Today, once more, we’re pleased to welcome back the creator and host of our favorite music Blog, “The Round Place In The Middle” Mr. John W Ross is joining us today to share his always unique and thoughtful perspective on music and the Universe that surrounds it! You are gonna love what John has in store for us today! So,without any further delay “Here’s Johnny”
Of all the shocking developments that came to be called Rock ‘n’ Roll during the 1950s, the quietest and deepest may have occurred in March 1957, when twenty-year-old Don Everly and his eighteen-year-old brother Phil released “Bye Bye Love.” The record became an across-the-board smash, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the country chart and #5 on the R&B chart.
A few months later, the follow-up, “Wake Up, Little Susie,” hit the top of all three charts.
To appreciate the miraculous nature of all this, simply recall that the Appalachian harmony tradition from which the Everlys hailed had previously been strictly niche music even with country audiences. Doubtless they had their own unique sound, but then so had the Bolick, Monroe, Stanley, Louvin and other less well known “brother” acts who preceded them. Bill Monroe, the superstar of the bunch after he left his brother Charlie and became the Father of Bluegrass, had seven hits on the country charts in the late 40s, only two of which made the top ten.
Pop crossover wasn’t even a dream.
Once the Everlys made that crossover a stunning reality, mountain harmony was as deep a root in the rock & roll tree as the call-and-response styles that had grown out of white and black gospel and bel canto arrangements which, melded into a cacophony, someone was fated, if not bound, to call “doo wop” (insert your preferred spelling/hyphenation here).
All of which brings us the 60s, when Everlys’ harmonies went everywhere, providing a launching pad for whatever happened whenever anyone wanted to sing close or contrapuntal harmony—as opposed to call-and-response or choral harmony—with an ear for the charts.
Of course other elements were added along the way—urban folk, in particular, had its own traditions—but the bedrock remained. By the time Peter, Paul and Mary, straight out of Greenwich Village, put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time with “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, they owed more to the Everlys than they did to the Weavers (even if they’d have died before admitting it). By the time the Beach Boys, chiming in from the other coast, hit the top ten in same year, Brian Wilson had married the basic concept to the posher elements of the Four Freshman and opened up a sound as big as the ocean. By the time John Lennon and Paul McCartney, paying direct homage, stood eight feet apart and doubled the lead of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, the sound was ready to take over the world.
About two-and-a-half minutes later, it did. The age of vocal harmony had descended.
Was it entirely coincidence that it arrived just as the world was spinning into chaos—a chaos the white middle-class which provided most of the performers and nearly all of the audience was almost singularly unprepared for?
Who knows? Is God real? Is the Cosmos?
I tend to say yes to all of this, but there are no definitive answers. Vocal harmonies haunt and soothe like nothing else. One minute you’re smiling at the sheer sublimity of it all. Two breaths later a ghost is walking down your spine. Start singing along and the ghost goes away. Until you hit the chorus and it swoops back in and fills the room.
Come the mid-sixties that had to have been a valuable juxtaposition, if what you wanted to do was make sense of it all. More valuable, I suspect, if you wanted to escape. Nobody, not even Lennon and McCartney, ever quite scaled the Everest-element of the Everlys style—swapping smooth and contrapuntal harmonies so seamlessly they made two voices sound like four.
But the variations practiced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, PP&M (and Turtles and Association and 5th Dimension and Peter and Gordon and Hollies and on and on), was a left turn into ecstasy. I know, because that ecstasy was still there, readily accessible, when I started listening to, and singing along with, those voices in the 70s.
By then, they added up to a collective statement, a place a better world might have gone. Access the entire universe of 60s music and nothing brings the promise of the decade quite so close as all that harmony.
Living through the 70s, coming of age in the midst of churning crapulence that didn’t offer the romance of either revolution or dropping out, it wasn’t hard to notice that it was the harmony that had slipped away. Soul music was still alive and well. And there were a hundred bands who could do first, second or third-rate imitations of the Rolling Stones (they called it Classic Rock).
Nobody could sing like the Beach Boys or the Beatles or the Mamas & the Papas. Not even Abba. I know that too. I was there, with my ear glued to the radio, hoping.
Time passed. It seemed like an age even if all I did was finish high school and college.
Nothing happened. Not with harmony.
Well, not in my world.
Out in California, some people my age, with whom I probably had nothing else in common, had experienced something similar. A lot of them had grown up listening to the radio in the actual 60s (I hadn’t—didn’t start until I was fifteen, long story). They coalesced around an attempt to recapture the spirit and sound of 60s harmony that someone was fated, if not bound, to call Paisley Underground.
It should have never amounted to anything more than a local scene, one more squawk from dreamland, where such scenes were more discussed than heard. Except that, with everything against them, a group called the Bangles came straight out of Paisley and gave the old harmonies one last ride up the charts. Hindered by their 60s nostalgia and their gender right up to the moment they broke loose on the charts and made it all seem obvious, they got little credit for being visionaries. How “obvious” their success was became apparent only over the ensuing three decades plus where, year-by-year, the number of groups who stepped in to carry the torch they had picked up from the Beatles and the Byrds remained the same: None.
It was all a bit poignant for me, because my own devotion to 60s harmony was so complete that I didn’t hear the Bangles in their time. I hear them now, especially their first, semi-successful, LP, and realize they were great because they were the only band that dared to act as though the 70s never happened. And because it was only after they sold millions of records that anybody believed you could really get away with it. And because nobody else did.
Like most harmony groups, the Bangles didn’t last long. Is it even irony that so many of rock’s most famous feuds—John and Paul, Paul and Artie, Brian Wilson and Mike Love, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby—sprang from groups who sang a particular style of harmony?
Perhaps not, if we consider the source.
When the Everlys got back together in the 80s, they were slated as the opening act for the similarly reformed Simon & Garfunkel. Years later, I saw Art Garfunkel being interviewed on television and, after calling them the “gods of harmony,” he told a story of the tour’s opening night.
The entire afternoon passed and everyone assembled in the arena only to discover that Phil and Don were nowhere to be found. Calls were made, no answer. Scouts sent out, no dice. Simon & Garfunkel started making decisions about what they were going to do if their opening act didn’t show up.
Finally, ten minutes before show time, two Cadillacs pulled into the parking lot from different directions. Phil got out of one car, carrying his guitar case. Don got out of the other one, carrying his. They proceeded to the stage, gave a knockout, note-perfect performance. Then they got in their separate cars and drove away, without speaking to each other anywhere but the stage.
That was pretty much how the gods of harmony related to each other until Phil’s death, in 2014,
seldom speaking to each other except when they sang together.
It seems appropriate somehow.
Forged by a childhood spent on their parents’ old time gospel radio show, they had bequeathed the next generation a sound that held the world together in the face of war, riot, and assassination, only to end as bitter enemies, unable to speak to each other, like one of them had come from a red state and the other a blue.
There’s the Cosmos for you.
SMS SEZ; If you’d like to read more from John and specifically the peerless 60’s harmonies of The Mamas and The Papas, enjoy this ironic, final piece from the Everly’s! Then, click this link, you’ll be California Dreaming and much more https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=6198