Friday, October 12, 2012

One of my favorites: The Heartbeats

From the left: Robbie Tatum, Wally Roker, James Sheppard, Vernon Sievers, and Albert Crump.

When you talk about the most famous groups from the 50s/60s, it’s very hard for The Heartbeats to come up on someone’s list. I started listening to Doo Wop groups when I was a kid, but only later did I recognize who The Heartbeats were. After all, they did chart a Billboard #5 R&B hit, which still earns them respect and admiration up to this day. That hit is A Thousand Miles Away.

The group first started out as The Hearts, made up by teens from two different high schools in Queens, NY. Albert Crump, Vernon Seavers, and Wally Roker, who went to Woodrow Wilson High School, while Robbie Tatum went to Andrew Jackson High School. Robbie invited them to rehearse at his house, which prompted the formation of the group. In what used to be a common practice at the time, the quartet would “battle” against other groups at St. Albans Park, Queens. In one of the battles, they faced James Sheppard’s group, and won. That was when Sheppard was invited to join The Hearts, becoming their lead singer and songwriter.

In 1955, DJ Alan Freed played a song called Lonely Nights, by the girl group The Hearts. They heard the song and decided to change the group’s name to The Heartbeats. They would go on to perform locally, until Roker met jazz musician Illinois Jacquet. It was Jacquet’s brother, Russell, who first recorded the group with none other than Oscar Peterson on piano and King Curtis on the saxophone. Tormented and After Everybody’s Gone were released on a small label called Network.

But it was not until they were introduced to Bea Caslon, owner of Hull Records, that they recorded noteworthy songs. From that moment on, The Heartbeats became known for their slow ballads, like Crazy For You, Your Way, and People Are Talking. They did come across a road bump, however. Someone at Hull had the idea of turning them into an uptempo group, such as The Cadillacs. Fortunately for them, the fans didn’t like the change, and started asking radio DJs to play A Thousand Miles Away. The song became such a success that the both the song and the group were sold to Rama Records in 1957, since Hull wasn’t financially able to promote the hit.

In 1958, Rama became Roulette Records, and The Heartbeats started turning out more soulful songs, such as Down On My Knees and Sometimes I Wonder. It was also during that time that they recorded one of my favorite songs. I Found a Job was an “answer” song to The Silhouettes’ Get a Job, and both were riding on a common theme at the time, economic recession. 

Guyden Records was the group’s last label switch, in 1959. That marked a return to their original slow, smooth style of singing. But it also became the start of the group’s end. Sheppard and the rest of the group were arguing over musical taste and responsibilities. His disrespect for the group went as far as falling asleep during a performance in Philadelphia. In 1960, he called upon two old friends from St. Albans Park to form Shep & The Limelites. Their career started with Daddy’s Home, their spin on A Thousand Miles Away, and that marked the end of The Heartbeats’ recording career.

Below, you will see the original Heartbeats singing their most famous song during a PBS concert in 2003. Walter Crump replaces Shep, who died in 1970. While Crump may not have Shep’s original voice, both he and the group make a memorable performance. (It was taken from the Rock and Roll at 50 DVD. A great DVD I will review later on.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Doo Wop A Cappella

Clockwise from the top: Royce, John, Mando, and Phil Gold.

When I think of A Cappella, I usually imagine myself in the 50’s, listening to a group of teenagers singing at a street corner. I guess a lot of people think the same way, so it’s only natural that most modern day A Cappella groups have, at one time or another, sung at least one 50’s or 60’s song. The Alley Cats are no different. Better yet, they are different. That’s because they are an A Cappella group that sing exclusively 50’s/60’s songs. 

Royce Reynolds and Mando Fonseca met each other in choir, while at Fullerton College (1987), during a Doo Wop revival program. They are the two founding members of The Alley Cats, and continue singing to this day. The other two members that joined the group to form a quartet, were Todd Dixon and Andre Peek. Since then, the lineup has changed quite a bit, but one other member that has been with them for quite a while is baritone John O’Campo. Today, according to their site, they have different formations, in order to be at different venues at the same time.

Since their start, they have certainly been the most accomplished Doo Wop A Cappella group that I know of. They have performed at the White House, on Disney’s Hercules, on many TV shows, and have opened for Jay Leno, Chubby Checker, The Tokens, Sha Na Na, and Bill Medley.

You can check out their songs out by finding these CDs online: A Christmas Long Time Ago, The Doo Wop Drive-In Live, Strike 3!, Cruisin’, and The Cat’s Meow.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Electro-Voice Slimair 636

Chuck Berry

One of the most common vintage microphones on Ebay is the Electro-Voice Slimair 636. You can usually get it for less than $100, which is a good bargain for those starting a collection. My guess is that since there’s quite a few being sold out there and it doesn’t quite have the 50’s look, people don’t really pay much attention to it. The EV 636 actually has the slim design that became so popular in the 60’s, and is still being used today.

I’m kind of a kid when I buy vintage microphones. I like to open them and look at all the parts inside. So when a mic offers such an easy access to the element, you can bet that I’m going to check it out. Compared to other vintage microphones, the element is pretty small. And it does look like it’s quite fragile. But it has a nice, crisp sound to it. I’d also have to guess that it’s pretty reliable, since all the EV 636’s I have, work. Besides, if the likes of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Billie Holiday used this model in the past, it certainly can’t be a bad mic.

Gene Vincent
You can download the spec sheet for the EV 636 here.

The D.S. rarity scale: 7/10.


Scene from That Thing You Do!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

One Hit Wonders: Bobby Pickett

It’s hard to imagine a 60’s hit starting out with “I was working in my lab, late one night…”. Let alone a song that sounded like it was made for a Halloween party. But then again, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out, I don’t think many people could imagine themselves dancing to it. All that would come to your mind was the music video and Vincent Price’s laughter at the end. Nevertheless, just like Thriller, Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash had what it took to make kids of all ages dance to it.

The year was 1962. Bobby Pickett, who wanted to be an actor, ended up in a vocal group called The Cordials. They would sing hits like Little Darlin’, with Bobby exercising his acting abilities by emulating Boris Karloff’s voice (a famous horror movie actor) during the monologue in the middle of the song. At the time, The Twist and the Mashed Potato Time were hot tunes on the radio, and they wanted something that would fit right in. One day, with fellow group member Leonard Capizzi at the piano, they started talking about how audiences loved Bobby’s rendition of Karloff. It was Leonard who suggested, “maybe the Frankenstein monster should start a dance craze”.

You’d think it would be all downhill from there, but they had some trouble releasing it. No record label wanted it. It was not until they showed it to Gary Paxton, who changed the group name to Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, that it really started getting noticed. Paxton produced the song and distributed about 1,000 singles to radio stations. Monster Mash (name inspired by Dee Dee Sharp’s hit) got on the fast track to becoming a #1 Billboard hit.
Bobby Pickett and The Beach Boys
Some people say that Monster Mash ruined Bobby’s life, since everything he did after that was somehow related to the song. But what if they had never written Monster Mash? Would The Cordials launch themselves to stardom in another way? Or would their biggest achievement have been being heard in a small town radio station? Having a song that’s still a hit 50 years later, even though it was called by Elvis himself the dumbest thing he ever heard, is not something anyone can imagine having on their life’s resumĂ©. I’m glad Bobby and Leonard came up with that song. It’s something that amuses me ever since I was a kid. I think it just might have enough gas to go on for another 50 years.

Just for fun, I found the video below on YouTube, of a family that puts on a light show every Halloween. I’d like to see it as an extremely well done tribute to Bobby.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unsolved mystery

About a month ago I bought this unkown microphone on Ebay. On the listing, the seller stated it looked like a "Trix" mic, but the photo of the "Trix" that he had uploaded looked more like a Grampian that anything else. But I didn't worry too much about not knowing who made the mic. Since it came at a good price, I thought it had the potential to be a good project.

The microphone's element and magnet.
When it arrived, I took a good look at the design and the materials used to make it. I'd have to guess it's European. Maybe made in the UK. Inside, it has a huge magnet, which makes the whole mic weigh about 1,55kg (3.4 lbs). On the back of the magnet there's a clue that one day might help identify the microphone. It has "LS" (or "SL") engraved on it. I don't think they are initials of a past owner, since taking out the magnet was a bit difficult. Besides, people would usually engrave on the outside body of the mic.

Like I said in an earlier post, I usually don't like to mess around with the color or chroming of vintage mics. It's like taking its soul away from it. But since it came in such bad shape, I decided to chrome it. I had a hard time sanding it down to take out most of the imperfections, but I think came out alright. Although, after it was finished, I did question myself if it would look better if I had painted the back part of the mic black, so it would resemble the original thing.

If you know anything about this microphone, please feel free to share your information. By the way, the one special thing about it, is that it still works! The DS rarity scale: 10/10.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The #1 crush

Between the 40’s and early 50’s, big bands made a lot of success with their upbeat rhythms. But they also had slow, mellow songs, which were made famous by the sweet, melodic voices of crooners.

In the 50’s, kids continued to want romantic songs, but it was probably hard for them to relate to crooners in their 30’s/40’s. Teens needed idols that had the same age, which would sing about their romantic experiences or that special girl on their block.

Who would have thought that a crush for your younger brother and sister’s babysitter would give you a #1 hit in the US, UK, and #2 in Germany? Diana was one of Paul Anka’s first songs, and it launched him to stardom right away. When Diana Ayoub, 20 years old at the time, babysat for his younger siblings, he was only 15. She had no interest in him, which was probably better for Anka to express his unmatched feelings in a poem, and later turn it into a song. Diana sold over 10 million copies all over the world, only second to White Christmas, as the best selling single of all time. Nothing like starting your career at 16 with a #1 hit.

Anka proved to the world that he was here to stay, by recording You Are My Destiny the following year. By now, teens had endorsed him as a musical spokesperson for young love. And in turn, he embraced this role by writing more hit songs. And not only for himself. He also wrote It Doesn’t Matter Anymore for Buddy Holly, and for other artists, such as Pat Boone and Connie Francis.

 In 1959 he continued to be a success. He starred in his first movie, Girls Town, in which he sang Lonely Boy, another US #1. Right after that, Put Your Head On My Shoulder hit the charts. It only got to the second place in the US because of Bobby Darin’s Mack The Knife.

After making millions of kids dream of their school sweethearts, it was time for Paul to forget Diana and move on to have a real relationship. The one person that made him forget his platonic love for an older woman was Annette Funicello. She was one year younger than him, and at the time already a singer and a Walt Disney TV show presenter. The future star of beach-themed movies (along with Frankie Avalon), convinced Anka to write some songs for her next album. But before sparks could fly a bit higher, Walt Disney himself ended this starting relationship. Like always, it was all about appearances and professional image. Nevertheless, Anka did get one more hit when he recorded Puppy Love, inspired by this partially fulfilled passion.
Annette Funicello and Paul Anka

By the early 60’s, Paul Anka started to focus musically on the adult market. But his business smarts continued to blossom. He was already an underage millionaire, and made another bold move by buying the rights to his old masters. He also starred in more movies, hosted TV shows, wrote over 125 compositions (including the opening for The Tonight Show), and launched his own record label (Spanka).
He continued his career and today, is still a name mentioned in the music business. In 2007, Paul Anka released Classic Songs, My Way, with contemporary artists such as Jon Bon Jovi and Michael Bublé. I guess Anka will always be someone you can expect more from.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

YouTube Sensations: Sayaka Alessandra

In the 50’s, things were more simple. The small city groups and singers could launch for stardom by getting a DJ to play their record, cut at a small local studio. Small agents could find talent at sock hops, at a neighborhood garage, or at the nearest street corner. You get the picture. Even so, there must have been a lot of talented vocal groups who never had a shot, or could have come very close to making it to the mainstream galaxy of Rock n’ Roll stars, but never made it. A bad agent, or the lack of, lyrics that just weren’t good enough, or never being at the right place, at the right time. There are so many reasons for not making it to the top, that many harmonious voices were bound to fade away into oblivion.

Fast forward to the 80’s, when things really got to a much more commercial level. It was probably harder for the wannabe star. I would imagine that getting a top music company executive to listen to a demo tape was something almost impossible in a lifetime.

Jump forward to 2012. As you get out of the DeLorean lent by Marty McFly, things start to get simpler again. Although it’s still difficult to be noticed just by walking through the lobby of a big recording company, there are now ways to reach notoriety even for those who never thought about being known all over the world. We are now living in the digital world, where things can spread from Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong like wildfire, in a matter of minutes. In other words, your 15 minutes of fame can be stretched for years. 

Ever since YouTube opened the doors of revolutionary communication, video sharing was never the same. And although not everything you see online deserves your full attention, there are many who make the most of this chance. I’d say that the smart ones are learning more and more how to make the most of this social tool. 

Sayaka Alessandra is one of these people. This former Sky Italia TV presenter started uploading videos around 2008. Although you would never imagine a half Japanese half Sicilian girl, who lived in places such as Bangladesh and India, sing 50’s/60’s hits, that’s exactly how she surprises us. A great Elvis fan, she has a very cool singing flavor with her deep intonations in some of her covers. It’s a delight to listen and see her home performances. And as you can see by the videos, it’s not just about the singing. She looks like she’s really having fun, which makes you enjoy the videos even more.

As she made success through YouTube, she went on to live performances, and recorded more songs. Some of the new ones are on her Myspace page and YouTube, and sound like that they were recorded in a studio. But I have to say, my favorite songs will always be the homemade videos that made her famous. Maybe someday, after she accomplishes her accolades, she might go back to basics.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beyond the songs: Bobby Darin

Every once in a while, we come across an artist whose creativity is a little ahead of their time. In Bobby Darin’s case, it was time that caught up to him before his success. Walden Robert Cassottto was born in 1936, in the Bronx, NY. If you look up Rock n’ Roll singers or Doo Wop groups, you’ll notice that a lot of them started their careers while in their teens. When Bobby’s 1958 Splish Splash hit #1 in the R&B charts, he was already 21. Today, it’s probably a pretty normal thing for an artist to start making success in their early 20’s. But in a time where a lot of the groups had baby-faced members, it might have been a bit strange for somebody of Bobby’s age to be a teen idol. Right after that, Queen of the Hop also hit the charts. Although not a mainstream hit that you’ll hear much today, it’s a song that you can easily imagine playing on car radios at the time.

In the following year, Darin recorded Dream Lover and one of his most famous hits, Mack the Knife. The latter song was a daring adaptation of an old ballad called Moritat, and was his only song that reached #1 in the US and the UK. So every time you listen to Frank Sinatra singing Mack the Knife, remember Bobby Darin. This was also the song that made him part ways with Rock n’ Roll. He never really wanted to be a R&R star, and from the moment he won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and was voted Best New Artist on, his main audience started to change from teens to adults. Instead of being compared to teen idols, he now entered the realm of Frank Sinatra and other internationally famous singers.

Bobby and Sandra Dee
In 1960, he set himself firmly in the adult market by recording Beyond the Sea. After that, there were some more hits, but none that repeated the initial success. While his singing career stagnated in the 60’s, he was very active in other areas. Since 1959, Darin started acting in movies. Some even with his wife at the time, Sandra Dee. In 1963, his performance in Captain Newman, M.D. earned him an Oscar nomination. He also dedicated a lot of time to campaign for Robert F. Kennedy.

The late 60’s was an emotional rollercoaster for Darin. He divorced Sandra Dee, Kennedy was assassinated, and he finally found out that his “sister” was actually his mother, and his “mother” was his grandmother. His self-esteem took a blow and he fought depression for some time.

Elvis and Bobby Darin

Frankie Avalon, Darin, Pat Boone, and Paul Anka
But Bobby Darin was a fighter from his early ages. This was blatant in his early career days, when he made a statement to Life Magazine in 1959: “I want to be a legend at 25”. In the early 1970’s, he wowed crowds in Las Vegas, receiving standing ovations, and starred in two NBC variety TV shows. He was making a grand comeback, and offers for shows were pouring in. Unfortunately, now time was really catching up to him. During his childhood, he had rheumatic fever, which forever damaged his heart. At 13, doctors said that one day he would need open-heart surgery. He had delayed this until 1971. Although it seemed that he would be OK, two years later he forgot to take antibiotics before a routine dental procedure, and an infection set in. That made a second heart surgery a necessity. But this time he did not recover.

Bobby died at 37. Too young for somebody who was much more than a singer or actor. Above all, he was a human being, who loved doing benefits and supported charities. He was a performer who stood out among the many names of entertainers of the 50’s/60’s. Not because of his songs, but because of his heart. Bobby Darin has no grave, because he donated his body to the UCLA Medical Research Center. Nevertheless, he will be remembered for a long time. Every time that one of his songs plays, we will listen to something much warmer than his melodies. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One Hit Wonders: The Elegants

When I think of Italian music, the first thing that comes to my mind are songs that have become synonymous with Italy itself. Famous songs like Volare or O Sole Mio that have traveled the world through commercials and movies. I would never expect a Doo Wop hit from a group made up of Italian descendants. But what a pleasant surprise The Elegants gave us.

The group was formed in 1956, when lead vocalist Vito Picone and Carman Romano (both ex-Crescents), teamed up with Arthur Venosa, Frank Tardogono, and James Moschello. When Picone wrote Little Star in 1958, the boys from Staten Island, New York, became a sudden success. Their record sold over 2 million copies, and they rode that hit, touring in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

They continued to record ballads for different labels, but no other song repeated the success of Little Star. The Elegants had some different formations up to the 70's, and today Picone tours with his own ensemble of the group.