released on CBS with lyrics credited to "P. Kent," would need to get a new label and subsequent lyrical makeover - for whatever reason - if it stood a chance in America. MGM label head Mike Curb, along with veteran lyricist Mack David (brother of Hal) helped with new words, making for some hyphen-heavy label credits on the new 45. Why the earlier Columbia 45 doesn't credit Ralph Bernet and H. Barnes, who presumably wrote the French lyrics and appear on that version's credits, while the MGM version does, is a mystery. Perhaps disappointingly to Gerard and MGM, "Butterfly" would be Gerard's only US hit, peaking no higher than #78.

Friday, October 31, 2014

More Words About "Monster Mash"


Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers - "Monster Mash" (1970, Billboard #91; 1973, Billboard #10)

I've already said a few words about the early '70s "Monster Mash" revival in these pages. Here are a few more: A #1 US hit in 1962, the single (originally on Garpax but reissued on Parrot) had a slight Billboard chart resurgence in 1970 thanks to its popularity in the San Diego market, according to Herb Goldfarb of London Records (who distributed for both Parrot and Garpax).  In 1973 the single got hot again in Milwaukee, prompting London to repackage the 1962 album (minus a few tracks) and to push the single in both the US and UK. It had never been a chart success in the UK before '73 - the BBC had apparently banned it for being too morbid, while a 9/29/73 New Musical Express article on Pickett by Rob Finnis said it had been "too banally American" for the '62 Brit kids.    

This NME article was called "Monster Mash and the Junk Store Syndrome," and touched upon the troubled era's acute American Graffiti-tinged pangs of nostalgia - on both sides of the pond - that brought old records like Pickett's back to the airwaves.  The article also talks about how Pickett got the idea for the song when one of his early groups, called the Cordials, would perform a version of the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'," in which Pickett would deliver its spoken recitation in the voice of Boris Karloff.  "Monster Mash" was such a "graveyard smash" in 1973 Britain that it reached #3 on the UK charts, while peaking at #10 in the US. (The photo of Pickett above accompanied both the NME article and the back of the repackaged Original Monster Mash album). 

If this has you in the mood to hear the single again, why don't you listen to it with a few extra seconds of spooky sounds, as it was presented by Peter Pan records as part of its own 1973 Monster Mash collection of " 'Million-Seller' Novelty Songs - Fun for the Young of All Ages."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Spirit Revival

Spirit's "Mr. Skin" crept into Billboard's Hot 100 forty-one years ago today. Although it had been part of their 1970 Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus album, the song got a late boost from Epic's release of the Best of Spirit compilation.  Too bad the classic lineup of the LA quintet, after releasing four terrifically heady albums between 1968 and 1970, had disbanded by then: vocalist/songwriter Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes focused on their new boogie rock group Jo Jo Gunne; Ed Cassidy and John Locke joined forces with Texas brothers Al and John Staehely for a revamped boogie rock version of Spirit; and guitarist Randy California got busy with his Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds album, a future cult favorite.  

Might as well geek out about some details while I'm at it. A 45 version of "Mr. Skin" was actually released in 1970 as the non-charting second single supporting Twelve Dreams, with "Soldier" as its B-side. ("Animal Zoo" was the album's first single, peaking at #97). A third single from the album, the ecology-tinged "Nature's Way," managed to bubble under at #111.  The B-side was "Mr. Skin," which is probably why Billboard chart archivist Joel Whitburn lists the 1973 charting version of "Mr. Skin" as the "Nature's Way" B-side.  This is a mistake because the charting version of "Mr. Skin" was a fresh reissue of the disc from 1970 with the "Soldier" B-side. The copyright date on the single's label, though, is 1972, even though it charted in late '73 as a result of Epic's push for the 1973 Best of Spirit compilation. And now my head hurts.

Jo Jo Gunne, by the way, had one charting hit - "Run Run Run," peaking at #27 in '72. This was almost as high as Spirit's best charting performance, which was "I Got a Line on You" (#25 in '69). Spirit's second highest chart performance happened in 1970, just before the release of Twelve Dreams, when their unremarkable Zager and Evans tribute "1984" - a non-album 45 - reached #69.