Don’t be cruel…to a heart that’s true…
Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees…people say we monkey around…
Those three songs are still among the most recognizable in rock and soul, yet they barely scratch the surface of the songwriting careers of Don Covay, Otis Blackwell and the team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, respectively. Ace Records has recently searched the discographies of all of those gentlemen to create the latest entries in the label’s definitive Songwriters Series.
Though tour itineraries have often been known to include some off-the-beaten path locales, perhaps no venue was more far out than the one Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart got to play in 1970: the Cosmos Cotillion, the otherworldly bash for the “in” crowd of witches and warlocks. As if writing some of the Monkees’ most beloved songs wasn’t in and of itself a guarantee to immortality, Boyce and Hart attained it among some actual (well, for television!) immortals, when they joined Elizabeth Montgomery on the sitcom Bewitched for the most groovy magical happening this side of the Witches’ Convention. At the Cosmos Cotillion, the duo performed “A Kiss in the Wind,” their 1969 single said to have been penned by “good witch” Samantha’s devious cousin Serena! And although that catchy composition isn’t among the 26 tracks on Action! The Songs of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, this new release is still the most comprehensive collection ever of the team’s greatest hits, and makes a fine companion to Varese Sarabande’s 1995 The Songs of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
This fun-filled new anthology chronicles the Boyce and Hart story not only via their joint compositions but by those crafted with other co-writers. Tommy and Bobby first befriended each other in 1959, and began seriously writing as a team in 1963, but their career together didn’t really take off until they were paired in 1965 by Screen Gems. The music publisher and television offshoot of Columbia Pictures was home to three shows on which Boyce and Hart eventually guest-starred (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun) and a little sitcom called…The Monkees. But prior to taking Hollywood by storm at Screen Gems, Boyce and Hart had, individually and collectively, amassed hit after hit. Boyce was just 19 when he wrote “Be My Guest” for Fats Domino in 1959. He co-wrote Curtis Lee’s Phil Spector-produced “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” in 1961; though it’s not included here, the B-side “Beverly Jean” (also helmed by Spector) is present. As for Hart sans Boyce, he wrote one of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ most enduring songs when he joined Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein to compose “Hurt So Bad” in 1965. A lesser-known Randazzo/Hart tune for the Royalettes, “Never Again,” is one of this compilation’s highlights. But the first major Boyce/Hart song was 1964’s “Come a Little Bit Closer,” the slice of sly storytelling and pop perfection that became that group’s biggest chart hit.
The mariachi-flecked “Come a Little Bit Closer” led to the Screen Gems contract, and Boyce and Hart were on their way when they were assigned the task of writing demos for a “fab faux” known as The Monkees. Soon, Boyce and Hart scored a production deal for the group, as well, writing and producing The Monkees’ first No. 1 (“Last Train to Clarksville,” performed here by The Standells). Although Boyce and Hart’s days were numbered as The Monkees asserted more creative control over their destinies, some 24 of the duo’s songs were recorded by the group. Three have been selected here: the dynamic “Valleri” and “P.O. Box 9847” and the ubiquitous “(Theme From) The Monkees.” Other Monkees songs, in addition to “Clarksville,” are heard from other artists, including The Flies’ 1966 “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” and Sir Raleigh and the Cupons’ “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day,” both of which predated the release of The Monkees’ own versions. Trivia note: Dewey Martin of Buffalo Springfield was the Cupons’ frontman! 1966 was a particularly good year for the team of Boyce and Hart; nearly one-third of this anthology is drawn from that twelve-month period including the Columbia single of “Action, Action, Action” sung by Where the Action Is star Keith Allison. This rip-roaring theme song replaced Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon’s “Where the Action Is” (written by Boyce and Steve Venet) on Dick Clark’s ABC-TV program. Versatile singer-guitarist Allison, later of Paul Revere and the Raiders, followed the single up with an In Action LP which also featured Boyce and Hart’s “I Wanna Be Free.”
In 1967, the hot A&M label signed Boyce and Hart as a performing team, and from their three A&M long-players comes the infectious title track of their second album. It was their biggest hit as performers: “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight.” As much as any of the tracks written for The Monkees, the song captured Boyce and Hart’s mastery of the pop song aimed at the teenage crowd but so elegantly constructed as to “have legs.” It opens this compilation with a burst of pure energy. Like all good things, though, Tommy and Bobby’s partnership came to an end in 1970, though both artists resurfaced apart and together, and remained friends until Boyce’s death by his own hand in 1994. With hits and rarities from Del Shannon, The Shangri-Las, Dino, Desi and Billy, Chubby Checker, Paul Revere and the Raiders and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Action! will transport you to some very groovy times, indeed. Mick Patrick and Harvey Williams supply the copious liner notes, with an essay and track-by-track annotation. Bring on Volume 2, please!
After the jump: there’s more action ahead with Don Covay and Otis Blackwell!
Boyce and Hart’s style might have been suitable for the cosmos, but Don Covay’s sound was much earthier. The writer of “Mercy, Mercy,” “Chain of Fools” and “Long Tall Shorty” didn’t have a high profile, but provided some of soul music’s most eminent performers with solid-gold songs. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler and Etta James are just a few of the beneficiaries of the Covay touch, and all are represented on Have Mercy! The Songs of Don Covay.
A protégé of Little Richard, Covay made his first big splash with “Pony Time” in 1961. Though Chubby Checker’s version stopped his own recording dead in its tracks, it went all the way to No. 1, beginning a pattern shared by many other performing songwriters in which Covay’s singing career stalled even as his songwriting soared. Based in New York’s Brill Building at its epoch, the South Carolina boy placed songs with The Shirelles and Gladys Knight and the Pips, recorded singles for Philadelphia’s Cameo-Parkway, and came to the attention of another patron, Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler. Covay recorded at Atlantic and saw his songs recorded by the label’s premier soul artists, and his own Top 40 hit “Mercy, Mercy” became a favorite of the young Rolling Stones, who included it on their Out of Our Heads album. In the 1970s, Covay would record for Mercury and Philadelphia International, and today he lives quietly in Maryland, hopefully basking in the glow of this long-overdue career overview.
Have Mercy! spans the period between 1961 and 1974 with 26 songs. The crème of Atlantic’s crop is heard here: the Queen of Soul on “Chain of Fools,” the Wicked Pickett on “Three Time Loser,” Solomon Burke on “You’re Good for Me,” Ben E. King on “Don’t Drive Me Away.” From the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion, Brook Benton is featured on the percolating “Shoes,” on which the dulcet tones of the “Rainy Night in Georgia” man are backed by the Dixie Flyers. Covay was adaptable to all genres, however. Wanda Jackson has a rave-up with “There’s a Party Going’ On” and Gene Vincent tears into “Big Fat Saturday Night” with brassy gusto. Teenage sensation Connie Francis sings the praises of “Mr. Twister” (while the Twist King himself, Chubby Checker, offers the chart-topping “Pony Time”) and chanteuse Lena Horne gets into the act with the very atypical “Love Bug.” Another ready-made dance tune, the sprightly “Kangaroo Hop,” is supplied by Dee (“Raindrops”) Clark, while The Rollers take the tempo down with the “Continental Walk.” Covay made it across the pond on numerous occasions, too, and Billy Fury’s “Letter Full of Tears” is just one fine example here. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers’ 1967 Parlophone single of “See Saw” is equally potent. And no Covay compilation would be complete without a song from Etta James, who recorded more of his songs than any other female artist. “I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got” is sultry soul from FAME Studios in 1968. Malcolm Baumgart and Mick Patrick’s notes complete this exhaustive package, and Jon Tiven provides an introduction, as well.
Unlike Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Don Covay, the third Songwriters Series subject has been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his substantial contributions to the form. Handy Man: The Otis Blackwell Songbook proves a deep and rich one. Blackwell (1931-2002), once recognized as “The Man Who Wrote the Hits for Elvis,” actually had a C.V. far more comprehensive than that, though his songs popularized by Presley would be among anybody’s top rank: “Don’t be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender.” Throw in “Fever” (Little Willie John and Peggy Lee), “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis) and “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones and James Taylor) and you have an inkling of Blackwell’s deserved place in the rock and roll pantheon.
Pop, rock and roll and soul superstars all dot the landscape of Handy Man. Blackwell was remarkably adaptive, tailoring his songs to the strengths of the intended artists. Charlie Gracie’s “Cool Baby” subtly echoes that singer’s then-recent hit “Butterfly,” and in fact, Blackwell wrote “Great Balls of Fire” (not included here) upon hearing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Jerry Lee Lewis, though, recorded more Blackwell songs than any singer other than Presley, and a unique one has been selected: his take on “Don’t Be Cruel,” penned by Otis but jointly credited to Presley. Johnny Restivo, an RCA teen-idol-in-the-making is heard with “The Shape I’m In” with a “Don’t Be Cruel”-esque arrangement and Presley-aping vocal. (Presley himself opens the set with “Make Me Know It.”) That latter title was co-written by Blackwell with Cathy Lee; he frequently collaborated with other songwriters, including Winfield Scott and Bobby Stevenson. His most enduring co-copyright, however, probably belongs to “Fever.” Otis, using the nom de plume of John Davenport, wrote the song with Eddie Cooley in 1956, and it became a signature tune for both Little Willie John and Peggy Lee. Ace has opted to use the 1962 version of the song overdubbed with strings, and it proves a treat. Another rarity is David Hill’s 45 of “All Shook Up,” with an offbeat Ray Ellis chart featuring boisterous backing vocals, tinkling piano and a wailing sax break! Similarly, an alternate take on Jimmy Jones’ famous “Handy Man” is provided by Del Shannon’s 1964 version, also a hit (No. 22 U.S.) for the “Runaway” man.
Many lesser-known songs appear from familiar artists, and some recur from the Don Covay collection (Solomon Burke, Ben E. King). Early in his career, Gene Pitney brought his nasal tone to Blackwell’s “I’ll Find You,” and it makes a welcome appearance along with Ben E. King’s “Brace Yourself.” The latter has the familiar Atlantic “uptown soul” sound arranged and conducted by Stan Applebaum, but as King’s debut, it didn’t make many waves. No worries for King, however; his very next single yielded Leiber, Stoller and Spector’s “Spanish Harlem,” and the rest is history! Cliff Richard and The Shadows introduced one of the few Blackwell songs not to premiere in America, 1958’s breakneck “Nine Times Out of Ten.”
The depth of Blackwell’s reach was proven by Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “For My Good Fortune.” The gospel legend isn’t usually associated with pop and soul, but her jovial, rollicking Columbia single led to a hit recording of the song by none other than Pat Boone! You’ll also hear tracks from country greats (Roy Clark’s “Please Mr. Mayor”) and jazz/big band giants (Sam Butera and the Witnesses’ “I Feel Good All Over”). At least one obscure Blackwell composition included here caught the ear of a couple of famous rock heroes upon its original release: Derek Martin’s “Daddy Rolling Stone,” written by Otis, became the flipside to The Who’s very first single! There’s plenty of hidden treasure to discover here, including Dee (“Raindrops”) Clark’s “Just Keep It Up (And See What Happens)” with its jaunty flute accompaniment and tight bass background harmonies.
When the ascendancy of the singer/songwriter stalled Blackwell’s career (like that of so many other now-legendary songwriters), he turned to recording and live performing. Indeed, this anthology’s songs date between 1956 and 1964, Blackwell’s halcyon days. Following a 1991 stroke, he saw himself celebrated on a tribute disc with contributions from a host of rock and soul’s true believers. Blackwell died in 2002. Tony Rounce provides a historical essay and the track-by-track notes here.
The styles of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Don Covay and Otis Blackwell may be very different from each other, but with all three compilations, it’s clear that, for disciples of the three-minute classic song format, Team Ace knows “where the action is,” to quote that famous Tommy Boyce/Steve Venet song. Oh baby, come on!
Various Artists, Action! The Songs of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (Ace CDTOP 1335, 2012)
- I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight – Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (A&M 893, 1967)
- Valleri – The Monkees (Colgems 1019, 1968)
- Action, Action, Action – Keith Allison (Columbia 43900, 1966)
- I’m Not Your Stepping Stone – The Flies (Decca F-12533, 1966)
- Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day – Sir Raleigh and the Cupons (Jerden 760, 1965)
- Words – The Regents (Penthouse 502, 1966)
- Last Train to Clarksville – The Standells (Tower LP 5049, 1966)
- (He’s Gonna Be) Fine, Fine, Fine – The Ikettes (Modern 1008, 1965)
- P.O. Box 9847 – The Monkees (Colgems LP CDS-109, 1968)
- She – Del Shannon (Liberty 55939, 1967)
- Come a Little Bit Closer – Jay and the Americans (UA 759, 1964)
- The Dum Dum Ditty – The Shangri-Las (Red Bird LP 20-104, 1965)
- I Can’t Get Him Out of My Mind – Sandra Gee (Cheltenham 1002, 1965)
- Hurt So Bad – Little Anthony & The Imperials (DCP 1128, 1965)
- Thank You For Loving Me – The Sapphires (ABC-Paramount 10590, 1964)
- If You’re Thinkin’ What I’m Thinkin’ – Dino, Desi & Billy (Reprise 0544, 1966)
- Seven Days in September – Ginger and the Snaps (MGM 13413, 1965)
- Never Again – The Royalettes (MGM 130405, 1965)
- I Gotta Find Cupid – Gary Lewis & The Playboys (Liberty LP LST-7428, 1965)
- Beverly Jean – Curtis Lee (Dunes 2008, 1965)
- Too Many Teardrops – Bobby Hart (Infinity 017, 1962)
- Be My Guest – Fats Domino (Imperial 5629, 1959)
- Lazy Elsie Molly – Chubby Checker (Parkway 920, 1964)
- Action – Paul Revere & The Raiders (Columbia LP CS-9251, 1966)
- (Theme from) The Monkees – The Monkees (Colgems LP CDS-101, 1966)
- Dicci Come Fini (Peaches ‘n’ Cream) – The Honeybeats (Record International SIR 20-025, 1966)
Various Artists, Have Mercy! The Songs of Don Covay (Ace CDTOP 1341, 2012)
- Three Time Loser – Wilson Pickett (Atlantic 2365, 1966)
- Chain of Fools – Aretha Franklin (Atlantic 2464, 1967)
- You’re Good for Me – Solomon Burke (Atlantic 2205, 1963)
- This Old Town (People in This Town) – The Staple Singers (Stax LP STS-3002, 1971)
- I Don’t Know What You’ve Got, But It’s Got Me – Little Richard (Vee-Jay 698, 1965)
- Long Tall Shorty – The Graham Bond Organization (Decca F-11909, 1964)
- There’s a Party Goin’ On – Wanda Jackson (Capitol LP ST-1511, 1961)
- Pony Time – Chubby Checker (Parkway 818, 1961)
- Mercy Mercy – The Wailers (Etiquette LP 026, 1965)
- Mr. Twister – Connie Francis (MGM LP SE-4022, 1962)
- Love Bug – Lena Horne (UA 50051, 1966)
- Don’t Drive Me Away – Ben E. King (Atco LP SD 33-174, 1965)
- Give – Mary Ann Fisher (Seg-Way 1007, 1961)
- Letter Full of Tears – Billy Fury (Decca F-11437, 1962)
- You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide) – Jerry Butler (Vee-Jay 463, 1962)
- Come See About Me – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Fury 1073, 1963)
- Shoes – Brook Benton with the Dixie Flyers (Cotillion 44093, 1970)
- Sookie Sookie – Tina Britt (Veep 1298, 1969)
- See Saw – Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers (Parlophone LP PCS-7017, 1967)
- Kangaroo Hop – Dee Clark (Falcon 1002, 1957)
- A Big Fat Saturday Night – Gene Vincent (Capitol LP ST-1342, 1960)
- Mon Cherie Au Revoir – Arlene Smith (End 1120, 1963)
- The Continental Walk – The Rollers (Liberty 55320, 1961)
- I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got – Etta James (Cadet 5594, 1968)
- She Said Yeah – Joe Tex (1970 Dial recording, issued 1988)
- Watch the One Who Brings You the News – Millie Jackson (Spring LP SPR-6701, 1974)
Various Artists, Handy Man: The Otis Blackwell Songbook (Ace CDCHD 1346, 2012)
- Make Me Know It – Elvis Presley (RCA LP LSP-2231, 1960)
- I Told Myself a Lie – Clyde McPhatter (MGM 12780, 1959)
- Don’t Be Cruel – Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun LP 1230, 1958)
- My Pigeon’s Gone – The Five Keys (Capitol 3455, 1956)
- Cool Baby – Charlie Gracie (Cameo 117, 1957)
- Fever (with string overdub) – Little Willie John (King 5591, 1962)
- Slow Motion – Wade Flemons (Vee-Jay 321, 1959)
- The Shape I’m In – Johnny Restivo (RCA Victor 47-7559, 1959)
- Priscilla – Eddie Cooley and the Dimples (Royal Roost 621, 1956)
- Brace Yourself – Ben E. King (Atco 6166, 1960)
- All Shook Up – David Hill (Aladdin 3359, 1957)
- Nine Times Out of Ten – Cliff Richard and the Shadows (Columbia U.K. DB-4506, 1958)
- I’ll Find You – Gene Pitney (Festival 25002, 1961 – rec. 1959)
- For My Good Fortune – Mahalia Jackson (Columbia 41258, 1958)
- Hey Little Girl – Thurston Harris (Aladdin 3238, 1959)
- Honky Tonky – The Queen (Dinah Washington) (Mercury 71389, 1958)
- Please, Mister Mayor – Roy Clark (Debbie 103, 1958)
- Just Keep It Up (And See What Happens) – Dee Clark (Abner 1026, 1959)
- Too Long Will Be Too Late – Jimmy Jones (MGM LP SE-3847, 1960)
- One Broken Heart For All (1962 Demo) – Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott (Bear Family BCD 15630, 1995)
- Daddy Rollin’ Stone – Derek Martin (Crackerjack 4013, 1963)
- I Feel Good All Over – Sam Butera and the Witnesses (Capitol 4862, 1962)
- Home is in Your Heart – Solomon Burke (Atlantic 2180, 1963)
- Handy Man – Del Shannon (Amy 905, 1964)