Thursday, October 18, 2012

Remembering A Couple of '60's Classics


Blake Baker "B.B." Cunningham,Jr., lead singer and organist for the Hombres and co-writer of their #12 1967 hit "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)", died in an apparent shootout with a gang member early Sunday October 14). The 70 year-old B.B. was serving as a security guard for an apartment complex and went to investigate a gunshot nearby. Police found him and a teenaged boy dead when they arrived. B.B., whose brother Bill was a member of the Box Tops, played in the touring version of Ronny and the Daytonas (which later became the Hombres) and also in Jerry Lee Lewis' band from 1977 on. He had been a recording engineering Memphis and Los Angeles, working with such artists as Billy Joel, Elton John, and Lou Rawls.
-- Ron Smith
"Let It Out" was a HUGE hit here in Chicago, climbing all the way to #2. A novelty track that certainly cught your attention when you first heard it, this one wore thin for me quickly when my brother played it CONSTANTLY at home. (I do remember the B-Side ... "Go Girl Go" wasn't a bad track at all!) Hailing out of Memphis, Tennessee, that opening recitation came from the 1948 Red Ingle country / novelty hit "Cigareetes, Whuskey And Wild, Wild Women". I remember buying their follow-up single, too ("It's A Gas"), thinking that it might be a cover of the Alfred E. Newman classic ... it wasn't. Bye bye B.B. (kk)

Check out the Red Ingle track here:


Ron Smith tells us of another recent passing ...
Marty "Bo" Fortson, guitarist and lead singer on the Rivieras' California Sun" died September 26 in South Bend, Indiana. He was 67. The group (originally the Playmates but re-named after the Buick Riviera) was formed at South Bend Central High School during the height of the military draft and Marty decided to join the Marines shortly after recording "California Sun" in nearby Chicago. He could only listen to his radio as the song went to #5 in 1964, thanks to exposure from DJ Art Roberts on WLS-AM in Chicago. "I was in Vietnam, and I kept hearing 'California Sun' on Armed Forces Radio," he said in a 1999 interview with Bob Greene. "'Out there havin' fun in the warm California sun'? Try the warm Vietnam sun." It was followed by three other tunes which never broke the top 90 in Billboard but were big hits in Chicago (their manager was Chicago promoter and label owner Howard Bedno and the B-side
of "California Sun" was named "HB Goosestep" in his honor.) Within two years, however, the rest of the group called it quits, as well. Marty went on to play in a group called Wildcat before taking a job at
Bendix / Allied Signal and managing a furniture store.
Tying into your recent articles, this points out again the power of WLS ... and their willingness not to "play it safe".
-- Ron Smith

The Rivieras charted here in Chicago six times on the WLS Silver Dollar Survey ... "California Sun" peaked at #3, followed by their two-sided hit "Let's Have A Party" / "Little Donna", which went to #4. Then came their version of "Rockin' Robin", a #8 hit, wrapping up 1964. In 1965 they charted twice ... first with "Let's Go To Hawaii" (#25) and then with "Somebody New" (#32).

They've been featured numerous times in Forgotten Hits, including THIS spotlight feature from 2006:

THE RIVIERAS are pretty much regarded as just another One Hit Wonder group ... but boy, what a hit it was! CALIFORNIA SUN perfectly captured the surfin' sound of sunny California ... all the more amazing when you consider that the record was released in JANUARY by a band out of South Bend,

As somewhat of a "local" band, THE RIVIERAS tore up the Chicagoland charts in 1964 and 1965, placing SIX songs in Chicago's Top 40, despite never rising out of the 90's on Billboard's Pop Singles Chart after their Top Five Smash, CALIFORNIA SUN.

Here in Chicago, their follow-up single was a two-sided hit. LITTLE DONNA peaked at #11 and LET'S HAVE A PARTY went all the way to #4 (one shy of CALIFORNIA SUN's #3 local showing earlier that year.) These hits were followed by yet another Top Ten Chicagoland Hit, THE RIVIERAS' version of the old BOBBY DAY song ROCKIN' ROBIN, which went all the way to #8. (All of these tunes charted in Billboard but at peaks of #93, #99 and #96 respectively ... so these songs ABSOLUTELY qualify as LOCAL HITS!!!)

Two more RIVIERAS singles snuck into the Chicagoland charts despite never denting the national trades ... LET'S GO TO HAWAII went to #25 in April of 1965 and SOMEBODY NEW peaked at #32 five months later in September.

CALIFORNIA SUN was first recorded by JOE JONES, who had a #2 smash in 1960 called YOU TALK TOO MUCH. (In fact, CALIFORNIA SUN was JONES' only other chart hit ... but it stalled at #81 in the Spring of 1961. All things considered, it's pretty amazing that anyone even remembered it at all!)

But in 1962, a South Bend, Indiana, Central High School Band (then called THE PLAYMATES), put together the cheesy organ hook (performed by former ACCORDION player OTTO NUSS!!!), added the VERY heavy drums of PAUL DENNERT and, along with guitarists MARTY FORTSON and JOE PENNELL and crosstown Washington High bassist DOUG GEAN, turned the song into a surfing anthem that still sounds great everytime it comes on the radio.

The band was discovered by local promoter BILL DOBSLAW, who booked them as the house band at the nearby LaPorte club TIPTON TERRACE, where they were soon packing in 600-700 kids on a Saturday night. Shortly thereafter, THE PLAYMATES were making appearances throughout the midwest, always returning home in time for their weekend gigs at THE TIPTON TERRACE. On a trip to Chicago in the Summer of 1963, DOBSLAW took the band into COLUMBIA RECORDING STUDIO, where they recorded what they felt would be their first hit single, PLAYED ON. The whole self-financed session took all of an hour, and there was even time left over to squeeze in a quick recording of their club favorite, CALIFORNIA SUN, to be used as the single's B-Side.

It was at this time that the band decided they needed a name change. (ROULETTE RECORDS already had a recording act called THE PLAYMATES ... of BEEP BEEP fame ... under contract and there was no doubt that their notorious label boss, MORRIS LEVY, would "levy" a quick lawsuit against anyone else trying to record under that name. Ironically, LEVY eventually earned royalties on THE RIVIERAS' recording of CALIFORNIA SUN, as he was listed as a co-writer of the tune ... as he OFTEN was for many of his ROULETTE artists ... when JOE JONES first released his version on LEVY's ROULETTE label back in 1961!)

The Buick Riviera was the hot new car on the market back in 1963 ... it seemed like every car manufacturer was trying to come up with THEIR own version of this FINE new driving machine. As such,
THE PLAYMATES quickly became THE RIVIERAS and BILL DOBSLAW even had the record pressed on the RIVIERA Record Label ... which he then quickly sent to radio stations and record shops throughout Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. (Incredibly, one of the Niles, Michigan, teenage record clerks who sold the single on consignment was a young kid named TOMMY JACKSON ... who, with his own teenage
backup band, THE SHONDELLS, would go on to record HANKY PANKY under his new stage name of TOMMY JAMES later that same year!!! Their recording would sit dormant for three years before a
Pittsburgh, PA, disc jockey started playing it on his program in 1966 ... making it one of the biggest hits of that year ... and of the '60's!!! Perhaps even MORE ironic: THE RIVIERAS recorded HANKY PANKY
for their 1965 album release CAMPUS PARTY, a year before the TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS single was re-released!!!) And, bringing the whole thing full cycle, that re-release came at the hands of Morris Levy and his Roulette Records label! (You can read all about the connection between The Playmates / Tommy James and the notorious Morris Levy in Tommy's book "Me, The Mob And The Music".

Before the record even had a chance to catch on, MARTY FORTSON and JOE PENNELL had already enlisted in The Marines!!! It wouldn't take them long to regret THAT decision! "I was in 'Nam getting shot at and I heard the record," FORTSON told WAYNE JANCIK, author of THE BILLBOARD BOOK OF ONE HIT WONDERS. "I thought, 'Oh man, you blew it!'"

With FORTSON and PENNELL out of the band, manager BILL DOBSLAW took over the lead vocals. They then added guitarist JIM BOAL and waited for PLAYED ON to climb the charts. It didn't happen. 

Finally, legendary WLS deejay ART ROBERTS flipped the record over and started playing CALIFORNIA SUN repeatedly on his late night program. Within days, local Chicagoland record label USA RECORDS picked up the tune for distribution. Soon, CALIFORNIA SUN was climbing the national charts, too ... and it's gone on to become a '60's Summer Anthem.

Quite honestly, despite this new-found success, DOBSLAW and GEAN stood by and watched as THE RIVIERAS became an on-going vicious circle of band members filing through the proverbial revolving door of pop music semi-stardom and, by the end of 1965, even they decided to shut things down.

Nobody else may remember these songs ... but here in Chicago THE RIVIERAS tore things up in 1964 / 1965 with these three hits: LITTLE DONNA, LET'S HAVE A PARTY and ROCKIN' ROBIN ... all part of our
FORGOTTEN HITS / LOCAL HITS Series here today!!!

WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?!?!?: How come when BRIAN WILSON wrote SURFIN' USA, patterned after CHUCK BERRY's tune SWEET LITTLE SIXTEEN, he ultimately had to give cowriting credit (and a substantial amount of royalties) to The Grandfather of Rock And Roll ... yet THE RIVIERAS' surfin' tune
LITTLE DONNA ... a blatant rip off of BERRY's ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC ... only shows leader BILL DOBSLAW's name under the title as songwriter?!?!?

DIDJAKNOW-1?: Much like THE VENTURES' remake of WALK DON'T RUN '64, THE RIVIERAS released a revamped version of CALIFORNIA SUN '65 ... with no luck at all!

DIDJAKNOW-2?: After CALIFORNIA SUN started to catch on as a hit single, THE RIVIERAS went back into the studio to record a new B-Side. Still believing that PLAYED ON could be a hit in its own right if
given a chance, they threw together a track called H.B. GOOSE STEP, the title a tribute to USA Records
promotions man HOWARD BEDNO, who had an industry reputation for his peculiar walk. They reissued the record with this new B-Side, holding on to PLAYED ON for a subsequent single release. Copies of the ORIGINAL 45 release (with PLAYED ON on one side) are now collectibles, worth about $40-$50 in Mint Condition. (By the way, despite their faith in the song, PLAYED ON never hit the charts!) Illustrating again the aforementioned revolving door of musicians that plagued the band, by the time H.B. GOOSE STEP was recorded, JIM BOAL had already replaced MARTY FORTSON and JOE PENNELL on guitar!

DIDJAKNOW?-3: HANKY PANKY was written by JEFF BARRY and ELLIE GREENWICH and was first recorded back in 1963 by THE RAINDROPS, a studio group they were actively involved with. (The story goes that THEY needed a B-Side for THEIR new single, too ... so BARRY and GREENWICH went out into the hall and wrote HANKY PANKY in about twenty minutes as pretty much a throw-away tune.) But TOMMY JAMES says that HE first heard the song when it was performed by "a group in a club in South Bend, Indiana." Incredibly, that group just happened to be THE PLAYMATES (pre-RIVIERAS fame) who turned TOMMY on to what would become his first #1 Record!!! The original pressing (on SNAP
RECORDS) sold pretty well regionally here in Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. (In fact, I got MY first
copy of the single on SNAP for eleven cents at the neighborhood dime store!!! It has since become a VERY collectible record!) Once the Pittsburgh DJ gave the song some exposure, it was picked up by ROULETTE RECORDS (see how all this stuff ties together) for national distribution ... and launched their phenomenal career! (By then, the ORIGINAL SHONDELLS that recorded the tune had already split up and TOMMY had to put together a completely new band to tour and record behind the hit single's success!!!)