“Bob Crewe’s lyrics have meant so much–to so many–for so long; it is hard to imagine they will ever be forgotten. Bob had a way about him in life as he did in the studio, a charismatic personality, an ability to draw the best out of everyone and a limitless joy of music, art and life…We will never forget Bob Crewe.” So spoke Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio upon the passing last year of Bob Crewe at the age of 83. A veteran songwriter, producer and entrepreneur, Crewe’s vibrant, thrilling music famously graced records by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons – earning him the honorary title of Fifth Season – as well as by Labelle, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Barry Manilow, Lesley Gore, Bobby Darin, and Michael Jackson. But his own records have long been overlooked in the compact disc era – until now. Next Tuesday, March 10, Second Disc Records – our new label in conjunction with Real Gone Music – launches with a pair of titles including Bob Crewe’s The Complete Elektra Recordings.
In case you missed it the first time around, this 2-CD set chronicles Bob Crewe’s tenure at Elektra Records as both a solo artist and leader of the reactivated Bob Crewe Generation. The Complete Elektra Recordings includes two albums never before on CD in the U.S. and much more:
- The Bob Crewe Generation’s Street Talk, the 1976 concept album to Crewe’s Broadway-aimed “disco-rock ballet,” featuring an orchestra of almost 40 and a cast of 19 singers including Crewe himself;
- Bob Crewe’s Motivation (1977), a heartfelt singer-songwriter album inspired by Carole King’s Tapestry and produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, featuring “Marriage Made in Heaven” and “It Took a Long Time (For the First Time in My Life)”;
- Nine never-before-on-CD bonus tracks including rare mono and stereo single versions and 12-inch mixes; and
- My all-new liner notes detailing the stories behind both of these rare albums!
The story behind Street Talk, in particular, is one that has rarely been told. Crewe, ever the trendsetter, would have been one of the first to bring the disco sound to Broadway with his ambitious plans to produce the album on the Great White Way. Disco fit Crewe as comfortably as had doo-wop, pop, lounge and rock and roll; he wrote or produced hits in the style from an array of artists including Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes, The Eleventh Hour, Frankie Valli and of course, Labelle (“Lady Marmalade”).
The concept of Street Talk first came to light at 20th Century Records where Crewe had helmed “Hollywood Hot” (from the album of the same name) for The Eleventh Hour. The song entered the Hot 100 in August 1975, spending 15 weeks there. It also had the distinction of being released on one of the earliest 12-inch singles for the growing disco market. In early 1976, he reactivated The Bob Crewe Generation (“Music to Watch Girls By”) as B.C.G. for The Eleventh Hour’s home of 20th Century Records. B.C.G. issued the pulsating, rhythmic “Street Talk” in numerous variations on 45, but the No. 56 hit single was just a taste of things to come. Crewe took the song to Elektra, the domain of his friend and mentor Jerry Wexler, and it became the centerpiece of the autumn 1976 LP release of Street Talk.
Crewe conceived the record to preview a “Broadway-bound disco-rock ballet,” he told audiences at The Second International Disco Forum that fall. He sat alongside contemporaries Van McCoy, Norman Harris and Freddie Perren on the panel moderated by Salsoul Records’ Ken Cayre, and connected the dots of his own career: “Records like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels got people up and dancing,” he pointed out. Crewe was always an enthusiast of theatre and the arts, and had seen the potential in musical theatre. He had supported the maverick record producer Ben Bagley years earlier, distributing Bagley’s tributes to Alan Jay Lerner, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz via his own Crewe Records label.
Recorded in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, Street Talk was an ambitious, surprisingly risqué concept album built around the story of “Cherry Boy,” who “blew into town outta Nowhere, Nebraska,” only to learn that, in Hollywood, “your ass is yer ticket to paradise…you better be willing to pay the price!” The song suite of shimmering orchestral disco was divided into two acts (one per side) in the manner of a theatrical presentation “produced and directed” by lyricist Crewe. Music was composed primarily by Crewe and Trevor Veitch, though Cindy Bullens co-wrote the title track and another song, “Ah, Men,” with the producer-director. “Father of the disco mix” Tom Moulton brought his innovative mixing skills to six of the eight tracks, working with Jay Mark and Tony Bongiovi. Veteran Broadway orchestrator and longtime Crewe associate Ralph Burns (Sweet Charity, Chicago) provided the string arrangements.
Act One (represented on Side One of the LP) wastes no time in plunging young Cherry (“they all wanna ball him…a babe in the sack”) headfirst into the seamy underbelly of Hollywood via the Mirayes-sung introduction “Cherry Boy” (“Got ’em mesmerized, all the girls and guys!”) and then, a “Ménage a Trois” with Crewe’s trademark French lyrics (“Voulez-vous dansez ce soir?”). The act concludes with the soaring, side-closing orchestral disco explosion of “Street Talk,” featuring John Thomas’ trumpet solo. With lyrics consisting solely of “Downtown, uptown, all around baby, street talk,” it’s conceivable that this high-energy, club-ready Act One finale could have been the ballet production number imagined by Crewe.
The funky Act Two/Side Two opener “Back Alley Boogie” (“Get down! ‘Cha dig it?”) cedes to Crewe’s vocal on “Welcome to My Life,” a smooth yet hedonistic R&B entreaty to “come on over” laden with double-entendre. “I came as fast as I could come,” the background singers coo sweetly in response. Onetime Motown producer Crewe channels a bit of “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” in the introduction to the “Free” medley in which he takes on the role of Cherry Boy, breaking away from the misleading glitz and glamour of Tinseltown and asserting his own identity: “Thank God I’m glad I am who I was born to be!” The over-the-top, punning “Ah Men!” is another lusty, gleaming invitation to the dancefloor, but true love wins out in Crewe’s Hollywood. He sings the closing track, the soft pop ballad “Time for You and Me.”
Despite the warm reception accorded the lavish record production – Billboard praised the album’s “exuberant, lyrically uninhibited” songs – Street Talk failed to connect with the public, and Crewe apparently scuttled plans for a 1977 Broadway debut. Had Crewe been able to attract a librettist to flesh out the sketchy story and a visionary director-choreographer to stage it, he might have been able to successfully tap into the zeitgeist of the era. At the time, Broadway was generally reluctant to acknowledge disco, though elements of the sound and style were evident in hit productions such as The Wiz, Evita, and They’re Playing Our Song, and even in revivals of Guys and Dolls and Kismet, the latter reinvented as Timbuktu!. On record, disco tributes to musicals, such as The Salsoul Orchestra’s Up the Yellow Brick Road, were even more commonplace!
A March 3, 1979 article in Billboard promised “4 Broadway Musicals Resort to Disco Theme,” but only one of the four mentioned in Irv Lichtman’s article actually made it to the Great White Way: 1979’s woeful, nine-performance flop Got Tu Go Disco. (For the record, the other three were called Discotheque, Phantom of the Disco, and Holy Moses and the Top 10.) Decades later, disco would prominently be heard on Broadway in movies-turned-musicals such as Saturday Night Fever, Sister Act, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, appealing to nostalgically-minded audiences.
Bob Crewe finally made it to Broadway in 2005 – not only as lyricist of Four Seasons bio-musical Jersey Boys, but as a character in the show. It’s still packing houses at the August Wilson Theatre eight times a week, and has yielded touring and international companies as well as a movie version directed by Clint Eastwood. Now, Cherry Boy and the other Hollywood denizens of Crewe’s Street Talk can finally get their day in the sun with Second Disc Records and Real Gone Music’s American premiere CD release as part of The Complete Elektra Recordings.