Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, in an era known as the 1970s, most music came on scratchy plastic disks called “records.” (That was also the era of 8-track tapes, but the less said about that, the better.) One of life’s simpler pleasures was to rummage through the stacks of old, unwanted albums and 45s (singles) in discount stores and places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army and pick up some rare treasures at bargain prices. You never quite knew what you were in for when you got home and put your purchases on the stereo (record player; they used needles). It was like emptying out your trick-or-treat bag on Halloween night and separating out the chocolate bars from those orange-wrapped peanut butter taffy things that only grownups seem to like.
Here are some tricks and treats from my long-lost record collection that I am sure will never see the light of day on a legal or affordable CD (or iTune):
1. “Theme from ‘The Waltons’,” The Magic Organ, Ranwood records, ca. 1972.
Scoff if you must, but during the Watergate era, the heartwarming stories of life on Walton’s Mountain in a simpler, happier time (The Great Depression) gave both young and old a safe haven from the massive unpleasantness all around us. The young people could enjoy the back-to-nature, living off the land aspect of the show; the old people could look back wistfully at a time when hair was short and music had melodies and young people respected the President and their elders. And, admittedly, it was arguably the best-written family drama on TV at the time. (“Bonanza” had run its course and “Little House on the Prairie” had yet to arrive.)
The Magic Organ tried to capture the heartwarming magic of the show in its rendition of the theme song. Magic? Perhaps not … your aunt could do just as well on one of those newfangled multi-keyboard, pre-rythmed home organs that you could play with one finger while modern musical technology took care of the rest (like chording). Perhaps the record sounds too much like a modern karaoke machine. But if you want an automatic reaction at your party of gray-haired Grand Funk Railroad fans, put this on. If you can find it. If it ever comes out on CD. Which it probably won’t. Which means Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of the theme from “Baretta” backed by The Mike Curb Congregation would probably suffice. You have to special order the CD, eh? Too bad.
2. “Surfer Girl,” The Jalopy Five, Hit records, 1963.
“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by The Beagles? “Keep On Dancing” by The Sentrys? “Sherry” by The Four Chellows [sic]? Budget bin versions of current hits were a big part of vinyl dumpster diving back in the 1970s, and those silver-and-gold, thick plastic Hit 45s and LPs from Nashville were easy to find in the St. Louis area and southern Missouri places like Farmington. The current hits album from April 1963, for example, had studio singers trying to imitate Andy Williams, Jackie Wilson, Steve Lawrence, Connie Francis, The Chiffons, Little Peggy March and Paul and Paula (impersonated by their Connie Francis clone and their Johnny Tillotson imitator). My favorite Hit product, however, was the flipside of “Then He Kissed Me” (I forgot the name of the pseudogroup who sang that), from later that year.
The Jalopy Five, landlubbers all, take on “Surfer Girl,” a popular hit by The Beach Boys. Unfortunately, they try to perform it like The Four Seasons, complete with shrill Frankie Valli-type falsetto, and get totally wiped out by the melody (they get it wrong) and the words (“We couldn’t ride the surf together”). Out of tune and woefully misguided, the rendition has a charm of its own, like those tender campfire moments in the old beach party movies where the gang has had all their fun and now they’re playing folk guitars and singing serious lyrics like “Little Woody, wohh wohhh.” As a matter of fact, after a few spins, you start to sing the song The Jalopy Five way. And Brian Wilson fans clobber you with a surfboard.
3. “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” The Ray Bloch Singers, “Hits of ’69,” Ambassador records, ca. 1970.
Ray Bloch was the musical director of the popular “Ed Sullivan Show.” He also put out albums for budget labels in the late 1960s. I had two – “Hits of ’66,” which had a hellacious swing choir version of “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and “Hits of ’69,” which featured jaw-dropping versions of “Love Me Tonight” (the Tom Jones hit), “Worst That Could Happen” (it certainly was) and “Everyday People.”
For a pro, Bloch’s records seem amateurish to the extreme, thanks to his “singers,” who sound like really bad carolers dragged in from the street with the promise of all the egg nog they can drink. Their voices don’t blend, not by a long shot. They have no sense of rhythm and far less soul than The Mike Curb Congregation. They make the fatal error of trying to imitate the singer on the hit record (e.g. Tom Jones, The Brooklyn Bridge, etc.), sounding more like a musical flash mob than a choral group.
They get away from the rock and roll for one admirable attempt at the easy listening standard, “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Over a martial drumbeat, they sing an overly perky, syrupy rendition, building to a ghastly high note in the soprano section at the end. It’s like sliding down a razor blade and landing right into a vat of rubbing alcohol.
You should hear them sing The Bee Gees.
4. “The Wang Dang Taffy Apple Tango (Mambo Cha Cha Cha),” Pat Boone, Dot records, 1959.
This tune with Tin Pan Alley writing credits is kinda dumb, but not bad at all. It gets in on merit of its title. Can you imagine being a teen going into a record store in 1959 with all your cool friends there and asking the clerk at the counter for that song? I rest my case.
1. “I’m Down,” The Beatles, Capitol records, 1965.
The long-lost B-side of “Help!” is currently available on Apple Records’ “Past Masters” CD. (I’ve got it in my CD collection.) So it’s disqualified. That’s a shame. The lyrics are lame in several places, but the record is Paul McCartney’s shining moment. The one we really looked for back in the mid-1970s, however, was a rumored lost Beatles 45 from the same era called “It’s A Shame Mary Jane Had A Pain At The Party.”
We’re still looking.
2. “We Fooled ‘Em Again,” Mary Taylor, Capitol records, 1966.
This clever cheatin’ song was the B-side of a very minor country hit called “Don’t Waste My Time,” which isn’t nearly as good. Taylor’s name appears in the writer’s credits on Jody Miller’s answer record to “King of the Road” called “Queen of the House,” from the previous year. She had a good, folky voice and a way with a song. It’s a shame she never made it and you can’t find her stuff anywhere, not even in moldy record bins and remote rural garage sales.
3. “Crystal Ball,” Annette Funicello, Buena Vista records, 1966.
The flip of an easy-to-find flop called “No Way To Go But Up,” this simple tune with an overdubbed countermelody recaptures the magic of the old Mouseketeer songs. It’s not rock and roll, and it’s not art, but it sounds good and beats the flipsides of bona fide hits like “Hey Paula,” “A Teenager in Love” and “Gingerbread” by her beach buddy Frankie Avalon.
4. “Hoot Owl,” Guy Mitchell, Columbia records, 1957.
The B-side to his hit song “Rockabilly” (which certainly wasn’t), “Hoot Owl” was a simple, corny vaudeville-type song with simple, corny, square-sounding background singers, ukeleles and electric guitar all sung to a driving beat by Ray Conniff and His Orchestra. For rock fans, this would usually mean trouble, but somehow the whole stew works. It’s on CD overseas somewhere, but I sure wish a country star would cover it. Put it in a medley with “The Wang Dang Taffy Apple Tango.”
There are many more great and awful records that could be included here (I haven’t gotten to the “Beatle Ballads” album by The Jonnny Mann Singers (Liberty records, 1964) or “Christmas at the Ponderosa” by Lorne Greene, Michael Landon and the rest of the cast of “Bonanza” with the Ken Darby Singers (RCA, 1964) or “Bashful Bob” by Bobby Vee (Liberty records, 1961) or “Thirteenth Hour” by Timi Yuro (Liberty, 1962) or “It Wouldn’t Happen With Me” (Johnny Rivers, Imperial, 1964) or “Is There A Place (Where I Can Go?)” by Bobby Vinton (Epic, 1963) or “I Told The Brook” (Marty Robbins, Columbia, 1962) or The Keith Textor Singers or Rocky Turner or “A Symphony for Susan” or The Lettermen’s LP cover versions of Aretha Franklin songs). These are some of the ones I remember fondly. Rummaging through CD bins isn’t nearly as fun. Although I found a Christmas album featuring actress Glenn Close from the year she played the psycho in “Fatal Attraction.” And “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs. And Al Hirt playing “The Girl from Ipanema.” Hmmmm….there’s a closeout sale at the mall? Dig you later!