Now, By Request, ‘Born Free’

Originally posted February 25, 2009

It might have been for her birthday, or it might have been for Christmas, but sometime around 1963 or 64, when she was in her early teens, my sister got a transistor radio. It was, I think, a Zenith, Dreamsicle orange with a silver speaker, tucked inside a black leather carrying case.

I don’t think she used it much. Somehow, it ended up on my father’s nightstand, and there it stayed for as long as I can remember, turned on only in the late minutes of every evening, as we prepared to retire for the night.

There were, as I’ve mentioned, two radio stations in St. Cloud at the time. Well, two on the AM band. There was an FM station that played what was termed “beautiful music,” lot of Mantovani and Leroy Anderson, and that might have suited Dad. He might also have liked to tune the radio to WVAL out of Sauk Rapids, the small town on the northeast edge of St. Cloud, but WVAL’s signal – and its traditional country music – went off the air at sunset. And the transistor radio only got the AM band, so that left Dad with two choices for evening listening: WJON and KFAM.

I’ve written about WJON several times here. It was the station located in a small building just down the block and across the railroad tracks from our house. KFAM was across town on the south side, in another small building that was home to its studios and those of its FM sister station, the home of the beautiful music. Both stations offered the usual mid-1960s mix of community service radio chatter and – for most of the broadcast day – traditional pop. In the evenings, the two stations switched to Top 40 for a couple of hours. At nine o’clock, KFAM went back to its standards. (WJON did so, too, for a while, but then in the late 1960s began to explore rock more deeply in the later hours, which was pretty adventurous for St. Cloud.)

Anyway, as things closed down for the evening at our home on Kilian Boulevard, Dad would flip on the radio and then pick up his book or his magazine and read for a few minutes. If it were a few minutes before nine, he’d have to put up with some Top 40 for a while before KFAM rejoined the adult world at nine o’clock. And in the mid-1960s, nine o’clock during the school year meant lights out for my sister and me. That might stretch some in the summertime, during vacations and on weekends, but something had to be pretty special for a school night exception.

One of those came sometime in 1966. I can’t say that it happened in February, but I know it was in 1966, not long after the film Born Free was released. Being a soundtrack fan, I was thrilled when I learned that the film’s score was by John Barry, who also scored the early James Bond films (and many other films as well, in a long and lustrous career). And two or three times, as we prepared to retire, I heard the vocal version of “Born Free” – by British singer Matt Monro – come from the radio on Dad’s nightstand. I wanted, however, to hear the instrumental version.

So one evening, I called KFAM and asked the DJ there to play “Born Free” for me. He said he would, but it would have to wait until after nine o’clock. “We’re playing rock ’n’ roll right now,” he said. “But as soon as we’re done with that,” he promised.

And I sat on my bed in my pajamas, the transistor radio in my hands. Mom and Dad and my sister gathered round, and at nine, after the top of the hour station identification, I heard John Barry’s instrumental version of “Born Free,” my first radio request.

As I said, I don’t know that this happened in February. It seems in memory that it was cold outside, and it also seems in memory that the “Born Free” evening took place while I was in seventh grade, during the 1965-66 school year. So it very well might have been February.

A Six-Pack From the Charts (Billboard Hot 100, February 26, 1966

“The Cheater” by Bob Kuban and the In-Men, Musicland 20,001 (No. 20)
“Lies” by the Knickerbockers, Challenge 59321 (No. 34)
“Baby Scratch My Back” by Slim Harpo, Excello 2273 (No. 41)
“One More Heartache” by Marvin Gaye, Tamla 54129 (No. 69)
“Moulty” by the Barbarians, Laurie 3326 (No. 100)
“A Public Execution” by Mouse, Fraternity 956 (No. 132)

Bonus Track
“Born Free (Main Title)” by John Barry from the Born Free soundtrack (1966)

I was still a few years away from listening to Top 40, but for those who were fans, early 1966 was a pretty rich time. Flip the switch on your transistor and tune in your local Top 40 station, and you were likely to hear something you liked pretty quickly.

Here’s the Top 15 for the last week in February 1966:

“These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra
“Lightnin’ Strikes” by Lou Christie
“The Ballad of the Green Berets” by S/Sgt. Barry Sadler
“Up Tight (Everything’s Alright)” by Stevie Wonder
“My World Is Empty Without You” by the Supremes
“My Love” by Petula Clark
“Don’t Mess With Bill” by the Marvellettes
“California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas
“Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind
“Working My Way Back To You” by the Four Seasons
“Zorba the Greek” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
“Crying Time” by Ray Charles (with the Raeletts)
“Listen People” by Herman’s Hermits
“I Fought the Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four
“Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys

That’s a pretty good hour or so of radio: Some Motown, including some girl group sounds along with one British single, some folk-rock, some traditional pop, a patriotic ballad and an instrumental. I could do without the Bob Lind, and “Barbara Ann” has always struck me as more of a joke than a single, but still, that would be a good chunk of listening.

Further down the list we find our six selections. “The Cheater” is a nice piece of brassy pop from a band based in St. Louis, Missouri. The odd thing about the song – which peaked at No. 12 – is its “life imitates art” denouement, as chronicled by writer Dave Marsh: In 1983, Walter Scott, the In-Men’s lead singer, disappeared. His body was found in 1987; he’d been murdered by his wife and her boyfriend (who’d also evidently killed his own wife in 1983). Investigation revealed that Scott’s wife had been cheating on him for a year or so before he was murdered. “Look out for the cheater!” indeed.

Even forty-three years down the road, I still think the Knickerbockers’ “Lies” is the all-time best Beatles sound-alike. But the guys weren’t even from England. The four Knickerbockers hailed from Bergen, New Jersey. “Lies,” the group’s only Top 40 hit, peaked at No. 20.

Blues tunes popped up every once in a while in the charts, but rarely were they as slinky and sly as Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch My Back.” The record was Harpo’s second Top 40 hit, following “Rainin’ In My Heart,” which went to No. 34 in 1961. “Baby Scratch My Back” went to No. 16, and it also spent two weeks at No. 2 on the R&B chart. It’s been covered a fair number of times; the best of those might be by swamp rocker Tony Joe White on his 1969 album, Black & White.

“One More Heartache” was the thirteenth in the long line of forty-one Top 40 hits by Marvin Gaye. A Smokey Robinson production, the single went to No. 29. Writing in the late 1980s, when Gaye’s death was still fresh, Dave Marsh heard something under the surface: “You wanna think this is just a love song, that’s just fine with [Gaye]. But listen deeper and you’ll know better,” Marsh wrote in The Heart of Rock & Soul, where he ranked the single at No. 186 of all time. “It’s a spiritual suicide note from a man who, in a merely halfway sane world, would have had everything to live for and known it.”

Like many listeners, no doubt, I first came across the last two songs in today’s Six-Pack via Nuggets, the 1972 anthology of garage rock and psychedelia from the mid-1960s lovingly put together by Lenny Kaye. Since then, multitudes of albums and CD box sets have replicated and expanded the idea, but the original package – from the sleeve through the liner notes to the music – is one of the best anthologies ever put together. The full title was Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, and current versions include the music from that double LP set as the first CD of a four-disc set. Other sets using the Nuggets title and art style have followed, but – as is true in many disciplines – they’d be hard-pressed to be as good as the original.

As to “Moulty” by the Barbarians, Kaye writes in the Nuggets liner notes: “Regulars on Shindig, stars of the T.A.M.I. Show, the Barbarians came out of New England with “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl” in the fall of 1965. Moulty was their drummer, and the story of how he lost his hand is the story of this record, which only goes to prove the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Though I don’t want to start things, there does exist a rumor that Levon and the Hawks (also known as the Band) are backing Mr. M on this cut. At this late date, however, I don’t suppose anybody’s talking.” The single was in the Hot 100 for four weeks, peaking at No. 90, before falling into the obscurity from which Mr. Kaye rescued it.

Even more obscure was “A Public Execution” by Mouse. This time, Kaye writes: “There are some who say that this early 1966 masterpiece does Dylan’s Highway 61 period better than the master himself, and while I wouldn’t want to go that far, it can be admitted that Ronny Weiss, who was Mouse, certainly didn’t miss a trick. From Austin, Texas, he would also lead a group called Mouse and the Traps, that had several singles on Fraternity as well as Bell Records before dissolving away. Recently, Weiss has shown up with fellow Trap Dave Stanley in a lovely soft-country band on RCA named Rio Grande.” “A Public Execution” spent four weeks bubbling under the Hot 100, peaking at No. 121.

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