It might be tough to find three artists as different as Timi Yuro, The Electric Prunes and The New Christy Minstrels, but all three have been treated with similar care on recent projects from Real Gone Music!
The Electric Prunes, The Complete Reprise Singles (Real Gone Music OPCD-8574, 2012)
In the annals of the One-Hit Wonder, one might stumble upon the name of The Electric Prunes. The group achieved notoriety (and a No. 11 pop hit!) with the original Nugget “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzz-drenched slab of prime ’67 psychedelia, but never repeated the impact of that garage-rocking explosion of sound. In actuality, there was another minor hit, and a number of further singles, though not all were actually by The Electric Prunes, despite being credited to the band. Confused? Don’t be. Real Gone Music chronicles the entire far-out singles output of the Los Angeles band, in full-bodied mono, on the Prunes’ new Complete Reprise Singles collection, but the story behind the scenes is as fascinating as the music itself. Although Reprise viewed the Prunes as a commercial outfit, the group had a determined experimental streak that led to a number of innovative singles but may also have contributed to its downfall.
The quintet promisingly followed up “Too Much to Dream” with (the My Fair Lady-inspired?) “Get Me to the World on Time,” an even more outré track with a Bo Diddley shuffle married to spacey sound effects and freak-out lyrics. Like “Too Much to Dream,” it was written by Annette Tucker. The already accomplished songwriter (who also placed songs with Tom Jones, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon and Sonny and Cher) wrote “Dream” with Nancie Mantz, and “World” with Jill Jones. But the group’s heady brew of kooky garage experimentalism might have reached its nadir with just its fourth single, Tucker and Mantz’s cacophonic “Dr. Do-Good.” The peculiar lyrics are sung in Looney Tunes voices with producer Dave Hassinger contributing a devilish laugh at the song’s end. But Hassinger and the band weren’t laughing when the song only hit No. 128 on the charts, and Complete Singles chronicles The Prunes’ attempts to regain their footing, with more dark whimsy (“The Great Banana Hoax”) and even straightforward pop-rock (“Everybody Knows (You’re Not in Love)”). Singer James Lowe and bassist Mark Tulin came into their own as songwriters with these strong tracks, but it was too late for The Electric Prunes.
There’s more on the Prunes, plus Timi Yuro and The New Christy Minstrels after the jump!
After two eclectic LP outings, the band was paired with producer David Axelrod (known for his eccentric portfolio that combined styles from funk to baroque) for its third album. By the time Axelrod’s rock setting of liturgical music, Mass in F Minor, was completed, the band had splintered. By the time of Release of an Oath, an Axelrod-helmed LP based around the Jewish prayer the Kol Nidre, not one original member was left. Singles were extracted from these unusual LPs, and the songs are expectedly ambitious. But they crystallized the band’s lack of direction and actually anticipate progressive-rock. “Credo,” from Mass in F Minor, runs five minutes, lengthy for a single; Axelrod’s productions remain fascinating but have aged less well than the pure jolts of electric adrenaline that came before. They have their moments; “Help Us (Our Father, Our King)” is a persuasive melding of hard rock, jazz and soul, as only Axelrod could have created.
“The New and Improved Electric Prunes” recorded the 1969 album Just Good Old Rock and Roll, and the title and that moniker both should have indicated that something was up in the psych pioneers’ camp. Leadoff single “Violent Rose,” despite its title, is laid-back country/rock in the Bay Area style, while its B-side “Sell” features organ (a prominent feature in those early singles from the original band) out front but its nondescript hard rock failed to bring the Prunes back to the charts. Perhaps it was just as well. Richard Whetstone, of the “new and improved” line-up, tells Richie Unterberger in his fine liner notes that “the identity of the Electric Prunes was with the original band.” Thanks to Real Gone, those far-out tracks can be revisited in this compact package that gives equal attention to the later efforts. A fun added bonus is the band’s “before and after” radio commercial for the wah-wah pedal: “You can even make your guitar sound like a sitar Charles Benson has remastered each track in punchy mono. These 24 sides are the sound of a band that had too much to dream, and tried – for a brief time, at least – to make those dreams come true.
Timi Yuro, The Complete Liberty Singles (Real Gone Music RGM-0066, 2012)
Imagine a hurricane contained in a small room, and you have some idea of the power of Timi Yuro. A diminutive Italian girl with a booming voice, the force of Yuro just couldn’t be contained. So why is she remembered for one song, 1961’s “Hurt,” with the rest of her career often ignored? Real Gone Music offers an answer on The Complete Liberty Singles, the most thorough overview yet of this towering talent’s career.
Yuro’s 1961 debut “Hurt” had all of the ingredients for a smash hit. The singer unleashed her big voice, throbbing vibrato and strong belt on the Jimmie Crane and Al Jacobs tune originally cut in 1954 by R&B crooner Roy Hamilton. It climbed all the way to No. 4 on the national pop chart, but Yuro’s next singles were greeted with diminishing returns. What could account for the public’s turning its back on this singular new talent? Though she had the ear of Liberty President Al Bennett and the patronage of producer Clyde Otis (then best known for his work with Dinah Washington and later a guiding force for Aretha Franklin at Columbia), Yuro never developed a signature sound for her records. Though all were blessed with that unmistakable voice, the productions surrounding it were a varied lot, careening from style to style, and leaving Timi Yuro without a discernible musical direction.
One constant of these 36 songs on two CDs is the singer’s innate understanding of vocal dynamics. Her unique, sad take of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” is imbued with a bit of a growl in the vocal, but switches on a dime to a hushed tone, leaving the listener enrapt at every turn. Ervin (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “A Room Without Windows”) Drake’s “I Believe” epitomizes the big ballad style of the day, and Yuro was joined for it by the ever-emotive Johnnie Ray, plus a heavenly choir! Like its flipside, “A Mother’s Love,” it’s rather overwrought. (Clyde Otis and arranger Belford Hendricks later gave “A Mother’s Love” to Aretha Franklin, too.) Still, Yuro gave her all to each varied arrangement, including a swinging “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
With “soul” rapidly evolving into a genre of its own from “R&B,” Yuro might have had great success in an urbane, sophisticated vein. Hendricks and Otis’ “Count Everything” is a slice of Drifters-esque pop, with an arrangement strongly redolent of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Its absence from pop radio of 1962 is a mystery. Timi took another step in a youthful direction with “What’s a Matter Baby,” quite possibly the best track on this set. Behind the scenes, the song’s creation proved tumultuous when Phil Spector assumed production duties from Clyde Otis, much to Yuro’s dismay. But the younger producer brought a widescreen sensibility to the song. It’s not quite the Wall of Sound yet, but the groundwork is there with the big backing vocals, prominent drums and strings surrounding Yuro’s potent vocals. Its B-side had a youthful pedigree, too. Neil Sedaka’s frequent lyrical partner, Howard Greenfield, teamed with Helen Miller (with whom he would write “It Hurts to Be in Love”) for the atypical “Thirteenth Hour,” a big, string-laden adult ballad. Timi was rewarded with a No. 12 placement, her highest since “Hurt,” for the Spector production.
Timi might have had a chance to create a singular style when she was paired with Burt Bacharach and Hal David for “The Love of a Boy” in 1963. On the cusp of his breakthrough with Dionne Warwick over at Scepter, Bacharach supplied his instantly recognizable sound from the first downbeat. The song is a solid if unexceptional production from Bacharach in the “Any Day Now” mold, but the tempestuous Yuro took exception to his style of producing; in his liner notes, Ed Osborne reveals that a slammed door and a four-letter word ended the singer’s relationship with Burt Bacharach!
Following the tepid reception of “The Love of a Boy” (No. 44 Pop), Yuro tackled beat-ish songs (a withdrawn semi-“answer song” called “Talkin’ ‘Bout Hurt”) and Brill Building pop (“Insult to Injury”) before finding her passion rekindled with country music. It wasn’t a natural match, with the genre often far more receptive to laconic drawls than thunderous soul. But Yuro went all out in the countrypolitan style, never abating her boisterous tone. She was the first to record Hank Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away,” though Ray Price scored a bigger hit with it, and also covered songs by her friends Willie Nelson, Hank Snow and Don Gibson. For Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” Yuro sounds like a wild woman, practically shredding her vocal chords on its second part, the B-side.
The Complete Liberty Singles tracks the doggedly personal path that Timi continued to pursue, steadfastly avoiding any emulation of the chart sounds of the day. Yet she remained dissatisfied with Liberty, and decamped for Mercury. By 1968, though, she was back at her old stomping ground, hence the break between 1964 and 1968 on this new set. “Something Bad on My Mind,” from 1968, augured for a new, sophisticated pop direction, and the following year’s “It’ll Never Be Over For Me” (originally recorded by Baby Washington) is even better, a storming slice of Northern Soul. But the most fertile part of Timi Yuro’s recording career ended in the late 1960s; she returned to recording with more regularity in Holland a decade later.
Thankfully, Real Gone has given fans and collectors the ultimate package here, with Osborne’s notes shedding light on the abusive relationships that may have adversely impacted her singing career. So while these tracks reveal a musical identity crisis – was Liberty aiming her records at her main audience of teens, or at an adult vocal crowd? – they’re never less than fascinating thanks to Yuro’s powerful instrument. As one 1963 single goes, it’s “Just About the Time” to revisit the music of Timi Yuro.
The New Christy Minstrels, A Retrospective 1962-1970 (Columbia/Real Gone Music RGM-0067, 2012)
The Columbia eye adorns the spine and rear cover of The New Christy Minstrels’ Retrospective, and why not? The group was a mainstay of the Columbia roster throughout the 1960s, recording numerous albums each year and spreading folk music to the masses. Yet the group has been largely overlooked in the reappraisal of vintage Americana, perhaps because The New Christy Minstrels are considered closer to Ray Conniff’s chorus than to, say, The Weavers. But as usual, the truth is something far more complex, and Retrospective goes a long way in setting the story straight on Randy Sparks’ folk/pop aggregation, so memorably skewered in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind.
Not one paragraph into Tom Pickles’ lengthy liner notes, the compilation producer and annotator admits that “the group was indeed launched with entertainment, not editorial, being the goal,” and concedes that “you’d never see [them] top the bill at a union rally.” So if The New Christy Minstrels didn’t offer the social commentary that made folk some of the most incendiary music of the 1960s, what did they offer, then? Sparks envisioned his group (named after a blackface minstrel troupe known for introducing Stephen Foster’s songs in the 1800s) as melding the styles of the Kingston Trio and the Norman Luboff Choir, and to that end, he succeeded mightily. Sparks’ Minstrels tapped into a legitimate vein of non-political American folk songs, and brought these songs – which didn’t deserve to be relegated to history’s back pages – to the public in a slick (and easily-digestible) package that nonetheless maintained a high standard of musicianship and vocal prowess. The Christies even won a Grammy for their initial LP outing (see: the new compilation’s cover photo!). The fluid roster introduced a number of names who went on to far greater fame, and Sparks’ reputation of an eye for talent speaks for itself. Over the years, the list of Minstrels includes everyone from rock and country superstars to Broadway performers; Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, Barry McGuire, The Association’s Larry Ramos, The Byrds’ Gene Clark, producer/songwriter Jerry Yester, Christine Andreas and more are just a few of the names that passed through the group’s ranks.
Real Gone predecessor Collectors’ Choice Music anthologized the group on 1998’s The Definitive New Christy Minstrels, with 55 songs on two CDs. This is a leaner set, but most of the group’s beloved favorites are here. The group’s style was generally smooth, and there’s not a lot here that will rock the boat; solo parts often bear the influence of an early supporter, the laid-back vocalist Andy Williams. The overall sound is that of a finely-blended chorus. But singular voices do stand out, most notably Barry McGuire. He, of course, was the voice of “Eve of Destruction,” P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri’s made-to-order protest song. Yet “Eve of Destruction” remains a potent and genuine expression of its time, and so does McGuire’s work with the Christies. His dark-hued, gravelly voice brings great dimension to the Christies’ hit single “Green, Green,” which he co-wrote with founder Randy Sparks. Sparks wrote or adapted most of the material for the robust, large ensemble of singers which at various times included guitarist/vocalist Art Podell, tenor Clarence Treat and Sparks’ then-wife, Jackie Miller. Like the best songs in the folk tradition, meant to be passed along, Sparks emphasized sing-along hooks in his compositions. A lengthy live recording of his adaptation of “Waltzing Matilda” shows Sparks’ sense of humor at play, too.
Expectedly, The New Christy Minstrels suffered in the face of the British Invasion and the new sounds that were rendering their gentle, non-protesting folk style passé. As the liner notes elucidate, there were also plenty of internal conflicts, no surprise for a group with a large and rotating membership of men and women who were ready to break out on their own. Sparks had run the Christies as a business, and when he controversially sold the group to its management team in 1964, group members began to jump ship.
In many ways, though, the most atypical tracks on Retrospective are the freshest, as the group was forced to adapt to changing tastes. With Sparks out of the picture, the group’s repertoire broadened, to include pop, country and even rock covers, plus soundtrack songs, most rendered in an “easy listening” style that couldn’t compete with the originals. An orchestra was even added in what amounted to the most significant change in the group sound since its formation. An otherwise-attractive cover of “The Girl from Ipanema” doesn’t bear any of the group’s vocal or instrumental hallmarks. But some breakout songs have held up incredibly well. Billy Edd Wheeler’s “High Flying Bird” gets an edgy reading from Bob Buchanan (later of Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band) on lead. Richard and Robert Sherman’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins is a lot of fun, and it’s heard in its 1965 album version rather than the earlier single featuring Barry McGuire. From the same songwriters’ catalogue comes “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” from 1968. Come to think of it, both of these classic children’s songs, passed down from parent to child, are a “folk music” of a different, and equally affecting, sort. Kenny Rogers presages his own solo style on Mickey Newbury’s “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings.” The group’s nadir came in 1970 when its managers enlisted anonymous studio singers to record under the Christy name. From this era, “You Need Someone to Love” is a credible pop effort but lacking the magic of the earlier years.
The thick 18-page booklet contains a strong history of the group as well as track-by-track personnel listing along with recording date; frustratingly, though, it lacks discographical information as to where each song originated! Collectors will also want to take note of the album’s rare and unreleased performances including an affecting, simple “God Bless the Child” sung by Nick Woods, and “Walk the Road,” an outtake from the Ramblin’ album. Listening to The New Christy Minstrels’ Retrospective, its songs might seem like remnants of a simpler era. The sixties, of course, weren’t a simple era, but as an entertaining nostalgia trip, the sounds on Retrospective are joyous, indeed.