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(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

I remember John Lennon remarking on his affection for songs with brackets in the title. It’s a pure-pop thing, and it was a regular feature of the charts from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s. I like them, too: “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees)”, “(‘Til) I Kissed You”, “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and so on.

My favourite brackets belong to a song released 50 years ago this month: “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections, which reached No 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and, amazingly, No 3 in the Cashbox R&B chart. Amazing, that is, because the Reflections were a white vocal quintet — Tony Micale (lead), Phil Castrodale (first tenor), Dan Bennie (second tenor), Ray Steinberg (baritone) and John Dean (bass) — whose doowop-based style was closely modelled on that of the Four Seasons.

It’s a fabulous record, quite the equal of any of the Seasons’ hits. Written by Bob Hamilton and Freddie Gorman and produced by Rob Reeco for the Detroit-based Golden World label, it has a lyric as great as its title (“I’m gonna buy her pretty presents / Just like the ones in the catalogue” — but only, he reveals in the last verse, if he can find a job), a strong pop melody, great lead and backing vocals, and a driving rhythm track: just listen to the way the handclaps carry the beat while the drummer provides a brilliantly syncopated running commentary on his snare. Here’s a sound-only link of much better quality, recorded from an original Golden World 45 (and sounding a little sharper than my UK copy, released on the Stateside label), in which all the elements are clearly audible.

The baritone sax solo gives a clue to where and when it was made. It’s surely the work of Mike Terry, moonlighting from the Motown studios, where he had already provided a similar service on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and Mary Wells’ “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”. Which means that the bassist and drummer are very probably James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, also on surreptitious leave from Berry Gordy’s empire. That would explain a great deal about the quality of the track.

Golden World, founded in 1963 by Ed Wingate and Joanne Bratton, failed to match the achievements of its local rival, although some great records were made in its studio. Gordy bought up the company, including the sister label, Ric Tic Records (J.J.Barnes, Edwin Starr etc), in 1966. By that time the Reflections had failed to find a successful follow-up to their great hit, despite trying to recreate the musical formula with “Like Columbus Did” and “Comin’ At You”. But 50 years later they’re still performing, with Micale and Dean now joined by three singers formerly with other Detroit groups, and “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” still lives up to its title.

And it you want to know how to dance to it (and how to dress for the occasion), watch this delightful clip from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, dated May 30, 1964, when the Reflections were high in the charts:

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Iñaki #

    ¡Una maravilla!

    March 11, 2014
  2. One reason for bracketed song titles is to make it easier for record retailers to understand what their customers are asking for at the counter, when they hum the tune or sing part of the lyric with incorrect words. Until “Royals”, the closest New Zealand got to a US #1 was ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. (It was held out by the Cutting Crew doing “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” – note the bracket.) A big supporter of Crowded House at Capitol who was promoting the single said he always regretted not naming it on the label ‘(Hey Now, Hey Now) Don’t Dream It’s Over’, because “hey now, hey now” was what people in middle America were asking for at their local Disc Shack. It might have just tipped the balance. As it was, the week after ‘Dream’ was #2, when the band was waiting for the new chart, Neil Finn was taken off a plane at gunpoint in New Mexico – airport security had mistaken him for an escaped prisoner. He recalled to me, “That’s when I knew we weren’t #1″.

    March 11, 2014
    • What a delightful explanation! Having worked in a record shop myself in my youth, I can identify with that… And a lovely Neil Finn story. Thanks, Chris.

      March 12, 2014
  3. Intransi #

    If that’s Jamerson playing bass, it must be the simplest, straightest part he ever played – there was always melody in his parts, surely?

    March 12, 2014
    • No, not always. Some of the Motown dance tunes were played pretty straight. And there are some nice little touches even here.

      March 12, 2014
  4. poebiz #

    I love these alley ways you take us down Richard. I didn’t know about Lennon’s fondness for brackets. He only used it once with the Beatles as far as I can remember – I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – but a couple of times at least in his solo career – Happy Xmas (War is Over) and most appropriately in light of your piece (Just Like) Starting Over.

    March 12, 2014
  5. My favourite (It”s alright Ma (I’m only bleedin’) … (What’s the story) Morning Glory? whose question mark only makes sense with the bracketed prefix. Then album titles (Time) The Revelator by Gillian Welch which loses the bracketed word as a track title. Excellent read Richard – I blame the parenthesis.

    March 12, 2014
  6. Loved this disquisition on brackets in titles. My favourite is the great Dylan song Where are you tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) where the bracketed words are almost a subtitle, nothing to do with the song lyric at all. Another great one: I Understand (Just How You Feel) by The Ink Spots, as featured in Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge (1997).
    But can you name a band with a bracket? Only one I could think of – Was (Not Was).

    March 15, 2014

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