Tag Archives: the blossoms

173) Johnny Rivers – “Poor Side of Town”

History credits the British Invasion with reintroducing rock and roll to the Americans who, failing to appreciate their good fortune, had chosen to discard or declaw it. Not only does this perspective underestimate the surf rockers, R&B artists and early garage rockers who mutated and perpetuated the genre – lest we forget, “Louie Louie” was a hit before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but it also overlooks the ’50s-style rockers who carried the flame. One of the leaders of the first rock and roll revival was Johnny Rivers, a white singer and guitarist from Louisiana who had been playing rock for nearly a decade before scoring his first hit, a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that climbed to #2 in amid the UK deluge of 1964. While Rivers built his career remaking familiar rock and R&B hits, he was closer in spirit to early Rolling Stones than Pat Boone redux. Rather than watering down the form, he emphasized the viscerality and rougher edges by recording his first several albums and singles live at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles – even as the tight band, female backing singers and clubby atmosphere ensured nothing got too out of hand. Rivers followed “Memphis” with a string of other Top 20 covers, including Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” as well as the Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan original “Secret Agent Man,” originally recorded as the theme song for the imported and retitled UK TV series Danger Man.

Rivers’s sole number-one hit, however, was a conscious departure from the “go-go sound” that had made him famous. One of Rivers’s rare self-penned singles,“Poor Side of Town” updates the Righteous Brothers’ orchestral blue-eyed balladry by toning down the melodrama and adding a light Motown-ish groove. (He’d carry the formula to its logical conclusion on his similarly-arranged covers of “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “The Tracks of My Tears” the following year). The storyline of the song itself is fairly standard stuff: poor girl leaves poor boy for rich guy; girl gets dumped; girl retreats back to the Poor Side of Town. As the poor boy, Rivers at first greets the girl’s return guarded and a little bitter: “How can you tell me how much you miss me/ when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me?” As the song progresses, though, he begins to soften and admit he still loves her, even as he acknowledges she’s settling (“I can’t blame you for tryin’/ I’m tryin’ to make it too”). Rivers recasts the title line at the end of each verse to chart the narrator’s emotional progression: from sarcasm (“welcome back, baby, to … ”), to melancholic longing (“it’s hard to find nice things, on … ”), to hope (“together we can make it, baby, from the poor side of town”). The song’s arrangement emphasizes the class divide, contrasting street-level rock elements (the gently stinging guitar, Rivers’s slack enunciation, the doo-wop “shooby-dooby” vocals) with a plush bed of strings and the serene, pure-toned vocals of The Blossoms.

“Poor Side of Town” finds Rivers experimenting with recasting rock and roll in a more “adult” format, perhaps inspired by the polished R&B/country blend of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds recordings. Yet there’s also the sense that perhaps he and producer Lou Adler had overcorrected a little. Rivers’s tremulous phrasing hints at the complexity of reactions brought on by the girl’s return, but the overbright production threatens to blow out any emotional shading. Even if Rivers was attempting to emphasize the divide between the straightforward, authentic poor side and the empty gloss of the rich, the latter actually grows more dominant as it’s supposed to be fading in the rearview. The Blossoms’ role doesn’t seem quite worked out either. Despite getting two lines to themselves near the end, they’re not there to add the woman’s perspective but to reinforce the narrator’s – why else would they cooingly echo the charges of “plaything” and “overnight fling”?

By the time Rivers released the accompanying LP (pointedly titled Changes), he and Adler had refined the use of lush instrumentation to add sophistication and poignancy without contradicting the emotional current.  In a way, Rivers’ mid-to-late ’60s records were no less experimental than what was going on in the rest of the rock world at the time – only rather than drawing from the avant-garde or expanding on roots genres (folk, blues, country), he was trying to see how much polish rock could take without losing its form. It might not have been as hip as what the British acts were doing, but it was perhaps more prescient of the direction mainstream rock was headed in the decade to come. 6

Hit #1 on November 12, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
173 of 1024 #1’s reviewed; 16.89% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 06, 1966

80) The Crystals – “He’s a Rebel”

“He’s a Rebel” is not my favorite Phil Spector record.  I prefer The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and thus will not be discussed in depth here.  But “He’s a Rebel” – recorded by The Blossoms but released under the Crystals nameplate, much to the surprise of The Crystals – is the ultimate girl group record.  Condensed into this one song is everything the genre had stood for so far – adolescent love stories, harmonies both playful and powerful, striking (though not always technically proficient) lead vocalists – as well as a blueprint that would set the tone for the rest of the decade.  “He’s a Rebel” may not have been the first song about a good girl in love with a bad boy, but it made that the de facto girl group relationship.  Of course he’s never really a bad boy, that’s just what “they” say because of how he dresses and rejects society’s norms.  But Darlene Love (and all the singers following in her wake) knows the truth: “He’s always good to me, always treats me tenderly / ‘Cause he’s not a rebel … to me.”

And yes, there’s that Wall of Sound.  Spector may have employed the first stirrings of his densely layered soundscapes on “To Know Him is to Love Him,” but it was here that his production techniques flowered into the defining sound of early ’60s pop.  Spector’s sound was ripped off by everyone from fly-by-night cash-in labels to Brian Wilson, and for good reason.  The Wall of Sound is perhaps the preeminent example of the capacity music has to make us empathize on a visceral level.  Not only does the record sound beautiful as a piece of musical art, but the orchestral swirl makes the banal subject matter – nothing that wouldn’t appear as filler on a Miley Cyrus album – sound like the most important thing on the planet.  The struggle between our teenage lovers and those nay-saying “them” is epic.  The romance, like the tune, feels like one for the ages. 9

Hit #1 on November 3, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
80 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.20% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1962

68) Shelley Fabares – “Johnny Angel”

Generations, in the over-arching cultural sense, are roughly delineated in 20-year segments.  But in pop music, the passage of time is accelerated.  Never was this truer than in the 1960s, when “revolutions per minute” could refer not only to a lone record on a turntable, but to pop radio as a whole.  Connie Francis may have been only 23 years old when her final #1 hit topped the charts, but she felt like a relic of an older time.  Indeed, while her fanbase in the late ‘50s stretched across the generations, Francis would primarily pursue the adult pop market for the rest of her career.  The common culture shared by adults and adolescents had begun to splinter around the birth of rock and roll, and was well on its way to becoming a full-on generation gap.  Francis, born in 1938, predated the Baby Boom; her successor to the top of the Hot 100, born in 1944, was a product of it.  This new generation wanted music that spoke (or, rather, sang) explicitly to the experience of being young – and the nascent girl group explosion, made by teenagers for teenagers, had exactly the right sound.

Thus when the producers of The Donna Reed Show decided to have their teenage star Shelley Fabares record a tie-in single, they took a bog standard, fill-in-the-blanks teen pop song and dressed it up with the backing vocals of The Blossoms.  While The Blossoms weren’t a household name, the tight harmonies of Darlene Love and her fellow group members added a jolt of relevancy to the pop-by-numbers “Johnny Angel.”  Nevertheless, the result isn’t a very convincing.  Fabares, firmly an actress and not a singer, was reportedly unenthusiastic about recording a single and felt intimidated by The Blossoms’ vocal chops.  Her voice is fine here, actually; if anything, it presages the girlish vocals of Lesley Gore and Mary Weiss that would form the white counterparts to the girl groups produced by Motown and Phil Spector.  But the vocals of Fabares and The Blossoms never meld in a way that sounds organic.  The bulk of the successful girl groups had, in some form or another, been singing together for years, in high schools and churches, before they cut their first singles.  Here, Fabares’s voice floats out limply in front of the backing singers.  Further, “Johnny Angel” is, if possible, too pop to be real girl group material.  The genuine girl group hits drew to varying degrees from other genres, whether they be R&B/soul, rock and roll, gospel, or even country. This cross-genre pollination led to more complex and exciting singles, which attracted listeners outside of the teenage girl market and, in turn, influenced the genres the girl groups had originally borrowed from (e.g., The Beatles covering The Shirelles, The Marvelettes and The Cookies).  “Johnny Angel,” however, owes strictly to the limpid, syrupy pop of Frankie Avalon and teen idols who followed in his wake.  Essentially, this is “Venus,” but from a female POV – and one just as dull and vacuous. 3

Liner Notes:

  • The Blossoms would again top the Hot 100 just a few months later – albeit with a single falsely credited to another girl group.

Hit #1 on April 7, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
68 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.01% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 03, 1962