Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Cameo Parkway 1957-1967 Box Set

Well, let me tell ya, listening to this box set was an absolute hoot, more fun than takin' your best gal for some back seat canoe-lovin' when she's got the hiccups. Loved every minute of it. The music stirred a chain of memories a mile long and put a smile on my face. It seemed to evoke a warm summery feeling that's at once transforming and reassuring. It reminds me of my younger days when music (and my life) was, on the surface anyway, more innocent and a helluva lot less complicated. And to accomplish this musical slight-of-hand required considerable sophistication. And that perhaps is the genius Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann, middle-aged tunesmiths, writing and producing music for the burgeoning youth culture. These guys were slick, no doubt, and were able to lay down some formidable music despite the limitations of their advanced age and their eye on the market...perhaps not a limitation? Still, Lowe and Mann (and Dave Appel) thrived in this nascent form of rock 'n roll. In fact, as this 4-CD set attests, they damn near covered every possible genre and all the fads and trends in this formative decade of popular music. And it seems that, unknowingly, in their calculated appeal to the teen market, they inadvertently showed us the interconnectedness of seemingly different forms of music and, in doing so, revealed the potential for tolerance and diversity. Alas, this was more hidden than known and it was pretty much unspoken, perhaps too heavy a topic to scaffold dance music, so it was never quite articulated or developed until just a bit later by folks like Sly Stone, Les McCann, the Moody Blues, and other icons of the late sixties.

You gotta make some precious ching to make it in the recording industry and Cameo Parkway's brief yet incredible run of success is testimony to their somewhat gutsy and unorothodox manner of doing business. From 1957 - 1967, the Cameo Parkway team crafted an incredible body of music ranging from Brill Building formulaic Philly-based tune-smithing to jazz, R&B, country, British Invasion, and Midwest garage rock. There are so many forgotten "classics" in the box set that I'd find myself thinking (again and again), "My god...they did "THAT". Ah yes, and the songs that I didn't know...I remembered them too, just for the hell of it.

The set contains a nice booklet with photos and a great set of liner notes tha's both informative and interesting. The first ever Cameo release (not included) was Arlene Demarco's Old Enough To Know. It went nowhere. But the 6th release Butterfly, written by Mann and Lowe and recorded by Charlie Green, hit paydirt. And though it sounds just a bit trite, it went gold and opens disc one in this set. Lowe and Mann continued to dominate the creative juices at Cameo Parkway. And for middle-aged hacks, they created an impressive body of music. And they dominated the "Dance Craze" boom from approximately 1960 to 1963, a Herculean accomplishment to be sure! Included in this set are a total 14 "dance songs" from the Watusi to the Bird and back to the Bristol Stomp, which catapulted Cameo Parkway to a prominent role in the race for teen dollars. In the meantime, despite such measured calculation, the creative team of Mann, Appel, and Lowe created a catalog that is memorable and a whole lotta fun. You may recall the Twist, Slow Twistin', Let's Twist Again, Teach Me to Twist, The Pony, The Limbo Rock...well, you get the idea, doncha. It's all cool, in fact, it was an incredible feat of repeating the same song, chord progression, and lyrical themes over and over again, and a type of self plagiarism that is wickedly adroit and kinda fun. I mean, for chrissakes, how many times can Chubby re-do the Twist without revealing its origins? Is the public that unsuspecting and preocuppied? So... how low can you go?
The Twist, in and of itself, is a remarkable story. It was written and recorded by Hank Ballard and his version made it to the top ten in R&B charts but when he failed to show for a slot on American Bandstand, Dick Clark, encouraged a young lad by the name of Ernest Evans aka Chubby Checker to record the song. The power of televison played a role in making the Twist a #1 hit in 1960 and repeating that success in 1962. In the end, Chubby had the last laugh, and his unprecedented double-dip success with "The Twist" makes his self-promotion to the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame a tad more sympathetic.

Cameo Parkway's dominance in the youth market was in no small way a function of their working relationship with Dick Clark and their facility for providing easily accessible entertainment to American Bandstand, especially for the occasional no show. But it was heartthrob Bobby Rydell who was primarily responsible for Cameo Parkway's ascendance starting with a string of hits from 1959 to 1963 that included Kissin' Time, We Got Love, Wild One, Swingin' School, and Forget Him. Rydell was the most talented of the Philly-based "Teen Idols" and possessed an incredible set of pipes, great comic timing, and he was an accomplished musician (drums). My mother had his "Golden Hits" album along with albums by Dion and the Everly Brothers. And at the time, I felt that Rydell held his own with these (now) better known rock icons. Rydell's "smile in his voice" presentation of teen angst (Wild One) seemed to compliment Dion's street-punk smarts (The Wanderer) and the Everly Brother's down-home edginess(Cathy's Clown). But Rydell wasn't alone in helping make Cameo-Parkway a powerhouse. The fabulous Dovells are represented by three great tracks. Led by the soulful vocals of Len Barry, they hit the mark with the stone classic, You Can't Sit Down. The Thymes' So Much in Love was a monster hit that owes a considerable debt to Johnny Mathis, just check their cover of Wonderful Wonderful and you'll find the origins of this gorgeous summertime ballad. Even the tacky gets it goin', like Jo Ann Campbell's The Girl From Wolverton Mountain, or Senator Bobby's Wild Thing - would even make the Troggs cringe, or Patti Labelle doin' Danny Boy, or what about Screaming Lord Sutch creepin' us out with She's Fallen In Love With The Monster Man... each one a "SO BAD IT'S GOOD" classic that helped me smile away my breakfast and take a brisk walk through Central Park.

Being from Michigan, I was pleased that Michigan rock bands were so well represented in this box set. Question Mark & the Mysterians led the way with three tracks including their #1 1966 garage-rock masterpiece 96 Tears. The Rationals' Respect predates Aretha's soulful hit version, and as good as Aretha gets it, I still favor the Rationals' modest garage rock reading. And for my money, singer Scott Morgan has one of the best voices in rock 'n roll, or at least during the heyday of "Michigan Rock" (from approximately 1966-1970)and went on to fame - or infamy - as a singer/guitarist with the Sonic Rendezvous Band with Fred Sonic Smith (MC5) and Scott Asheton (the Stooges). Bob Seger's Heavy Music is perhaps his best song, an undiscovered rock classic. Problem is, he recreated it over and over again, with each version worst than the last. In this manner Heavy Music begat Ramblin' Gamblin' Man (still great) which spawned Rock And Roll Never Forgets (not bad) which inspired Old Time Rock and Roll - a massive hit that is a plodding, dirge-like appeal to the masses...dumb it down and suck out all the youthful energy of the original and ya got a hit, son! In 1966, Terry Knight & the Pack was one of the premier bands from Mid-Michigan and they competed directly with label mates, Dick Wagner & the Bossmen, for the local crown. Though Knight may not been as talented as Wagner, he beat him to the punch with I (Who Have Nothing), a wonderfully moody track with a dramatic reading. All and all, it's a superb performance.

The Cameo Parkway Box has a number of great and wonderful surprises. Bunny Siegler's Let The Good Times Roll/Feel So Good is simply incredible, great energy and a powerful production makes this one of the sets standout tracks...just knocks me out! Former Beatles drummer Pete Best does a fine post-Beatles version of Boys and Sounds Orchestral's jazzed up instrumental reading of Cast Your Fate To The Wind is a sweeping and majestic panorama of sound and feeling with considerable technique thrown in for good measure. Chris Bartley's The Sweetest Thing This Side Of Heaven is an out & out Motown classic, only it's not Motown, go figure. And the Kink's dismal cover of Long Tall Sally is revelatory in that it portrays them, warts and all, before they found their own voice.

So here is an incendiary "Box Set" from an outrageous label that dared to be anything it wanted to be, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead. So all you aging boomers take heed, you really do matter, and if you take a chance and purchase this little jewel of a collection, I think you'll discover, in the deepest regions of its modest packaging, all the best and worst impulses of your generation.

Bo White

No comments:

Post a Comment