128) Gary Lewis & The Playboys – “This Diamond Ring”

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

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8 Comments

Filed under 06, 1965

8 responses to “128) Gary Lewis & The Playboys – “This Diamond Ring”

  1. Deacon Lowdown

    It’s funny how the narrative here would be so different if “Louie Louie” hadn’t stalled at #2. It isn’t reflected in the top of the charts (though we still have “96 Tears” to look forward to) but the years from 1964 to 1966 were the peak of garage rock in America. During this period garage rock bands (some of whom literally were snotty schoolboys) such as The Kingsmen, The Seeds, The Standells, The Sonics, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Mysterians and The Trashmen were all making some of the best American rock and roll since Chuck Berry got busted. The Seeds (a very underrated band) and the Elevators even wrote all their own material – neither The Animals or The Stones could say that at this point.

  2. Stein

    Excellent review. Fascinating to see how the pop system functioned at this point in time. As for the previous comment, I wonder if the self-contained American groups of the day who weren’t going to use session musicians faced some kind of institutional barrier not faced by other acts who sprang from the recognized hit-making cells like the LA Wrecking Crew, Motown, etc.

  3. Love the historical context, as always.

    Out of curiosity — and I have a feeling this will be a stupid question — are you doing these in any kind of order? I came into this thinking maybe they would be chronological, or in ascending order of time spent on the charts, but it’s not apparent to me.

  4. Yes, these entries are in chronological order. Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” (1958) was the first-ever #1 on the Hot 100 chart, and “This Diamond Ring” (1965) was the 128th.

  5. Doctor Casino

    Great post – never knew any of this backstory before.

    Their Beach Boys knockoff “She’s Just My Style” has to be their best – “This Diamond Ring” has always seemed a little too sing-songy, and besides, the cloying diamond-ring narrative just seems a little too grown-up for the amount of subtlety they bring to the table. I guess people married younger then, but I’ve always had trouble relating to bubblegum songs (surely this must be proto-gum) that end, begin, or revolve around wedding bells. Just…not my style.

  6. Stein, a lot of the garage bands were on small regional labels, so maybe they didn’t have the resources available to promote, distribute, and press as many copies as the majors? But even so, the distinction wasn’t always clearcut. As Deacon Lowdown points out, very few groups were writing their own material at the time, either relying on professional songwriters or cover versions (like “Louie Louie”). And I’m sure there were studio musicians playing on many of garage rock singles, too – even Ringo didn’t get to play drums on the original of “Love Me Do.” But I guess the biggest difference was attitude, garage’s rawness/wildness vs the “proto-gum,” as Doctor Casino puts it. “This Diamond Ring” could have been a hit five years earlier for someone like Frankie Avalon with only a minimal change in arrangement. But “96 Tears”? No way. Of course, the floodgates opened once the industry saw the harder stuff could sell.

  7. bob stanley

    Likewise, didn’t know the whole back story. Great stuff. What stands out when listening to the Playboys’ hits is their incredible lightness. It’s diet Anglo beat – nothing British sounded remotely like this. I’d say Gary Lewis’s best records came at the tail end of his career, mostly written by Bonner and Gordon. Jill is an extrordinarily sad 45 and uses his voice well; the climax of the song literally sounds like his dying breath.

    I might be biased but my favourite version of This Diamond Ring is by Billy Fury, presumably based on the Sammy Ambrose original. Tough and angry with a tremendous Mike Leander production.

  8. GeorgeL

    Oh yeah! “Jill” is a great song! Totally trippy – very, very cool. I actually like a lot of Gary Lewis’ records (very well made pop/rock confections). Not quite bubblegum to my ears – More like sunshine pop. Not all mid/late 60s music was Dylan/Beatles etc. There is a lot of room for good pop music much of which has actually aged better than some so-called progressive rock. Most Gary Lewis albums contained the group’s latest singles plus remakes of then current Top 40 hits. In an interview, Lewis said that the idea was to produce albums with nothing but familiar hits on them.

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