The Sixties As They Almost Were

Hey SMS readers!  This week we’re introducing our very special guest blogger, who has contributed todays’ Featured Article! He is the very talented JOHN ROSS, who has a fantastic blog over at http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/.  We’ve been following John and his blog for quite sometime and always enjoy his take on music and the world,  We’re excited to have John join us and believe your going to love what he does.

Sooo, enjoy John’s debut post and then be sure to click over to HIS SITE! Click on the link above and get a taste of “The Round Place In The Middle! ~ Rick

The Sixties produced a lot of narratives. The one I both like and lament the most is the one that went missing—that can only be caught in glimpses and fragments, lying between the cracks of the competing mosaics of the Good Sixties (Idealism, Progress, Hope) and the Bad Sixties (War, Riot, Assassination, Chaos) that dominate our collective memory.

There are other places to catch these fragments, but the best place, as always, is the music. For my first column here, I selected fifteen sides (whittled down from hundreds of possibilities) that define a world that seemed within reach but never quite arrived.

I like to tell people I never get nostalgic for the past, only for the future that didn’t happen. These are some of the records that, if you listen close, still point to that future, even if—or maybe because—I’ve never heard a single one of them on the radio.radio

I didn’t pay attention to chronology. Just to the story they might tell.

1) “I’ll Never Learn”
The Shangri-Las (1967)
(B-Side of “Sweet Sound of Summer” which reached #123 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Chart)

Shangs’ lead singer Mary Weiss has mentioned this as one of her own favorites. Mercury’s failure to promote it as an A-side, just after they signed the group away from Red Bird, is but one of many Mysteries of the Ages that seemed to catch up to her group at every turn and make Mary the great lost voice of her generation. This should have been in constant rotation on the radio and the theme song of LBJ’s White House Staff meetings. Who knows? Maybe somebody would have caught on and 1968, then just around the corner, would have been something other than the year we never walked away from.

2) “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1967)
Pop #20, R&B #10

One of the bigger hits on this list, though it doesn’t seem to have made much impact at Oldies Radio once its time on the charts was done. Fierce though the competition is, it might be Smokey’s greatest vocal and lyric, as well as the group’s greatest arrangement. Black America has always had a special gift for songs that mean more than the words. This one was presumably about a lost lover who did the singer dirty. But Robinson could have been singing it to the decade, or the country…or the future where we now live. Same difference.

3) “Six White Horses”
Waylon Jennings (1969)
Not released as a single. Best heard on the bottomless box set Nashville Rebel.

The starkest ant-war song of that or any era. Jennings must have known there was no way in hell Nashville would release it to radio. He was lucky enough to get it on an album two years later. But it doesn’t sound like it could have been recorded in any other town or any other year. And it doesn’t sound like it could have been taken on by any other singer. Waylon was already an outlaw in everything but name, but the mere fact this record was made in such an ultra-conservative environment meant the war in Viet Nam was doomed to failure, even if, in 1969, nobody heard it outside of the studio where it was recorded.

4) “It Won’t Be This Way Always”
The King Pins (1963)
#12 R&B

Enough of a staple in the Carolina scene to make some beach music collections. (I first heard it on a great vinyl comp called Shagger’s Delight.) Otherwise one of the more obscure records here. The King Pins were really the Kelly Brothers, a Chicago-based gospel group who released their secular records under another name, presumably to avoid the kind of heat Sam Cooke took from his base when he abandoned gospel for pop a few years earlier. This was their only national success. It sits just after Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1962 version of “500 Miles” as the earliest record to sound as though someone had glimpsed the future and decided to sing as though it had already come and gone—and been endured. It’s possible I hear it this way because I don’t dance.

5) “Do What You Gotta Do”
Clarence Carter (1968)
Not released as a single. The lead track of Carter’s first (magnificent) LP, This is Clarence Carter.

One of Jimmy Webb’s slightly lesser known songs (though still oft-covered—the man was on a roll in those days). Carter, fabulous up-tempo, was somewhat limited as a ballad singer, but here, his limitations, straining against one of Webb’s characteristic soaring melodies, lift the song out of context and make it a kind of answer record to “It Won’t Be This Way Always.” He caught a sense of melancholy that better singers like Al Wilson and Levi Stubbs, didn’t convey half as well. It will always be this way, Clarence’s mournful, pitch-challenged tone says deeply, painfully, even as the words insist he really doesn’t mind.

6) “When I’m Gone”
Phil Ochs (1966)
Not released as a single. The final track on Phil Ochs in Concert.

Ochs was perhaps the purest of the folkies and live and acoustic was the essence of the folkie. (NOTE: Some of the tracks on Concert were re-recorded in the studio, a common practice of the time—nobody’s entirely pure!) It’s a challenging record, in some sense the equivalent of a tract. But Ochs’ delivery, a blend of dryness and warmth you’d bet couldn’t exist if you never heard this, redeems it by rendering it quiet as death. Well, that and the fact that he was that rare soul who practiced what he preached. Johnny Rotten should have taken notes.

7) “Saturday’s Child”
Herman’s Hermits (1967)
Not released as a single.

A perfect record I only discovered in the last year or two. It’s of a piece with their best singles (“I’m Into Something Good,” “A Must to Avoid,” “No Milk Today”) and, perhaps surprisingly, given how much better a singer Mickey Dolenz was than Peter Noone, it blows the Monkees morethe Monkeession out of the water. Stripped of nostalgia (I imagine you had to either be a Hermits’ fanatic or prone to rummaging through your little sister’s record collection to have heard it in the sixties), it offers a kind of counterpoint to the rest of this list. Call it the sound of someone who thinks we might just get through all this. Fifty years later, it’s hard to overstate the value anything that can put that big a smile on your face.

P.S. SMS was unable to find any trace of Herman’s Hermit’s great take on “Saturday’s Child” So, we included The Monkee’s version John referenced!

BtW, The song was written by the great David Gates! Yes! That David Gates from Bread!

8) “Johnny One Time”
Brenda Lee (1968)
Pop #41 AC #3

 

A record drenched in shame, a concept which would disappear within a generation. And loss, which, despite a mighty effort, we haven’t quite managed to dispense with.

9) “Any Day Now”
Elvis Presley (1969)
B-side of “In the Ghetto,” which reached #3 Pop.

A highlight of From Elvis in Memphis and a standout even in Presley’s mighty catalog. Elvis had many voices. One reason he was the linchpin of everything was because you never knew what he was going to do with those voices. The one he used for “Any Day Now,” a fine hit for Chuck Jackson early in the decade, was one he never used any other time. Open, naked, the essence of something he was bound to chase from the day he recorded “It Hurts Me” five years earlier (also released as a B-side, of “Kissin’ Cousins” no less…there’s a sign the Devil was keeping an eye on things), no one can say why he never used that voice again. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on it having something to do with it cutting too close to the bone, personally, culturally and every other way. To live in that space would have been to live forever—or die a lot sooner than 1977.

10) “Meet on the Ledge”
Fairport Convention (1969)
Released as a single in the UK. Did not make the chart.

The doomiest record by history’s doomiest band. The mournful sound Mary Travers had embodied on “500 miles” seven years earlier was amplified by a factor of ten. This could only have been conceived in the late 1960s, even if Sandy Denny sounded like she had stepped straight out of the 1360s.

11) “Don’t Look Back”
The Temptations (1965)
Pop #83, R&B #15, as B-side of “My Baby”

The greatest moment for Paul Williams, the third lead in the Tempts who, in any other group, would have been first. “Don’t Look Back” is one of the more common titles of the Rock and Roll Era (Boston, Them, The Remains all made great records by that name, none otherwise related to the others). No one else wrung as much from the concept. You want to haunt the future? Tell the people there’s no hiding place and don’t present them with the option of disbelieving.

12) “Honey Chile”
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (1967)
Pop #11, R&B #5

Martha Reeves’ finest vocal and, despite being a sizable hit, largely forgotten by the radio. I’m sure there are markets that played it over the years, perhaps even in heavy rotation—but I’m sort of glad it matched my criteria of never having heard it on my radio. Else I would have had to consider forcing it on here. Everywhere else, Reeves was a pure urban voice, one of the greatest. Here, she reached back to her family’s Eufaula, Alabama roots and delivered a southern soul vocal that’s a match for Otis Redding or Sam Moore. Her other great records thrill and soar. This one aches, a kind of spiritual precursor to Gladys Knight’s reach for a last chance on “Midnight Train to Georgia” in the midst of the dread decade to come. Hope, longing and desperation personified. It doesn’t get any more sixties than that.

13) “Safe In My Garden”
The Mamas & the Papas (1968)
Pop #53

Their strangest and most prescient record, naturally recorded and released just in time for them—and the country—to break up. Just as naturally not a hit. One can imagine it becoming an anthem if they had been hitting the TV shows behind it (on television, no one was better than them). One can just as easily imagine it sinking without a trace. Even now, it hits a little too close to home. Yes, a dream was within reach, but so was a nightmare. People still argue about which one we found, but listening to this record does not leave me with any doubts.

14) “We Can Be Together”
Jefferson Airplane (1969)
B-Side of “Volunteers” which reached #65 Pop in late 1969.

Despite the turmoil within the band itself, nobody was more committed to Utopianism than the Airplane. They were supposed to be the authentic hippies. And they were. Authentic enough to make this famous album track the lost cry of everything the era promised without neglecting a dark undertow that served as a warning for those not too distracted by the new drugs. The words are silly. Maybe the sentiment is too. The sound is cathartic and utterly convincing.

15) “Alabama”
John Coltrane (1963)
Not released as a single. Available most readily on Coltrane’s Live at Birdland LP.

Composed and recorded in response to the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Leave it to John Coltrane to express, without words, why, in the end, we could never be together.

10 Comments

  1. Only Johnny Ross would possess the combination of phenomenal taste and what-might-have-allowed-us-to-evolve insight to include “I’ll Never Learn” and “Alabama” in the same article. They’re two of the most moving pieces of music ever recorded.

    (That’s not to mention your own phenomenal taste in guest column writers, Rick!)

    • Hey ABQ_Chris,
      Great to have you drop by SMS! We couldn’t agree with you more in regard to Johnny Ross! In addition to his depth of knowledge and exquisite taste, his ability o recognize and play with diversity always keeps us coming back for more!
      We have plans to include more from John here at SMS, so stay tuned
      Thanx for your kind words, and hope to talk to you again soon!
      Rick

    • Thanks Chris…When I first conceived of this column, I knew two things:

      1) “I’ll Never Learn” will open…

      2) “Alabama” will close.

      Once I knew that, the rest was easy.

  2. Always a pleasure reading John Walker Ross, no matter where he pops up.

    Hope he passes the audition.

    PS: John, you might consider adding a link to “Six White Horses” to FIFTY YEARS ON…IT STILL GOES ON on your Round Place In The Middle blog.

    • Hey Neal,
      “Hope he passes the audition” Great Beatle reference there! Very appropriate! And we’re with you. It’s always a pleasure reading John Walker Ross! And if it’s on our site….EVEN BETTER!
      We’re looking forward to reading more from John at SMS so stay tuned!
      Thanx Neal and all the best,
      Rick

  3. Wow,a little knowledge is a dangerous thing! I stand/sit corrected, i must check out the waylon recording. Thnxx for the info, i appreciate it, and look forward to reading more wise insight from you. Im a hopeless music junkie, and youve become one of my dealers. Best, mc

    • Dealer! Now that’s a new title for me. I’ll have to chew on it for a while.

      Hope you’ll let me know what you think of the record. It’s haunted me since the first time I heard it, which was only a few years ago.

  4. Great article, great approach and concept..one correction suggestion if i may. “Six White Horses” was a top-ten C&W chart hit in 1969 for Tommy Cash. I remember it well, its a fine record, one of little brother Tommy’s best. Thnxx, MC

    • Thanks for the kind words Mark. Nice to get a compliment right out of the box!

      Tommy Cash’s “Six White Horses” was indeed a fine record and a big country hit…but, despite the shared title, it is not the same song Waylon recorded, which is a blind father’s lament for the son he lost in Viet Nam. It certainly would have been interesting to see what Waylon’s record might have done if they HAD released it.

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