Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Book Reviews Continue ... With A Couple of New Bio's

Jim Pike, founding member of The Lettermen, has put his life story down on paper in a brand new book called "My Letterman Years ... The Journey To Hell And Back!" (iUniverse - $13.95) Available here: Click here: My Lettermen Years: The Journey To Hell and Back!: Jim Pike: 9781475940794: Books   

It's a very interesting (albeit short) read ... coming in at just over 100 pages, it won't take you long to digest this one. And, because it IS so interesting, it tends to read very quickly.  

Pike documents his years with the incredibly popular vocal trio ... and details his own personal trauma when he lost his voice and had to walk away from the very band he had founded.   (Forgotten Hits reported the death of original Letterman Bobby Engemann, who passed away earlier this week.  It was Bobby who came up with the name for the group.  In the late '60's, he was replaced by Jim's brother Gary, a frequent Forgotten Hits contributor.)     

After trying his hand at any number of vocal combinations before finding the perfect blend of voices and styles, Pike finally hit pay dirt in 1961 when The Lettermen signed with Capitol Records and scored three straight Top 20 Hits: "The Way You Look Tonight" (#8, 1961), "When I Fall In Love" (#7, 1962) and "Come Back, Silly Girl" (#17, 1962).   

Other hits would follow but it was on the Album Chart and the Adult Contemporary Chart where The Lettermen REALLY shined. Their records sold well all over the world and, between 1962 and 1973, they hit Billboard's Album Chart an incredible 33 times. Most of the time, these LPs were filled with The Lettermen singing their own versions of the latest pop hits ... three of these albums were recorded live in concert, one was a Christmas album and a couple were greatest hits collections ... but, all in all, ten of these LPs made The Top 40 ... and four of those went Gold. Their performance on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart was even more remarkable. The Lettermen had an impressive 23 Top 20 Hits, including Top Five Smashes like "The Way You Look Tonight" (#3, 1961); "When I Fall In Love" (#1, 1962); "Come Back Silly Girl" (#3, 1962); "Theme from 'A Summer Place'" (#2, 1965); "I Only Have Eyes For You" (#4, 1966); "Goin' Out Of My Head / Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (#2, 1968); "Hurt So Bad" (#2, 1969) and their "Traces / Memories" medley, (#3, 1970).    

"Goin' Out Of My Head / Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (#7) became a "comeback" hit of sorts in 1968 when The Lettermen strung together a live medley of the Little Anthony and the Imperials and Frankie Valli '60's classics ... in fact, the combo pairing ultimately became the biggest hit of their career on the pop charts. Another Little Anthony remake, "Hurt So Good", followed it up the charts a year later, ultimately peaking at #12.    

Pike describes life on the road and tells some very humorous "on stage" stories along the way. The loss of his voice ... and ultimately being ousted from his own band ... are sad stories to be sure. Through it all, however, his loyalty to wife and family are really driven home, as is the love for his daughter Kelly. At various times, two of his brothers (Gary and Donny) also sang in the band, making The Lettermen a real family affair. 

Today (thanks to a legal buy-out of the registered name), The Lettermen perform without any Pike family members ... and Jim and Gary sing in an act billed as "Reunion". "My Lettermen Years" is a quick read and an enjoyable one. Recommended. (kk)    

C'mon ... NOBODY's life can be this perfect!!! There are times when it's almost too saccharinely sweet ... I mean, come on ... The Lettermen toured all over the world ... they were a group of VERY good looking men with BEAUTIFUL voices, playing to college (and Vegas) audiences all the time. You just KNOW there had to be women throwing themselves at them. Now I realize that Jim has been married to the same woman for nearly five decades ... and that they are STILL happily married to this day ... but there must have been SOME temptation. I'm not saying he had to dish some dirt ... I respect his marital boundaries ... but NOBODY is THIS perfect!!! The closest he comes to even implying that there was even so much as an attraction or temptation is when he mentions that June Lockhart (who he refers to as "Lassie's Mom") seemed to have had a "crush" on him ... but even that appears to have been 100% on HER part and not on his.   

I also would have liked to have heard more about the "comeback" years. After three quick hits in 1961 / 1962, The Lettermen were absent from the pop charts for about six years, save their vocal remake of "Theme From 'A Summer Place'", which hit The Top 20 in 1965. The success of "Goin' Out Of My Head / Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Hurt So Bad" had to be quite unexpected ... and, I would think, have really turned their world around. As such, I would have loved to have heard more about their reaction to this sudden new-found popularity ... and what it meant to them as entertainers, both emotionally and commercially. I think this would have made for a very interesting chapter in his life ... and thus a key point of enjoyment for the reader as well. (kk)    


HIGH STRUNG by Mike Rabon ... A Memoir from the founder, lead singer and lead writer of THE FIVE AMERICANS (Aberdeen Bay - available thru ... Click here: High Strung (9781608300471): Mike Rabon: Books)  

I couldn't wait to read Mike Rabon's book, especially after talking with him briefly for our All-Time Favorite Garage Bands Series.  

EVERY review I read ... bar none ... raved about Mike's story ... and, I have to admit, it grabs you right from the get-go.   

Chapter One deals with every thought that crossed his mind while he contemplated suicide, high on some unknown substance that, to this day, he still can't identify. It's chilling to read him mentally consider ... and then dismiss ... each potential suicide method before finally coming to his senses and putting it off for at least another day.  

Then, in Chapter Two, he starts from the beginning, going back to his childhood, his first guitar and his love for music ... and this pattern continues throughout the book. Each alternating chapter shows Mike in his "today" world of the early-to-mid-'70's, post-Five Americans success, when living was nothing more than drug-induced shambles ... followed by the exciting story of the band making it ... and ultimately scoring five straight Top 40 Hits in 1966 and 1967.  

It's an interesting technique ... and it holds you spellbound as you watch what "could have been" quickly spiral and dissolve into what sadly became of Mike Rabon, junkie.   

Ripped off by his manager and record company (who, in this case, were one and the same), it sounds like he never really had a chance ... and he ultimately lost it all.  

Along the way, he shares some interesting tidbits about rock and roll life in the '60's ... appearances on all of the hot TV shows ... creating HUGE hit records like "Western Union" (and how they came up with the dit-dit-dit concept to the song) ... believe it or not, the original lyrics had the word "stop" after every line, mimicking an actual Western Union telegram before they came up with the "sound" idea of typing out a telegram instead, thus creating the song's greatest hook. He even admits to writing their follow-up hit song "Zip Code" "on demand" to keep the communication theme going, something that I had alluded to in my Five Americans bio in our Garage Band Series without any basis of "fact", just observation and speculation ... it's especially interesting to see that I called it right! (lol) 

Mike describes in glorious detail the downfall of Abnak Records (and the sleazy, behind-the-scenes story of its owner, John Abdnor, Sr., who also acted as the band's manager, and his son, Jon Abnor, Jr., who went on to have a Top 20 Hit for the label as Jon and Robin with "Do It Again, Just A Little Bit Slower" ... another one of my Forgotten Hits favorites.  Robin ... real name Javonne Braga ... would go on to marry James Wright, one of The Five Americans!)  The story behind the "colorful" lawsuit between Abnak Records and AM Powerhouse KLIF Radio in Dallas, who refused to play or chart their second hit record "EVOL, Not Love" because Abdnor, Sr. had given the exclusive "first play" rights to a competing radio station in town, is fascinating! 

You'll read how Mike had his throat slit by a drug-crazed hooker ... and how he "broke his face" in a reckless highway accident. You'll read how, despite a pact agreed to by all five members of The Five Americans that drugs would NEVER play a part in their career, Rabon ended up a hopeless junkie, desperate and willing to go through just about any measure to make one more score. (He even tried dealing drugs at one point in time ... but found that he was using more than he was selling ... pretty tough to turn a profit that way!) 

In between it all is a fascinating look at "making it in the '60's" ... and the interplay between Mike's two storylines makes this a "can't put it down" read.  

All-in-all, highly recommended ... but with some reservations ... be sure to read our "IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING" observation below before purchasing.   

Do some fact checking before you write a book!!! Get your timelines right ... check and double check before you commit it to print. 

As good as this book was, it nearly lost me in the second chapter. That's where Mike Rabon described one of the "most vivid memories" of his life ... getting his own record player in 1953 and plopping down the brand new Elvis records "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" on his little turntable ... and being absolutely mesmerized by the colorful Sun Record Label spinning round and round.   

Absolutely, positively 100% false ... and I've got to be honest with you ... when I read something like this, it makes every word I read afterwards questionable in my mind. If he got something as simple, obvious and well-documented as THIS wrong, what OTHER kinds of mistakes are going to pop up throughout the book that I also probably shouldn't believe?!?!?  

"Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" BOTH came out in 1956, not 1953 ... and they both came out on the RCA Victor Record Label, not Sun. In fact, "Heartbreak Hotel" was Elvis' first RCA release after the label purchased his contract from Sam Phillips for the then staggering sum of $35,000. 

What's really scary to see is that a good percentage of Mike's book is off by the same three or four year timeline.  

According to "High Strung", Mike partied in Dallas with Paul and Linda McCartney in 1974, where they were renting rehearsal space for their American tour ... even though McCartney and Wings toured America for the very first time in 1976. 

Mike was also driving around in 1974 listening to the Fleetwood Mac album "Rumours" non-stop on his 8-track player ... three years before the album was actually released. Even the most casual reader will begin to wonder if Mike Rabon got three year advance copies of EVERYTHING!!!  

And, quite honestly, it's difficult to believe MOST of what he remembers in his non-stop drug-induced stupor ... if he was even HALF as fucked-up as he presents himself to be, I don't know how he could possibly remember a thing ... much less in such colorful detail!!! 

It's also hard to imagine that the chick famous for her plaster-caster penis collection (which included the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and Jim Morrison) would recognize Mike Rabon from the nameless, faceless band The Five Americans in a Dallas bar ... and want to add HIS cock to her Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame collection. Granted, The Five Americans had five straight Top 40 Hits between January of 1966 and September of 1967 ... but I doubt that there's an educated Forgotten Hits Reader out there who can name all five of them without looking it up ... much less identify them by name from an album cover photograph in their hey-day, let alone seven years later in a dark bar!  

Yet, despite ALL of these distractions, I have to admit that Mike has written a fascinating book. It's well-written, never dull and tells the tale of almost having it all ... only to wind up down and out in the gutter, down to your last quarter. Having ... and losing ... everything, including your fame, your fortune and your personal dignity is not a story that Mike is proud to tell. However, it shows again how drink and drugs can destroy your very being ... and for that reason alone, it deserves digestion by any up-and-coming rock and roll wannabe ... or anyone who ever dreamed of what fame and fortune and success might be like in the music business ... it's not a pretty picture (and hopefully serves as a "wake-up call" to a few folks out there.  

The good news is that, thanks to his family's intervention, Mike DID clean up his act and was able to pull things together, ultimately following in both of his parents' footsteps by becoming a school teacher.  I have to believe that he would be the first to admit that he is one of the fortunate ones who made it through the storm ... and lived to tell about it.    

As stated earlier, the reviews for this book have been exceptional ... every one I've read praises the way Mike tells his story ... and he's a GREAT storyteller. I just wish he had spent a little more time getting his facts straight ... as it would make so much more of this believable.  

Still, I cannot help but recommend this book ... it offers some fascinating insight into trying to make it in the '60's. I have to believe that MOST bands coming up in this area were manipulated and mistreated by their managers in much the same way that Mike and The Five Americans were ... and that's a shame. On the plus side, many, many years later it sounds like John Abdnor Sr.'s wife finally sent some legitimate royalty money their way ... and how often does THAT happen?!?!? (kk)