08 October 2007

Bob Crewe (Part One)

"I'm not exactly sure when I met Bob Crewe, but we always saw each other around the business from the very beginning. (We) had an affinity for each other (and) still do! He was a joy to work with on all levels . . . he's a perfectionist, he's open to any outside ideas, he really knows what he wants and gets it, and most of all, he is passionate about what he does. He puts all of himself into everything he touches . . . I always loved and still do love Bob! I can go on and on about this talented gentleman, and he is just that: A 'gentle man'."

Goin' Places!
The Bob Crewe Era
by Donny Jacobs
The Golden Boy
"(Bob Crewe) was the most incredibly handsome man I had ever met," says '60s Pop singer Diane Renay, interviewed recently on the website chachacharming.com. "He exuded talent, culture and sexuality . . . people just seemed to gather around him and follow him wherever he went. When he walked into a room, his presence was like a magnet . . . you know how kids in elementary school are often asked to write a paper about the most unforgettable character they have ever met? Well, Bob Crewe was it for me." Given his tremendous sex appeal, impeccable fashion sense and dynamic personality, Ms. Renay's feelings are probably typical of most of the ladies who've met Crewe . . . and a few of the fellas, too!

He's one of those people with so much going for them, it seems unfair! The kind of handsome face that reminds you of a matinee idol. The kind of sex appeal that leaves you breathless. The kind of charisma that immediately makes him the center of attention. The kind of drive that takes him to the top of a profession. The kind of talent that leaves his colleagues awestruck; plus the ability to recognize and cultivate talent in others. The one thing Bob Crewe doesn't have is stardom; though he tried hard to have a successful singing career, he never got the right breaks. However, with his genius for cranking out hit records, he could create stars, and did so on a regular basis. Diane Renay, Mitch Ryder, Oliver, Freddy Cannon, The Rays and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons all number among his protegés.

The lyricist responsible for such unforgettable titles as "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", "Rag Doll", "Lady Marmalade", "Silence Is Golden," "Tallahassee Lassie", "Big Girls Don't Cry", "My Eyes Adored You", "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", "Walk Like A Man" and "Sihouettes", Bob Crewe was one of Rock 'n' Roll's biggest assets in its early years. He wrote and published songs, he managed and produced artists, and he ran several record companies. He was a contemporary of legendary music men like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Phil Spector. With them, he helped lay a foundation for the popular music we hear today. If there were a Bob Crewe theme song, it surely would be "Goin' Places," a bombastic number he wrote in 1964. The lyrics say: He's tough/Knows his stuff/'Cause he's a push, push, push, push-on baby!* They go on to praise a success-oriented dude who's a money-maker and record-breaker. That describes Crewe in a nutshell. Anyone who met him as a young man would've predicted that he was the kind of guy who'd be "goin' places" in a hurry . . . and they would've been right.

He was born Stanley Robert Crewe on November 12, 1931 in Newark, New Jersey. As a child, he showed great aptitude in both music and art, and his career would proceed along those twin tracks. He loved classical music and Jazz, especially Swing, and despite having no formal musical training, he developed into a competent Pop singer. An amateur poet, he also dabbled in songwriting; he came up with original melodies that others would transcribe for him.

As a teenager, Crewe studied at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. He turned his back on a promising career in architecture for a chance to tour Europe as a USO entertainer. After his return to the United States, music took a backseat as he parlayed his movie-star looks into a stint as a top male model. The Clint Eastwood look-alike appeared in dozens of magazine spreads and TV commercials during the late 1940s and early '50s. At the same time, he cultivated reputations as both a gifted painter and a savvy interior decorating consultant. Opportunities to cut vocal records were also flowing in his direction. So Bob Crewe had several bright career options to pursue, but music ultimately won his heart.

Bob Crewe In Philadelphia
He cut singles for Brunswick, Melba, RCA's Vik subsidiary and other labels in the early '50s, but none of them made an impact. He found himself competing in a Pop music market that was in the midst of a sea change. An exciting sound called Rock 'n' Roll had burst upon the scene. As a vocalist, Crewe was firmly Jazz-oriented and had no desire to be an Elvis Presley clone; however, he was keen to try his hand at writing songs in this new style. In 1953, he met Frank Slay Jr., a young bandleader from Texas who was similarly inclined, and struck up a writing partnership with him.

With Crewe as demo singer, they managed to place several original compositions with record company A & R reps in the mid-50s; however, they always hated how their songs sounded after staff producers got finished with them. They feared that these inferior recordings would bring their writing careers to a premature end, so in late 1956, they decided to produce their own masters. The team would start a label, sign acts, and market their own product. Crewe was acquainted with music publisher Gene Goodman, the brother of '30s Swing King Benny Goodman; somehow, he persuaded Gene to finance the launch of a new Rock 'n' Roll-oriented record company. Based in New York City, XYZ Records was the first of several labels Crewe would run. On this and all future business projects, he hired his older brother Dan as administrator. Dan Crewe always took care of the business end so Bob could concentrate on the creative side.

The label's first signing was a doo-wop outfit known as The Rays, who'd cut some early Crewe/Slay material while signed to Chess Records. The Rays' debut single on XYZ, "My Steady Girl", was a flop, as were subsequent releases by Les Seevers, The Chancellors, and Hank and Frank. However, a Rays record called "Silhouettes", broke for a hit after Crewe gave a demo copy to Hy Lit, the most popular deejay in Philadelphia. Realizing that their tiny imprint lacked the clout to break a record nationally, Crewe and Slay sold the master to Cameo Records. "Silhouettes" became a solid smash, vaulting into Billboard's Pop and R & B Top Five during the Fall of 1957. Soon afterward, the partners dissolved XYZ Records and began freelancing. During the late '50s, Philly was the undisputed hub of the Rock scene, so they moved their base of operations there. The team's work with Swan Records duo Billy and Lillie in 1958 yielded a pair of novelty best-sellers, "La Dee Dah" and "Lucky Ladybug". The names Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, Jr. were finally starting to carry weight.

At the suggestion of "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark, who was a major stockholder in Swan Records, they started working with an energetic young singer/songwriter named Freddy Cannon. He brought them a self-produced demo called "Rock 'n' Roll Baby" which boasted a pounding rhythm and blistering guitar solos. The team got together with Cannon and completely revamped the song. Crewe renamed it and penned additional lyrics, and Slay wrote a churning big band arrangement to complement the guitar track. The single they cut sounded so raucous, Swan initially refused to issue it. Finally, Crewe and Slay's pleading secured a release for "Tallahassie Lassie", and it went on to be one of the Top hits of 1959.

Under the team's direction, Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon cut several albums and a string of best-selling dance rockers. Cannon's thunderous remakes of "'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans" and "Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy" reflected Bob Crewe's love of Swing standards; both scored big on the charts. Although less successful, original numbers like "Humdinger", "Happy Shades Of Blue" and "Buzz-Buzz-A-Diddle-It" gave Crewe the chance to perfect his skills as a Pop lyricist. His ability to turn a phrase was nothing less than diabolical; rockin' rhymes don't get much better than she's my bell-ringin' witty ditty California city kitty/Swell-of-a-belle-of-a-girl! The songs he penned for Cannon during this period boast some of the cleverest lyrics ever committed to wax.

While freelancing on the East Coast, Crewe got to know many music business heavyweights of the day. Dick Clark was a friend, Roulette Records co-founder George Goldner was a friendly acquaintance, and he had frequent contact with Swan Records' CEO Bernie Binnick and Cameo Records' head honcho Bernie Lowe. Atlantic Records' A & R chief Jerry Wexler became his close friend and mentor. "I learned a lot from Jerry Wexler," he says in the music industry tome Off The Record. "Jerry always said, 'if you want to know how much promotion is being done on your record, just consider how much you're doing and cut that by 90%' . . . you have to get on the phone, you have to be in contact with people (and) keep the dialogue running." Crewe took Wexler's words to heart, and became highly skilled at getting singles played on the radio. Recalling the Payola scandal that rocked Swan and other labels in the late '50s, he insisted: "I never got into it. I gave parties instead, and everybody had a grand time!" Over the years, Bob Crewe's party-giving proclivities would become a source of legend. Sometimes, when he needed rowdy-sounding backing tracks for a record, he'd stage those parties right in the studio!

Flying Solo
In early 1959, Crewe and Slay revived their XYZ imprint after reaching a distribution agreement with United Artists Records. Even though they managed to lure The Rays back to their label, no big hits resulted from this deal. In 1961, Crewe severed his production partnership with Slay to concentrate anew on his singing career. The year before, he'd signed an artist contract with Morty Craft's Warwick label and scored his first chart record: A Bobby Darin-styled remake of Yale University's "Whiffenpoof Song". Two rather idiosyncratic Adult Pop albums would follow, featuring jazzy arrangements by Ralph Burns. Much to Crewe's disappointment, subsequent singles stiffed and his business relationship with Morty Craft came to an abrupt end. Pop stardom proved as elusive as ever. He then relocated to Hollywood with dreams of writing and producing movie soundtrack music. His considerable charms weren't enough to open the right doors in Tinseltown, though; he returned to New York City frustrated and broke. He basically had to start over again and re-establish himself as a hit producer.

Though plagued by a lack of funds, he managed to cut a distribution deal with London Records for two new independent labels, Topix and Perri. In order to finance these ventures, he scrounged freelance production work with Atco, Jubilee, ABC-Paramount and other established imprints. His investment yielded little of value: Releases by The Rays, Johnny Halo, Doc Bagby, Byrdie Green and The Hubb Caps all fizzled. So did releases by a has-been quartet calling themselves The Romans, but of all his Topix/Perri acts, he felt they showed the most promise.

As members of The Four Lovers, singer Frankie Valli and guitarist Tommy DeVito had bagged a minor hit on RCA Victor in 1956. Despite attempts on various labels, they hadn't gotten within shouting distance of the Pop charts since. Now working with bassist Nick Massi and ex-Royal Teens keyboardist Bob Gaudio, they spent their days acting as Bob Crewe's de facto house band and backing vocal unit. At night, they gigged at New Jersey lounges. The group cut half-a-dozen flop sides for Topix/Perri under the names Alex Alda, The Village Voices and The Topix. Their luck changed in 1961 when Crewe leased one of their masters to George Goldner's Gone Records; by then, they were calling themselves The Four Seasons.

"The first success I had with The Four Seasons . . . was a record called 'Bermuda', Crewe recalled in later years. "It was a minor hit out of Philadelphia, but . . . nothing was really happening beyond Philly. My mother and father lived in Ocean Beach, New Jersey, and I went to see The Seasons (perform) at this dive in Point Pleasant." Sitting in the audience one evening, Crewe glimpsed a side of Frankie Valli's artisty he'd never seen before. "Frankie did a thing that night that blew me away. He put a bandana over his head, took two maracas and stuck them under his coat (for breasts), and began singing 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' like (1940s cabaret singer) Nellie Lutcher, with that high voice." Crewe saw in Valli's improvised routine a gimmick he could exploit to commercial advantage. "I said to Bob (Gaudio), 'Go write a song for Frankie with that chi chi voice, and jump it an octave.'" After several false starts, Bob Gaudio came up with an infectious number called "Sherry".

"At that time," Crewe told interviewer Joe Smith, "I was confronted with the choice of either paying the rent or going back into the studio to make one more record with The Seasons . . . I decided to go in and make it, because I really believed in what we had." After the new single was finished, Bob traveled to a record convention in Miami and sold the master to a buyer from Vee Jay Records. The release generated an immediate buzz and sales were good, but "Sherry" really took off after Dick Clark booked the group for an appearance on "American Bandstand." By September of 1962, the record's piercing falsetto lead and thumping march-time tempo had won The Four Seasons a long-coveted berth atop Billboard's Hot 100 list. It would be the first of four chart-toppers for them. "Sherry" kicked off a long string of million-sellers, starting on Vee-Jay and continuing on the Philips label.

The Big Time
From late 1962 to early 1968, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were Pop music dynamos; Crewe and Gaudio were the twin turbines that powered their engines. After "Sherry", the two men collaborated on most of the group's material. They created compelling beat ballads bathed in vivid emotions: Pity was the theme of "Rag Doll"; painful longing permeated "Ronnie" and "Silence Is Golden"; wounded pride was the subject of "Walk Like A Man"; and "Big Girls Don't Cry" was a catty revenge-fest. When Frankie Valli embarked on a parallel solo career in 1966, he became the beneficiary of the team's finest love songs: "The Proud One", "To Give", and the fabulous "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", which Crewe was inspired to write while witnessing daybreak over New York's Central Park.

Bob Gaudio's brain was bursting with memorable melodies and catchy riffs; when his musical sensibilities merged with Crewe's lyrical prowess and penchant for wicked dance beats, rarely were the results ever less than spectacular. (Yet, out of dozens of songs he produced for the group, Crewe singles out "I've Got You Under My Skin" as his favorite; ironically, it's a Cole Porter standard, not a Crewe/Gaudio original.) The innovative sound Crewe created for The Four Seasons (of which more will be said later) was so incredibly commercial, it could compete in the marketplace with blockbusters by The Beatles and other British invasion groups. Only records by The Beach Boys and the soul acts of Stax and Motown boasted similar appeal, so The Seasons were in rarified company. Whenever Pop/Rock fans saw "the Sound of Frankie Valli", "Crewe-Gaudio" and "A Bob Crewe Production" emblazoned on record labels, they knew they could expect something special. Bob Crewe made sure they were never disappointed.

It wouldn't have been like him to rest on The Four Seasons' coattails, though, and he didn't. During the years he was racking up hits with them, he was also freelancing. Under the auspices of his production company, Genius, Inc., he cut sessions with Ben E. King, Jerry Jackson, Michael Allen, The Distant Cousins and many other acts. Most notable was his work with female vocalists like Lesley Gore, Ellie Greenwich, Ginny Arnell, Shirley Matthews, Tracey Dey and Diane Renay. Dey, a budding Jazz stylist, was his hands-down favorite; his big beat productions of her singing "I Won't Tell" and "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" are highly coveted by collectors. However, feisty Diane Renay proved to be the most commercial of Bob Crewe's girl rockers. The Top Five smash "Navy Blue" was the pinnacle of his excellent work with her, the most polyrhythmic Rock 'n' Roll tango ever played on Pop radio.

Lesley Gore's "California Nights" was his second most successful Girlpop record, a romantic walk along the beach set to quasi-psychedelic music. He gave Ellie Greenwich the only chart single she'd ever score under her own name: "I Want You To Be My Baby." Much to her surprise, the Girl Group diva found herself smack dab in the middle of a wild party, wailing her lungs out like Mitch Ryder! Crewe also worked his studio magic for The Orlons, The Shepherd Sisters, The Rag Dolls, Liza Minelli, Vikki Carr, Petula Clark and Tina Turner on a stunning unreleased version of "Everything Under The Sun."

Crewe and Gaudio's earliest songs for The Four Seasons were published by Claridge Music, a company controlled by Frank Slay, Jr. By the time the group defected from Vee-Jay to Philips Records in 1964, their publishing was split between Bob Gaudio's Gavadima Music (soon to be renamed Seasons Four) and a new firm called Saturday Music. Saturday was launched to handle Bob Crewe's copyrights, and it quickly became one of the most successful publishers in the business. That success wasn't only due to Crewe/Gaudio material; the producer discovered and signed several talented young writing teams to his company. They included Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, composers of "Workin' My Way Back To You"; Raymond Bloodworth and Larry Russell Brown, authors of "C'mon, Marianne"; Eddie Rambeau and Bud Rehak, who wrote "Navy Blue"; and Tony Cifelli and Mike Petrillo, who came up with "Tell It To The Rain."

Other Saturday staffers included arrangers Charlie Calello and Artie Schroeck, Peggy Santiglia, former lead singer of The Angels, and Gary Knight, who succeeded Bob Gaudio as Crewe's main writing partner. All talented musicians, these songwriters doubled as session players and more often than not, recording artists. They helped turn Genius, Inc. into a non-stop hit factory. With a steady stream of publishing income flowing into his bank account, Bob Crewe was able to kiss tight budgets goodbye. He now had money to pursue art and music projects at will, and enough left over to afford living quarters fit for a king.

In Andrew Loog Oldham's autobiography 2Stoned, Roberta Goldstein, another of Crewe's staff songwriters, describes his lifestyle during this period. "Bob Crewe lived wonderfully at the Dakota (Apartments). It was (a) fantasyland," she says. "Bob's home was a gathering place. I met Lionel Bart there, (The Beatles' manager) Brian Epstein, (and) Leonard Bernstein, who also lived in the Dakota. Bob's was one of the most fabulous apartments you'd ever lay eyes on . . . it was three stories of Heaven!" Crewe's 72nd Street digs became an intersection where people from the art and entertainment worlds would meet and mingle. He loved playing celebrity host, and got in the habit of throwing elaborate cocktail and dinner parties. "Bob threw a beautiful party for the (Rolling) Stones, very posh, catered by one of the finest people in the city," Goldstein remembers. "Ahmet Ertegun was there, and Harry Cohn, whose father started Columbia Pictures, (and) Liza Minelli was there. That was a damn good party!"

Festivities spilled out of the Dakota and continued into the wee hours of the morning at some of New York's trendiest nightclubs. Goldstein was frequently among Crewe's club-hopping entourage; so was Alan Stroh, the wealthy manager of Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. "I went out with Alan and Bob every night," she told Oldham. "Andy Warhol would be drooling in the corner . . . . (people would do) just anything to get to our table!"


"Goin' Places" concludes with Part Two.

Bob Crewe (Part Two)

"Bob Crewe is the most underrated and overlooked writer/producer of the '60s . . . in my opinion, what makes a great producer is the amount of careers he can put in motion . . . Bob Crewe has been responsible for my career, as well as (those of) Frankie Valli, The Four Seasons, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, Freddy Cannon, Billy and Lillie, The Rays and countless other people. His creative ability, his creative style and his originality have never been equalled . . . I learned the art of record-making from him. He truly is a real genius!"

Goin' Places!
The Bob Crewe Era
by Donny Jacobs
Bob Crewe In The Studio
No matter how late Crewe stayed up reveling with celebrity friends, he stayed focused on work. The next day would invariably find him piecing together the latest release by The Four Seasons or whoever else he was producing at the time. His productions were always a patchwork affair; seldom did he ever cut songs "live" with all his musicians in the same room. The musical overdub was his favorite tool to use in the studio. He liked to spend a lot of time on details: A harp flourish here, a harmonica part there, a drum roll, a flamenco guitar riff, a weird sound effect, a dramatic pause. Those details were often as important as the basic track, if not more, and they were essential to his production style.

Arranger/producer Charlie Calello stresses that Crewe never began a recording session without first laying out his vision. "Before we would go into the studio, (Bob) would have other records as reference points and (he'd) explain how he wanted his song to sound. He would say that he liked the rhythm on one record, the strings on another . . . when he heard the concept in the studio, he would continue to make changes and adjust it until (he got) what he wanted." Crewe would move parts of a track to an earlier or later point on tape, or repeat it over and over again. "His energy was always 'up', and he constantly came up with different ideas that would shape the record," Calello says. "If there was one thing I learned from Bob Crewe, it was (that) 'the impossible takes just a bit longer'."

Anyone who observed Crewe at work couldn't help but come away impressed by his creative ability, especially once they realized he could neither read nor play music. Drummer Mark "Moogy" Klingman was one such person; in the Spring of 1968, Crewe produced a critically-acclaimed album for his band, The Glitterhouse. "Bob Crewe was a creative genius in the recording studio," Klingman writes on his website, moogymusic.com. "He depended totally on inspiration, and would always invent ideas on the spot. With The Glitterhouse, he mostly rearranged (our) songs as (we) would record them. He'd come up with ideas for vocal arrangements, and would often sing on the background vocals . . . he was the kind of record producer that turned every act into a Bob Crewe Sound. He was a bit like Phil Spector in that respect."

The most important facet of the Bob Crewe Sound was rhythm. His records always boasted strong melody lines, but what you remembered most about them was the driving sound of those tambourines, those castanets, those tack pianos, those chimes, those handclappings and fingerpops, and especially those floor boards he used for foot stomping! A couple of years after his Four Seasons productions made that stomp famous, producers Holland, Dozier and Holland borrowed it to great effect for Diana Ross and The Supremes' early hits.

Sound engineer George Schowerer recalls how painstakingly Crewe labored over his rhythm tracks. "Working with Bob was certainly an education," he says. "He could devise so many overdubs, I had to map out what I was doing in order to keep things in perspective . . . Bob would add multiple tracks of tambourines, hand claps and foot stomps. (This) was a habit he used as far back as Freddie Cannon's first songs." Crewe was relentless when it came to finding novel percussive sounds; danceability was of primary importance to him. If making a track more danceable meant using an African "hairy" drum on "Rag Doll" or hammering a radiator under the opening chords of "Jenny Take A Ride", he'd do so without hesitation. "Without a good backbone," he once said, "you ain't got nothin'!"

More often than not, that backbone was the habanera, the Cuban refrain that dominated Rock 'n' Roll in the early 1960s. It pulsed beneath Crewe's songs like a heartbeat; you can hear it in The Four Seasons' "Walk Like A Man", Diane Renay's "Navy Blue", The Walker Brothers' "Everything Under The Sun" and Oliver's "Good Morning, Starshine." You can even find it in "Okefenokee" and other Crewe/Slay productions for Freddy Cannon. No producer cut Rock 'n' Roll tangos more often or more expertly than Bob Crewe did.

He wasn't a one-trick pony when it came to Latin rhythms, though; The Four Seasons' recordings of "Let's Hang On!" and "Workin' My Way Back To You" proved he could swing a mean boogaloo, The Bob Crewe Generation's "Music To Watch Girls By" is a fine adaptation of the cha-cha-chá, Tracey Dey's "Ska-Doo-Dee-Ya" is a credible stab at Jamaican dance music, and Frankie Valli's immortal "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" is very likely the best bossa nova ever recorded. It also happens to be the fifth most performed song of the 20th century! Some producers considered Latin elements nothing more than seasoning, but Bob Crewe was one who understood how essential they were to making commercial Rock records.

Crewe's Crew
While he may have had a knack for catchy rhythm arrangements, his lack of musical training obliged him to let professional arrangers handle strings and horns. Sid Bass was his first orchestrator, a veteran from the Freddy Cannon sessions. When he wasn't available to work on "Walk Like A Man" in 1963, one of The Seasons' former sidemen pinch hit at the session. Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio liked Charlie Calello's more contemporary approach to their music, and engaged him as their full-time music director. Crewe ended up being so pleased with Calello's work, he started using him full-time, too.

"Charlie idolized (conductor) Don Costa," Crewe recalled in 1996. "He never thought he'd be as good, (but) I told him that one day, his name would be just as respected." His stellar work with The Seasons made Crewe's prediction come true; in later years, Calello would conduct music for Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and many other stars. He was a fixture on all Bob Crewe dates until 1966, when he became a producer in his own right and started logging hits with Shirley Ellis, Lou Christie and other artists. Following his departure, Crewe split arranger duties between Herb Bernstein, Artie Schroek and Bob "Hutch" Davie. Their ambitious charts brought new textures and nuances to his productions; he used their ideas like colors in a painting.

Similarly, he used musicians as paintbrushes, and just as an artist buys the best equipment he can afford, much of his recording budget was spent on great session players. The men he would later record as the Bob Crewe Generation included keyboardist Dick Hyman, bassists Louie Mauro and Chuck Rainey, and guitarists Vinnie Bell, Al Gorgoni, Charles Macey and Eric Gale. Buddy Saltzman was the drummer Crewe used most often, but legendary New York sessionman Gary Chester also played skins for him. Concert master Gene Orloff was his string contractor, trumpet legend Bernie Glow led his brass sections, and George Devens handled percussion instruments. Crewe played percussion, too; the tambourine clashes and foot stomps heard on his productions were almost always his own handiwork.

Crewe's sessions weren't all-male affairs, though; he was partial to female backing voices. By 1964, he'd hired Ellie Greenwich as his regular vocal contractor. "(She) had access to every good singer in New York!," he raved years later. He considered Greenwich the best singer of all, and insisted that she work on as many of his studio dates as she could. Sometimes, he even had her harmonize with The Four Seasons! "I think everybody wanted (backing vocalists) who sounded like Ellie Greenwich or Dusty Springfield, really, overdubbed versions of those voices. That was the sound that was happening." Most often, he used La Greenwich in a trio that included session stalwarts Mikey Harris and Jeannie Thomas. Popularly known as "Les Girls" in New York musicians' circles, this group sometimes added a fourth singer like Valerie Simpson or Patti Austin. Girl Group vets Bernadette Carroll, Denise Ferri and Peggy Santiglia also sang background for Crewe, as did ensembles like The Glitterhouse, The Hi-Fashions and The Toys on occasion.

Every producer has his favorite recording sites, and Bob Crewe was no exception. In the 1950s, he and Frank Slay, Jr. liked to record acts at Allegro Sound Studios on Broadway. In the '60s, his favorite studio was Stea-Phillips, located inside New York's Abbey Victoria hotel. (Legend has it that the hotel caught fire while Crewe was cutting "Walk Like A Man", and he refused to leave the studio until he'd gotten a perfect take!) Olmsted Studios on 40th Street was his second favorite place to record. Sometimes, he'd take his crew over to Atlantic Records' studio where Tom Dowd would record them on his famous eight-track console. At other times, he'd book Bell Sound or A & R Recording to get the crisp, clean sound those studios were famous for. Crewe's preferred sound engineers were Gordon Clark, Bill McMeekin, Harry Yarmark and George Schowerer, who began working with him at Allegro in the late '50s.

The Labels That Had To Happen
Bob Crewe's involvement with his product didn't end at the studio door. As stated earlier, he was actively involved in promoting the records. He also managed the careers of some of his acts, and often, he put his artistic talents to use designing their album sleeves. What with the promotion, the producing, the songwriting, the publishing, the managing, the nightclubbing and his various art-related activities, he hardly had time to sleep! Yet somehow, he still wasn't busy enough: he decided to start yet another new label. However, unlike his previous enterprises, this venture would meet with considerable success.

In December of 1964, Bob and Dan Crewe cut a distribution deal with the Amy/Mala complex (forerunner of the BMG Music-affilated Arista company) and founded DynoVoice Records. Along with a sister label, New Voice, this imprint would be the outlet for product by The Toys, Eddie Rambeau, Norma Tanega, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Chicago Loop and a rather well-known studio aggregation called The Bob Crewe Generation. It would also issue movie soundtracks, the best-known being one for Barbarella, the infamous 1968 science-fiction farce starring Jane Fonda.

Of course, Crewe was too busy to do all the A & R work, so he mainly served as executive producer. DynoVoice sessions were run by capable associates like Charlie Calello, Herb Bernstein, Linzer and Randell, Al Kasha, Larry Weiss, Pete Antell, Gary Knight and Bob Gaudio. Mitch Ryder was his most consistent hitmaker, but the DynoVoice catalog also contains memorable one-off bestsellers like "A Lover's Concerto", "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog", "Concrete And Clay" and the quintessential '60s instrumental "Music To Watch Girls By". It also boasts a sizable number of non-charting cult items like "Barbarella's Theme" by The Glitterhouse, Maggie Thrett's "Soupy", Diane Renay's "The Company You Keep" and Lainie Hill's "Time Marches On". Crewe's twin imprints had a good two-year run, but diminishing returns finally closed them down in December of 1968.

The brothers Crewe immediately jumped into another recording venture, The Crewe Group of Companies. This was an umbrella corporation that operated a trio of labels: CGC, Maxwell and (inevitably) Crewe. Their artist rosters included Ben E. King, Lesley Gore, Oliver, the Soul group Faith, Hope And Charity, and The Bob Crewe Generation, along with obscure acts like The Crosstown Children, The Rationals and The Toads. Predictably, the Crewe Group failed to duplicate the success of DynoVoice Records, but it stayed in business long enough to launch some more careers.

Faith, Hope And Charity crashed R & B radio playlists with a record called "So Much Love", produced by future Disco King Van McCoy. A follow-up, "Baby, Don't Take Your Love", also did brisk sales. The act would go on to have an even more successful run on RCA Victor. Over on the Pop side, singer/songwriter Oliver made himself at home in Billboard's Top Ten countdown. Bob Crewe plucked William Swofford out of a struggling Country/Rock band and named him after the smash Broadway musical written by his friend Lionel Bart. Royalties from Crewe's shimmering productions of Oliver singing "Good Morning, Starshine" (from the Broadway musical Hair), and "Jean" (from the Oscar-winning movie The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie) kept the cash-strapped Crewe Group afloat until mid-1971. Their respective releases in the Spring and Summer of 1969 capped off a decade of marvelous recorded work.

The Disco Years
It's not surprising that Bob Crewe scored several big Disco hits in the '70s; it was all but inevitable that he would. Clearly, his '60s productions anticipated Disco music; they're the missing link that falls between Cameo-Parkway's dance novelties and Motown's big beat concertos. All three styles form part of a direct line which connects the mambo and the cha-cha-chá to the Bump and the Hustle.

Crewe's tickets to dance music immortality were the glam Rock trio LaBelle, who rode his Creole hooker fantasy "Lady Marmalade" to the top of the charts in 1974; Frankie Valli, for whom he wrote and produced the 1975 club classic "Swearin' To God"; The Eleventh Hour, with whom he waxed the cult favorite "Hollywood Hot" (1975), a revamped Bob Crewe Generation, who came back strong with "Street Talk"(1976); and the infamous Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes, for whom he crafted the high camp anthem of 1974, "Get Dancin'". His Disco Tex LP is revered by dance music aficionados; a concept album revolving around the androgynous stage persona of former Las Vegas headliner Sir Monti Rock III, it features guest vocals by Sugarloaf's Jerry Corbetta, Crewe's new songwriting partners Kenny Nolan and Cindy Bullens, old friend Freddy Cannon, and '60s beach movie soundtrack singer Lu Ann Simms. Without a doubt, this was the wildest party Crewe ever staged on wax.

As important as the aforementioned records are to Disco music, Bob Crewe made his most significant contribution to the genre not as a producer, but as an organizer. After moving to Hollywood in the mid-70s, he co-founded the Los Angeles Deejay Pool. In his book Turn The Beat Around, Disco historian Peter Shapiro explains the significance of these organizations: "The idea was that the record companies could save money by sending promotional material to one centralized office (and) the deejays would get all the new records without . . . being rejected because their club wasn't (considered) important enough." By ensuring that the best dance records would be heard in a large number of discothèques, deejay pools facilitated Disco's transition from an underground phenomenon to the cultural explosion that it became. As always, Bob Crewe was primarily interested in promoting his own product, but with LADP, he helped foment a musical revolution in the process.

Even though his hit streak extended into the '70s, that decade was not a particularly happy one for him. He endured a rocky tenure as a Motown Records staff producer, where he clashed creatively with Berry Gordy, Jr. Later, he struggled with writer's block and alcohol addiction. At one particularly low point, he got drunk and destroyed all the music industry awards he'd accumulated over the years. An attempt to revive his dormant singing career in 1977 nearly ended his life; shortly after longtime mentor Jerry Wexler produced a new album for him in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Crewe fell victim to a crippling hit-and-run car accident. The crime was never solved, and many months of slow, painful rehabilitation followed.

He overcame his obstacles and re-emerged in the '80s, writing new material with Jerry Corbetta, and grooming fresh talent under the auspices of CC Trax, a new production company. In 1985, he answered Ellie Greenwich's call to produce the cast album of Leader Of The Pack, a Broadway musical about her life and career. The two-record set was nominated for a Grammy award. That same year, Crewe was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Since then, he's chosen to concentrate on various multimedia art projects. He operates his own art studio in Los Angeles and stages regular exhibits of his paintings and sculptures. He's also busy writing an autobiography. The details of his fascinating life would make one Hell of a musical! Chances are the 75-year-old renaissance man will live to see himself in a starring role on the Great White Way. If so, it won't be the first time.

Bob Crewe On Broadway
For decades, Bob Crewe's name was known only in art and music business circles, but that changed in 2005. That's the year a show called Jersey Boys opened on Broadway. In this Tony Award-winning musical drama, based on the memoirs of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, Crewe was revealed as the eccentric genius whose production wizardry propelled The Four Seasons to superstardom. Actor Peter Gregus' flamboyant portrayal also had the effect of "outing" Crewe as a bisexual man. An open secret inside the music business, Bob Crewe's sexual orientation was something fans of his work had long speculated about. The LGBT community was eager to finally acknowledge someone so richly accomplished as one of its own; Crewe's recognition as a Gay icon was long overdue.

Purely by coincidence, he's had occasion to work with several talented Gay and bisexual musicians over the years, including Sir Monti Rock III, Lesley Gore, Norma Tanega and Mitch Ryder. He didn't need LesBiGay artists in the studio to create music with a Gay sensibility, though; the arch-camp appeal of certain waxings by The Shepherd Sisters ("Don't Mention My Name") The Four Seasons ("New Mexican Rose"), their alter-egos The Wonder Who? ("Don't Think Twice"), Tracey Dey ("Jerry") and, in particular, Diane Renay ("Kiss Me, Sailor"), are certainly proof of that! These delightful kinds of recordings are what caused many a Gay Pop/Rock fan to suspect that Bob Crewe was a kindred spirit.

They've also led some people to think of Bob Crewe as a King of Kitsch, Rock 'n' Roll's equivalent of an Andy Warhol or a John Waters. That's hardly an accurate assessment. They've mistaken embellishment for exaggeration! Crewe approached musicmaking every bit as seriously as his contemporaries did; he just had a highly theatrical style. That style involved injecting a generous dose of humor into his songs when appropriate. It also involved giving records a larger-than-life quality, which all of his best productions have. His body of work reflects great conceptual vision, and would make any musician proud. What makes it all the more remarkable is the fact that Bob Crewe isn't a musician! He's a gifted audio-visual artist who possesses the power to dazzle you, regardless of which medium he chooses to work in.

What an amazing résumé he has! Singer, songwriter, producer, publisher, painter, sculptor, celebrity host, fashion model, consultant, entrepreneur and now, author . . . it's almost like he's lived several lifetimes at once. What new vistas beckon him? What creative challenge will he take on next? His many admirers can hardly wait to find out.


*"Goin' Places",
words and music by Bob Crewe, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell,
copyright ©1964 EMI Longitude Music (BMI). All photos courtesy of George Schowerer.

Special thanks to Charlie Calello, Ellie Greenwich, Laura Pinto, George Schowerer and Michael V. Skeen

30 August 2007

The Drifters (Part One)

Drifters' Greatest Hits

We Gotta Sing!
The Drifters On Broadway
by Donny Jacobs
How do you create a Rock 'n' Roll legend? You need the right elements. Start with songs. How about "There Goes My Baby", "This Magic Moment", "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Sweets For My Sweet", "Up On The Roof", "On Broadway", "Under The Boardwalk" and "Saturday Night At The Movies"? Only some of the most beloved songs in the history of American popular music! 

Add a famous record company: Atlantic, the most successful independent label ever launched. Add a landmark: The Brill Building, birthplace of hundreds of classic American Pop songs. Add colorful characters: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Bert Berns and Phil Spector, among the most respected producers and record executives in the music business. 

Add exceptional vocalists: Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, two of the greatest Soul singers ever to set foot in a recording studio. Add Pop superstars: Burt Bacharach, one of popular music's most important composers. Dionne Warwick, Bacharach's protegée, a trailblazing artist who bridged the gap between Gospel, Pop and R & B. Carole King, a singer/songwriter par excellence with dozens of enduring hits to her credit. 

Finally, throw in some lesser-known but equally important names: Sound engineer Tom Dowd. Arrangers Stan Applebaum, Klaus Ogermann, Bert Keyes, Teacho Wiltshire and Gary Sherman. Performers Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, and Johnny Moore. Session singer (and sister of Dionne) Dee Dee Warwick. Power couple George and Faye Treadwell. Stir these elements together, bring them to a boil, and you've got a fascinating true story that took place in New York City nearly 50 years ago. It's the story of a singing group: The Drifters and their incredible musical legacy. A story so lengthy and complex, only a small portion of it can be told here.

The Drifters were the hottest R & B act of the 1950s. They morphed into the top Pop vocal group of the early '60s. How did they accomplish this feat? They didn't! The same name was printed on the record labels, but it wasn't the same group. Let's trace the act's origins back to the summer of 1953. 

Clyde McPhatter was the lead vocalist of a hugely popular group called The Dominoes; their chart-topping hits from 1951 and '52, "Sixty Minute Man" and "Have Mercy, Baby" are considered seminal Rock 'n' Roll discs today. For reasons that have never been made clear, The Dominoes' music director Billy Ward gave McPhatter his walking papers. Upon learning that he was a free agent, Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler contacted the singer. At their urging, he founded a new vocal group to showcase his unique tenor voice.

Signed to Atlantic, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters racked up seven consecutive Top Ten R & B singles over the next two years. The first, "Money Honey" topped national R & B surveys for a staggering eleven weeks. The fourth, "Honey Love" nearly matched it with an eight week run. The sixth, a doo-wop version of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", crossed over to Pop and became an enduring holiday standard. 

McPhatter was drafted into the Army in May of 1954, which limited The Drifters' recorded output. After his discharge, he decided to pursue a solo career. The group's manager, George Treadwell, recruited a new lead singer, and they continued scoring major hits. However, Ertegun and Wexler didn't think much of The Drifters without their charismatic original lead. They grew disenchanted, and producers' indifference can be as lethal to a music career as poor sales.

This certainly proved true, when, at Jerry Wexler's instigation, George Treadwell fired the entire five-man ensemble in late 1958! Clyde McPhatter had sold the Drifters' name to Treadwell, so he could do whatever he wanted with the membership. What he did was christen a new group of singers with the name. 

The Five Crowns had been appearing at the Apollo Theatre on the same bill with The Drifters. After signing them to a contract, Treadwell called music director Reggie Kimber and went to work rehearsing them on the Atlantic hits. Then he sent them out on tour, where they had the unenviable task of winning over fans of Clyde McPhatter's group. 

Eight months later, he called the five harried men back to New York City and had them report to Coastal Recording Studios. It was time to begin cutting new Drifters sides. Jerry Wexler got the new sound he wanted: The Crowns' lead singers, Ben E. King and Charlie Thomas, were both baritones, and The Drifters' previous leads had all been tenors. 

Still, the change of personnel wasn't enough to make him want to produce Drifters sessions again. He turned them over to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the independent producers who'd recently given The Coasters a string of Pop and R & B smashes. Wexler hoped they could cross The Drifters over into the Pop market again. His hopes were realized, and then some!

Over the course of two 1959 recording sessions, Leiber and Stoller completely revamped The Drifters' image on wax. They softened the hard R & B sound of their previous releases with romantic, classically-influenced orchestrations. However, they anchored the new tracks in energetic Latin rythms: The rhumba, the cha-cha-chá, the samba, and a bouncy Brazilian beat known as the baião. New York session musicians lacked familiarity with the baião, so it quickly evolved into a similar Cuban rhythm known as the habanera. This four-beat refrain has been a part of American music since before the turn of the 20th century; it forms the basis of the tango, and many Drifters records cut under Leiber and Stoller's auspices are Rock 'n' Roll tangos. 

The combination of bluesy vocals, sweet band string sections and percolating Cuban dance patterns revolutionized Rhythm and Blues, and took early '60s Pop radio by storm. Between 1959 and 1966, The Drifters bagged a combined total of 21 Top Ten Pop and R & B platters; three of those singles went Gold. An equal number of Drifters songs rated Top Forty airplay during this period. 

Fronted first by Ben E. King, and later by Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore, the group became known for their highly commercial Habanera Rock sound (also called "Beat Concerto Rock", "Chalypso Rock" and "Rock-A-Beguine"). They didn't start the trend, but they did more than any other act to popularize it. The masterful backing tracks on Drifters releases, crafted by Leiber and Stoller in collaboration with top East Coast music directors, set a new standard for the record industry. Those tracks exerted a strong influence on Rock 'n' Roll arrangements for nearly a decade.

Songwriters beat a path to Leiber and Stoller's office suite at 40 West 57th Street; everybody wanted to write a Drifters record! Conceivably, Jerry and Mike could've supplied all the tunes themselves; after all, they'd written hits for the original Drifters("Ruby Baby", "Fools Fall In Love" and "Drip Drop"). However, their bluesy writing style didn't fit the group's new image. To maintain that aura of Latin romanticism, they needed to solicit outside material. 

After collaborating with Ben E. King on the first two singles, the team commissioned veteran tunesmiths Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman to write the next batch. Burt Bacharach, who briefly served as the group's conductor, penned a best-selling side for them, too. Then Leiber and Stoller began favoring a group of young songwriters who worked in the environs of the Brill Building, a music publisher's haven located at 16th and Broadway. The charting singles Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote for The Drifters helped catapult the Aldon Music staffers into the top echelon of Pop composing talent. 

Bert Berns, himself a Brill Building writer, succeeded Jerry and Mike at the production helm in 1963. Berns also favored Goffin/King and Mann/Weil material, but he didn't limit himself to their output. He and Jerry Wexler (acting as executive producer) scoured the Brill Building for more young talents. They found Artie Resnick, Kenny Young, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, whose dynamic compositions translated into more hit platters for the group. Other successful releases bore the credits of songwriters from Muscle Shoals (Dan Penn), Philadelphia (Kenny Gamble) and London (Kenny Lynch). Today, The Drifters' label credits read like a Who's Who of '60s songwriting legends.

Look up Drifters titles in a Pop singles reference book anywhere in the world, and you'll find cover versions galore! Donna Summer, George Benson, Dolly Parton, Tony Orlando, Steve Alaimo, James Taylor, Laura Nyro and Bruce Willis are just a tiny sampling of the many stars who've raided the group's catalog over the years. Starting in the '60s and extending into the 2000s, their classic hits were covered by hundreds of acts. 

Happily, the singers as well as the songs made it into the 21st century; The Drifters' latter day incarnation commands a loyal international following from its home base in London. While their records aren't played on classic oldies radio as often as they used to be, their reputation as an American Pop music institution remains intact. "The Drifters On Broadway" is a retrospective that focuses in depth on the groundbreaking sides that introduced Latin romance to a generation of Rock 'n' Roll lovers.

The Ben E. King Era

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Charlie Thomas
with Reggie Kimber, guitar, and King Curtis, tenor saxophone

6 March 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
*Arranged and Conducted by Reggie Obrecht
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Coastal Studios, New York City
3396 Hey, Senorita! (Lover Patterson-George Treadwell)*
3397 There Goes My Baby
(Ben E. King-Jerry Leiber-Lover Patterson-Mike Stoller-George Treadwell)
3398 Baltimore
(Walter Coleman-Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)
3399 Oh, My Love (Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)

Four violins, a cello and an out-of-tune kettledrum changed the sound of Rhythm and Blues forever! The groundbreaking "There Goes My Baby" came dangerously close to not being released; executive producer Jerry Wexler despised the track. Through the intervention of Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic's chief engineer Tom Dowd, the single version was released over his strenuous objections. It shattered the barrier separating so-called Black and White music, and charted a bold new musical course for a fresh roster of Drifters. Its flipside, "Oh, My Love" didn't sound as revolutionary, but its solemn waltz tempo and anguished Ben E. King vocal resulted in a track that was also very commercial; had the topside failed, deejays no doubt would've flipped the platter over. Reinforcing this session's Latin mood is "Hey, Señorita", a Lover Patterson composition originally waxed by The Cadillacs; a funky cha-cha rocker, it sounds primitive compared with the sophisticated fusion fare soon to come. Charlie Thomas sings lead on "Baltimore", a conventional R & B number that recalls the original Drifters.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Johnny Lee Williams
with Abdul Samad, guitar

9 July 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged by Stan Applebaum
Conducted by Richard Wess
A & R Studios, New York City
3726 If You Cry (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3727 Dance With Me
(Ben E. King-Jerry Leiber-Irving Nahan-Mike Stoller-George Treadwell)

This was the first Drifters session to be recorded in stereo. The public didn't know it, but Ben E. King had quit the group following a money dispute with George Treadwell. Atlantic signed him to a solo contract, and kept him singing lead on Drifters records for a while longer. His replacement, Johnny Lee Williams, was a Clyde McPhatter soundalike. He debuts on this session, and sings lead on "If You Cry." A heavily orchestrated track with a pleasant Adult Pop melody, this Pomus/Shuman number ends up sounding quite bland; Williams' deadpan delivery is no asset to the track. He was a better harmony singer than a lead, which probably explains why he didn't remain a Drifter for very long. Even though "If You Cry" landed in the R & B Top Ten and made a respectable showing on the Pop charts, fans clearly preferred the bold Latin romanticism of its flipside, "Dance With Me". Sung with gusto by Ben E. King, this side scored the biggest hit. Although King co-wrote the song, his name doesn't appear in the official composer credits. During this period, he was constantly strapped for cash, and got into the habit of selling off his copyrights. That changed once his solo career took off.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Johnny Lee Williams
with Abdul Samad, guitar

23 December 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
3987 This Magic Moment (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3988 Lonely Winds (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3989 Temptation (Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed)

With its tornado of a string arrangement, "This Magic Moment" is clearly a Pop record. Yet, R & B radio responded to it most strongly. Most of the Pop airplay would go to Jay + The Americans' version, cut ten years later. This rhumba-licious track arguably features the most attractive vocal reading Ben E. King would ever contribute to a Drifters side. Surprisingly, there's nothing Latin about "Lonely Winds"; it's an old-fashioned Country high-stepper complete with banjo accompaniment. Pop audiences turned up their noses at it!  Future hillbilly stylings would be saved for flipsides and/or album cuts. Johnny Lee Williams shows off his skill as a harmony vocalist on the track but predictably, his lead performance on the Perry Como oldie "Temptation" didn't make the grade. The unfinished master would be kept under wraps until 1965 when a new vocal was grafted on.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King
with Abdul Samad, guitar

19 May 1960
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
4565 Save The Last Dance For Me (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4566 Nobody But Me (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4567 I Count The Tears (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4568 Sometimes I Wonder (Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)

This was Ben E. King's final studio outing with The Drifters. Rumor has it that he submitted his song "Stand By Me" for this session, and George Treadwell rejected it. If true, then The Drifters' loss was King's gain; the revamped Gospel standard became his most enduring hit. The material Leiber and Stoller did cut at this date wasn't exactly second-rate. Pomus and Shuman's "Save The Last Dance For Me" tango'd its way straight to the top of the charts, scoring a worldwide smash for the group. Believe it or not, Atlantic originally marketed this classic disc as a B-side! Fortunately, "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark contacted Jerry Wexler and urged him to start plugging it. Wexler complied, and was mighty glad he did. Cover versions proliferated, including an outstanding French-language reading by Petula Clark. "I Count The Tears" and "Nobody But Me" drew their share of covers, too, but only the former tune deserved covering; its driving habanera rhythm and hurricane string section combined with Ben E. King's superb vocal to create sheer magic on wax. "Nobody's" cloying nursery rhyme melody deserved nothing but the B-side status it ended up with. Despite being one of The Drifters' most dramatic recordings, "Sometimes I Wonder" was nevertheless an inferior retread of "There Goes My Baby"; it couldn't even crack Billboard's Bubbling Under chart. Johnny Lee Williams would soon be gone, and the hunt would commence for a new lead. George Treadwell raided the ranks of Gospel music for his next front man, a singer who would match and arguably surpass everything Ben E. King had done with the group.

29 August 2007

The Drifters (Part Two)

Drifters Under The Boardwalk

We Gotta Sing!
The Drifters On Broadway
by Donny Jacobs
Ben E. King, popular lead singer of the Drifters, leaves the group to go solo. His replacement, Johnny Lee Williams, departs soon afterward. Manager George Treadwell recruits a powerful new lead who's destined to sing some of the most memorable Pop records ever put on wax.

The Rudy Lewis Era

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas
with Abdul Samad, guitar and Mort Shuman, piano

1 February 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Burt Bacharach
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
5323 Room Full Of Tears (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
5324 Please Stay (Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard)
5325 Sweets For My Sweet (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
5326 Some Kind Of Wonderful (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)

Rudy Lewis was a troubled, closeted Gay man with a drug addiction that would prove lethal. He also possessed a burnished mahogany voice that could stretch and bend like molten steel. The Gospel training he got during a stint with The Clara Ward Singers increased its amazing flexibility; with a single note, Lewis could transmute almost any song into gold. His first session as The Drifters' lead singer produced one killer of a record: ""Please Stay", a fabulous tango rocker from the pen of an up-and-comer named Bacharach. Stepping up to the studio microphone for the first time since 1959, Charlie Thomas does himself proud on two tasty Pomus/Shuman numbers: "Sweets For My Sweet", a bodacious cha-cha, and "Room Full Of Tears," a gorgeous Spanish rhumba. The only disappointment to come out of this date is the stiff arrangement that hampers Goffin and King's "Some Kind Of Wonderful". The staid Pop chorus sounds a false note, the kettledrum parts seem contrived, and the shrill string section weighs down Lewis's soulful lead. He's such a riveting stylist, though, the track is still worth hearing. R & B fans certainly thought so; they made "Wonderful" The Drifters' eighth Top Ten single in two years. (With Goffin and King producing, Little Eva would wax the definitive version in 1962 for her Loco-Motion album.) Atlantic's studio logs credit Ray Ellis, and the record labels say Stan Applebaum, but Burt Bacharach actually directed the musicians on this session.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with The Gospelaires and Abdul Samad, guitar

13 July 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Burt Bacharach
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
5630 Loneliness Or Happiness? (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
5631 Mexican Divorce (Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard)
5632 Somebody New Dancing With You (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)

This summer session yielded a trio of classics. None are well-known to the public, because all of them were issued as single B-sides. Of the three, "Mexican Divorce" is the most acclaimed, and deservedly so. The blend of exotic percussion, agitated strings, melancholy vocals and virtuouso Spanish guitar is exquisite, nothing less than a work of art. The tragic mood is maintained on "Loneliness Or Happiness," a Bacharach-David rarity that fairly drips with dramatic tension. "Somebody New Dancing With You" is a less intense dance number that nevertheless mirrors the estrangement theme of the other two selections. All in all, this session was a stellar showcase, both for Burt Bacharach's arranging skills and Rudy Lewis's interpretive abilities. The Gospelaires were Cissy Houston, Doris Troy, Dee Dee Warwick and her sister Dionne; individually, all four would go on to make an impact on the charts. Of course, Dionne Warwick would become a superstar (as would Cissy Houston's daughter Whitney a few decades hence). Rock historians claim that Bacharach scooped Dionne up immediately after this date and began grooming her for a solo career. Untrue!  Dude had no intention of producing her at this stage. First, he started using her as a demo singer. One of her demos, "Move It On The Backbeat", became the sole release by a one-shot studio group called Burt and The Backbeats. A later one, "It's Love That Really Counts", unexpectedly led to Dionne getting signed by Scepter Records. At that point, the grooming began in earnest . . . but that's another story.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas
with Abdul Samad, guitar

26 October 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Atlantic Studios, New York City
5743 Jackpot (Chuck Kaye-Aaron Schroeder)
5744 When My Little Girl Is Smiling (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
5745 She Never Talked To Me That Way (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)

Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas made a great lead vocalist tag team; their raspy styles complimented each other, so much so that some listeners couldn't discern between one and the other. Some reviewers named Lewis as lead singer on "When My Little Girl Is Smiling"; others thought it was Thomas doing the lead. In actuality, Rudy sings the opening verses over sparse harpsichord backing. Then an ocean of samba percussion engulfs the song, and Charlie takes over. This was the second hit single written for The Drifters by the crackerjack team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Many years later, Charlie Thomas would amusedly recall rehearsing material with King; a small Jewish woman surrounded by hulking Black men, she would insist that they phrase her husband's lyrics just so! "When My Little Girl Is Smiling" made for a beautiful, panoramic production, possibly the most romantic number in the group's catalog. Rudy Lewis lay a cocksure vocal on "Jackpot", a sleazy Blues ballad; a year later, it slipped out unnoticed on the flipside of a belatedly-issued "Sometimes I Wonder". "She Never Talked To Me That Way" was a song-in-progress; Doc Pomus hadn't polished the lyrics when The Drifters cut it, and the rhyme sounds noticeably awkward. Klaus Ogermann's strident rhumba arrangement wasn't awkward, though: loaded with hooks, it bathed the tune in waves of Cuban rhythm. Del Shannon's arranger Bill Ramal interpreted this number quite differently. He turned it into a whirling dervish of saxophone, strings and snare drums. Shannon released it as the flipside of his 1962 single "The Swiss Maid" with a revised lyric and title: "You Never Talked About Me". Either the Del Shannon or the Drifters version could've cracked the charts, but deejays didn't bother to flip "The Swiss Maid" over, and Atlantic Records didn't even bother to release their master.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with Abdul Samad, guitar

15 March 1962
Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Produced by Ahmet Ertegun
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6031 Stranger On The Shore (Acker Bilk-Robert Mellin)
6032 What To Do?
(Florence Davis-Abdul Samad-Faye Treadwell)

Two months earlier, Atlantic Records had scored a million-selling Adult-Contemporary instrumental with Acker Bilk's original version of "Stranger On The Shore." Ahmet Ertegun was keen to chart with a vocal version, and he also longed to produce a record with Rudy Lewis. When Leiber and Stoller were unavailable to supervise this session, he jumped at the chance. Rock purists sneer at this record, which stalled on the Pop charts and got hardly any R & B airplay. They must never have really listened to it! A marriage of quaint Old World atmosphere, Latin-American exoticism and pure schmaltz, it's a remarkably evocative production; as you listen, you can almost see the harbor lights twinkling. Despite the lyric's contrived sentimentality, Lewis's mournfully earnest vocal (which climaxes in a spine-tingling falsetto) rips your heartstrings out by the roots. So what if it's not Rock 'n' Roll? It's beautiful. If Rock's what you want, look no further than "What To Do", a great boogie-woogie tune that would've suited the original Drifters to a tee. The group's touring guitarist, Abdul Samad, penned it with his wife and George Treadwell's wife Faye; for sure, it must've been a crowd pleaser on stage.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas

28 June 1962
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
6356 Another Night With The Boys (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
6357 Up On The Roof (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
6358 I Feel Good All Over (Otis Blackwell-Winfield Scott)

"Another Night With The Boys" is a stone hillbilly number! It wouldn't have gone over well on R & B radio, but it sure made a great B-side. The duet version Goffin and King cut with Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva is pleasantly folksy, but Rudy Lewis's interpretation seems to have been torn from the depths of his tortured soul. His world-weary performance hollows out the song at its core, transforming it into a reservoir of melancholy and a Country/Blues masterpiece. As inconsolably glum as he sounds on "Boys", Lewis infuses "Up On The Roof" with a palpable sense of joy: I climb 'way up to the top of the stairs/And all my cares just drift right into space. His cares were anything but feather-light, but he sang those words like he really meant them. Sad songs were unquestionably Rudy's forté, but with "Up On The Roof" he proved that his sorrow-laden voice could soar. The first in a series of picturesque urban vignettes that The Drifters would become famous for, this gently swinging tango immediately broke for a Top Ten smash upon its release in the fall of 1962; nobody could resist its strong lyrical imagery and its tropical vacation resort music. Now that Gary Sherman had taken over as the group's music director, fans were in for a bevy of exceptional Latin-flavored sides. There wasn't much Sherman could do to redeem "I Feel Good All Over", though. The Drifters had no business cutting this rinky-dinky barroom novelty; it belonged in the Coasters' catalog. Charlie Thomas gives it all he has, but it's not enough. Definitely not one of Otis Blackwell's better compositions!

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with Roy Buchanan and Phil Spector, guitar

22 January 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
6743 Let The Music Play (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
6744 On Broadway
(Jerry Leiber-Barry Mann-Mike Stoller-Cynthia Weil)

High intensity human angst captured for eternity on a seven-inch circle of wax: That's "Let The Music Play" in a nutshell. Originally cut by Dionne Warwick under the title "Make The Music Play", this superb habanera track is the finest showcase Rudy Lewis's Gospel/Blues artistry ever got. Lewis fills Hal David's poignant lyric with so much lip-biting emotion, it's almost unbearable! For this performance alone, Leiber and Stoller's ninth recording date with The Drifters would be legendary; but it also included "On Broadway", one of Rock 'n' Roll's most revered standards. If the only versions of this Mann/Weil classic you've ever heard are the ones cut by George Benson and the cast of the Broadway musical Smokey Joe's Cafe, you're in for a surprise. The sheer power of this track was a revelation in 1963: The world-shaking electric guitar hook rings out like Armageddon thunder! Heavy Metal Rock may well have been born at this session. The obligato guitarist on the instrumental break is indeed Phil Spector, who'd already produced a version of "On Broadway" with The Crystals. Goffin and King produced the earliest version for The Cookies. However, once you've heard the majestic roar of Gary Sherman's orchestra framing Rudy Lewis's commanding vocal, those excellent predecessors just seem to evaporate into thin air. The single's #9 Pop and #7 R & B chart placings downplay the song's importance in the Rock 'n' Roll canon. Over the years, it's come to symbolize a golden era of 20th century American music. If The Drifters could only have one signature tune, "On Broadway" would have to be that one.

Rudy Lewis
with The Gospelaires

11 April 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6917 I've Loved You So Long (Ahmet Ertegun)
6918 Baby, I Dig Love (Rudy Clark)

Recognizing a budding R & B legend when they saw one, Atlantic executives prepared to launch Rudy Lewis as a solo act in early '63. These two sides comprised his début single. R & B radio ignored both of them upon their release that spring, which means that somebody dropped the ball! "Baby, I Dig Love" is one bitchin' hunk of wax, a pepper-hot dance floor workout with funky organ parts suggestive of Booker T. and The MGs' records; Lewis's limber vocal sears over a crackling habanera flame. Dee Dee Warwick and The Gospelaires baste the track in a sassy, scat-sung call-and-response marinade. The flipside is an Otis Redding-styled Soul ballad that fades out just as the emotion starts to intensify. Had this platter taken off, Memphis and the Stax Records sound would've been the logical next step for Lewis.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore

12 April 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6919 Only In America
(Jerry Leiber-Barry Mann-Mike Stoller-Cynthia Weil)
6920 Rat Race (Jerry Leiber-Van McCoy-Mike Stoller)
6921 If You Don't Come Back (Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller)
6922 I'll Take You Home (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)

In retrospect, it's hard to fathom how anyone could think a number as jingoistic as "Only In America" would work for a Black vocal group. It surely wasn't going to fly during the height of the Civil Rights struggle! Originally conceived by Mann and Weil as a protest song, Leiber and Stoller's revised lyrics articulate the American Dream from a Goldwater Republican's perspective: Only In America/Can a guy from anywhere/Go to sleep a pauper/And wake up a millionaire. Not exactly a realistic scenario for a Black man living in the racially segregated South! The Drifters hated the song, and you can tell by the sullen sound of their background voices. For his part, Rudy Lewis sends it up something terrible with a reading that's drenched in sarcasm. A nervous Jerry Wexler quickly nixed the release, and Leiber and Stoller gave the track to Jay + The Americans. For five Jewish singers, "Only In America" was perfect; it jump-started their stalled career and won them a cult following among Cuban exiles in Miami. "Rat Race" was chosen for The Drifters' next single, but ironically, its bleak urban narrative proved too gritty for fans used to romanticism; it peaked at #71 on the Pop charts and didn't even register on R & B lists. The remaining tracks on this session are led by Johnny Moore, tapped by George Treadwell to replace Rudy Lewis whenever his planned solo career took off. "I'll Take You Home" pulled a Top Thirty Pop hit with its warm, folksy appeal, while "If You Don't Come Back" generated enough interest to chart as a B-side; the new recruit handled this saucy mix of Blues and cha-cha stylings like a pro. No surprise there, because he was a pro! He was also a veteran Drifter. Moore had filled Clyde McPhatter's spot in 1955, and fronted the group on their R & B smashes "Ruby Baby" and "Fools Fall In Love". Then, just like McPhatter, he got drafted. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because he avoided the group's mass sacking in 1958! Since his discharge from military service, Moore had been cutting solo sides for the Sue and Melic labels. Those platters hadn't exactly set the world on fire, so Treadwell had no trouble recruiting him back into the fold. Charlie Thomas probably didn't appreciate being elbowed out of his role as second lead voice, but Rudy Lewis didn't mind sharing the spotlight with Johnny. Reportedly, the two became fast friends. The Lewis/Moore era probably would've gone on for quite some time, had a hypodermic needle not intervened.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore
with Abdul Samad, guitar

22 August 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
7172 Land Of Make-Believe (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
7173 Didn't It? (Rudy Clark)

The Drifters never got more exotic than "Land Of Make-Believe", a sensuous wet dream of a Bacharach/David ballad that would later be essayed by Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, among others. An understated steel guitar lends the production a vaguely Hawaiian ambiance as Rudy Lewis moans seductively over a serpentine Afro-Cuban backbeat. On the chorus, he falls into a masturbatory call-and-response frenzy with Johnny Moore, who hyperventilates at the top of his considerable vocal range. Gary Sherman's string and saxophone combination sways around the two men's voices like a troupe of sexy hula girls. This track never gets culled for Burt Bacharach CD anthologies, but it should; there's no finer interpretation of the song to be found. A little too steamy for radio airplay, "Land Of Make-Believe" nevertheless sneaked out as a 1964 flipside. Another future flipside, "Didn't It?", clocks in at less than two minutes, but this spirited Soul cha-cha lasts long enough to get listeners involved in a groovy Jimmy Smith-style organ break. Johnny and the boys lay right into it, wailing their ever-lovin' hearts out.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore
with Dee Dee Warwick

12 December 1963
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
*A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
7466 Beautiful Music (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)*
7467 One Way Love (Bert Berns-Jerry Ragovoy)
7468 Vaya Con Dios
(Inez James-Buddy Pepper-Bobby Russell)

This session was pivotal in several ways. First, it marked the end of Leiber and Stoller's tenure as The Drifters' producers. Behind the scenes, Jerry and Mike had gotten into a royalty dispute with Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler played hardball, cutting off their access to the label's acts. In their place, he brought in Bert Berns, a hot new writer/producer with a growing list of hit songs to his credit: The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout", The Rocky Fellers' "Killer Joe", The Jarmels' "A Little Bit Of Soap" and Garnet Mimms' "Cry Baby," just to name a few. Later would come The McCoys' "Hang On, Sloopy" and Janis Joplin's "Piece Of My Heart". Even more hooked on Latin music than Leiber and Stoller, Berns quickly got busy rehearsing the group on a Mexican standard. Second, Gary Sherman bowed out of the Drifters story at this point; he'd go on to work wonders with Gene Pitney's music (see my previous essay "Conquistador"). This was also to be Rudy Lewis's final Drifters session; he had less than six months left to live. The aforementioned standard, "Vaya Con Dios" will be his swan song, but what a triumph he makes of it! The south-of-the-border theme and waltz tempo are the only nods Bert Berns gives to a Latin sensibility. The vocal interpretation is pure, industrial-strength Gospel. Backed with a session chorus led by Dee Dee Warwick and Charlie Thomas, Lewis goes straight to church, crying sanctified like a redeemed sinner kneeling at the altar of Christ. In later years, Faye Treadwell would call "Vaya Con Dios" his most honest Soul performance; R & B lovers probably felt the same way. They sent the single hurtling into Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Top Ten. Rudy led the same Gospel chorus through a take of "Beautiful Music", but there's no comparison; this meandering track was an afterthought that Atlantic wisely decided to shelve. (The song was originally called "My Heart Said The Bossa Nova", and Leiber and Stoller had previously cut Latinized versions with Tippie and The Clovers and Irene Reid. The original tune was right up The Drifters' alley; why they had Mann and Weil pen new lyrics is puzzling.) The other hit from this session was "One Way Love", sung by Johnny Moore; its gimmicky trumpet refrain notwithstanding, this hook-laden cha-cha rocker typified the kind of material The Drifters would wax for the next two years.

Excerpt from "Up On The Roof", words by Gerry Goffin, music by Carole King, 
 © copyright 1962 Screen Gems-EMI Music (BMI)

Excerpt from "Only In America", music by Barry Mann, lyrics by Cynthia Weil,
additional music and lyrics by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller,
 © copyright 1963 Screen Gems-EMI Music (BMI)