Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Lil' Hospital: An interview and retrospective


The Lil' Hospital was so good. 

I'm an unabashed lover of twee pop, and the Lil' Hospital delivered the goods. Adorable, naive, catchy, and obscure, Lil' Hospital embodied all of the best qualities of twee pop. 

I met the guy behind Lil' Hospital, Kevin Alvir, at NYC Popfest in 2009 when he performed with his subsequent band, Knight School. Knight School was noisy, but Lil' Hospital was cute. I remember telling Kevin that Knight School should mix its vocals louder, like he did with the Lil' Hospital records. I like it when the vocals are way out in front. 




That's Kevin in the middle of the photo above. 

Kevin also started a band called the Hairs with Alex Naidus from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The Hairs have outlasted Knight School, but Naidus isn't in the group anymore. 

At first, the Hairs were noisy like Knight School, but then something wonderful started to happen: every once in a while, the Hairs would sound just like Lil' HospitalLike on their 2013 EP The Magic's Gone. A couple of those songs sound just like Lil' Hospital. 

Mmm.... Lil' Hospital. 

A short history of the "band": 

Kevin is from Virginia, like GWAR, and moved around from Fairfax to Arlington to Philadelphia to New York, but Lil' Hospital was associated with the DC pop scene. Now he's in Brooklyn. 

Active from 2000-2008, Lil' Hospital released three albums and three EPs, beginning with the self-released, home-recorded cassette Meet the Lil' Hospital. The band name was a reference to the Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers song "Hospital." 

I asked Kevin to relive his Lil' Hospital glory days with Music Weird, and he generously obliged. Here's the interview, from February 25, 2014. 


Is my Lil' Hospital discography (below) missing any compilations or other releases? 

I think that pretty much covers the Lil' Hospital discography. I think there have been some compilations that I was on that I cannot remember now.


How did you get the earliest Lil' Hospital recordings out there? Did you send demos to Popgun? Did you advertise or do mail-order for your self-released cassette? Did labels come to you or did you go to them?

The earliest Lil' Hospital recording is Meet the Lil' Hospital. I used to make tapes from my four-track cassette recorder to a tape deck. I would take that tape with the collection of songs and just run copies of it. Then I would make individual packaging for it and send
it around to people. Mainly friends in college, who I don't know if they really dug those twee jams. I was half ashamed, half pompous about it.

I went to the Athens Popfest of 2000, when that was the big thing. I met a lot of likeminded people that I'm sort of in touch with still. One of them was Chris Adolf of Bad Weather California and the Love Letter Band. He encouraged me to send my tape out to get released.

Raoul de la Cruz of Popgun Recordings responded when I sent him a demo. He really loved the songs but didn't like my production style. He told me to take off all the reverb. The songs were super slow and echoey like Galaxie 500. So I sent him a four-song EP, recorded with no reverb, called Me & My Beatbox. Which was a bit more rambunctious. And it came out on September 11, 2001.

As far as advertising, I would leave messages on message boards to come see about the Lil' Hospital. I would just send tapes to people in bands that I liked. Thankfully, they would give it a listen and I've been in touch with them for a long time too. But I never had a label
approach me for Lil' Hospital. That was just me emailing labels if they would put out something by me. I was just motivated to have albums and such. I am surprised that a lot of them were so accepting and I didn't have to beg.


The band was just you in the early days. When did you first perform as Lil' Hospital, and when did you put a band together for it? How many times did Lil' Hospital perform live? 


I first performed as the Lil' Hospital during the winter of 2001 or 2002? I asked this friend named Dan if the Lil' Hospital could perform in his basement. And we kinda made a party for it. I had performed in high school doing open mics. But this was the first time I had something to stand behind and a tape to sell—that Me & My Beatbox tape. So I felt kinda legit. It was just me and my friend Niko on drums. On recordings I played with a Casio keyboard preset drum machine.

Gradually, we got our friend Lynne to play bass. She didn't really know how to play bass, so we kinda taught her. Then again, I didn't know how to play bass myself. Then I just kept adding people and sometimes people left. By the end of the Lil' Hospital, I was living in New York and I was playing with Mat and Frank of the band called Shumai. And then the Lil' Hospital kinda crumbled.

The Lil' Hospital played a ton I remember. I was from the Washington DC area and I was surprised we got to play so often. We were one of three bands at the time that was kinda poppy and fun. I think I counted the amount of shows a few years ago—I think we played over 100 shows? Some of them I did solo. There was a summer tour I did in 2002. I played, like, five shows across America. All of them were solo and in a different time zone. No one knew of me—and how could they? The internet was not what it is now. But I was excited that I could do it and that I actually did do it.


Lil' Hospital doesn't really sound like anyone else. Did you see yourself as being like any other bands?

Wow. That's a really nice compliment. On one hand, I was really influenced by certain bands at the time. I loved Of Montreal, Television Personalities, and the Aislers Set. I think I set out to sound a lot like them. But at the same time, if it sounded too much like any particular band, I would scrap it. I would hear the playback and just think, "Who the fuck is this poser?" I just tried to sound like myself, and I suppose that is hard to do. I think I might've tried to bend backwards, style-wise, in order to get the Elephant 6 crowd or the more twee-pop crowd or the indie-rock crowd. But overall, I just had to do what seemed right at the moment.

As for being like any other band, I wanted to have a style that was like that of Dan Treacy from Television Personalities or Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal. They had a certain voice. But I didn't want to do all the things that they did. I mean, the Lucksmiths were a super-popular indiepop band to be akin with, but at the same time, I knew I wasn't them either. I don't know if I can clearly answer this. It's like I wanted to be liked as much as other popular bands, but I couldn't live with myself doing something that seemed out of my own character
or capabilities.


What was the greatest or most surprising success that Lil' Hospital achieved?

Honestly, doing this interview feels like a great achievement. The Lil' Hospital has been dead for quite some time now. I always thought it went unheard, and it was really loved by a few twee pop fans out there around the world. I think the first time I was interviewed by the Washington DC Washington City Paper, I felt "achievement." But that went away. Ha!

I think opening for the Lucksmiths was cool. I think about the times that we played with other bands or for other people, and the mix of people really getting it versus the people that were like, "Uhhh.....well.....you guys seemed like you were having fun."

I don't know—I think I'm glad that the Lil' Hospital lasted as long as it did and that
people remember it. Oh, I also got a crushing review of Heavy Metal by some website. It was like, "This guy can't sing, can't write songs, and can't play instruments, so why does he even exist?" That bummed me out, but I just wanted to still do it. So I'm glad that I survived
that.


The video for "Big Sister in Hollywood" is a pretty lavish production. How did that come about?

"Big Sister in Hollywood" was filmed in a day or two in Philadelphia. My friend Jayme of Snow Fairies, et cetera, put together a DVD compilation of indiepop bands that would most likely not have a music video. That was called No Parachute. He set me up with his friend Rich Wexler. We discussed the idea over the phone and I agreed to everything. It was fun. I can't watch it, really. But it was a fun song and a fun video to make.


I love the recent Hairs EP The Magic's Gone because the title track sounds just like Lil' Hospital. A lot of your recent stuff with Knight School and the Hairs has been noisy, though. Have you lost your softness and innocence and become cynical and angry?

Have I lost my innocence? I suppose so. I think once you get to The Universe Sucks, which was at the end of the Lil' Hospital arc, I started going to therapy. I started realizing some things. I mean, I have some embarrassment in thinking about the Lil' Hospital now because I was a lot younger and naive. Sometimes I hear it and I think about how I was this closet-case gay guy that was terrified of himself and everyone else. I came from a pretty conservative town and family. I didn't think there was much hope for me to be accepted. So I just lost myself in music. I have come to terms with a lot of things and I think that's what I hear in doing the Hairs or Knight School. I think I still have my poppy side. But I think I've been trying to merge that with the actual person that I am. Before I got into making music, I mainly listened to Sonic Youth.


The "Big Sister in Hollywood" video:




Discography


Meet the Lil' Hospital (Self-released, 2000; Rub-a-Dub Tape Club, 2004)
  • Pet Rock / Muscles / Wish You Would / Grow to Be / Local Heroes / Gone Gone Gone / Namby Pamby / Hello America



Me & My Beatbox EP (Popgun, 2001)
  • Always Buggin' / Pet Rock / In Your Room / Nambly Pambly



Pretty Kissin' (Popgun Recordings, 2003)
  • Pretty Kissin' / London 1-2-3-4 / Young and Restless




I Wanna Be Well (Best Friends Records, 2003)
  • Busybee / Summer Reading / Kampus & Katy / Muscles / Oh My Days / Pretty Kissin' / Don't Cry No Tears / It's a Mad, Mad World / Hugless / Casios Know / There Could Be Girlfriend



Hey! Where'd the Summer Go? (Humblebee HBR003, 2004)
  • Various artists. Includes Lil' Hospital's "Pretty Kissin'"



Total Gaylord Records Presents Cwistmas Twee (Total Gaylord, 2004)
  • Various artists. Includes Lil' Hospital's "Dear Scrooge" 




Heavy Metal (Total Gaylord, 2006)
  • Heavy Metal / Why, Why, Why (The Means) / Big Sister in Hollywood / Hey Crow / The Floods / I'm a Little Hospital / His Magic Guitar / Lost the Night / Office Rock / Henry Linquist / With the Wolves / Fast Learners




The Universe Sucks (Hugpatch, 2008)
  • Universe / Nothing Like a Car Crash // Kip Is a Dick / A Bug's Life / The T-Rex




Saturday, February 22, 2014

Music Weird interviews Merv Benton, early Australian rock 'n' roller

For eight years I hosted a thematic oldies radio show called Rhythm Ranch, on which I played mostly '50s and early '60s pop, rock, country, rockabilly, and R&B. Occasionally I interviewed artists, but I never otherwise published the interviews or did anything with them. Whenever I find time to transcribe them, I'll post some of them on Music Weird. Here's my interview with early Australian rock 'n' roller Merv Benton. 



Merv Benton


As rock 'n' roll spread around the world, early Australian rockers like Johnny O'Keefe, Johnny Chester, Col Joye, and New Zealander Johnny Devlin led the charge in their part of the world. Some of their records were even released in the US in the early '60s. None of them was very successful here, but if they had been, the US could have had an Australian Invasion before the British Invasion! 

Merv Benton was one of Melbourne's entries into the rock 'n' roll sweeps, and he charted several regional and national hits in Australia in the early-to-mid '60s. His single "Yield Not to Temptation" was released in the United States on Marvel Records in 1965. 





After Benton semi-retired from music, his career took him to Arizona, which is where he lived when I talked to him on February 2, 2003. 


In Australia, '50s-style rock 'n' roll seemed to live on into the '60s longer than it did in the US and England. 

It still does, actually. There's a really hardcore audience over there for early rock 'n' roll, and they're all purists. If you go over there and fool around with one of the songs, and you rearrange it or something, they don't like it. They like it in its original form. 


You were there when rock 'n' roll came to Australia.  

The first real thing that grabbed me was Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." Even to this day, I don't believe that there has been another record that turned the music industry around as much as "Heartbreak Hotel" did. It was just such a diversion from the music at the time. And with Presley, the guy just exuded something onstage. You only have to hear his voice and you know it's Presley. There aren't many people around who can say that. He was unique. 

Anyway, when "Heartbreak Hotel" came out, it was like night and day, as far as I was concerned. I remember when they first released "Heartbreak Hotel," a lot of the radio stations in Australia hesitated a little bit because they thought that he was black. You know, those early recordings of Presley's—a lot of it was early black music. 

So then, all the Presley hits were coming out, and rock 'n' roll became the thing. Everyone was walking around with blue suede shoes with crepe soles, the peg pants with the 16-inch bottoms, the Canadian jackets and white t-shirts. And at that stage, of course, I couldn't grow sideboards, but if I could've, I would've! 

I saw one of the first shows that came to Australia, which was Haley, the Platters and Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. Freddie Bell & the Bellboys sang this song, "Giddy Up a Ding Dong," and they just whipped that crowd over in Australia into a frenzy, and I was there. I think I was about 14 at the time. It just blew my brain, and I thought, "That's what I want to do." 


How did you get started? 

I did a talent quest one night. A guy called Graham Howie, a keyboard player, had been trying to get me to sing for ages. In those days, I was very shy and really didn't fancy the idea of getting up in front of an audience. Anyway, one night at this talent quest at the Canterbury Ballroom, unbeknownst to me, they put my name down to sing a song. Then they called my name. 

I made a beeline to the back door, but they already knew that I would do that, so they had two people waiting there for me and wouldn't let me out, so they took me up on stage. The first song I ever sang was "Don't Leave Me This Way," which was an old Ricky Nelson song. As luck would have it, I won on that night, and I met a guy there called Brian DeCoursey who later became my manager. 

Later, I'd been doing a few dances with the Chessmen, and John [Chester] had heard a few shows that I was doing, and apparently he and Brian suggested that we see if we could get a recording contract. In those days in Melbourne, the only people who would take a chance on local talent were W&G [Records]. Particularly if you were Melbourne based. They organized for me to go in and do a demo tape. I did that demo tape, Johnny Chester produced the record, and I did it with the Chessmen, and I think the four songs that were recorded were "Baby, Let's Play House," "Endless Sleep," "A Lotta Lovin'," and "Rocky Road Blues." 


How did Johnny Chester come to produce the demo sessions? 

I think he wanted to have a go at [producing], and also, his band the Chessmen were playing [as Benton's backing group]. I think that the actual producer, as far as W&G was concerned, was a guy called Lindsay Morehouse. He was one of those guys who, whenever the needle went into the red, turned it down. So, we arranged for Lindsay to go out for a meal, and then we recorded the tracks, and John produced them. 


You changed your name to Merv Benton. 

The reason my name changed from Merv Bonson to Merv Benton was, when I started work when I was 16, I worked in a bank. In those days, banks were very staid places, and they frowned on a person working for the bank having two jobs. So, that was the reason I called myself Merv Benton—so they wouldn't find out. And then one day, after "Baby, Let's Play House" had been released and was climbing up the charts, some young ladies who were walking past saw me in the bank, and they came in and just about wrecked the place. The bank turned around and said, "What are you doing to do?" And I said, "So long. See you later." 


"Cincinnati Fireball," which was a hit for you, sounds like a late '50s rocker, but you recorded it in, what? 1964? 

'64, I think. '63-'64. Well, a lot of that had to do with the recording companies. To a certain degree, they worked on the idea that if a song was known, then it was liable to get played, and if it was liable to get played, then it was liable to sell. They were very much along the lines of making the bottom line look good, and that was the way that they felt. It wasn't until around about '64, after the Beatles, that a bunch of younger groups got involved and started recording their own material with other recording companies opening, like Mushroom Records.


So you weren't able to choose your songs? 

Pretty much, in most situations, we picked the songs. In those days it was a little bit like England when rock 'n' roll started to come up. The record labels were mainly only interested in doing cover versions. They didn't have a comfort level with original material, and with some of them, there was a couple of times when they did interfere and said, "We want you to try this other record." 

That was [the case] with one called "Be Sweet," which was originally called "Shake Hands" or something and came from a German production company. I think their main reason was that they had interest in the recording rights and the publishing. So we had to rewrite the words, and "Shake Hands" became "Be Sweet." I never liked that record. I've never sung it live. 

The biggest problem we had in the second recording session was trying to get that girl-group sound. If you listen to "Shimmy Shimmy," they seem like screaming banshees. We just could never get that vocal backing sound. And yet, with the male vocal backing, like on "Don't Leave Me Now," there was a group called the Thin Men, who very much in those days did sound like the Jordanaires, and we could get that type of sound. But we were never successful with the girls. 







"Cincinnati Fireball" knocked Elvis out of the #1 spot on some charts. 

That was exciting. When we recorded that, "Cincinnati Fireball" was to be the B-side. The A-side was to be the Ral Donner thing, "I Got Burned." And, while "I Got Burned" took off in Melbourne, "Cincinnati Fireball" was the first record that took off for me nationally in Australia. 


What about the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney? 

Johnny O'Keefe, Col Joye–they were out of Sydney. At that stage there was a lot of competition between Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne had John Chester and a guy called Bobby Cookson, but the heights that Johnny O'Keefe had and Col Joye had far surpassed anything that we had in Melbourne. I mean, their records were released Australia-wide, and it was always hard to crack the Sydney market if you were from Melbourne in those initial days. 

O'Keefe, at one time, I think, came to America and recorded in America. A song called "She's My Baby," which was released over here, also went to, I think, #1 in Australia. He was rather a phenomenon. Johnny, he didn't have the greatest voice in the world, but as a showman, you couldn't beat him. They used to always put him on when overseas artists came and did the tours with Lee Gordon. John was always on the shows, and they found it very hard to follow him. I mean, his act onstage was unbelievable. He was just a showman through and through. 


You had the right look for pop stardom. 

Al Martino was on Sydney Tonight. Each of the states—like, there was Sydney Tonight and Melbourne Tonight—had nighttime variety shows along the lines of Leno and Letterman these days. Al Martino was there, and I sang this old Bobby Darin number, "Somebody to Love," and when I finished, I came off and Al Martino said to me, "Forget singing, son. Get your head over to Hollywood!"


You recorded some country music later on. 

Yeah, I've always been into that type of music. I would much prefer to sing that, or really solid rock 'n' roll. 

Talk about your country "comeback" album, Great Country Songs, from 1970.

I enjoyed that album. I enjoyed doing it. Surprisingly enough, it sold reasonably well and got good reviews. 

Why did you retire from music? 

I had polyps in the back of my throat. You either get them or you don't—they weren't from singing. Promptly, I went and had opera lessons, actually, and the teacher said one day, "You're not enjoying this, are you? What do you want to sing?" I said, "I want to sing rock 'n' roll!" She said, "See you later. So long. Go off and have a nice life." 

Anyway, I had these growths on the back of my throat and they had to be removed. There was no such thing as laser surgery or anything in those days, and they used to burn them off. They could have gone through the throat [with the surgery], but they went through the mouth and serrated the vocal chords. I couldn't talk for around about four or five months. Then it was around about eight months before I could sing or get back into a rhythm. At that stage, the music industry was changing so dramatically, there wasn't a lot of interest in what I was doing. It was like, been there, see you later, you've had your fifteen minutes. So, rather than try to push something uphill that I thought wasn't going to work, that's when I got out of the business. 


Talk about your return to performing. 

Basically, a chap and his partner came to me in 1988 and asked me to do a show. I'd stayed out of all that—going back and doing the reunion shows—purely because everyone expects you to come out in a black pants, red shirt with an orange tie and white shoes, and be overweight, and do a few rock 'n' roll songs, and that's that. I was never like that. My thing was, if I'm going to do a show, I'm going to do it properly. Most of the other promoters at that stage turned around to me and said it won't work, you can't do it that way, this is the way it's got to be done, and I just said, well, leave me out of it. 

When these two came and approached me, I said I'm only interested if I can do it the way I want to do it. And that is, be professional.  I said I want rehearsals, I want the sound to be good, I want to do it in such a way that, when we're finished, people have really enjoyed the show, and the musicians as well as myself know that we've done a good show. 

Fortunately, they said let's do it. So I did that show, I think it was in '88, and then I didn't do another show until about four years after that. Then I've gone back every two years. The last show we did in August was, to me, the most pleasing one, because I reunited all the Tamlas, who were my backing group from those days. We were sitting around talking and we said, "Do you realize there's about 380 years of rock 'n' roll onstage here tonight?" It was crazy. If I go back and do any shows now, I won't do them without the Tamlas. After last August, the show was so good that I don't want to do anything without them. 


Canetoad Records released two CDs of your '60s recordings. 

I was delighted with the job David McLean from Canetoad did on my CDs. I mean the sound, to me, was exactly as I remember it in the studio. It used to be a very frustrating thing to me that when we heard the record on playback on the radio, I knew that they didn't sound like that in the studio. I really have no idea why we lost so much of the quality and the presence when W&G pressed them, but with these [CDs], I was absolutely delighted, because I thought, wow, that's as I remembered it. David himself told me that the only enhancement they did was a little bit of bass. 

I was really happy that, with the first one, he allowed me to do the liner notes. They said can we get someone to do them, a historian, but most of the historians who are around that they had access to are 35 or 40. I'm not putting any of them down for being 35 and 40, but they weren't there, and I felt that I could put a few words together in such a way that it would be an honest history of what I actually felt at the time of the records and of what was happening. 




Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The music of Scott Baio



This is a photo of my grandmother with actor Scott Baio of Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi fame. And, later, Charles in Charge fame.

When I was a kid, a framed copy of this photo was nestled among the family photos in the family room of my grandparents' house. The grandchildren, including me, thought it was hilarious that a photo of Scott Baio was in the middle of our family's photos. 

The photo sat there for so many years that Scott Baio became kind of like a member of the family. The successful, good-looking family member who never calls, writes, or visits. 

I wasn't particularly interested in Scott Baio back then. I liked Happy Days well enough, I guess, and I met actor Donny Most, who played Ralph "The Mouth" Malph, at a car show. I got his autograph and immediately lost it. 

This photo of my grandmother seemed to provoke some interest in Baio among my extended family, though. My cousin, for example, bought a copy of Scott Baio's self-titled RCA album from 1982. I asked to borrow it, and she gave me a weird look. I think she was afraid that I wanted to make fun of it rather than genuinely and unironically enjoy the music contained within. If so, she was right—I just wanted to make fun of it. 




Baio actually recorded two albums for RCA in 1982-83. They're not good enough to be good, or bad enough to be "so bad they're good." The production is standard sterile-sounding early '80s shlock, over which Baio delivers his wobbly vocals.   

A few moments are funny. Like on the first album when Baio goes out of tune on "How Do You Talk to Girls" and "Midnight Confessions." Or on the second album's remake of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' "Shakin' All Over," in which the unforgettable guitar riff from Kidd's version is performed on a rinky-dink keyboard. 

Baio's TV fan base bought enough copies of his debut album to keep it on the lower rungs of the Billboard album chart for four weeks, where it peaked at #181. RCA advertised the album as a "major market breakout" and claimed that its single—"What Was in That Kiss"—was a hit, but that was only wishful thinking on RCA's part. 





Sales of the album were robust enough for RCA to give Baio a second chance, so his second album, The Boys Are Out Tonight, was released in 1983. It was a total flop. The album didn't chart and didn't get much press either. 

Baio promoted it, though. He even appeared on American Bandstand to pal around with Dick Clark and perform "Some Girls" and "She's Trouble" from the album.  

To Baio's credit, his vocal performances were stronger the second time around. He'd probably been practicing. 

The second album's single, "Some Girls," is notable in that it was written by Chinnichap: Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, the production team behind all those glam hits by Suzi Quatro, Sweet, Mud, Smokie, etc. "Some Girls" was a song that they originally offered to Blondie, but Blondie turned it down, so the British group Racey recorded it in 1979. I think I'd rather listen to Baio's version than Racey's. 





As far as I know, these albums were never released on manufactured compact discs, but now you can get them as print-on-demand CD-Rs at Amazon.

Weird trivia: The poster for Scott Baio's first album appears in the 1983 X-rated film Daughters of Discipline. It's seen in the background here but also is shown in a close-up shortly afterward:




Discography

Singles

What Was in that Kiss (stereo) b/w What Was in that Kiss (mono) (RCA JH-13256, 1982)

What Was in that Kiss b/w Looking for the Right Girl (RCA JH-13256, 1982)

Wanted for Love b/w same (RCA JH-13356, 1982)

Some Girls b/w Heartbreaker (RCA PB-13553, 1983)


Albums

Scott Baio (RCA Victor AFL1-4342, 1982)

  • Wanted for Love / What Was in That Kiss / Runnin' Out of Reasons to Go / How Do You Talk to Girls / Half the World // Woman I Love Only You / When You Find Someone Who Loves You / What Am I Supposed to Do / Looking for the Right Girl / Midnight Confessions

The Boys Are Out Tonight (RCA Victor AFL1-4696, 1983)

  • I'll Take You Back / Fingerprints / See How the Love Goes / Some Girls / The Boys Are Out Tonight // Can't You See That She's Mine / Shakin' All Over / Heartbreaker / Don't Talk / She's Trouble


Friday, February 7, 2014

Bob Braun: A discography






I attended a broadcast of The Bob Braun Show once, but I was in my mother's womb at the time, so I don't remember anything about it. 

A 1970s issue of The Muncie Evening Press has a picture of me with Nancy Dawn, a vocalist from The Bob Braun Show. When I was in the second grade, I was hospitalized around Christmas, and Dawn visited the kids in the hospital to hand out gifts. I got a pinball game and posed with her for the newspaper. I didn't know who Nancy Dawn was back then, but I definitely knew who Bob Braun was. 

"Bob Braun needs no introduction," Randy McNutt wrote in his book The Cincinnati Sound. That's true, at least within some age groups and in some parts of the country. 

Braun had a popular show out of Cincinnati that could be seen in Indiana and Kentucky. He did his own television commercials, interviewed guests, sang songs, performed comedy skits, and had perfectly sculpted hair. 

I liked Bob Braun. In the pre-cable days of television, every region of America had its own children's shows and variety shows. The TV personalities on these local shows were enormously popular within their region but often were unknown elsewhere. Braun was a regional act who managed to achieve some measure of national fame. He even racked up a handful of television and film credits as an actor. 





Braun had some weird jobs before he got his own show. He was once a model in a live billboard, and he had an early local children's show on which he read the Sunday comics on camera. 

He really started to build his audience as a cast member of Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club TV show, which he eventually took over. It became The Bob Braun Show in 1967. 

I have an autographed copy of Braun's 1969 autobiography, Here's Bob, and I recommend the book to anyone who's interested in Braun and his Cincinnati scene. It's a surprisingly good read. It has a lot of anecdotes about other celebrities too, such as Tommy Sands and Lawrence Welk. 

I'm particularly interested in Braun's recording career, so I've compiled the most extensive discography of his recordings that I've seen. Braun showed some promise as a performer on the national stage, and even charted a couple of hits, but afterward he recorded mostly independent-label and self-released records to sell at his personal appearances. 

He was fundamentally a middle-of-the-road pop singer, but he also dabbled in rock and country. 

One of his earliest recordings was a Pat Boone-style rocker called "Rock and Roll Country Girl." This single apparently was released in 1954, though, which makes Braun a true pioneer of rock 'n' roll!





Braun's biggest hit, by a mile, was "Till Death Do Us Part" from 1962. It was his only record that made the Top 40. The title might lead you to believe (or hope) that it's going to be a teen-tragedy song, but it's a sentimental recitation about marriage.  




Braun died in 2001. I remember reading an obituary in which Braun's son remarked that Braun was very particular about his hair.  


Bob Braun discography

Singles 

Rock and Roll Country Girl b/w My One Sided Love Affair (Torch TRC-634, 1954)

A Girl, A Girl, A Girl b/w Somebody Bad Stole de Wedding Bell (Top Tunes 4-1072, 1954)

Here b/w I Speak to the Stars (Top Tunes 4-1074, 1954)

Broken Hearted b/w All My Love (King 45-5255, 1959)

'Til Tomorrow b/w There's No Place Like Home (Candee 505, 1961)

Till Death Do Us Part  b/w So It Goes (Decca 31355, 1962)

Our Anniversary of Love b/w Is It Right or Wrong? (Decca 31430, 1962)

Honey b/w I'm Still in Love (Boone BR-1025, 1964)

Sweet Violets b/w Come Be My True Love (Fraternity F-919, 1964)

Cattle Drive b/w We All Have to Cry Sometimes (Fraternity F-926, 1964)

I'm Sittin' Here Rememberin' b/w Shadows (Audio Fidelity 111, 1965)

Pretty Little Ramblin' Rose b/w My Heart Keeps Holdin' On (Audio Fidelity 45-120, 1966)

Brave Men Not Afraid b/w Melissa (Fraternity F-965, 1966)

It’s Only Make Believe b/w I Don’t Want to Hurt Anymore (United Artists UA 50213, 1967)

Give Me This Moment b/w It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie (United Artists UA 50464, 1968)

Bless 'Em All b/w To Wait for Love (Wrayco W214, 1971)

Daddy, Meet a Man b/w Letter to Cindy (Applegate APG 4, circa 1971)

Hey Da Da Dow (It's a Little Thing Called Love) b/w (What'll My Darlin') Daisy Do (Applegate  APG #9, circa 1971)

The Spirit of Christmas b/w Welcome Home (QCA Records QCA 413, 1973)

Singin’ in the Rain b/w Let Me Try Again (QCA Records QCA 415, 1975)

I Love You More and More Every Day b/w Cincinnati (Image IM 3081, 1977)


Albums

Till Death Do Us Part (Decca DL 4339, 1962)
  • Because of You / Till Death Do Us Part / How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky) / Wasn't the Summer Short / Our Anniversary of Love / You'll Never Know // The Nearness of You / Why I Love You / When I Fall in Love / Is It Right or Wrong? / That Certain Something (We Call Love) / Just in Time

Introducing Bob Braun (Audio Fidelity ASFD 6148/AFLP 2148, 1965)
  • Shadows / Think About the Good Old Days / Cincinnati / Lies and Kisses / Everlasting Love / Red Roses for a Blue Lady // Sweet Violets / I'm Sittin' Here Rememberin' / My Heart Keeps Holdin' On / Pretty Little Ramblin' Rose / Invisible Chains / I Love You More and More Every Day

Sings (United Artists UAS 6618, 1967)
  • It's Only Make Believe / Making Memories / I Don't Want to Be Hurt Anymore / Sweet Maria / Time, Time / Release Me // Serenade of the Bells / Now I Know / It's a Sin to Tell a Lie / Lady / He'll Have to Go / We Live in Two Different Worlds

Christmas in Your Heart (United Artists 6664, 1968)
  • Everywhere the Bells Are Ringing / Do You Hear What I Hear / A Marshmallow World / A Child's First Christmas / Let's Light the Christmas Tree // Christmas Lullaby / Winter Wonderland / That's What Christmas Means to Me / I'll Be Home for Christmas / Christmas Medley

The Many Moods of Bob Braun (Wrayco WLP 101, 1970)
  • Working Man's Prayer/I Believe (Medley) / To Wait for Love / Are You Lonesome Tonight / Let Time Have Its Way / Green, Green Grass of Home // Make It with You / I Believed It All / Big Blue Diamond / Quiet Snow / Anyone Can Move a Mountain

Easy River Ridin’ (Applegate LP-1, circa 1971)
  • Easy River Ridin' / (You've Always Been) My Best Friend / Letter to Cindy / Memories Are Made of This / Daddy, Meet a Man // (What'll My Darlin') Daisy Do / (How Da Da Dow) It's a Little Thing Called Love / Woman Child / Without Me / God's Factory 

Lonely, Lonely Town  (Wrayco, 1972)
  • Dream on Little Dreamer / It’s Impossible / You Light Up My World / We’ll Be Together Again / Bless Them All // Lonely, Lonely Town / CafĂ© / He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother / Are You Lonesome Tonight? / Sweet Violets

Here's Bob (QCA LP 347, 1976)
  • Only Have Eyes for You / We Love Each Other / Theme from "Mahogony" / Medley: Behind Closed Doors/The Most Beautiful Girl / Sweet Caroline // I Write the Songs / My Best Friend / Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree / Feelings / Close to You

Woman of My Dreams (ANRO 2226, 1982)
  • There'll Never Be a Love Song as Beautiful as You / Where or When / All the Things You Are / Unforgettable // [side two missing]


Various artists albums


Ruth Lyons – Ten Tunes of Christmas (Candee 50-50, 1958)
  • Bob Braun performs "Sing a Song of Christmas"

Ruth Lyons – Our Best to You (Candee 50-51, 1959)
  • Bob Braun performs "Almost Like Being in Love" and "Sleepy Time Gal"

Ruth Lyons – It's Christmastime Again (Candee 50-60, 1963)
  • Bob Braun performs "Always at Christmastime" and "It's that Very Very Special Time of the Year," and as part of "The Gang" on a few other cuts

AVCO Hour of Stars (AVCO 1970) 
  • Bob Braun performs "On a Wonderful Day" and "Green Green Grass" live at the Ohio State Fair

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Music Weird interviews Gary Pike of the Lettermen



If you love pop vocal groups, as I do, then you're probably a fan of the Lettermen. 

But if you were around in the early '60s, you might have thought for a moment that the Lettermen were just another male pop vocal group on Capitol Records, the home of the Four Preps and the Four Freshmen. They weren't. 

The Lettermen, unlike all of their vocal group peers, went on to have a 15-year career on the international pop charts. Their name might have been retro, but their sound was progressive. 

They hung out a few times with the Beach Boys, with whom they shared a producer (Nick Venet), and they worked like crazy to make excellent music and put on first-rate shows. The quality of their recordings was uniformly high. 

The original Lettermen, when the group formed in 1959, were Jim Pike, Tony Butala, and Bob Engemann. In 1967, Gary Pike, who was Jim's brother, took over for Engemann. 

The original lineup created some of the most sublime harmonies of the '60s on hits such as "The Way You Look Tonight," "When I Fall in Love," and "Theme from 'A Summer Place'." 

After Gary joined, the Lettermen kept cranking out the hits with "Goin' Out of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You," "Put Your Head on My Shoulders," "Hurt So Bad" and John Lennon's "Love," among many others. 

Gary is on the right on this album cover: 





Music Weird talked to Gary on February 5, 2014:



The Lettermen stayed popular much longer than other male pop vocal groups from that time. Why?

Couple of reasons. We managed to have a hit every year, which kept us on the map. Our albums always sold well because we took care to put them together well.

None of us were songwriters, so we usually recorded old standards or songs that were popular at the time, and made great effort at doing good arrangements and really actually improving on the songs. The other thing is, we really worked hard to do a good show in person. We toured a lot and did a lot of shows. We were entertaining in person. We didn’t just stand there and sing our songs. We did comedy, more like a variety show or Wayne Newton but not as campy. We did a lot of TV.


The Lettermen’s sound was unique and very forward-looking. What do you think made it different?

It was unique. All of us were basically baritones. There was no bass and no real tenor. In a few songs, the top part was in falsetto, which was done by my brother Jim on these early albums. When I joined the group we shared doing the top part because our voices are very similar and many consider this the Lettermen signature sound.

The melody on many songs would change hands throughout the course of the song, so one person wasn’t singing the melody all the way through.

Because we were all baritones, we tried to keep the arrangements as close as possible, in a cluster. The parts were really close, so the melody would go along, the second part would cross above and below the melody, keeping the harmonies very tight.

The melody was in there, but it was surrounded by harmony parts. That was similar to the way the Four Freshmen did their arrangements. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was a big Four Freshmen fan too, and they [the Beach Boys] were on Capitol the same time as the Lettermen.

A couple of times before the Beach Boys had their first hit the Lettermen and the Beach Boys met in the parking lot at Capitol and sang Four Freshmen songs.


You mentioned the Four Freshmen, but can you talk about some of the other groups that influenced the Lettermen, and what you took from them?

My brother Jim had a group called the Damons and they were big Four Freshmen fans. There were three guys and a girl. The Four Freshmen hooked up a lot with Stan Kenton, and the Damons did too. Jim became quite good friends with Bob Flanagan [the lead singer of the Four Freshmen]. So, the Four Freshmen were really a big influence.

The Hi-Lo’s were another group that had really tight harmonies. They had that jazzy sound too. Jim didn’t want to go quite that modern with the Lettermen—he wanted to be more commercial.

All three of the Lettermen were excellent soloists and musicians and paid their dues in other groups and knew what was up, and had those tight arrangements.


A lot of the albums were thematic. Did the Lettermen get to choose the themes, or did Capitol influence the repertoire?

The Lettermen were contracted for three-and-a-half albums a year, which was a lot. Whenever an album was due, which was quite often, sometimes a slight theme would be thrown out there, and everyone had input. We’d sit down with Nick Venet and discuss them and weed out songs. It was kind of a communal effort from everyone.

We all had input, but it all had to go through Jim. He and Nick Venet had final say. Later, we’d just pick the songs for the album and record it and give it to Capitol. Not to say that every song was picked by us—sometimes the producer would have a song for the album that we liked—but the artistic end of it was primarily the Lettermen.


Can you talk a little bit about the early Lettermen stuff?

The first song that was released on Warner Bros., “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” was recorded by Jim outside [in an independent studio] and the final master was taken to Warner Bros. 

Jim had previously recorded a single with his first group for Warner Bros. [“Lucy D” b/w “Long Green” by Jim Pike & the Damons] that was not successful.

It was not successful, but Louie Prima and Keely Smith loved the group and wanted them to go on the road with them to sing and be their backup group. The girl singer in the Damons had just gotten married and decided she didn’t want to go on the road, and the Damons broke up. 

“Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” was successful in a few towns. San Francisco. It was #1 in San Francisco. Phoenix. Nationally, it wasn’t successful. So Warner Bros. picked the next two songs. “The Magic Sound” was a novelty record and the guys didn’t want to do it, and that’s basically why they wanted to leave Warner Bros.


What about that “Old Rivers” parody that Jim and Bob did? 

They were in the studio recording and Jim and Bob both were kind of screwing around doing Walter Brennan impressions, and they put Nick Venet on the floor, he was laughing so hard. So he said let’s do a record. It wasn’t released as a Lettermen record. It was just Jim and Bob. Tony wasn’t on the record at all. [Nevertheless, the label said “Tony, Bob & Jimmy.”]


Among the early Lettermen albums, College Standards is the odd one out.

Yeah. They thought all the kids who were teens when they first bought Lettermen records were now in college. Jim brought in Conrad Figueroa, who used to be a Damon, to sing the fourth part on some of those songs.

That wasn’t the only time we had a fourth part. Later, we used the Wrecking Crew a lot in our sessions, and Glen Campbell was one of them, and he sang with us on some songs.


Did you have any surprising international hits?

Oh, yeah. We’ve had a number of hits, especially in the Far East, that were different from the hits we had here.

One of our biggest hits in Japan was “Sealed with a Kiss,” which was on the flip side of "Summer Place."

Not too much European success. We didn’t really have any big hits in Europe.