Friday, 27 May 2016

Meet the Kaplans

‘Three funky cats, all brothers, having just as much fun on stage as their audience,’ as the sleeve notes to their second album read. ‘What kind of sound do the Kaplans have? Three parts of harmony coming together with a new contemporary sound as well as a healthy golden Oldie Show. Interwoven voices along with guitar, congo drums and bass blend together in a crisp fresh sound of today that doesn't forget the best of yesterday.’

Playing around the Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin area, the Kaplan Brothers released their first album, The Universal Sounds Of The Kaplan Brothers, on their own Kap Records imprint in 1969. At that point the Chicago-based duo consisted of brothers Richard (aka Dick, guitar and lead vocals) and Ed (percussion and flute), backed on their recording by guitarist Scott Klynas and bassist Jeff Czech. Very hairy, very Jewish (their first two albums both feature covers of Hava Nagila), very oddball, the Kaplan sound mixes spaghetti western whistles with South American congas and a splash of Greenwich Village folk.

For a while the two brothers performed on stage by Larry Andies (bass and backing vocals), before teaming up with younger brother John and issuing a second album, the much more pedestrian lounge folk collection The Kaplan Brothers which features three Beatles covers amongst its tracks. It’s a record that, according to Dick Kaplan himself ‘Hasn't gotten any better over the years’.

For their third – and last – album the boys shot off in an altogether different direction: quite literally. In early 1974 they relocated to California and, a year later, issued their magnum opus Nightbird, a mellotron-drenched slice of kitsch like nothing else you have ever heard in your life. Timothy Ready, on his blog The Progressive Rock Hall of Imfamy, described it rather well when he called it ‘Yom Kippur and Purim combined, in one mega-dose of cheese’.

Nightbird is a classic of wrongness, a prog-rock nightmare which is so gloriously perverse it somehow works. A song suite of sorts, Nightbird even includes a hideous (and hysterical) cover of the King Crimson classic Epitaph and an overwrought reworking of the Jose Feliciano song Rain. Small wonder that the Acid Archives called Nightbird ‘The ultimate lounge-rock extravaganza. A self-proclaimed 'electric symphony' that mixes Ennio Morricone with King Crimson as recorded by a Holiday Inn/bar mitzvah band from outer space. Crooner vocals soar on top of overly-elaborate keyboard arrangements as the music abruptly throws you from one intense mood into another in true psychedelic fashion.’ Although uncredited on the record, the title track Night Bird was written by Larry Andies. According to Kaplan Brothers’ fan James Webster (writing on Bad Cat Records in 2011), Larry ‘was also the composer of most of their original music’.

You need to hear this record. In fact for a couple of quid you can own a CD reissue of it. Search eBay for a copy of the (less than 100% legit) Erebus Records release from around 2009: I found my copy for 99p plus postage! You won’t regret it. But for now, here’s a couple of tracks to whet your appetite, the aforementioned Epitaph and the nutso album closer He, a rewrite (of sorts) of the folk classic He Was A Friend of Mine.  As a bonus, I’ve also added a track from each of the Brothers’ earlier albums: Running Scared from The Universal Sounds Of The Kaplan Brothers and, from their second album The Kaplan Brothers, their batshit crazy interpretation of Eleanor Rigby.


Friday, 20 May 2016

Sing it Again, Again Rock

Now, cast your mind back to last week, when I introduced you to the horror of Rock Hudson’s lone album release Rock, Gently. As I told you at that time, Hudson and his co-conspirator Rod McKuen had also recorded a 45, coupling Wings (a Hollies song which first appeared on the charity album No One’s Gonna Change Our World) with a cover of the classic Love of the Common People, a song first issued in 1967 by the Four Preps. Promo copies were pressed and full page ads were taken out in Billboard to promote the release, but it appears that – probably due to lack of airplay – that the single never reached the shops.

I told you that I had tracked down a copy (unlike most of Rock’s other recordings, this coupling seems to have been ignored by YouTube), and I promised that I would let you know how terrible it is. Thankfully, the disc is just as hideous as I had hoped.

Recorded in London in 1970, unlike Rock Gently, which features Hudson as sole vocalist, Wings and Love of the Common People feature our two protagonists duetting with each other like some other worldly Simon and Garfunkel. Given their sexuality (Hudson, of course, although he had been married for a few years in the 1950s was gay; McKuen’s sexual preferences were rather fluid, with the writer telling a reporter from the Associated Press that ‘I’ve been attracted to men and I’ve been attracted to women. You put a label on,’) and their long friendship, the two songs could easily be construed as duets between a couple of same-sex lovers – something that certainly would have hampered airplay.

Not that that makes one iota of difference. Irrespective of if the singers are gay, straight, bi- or poly-sexual, it’s still a dreadful disc. And that’s after Hudson took five years worth of singing lessons ‘because I said to myself, someday a musical will come along and I want to be ready.’ Years of singing in his high school glee club hadn’t prepared him for this.

‘Rock and I first met and became friends in the 1950’s when we were both under contract to Universal-International as actors’, McKuen (who died in 2015) wrote in answer to an fan’s enquiry on his website. ‘He had been through some rough times in his personal life and I spent a lot of time with him on his set. He was pretty much of a loner and I certainly related to that.

‘It’s no secret that Rock and I both liked a good drink, in fact, other than Johnny Mercer he was the best drinking buddy I ever had. We spent a lot of nights knocking a few back and, with or without friends, the nights usually ended up around the piano. Rock loved singing on or off key and I liked the timber of his untrained voice. I guess in the back of my mind even then I always thought someone should produce an album of Rock singing but I certainly had no idea that it would eventually be me or that he would be singing my songs.

‘After finishing three films for Universal I was put on suspension by the studio because I turned down a script I didn’t like. This meant that because I was still under contract to them my days as an actor were over. I moved to New York to try my hand as a full time singer-songwriter. Rock and I stayed in touch and in April of 1961 he called and asked if I’d like an early birthday present. Sure. Six days before I turned twenty-eight our mutual friend Judy Garland was to make her first (now legendary) appearance at Carnegie Hall and Rock had tickets. What a night.

‘Eight years later I made my debut at Carnegie Hall and of course Rock was there to share my own triumph. We had already started talking about Rock singing my songs and he even knew Jean and The World I Used to Know by heart.’ Hudson and McKuen set up a company together, R & R Productions, and discussed the idea of issuing at least two albums – possibly one musical and one spoken word, and even a film, Chuck, starring Rock with a script by Rod.

‘As 1969 ended we had selected the songs and arrangers for the Rock, Gently album,’ McKuen continued. ‘He chose the title based on a song from my album New Ballads. 40 songs made the final cut and we ended up recording 30 tracks plus several duets.

‘The marathon sessions began in March of 1970 at Chappell and Phillips studios in London. Arthur Greenslade, my principle conductor for both concerts and recording was the leader on every session. I went for good tracks, knowing we could overdub vocals later back in LA. The sessions were documented by ace photographer David Nutter in a limited edition book entitled “Rock Hudson/Rod McKuen: First Recordings March 1970, London”

Hudson described the sessions as ‘terrifying,’ telling the Reuters press agency in July 1970 that ‘it was such a shock to hear myself on playback. What I thought was right was so totally wrong.

‘It took three days to loosen up properly. It took two weeks to do all the songs. We were supposed to do enough for one album but we ended up with enough for three.’

‘A full album of unreleased material is still in the can,’ McKuen revealed. ‘The material still in the can includes several duets I did with Rock. Warner Bros. Records did release one single we did together, Wings and Love of the Common People. My favorite of the released recordings is Gone with the Cowboys, a song I wrote with Rock in mind and one that given my own past has a great spiritual connection for me.’

The album, as I noted in last week’s post, didn’t sell. It was reported at the time that ‘according to Rock his buddy mistakenly forgot to arrange for a distributing company to pass the disk along to retailers. As a result, thousands of copies of Rock, Gently are gently gathering dust in McKuen’s warehouse’.

‘Rock was a misunderstood, complicated man but one of the good guys,’ McKuen added. ‘More stories on our relationship personally and professionally will have to wait for an autobiography if I ever get around to writing one.’ Maybe, now both of them are no longer here, the whole story will one day come out.


Friday, 13 May 2016

Sing it Again, Rock!

Rock Hudson: film actor, TV star and, sadly, the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness. But singer?

Apparently so, if the album Rock, Gently is anything to go by. Subtitled Rock Hudson Sings The Songs Of Rod McKuen, Rock, Gently wasn’t Rock’s first foray into pop: he recorded solo versions of several tracks from his hit movie Pillow Talk (co-starring Doris Day), two of which were issued on a 7” in 1959: Roly Poly and Pillow Talk. He also recorded a version of the film’s hit song (You’re My) Inspiration.

The year before Rock, Gently was issued McKuen and Hudson were to issue a co-credited 45 coupling Wings with a cover of the classic Love of the Common People. Promo copies were pressed, and full page ads were taken out in the music press, but I’ve yet to see a stock copy listed anywhere, which makes me think that it never reached the shops. Neither track was included on Hudson’s debut (and only) album as neither song was composed by McKuen. I’ve just tracked down a copy on eBay and purchased the same. I’ll let you know how terrible it is in due course!

Rodney Marvin John Michael James McKuen and Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr) had been friends since the late 50s; they appear to have met when McKuen was contracted as a bit-part player to Universal. At that time Hudson was a worldwide star, but McKuen’s own career had been patchy, involving meagre movies roles as well as stints as a poet, activist and folk singer. Then there were the infamous Bob McFadden sessions which yielded the Brunswick single I’m a Mummy, subsequent album Songs our Mummy Taught Us and the follow up Dracula Cha Cha, before he hit it big – writing English lyrics for Jacques Brel. He’s responsible for, among others, the mega hits Seasons in the Sun and  If You go Away. He also wrote the Oscar nominated-song Jean, which appeared on the soundtrack to the hit movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which Hudson covers on this collection.

Recorded in London, and documented in book form as First Recordings, London, March 1970, Billboard liked the album: ‘Hudson comes of strong as a compelling balladeer’, their reviewer wrote, declaring that ‘this package offers much for MOR programming and sales’. Rock, Gently was issued in 1971 on McKuen’s own Stanyan Records label. The name Stanyan came from McKuen’s hit poetry anthology Stanyan Street And Other Sorrows.

Stanyan was an interesting set up with an eclectic roster, and although the company had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records, McKuen preferred to sell direct to the independent trade and via mail order: ‘By selling my records directly to the customer or retailer, I am able to hold the list price down,’ he revealed to Billboard in January 1973. Hudson, who was very pleased with the results, fell out with McKuen when he discovered that orders for the album would not fulfilled by Warners but rather by McKuen’s own mail order operation. Consequently Rock, Gently didn’t sell, didn’t chart and there was no follow up.

Anyway, have a listen to a pair of tracks from the album – the opener Open the Window and See All the Clowns and Things Bright and Beautiful and see what you think.


Friday, 6 May 2016

The Food of Love

What can I tell you about Vinny Roma?

Not a lot, if truth be known. I believe that he was of Italian extraction, and that he recorded his self-financed and self-pressed albums in and around Miami during the late 60s and early 70s.

He issued several albums, including Vinny Roma Sings His Head Off (1968) and the 1972 release Sunset in Rome (which, according to a brief mention in Billboard, was issued by his own Vinny Roma Enterprises label). The latter may be the same album as Vinny Roma Sings (which was also issued in 1972). It’s equally possible that these three albums were simply reissues of the same material: all of the songs on Vinny Roma Sings are also included on the earlier Sings His Head Off, including the song Sunset in Rome. There was also at least one 45, again on Vinny Roma Enterprises (‘produced solely by Vinny Roma’, as the disc’s label grandly states and presumably released around 1972/3) which coupled a cover of Love Story with Vinny’s self-penned Sunset in Rome. Again, both songs appear on all three (or is it two) known albums. Sammy Davis Jr. owned a copy of the single, presumably sent to him or given to him by Vinny himself.

I can also tell you that Vinny Roma was not his real name: in his day-to-day life our man went by the name Vincent J Tozzo.

Vincent J Tozzo was born on November 2, 1929, and served in the US Air Force in Korea; I found a reference which claims that he also saw action in World War Two, but as he was just 15 when that particular conflict ended this seems slightly dubious. Mr Tozzo appears to have suffered some sort of injury whilst in combat, as his name appears on a list of disabled war veterans published in the 1980s. He married, and he and his wife had at least one son, also called Vincent. He died on May 31, 1994 at 64 years old. He was buried in Florida National Cemetery, Bushnell, Fl.

And that’s it. Copies of Vinny Roma Sings His Head Off occasionally turn up for sale on Ebay and usually command high prices. It’s certainly the easier to find of his two (or is it three) albums, but I’ve yet to track down a copy for my own collection. Luckily, one of Vinny’s songs – Ah, Music – was included on the 2012 collection Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958 – 1992, and it’s that sole track, which was first brought to my attention by WWR regular Graham Clayton, that I present for you today. If any of you possess any of Vinny’s other recordings, please do share!


Friday, 29 April 2016

I'll Hoff and I'll Puff

 Released in the US in January 1985, Night Rocker was the debut studio album by American actor and infamous burger muncher David Hasselhoff. Produced by the Grammy-nominated Joel Diamond (Gloria Gaynor, Engelbert Humperdinck and dozens of others), the album bombed in his home country, but went to Number One in the Austrian charts and was a number 30 hit in Germany. Suddenly David had a new career: he would continue to trouble the Euro charts for many years to come. Lucky for him, as the year after Night Rocker was released his hit TV show Knight Rider was canned.

Three songs from the album were featured in the Knight Rider episode Let It Be Me; a fourth was featured in the third season episode The Rotten Apples”. To drive home the message, the front cover shows the Hoff standing on the bonnet of a Kitt-alike Pontiac. The vomit-inducing homily on the back cover - ‘believe in yourself. Keep a positive attitude and never, never give up. Dreams do come true’ - tells you everything you need to know.

A thick, thick slice of synth-driven cheese, Night Rocker is an appalling album: it’s everything you hate about mid-80s music rolled up in one awful, ego-fuelled audio abortion. As one reviewer put it: ‘think of the absolute worst 80s pop song you ever heard, cross it with enough adult pop contemporary clichés to make Barry Manilow throw back his head in unadulterated, mocking laughter, sprinkle in vocals that sound something like Neil Diamond after having his throat ripped out, throw in lyrics that make Chad Kroeger resemble a young Bob Dylan, and you might have a small inkling of the rotting, pungent stench this album leaves in its wake’. There’s not much I can add to that.

Have a listen to a brace of tracks and decide for yourself: here's the opener Night Rocker and the thoroughly nasty Our First Night Together, delivered by a voice that Time magazine once described as 'as smooth as silk but twice as thin'.


Friday, 22 April 2016

Thisters, O Thisters

Born in December 1936, Isadore Fertel (pronounced Fur-Tell) was rapidly approaching his forties when he struck up his on-off friendship with the man who would become his mentor, champion and producer - Herbert Khaury, aka Tiny Tim.

After Tim’s career hit the skids – and after he was dropped by Reprise for failing to promote his own records and constantly criticising the company in interviews - he tried to start his own company, issuing several singles on Vic-Tim (acidly named after Tiny and his then-wife, Miss Vicki and distributed by song-poem shysters Brite Star) before setting up a second imprint which he named Toilet Records ‘because that’s where my career was going’. Toilet Records had a slogan – ‘sit and listen’. For his new label he set out to find new talent, although Tiny ended up signing just one other artist, the equally eccentric Mister Fertel.

Izzy Fertel was a short (and short sighted) Jewish man who claimed to be the only male member of a local Women’s Lib organisation (the Radical Feminists) and who performed a Yiddish version of Rock around the Clock as part of his repertoire. Fertel, whose greatest wish was to have a sex-change operation, had been married although that was only consummated once, and even then under the supervision of his sister-in-law. His wife’s family clearly indulged him: ‘On Father’s Day,’ he once revealed, ‘As a treat her Mother would get me a dress, do my nails and make me up.’

Known within his family as Izzy, according to his cousin Randy (in his book The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir) he ‘swore to his dying day’ that he went to a women’s college. That wasn’t true: he went to Loyola University, a mixed sex establishment in Chicago (he served on the university’s Social Service committee for the year 1959-60), but who cares?

Izzy recorded two tracks for Tiny’s Toilet Records – A cover of Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman and his own composition Susan B, a tribute to the social reformer and feminist Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the women's suffrage movement. ‘The most important thing I did as head of Toilet Records was discover a new talent – Isadore Fertel,” Tiny once admitted. ‘I paid him $100 to cut two songs for me.’

It’s long been believed that the 45 (which was given the catalogue number RB-102, and was produced by Tiny under the lurid nom de plume Ophelia Pratt) was never actually pressed, but it was certainly offered up for sale: it was advertised as available via mail order in five consecutive issues of Billboard magazine over May/June 1973. The Joe Cappy mentioned in the ad (above) was Tiny’s erstwhile mobster manager Joseph Cappelluzzo: Joe had been Tiny's best man when he married Miss Vicki on Johnny Carson's Tonight show. Quite what anyone who actually received a copy of the record would have made of it is anyone’s guess: Izzy’s lispy, nasal and atonal voice is accompanied by solo piano, and both tracks sound like they were nailed in one solitary take.

According to Tiny’s biographer Justin Martell, Fertel ‘hoped to make enough money in show business to get a sex change. Tiny Tim met Isadore Fertel in the early 1970's and was “impressed with his songwriting.” Tiny featured Fertel as his opening act at many shows and promoted Fertel with what resources he was able to muster during that period’.

Izzy Fertel has been described by others as ‘Tiny Tim’s Tiny Tim’. So in awe of Tiny was he that Izzy attempted to follow in Tiny’s footsteps, getting a job as a messenger boy (Tiny had worked as a messenger boy for Loews/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 50s) and taking the occasional gig on the amateur circuit. As eccentric as his mentor, Izzy is reported to have been obsessed with winter weather, and would move around from state to state in search of snow. He also is said to have occasionally performed dressed as a woman, calling himself Isadora. As he once said: ‘If I were a woman – and how I wish I were – I’d probably be a lesbian’.

Tiny can be seen on YouTube, accompanying Izzy on the New York cable TV chat show Coca Crystal on Susan B and on his later composition, The Reagan-Begin Song. Although the two were clearly close, as an avowed feminist Izzy found it hard to accept Tiny’s 19th century views on women, and after he encouraged Miss Vicky (along with their daughter, Tulip) to leave Tiny the two men did not speak for a year.

The colourful Isadore Fertel died on September 9, 2008 at a retirement home in the Bronx, New York.


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Like a Bird

Just in case you didn't know (or you've been living under a rock for the past few months), I've written a book, and it is officially out (in the UK, at least) from today.

Available from all good booksellers (it says here) Florence Foster Jenkins, the Life of the World's Worst Opera Singer is the first ever full-length biography of the infamous Diva of Din.

Here's some blurb from the press release: 'Madame Jenkins couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket: despite that, in 1944 at the age of 76, she played Carnegie Hall to a capacity audience and had celebrity fans by the score. Her infamous 1940s recordings are still highly-prized today. 

In his well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography, Darryl W. Bullock tells of Florence Foster Jenkins’s meteoric rise to success, and the man who stood beside her through every sharp note.

Florence was ridiculed for her poor control of timing, pitch, and tone, and terrible pronunciation of foreign lyrics, but the sheer entertainment value of her caterwauling packed out theatres around the United States, with the ‘singer’ firmly convinced of her own talent, partly thanks to the devoted attention from her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield. Her story is one of triumph in the face of adversity, of courage, conviction and of the belief that with dedication and commitment a true artist can achieve anything. 

With a major Hollywood movie about her life currently due for release in May 2016 starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, the genius of Florence Foster Jenkins is about to be discovered by a whole new audience."

Should you feel like investing in such a thing, links to your favourite online booksellers van be found here

Thanks for your time: I'll be back tomorrow with a proper blog post!

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