18 February 2006

Land Of A Thousand Dances, Part One

Chris Montez

Take a Trip to the
Land Of 1,000 Dances!
A Stuff'n'Laura Production
by Don Charles Hampton and Laura Pinto

It’s hard not to love a CD compilation called Land Of A Thousand Dances. So why fight it? Give in, and give it up for the hottest dance crazes of the 1960s! Why, it’s nearly impossible to even hear or read the words "land of a thousand dances" without breaking into a chorus of naaa-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na. See? Admit it . . . you’re busted, dude! That irresistible title track is included on both volumes of this boss CD series Ace Records marketed a few years back, as are fifty-nine other fabulous numbers that you can bop and jive to.

While you won’t actually find a thousand dances on disc, the title is a very good indicator of the content. Every tune is danceable to a greater or lesser degree, and usually covers a specific dance step like the Popeye, the Monkey, the Bird or (naturally) The Twist. Dig it: There’s the famous("Hanky Panky"), the obscure("Hitch Hike: Part One"), and the perennial("Monster Mash"). There are familiar tunes sung by unfamiliar artists, four Number One smashes, and several Top Ten hits. Were you raised on Rock and born to boogie? Does your Watusi get turned loose on a regular basis? Then this compilation is made for you. Let’s get with it, and get down to the real nitty gritty of Rock‘n’Roll’s golden dance craze era, circa 1956-1966.

CD CHD 702
Land Of 1,000 Dances
Volume One
featuring The Hully Gully, The Hand Jive, The Swim, The Jerk, The Watusi, The Harlem Shuffle, The Hippy Hippy Shake, The Limbo, The Monkey, The Monster Mash, The Pony, The Duck, The Loco-Motion, The Madison, The Nitty Gritty, The Peppermint Twist, The Push And Kick, The Stroll, The Walk, The Watusi, The Twist, The Dog, The Freeze, The Shag, The Hitch-Hike, The Mashed Potatoes and The Continental Walk
released in 1999
In the early days of Rock‘n’Roll, the purpose of the music was clear. It was meant for dancing. Rock was better than Dixieland, better than Ragtime, better than Swing, Rhumba, Honky Tonk and all the popular styles that had preceded it. When a Rock‘n’Roll tune was on the jukebox, you could really let go! You could dance the soles off your shoes! But as decades passed, it became less and less clear that Rock‘n’Roll music was for dancing. The music changed.

Doing the Twist to a mellowed-out "soft Rock" song, or an improvisational "progressive Rock" song, or a melodically-challenged "Punk Rock" number was all but impossible. Some Rock stars even started taking offense if they spied people dancing at their concerts. "How dare they shake their asses?" these misguided souls would bellow. "This ain’t no Disco!" Thus, a music that was once hailed for its simplicity gradually became complicated. Insufferably complicated! But just when it seemed like every drop of danceabilty had been drained out of Rock‘n’Roll, along came the folks at Britain’s Ace Records to remind us of what good dance Rock sounds like. And not a minute too soon!

Rob Finnis, Ace Records’ A & R honcho, specializes in excavating choice gems from the Golden Age of Rock‘n’Roll. With his 1999 compilation Land Of 1,000 Dances: The Ultimate Compilation of Hit Dances, he simply outdid himself. The heyday of the Twist, the Monkey, the Hand Jive and the Watusi came rushing back full force when you popped this 30-track collection in your CD player. The spirit of Chubby Checker, undisputed King of Dance Rock, looms heavily over this anthology; unfortunately, neither his records nor those of his Cameo-Parkway labelmates were available for license. However, while you feel Chubby's influence, you don’t really miss it. The records Finnis chose to include may be the best of the rest, but they warm over awfully damn well for leftovers. There’s plenty of beat here to put your feet to . . . not to mention your hands, your hips, your shoulders and your sweet honey buns!

First, let’s truck on down to Small’s Paradise in Harlem for one of the funkiest dances ever invented: "The Harlem Shuffle!" Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones scored the biggest hit with this tune in 1986. However, their raging remake couldn’t match the way Bob and Earl’s original 1963 waxing inspired dancers to boogie across the floor. Hear this vintage "Shuffle" in pristine stereo for the first time . . . ain’t those crack-of-thunder handclappings the livin’ end?

Let’s go to Detroit now for a legendary 1966 release by The Capitols. We know a cat who can really do the "Cool Jerk" . . . and he do it so good! This track also features some great handclappings, and no record ever employed them better. Everything works, and that’s why "Cool Jerk" was such a massive across-the-board hit. When you hear songwriter and keyboardist Donald Storball run his fingers across those 88s, you can’t help but indulge in a bit of air, thigh, desk or dashboard piano. Mmm, mmm, mmmmmm! Can you dig it? Or to be more exact . . . can you do it, can you do it, can you do it?

Next stop is San Francisco, where producer Sylvester Stewart (better known as Sly Stone) helped dance Rock pioneer Bobby Freeman stage a comeback. In the process, they beat Chubby Checker in a race to claim the first big hit inspired by The Swim. In 1958, Freeman had asked young America "Do You Wanna Dance?" In 1960, he’d encouraged kids to "Shimmy, Shimmy." Capitalizing on one of the last major dance crazes of the ‘60s gave him the chance to show he was still in the "swim" of things, commercially speaking(yipe)! So "C’mon And Swim," y’all . . . last one in the pool is a washed-up lounge lizard!

Early Rock‘n’Roll dancing was done to wild records like Chan Romero’s "Hippy Hippy Shake" and "The Walk" by singer, guitarist and harmonica player Jimmy McCracklin. Manic, hiccuping vocals, wailing saxophones and twangy guitar licks galore: That’s what characterized these discs. They were sloppy, undisciplined, primitive, repetitive and raucous, the antithesis of smooth orchestra Pop . . . in other words, exactly the kind of music that teenagers loved. Raw records like these would evolve into what’s called "Garage Rock" today, and you can hear the developing style in the performance of Miami’s Steve Alaimo as he and producer Hank Stone whip up a lumpy batch of "Mashed Potatoes." The twisted sense of humor Alaimo displays on this 1962 cover of a Nat Kendrick hit was also a trademark of the "Garage" genre. His over-the-top James Brown blustering is hilarious enough, but his matronly-sounding background singers will crack you up with their goofy Bride-of-Funkenstein scat singing. It’s no use trying to explain what they sound like . . . you’ve just gotta hear these ladies for yourself!

Philadelphia was the fountainhead of dance Rock during the early ‘60s, and the names Kal Mann and Dave Appell were attached to many if not most of those hits. New York tunesmiths like Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich managed to cash in on the craze, too, coming up with chart-toppers that gave the Mann-Appell team a run for its money. Goffin and King’s "Loco-Motion" wasn’t even a real dance! In fact, if you never got to see Little Eva perform it, you may well have been confused about how the steps should be done. Regardless, the big band groove and stumbling rhythm of this record sure did get your toes tappin’ in a hurry. (The song hit Number One a second time in 1974 when Grand Funk Railroad retooled it with heavy metal technology.)

Barry and Greenwich’s "Hanky Panky" wasn’t technically a dance step either. We suspect it was just a good excuse for dancing partners to inch their pelvises closer together. Hundreds of hormone-crazed couples did just that in 1966 when Tommy James and The Shondells stormed radio airwaves with this classic Garage rocker. Then as now, teenagers were always game for a little dance floor foreplay!

"Ride Your Pony" is one of several great records we can thank New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint for(others include Benny Spellman’s "Fortune Teller," "Ernie K-Doe’s "Mother-In-Law" and the Chris Kenner standard "I Like It Like That"). By 1965, the Pony was pretty much, if you’ll pardon the expression, a dead horse as far as dance steps go. Using Lee Dorsey as a hypodermic needle, Toussaint administered 100cc of pure Funk to the patient. No sooner than you could say "hi-ho silver," a dormant dance craze grew blazing hot again. The record’s crackling gunfire sound effects, which slyly evoke old-time Westerns, was a crowd-pleaser that never failed to get folks kickin’ up their heels. Giddyaaaaap!

Meanwhile in Chicago, songwriter Curtis Mayfield filtered his Country/Soul sensibility through Leiber and Stoller-style chalypso arrangements and came up with a string of dance floor hits for Major Lance. Without a doubt, the best of them was "Monkey Time," a platter strong enough to lend a dumbass dance like The Monkey the cachet of hipness.

From Memphis, the incredible Rufus Thomas crossed nursery rhymes with an ornery Blues guitar and ended up "Walkin’ The Dog." If that ain’t enough reason to love Rufus, dig these creds: He cut a version of "Hound Dog" before Elvis Presley did; he helped pioneer Rock‘n’Roll radio as one of the first Black deejays; he made it cool for men to wear hot pants and go-go boots (at least on stage); and he gave life to a daughter named Carla Thomas, who grew up to be the Queen of Memphis Soul. We owe his memory at least four or five fierce wags of the tail!

There’s a dance/Called Watusi/It’s outasite! So sang The Vibrations in 1961, and millions of teenagers agreed with them. After the Twist and The Jerk, Watusi might’ve been the third most popular dance of the ‘60s. However, in the early ‘60s it was a very different step than the one performed under the same name later in the decade. Before the Watusi gave go-go girls their distinctive wiggle, it was an urban line dance that kept club floors consistently scuffed from the rhythmic sliding of heels.

Then came Ray Barretto’s "El Watusi," with its frantic charanga band swing. A stunning model of minimalist recordmaking, this surprise spoken-word hit (in Spanish, no less) paved the way for the wiggling frenzy to come! Before it was all over, Watusi dancing was breaking out on TV shows like "Patty Duke," "Get Smart!" and "My Favorite Martian," as well as in public. Celebrities like Candace Bergen, Ann-Margret and President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lyndabird were famous for their tantalizing ‘tusi moves. Both The Vibrations’ "uptown" and Barretto’s "downtown" versions of the Watusi appear on this compilation, giving us the best of both worlds.

Hey, everybody! Come along, it’s Madison Time. Put on your Sunday best, dot your "eyes," and cross your "tees." Turn it out pretty for bandleader Al Brown, and he’ll have his terrific Tunetoppers play you his latest release, "The Madison." Smoother than chocolate silk pie but tangy like a plate of barbecued ribs, this record evokes the image of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen from high society slumming at a Harlem juke joint. Rustle that taffeta, girls! In-between Cookie Brown’s foghorn-voiced dance calls(Boss Turn! Birdland twice! Rock it back into the Madison when I say hit it!!!), you can almost hear the sound of stiletto heels clicking on planked wood. Darlings, is this not the very essence of cool?

Madison dancing was allegedly invented by Lesbian and Gay partygoers at New York’s Fire Island resort; back in the days when just being perceived homosexual could land you in the slammer, same-sex couples didn’t dare to dance together. They reasoned that an innocent line dance which involved no touching was far less likely to raise the hackles of the Fuzz. So the Madison spread like wildfire in Gay circles . . . and next thing you know, kids were doing it on "American Bandstand"!

Chubby Checker cut "The Continental Walk" for his Top Twenty chart album Let’s Twist Again; his is arguably the best-remembered version of the song. For sure, it’s easier to find that album than the hit R & B single by The Rollers. Rob Finnis was kind enough to include that single here, giving us the chance to answer a truly burning question: Who’s Walk was more Continental? Depends on how you define Continental. While Chubby’s energetic way of walkin’ was definitely a hot ticket, The Rollers preferred to stroll it slow. Call it the difference between East Coast and West Coast style, Chubby hailing from Philly and The Rollers operating out of Hollywood. We think the original has the edge; it’s got a streetwise flair that’s cooler than a frozen blue cocktail(ice, ice, baby)!

Both versions of "The Continental Walk" were decidedly more street classy than "The Stroll," the record and dance that was the CW’s direct ancestor. Despite its Clyde Otis pedigree, this 1958 hit sounds more than a little forced when heard today. The Diamonds, a comedic vocal ensemble from Canada, didn’t exactly move in Rhythm and Blues circles, and man, did it ever show in their singing! Stiff vocals notwithstanding, this platter had a clear pathway as it strolled up both the R & B and Pop charts. Its nasty stripper club groove made it a required spin at sock hops and house parties, so of course, this collection wouldn’t be complete without it.

As a step, the Hully Gully was one of the original Dirty Dances(see it performed in all its scandalousness in the movie Hairspray, danced to the tune of The Ikettes’ "Gong Gong Song")! As a record, it was something of a running joke. Its chopstick piano rhythm and whining melody was recycled on at least three other dance discs, "The Slop" by Noble Watts, "Popeye" by Huey "Piano" Smith(featured on Volume Two of this series), and "Peanut Butter" by The Marathons. Similar-sounding songs hitting the charts isn’t hard to understand, but how an unseemly air like "Baby Hully Gully" ever got played on Pop radio is quite beyond our ken! Could it be that nobody in 1959 was sophisticated enough to realize that, as taught by The Olympics, this dance step parroted the spastic movements of junkies in advanced stages of drug addiction?

"The Duck" was sung by Earl Nelson of "Harlem Shuffle" fame, but recorded under the name Jackie Lee. It’s one of those vaguely Motownish tracks without much fire but just enough hook to get you out on the floor. Still, without those soul-searchin’ femme background voices cutting through the mundane mix, this lame Duck probably wouldn’t even have gotten its tailfeathers wet.

If there’s an outright stinker on Land Of A Thousand Dances, it’s Mark Valentine’s inane "Push And Kick!" A boisterous bit of nothing-painted-blue set to a cha-cha rhythm, it owes its fleeting moment of success entirely to the marketing wiles of Bob Marcucci. A prime purveyor of pretty boy Pop, Marcucci managed Frankie Avalon, Lou Christie, and Fabian in addition to young Mr. Valentine. He and everyone else connected to this overblown release deserved a "push" . . . right out of the engineer’s booth, and a "kick" . . . right in seat of their pants! On his worst day in the studio(and he did have them on occasion), Chubby Checker made far better records than this one.

Joey Dee and The Starlighters’ fruit-juicy "Peppermint Twist - Part One" was the theme song of New York’s trendy Peppermint Lounge. It topped the charts, and naturally is included here. However, we wouldn’t be surprised if a song other than "Peppermint Twist" got more spirited Twisting out of Lounge patrons. Which song? "Twist And Shout!" This has to be the best Twist hit Chubby Checker never had(but knowing a stone groove when he heard one, Chubby did cut it for an album). Songwriter Bert Berns infused the rhythm of this number with an irresistible Latin kick; judging by other hit compositions of his like "Hang On, Sloopy," "I Want Candy" and "If I Didn’t Have Dime," Latinizing Rock‘n’Roll was his specialty. "Twist And Shout" was made for packing dance floors, and whatever excitement Berns’ tune doesn’t provide is more than made up for by The Isley Brothers’ bodacious and bluesy treatment.

A producer and the CEO of Bang Records as well as a composer, Berns was himself no slouch as a bluesman. We reached that conclusion on the strength of his solo recording of "Hitch Hike: Part One." A swingin’ little organ and guitar workout, it owes both its style and structure to "The Madison." Ah, but the Bertman’s whiskey-voiced swagger and sly sense of humor were all his own!

Don’t move that limbo bar! You’ll be a limbo star! How low can you go? Just as low as you want with The Champs’ boss rendition of "Limbo Rock." Chubby Checker’s successful remake is a keeper, and rightfully thought of as definitive; but if you really want to understand what Limbo dancing was all about, you need the original record’s perfect blend of tequila and tropical spices. The Champs’ version is sans lyrics, but their infectious hand percussion with cowbell accents is impossible to resist. You’ll have a ball slipping under that limbo bar, even if you land flat on your ass!

White musicians imitating Black culture could sometimes result in great tracks like "Limbo Rock" . . . and sometimes not. Have you heard "The Shag Is Totally Cool?" If you haven’t, you will here, and believe us, it totally ain’t! The Shag is a jitterbug-derived step that actually predates Rock‘n’Roll. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but this smarmy record reeks of corn. Billy Graves’s aw, shucks vocal makes you think of an obnoxious deejay in a plaid jacket and mismatched pants hogging the microphone. Of no help at all is a droning bass voice repeating the last word of every verse; ditto for the clarinet solos, which are straight off Sheb Wooley’s "Purple People Eater!" That said, Graves’s single was a modest hit, so its stuttering groove must’ve been solid enough to inspire a Lindy Hop or two.

Slightly better is Tony and Joe’s "The Freeze," a forgettable-but-fun party novelty. The tone deaf male duo sings annonyingly in unison, reminding us of a inane ‘50s radio commercial, but the creative use of rapidly clicking drumsticks boosts their hipness rating somewhat. After listening to this frigid track a few times, you can’t help but notice that it sounds suspiciously like "Musical Chairs!" Joe Saraceno(the "Joe" in question), later became a big wheel in Surf music circles via songs he wrote and produced for The Ventures and other West Coast bands.

One night in 1958, a spaceship from the planet Funky descended from the Heavens and caught a hapless R & B bandleader named Johnny Otis in its tractor beam. Drawing Mr. Otis up into the bowels of their ship, the alien Funksters worked all manner of weird and bizarre experiments on him. When they returned him to Earth, he found himself bursting with creative energy! From his rhythmically-enhanced mind came an idea for a tune called "Willie and The Hand Jive." Incorporating elements of Cuban and Hawaiian music, Spanish flamenco, western Swing and Rhythm and Blues, "Hand Jive" was a Rock‘n’Roll song far ahead of its time.

Even more amazing was what happened after he cut it as a record with his band. Teenagers all over the world could not hear its haunting melody and snaky groove without immediately succumbing to dance fever. Now, half a century later, the amazing story of Johnny Otis’s extra-terrestrial visitation can finally be told! And if you believe that one, we’ve got a huge suspension bridge in San Francisco we’d like to sell you! But the emergence of this groundbreaking disc in the late ‘50s does seem to suggest that Parliament’s George Clinton wasn’t the first earthling to board the Mothership.

Ever wonder what happened to the Transylvanian Twist? It’s been replaced by "The Monster Mash," of course! The popularity of "creature feature" TV shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s made the times ripe for Rock‘n’Roll novelties with Halloween themes. John Zacherle’s "Dinner With Drac" was an early example, and parts of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ repertoire come to mind, but Bobby "Boris" Pickett’s ghostly gasser is, fangs down, the most terrifyin’ tune of them all. Conceived by producer Gary Paxton as a quick way to cash in on the Mashed Potatoes craze, it topped the charts and reached Billboard’s Top Ten twice over a period of ten years. This fab floorshaker hasn’t been off the air since its début in 1962, and it’s still the perfect number to Mash to when you’re workin’ late in Frankenstein’s lab!

Ace Mimic Bobby Pickett delivers horror movie puns and wicked wordplay in his most funereal Boris Karloff moan. Meanwhile, back at the masoleum, his Crypt Kicker Five have the gravestones rockin’ to and fro with plenty of appealing, er, that is, appalling keyboard and drum licks. Future Rock icon Leon Russell is the mad scientist you hear tinkling on the laboratory piano, and Hollywood session regular Rickie Page sings the role of Dracula’s Daughter. Pickett’s delightful recording is the only one you’re ever likely to hear, but there is at least one cover version: Filmation Studios revived the song in 1970 for their cartoon series "Sabrina and The Groovie Goolies."

Little Eva and Dee Dee Sharp notwithstanding, there weren’t nearly enough women represented among performers of early dance Rock. When they did score, though, they tended to score big. Nobody, for example, could challenge the chart supremacy of New York’s Shirley Ellis when she sang about gettin’ down to "The Real Nitty Gritty." This 1963 fingerpopper sounds so contemporary, it could be a bestseller if it came out today. Bold Soul sisters of Shirley’s calibre wouldn’t fully come into their own, though, until the Disco era.

By contrast, the dance craze years were something of a Golden Age for Latino performers; the aforementioned Chan Romero and Steve Alaimo were but two of dance Rock’s Hispanic beneficiaries. Mexican-American rockers Chris Montez and Frankie García shook up both the charts and the discothèques with a pair of unforgettable singles.

Montez paid tribute to all the popular dance crazes on his foot-stompin’ "Let’s Dance." His honey-dipped tenor wasn’t the ideal vehicle for dance Rock, but you sure couldn’t tell from the way kids moved and grooved to his hit. Three years later, García and his group Cannibal and The Headhunters claimed a slice of Pop music immortality for themselves. While cutting a cover version of Chris Kenner’s "Land Of A Thousand Dances," Frankie forgot the words and improvised the famous naaa-na-na-na-na refrain. The rest is history! With a ferocious Garage band thump, these powerful Latin Rock tracks close out a wicked good Ace Records compilation and leave your feet itching for more. Fortunately, Ace Records valued its customers too much to let them suffer from itchy feet. More was definitely on the way!


Coming soon . . . Part Two of "Land Of A Thousand Dances"!

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