Posts Tagged ‘B.J. Thomas’

Smoking With Jumbo

May 12, 2022

Originally posted July 22, 2009

I went to summer camp three times during my childhood and youth. I spent one week each of the summers of 1965 and 1970 at a Boy Scout camp a little more than an hour north of St. Cloud. The second time I was there, the camp was formally called Parker Scout Reservation, but, informally, everyone still called it Camp Clyde in honor – as I understood it – of the stuffed moose head called Clyde that presided from the wall of the mess hall.

My other camping summer was in 1968, when I spent something like twelve days at Bible camp, swimming, boating, crafting and more at a camp called the Shores of St. Andrew near the town of New London about forty-five miles southwest of St. Cloud.  St. Andrew wasn’t near as rustic an experience as Camp Clyde had been: We slept on bunk beds in a cabin instead of in canvas tents, and everything was located within, oh, a hundred yards of the lakeshore instead of being sprinkled throughout the piney woods as it was for the Boy Scouts.

A few things stick out from my time at the Shores of St. Andrew:

First, it was during those twelve days that my voice changed. When Mom and Dad dropped me off on a Sunday afternoon, I was still singing something close to soprano when we all gathered for sing-alongs in the evenings. Within a few days, that started to change. I felt constantly as if I needed to clear my throat. It never helped. Another few days went by, and I was a tenor. My range diminished slightly as my voice deepened, and as I struggled with the new sound of me, my fellow campers joshed me gently. When I greeted Mom when she arrived to take me home after those twelve days, the first thing she said was “What happened to your voice?”

One of the girls in the little crowd that had gathered at the departure point giggled. “It changed,” she said simply. Mom looked at me, looked at Jill – and the fact that I recall my fellow camper’s name after forty-one years is a little surprising – and then back at me. She nodded, and then we put my stuff in the car, and I left my remaining camper friends behind.

Jill’s presence – and the presence of the other girls – is another thing that makes that time at camp memorable. Oh, there was no romance between us, although a few other couples among the older campers – the ages of campers ranged from about twelve to sixteen – paired up tentatively during our time there. But there were cross-gender friendships, which was kind of a new concept for a lot of us, I think, girls as well as boys. Those friendships were aided by a decrease in the number of campers after one week. Most of the kids who arrived the same Sunday I did had signed up for just one week; about a third of us – maybe twenty – had signed up for the twelve-day session. A few of the kids from the nearby city of Willmar who’d signed up for the single week extended their stays because we were all having so much fun, but the second portion of my time at camp still had a much smaller population, and I think that helped encourage the development of a wider range of friendships, including those that crossed the gender line.

But friendly or not, we were still boys and they were still girls. And one night after midnight, we boys decided to go visit the girls’ cabin. We didn’t go in, of course. We ran around the outside of the cabin and then banged on the windows, yelping and hollering. I was gratified to hear the sounds of laughter on the other side of the window where I stood, shouting what in effect were nonsense words. After about five minutes, we ran back to our cabin, where our counselors – who had not attempted to dissuade us from our plans – were waiting. Both Louie and Paul – More names! Amazing! – shrugged as we tumbled in, laughing. One of them said, “I hope it was fun, guys. You’ll pay for it tomorrow.”

And we did. After lunch, while the girls got to go outside and go swimming or do whatever they wished, we boys were issued buckets and scrub brushes and spent the afternoon cleaning the floor of the mess hall. That wasn’t all that bad; as we scrubbed, we talked and laughed.

I also recall the last night at camp. We had a dance in the craft room, which was on the upper floor of one of the buildings. The tables were folded and moved to the side, some basic decorations were installed and one of the counselors provided a radio. I might have danced once; I think I had a dance with Jill. But I spent a good chunk of the evening with a few other guys standing near the wall, watching the others dance. After a while, I slid along the wall to the door. Once outside, I made my way down the stairs.

I wasn’t the only one who’d gone outside. A guy whose real name I never knew – he was chunky and called himself “Jumbo” – was sitting atop one of the picnic tables smoking a cigarette. (Another thing I never knew was whether Jumbo truly chose that nickname for himself or accepted it with as much grace as he could when it was given to him.) “Dull dance,” I said as I approached and sat on the table top.

He shrugged and nodded. “But we can at least hear the music here,” he said, and we could. The front windows of the craft room were open, and the sound of the radio was clear.

Jumbo offered me a cigarette, my first. I took it and smoked it inexpertly, somehow not managing to inhale. (That, and the habit, would come to me during college.) And perched on top of a picnic table, we listened to the music and sat out the dance. As we did, I would guess we heard at least one of these records.

A Six-Pack from the charts (Billboard Hot 100 the week of July 27, 1968)
“The Look Of Love” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, A&M 924 [No. 16]
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, Dunhill 4134 [No. 23]
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 [No. 32]
“The Eyes Of A New York Woman” by B.J. Thomas, Scepter 12230 [46]
“The Snake” by Al Wilson, Soul City 767 [No. 110]
“This Wheel’s On Fire” by Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger and the Trinity, Atco 6593 [122]

“The Look Of Love,” the first hit for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, was part of the soundtrack for the James Bond film Casino Royale. The title was the only one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels to which producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli didn’t hold rights. Faced with the prospect of mounting a spy film without Sean Connery – secure in the role of the British spy in the Saltzman-Broccoli films – the producers of Casino Royale turned Fleming’s taut tale into a spoof and a shambles. According to the Internet Movie Database, the producers were Jerry Bresler and Charles K. Feldman; six people were listed as having directed portions of the film, and ten individuals were involved in the writing (six were officially credited, not including Fleming, who got the credit: “suggested by the novel Casino Royale”). The movie was a mess in which – according to my memory – actors David Niven and Peter Sellers were allowed to run amok. But it did have some good music, including “The Look Of Love.” The song went as high on the charts as No. 4 during an eleven-week run, and the group had two more Top 40 hits in 1968, both also done in a light and friendly Latin style.

I said the other day that “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” is one of those records that one either loves like a first-born child or hates like mold. I imagine the same is true of “MacArthur Park,” the rambling and symphonic love song whose most famous line is “Someone left the cake out in the rain.” I happen to think that the combination of Jimmy Webb’s admittedly over-the-top songwriting with the astounding vocal range of Richard Harris makes “MacArthur Park” a great record. Top 50 of all time? Maybe, maybe not. But – using a measuring stick I used here at least once before – if I were selecting a hundred records for a classic rock and pop jukebox, I think “MacArthur Park” would be in it. The record – Harris’ only Top 40 hit – spent ten weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 2.

Here’s what Dave Marsh had to say about “People Got To Be Free” in his 1989 classic, The Heart of Rock & Soul: “Sung like a funky Italian boys choir, arranged like a cross between Dyke and the Blazers and the Buckinghams, written in the fullest immersion in the glorious naivete of the times. Does hearing Felix [Cavaliere] try to preach about ‘the train to freedom’ render ‘People Got To Be Free’ dated? Of course. But what a glorious date, and what a way of celebrating the part of it that’s eternal: ‘I can’t understand, it’s so simple to me / People everywhere just got to be free.’ Ask my opinion, my opinion will be: Dated but never out of date.”

The Rascals’ record was in the Top 40 for thirteen weeks and spent an astounding five weeks at No. 1.

For more than ten years, from 1966 into 1977, B.J. Thomas recorded reliably good singles, but all too often, when talk and thought turns to listing the great Top 40 performers, his name seems to get lost. I’m not sure why that’s so. The man had fourteen Top 40 hits, with two of them reaching No. 1: “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in 1969 and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” in 1975. Three others – 1964’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” 1968’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and 1970’s “I Just Can’t Help Believing” – all reached the Top Ten. And I’d be amazed if at least one of those five songs doesn’t start running through your head as you read that list. (And no, Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling” does not count!) “The Eyes Of A New York Woman” didn’t quite reach the heights those five records did, peaking at No. 28, but it’s probably my favorite B.J. Thomas song. Why? I dunno. Some things just are.

Al Wilson’s “The Snake” was pulled from his Searching For The Dolphins album, which was released on Johnny Rivers’ Soul City label. Through the end of the summer and into the autumn of 1968, the sly and funny slice of R&B moved slowly up the chart, peaking at No. 27, where it sat for the first two weeks of October. It was Wilson’s first Top 40 hit; he’d reach the top spot five years later with “Show and Tell,” which spent a week at No. 1 during the autumn of 1973. Being a sucker for drums, I love the four-second riff that starts about six seconds into the song. Drummers on the album were Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon.

Julie Driscoll never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S., but her version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” (written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko of The Band), which she recorded with Brian Auger and the Trinity, went to No. 5 in her native Great Britain.  Shortly after that, Driscoll moved her career toward vocal improvisation and jazz, recording under her own name into the mid-1970s and in a variety of ensembles since then. In 1992, according to All-Music Guide, Driscoll re-recorded “This Wheel’s on Fire” as the theme to the smash BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous.  

A Baker’s Dozen from 1972, Vol. 3

June 15, 2011

Originally posted March 10, 2008

(The first half of this post was the first thing I ever wrote for a blog, in July 2006, long before Echoes In The Wind was a shadow of a thought. I imagine some who’ve stopped by here have clicked links and read it at Whiteray’s Musings, the long-ignored blog that serves now as a storage depot and place for experiments. To many, I hope it is new. I have done a bit of editing.)

It was the summer of 1972. Republicans were screaming for “Four more years!” of Richard Nixon. The Democrats were marching gingerly in ragged formation toward what they thought was the Revolution.

A bunch of people were arrested at the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., a loose end in a fabric of lies. That loose end, when pulled on hard enough by judges and the media (pulled on most strongly, it seems clear, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post), eventually resulted in the resignation of President Nixon two years later; in the creation of numerous laws and policies designed to enhance the ethics of politics and governance; and in a surge of enrollment at schools of journalism all around the country, as young people all over the United States decided it would be fun to become investigative reporters.

And U.S. soldiers were still fighting and dying in Vietnam.

I was eighteen that summer and although I was aware of all of that going on, I can’t say I was horribly involved or worried about any of it. I do recall thinking on June 18, when I saw an item in the newspaper about the arrests at the Watergate, that the trail of dollars and other evidence would likely lead back to persons close to the Oval Office, if not to the president himself, but that may have been youthful revulsion for Richard Nixon driving that conclusion rather than any great insight into politics, finance and crime. (On the other hand, I was right!)

Not even the Vietnam War worried me, at least not personally. Sometime that summer, the president announced that no new draftees would be sent to Vietnam. I imagine that a lot of my contemporaries across the country shook their heads in relief at that news. It really wasn’t a big deal, because it was becoming more and more clear that my cohort – the men born in 1953 – were going to be the first cohort that went untouched by the draft since, well, before World War II. For the first time in more than thirty years, young men born in a specific year would not be drafted.

Of course, the news about no new draftees being sent to ’Nam resonated more loudly, I am certain, with those born in 1952, as many of them – not as many as had been true for those born in years earlier, but enough – were still receiving their “Greetings” letters from the military.

I don’t recall how likely it was for men born in 1952 to be drafted, much less how many of them were sent to Vietnam before the new policy was announced that summer. Those facts didn’t matter to me as anything more than curiosities.

I am reasonably certain that no one born in my birth year of 1953 was ever drafted, although we did get lottery numbers based on our dates of birth. Mine was 354, which meant that the chances of my being called to get a buzz cut and be screamed at for six weeks by a drill sergeant were almost nil. That was good.*

So what did concern me in the summer of 1972? What was I thinking about? What do I recall?

Well, I was worried about dusting Venetian blinds. I worked as a part-time janitor that summer at an elementary school on the campus of St. Cloud State College (now University) in Minnesota. It wasn’t hard work, for the most part, but removing what was likely a year’s accumulation of dust from Venetian blinds was a pain-in-the-ass job that took more than a week, it seems to me. I didn’t mind dusting shelves, dry mopping and mopping floors, washing blackboards and all of that, but dusting those damned blinds was the worst thing I did all summer.

I remember the music, as I always do from almost any portion of my life. That was the summer of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” a pop confection that was omnipresent for several months. A listener to AM Top 40 – which I was – would also have heard “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” the first hit for Jim Croce, and tunes from Neil Diamond, the Staple Singers, the Chi-Lites, Roberta Flack, Billy Preston and Bill Withers.

And then there was the Looking Glass and its song “Brandy,” about the barmaid in the harbor town. Another pop confection, yes, but one that seems to have aged far better in my mind than many of those records that surrounded it on the radio. And at the odd times that I hear it these days – nearly thirty-six years later – it takes me back. But when I go, I am not wielding the mop or broom, I am not dusting the blinds. I am not wondering if the current object of my affection has a reciprocal interest.

No, I am driving my 1961 Ford Falcon north from St. Cloud on an August day, my best friends with me as we head for a weekend in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Why does all this come to mind today? Did I hear “Brandy” this morning or yesterday? Well, no, but given that the Looking Glass tune is one of the thousands in the RealPlayer, I can hear it any time I want to. (In fact, just because I can do it, I just cued it up: “There’s a port in a western bay . . .”)

No, the summer of 1972 and the music on the road to Winnipeg came to mind because of something I found in my file cabinet yesterday. It’s a record of the times that Rick and Gary and I purchased gasoline on our trek, noting the miles driven, the mileage my old Falcon got, and – most astoundingly – the cost of the gas for our four-day, 860-mile trip.

(The RealPlayer just switched from “Brandy” to “The Girl From Ipanema” by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, which is a lovely song, but dated ten years earlier than our trip to Winnipeg. And while I dithered about what to say about that, the music moved on to Bob Dylan’s performance of “Blowin’ In The Wind” at the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh. As always, music so commands my attention that I find it takes away the concentration I need to write. So I turned the jukebox off as Bob was asking “How many roads . . .”)

So how much did it cost us to drive from St. Cloud to Winnipeg and back in 1972? Well, we bought 44.3 gallons of gas during our four-day excursion . . . and we paid $17.20. In other words, about thirty-nine cents a gallon.

And that, more than anything else about that summer, tells me how long ago it really was. Yes, the school where I dusted the blinds has been closed, the building remodeled about twenty years ago to house programs in electrical engineering and such-like. Yes, Jim Croce’s been dead for more than thirty years. Yes, my 1961 Falcon has been rusting, abandoned, in the junkyard of a friend’s parents since 1977 (and in fact that friend himself has passed on). And no, I do not remember with whom I was besotted that summer of “Brandy.”

All of those things underline in bold ink the fact that it has been thirty-six years since Rick, Gary and I drove north to adventure and beer and hangovers. (The drinking age in Canada was eighteen as opposed to Minnesota’s twenty-one; we drank Molson’s Canadian and Old Vienna.)

But the boldest ink, it seems to me, comes from that handwritten document I found in my files: Gasoline at thirty-nine cents a gallon!

And no, I don’t remember how much we paid for the beer.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1972, Vol. 3
“Brandy” by the Looking Glass, Epic single 10874

“Pearl’s Goodtime Blues” by Eric Andersen from Blue River

“Too Late to Turn Back Now” by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, United Artists single 50910

“To The Morning” by Dan Fogelberg from Home Free

“Dark Dance” by Robin Williamson from Myrrh

“My Impersonal Life” by Blue Rose, Epic single 10811

“Her Picture Matches Mine” by Laura Lee from Women’s Love Rights

“Rock and Roll Lullaby” by B.J. Thomas, Scepter single 12344

“Go All The Way” by the Raspberries, Capitol single 3348

“Stand Back” by the Allman Brothers Band from Eat A Peach

“Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by the Dramatics from Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

“Roundabout” by Yes, Atlantic single 2854

“From The Beginning” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Cotillion single 44158

A few notes:

Eric Andersen, as I think I’ve noted before, was one of those singer-songwriters cursed in the 1960s and 1970s with the tag of “The New Dylan.” No good ever came of a record company or a critic placing that burden on a performer. Andersen was good, though, and – to my mind – for a few years came closer than anyone else to living up to that mantle. Blue River is probably his best album.

“Too Late To Turn Back Now,” a No. 2 hit, continues a good helping of great radio singles in this mostly random collection. With four Top 40 hits and two in the Top Ten – 1971’s “Treat Her Like A Lady” went to No. 3 – the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose never sounded sweeter than when coming from the car radio on a warm summer evening. (The other great radio singles here, to my ears, are “Brandy,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “Go All The Way,” “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” and “Roundabout.”)

How does one begin to describe or assess the music of Robin Williamson? One of the founders of the quirky 1960s folk group, the Incredible String Band, Williamson has resolutely followed his muse. That group’s pastoral British folk had its own odd edge, and that continues in Williamson’s solo work. All-Music Guide notes that Myrrh, Williamson’s first album after the dissolution of the ISB, retains that group’s “odd instrumentation and serpentine melodicism.” “Dark Dance” may be a little less accessible than the rest of the album, but only a little. The entire album will delight fans of the combination of folky and quirky.

I don’t know much about Blue Rose. The group is not – obviously – the women’s bluegrass super group of the same name that was also recording in 1972. “My Impersonal Life,” was written by Terry Furlong, who was lead guitarist for the Grass Roots. Three Dog Night also recorded the tune in 1971. The Blue Rose version was included on a well-known 1972 Columbia sampler called The Music People, which is where I found it. I’m keeping an eye out for Blue Rose’s self-titled album, which I think I’d like if it’s all as good as “My Impersonal Life.”

Laura Lee was one of the artists recorded by Hot Wax records, the label created in 1968 by Eddie Holland, Jr., Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland when the writing/production trio left Motown Records. (Some of her labelmates were Honey Cone, Freda Payne and the Flaming Ember.) Her single, “Women’s Love Rights,” barely reached the Top 40, hitting No. 36 in the autumn of 1971. Still, it’s a good single, and the album of the same title is also good, well worth checking out.

For all their success at album rock, Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains, technically, a One-Hit Wonder. Of course, the group’s aim was never singles, so that’s not really fair. But “From The Beginning” is a great single. It’s not a driving-around-town-with-nothing-better-to-do single but more of a “Man, that’s strange and good” single for those times when you roll over in bed at two in the morning after leaving the radio on. (Something that surprised me as I dug into the charts was that, for all its airplay, ELP’s “Lucky Man” [Cotillion 44106, according to one source] did not make the Top 40.)

*After this entry was posted, a reader named David, a year younger than I, noted that he was assigned a draft number. It turns out, according to Wikipedia, that Congress did extend the draft for two more years in 1971. Note added June 18, 2011.