So the British Invasion reinvigorated rock and roll, making it charts-worthy again. Inevitably, then, the Americans’ return to rock would hew closely to the Britons’ example. But whereas the best of the British Invasion brought something new to the table – The Beatles’ melodic hooks, The Animals’ fire and brimstone, The Rolling Stones’ snotty schoolboy attitude – the Americans were in the awkward position of having to relearn this whole rock-and-roll thing they had once invented. So, like kindergarteners who must trace the alphabet before one day composing their own sentences, Americans waded back into rock by mimicking the British – creating, in essence, a copy of a copy. At the same time, the vertically integrated Brill Building system wasn’t quite ready for a self-contained rock-and-roll band. As a result, the American music industry was forced to cobble together some sort of facsimile of a rock group, only without the head-butting of dealing with an actual autonomous band.
Enter Gary Lewis & the Playboys. They certainly weren’t the first American band plucked from obscurity in response to the British Invasion, but they were the first to score a number-one record. At least part of the credit can be attributed to the group’s frontman being the son of comedian Jerry Lewis. As “Gary & the Playboys,” the band earned a standing gig playing Disneyland every night, a position roughly commensurate with their level of talent. But producer Snuff Garrett, learning of Lewis’s lineage, rightly reckoned he could make junior a star, too. So Lewis’s mother paid for the recording sessions, and Lewis’s father used his connections to land the Playboys a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show before they even had a hit.
Nepotism may have granted the Playboys their entrée into the public consciousness, but swiped Beatlesisms made them stars. “This Diamond Ring,” co-written by the soon-to-be-legendary/infamous Al Kooper (along with lyricists Bob Brass and Irwin Levine), was originally recorded by Sammy Ambrose in its intended R&B/soul style, but failed to crack the Hot 100. Garrett repurposed the track for his new beat combo, emphasizing the elements borrowed from the nascent Lennon-McCartney catalogue: distinctive chord changes (e.g., vi-iii from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” among others); certain melismatic progressions (compare “if you find someone whose heart is true” from “This Diamond Ring” with “last night I said these words to my girl” from “Please Please Me”); and the blending of two voices singing in unison.*
Gary Lewis & the Playboys may have been a perfectly capable gigging band, but Garrett recognized that they were too green for the pop charts. As a result, the instruments on the record were played not by the Playboys, but by the Wrecking Crew – the same collective of LA session musicians that backed a huge chunk of the Hot 100, including the previous number-one. Only Lewis’s vocals remain on “This Diamond Ring,” and even those were heavily overdubbed by studio singer Ron Hicklin. In attempting to ape the rawness of the British Invasion, Garrett produced a record as processed as anything by Phil Spector – moreso, in fact, as at least everyone in Spector’s stable could sing.
And yet, as derivative as it is, “This Diamond Ring” sort of works. It’s not a great record, by any means, and Ambrose’s version is the clear winner in quality, if not popularity. But 1965 is early enough in the game that even a Lennon-McCartney rip-off still feels fresher than most of the other recent records trying to pass for American rock and roll. Kooper’s twisty melody is easily the best part of the song, durable enough to withstand the Playboys’/Garrett’s bland interpretation, both despite and because of its borrowed Beatlesisms. Is “This Diamond Ring” as innovative as the best of the British Invasion records? Not at all, though it definitely beats out many of the other also-rans who scored chart-toppers in The Beatles’ wake. (Watch this space.) Nor is “This Diamond Ring” as indelible or well-crafted as many of its pop and R&B contemporaries. But for a nation feeling its way back into rock and roll? Baby steps. 6
*For further examples, see the introduction to David Brackett’s essential Interpreting Popular Music.
Hit #1 on February 20, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
128 of 1003 #1′s reviewed; 12.76% through the Hot 100