Ace's long-running Songwriters and Producers series has recently yielded two stellar entries celebrating two gentlemen equally versed in both crafts: Gary Usher and Bob Crewe. Part One of our Ace Round-Up today looks at Happy in Hollywood: The Productions of Gary Usher.
Gary Usher (1938-1992) would have gone down in pop history as one of his neighborhood pal Brian Wilson's earliest collaborators, penning lyrics for both a popular hot rod tune ("409") and one of Wilson's most introspective, personal statements ("In My Room"). But he was arguably even more influential as one of the producers who ushered pop into psychedelia (The Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, Chad and Jeremy's Of Cabbages and Kings and The Ark, Sagittarius' Present Tense) and country-rock (The Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo). Happy in Hollywood: The Productions of Gary Usher explores the quintessential Southern California producer's oeuvre through two dozen cuts, all but four of which are from his golden era in the 1960s.
The title track "Happy in Hollywood" is a production collaboration with another esteemed West Coast talent, the multi-hyphenate Curt Boettcher. The 1976 track written by David Batteau and credited simply to California - and part of Usher's California Music project - is a gentle, breezy ballad graced by Boettcher's lead vocals. Curt is also represented on "Just One More Chance" from the revived Hondells, their sound far-removed from that of the earlier band and here a true vehicle for Usher and Boettcher's beautifully dense, multi-layered arrangement and production. (An earlier Hondells single is also included: the 1966 Mercury release of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Show Me, Girl," boasting Usher and Glen Campbell on the prominent background vocals.) Usher's in-house role at Columbia Records also led to such strong records as Keith Allison's gutsy "Louise," The Spiral Starecase's brassy "Baby What I Mean," and Chad and Jeremy's Eastern-flavored "Sunstroke."
The Byrds' Gene Clark would be rightfully credited as a country-rock pioneer, but the Usher-helmed track "So You Say You Lost Your Baby" from his 1967 solo debut is pure pop, lushly arranged by Leon Russell. The future Master of Time and Space is also heard with his Wrecking Crew cohorts on "Shame Girl," a studio side by Usher and friend Raul Abeyta as The Neptunes. Gram Parsons' cosmic American music took country-rock to a new level; his brief time in The Byrds yielded the epochal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, sampled here via the band's laconic Usher-produced take on Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Usher would later help Northern California group The Wackers channel The Byrds' jangle-pop sound on the acoustic "Body Go Round" from 1971.
Happy in Hollywood successfully connects the dots between Usher's varied, eclectic work. There's, of course, plenty of harmony - whether David Crosby's multi-tracked vocals on Usher's ornate production of The Byrds' "Lady Friend," the dreamy baroque psychedelia of studio project Sagittarius' crowning glory "My World Fell Down," or the delightfully buoyant pop of The Forte Four's Decca side "I Don't Wanna Say Goodnight," a P.F. Sloan/Steve Barri tune that falls into the shoulda-been-a-hit category.
Among the oddities here is 11-year-old Keith Green's propulsive and appropriately groovy "A Go-Go Getter" and a pop(ish!) cover of Buffy St. Marie's "Cod'ine" by blink-and-you'll-miss-them band Sean and the Brandywines. The Sons of Adam (recently anthologized on the High Moon label) offer a taste of garage on the Usher-helmed "Take My Hand," and Illinois band The Guild is heard on a lesser-known Carole King/Toni Stern collaboration, the pleading "What Am I Gonna Do?" with a subtle Usher production and a fine blue-eyed soul vocal from vocalist Tom Kelly. Usher felt that the Barbara Robison-fronted Peanut Butter Conspiracy was an uneasy match for his production style, but he nonetheless gave his all to the uptempo, urgent folk-rocker "It's a Happening Thing."
If anyone was entitled to produce a Beach Boys pastiche, it was Usher, and he delivered with The Wheel Men's "School Is a Gas" (1964). Without emulating his old friends, he tapped into the same SoCal spirit on "Catch a Little Ride with Me" from The Surfaris (1965). Usher wasn't bad at aping The Righteous Brothers, either; the Decca single "I Wish You Didn't Treat Me So Well" by Chuck Girard and Joe Kelly of The Castells is delicious Wall of Sound bombast. The Castells' modernized update on Bob Gaudio's "An Angel Cried" is here, too, from Usher's pre-Columbia tenure at Decca.
While The Beach Boys themselves are absent from this set, compilers Kingsley Abbott and Harvey Williams have chosen to include Brian Wilson's 1987 solo debut single "Let's Go to Heaven in My Car." The soundtrack tune from Police Academy 4 isn't one of Wilson and Usher's most auspicious compositions but proved that Brian (then unfortunately in the clutches of Dr. Eugene Landy) could still be a viable force in popular music. Usher's detailed diaries would later help extricate Wilson from the therapist's control.
Happy in Hollywood includes a thick 24-page booklet with track-by-track notes from Abbott and Williams while Duncan Cowell has remastered the audio. You'll find the track listing and order links below.
- Lady Friend - The Byrds (Columbia 4-44230, 1967)
- My World Fell Down - Sagittarius (Columbia 4-44163, 1967)
- So You Say You Lost Your Baby - Gene Clark (Columbia 4-44088, 1967) (*)
- Just One More Chance - The Hondells (Columbia 4-44361, 1967)
- A Go-Go Getter - Keith Green (Decca 31799, 1965)
- Louise - Keith Allison (Columbia 4-44028, 1967) (*)
- School Is A/Gas - The Wheel Men (Warner Bros. 5480, 1964)
- Baby What I Mean - The Spiral Starecase (Columbia 4-44442, 1968) (*)
- Sunstroke - Chad and Jeremy (from The Ark, Columbia CS 9699, 1969) (*)
- I Wish You Didn't Treat Me So Well - Chuck and Joe (Decca 31871, 1965)
- Shame Girl - The Neptunes (Warner Bros. 5453, 1964)
- I Don't Wanna Say Goodnight - The Forte Four (Decca 32029, 1966)
- An Angel Cried - The Castells (Decca 31834, 1965)
- Catch a Little Ride with Me - The Surfaris (Decca 31835, 1965)
- Cod'ine -Sean and The Brandywines (Decca 31910, 1966)
- You Ain't Going Nowhere - The Byrds (Columbia 4-44499, 1968) (*)
- Body Go Round - The Wackers (Elektra EK-45758, 1971) (*)
- Take My Hand - The Sons of Adam (Decca 31887, 1965)
- Show Me Girl - The Hondells (Mercury 72626, 1966)
- What Am I Gonna Do - The Guild (Elektra EK-45823, 1972)
- Let's Go to Heaven In My Car - Brian Wilson (Sire 7-28350, 1987) (*)
- Shame, Shame - Keith Colley (Columbia 4-44410, 1967)
- It's a Happening Thing - The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (Columbia 4-43985, 1967) (*)
- Happy in Hollywood - California (Warner Bros./Curb WBS 8253, 1976) (*)
Mono except (*) Stereo