Billy Vera and the Beaters

Here’s another chapter from my upcoming book, Hit Records That Needed To Be Released Twice.

A lot of really good music goes undiscovered and simply disappears.  Such was the fate of a record recorded by Billy Vera in 1981.

Billy Vera spent decades working in the music industry.  He wrote a song that was recorded by Ricky Nelson in 1965, reached the Hot 100 with his own solo record in 1967 and with a duet with Judy Clay in 1968, and wrote a song that Dolly Parton covered and took to #1 on the Country charts in 1979.

His biggest success resulted from a song he recorded with the group the Beaters in 1981.  The group he put together recorded an entire album during several days of performances at the Roxy in Hollywood.  Alfa Records, a small record label based in Japan, released the album and promoted it by releasing the single I Can Take Care of Myself.  The single made it up to number 39 on the Billboard charts, which was enough of a success for the label to release their second single, At This Moment.

This second live recording climbed all the way up to #79 and then sadly vanished without a trace.  The record label collapsed shortly after that, leaving the band playing in clubs but not touring.  Billy also successfully started an acting career, appearing in numerous television shows beginning in 1984 as well as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

A telephone call in 1985 brought his musical career back to life.  The television show Family Ties wanted to use At This Moment in an episode that featured the relationship between Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) and Ellen Reed (Tracy Pollan).  The episode aired in 1986, and television fan reaction to the song was immediate.  Radio stations were inundated with request for the song, and that quickly led to a reissue of the single in November 1986, this time on Rhino Records.  Within a few weeks, the record hit number 1, easily selling over a million copies.

Getting back on the charts was not in the cards.  About a year later the record Between Like and Love made the top ten on the Adult Contemporary charts, but it didn’t even make the Hot 100 at all.  Billy has continued to make a living in the music business, but not by recording hit records himself.

Billy’s biography can be found on his official website at http://billyvera.com/billy-vera-bio/

John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band

Here’s another chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

It isn’t just records that sometimes need more than one swing at success, sometimes films do as well.

Eddie and the Cruisers was released to movie theaters in September 1983 but left theaters after only three weeks.  The film was about a rock band in the early 1960s that produced music ahead of their time and fell apart after the apparent death of their lead singer.  The original idea was to create a band similar to Dion and the Belmonts, and a member of Jay and the Americans helped by supplying pictures and stories about his band’s early days.  The lead singer played by Michael Pare changed the band so that it began to resemble the Doors, and the music that was produced for the movie sounded more like Bruce Springsteen than anything on the radio in the early sixties.

John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band had released several almost successful records before being signed up to produce music for the movie.  In conjunction with the release of the film, the single On the Dark Side was released and credited to Eddie and the Cruisers.  Before the film left theaters, the single did well enough to reach #64 on the charts, but after the movie was gone the momentum for the record faded as well.

The next year the movie moved to cable and was a surprise hit on HBO as well as home video.  Viewer interest in the music led to the rerelease of the single, this time credited to the actual band, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.  Thanks to the success of the film, the record did much better the second time around, reaching #7 in the Fall of 1984.  We’re lucky enough to be left with two videos for the single: the clip from the movie as well as a video by the actual band.  If the saxophone player looks similar, it’s because he was cast in the film after they met him!

A sequel to the film was made, but few people seem to have anything nice to say about it.

The band’s homepage is at http://johncafferty.com/.

Sonny and Cher

Here’s another chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

The name Caeser and Cleo sounds like a bad movie that ends with an asp, but it was actually the name that Sonny and Cher used when they first started making records for Reprise.  They recorded several songs for the label, and a decision was made to release their remake of an old song by Mickey and Sylvia (Love Is Strange) in September 1964.  Before the record was actually released, Sonny and Cher signed a new contract with Reprise using their own names and recorded the song Baby, Don’t Go.  Details about the release of the two singles are sketchy, but the releases appear to have been almost simultaneous.  Neither record had any success.

After those multiple failures, Sonny and Cher moved to the Atco label and started recording there, producing their career song I Got You, Babe.  That jumped all the way up to #1 in July 1965.

Sonny and Cher had what can only be described as a unique look at the start, and Sonny’s long hair and unusual clothing no doubt led to confrontations with people who resisted change in the sixties.  As a result, he wrote and recorded a solo protest record, Laugh At Me, that was their next single on the charts.  Sonny’s protest may have been the first song with that theme that made the charts, but the topic was revisited in the future by such diverse acts as the Charlie Daniels Band (Uneasy Rider) and Bob Seeger (Turn the Page).

Atco also released Sonny and Cher’s follow up single, Just You, but that didn’t fare as well as either Sonny’s solo release or their surprise hit: Reprise rereleased Baby, Don’t Go and it hit the charts the same day that Laugh at Me did.   It made it into the top ten, peaking at #8 in September, pretty good results for a record that everybody had ignored.  Reissue of their other songs from the Ceaser and Cleo didn’t fare as well, but they did have a string of chart hits going forward.  No doubt having their own television show off and on from 1971 to 1977 helped a bit, and Cher still continues to produce new records.

Cream’s Breakthrough in the US

Here’s another chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

There was a brief moment when Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page crossed paths in a group named the Yardbirds.  Clapton tagged Page as a replacement when he left the group in 1965, and Page brought along Beck.  After more than a few lineup changes, there was nobody left but Page, and he changed the group’s name to Led Zepplin.  Clapton played with John Mayall and the Blues Brothers for about a year, and then teamed up with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce to form Cream.

After touring for much of their first year, Cream released their first album in December 1966.  Two singles that came out in 1967 at least hit the charts in the UK, but I Feel Free reaching #116 was the best they could manage in the US.  Their second album (Disraeli Gears) had its release delayed for months so the record company could completely redesign the album cover; it finally reached stores in November 1967.  The first single from the album was Strange Brew, which performed even more poorly than I Feel Free.  The second single from the album was Sunshine of Your Love, which was released in January 1968.  It managed to crack the top 40 in the US, but after 14 weeks on the charts, it never got any higher than #36.

Sunshine of Your Love managed to reenter the singles charts in July, and that time the record pushed all the way to #5.  Several things seem to have had an impact on the second run.

The group’s third album (Wheels of Fire) was released in July 1968 and was a double album set.  The first album was studio recordings, while the second album was the much more exciting live recordings from live performances at the Filmore in the early Spring.  This album garnered a lot more critical acclaim and proved much more popular than their first two albums, easily topping the US album charts.  This exposure no doubt brought more attention to the group’s earlier releases.

A second factor was the actual single.  While the release in January was edited down to a little more than three minutes, the single in the Summer was the full four-minute cut from the album.

Finally, the single’s performance probably got significant help from an appearance on the Smothers Brothers in May where they did a live version of the song that lasted nearly five minutes.  The first thing I noticed in the video is Eric singing lead on parts of the verses (usually Jack sang lead for everything and Eric merely added occasional harmonies).  I found it annoying that when the song reaches the guitar solo in the middle, we are forced to watch Ginger Baker instead of Clapton playing his guitar, but several comments indicate that it was not unusual for guitar players from that time to try and keep their techniques hidden from other guitarists.  Mostly, however, you cannot miss how impressive the three musicians are…and you can’t help but wish that Cream hadn’t burned out and perished as quickly as they did.

The Beatles Fail, Fail Again

Here’s a chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

When we hear a great new record, we like to think that the artist recording the song just finished up in the studio and the record is so exciting that the artist is an instant, overnight success.

I don’t think that even happens in movies.  Most artists probably struggle for years without any success, and those that do find themselves on the radio probably just got lucky.  There are only a handful of important artists that have a lasting impact on popular music, and the most notable group is undoubtedly the Beatles.  Sure, the group spent years playing in clubs in England and Hamburg and was turned down by almost every record company before they got a recording deal, but everybody remembers how they hit the charts with a seemingly endless stream of hit records at the start of 1964 and overnight success.

Except that’s not how it happened.

While in Hamburg, one or more of the Beatles were used as the backup musicians for Tony Sheridan and were also allowed to record a few songs by themselves.  In June 1961 the song My Bonnie was recorded and eventually released as a single credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.  In April 1962, the record was released in the US but had little to no impact.

The Beatles started recording their own music in 1962 for EMI and had moderate success at first, but in February 1963, they reached number one on the British charts with Please, Please Me and Beatlemania began to take hold.  In England.

Sure, British recordings had already hit number in the US in 1962, but they were both instrumentals (Stranger on the Shore by Mister Acker Bilk and Telstar by the Tornados).  Neither group was able to follow those hits up with anything substantial, and there was a belief at Capitol Records that British groups were not fated to be popular in the US.  So instead of releasing Beatle records in the US, Capitol licensed several of the Beatle recordings to other, smaller record labels.

Vee Jay Records was a Chicago-based company that had found success with the Four Seasons, and they picked up several Beatles records.  Single releases started in February 1963 with Please, Please Me which simple got no traction – the best it did was reach #116 in August.  This was followed by From Me To You in May, which also climbed all the way up to #116.

She Loves You was released on Swan Records in September, but it failed to even reach the Billboard charts at all.  Dick Clark presented the record to the American Bandstand viewers as part of the Rate A Record feature of the show, but the two clueless teenagers gave the unfortunate record a rating of only 71.  The Beatles’ career in the US seemed almost over already.

Fortunately for all of us, disc jockeys succeeded where record labels had failed.  Several stations around the US obtained copies of British singles or their first album and began playing them on the air.  Virtually everywhere they got airplay, the Beatles were increasingly popular with listeners.  Instead of responding to increasing demand for the tunes, Capitol Records actually threatened to sue stations if they did not stop playing records that were not released for US consumers.  In December somebody at Capitol with a clue finally figured out that perhaps British musicians might have a future in the US.  I Want To Hold Your Hand was released on the Captial label the day after Christmas and hit number one on the US charts on January 18, 1964.

Suddenly all the record companies that had rights to anything by the Beatles were rereleasing records, and everything that was released was suddenly selling well.  On April 4, 1964, the top five records in Billboard’s Hot 100 were all by the Beatles, including three failed singles from 1963.

While Drake may have landed seven records in the Top Ten in 2018, they were all from the same album that had just been released; we may see something similar again in the future, but it is very unlikely that multiple failed records from multiple companies will ever dominate the top five the way the Beatles did.

Here the Beatles are performing Please, Please Me live, with some impressive lead guitar by George.

A great deal of  information about the early Beatles career in the US can be found at http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/beatles-in-america-1963-1964/

Alas, Poor Harlan…

Harlan Ellison has died. Harlan was an extremely prolific writer over his lifetime and was active in science fiction fandom in the fifties before evolving into a full-time writer.
 
A glance at any of the stories popping up about Harlan will reveal how widespread his writing truly was: comic books, science fiction, fantasy, television scripts, movie scripts, essays about television, and perhaps a lot more we don’t know about.
 
While he might have been the master of short fiction and essays, Harlan never really produced the science fiction novel we all hoped for. He produced three non-genre novellas in the last fifties, but after that, we simply got the short material that was continually collected into books.
 
Harlan was our guest of honor at Kubla Khan in Nashville in 1977. During his rambling guest of honor speech, his topics included his promise that he had an idea for a novel that would be a national bestseller rather than just a book stuck in the science fiction ghetto. Reading between the lines, it appeared that the novel would be about a man in his thirties who has succeeded and finds that he has run out of momentum in his life – he feels lost and has no idea about what to do next. During the question and answer period, one fearless fan raised his hand and asked Harlan what the novel would be about. Harlan’s answer?
 
“Right, as if I’m going to tell you my idea for a bestselling novel.”
I really wish he had at least left us a note about the unwritten novel.
Harlan received a large number of well-deserved awards for his work, including Hugo awards from science fiction fans, Nebula awards from science fiction and fantasy writers, and Edgar awards for mysteries.  He also wrote two notable scripts for the Outer Limits television series: Demon With A Glass Hand, which won numerous awards, and Soldier, an episode that has striking similarities to Terminator.

The sheer volume of Harlan’s writing no doubt has influenced countless people, but perhaps his biggest impact came as an editor.  At a pivotal moment when traditional Science Fiction was challenged by the New Wave writers who seemed more concerned with literary accomplishments than the hard science stories of the past, Harlan was the editor who created Dangerous Visions.  That 1967 collection of short stories was a line in the sand that serves as a clear delineation of the New Wave through the utilization of storylines and topics that were previously considered off-limits.  Again, Dangerous Visions was a second, larger book that followed in 1972 and pushed the limits of SF stories even further away from the past.  A third volume, Last Dangerous Visions, was announced but never released.  Over 150 stories were possibly accepted for the last multi-volume set; many of the stories were later published elsewhere, and many of the authors have died without seeing either publication or being returned.  At dinner with Harlan at a DragonCon in the nineties, I casually misreferred to the volumes as the Lost Dangerous Visions; Harlan was not amused, but dinner continued (whew!)

If you’re interested in more details about Harlan’s work, you can start on Harlan’s own website.  A brief overview of his bibliography is there, and that page also links back to a lot more details on the other pages of his website.
I’ve had few heroes in my life; Harlan was one of them, and he will be missed.