Posts Tagged ‘B.J.’

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.