Posts Tagged ‘Delfonics’

Spring ’68: School Bus Serenade

June 20, 2012

Originally posted May 6, 2009

On a cool, rainy day in the spring of 1968, the fifty or so students in the two ninth-grade biology classes from St. Cloud’s South Junior High scrambled onto a bus. Joined by a few teachers – I’ve never for one moment envied teachers who have to supervise field trips – we headed out of St. Cloud.

I’m no longer entirely clear on our destinations that day. I think we drove through the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, parts of which are about thirty miles from St. Cloud. I recall getting out of the bus every now and then to look at trees and underbrush and look for evidence of small animals. We had a picnic lunch, if my memory is right, served by class moms in the yard of a classmate’s farm home. And we visited a tree farm near the end of the day.

It was at the tree farm that someone took pictures of the group, which was large enough that it took three shots to get us all. The photographer overlapped the three shots, so if one wanted to, one could overlap the three prints and have a wide-screen image, as it were, showing all of us at once. (These days, that could be done with digital tools and only a little bit of effort. Forty-one years ago, it would have required a bit of darkroom legerdemain.) The best thing I remember about the picture, though, was that one of our teachers, Mr. Lemke, hoisted one of the girls, Patty, onto his shoulders for the picture. They stood at the back of the group on the left, and when the photographer had finished with that side of the group, Mr. Lemke walked behind the group and stood with Patty on his shoulders on the right side of the group. That bit of mischief allowed Mr. Lemke and Patty to seemingly be in two places at once.

On the way back to St. Cloud, one of our classmates astounded all of us by sliding his arm around the girl he’d evidently been dating for a while. Back then, at the ages of fourteen and fifteen, that was an amazingly bold public display of affection. The girls sitting around the couple spent the last five or so minutes of the ride back to school serenading the two of them and the rest of us with a lively version of “Somebody To Love,” the Jefferson Airplane hit from the year before.

The girls might have been singing just because there was no radio playing, but I don’t think so. Had there been a radio on the bus, though, here’s some of what we might have heard.

A Six-Pack From the Charts (Billboard Hot 100, May 4, 1968)
“Sweet Inspiration” by the Sweet Inspirations, Atlantic 2476 (No. 18)
“Soul Serenade” by Willie Mitchell, Hi 2140 (No. 30)
“I Will Always Think About You” by the New Colony Six, Mercury 72775 (No. 44)
“I’m Sorry” by the Delfonics, Philly Groove 151 (No. 77)
“I Love You” by People, Capitol 2708 (No. 85)
“Brooklyn Roads” by Neil Diamond, Uni 55065 (No. 124)

Even though they recorded a series of solid soul/R&B albums on their own – seven between 1967 and 1979 for the CCM, Atlantic, Stax and RSO labels – the Sweet Inspirations were likely better known as one of the top groups of background vocalists in the mid- to late 1960s. According to All-Music Guide: “The group evolved from the ’50s gospel group the Drinkard Singers. At various points soul singers Doris Troy, Judy Clay, Dionne Warwick, and sister Dee Dee Warwick were members. By the time they began to record on their own in 1967, their leader was Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), and the women were renamed the Sweet Inspirations.” Singing along with Houston on “Sweet Inspiration” – taken from the group’s first album – are Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith. This week marked the record’s peak position, No. 18, nine weeks after the record first entered the Hot 100. Over the next three weeks, the record would slide to No. 32 and then drop out of the Hot 100 entirely. “Sweet Inspiration” would be the group’s only Top 40 hit.

“Soul Serenade,” which peaked at No. 23 the week after this chart came out, was Willie Mitchell’s second Top 40 hit; “20-75” had gone to No. 31 in 1964. Mitchell’s finest time was still to come, as he spent the last years of the 1960s building a stable of performers, the greatest of whom was Al Green, and refining a sound as recognizable as any in pop music. That Hi Sound, behind O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and especially Al Green, became an inescapable part of the soundtrack of the Seventies.

The New Colony Six was a soft-rock sextet from Chicago that had two Top 40 hits in 1968 and 1969. “I Will Always Think About You” peaked at No. 22 in the first week of June 1968, and “Things I’d Like To Say” went to No. 16 not quite a year later. The group, as a couple of college friends always told me, was much more popular in its home territory: “I Will Always Think About You” was No. 1 at Chicago’s WLS for one week in March of 1968 and ranked No. 31 in the station’s ranking of the year’s top singles.

“I’m Sorry” was the immediate follow-up to the Delfonics’ “La-La- (Means I Love You),” which had gone to No. 4 and was ranked at No. 26 when “I’m Sorry” entered the Hot 100. It strikes me that issuing a follow-up single – even a single as good as “I’m Sorry” – while the group’s first single is still ranked that highly is being a little hasty. Maybe not; I’ve never been an A&R guy. At any rate, “I’m Sorry” didn’t have the impact “La-La” did: It got as high as No. 42, where it stayed for three weeks before tumbling out of the Hot 100. The Delfonics would reach the Top 40 three more times in 1968 and 1969 before getting back to the Top 10 in 1970 with the luminous “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).”

“I Love You” was the second Capitol single by People, a sextet from San Jose, California. According to the notes to the four-CD set Love Is The Song We Sing, after the group’s first single went nowhere, “the band took an obscure Zombies flipside and smothered it in Vanilla Fudge.” The single – one of my favorites from that era – went to No. 14 in June 1968 and was the group’s only Top 40 single.

Here’s what Neil Diamond says about “Brooklyn Roads” in the notes to his In My Lifetime box set: “I had just signed with MCA Records and wanted to stretch my creative wings. This is the most literal and personal story I had written up to that point. ‘Brooklyn Roads’ told of my youth and my aspirations. I loved the freedom of being able to write something without the charts in mind.” A week after “bubbling under” at No. 124, “Brooklyn Roads” slid into the Hot 100, eventually making it to No. 58.

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A Memory From The Sledding Hill

November 9, 2011

Originally posted January 2, 2009

There are, as I’ve discussed before, many songs that take me back to a specific time and place, or remind me of a specific person, or both. That’s true, I’d guess, for anyone who loves music: some records trigger memories. Among such recordings for me are Pink Floyd’s “Us And Them,” which sets me down in the lounge of a youth hostel in Denmark; Orleans’ “Dance With Me,” which puts me in the 1975 version of Atwood Center at St. Cloud State; and Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” which tugs me back to my duplex in Minot, North Dakota, on a winter’s night.

There are, I’m certain, hundreds of such songs, and every once in a while, one of them pops up on the radio, the stereo or the RealPlayer and triggers one of those long-ago association for a moment or two. Sometimes, those associations are a little puzzling, as was the case when I was driving to the grocery store the other day.

I was listening, once again, to Kool 108 in the Twin Cities. The station, as it does every year, had played holiday music from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Even if one loves holiday music – and as I’ve noted here, I generally don’t – that’s way too much of a good thing. So I was hungry for oldies on the car radio this week, hungry enough that I even listened to “Help Me, Rhonda” all the way through instead of pushing the button for another station. And I’m glad I hung in there with the Beach Boys, for the following song took me back:

It was early 1970, and Rick and I were at the sledding hill at Riverside Park, no more than a mile from our homes. We had a couple of new saucer sleds and were testing them out on the long hill, enjoying the times we wiped out as much as we enjoyed those times we made it upright to the bottom of the hill. It was a cloudy Sunday, and the light that penetrated the cloud cover was fading; evening was approaching as we hauled ourselves up the hill for the last time that day. And as we got to the top of the hill, from somewhere came the sound of a radio for just a few seconds: Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy.”

I’m not sure where the sound came from. In the parking lot at the top of the hill, a car with its radio on might have had a door open for just a moment, perhaps to admit tired sledders about to head home. That seems likely. But however it happened, we both heard the song as we went up the hill. “Good song,” I said. It was okay, said Rick, not one of his favorites.

And almost thirty-nine years later, as I drove to the store, the strains of “Holly Holy” put me back there again: On that long hill in Riverside Park, cheeks red, glasses splashed with snowflakes, feet cold inside my boots, taking the first steps on the way to home and hot chocolate.

A Six-Pack from January 1970
“Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond (Uni 55175, No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 of January 3, 1970)

“Evil Woman Don’t Play Your Games With Me” by Crow (Amaret 112, No. 22)

“Let’s Work Together” by Wilbert Harrison (Sue 11, No. 50)

“I’ll Hold Out My Hand” by the Clique (White Whale 333, No. 60)

“Jennifer Tomkins” (sic) by the Street People (Musicor 1365, No. 87)

“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by the Delfonics, (Philly Groove 161, No. 122)

A few notes:

“Holly Holy” had just peaked the week before at No. 6, Diamond’s fourth Top Ten hit. I think “Holly Holy” tends to get lost among Diamond’s other hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially falling into the shadow of “Sweet Caroline,” which had gone to No. 4 in the summer and autumn of 1969. But it’s one of my favorites; beyond the memories it spurs, it has a good melody and a great, haunting hook. And the slightly cryptic words sustain the haunted mood.

As I understand it, the Twin Cities group Crow was unhappy with its hit, which had peaked at No. 19. The group’s sound was much more straight-ahead guitar rock, not the horn-band sound one would assume from the single. Lore has it that the group was plenty annoyed with the folks at Amaret for adding the horns to the record. That may be, but I like the single.

Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” was an edit of a longer version that showed up on his 1969 album of the same name. For some reason, the Hot 100 didn’t identify the charting single as Part 1 (Part 2 was on the B-Side), but it’s listed that way in the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. The single – the second Top 40 hit in Harrison’s career (“Kansas City” went to No. 1 in 1959) – went to No. 32. Canned Heat’s cover of “Let’s Work Together” went to No. 26 later in 1970.

“I’ll Hold Out My Hand” was one of the Clique’s follow-ups to “Sugar On Sunday,” which had reached No. 22 in 1969. “I’ll Hold Out My Hand” peaked at No. 45 in late December 1969 and then began to slide, leaving the Texas group a one-hit wonder. More interesting to me than either of those records was the group’s version of “Hallelujah,” the song that Sweathog beefed up and took into the charts in 1971. I’ll try to remember to post that sometime soon.

“Jennifer Tomkins” (the title was misspelled “Jennifer Tompkins” in the Hot 100, at least in the online copy I have) edged into the lower levels of the Top 40 in the last half of February 1970, peaking at No. 36. It was only hit for the Street People, which was a studio group that featured Rupert Holmes, who reached the Top 40 with three singles in 1979-80; the best known of those is likely “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” “Jennifer Tomkins” is a pretty slight record, but there’s something about the chorus – “I swear, just ain’t fair. Trouble, trouble everywhere. Oh, Lord, come on down. Got to spread some love around” – that I find sweetly appealing.

The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” had a long climb ahead. From No. 122 (“Bubbling Under The Hot 100,” as it says), the record made its way to No. 10, the second Top Ten hit for the Philly trio. (“La – La – Means I Love You” had gone to No. 4 in 1968.) The record was one of the most luscious confections put together by Thom Bell – Stan Watson was his co-producer – in a long, long career.