Posts Tagged ‘Lettermen’

At The Ballpark Long Ago

May 13, 2022

Originally posted August 3, 2009

I went to a baseball game forty years ago today. How do I know?

Because I saw something that day at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium that’s been etched in my memory ever since.

It was a Sunday, and I went to the ball game through a trip sponsored by St. Cloud State. I was fifteen, and my folks – Dad, of course, taught at the college – paid my way and sent me off on the bus to the Cities. It wasn’t the first Minnesota Twins game I’d gone to, but I hadn’t been to many of them. And I’d never gone to one essentially unsupervised. Yeah, there were adults on the bus, but none of them were going to keep track of me. I was basically on my own, and that made me feel pretty good.

And the game promised to be something special, as well. The Twins were playing the Baltimore Orioles, and both teams were in first place as the last two months of the season got underway. That season, 1969, was the first year that the two major leagues were split into divisions, with the division winners set to face each other in playoffs after the regular season. So the series between the Twins and the Orioles was a preview of a likely post-season series.

There was an added attraction: The Orioles’ starting pitcher that Sunday, Dave McNally, had won fifteen games without a loss that season. If he won that Sunday’s game, he’d set a new American League record for consecutive victories at the start of a season. (He was tied at 15-0 with Johnny Allen, who’d pitched for Cleveland in 1937.)

In addition, by winning his sixteenth game in a row, McNally would tie an American League record, set by Walter Johnson in 1912 and tied by Smokey Joe Wood later that same season, as well as by Lefty Grove in 1931 and by Schoolboy Rowe in 1934. (The streaks by Johnson, Wood, Grove and Rowe had come after they’d lost games in those seasons.)

So McNally was trying to become the first American League pitcher to ever have a record of 16-0. (He’d then set his sights on Rube Marquard of the National League Giants, who in 1912 won his first nineteen decisions.)

I wasn’t yet an avid baseball fan, but I was learning. I knew as we drove from St. Cloud that morning about McNally and his chance for history. I also knew that the Twins and the Orioles were two very good baseball teams. A look at the box score from that day’s game reveals the name of four members of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew of the Twins and Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson of the Orioles. (There are also some names in the box score of at least two Twins who also deserve to be in the Hall: Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat. Other Orioles? Probably not.)

[Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022. Note added May 13, 2022.]

I had a good seat, about fifteen rows above the third-base dugout, the Orioles’ dugout. And it was a tight game, as might have been expected. As the Twins came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning, they trailed 1-0, and McNally had given up just four hits. But in that bottom of the seventh inning, the Twins managed two hits, and then a walk loaded the bases. Rich Reese came to the plate, pinch-hitting for Twins pitcher Kaat. I don’t remember how many pitches McNally threw to Reese, but the last one was decisive: Reese launched the ball over the right-field fence for a grand-slam home run. The Twins had a 4-1 lead, and McNally’s first loss was in sight.

McNally stayed in the game, which I find odd, both in memory and in baseball strategy. (I’m referring as I write this to a box score available at Baseball-Reference.com, an invaluable site, and I find that some details of the game have become fuzzy for me. But my main point, which I’ll actually address in a bit, remains clear.) In the top of the eighth inning, the Orioles closed the gap to 4-2, and McNally went back to the mound to pitch to the Twins in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Twins scored another run, and that was when Orioles manager Earl Weaver came on the field to take McNally out of the game.

The stadium was noisy as the Twins took that 5-2 lead and as Weaver came out of the third-base dugout, right in front of me. The noise lessened a bit as Weaver walked to the mound and took the baseball from McNally. And as McNally headed toward the dugout, his head down and his perfect season gone, two remarkable things happened:

First, the Minnesota fans – more than forty thousand were there that Sunday – stood and applauded. I’ve since learned, of course, that most sports fans in most cities acknowledge historic performances by opposing players, but this was the first time I’d seen that happen, and it made an impression on me. But that was only the first remarkable thing.

McNally crossed the third-base line as the crowd applauded him. He raised his head, and – in a gesture that’s remained vivid in my memory for forty years – took off his cap and tipped it to the fans in the stadium. If there were ever an object lesson in sportsmanship and grace, it came in that moment from Dave McNally.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, August 9, 1969)
“My Pledge of Love” by the Joe Jeffrey Group, Wand 11200 [No. 16]
“Choice of Colors” by the Impressions, Curtom 1943 [No. 24]
“Hurt So Bad” by the Lettermen, Capitol 2482 [No. 44]
“Muddy River” by Johnny Rivers, Imperial 6638 [No. 45]
“Hey Joe” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic 2648 [No. 59]
“While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” the Honey Cone, Hot Wax 6901 [No. 62]

Joe Jeffrey, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, was from Buffalo, New York. There’s a bit more information at All-Music Guide, which notes that the singer, who was born Joe Stafford but changed his name (evidently to avoid confusion with Jo Stafford, even though Jo Stafford sang pop and was female) was a regular in clubs in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. “My Pledge of Love” was the only one of Jeffrey’s four singles on Wand to reach the Top 40, peaking at No. 14.

As the late 1960s rolled on, Curtis Mayfield of the Impressions was becoming more and more explicit in his songwriting about the racial divide in the United States. “Choice of Colors” may have been the furthest extension of that progression. Listening to it today, I find it remarkable that the song did as well as it did, peaking at No. 21 on the pop chart and reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart. The record is a remarkably frank piece of work.

“Hurt So Bad” was the Lettermen’s remake of the 1965 hit by Little Anthony & the Imperials, which went to No. 10. The Lettermen’s version was more lightweight than Little Anthony’s; it peaked at No. 12 as it floated from radio speakers during the late summer and early autumn of 1969, speaking directly to the life and heart of at least one young listener in the Midwest. It was the Lettermen’s final Top 40 hit.

Johnny Rivers’ “Muddy River” was pulled from his remarkable album Slim Slo Slider, and it’s surprising to me that it didn’t do better than it did. Rivers’ “Summer Rain,” a single that’s high on my all-time list, had gone to No. 14 as 1967 turned into 1968, and “Muddy River,” while not quite of that quality, was a good single. But “Muddy River” sat at No. 45 for one more week and then jumped to No. 41 for a week before falling back down the chart. Rivers wouldn’t hit the Top 40 again until 1972 with “Rockin’ Pneumonia – Boogie Woogie Flu,” which went to No. 6.

Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Joe” didn’t reach the Top 40, but it did prove once again that Pickett could to justice to pretty much any song. The record peaked at No. 59 on the pop chart, and went to No. 29 on the R&B chart. It’s also notable for the presence of Duane Allman on guitar. (If you listened to the mp3 before reading this, it’s likely you knew – or at least suspected – that already.)

“While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” is one of the delightful confections with a groove that Honey Cone and the other members of the Invictus stable turned out in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Formed by the one-time Motown team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, Invictus and Hot Wax were also home to Freda Payne, Laura Lee, the Chairmen of the Board and others. “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” was, says Wikipedia, Honey Cone’s first single. It peaked at No. 62 on the pop chart and made it to No. 26 on the R&B chart. The group eventually had four Top 40 hits, including “Want Ads,” which went to No. 1 in 1971.

Not What I Expected

March 8, 2018

Here’s what the Top Fifteen in the Billboard Easy Listening chart looked like fifty years ago this week:

“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat
“(Theme From) Valley Of The Dolls” by Dionne Warwick
“Love Is Blue” by Al Martino
“To Each His Own” by Frankie Laine
“If You Ever Leave Me” by Jack Jones
“Don’t Tell My Heart To Stop Loving You” by Jerry Vale
“Winds Of Change” by Ray Conniff & The Singers
“Cab Driver” by the Mills Brothers
“We Can Fly” by the Cowsills
“Ame Caline (Soul Coaxing)” by Raymond Lefevre & His Orchestra
“In The Sunshine Days” by Tony Sandler & Ralph Young
“Kiss Me Goodbye” by Petula Clark
“Goin’ Out Of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” by the Lettermen
“Mission-Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin
“L. David Sloane” by Michele Lee

As this is the first time I’ve actually dived into a weekly round-up of the Billboard charts now called Adult Contemporary, I chose one from 1968 for a reason. I thought that, given the fact that most of the music I heard around the house during my youth came from the Twin Cities radio giant WCCO, I would recognize all or nearly all of the records at the top of what was then called the Easy Listening chart.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

Of those fifteen records, I would have – before this morning – recognized only four well enough to cite both title and performer: Those would be the records by Paul Mauriat, the Mills Brothers, the Lettermen and Lalo Schifrin.

I would have known, obviously, that the Martino record was a cover of the Mauriat tune; I would have recognized Warwick’s voice; I would have recognized the songs offered by Lefevre and Clark and recognized Clark’s voice; and I likely would have recognized Conniff’s work while admitting I’d never heard the song before, even though I collect his work when I find it.

(There’s a reason for that last. I’ve never heard “Winds Of Change” because it was never on one of Conniff’s albums; it was on the soundtrack album to the movie How To Save A Marriage And Ruin Your Life.)

Titles for those records mentioned in that paragraph would likely have eluded me. And the other records in that list of fifteen would have brought shrugs. (In the case of Michele Lee’s “L. David Sloane,” a very baffled shrug.)

This first experiment, then, in digging into one of the weekly Adult Contemporary charts has left me wondering how much I actually know. Did I just choose a bad week? Or do I know far less easy listening music – and far less about that music – than I thought?

Those questions hang in the air and will be answered as I try this experiment a couple times more in the months to come. In the meantime, let’s listen to the record that was probably my favorite out of those I knew at the top of the Easy Listening chart fifty years ago this week: The Lettermen’s live performance of “Goin’ Out Of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” It went to No. 2 on the Easy Listening chart and to No. 7 on the pop chart.

A note: As we are still emptying and moving boxes, I lost track of the fact that yesterday was the first Wednesday of March. Thus, my monthly look back at 1968 via my monthly posts of ten years ago went missing. It will run tomorrow.

‘It Hurts So Bad . . .’

June 9, 2015

During her college days (and my high school days) my sister acquired one album by the Lettermen: Hurt So Bad, a 1969 release. As is the case with most of my sister’s LPs from the late 1960s and early 1970s, I have that one, too. My copy is tucked away on the easy listening shelf, which is not well organized, so I can’t easily put my hands on it to see what kind of shape it’s in.

I know I’ve played the LP at least once, but I also know, from glancing at the track listing for the album at discogs.com, that back in 1969, I paid attention only to the title track. And that’s held true to this day: The only track from the album that I have on the digital shelves is “Hurt So Bad.”

“Hurt So Bad” was the last of six Top 40 hits for the Lettermen, peaking at No. 12 in the third week of September 1969, as my junior year of high school was taking off and as I was in my second month of listening purposefully to Top 40 radio. In other words, among my first Top 40 memories is a sweet, mellow and haunting song about the agony of losing a love and the corresponding agony of the slender hope that she might come back.

Never mind that at the time – just barely sixteen – I’d never really had a love to lose, much less to beg to return to me. I’d had crushes, sure, and one of the major crushes of my life was beginning to form right at that time, but I’d never lost a love. Nevertheless, I was already a romantic, and the lyrics of “Hurt So Bad” whispered their sad story to me whenever I heard the record. And I was ready to listen.

The single – and the album that both my sister and I own – came to mind this morning as I looked at the Billboard Hot 100 from this date in 1969, when “Hurt So Bad” was at No. 92, in the third week of its long climb to the Top Twenty. Seeing it there reminded me of evenings in my room as August and September rolled by, listening to the Lettermen’s harmonies, mouthing the words as I tried to imagine what it would be like to love someone so deeply and then lose her. Like most people, I’d find out eventually, several times over, and it was never as pretty as the song.

‘I’ll See You In My Dreams . . .’

November 20, 2013

As noted in a couple of recent posts, the lovely Isham Jones/Gus Kahn song “I’ll See You In My Dreams” first showed up in 1925, recorded by Jones with the Ray Miller Orchestra, with Frank Besinger handling the vocal. According to Joel Whitburn in A Century Of Pop Music, the record was No. 1 for seven weeks starting the first week of April and wound up as the No. 3 record for the year (behind “The Prisoner’s Song” by Vernon Dalhart and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” by Gene Austin).

Covers naturally followed. While I don’t think that “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is necessarily one of the most-covered songs of all time, it’s nevertheless a song that’s stayed in the public ear: The list of covers at Second Hand Songs – a listing that’s not necessarily comprehensive but which probably provides a good cross-section and starting point – shows versions of the song from every decade since but the 1940s, and I’m not sure if there’s a reason for that gap or not. Add to those versions the other covers I’ve found at YouTube, and the song is clearly one that’s remained popular.

Since the middle of last week, I’ve been wandering through many versions of the song, and I’ve found quite a few I like. My pal Larry, who hangs his hat at the fine blog, Funky 16 Corners, recommended the 1930 cover by Ukulele Ike, otherwise known as Cliff Edwards. (Edwards, perhaps better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinnochio, covered the song again in 1956 on his album, Ukulele Ike Sings Again.) Another early cover that caught my ear was the 1937 version by Guy Lombardo. And jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt  gave the song a whirl in 1939.

Perhaps the most surprising of the covers I found was the nimble-fingered instrumental version by Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded during a session for Sun Records in 1958; the take was finally issued on a Sun collection LP in 1984 and since then on CD. Other versions I generally like from the 1950s and 1960s included covers by Henri René & His Orchestra (1956), the Mills Brothers (1960), The Ray Conniff Singers (1960), Cliff Richard (1961), the Lettermen (1963) and my man Al Hirt (1968).

The only version of the song to hit the modern charts was an unsurprisingly bland take from Pat Boone, whose 1962 cover went to No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 in and No. 9 on what is now called the Adult Contemporary chart.

Some versions baffle me (and you can easily find these – and others mentioned but not linked – at YouTube). I mean, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1980)? Then there’s some very odd percussion and production in a 1965 effort by Vic Dana. And in 1975, the Pearls took the song to the disco.

There were some other interesting versions. I found a cover by the Paul Kuhn Orchestra that was released on LP in 1980, but it sounds very much like something Bert Kaempfert would have released in 1965 or so. (Kuhn passed on in September, and his death inspired one of the great headlines: “Paul Kuhn, German jazzman who lamented Hawaii’s lack of beer, has died.”) Chet Atkins, recording with Merle Travis, did a nice cover for the 1974 album, Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, although the linked video offers what seems to be a shorter version of the tune, as included on a later compilation.

Howard Alden did a very nice guitar version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” ghosting for Sean Penn’s character Emmet Ray – a 1930s jazz guitar player – in Woody Allen’s 1999 film, Sweet and Lowdown.

And finally, one version that I like among the more recent covers is the faux-vintage and slightly rough-edged take from 2005 by folk singer Ingrid Michaelson along with singer (and ukulele player) Joan Moore.

‘Cast Your Dancing Spell My Way . . .’

October 10, 2013

So how many covers are out there of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Who knows?

There are sixty versions – including Dylan’s – listed at Second Hand Songs. There are more than 500 mp3s – with much duplication – offered at Amazon. Beyond that, I’ve found covers at YouTube not listed in either place.

(I checked at both BMI and ASCAP, as I’m not sure which organization administers Dylan’s songs. I found no listings for Dylan at either place, which eithers means I’m doing something wrong while searching or his compositions are administered elsewhere. Either way, it’s no help.)

The listing at Second Hand Songs starts with Dylan’s original and the Byrds’ ground-breaking cover in 1965 and goes on to the 2012 version by Jack’s Mannequin, which was included in the four-CD set Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. The first cover listed after the Byrds’ cover is a 1965 misspelled offering of “Mr. Tambourin Man” from a group called the Finnish Beatmakers. Except for the Finnish accent – which I kind of like – it’s a copy of the Byrds’ version, starting right from the guitar introduction.

And that’s the case for many of the covers I’ve listened to this week: they’re warmed-over fowl. One of the few with an original sound came, interestingly, from Gene Clark, one of the members of the Byrds when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.” His version of the Dylan tune – with a reimagined (and very nice, to my ears) introduction – was included on his 1984 album, Firebyrd.

The originator of the Byrds’ classic guitar lick, Roger McGuinn, shows up on a 1989 version of the tune recorded live in Los Angeles with Crowded House. As might be expected in that circumstance, it’s pretty much a copy of the Byrds’ version, with the Finn brothers et al. backing McGuinn.

Other early versions of note came from the Brothers Four and Johnny Rivers in 1965, from a young Stevie Wonder (with, one assumes, the Funk Brothers behind him), the Lettermen, the Beau Brummels and Noel Harrison in 1966, and from the Leathercoated Minds and Kenny Rankin in 1967. Versions from 1966 that I’d like to hear came from Billy Lee Riley and Duane Eddy. Odetta, as might be expected, offered an idiosyncratic and austere take on the tune in 1965.

Easy listening folks got hold of the tune, too. Billy Strange is listed at Second Hand Songs as having recorded a cover in 1965; I haven’t found that one (though my digging is not yet done), but I did find an easy listening version – with banjo, no less – recorded in 1965 by the Golden Gate Strings. And Johnny Harris & His Orchestra recorded the tune for the Reader’s Digest’s Up, Up & Away collection, which seems to have been released in 1970.

Speaking of banjo, the bluegrass/country duo of Flatt & Scruggs took on the song for their 1968 album, Changin’ Times. It’s nicely arranged with some nice harmonica in the background, but they’re too, well, square for the song, and that’s true right from the start, when they drop the “ain’t” and sing “there is no place I’m goin’ to.”

We’ll look at a few more versions of the tune – some of them quite nice – next week, but we’ll close today with a foreign language version of the tune. (Did you honestly think I would not drop one of those in?) Titled “Hra tampuurimies,” it’s a 1990 version from the irresistibly named Finnish group Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung.