Stan “The Man” Lee

With the reported death of Stan Lee, acclaimed comic book creator, we’ve lost one of the most prolific writers of our lifetimes.  Rather than concentrate on the hopeless task of describing everything he created in his lifetime, I want to describe my first meeting with Stan.

I barely remember reading comics as early as 1954, but at that time I was simply pointing to pictures of Disney’s ducks and making up my own stories since I couldn’t actually read the words.  By the late fifties, I was finally reading the words and spent a lot of time with the reboot of the Silver Age by DC.  In the early sixties Marvel comics launched a line of monster comics, and on weeks where DC didn’t have too many comics I would throw down my dimes and nickels and pick up Strange Tales or Tales to Astonish and read stories about mankind outsmarting monsters that were intent on stomping their way through cities.

I usually got to go to Camp Townsend in upstate New York in the Summers.  In 1962 we stopped at a soda shop in Parksville and our Dad let us each pick out one comic book to buy and read on the way home.  I snatched a copy of Fantastic Four #1.  While I had been reading stories written by Stan Lee for years (mostly cowboy comics, but also a large number of the monster comics), this was the first true superhero comic from Marvel in the sixties.  After reading that comic I started paying closer attention to the comics from Marvel.  My attention became much more focused a monthly later: the fifteenth issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy changed its name to Amazing Fantasy and put Spider-Man on its cover.

Marvel comics quickly developed a unique relationship with their readers.  The writers, artists, and inkers were credited on the pages of the stories and a bullpen page was added that included information about events.  There was even a Merry Marvel Marching Society (which I joined, member #14784) that sent us stationery (I still have some) and a flimsy 45 rpm record and a membership button.  I even ordered the first Spider-Man poster direct from Marvel.  Jack Kirby kept putting pictures of himself and Stan in the comics, and a few times there were even photographs.

All the better to recognize them.

The sixties were a turbulent time, and while I would have preferred going to college at MIT or one of the other schools that excelled in Mathematics, my mother limited my choices to a handful of southern states.  I was not allowed to attend college with Northeast Intellectual Liberals (Mom was from Birmingham).  They had computer classes, so I ended up exiled to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  I stayed there in the summers In an effort to graduate as part of their three-year program. In the Summer of 1969, I was on a nearly deserted campus taking a few classes mostly with basketball and football players. While walking across campus from a classroom back to my dorm room I spotted a man sitting under a tree talking to three or four other students.

I instantly recognized Stan.

I went over and mumbled something about his name and Stan smiled and waved and invited me to sit down and talk with him.  Nashville had some sort of annual convention for cartoonists and Stan was there to hobnob with some of his friends, and for some reason was walking across campus when a few students recognized him.

For about two hours we peppered Stan with questions and listened to him tell us tales about the comic book industry and our heroes – for me the heroes were the writers and artists, but most of the questions were about the superheroes in the books.

For years a question about the early Hulk comics had bothered me, and one of the questions I asked Stan was pretty simple: whatever happened to the Secret Empire?  The early Marvel comics had featured a number of secret societies, including Aim and Hydra, and the Secret Empire had tangled with Hulk a few times and then just disappeared.  Stan’s response?  “Oh, right, I forgot about them.”  They eventually were retconned into yet another arm of Hydra and made life miserable for a few issues.

When the session was about to break up, Stan asked the four of us who were left to vote.  Marvel was thinking of reviving a fan club and was unsure about whether to resurrect the Merry Marvel Marching Society or create a new club called Friends of Ol’ Marvel.  By a vote of 3 to 1, we chose the new name, and Stan declared all of us to be charter members of the new club.  It was nearly four years later that FOOM was announced, but when I wrote in and reminded Marvel that Stan had named some of us charter members I got a package in the mail that included the membership package and a few other goodies.

What impressed me most about Stan was how friendly and personable he was to a collection of random college students.  He seemed to really enjoy talking with us and was clearly as big a fan of the comics as we were.  It took several decades and a few hit movies before everybody else found that out.

Over the years I ran autograph sessions for Stan a few times, got him to sign my copy of Fantastic Four #1 a few months after Jack signed it, sent him the Spider-Man poster because he didn’t have one, and got a thank you letter from him that is one of my prized possessions.  He even signed it with an Excelsior.

 

A Different List of Halloween Songs

If you look around online for a list of Halloween songs, the lists are almost exactly the same.  To save you the time of looking, here’s a sample list: Monster Mash, Thriller, I Put A Spell On You (various versions), Ghostbusters, Zombie (the Cranberries), Black Magic Woman, Superstition, Hungry Like the Wolf, Time Warp, and the themes from the Addams Family and the Munsters.

This is not that list.

Here’s an assortment of songs that almost none of the lists out there mention:

Lady Samantha by either Elton John or Three Dog Night.  The song was the first single Elton’s record company released in the US, coming out for the first time in 1969 and re-released a year later.  Nobody paid it much attention and it didn’t get on an album or CD for a decade or two.  Three Dog Night covered the song on their second album, but never released the song as a single.  It fits our Halloween theme thanks to the lyrics, “Her home is the hillside, her bed is the grave,” which makes the lady a ghost.

Angie Baby by Helen Reddy was a number one record in 1974, her second most successful single after I Am Woman.  It’s a story tune that relates the way a young woman with challenged intellect but mystical powers of some sort. She turns the tables on a despicable man who intended to take advantage of her.  The video I’ve linked in leads to a cartoon version of the song that comes complete with a possibly haunted house.

And while we’re doing cartoon videos, here’s one for Cher’s Dark Lady. This time we get a Dark Lady in New Orleans who casts spells of black magic…she picked the wrong victim when she goes after Cher!

All You Zombies by the Hooters makes the list just on the strength of its title.  The Hooters went on to have bigger hits with And We Danced and Day By Day, but their first single is still my favorite.

Ghost Riders in the Sky was released as a single by Burl Ives in 1948, but it was Vaughn Monroe who had the #1 hit with the song a year later.  The recording is considered one of the top ten Country and Western songs of all time.  Vaughn’s career ran from his first hit record in 1940 up to the middle of the fifties and included two dozen top ten records, so stop rolling your eyes and complaining that you’ve never heard of him.  Once again there’s an animated video for the record (just ignore the Spanish titles at the start).

Dinner With Drac was the sole hit single for John Zacherle, one of the best-known horror television show hosts (he predated Svengoolie and Elvira by a few decades, but trailed behind Vampira by a few years).  He hosted late-night horror films on local television stations in New York and Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties (and was even a regular on the Captain Kangaroo show in the eighties).  He had a record album with the hit single and wrote a few books as well.

Spooky by the Classics IV began as an instrumental by Mike Sharpe, but it didn’t become a hit until lyrics were added and sung by Dennis Yost later in 1967.  It was the first hit record for the group (a few failed singles came first) but was not their entire career – additional hits Stormy and Traces came along the next two years, after which their star faded.  The song was a minor hit about a decade later for the Atlanta Rhythm Section, a group that included two of the former members of the Classics IV.

The Witch Queen of New Orleans by Redbone came out after their first chart record (Maggie) made two runs on the charts, stopping at #80 in 1971 and #45 in 1972).  The song about Voodoo, zombies, and an immortal witch made it up to #21.  A few years later the Native American group scored their biggest hit record with the release of Come and Get Your Love, but that song simply doesn’t fit our holiday.

No list of Halloween themed songs would be complete without the inclusion of Laurie (Strange Things Happen) by Dickie Lee.  The song includes a ghost, a graveyard, spooky voices, and a twist ending – give it a listen if you don’t recognize the song.  Dickie had hits in 1962 and 1963 with Patches and I Saw Linda Yesterday, and Laurie was his last visit to the Top 40 in the US, but he spent most of the seventies successfully knocking hit records into the Country Charts (reaching that top 10 four times). I’ve linked in a video that does an amazing job of reflecting the lyrics with a series of pictures.

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/