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Posts from the ‘Pop’ Category

Jersey Boys

Four SeasonsThere were only two other people in the cinema when I went to see Jersey Boys this week, a mere five days after its UK opening. Having received reviews ranging from cool to lukewarm, Clint Eastwood’s transfer of the Four Seasons musical from stage to screen has clearly failed to capture the public imagination — unlike the original, which is still running on Broadway and in the West End.

I belong to a generation that didn’t have much time for musicals, generally speaking, but I loved the theatrical version of Jersey Boys when I saw it a couple of years ago. The music sounded as good as the records and the staging was genuinely exhilarating. So the film’s first surprise is that Eastwood hasn’t simply tried to replicate the factors that made the stage show a success: he’s gone for something halfway between a musical and a conventional biopic, which is hard to pull off.

Here are the two main drawbacks: it still feels unmistakeably theatrical, and there’s surprisingly little music. Great trouble has obviously been taken over the design of the costumes, the sets and the props, and the film’s colours and textures are carefully graded to match the period, but it hardly ever feels real. And in an effort, I guess, to avoid the accusation of having simply reproduced a jukebox musical, the director has used the music only when it functions as part of the narrative (e.g. when they’re performing “Sherry” on American Bandstand or Valli makes his comeback, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with a big band in a plush nightclub). Unlike Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles film, Eastwood doesn’t rely on enhanced versions of the original recordings to underdub the actors when the group are seen performing in a club or a theatre: the performances sound as unpolished and sometimes as weedy as they would have done in real life, deprived of the support of session musicians and studio technology. I ended up quite liking that, although I suppose I’d gone in hoping for the sensation of the original mixes of “C’mon Marianne”, “Beggin'”, “Beggars Parade”, “Tell It to the Rain” or “Dawn (Go Away)” thumping out through a cinema sound system.

In its treatment of the group’s early connections to New Jersey mobsters the film is grittier than I remember the stage version being. It’s still hardly Goodfellas, and it frequently lapses into cliché and caricature, but it does have a genuinely outstanding central scene in which the rest of the group discover the extent of the tax and gambling debts they’ve been landed with by Tommy DeVito, their founding member; he is forced out by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, while Nick Massi quits in disgust. In reality Massi left in 1965, after their first run of chart success, while DeVito’s ousting came six years later, at around the time they were dropped by Philips, when the hits had dried up. But it works in terms of dramatic truth, and the showdown exposes the sort of conflicts that anyone who has ever been in a band, at whatever level, will probably recognise. That scene also highlights the real excellence of the central performances by Vincent Piazza (DeVito), Michael Lomenda (Massi), Erich Bergen (Gaudio) and especially by John Lloyd Young, who delivers a nuanced and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Valli.

After DeVito’s departure, Valli and Gaudio took shared ownership of the group; the fact that they are named as the film’s executive producers probably guarantees a degree of both authenticity and airbrushing. There is no mention of the line-up (featuring the gifted lead singer/drummer Gerry Polci) that joined Valli for the chart rebirth with “Who Loves You”, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Silver Star” in the mid-70s (and it’s a bit dismaying that the first thing the audiences hears, before the titles, is a pianist infuriatingly misvoicing a vital chord in the great intro to “December 1963″).

If you’re a fan of the group, the film worth catching while it’s still around, which probably won’t be long. It’s hardly Eastwood’s finest hour as a director, and he doesn’t quite find the thing that would compensate for the missing vibrancy of the stage show, but of course it will send you back home to listen to some enduringly great records.

* The photograph of (left to right) Tommy DeVito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi is taken from the booklet to Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, compiled by Bill Inglot and released by Rhino in 2007.

 

Far from dumb

Russ TitelmanGerry Goffin, whose death was announced yesterday, didn’t just write songs with Carole King. Even during their most successful and prolific time together in the mid-’60s he was collaborating with other writers, as I point out here, in my tribute to his lyric-writing genius for the Guardian’s music blog. The one that comes most readily to my mind is Russ Titelman (pictured above), later a staff producer for Warner Brothers and now best known for his work in the studio with Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood and others.

Goffin and Titelman wrote two wonderful songs together. First, in 1964, came “I Never Dreamed” for the Cookies, a fabulous girl-group record which they produced together, with King providing the arrangement. Goodness knows how it didn’t follow the group’s other songs into the charts. A year later they wrote “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)“, recorded by the Chiffons, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore and finally, in 1967, by the Inspirations on the obscure Black Pearl label. Each of these versions has its fans, but mine is the last of them, in which the echo-heavy production and the lead singer’s delivery mirror the plaintive mood of Goffin’s lyric.

Titelman was born in Los Angeles in 1944. I’m indebted to an interview in Harvey Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! for the information that his older sister, Susan (later to marry Cooder), was the girlfriend of Marshall Lieb, a member of the Teddy Bears, who rehearsed in the Titelmans’ lounge on their way to stardom. Phil Spector, their leader, was going out with Susan’s best friend, and young Russ fell under his spell: “He was so smart, and so funny, and so charming, and so incredibly charismatic, and so you were sort of charmed by it all. Then there was the other side of him, which was this dark, murky, scary person, you know, who made shit up.”

He went to work as a songwriter for Lou Adler and Don Kirshner at Screen Gems-Columbia Music, in whose LA offices he met Brian Wilson. Together they wrote “Guess I’m Dumb”, which would have made a great track for Pet Sounds but was instead recorded by Glen Campbell, a future Beach Boy. Wilson is credited as the arranger, conductor and producer of what remains one of his very finest efforts.

Titelman’s early adventures in the LA pop business also included collaborations with the young David Gates (later the founder of Bread), who produced Margaret Mandolph’s utterly sublime version of a Titelman co-composition (with Cynthia Weil) called “I Wanna Make You Happy”. The Titelman/Gates partnership was also responsible for Suzy Wallis’s delightful “Little Things Like That”

On all these records, Titelman’s involvement seemed to guarantee that they would somehow capture the very essence of teenage pop music. They have great hooks and an understanding of how a simple chord change can sell a song. Eventually, of course, he had to grow up, as did his friends and accomplices, including Goffin and Gates. But the stuff they left us from that time continues to give undiminished pleasure decades after its supposed expiry date.

French cool

Salut les CopainsThis is a magazine I bought a couple of weeks ago from one of those second-hand book and magazine stalls on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre. Salut les copains was a magazine I read quite regularly in the early to middle ’60s, and I recognised the cover of this issue, which is from September 1965.

The magazine was the invention of Daniel Filipacchi, as was the hugely popular early-evening radio programme of the same name, which went out on Europe 1 and featured good American records as well as a mixed bag of French pop. I was a fan of that, too — the signal was quite audible in the middle of England — and three or four years ago I was delighted to find two nicely packaged four-CD boxes containing music featured on the show between 1959 and 1969, with station ads and idents thrown in: lots of Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy, Richard Anthony (whose EP containing “J’entends siffler le train” was a fixture next to the Dansettes of most of the nice girls I knew), Claude François, France Gall, Eddy Mitchell, Les Surfs, Jacques Dutronc and so on.

You can usually find something interesting in an old magazine, and in September 1965 the editors of Salut les copains had a mixed bag of preoccupations, including the aspirations of a bunch of new French artists: now you think, whatever happened to Muriel Bianchi (debut disc: “Les Jaloux”), Thierry Vincent (“artistes préferés: Johnny Hallyday, les Coasters, Nina Simone”), Michele Sarna (inspired by “le folklore canadien”), Jacky Gordon (“un fan de jazz et son style s’apparente donc fortement au rhythm and blues”), Willy Lewis (“many think of him as one of the best drummers in France”),  Mick Shannon (“the young singer who, in 1962, took the place of Dick Rivers with les Chats Sauvages”), Bernadette Grimm (“son idole: Edith Piaf”) and Laura Ulmer, a fresh-faced 17-year-old spotted by the impresario Eddie Barclay when her photograph appeared on the front page of Nice-Matin?

Out of two dozen candidates, the only name I recognise almost 50 years later is that of Pierre Barouh, already 31 years old and a fan of Georges Brassens and Billie Holiday; a couple of years later he would be playing Anouk Aimée’s husband — an ill-fated film stunt man who strums a guitar and sings Brazilian songs — in Claude Lelouch’s hugely successful Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman). Later, in real life, Barouh and Aimée were briefly married; he used his earnings from the film to buy an old mill in the Vendée, where he founded the Saravah label, which released recordings by French and Brazilian artists.

Salut les copains and its short-lived stablemate, Mademoiselle age tendre, provide a great deal of the material contained in a very entertaining new book called Yé-yé Girls of ’60s French Pop, compiled by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. It’s published in the US by Feral House, and there are copies in London shops (I got mine at Foyle’s). It’s mostly visual: page after page of Françoise H, Sylvie Vartan, Sheila, France Gall, Jane Birkin and Chantal Goya. There’s also an informative commentary, and good stuff on more obscure girls. It’s a weakness of mine to like this sort of thing, I know, but there you go.

(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:

Give the session drummer some

If they still awarded grants for projects of genuine cultural significance, I’d want one for research into the great American session drummers of the 1960s. Which Motown records featured the playing of Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen or Uriel Jones? Exactly when did Al Duncan gave way to Maurice White on all those great Chicago sessions (Impressions, Major Lance, etc)? Precisely how did Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine divide the work-load in the Hollywood studios? I’d uncover the answers, and the world would be a better place.

Those questions came to mind when I found myself listening to Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You” a few nights ago. It’s a Goffin/King song (in fact you can find it on Honey & Wine, the second volume of Ace Records’ series of CDs devoted to their compositions), and it’s a beauty. Cover versions would come from the Walker Brothers and the young Wailers, but  none could match the performance of Jackson, one of the greatest of a generation of uptown soul singers that included Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe and Jerry Butler. Recorded for the Wand label in 1965, it was arranged by Ed Martin and produced by Stan Green and Steve Tyrell. In the hit parade, it made No 75 on the US Hot 100 and No 22 on the R&B chart, which was a disappointment for the singer after the success of “I Don’t Want to Cry”, “I Wake Up Crying” and “Any Day Now”.

What stuck out as I listened to this stately deep-soul ballad, however, was not the wonderful lead vocal. It was the arrangement, featuring strings, acoustic guitar and female vocals — and particularly the drumming, which makes use of the sort of emphatic tom-tom fills that Blaine brought to Phil Spector’s records, and Duncan (or possibly White) to those of the Impressions. And something about their architectural precision made me think of one name: Gary Chester.

Chester was the first-call session drummer in New York during those years. He’s the guy you can hear on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “On Broadway”, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By”, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and many, many others. He was born in Sicily in 1924 (as Cesario Gurciollo) and died in New York 62 years later, having played, by his own account, on some 15,000 sessions.

He wasn’t the only session drummer in New York  in 1960s, of course, but something about the playing on “I Need You” sounded familiar. So I dug around on the internet, and found an email address for one of the producers. I sent a message to his assistant. Sorry to bother you with such a bizarre request after almost 50 years, I said, but could you ask Steve Tyrell if it was indeed Gary Chester on that record — and by the way, were the backing singers Cissy Houston and her nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, which was how it sounded to me?

Forty eight hours later, quite miraculously, the reply arrived, short but very sweet: “Showed this to Steve and he said: Dee Dee and Cissy. Probably on the same session as ‘Since I Don’t Have You’. And it was definitely Gary Chester playing drums. Could have been Dionne as well but he doesn’t remember that.”

I don’t know why it gives me such satisfaction to pass that information out into the world, but it does.

For more great New York session drumming from the mid-’60s, listen to the Four Seasons’ “Dawn”. I used to think that was Gary Chester, too, but it isn’t. It’s Buddy Saltzmann, who also played on Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”, Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And, of course, countless others. In the drum booths of the New York studios, he, Chester and Panama Francis were the men.

Now, about that grant…

The Rainy Day Medley

Medleys used to have a bad name. I could forgive Duke Ellington the habit because he had so much music to get into any given concert (and because he was Duke Ellington), while Dionne Warwick’s 20-song Bacharach/David selection was an exhilarating marathon, particularly when she had a proper orchestra behind her. But not many medleys manage to assemble their component parts in a way that creates a greater meaning.

Here’s one that does. It’s Frank Sinatra, with the help of Nelson Riddle, plaiting together a trio of classic saloon ballads — “Last Night When We Were Young” (music: Harold Arlen/words: Yip Harburg), “Violets For Your Furs” (music: Matt Dennis/words: Tom Adair) and “Here’s That Rainy Day” (music: Jimmy Van Heusen/words: Johnny Burke) — into something that describes the full emotional arc of a love affair. It couldn’t have worked better if the three composers and their lyricists had got their heads together for that express purpose.

I first heard it three or four years ago on the Sinatra: New York  box set, taken from a 1974 concert at Carnegie Hall. This filmed performance seems to have been made the year before, presumably in a television studio. It’s not quite as wonderful in terms of singing and orchestral blend as the version on the CD (although this one benefits from not having a corny spoken introduction), but it’s a precious reminder  of what he could do with songs as sophisticated and timeless as these.

Phil Everly 1939-2014

It was thanks to Perry Como that I first glimpsed the Everly Brothers, singing “Bird Dog” on his TV show in 1959. Matching suits and ties, the kind of perfect quiffs a schoolboy in England could only dream of achieving, and those magnificent Gibson J-180 jumbos. That riff, those voices. They seemed to have come from outer space.

In 1983 I was at the Albert Hall to see them reunite after 10 years of estrangement. It was a famous occasion, and you can find bits of the film on YouTube. Just watch them sing “Let It Be Me”, the final song, to each other. It was, and is, spine-tingling.

Phil died yesterday, aged 74. Don, two years older, has been quoted as saying that he had expected to go first. So another great figure from rock and roll’s early days has left the scene, and there won’t be any more of those glorious two-part harmonies.

I met Phil in the early Seventies, around the time of Pass the Chicken and Listen, the last album the brothers made before falling out, at a time when when they were hopelessly unfashionable. He was friendly and open and I liked him a lot. A few years later he made a single in London with Cliff Richard called “She Means Nothing to Me”, produced by Stuart Colman and with Mark Knopfler on guitar. It’s a record I’ve always loved, and another great way to remember him.

Christmas with Sgt Pepper, Lovely Rita etc

Sgt Pepper 1For some weeks now Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his epic three-volume history of the Beatles, has been staring reproachfully at me from the top of the to-be-read pile. The time to absorb its 900-odd pages will come soon. Meanwhile on Saturday night I took the opportunity to listen to its author give an illustrated talk on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Centenary Theatre in Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, during an evening in aid of the Pepper Foundation, a locally based charity which provides specialised nursing care for children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses.

As it happens, Sgt Pepper is not in my top half-dozen Beatles albums, but the extent of Mark’s erudition and the depth of his engagement are such that I was fascinated by both the background detail and the close analysis he provided while showing related film clips and playing snatches of tapes from the sessions to show how the songs were built up.

It was an absorbing 45 minutes, and a perfect preparation to what happened after a short interval, when the charity’s founder, Robert Breakwell, took his place on a suddenly very crowded stage as the director of a troupe of dozens of musicians and singers, mostly amateurs, all primed to perform the album from beginning to end.

How bad an idea does that sound? How easy was it at that moment to exchange sardonic glances and make mental plans for an early exit and a quick drive back to London? All I can tell you is that the next hour passed in a whirl of surprise and enchantment as performers of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the challenge not just with enthusiasm and energy but with a wonderful degree of imagination.

For the opening “Sgt Pepper” song itself, two cheerleaders held up cue cards — “LAUGH”, “CHEER” etc — to enable us to replicate the sounds borrowed by the Beatles and George Martin from Abbey Road’s library of sound effects. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t going to be an attempt to imitate the original. Each song was interpreted in a way appropriate to the material, the talents of the performers and the resources available on stage, and often given a creative twist.

So we heard “Getting Better” done by five young women in a Spice Girls sort of way, “When I’m 64″ sung by a group of children and “Good Morning, Good Morning” subjected to a delightfully scatty acappella arrangement. “Within You, Without You” featured not just the sound of a sitar but a haunting snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.  “Fixing a Hole” was sung by Mike Burnett in folk-music style to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, a double bass and two backing singers. Claire Boulter’s trained voice was applied with exquisitely transfixing effect to “She’s Leaving Home”, accompanied by a string quartet, a pianist and a choir including many of the night’s performers (a clearly overjoyed Lewisohn among them).

And then came the moment when one or two of us were thinking, “Are they really going to have a go at ‘A Day in the Life’?” How on earth would they cope with the ambition of the album’s concluding track, a towering moment in the Beatles’ musical history? Blow me down if they didn’t succeed quite brilliantly, finding ways to emulate the orchestral glissandi and the final piano chord that fades away into an echoing silence.

It was an amazing thing to hear and feel, and it was one of several moments at which Breakwell and his troupe were able to remind us of the Beatles’ special magic, the quality that will surely persuade history that the benign spell they cast over us was the result not just of some sort of passing pop phenomenon, writ extra-large.

Dionne Warwick: the lost years…

Dionne WarwickThere are days, even now, when only the sound of Dionne Warwick will do. How strange, then, that between 1972 and 1978, when she was in her prime and had the strength of a major record company behind her for the first time, she couldn’t buy a hit.

Try to put yourself in her shoes on the day in 1977 when she sat in the control room of A&R Studios in New York City with her new producers, Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, listening to this final mix. There would have been just a single thought in your head: whatever it is that makes a hit, this one’s got it.

Dionne had already been with Warner Bros for five years, after leaving the independent Scepter Records, where she had spent a decade and enjoyed that astonishing string of hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to sign a $3m contract with a major label in the clear and reasonable expectation of further and even greater success. But her move coincided with the acrimonious sundering of the Bacharach/David partnership, which gave her new label a very nasty shock. The trio made one more album together — Just By Myself, released in 1973 — before a row between the two songwriters resulted in a prolonged series of lawsuits all round.

The hasty search to find new collaborators saw her shuffled, over the next six years, between Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell, Randy Edelman and Joe Porter. Amazingly, none of them could come up with the hit for which she was so anxiously waiting in order to prove that her early success had not been completely dependent on her original Svengalis. The sessions with the Barri-Omartian team represented the last throw of the dice.

“Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” — which you’ll have heard if you clicked on the first link — is included in a compilation called The Complete Warner Bros Singles, which came out earlier this year on the Real Gone Music label, a Warner/Rhino offshoot. It astonishes me now, as it did then, that it failed to give her another  hit. Curiously, the song — written by Frank McDonald, Chris Rae, Ron Roker and Gerry Shury — had been Britain’s entry in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when Polly Brown, late of Pickettywitch, brought it home in 10th place.

Polly Brown was a pretty good pop singer, but she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. This version of “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” is irresistible: three minutes of pop perfection. If it lacks the emotional depth and musical inventiveness of a great Bacharach/David song, it is nevertheless beautifully constructed and performed, full of good things like a great hook, a bubbling bass line, an exultant lead vocal.

The earlier sessions with Jerry Ragovoy produced a track that is among my all-time Dionne favourites: in my view, her exquisitely sultry version of “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” shades earlier treatments of this fine song by Baby Washington, Pat Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister — all of them terrific in their own right, with Dee Dee’s being the closest contender.

Dionne’s album with Thom Bell, Track of the Cat, contained some piercingly lovely songs, such as “His House and Me”, “Ronnie Lee”, “Love Me One More Time” and “Once You Hit the Road”, exposing the incomparable Philadelphia producer/arranger/composer’s debt to Bacharach, in particular the use of syncopation to create hooks. But Bell couldn’t repeat the formula that delivered “Then Came You”, with which he had given Warwick a No 1 in collaboration with the Spinners.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the the story. After Dionne and Warner Bros parted company in 1978, a move to Arista and collaborations with Barry Manilow and Barry Gibb propelled her back into the charts. The preceding period was quietly forgotten as the Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the Gibb-composed “Heartbreaker” lengthened the list of her greatest hits.

Now, in addition to the complete Warners singles collection, Dionne’s unhappy time with the Burbank label is commemorated by We’ve Got to Go Back, a new Real Gone Music compilation containing 19 songs that never found their way on to the release schedule. It’s aimed at completists and obsessives like me, I suppose, but the Holland-Dozier tracks “Too Far Out of Reach” and “It Hurts Me So” are fine examples of early-70s soul, and “Am I Too Late” and “I’ll Never Make It Easy (To Say Goodbye)”, supervised by Joe Porter, are gorgeous grown-up ballads. I wouldn’t want to be without them.

It was sad to read about the financial problems that drove her to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. She deserves better than that.

* The photograph of Dionne Warwick is from the sleeve of We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters and is uncredited.

Making the wiseguys dance

Peppermint TwistWas Ringo Starr genuinely lucky not to get whacked by a Mafia hitman named Romeo “Scarface” Martin when the Beatles visited the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge in 1964? That’s what John Johnson Jr and Joel Selvin, the authors of Peppermint Twist, would like you to believe.  Their new book, which tells the story behind the club where the Twist first became a sensation, comes complete with a colourful endorsement from Ronnie Spector, who danced there before she became a Ronette: “The Sopranos meets American Bandstand!”

That’s not an entirely misleading summary. In the end Romeo Martin, despite being infuriated by his girlfriend’s crush on Ringo, didn’t try to whack the mop-topped drummer. But plenty of others meet an unpleasant end in the course of the story, not least Johnny Biello, a caporegime with the Genovese crime family. Biello was the undeclared owner of the Peppermint Lounges in New York and Miami and the father-in-law of Dick Cami, who managed the two clubs during their heyday, before they were sold in the mid-60s. It is Cami (born Camillucci) whose testimony provides the authors with the bulk of their material. He, of course, never whacked anyone, although he considered it once or twice.

A couple of years ago I had some fun marking the 50th anniversary of the Twist’s rise to prominence by writing this feature for the Guardian‘s Weekend magazine. I can remember back in 1962 going to see the exploitation film Hey, Let’s Twist, which featured Joey Dee and the Starliters performing the hit that made the 45th Street club famous — or, rather, even more famous, since it had already acquired gossip-column notoriety for attracting an A-list clientele including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Norman Mailer to a joint that could accommodate fewer than 200 people and had formerly doubled as a leather bar and Mob meeting place. The book’s authors add as much detail as they can unearth to a rather slender story, fleshing it out with a lot of true-crime material gleaned from Cami.

Interesting musical figures flit in and out, including Hank Ballard, the first man to record “The Twist”; Chubby Checker, who had the hits; the great guitarist Lonnie Mack, who backed the singer Troy Seals at the Miami club; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, unsuccessfully trying to replace the fading Twist with a Ska craze in 1964; and Nat King Cole — who, according to the authors, spent a week sitting in on keyboards with the Peppermint Lounge house band in Florida in order to learn how to play rock and roll.  But they are seriously outnumbered by the wiseguys.

* Peppermint Twist is published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press. The title of this piece is adapted from Making the Wiseguys Weep, David Evanier’s excellent biography of the New Jersey-born singer Jimmy Roselli (1925-2011), a perennial favourite with mobsters. The copy of “Peppermint Twist Pts 1 and 2″ is from the author’s collection.

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