13 December 2009

Jeff Barry (Part Three)

Jeff Barry

Why Jeff Barry Belongs
in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame
. . . and Why Ellie Greenwich Does, Too
by Donny Jacobs
The Archies

The Kirshner Era
Agile as an alley cat, Don Kirshner had landed on his feet following his ejection from the Screen Gems organization. For his revenge, he decided to get mad and get even at the same time! While his lawyers were slinging lawsuits in Screen Gems' direction, he formulated plans for a new TV Rock band that would outsell The Monkees, a cartoon Rock band, no less. It was simply a matter of cutting the right deals, and Kirshner had few peers when it came to dealmaking; but when the contracts had been signed (with Archie Comics, Inc. and Filmation Studios), he still needed two magic ingredients to bring The Archies to life on wax: Hit songs and solid production. Kirshner's clout within the industry was such that he could've called on any number of talented writer/producers, but he only had one man in mind. He put through a call to Jeff Barry.
Don_Kirshner

DON KIRSHNER

When Barry got the assignment to helm The Archies project, he already had more than enough work to keep himself occupied. He was just getting Steed Records off the ground. Now, in addition to running a record company and producing all the acts on his roster, he had to write and produce enough original music to fill up an entire TV season. His workload tripled, but The Archies offered Barry an opportunity he couldn't resist. The cartoon series would expose his production talents to millions of people every week, and on a continuous basis rather than intermittently, as had been the case with The Monkees (other producers had been involved). Even more important, most of the songs were his own compositions, not Neil Diamond's or Carole King's. The prospects for increased royalty income alone had made the job offer tempting; so with his new sound engineer, Mike Moran, in tow, Barry booked RCA Studios for a hectic week in July 1968 and set about revolutionizing the sound of Saturday morning TV.

The Archies was the most vilified recording act of its day. The simple lyrics and catchy melodies of Archies records were not in sync with the social climate. During the civil turbulence of the late '60s, Rock 'n' Roll was required to have revelance to contemporary society. For the most part, Archies records merely entertained. It didn't help that cartoon characters were used to market the records; Rock critics were savage in their attacks. One Rolling Stone reviewer even cited Archies music as an argument against capitalism! Barry shook his head in bewilderment at the uproar. "To review . . . the music of The Archies, which was created for kids, in the same light that you'd review music that was created for adults is ridiculous," he told me in 1998, still fuming at the absurdity of the criticism. Thankfully, demands for political correctness in Pop music have diminished; nowadays, Archies records are not so much hated as they're overlooked. Browsing collectors who encounter their ragged album sleeves in oldies bins tend to pass over them, believing them to be frivolous and not worth spending money on. They couldn't be more mistaken!

The four Archies soundtrack albums that Barry produced between July of 1968 and August of 1970 represent some of his finest work. The songs in their grooves run the gamut of his musical influences: Blues, Country, Rockabilly, Doo-Wop, Latin-American, Gospel. It's the Red-Bird era all over again! To his credit, Barry didn't sweeten his music in order to appeal to a preteen audience. His Archies productions, "You Make Me Wanna Dance", "I'm In Love", "Hide And Seek", "Love Light" and others, rock just as hard as his productions for Neil Diamond or Freddie Scott, if not harder. He set a high standard for children's music that, sadly, has not been maintained.

To Barry fell the task of choosing the lead singer for Archies recordings. After successfully resisting Don Kirshner's desire to cast failed recording artist Kenny Karen in that role, he gave the job to Carmine "Ron Dante" Granito, a session vocalist he'd been working with on various projects. Dante is one of the great, anonymous singing voices of the 1960s. He lent his youthful tenor to many of the era's most popular TV and radio jingles. A songwriter and producer himself (he would later supervise Barry Manilow's hit recordings), his opinions about Pop music sometimes diverged sharply from Barry's; yet they worked closely together for three years, reportedly cutting over 100 Archies tracks. By 1969, Barry was collaborating on songs with Dante and his writing partner, Gene Allan. The following year, he produced Dante's first solo album, Ron Dante Brings You Up.
Ron_Dante

RON DANTE

There are 11 Archies singles. Eight of them bear Jeff Barry production credits, and seven of these charted in North America. The first was "Bang-Shang-A-Lang", released in September of 1968 to coincide with the debut of the cartoon series. With its slashing Hugh McCracken guitar riffs, it packed a wallop strong enough to propel it to #22 on the Hot 100. Today, a track this raw might be called "hardcore", but in any event, it wasn't what you'd expect to hear on a Saturday morning TV show. Neither was its flipside, the Blues-drenched Rock ballad "Truck Driver". Fast forward to July 1970, and the release of "Sunshine". Peaking at #57, it was The Archies' penultimate chart entry (the last was "Together We Two", which stalled at #122). A full-throttle, Afro-Caribbean-flavored jam, "Sunshine" was Barry's natural progression from the Trinidadian rhythms of The Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko". His powerful bongo-playing, augmented by that of Bobby Bloom, made this track truly primal dance music.

Of course, between "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" and "Sunshine" came "Sugar, Sugar" in the summer of 1969. Eventually selling over six million copies, it was named Record of the Year by the Recording Industry Association of America(RIAA). "Sugar, Sugar" was Don Kirshner's sweet revenge on The Monkees: It was the #1 single on music surveys stretching from here to Japan. One reason for its enormous appeal is the instrumental track's throbbing bass line, played by Joey Macho; it's one of the best dance grooves to be found on a '60s Pop single. (That great bass sound may be what attracted Soul legend Wilson Pickett's attention; a year later, his cover of "Sugar, Sugar" landed in the Rhythm & Blues Top Five.) The follow-up, "Jingle Jangle", also ventured past the million-seller mark. This rousing nonsense anthem, sung by a multi-tracked Ron Dante and Toni Wine, and featuring a "Jukebox" Jeff cameo vocal near the end, boasts another killer bass groove; it was as deserving of hit status as its predecessor. Three months later, "Who's Your Baby?", a snarling Country rocker pairing Dante with ex-Columbia recording artist Donna Marie, gave The Archies their final Top Forty platter.

Donna Marie

DONNA MARIE

In mid-1971, after Barry had stopped producing the group, Don Kirshner pulled a song from the year-old Sunshine album and marketed it in a picture sleeve adorned with the peace symbol. As its title suggests, "A Summer Prayer For Peace" was an atypical Archies release, a choral Rock ballad that brought their music in line with relevant issues like the Vietnam war; Barry shared spoken-word vocals with Ron Dante. Kirshner's marketing strategy only worked in South Africa, where the single became a monster hit. Elsewhere, though, the public, like Jeff Barry, had shifted its attention to other acts.

The Steed Records Era

Andy Kim co-wrote most of The Archies' hits with Barry. Ninety percent of his own recorded output for the Steed label was also Barry/Kim compositions. If The Archies represented Barry's blatantly commercial aspect, then Andy Kim was the vehicle for a darker, more introspective side of him. The lyrics he wrote for Kim dealt with such heavy topics as marital infidelity, suicidal depression, cynicism, and the declining world condition. It's unfortunate that, during his time as a Steed recording artist, Andy Kim became known as a cover act specializing in old Ronettes hits. His original material, mislabled "bubblegum", deserved closer examination than it ever got.

On Andy Kim's records, Barry let each song dictate what the style of production would be, just as he had done with Neil Diamond. "Rainbow Ride" recreated the guitar sound of The Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville", while "It's Your Life" was equal parts Gospel and Rhythm and Blues (a combination also used to good effect on Bobby Bloom's follow-up singles to "Montego Bay"). For the ballad "A Friend In The City", dramatic Charlie Calello orchestrations were in order. The recipe for "How'd We Ever Get This Way?" was good old handclappings and tambourines, liberally seasoned with Caribbean island spice. The Barry/Kim fusion of Pop, Adult-Contemporary and Progressive Rock stylings resulted in 10 chart placings for Kim between May of 1968 and July of 1971. The most successful of his 5 Top Forty hits was his 1969 remake of Barry and Greenwich's "Baby, I Love You". For this single, Barry played almost every instrument, and then used his mixing board to create a percussion-heavy approximation of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. His Africanized arrangement was catchy enough to make it outsell The Ronettes' original 1964 release. Similar arrangements powered two subsequent Andy Kim singles, "So Good Together" and a second Ronettes remake, "Be My Baby".

With The Illusion and Robin McNamara, the other main acts on Steed, "Jukebox" Jeff indulged his twin fascinations with the Blues and Gospel music. The Illusion was a Long Island-based bar band with psychedelic leanings, fronted by a gravel-throated singer named John Vinci. While Barry applied a certain amount of Pop gloss to the band's recordings (particularly to its third chart single, "Together"), he never compromised its hard Rock stance. The extended album version of The Illusion's solitary Top Forty hit "Did You See Her Eyes?" is a 6:55 sample of ass-kicking drums and guitar that any Rock band would welcome in its repertoire. Barry vacated the sound booth during the session in order to jam in the studio with guitarists Rich Cerniglia and Mike Maniscalco, bass player Chuck Adler and drummer Mike Ricciardella. Among other exceptional Blues rockers The Illusion cut under his supervision are "Once In A Lifetime", "Lila", "How Does It Feel?", "Why? Tell Me Why" and "Naked Blues".
The Illusion

Shaggy-maned Robin McNamara was a singer/songwriter and actor on the Rock scene's cutting edge. At the same time he began working with Jeff Barry, he snared a leading role in the red-hot Broadway musical Hair. Several of his fellow cast members tagged along for his Steed album dates at RCA Studios. With Ellie Greenwich leading the spirited backing chorus, McNamara came across sounding like the slightly off-key soloist in a Black Baptist church choir! Gospel-tinged his album may be, but McNamara will be best remembered for his lighthearted Pop hit "Lay A Little Lovin' On Me". Issued as a Steed single in the summer of 1970, it just missed Billboard's Top Ten in its 15-week run on the charts. If any one record were chosen to represent what the "Jukebox" Jeff sound is all about, "Lay A Little Lovin" would be a perfect example. So simple and melodic, yet it's so full of hooks, it's addictive.
Robin McNamara

There were failed acts on Steed Records, too, but their failure had nothing to do with the quality of their releases. Keepers Of The Light, fronted by Alzo Fronte and Ali Noor Uddin, brought a unique Bollywood sensibility to Rock 'n' Roll on their single "And I Don't Want Your Love". The versatile Rich Kids, led by singer Denny Belline, boomeranged from the Reggae-tinged Pop of "I've Got To Find Me A Woman" to the bone-jarring Punk of "You Made Me A Man", both sides penned by Barry and Kim. Duet act Louis St. Louis and Jacqueline Carol had an excellent shot at radio airplay with "One Time For Love", but somehow they missed the brass ring. Guitarist/songwriter Hank Shifter undoubtedly would've been Steed's answer to Neil Diamond had finely crafted releases like "Saturday Noontime" and "Mary On The Beach" found an audience. The hands-down best group on Steed was The Playhouse, a Mamas and Papas clone cobbled together from the remains of two early '60s acts, The Four-Evers and The Candy Girls. To this day, Jeff Barry can't understand why they didn't click with the public; listen to either of their flawless Steed releases ("Just We Two" b/w "C'mon And Ride" and "You Don't Know It" b/w "Love Is On Our Side") and you won't understand either! Indifference to superb sides like these made it easier for Barry to shut down his label when he was inevitably faced with the task.
"Jeff Barry" concludes with Part Four.

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