Friday, 27 April 2012

In That Mood Again

Today’s post is a real treat for all of you song poem fans, and a real rarity too: an audio advertisement for the song poem trade from the star of the Halmark stable, Bob Storm.

This ultra-rare, one-sided 45 was issued on P.R.O records and pressed by the Rite custom pressing company. It was sent out to prospective clients of a song poem company in the hope that the lush orchestral arrangement and high production values would entice the potential customer to part with their hard earned cash to have the same ‘15 piece, pre-recorded orchestra’ produce something of the ‘same greatness of sound and quality’.

There’s no date on the label, obviously, no compopser credit and no clue as to which company put it out – until you examine the matrix that is. There are two numbers etched into the dead wax: 10003 which, according to the Rite Pressings Guide, dates it to 1963 and 1058 which, the same site attests, is the account number for the company that commissioned the disc, the infamous Halmark Records.

Now, I’ve written about song poems before, but I think it’s worth recapping. It’s a scam, we all know that, but for decades people around the world have been fooled into parting with their hard earned cash in a futile effort to have their feeble attempts at poetry turned into the next number one record. Surprisingly, in this day and age, it’s still happening.

The term, song poem (often song-poem) refers to lyrics (or poems) that have been set to music for a fee, a practice which has been around since the beginning of the 20th century involving dozens upon dozens of record labels, mostly in North America but also in Great Britain, Canada, Europe and Australia. Promoted through small display ads in magazines (Send in Your Poems! Songwriters Make Thousands of Dollars! Your Songs and Poems Can Earn Money for You!), the word ‘lyrics’ was avoided as potential customers would not understand what that meant. Those who sent their work in usually received a letter telling them that their words were worthy of recording by professional musicians, along with a proposal to do so in exchange for a fee – anything from $40 to $400 or more. It’s still happening today, but the undoubted heyday was from the start of the rock’n’roll era until the end of the 70s.

On receipt of the fee, these songs were hastily recorded and then pressed as vinyl singles or released on compilation LPs with songs by other amateur lyric writers. One or two copies would be sent to the customer, with promises (rarely, if ever, kept) that they would also be sent to radio stations or music industry executives. Most of the results were terrible; many, laughably so. Have a dig around this blog; you'll find dozens of examples.

Halmark (occasionally mis-spelled Hallmark) was one of the many, many companies producing song poems, and I’ve written about the company and its founder, Ted Rosen, before. The interesting thing about this particular pressing is that it dates the start of the Halmark saga to at least 1963 – a full four years earlier than had previously been believed. Phil Milstein’s fabulous article, which you can read here, states that Halmark began its operation in 1967 – although Ted Rosen had already been in the song poem industry for many years. Certainly the sound of this disc is early 60s but, thanks to using the same overwrought song beds again and again (and again) very few Halmark releases sound ‘of their time’ and it’s hard to be exact. All we can be certain about is that information on the matrix.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Ye of Little Faith

Today we’re back on the abortion trail – or rather the anti-abortion trail, with a couple of tracks that get mentioned a lot on the World’s Worst Records but until now I’ve failed to post.

First up is the slick AOR sickness that is Seals and Crofts – the same guys who wrote the classic Summer Breeze – with their vile pro-life paean Unborn Child; a track so disgusting that it virtually killed their up-until-then rather successful career: the single reached a lowly 66 on the Billboard chart (their four previous singles had all hit the top 20) and, outside of Greatest Hits collections the album it came from (also called Unborn Child) was their last to enter the top 30.

Jim Seals and Darrell ‘Dash’ Crofts first met in the 1950s, both being joining a Texas doo-wop band Dean Beard and the Crew Cuts. By 1958 the pair has moved to California and joined The Champs – a band which also featured Glen Campbell and had recently scored a huge hit with the quasi-instrumental Tequila. In 1963 the pair left the Champs to join Campbell in his own band Glen Campbell and the GCs. After a couple of years the band disintegrated, and Seals and Crofts found themselves back in Texas, where they became members of a band called The Dawnbreakers. It was about this time that both Seals and Crofts became members of the Bahá'í Faith.

By 1969 the pair were performing as a duo, with Seals on guitar, saxophone and violin, and Crofts on guitar and mandolin. A couple of unsuccessful albums followed before they signed with Warner Bros. Records. Their second album for Warners - Summer Breeze - sold over one million copies and reached number 7 on the Billboard chart. The title track is best known, certainly in the UK, for being covered by the Isley Brothers.

Seals and Crofts are devotees of the Baha'i Faith, and a number of their songs contain Baha'i references or passages from Baha'i scriptures. When they appeared in concert, they would often hang around after the performance to talk about the faith and pass out literature to anyone interested. Although the duo split in 1980 after they lost their contract with Warner Bros. in both 1991 and 2004 they made brief stabs at reunions.

This particular track, Unborn Child, is another in the long line of nasty, anti-abortion rhetoric which spewed out of the States. One rather pleasing side effect of this release was that is caused pro-choice advocates to boycott the album and the duo's concerts. Take a look at some of the lyrics; they’re just vile:

Oh little baby, you'll never cry, nor will you hear a sweet lullaby.
Oh unborn child, if you only knew just what your momma was plannin' to do.
You're still a-clingin' to the tree of life, but soon you'll be cut off before you get ripe.
Oh unborn child, beginning to grow inside your momma, but you'll never know.
Oh tiny bud, that grows in the womb, only to be crushed before you can bloom.
Mama stop! Turn around; go back! Think it over.

People like this deserve to be punched in the face.

As a little extra today I bring you another disgusting anti-abortion song which, once again, has been referred to occasionally here but never before posted: L’ilMarkie’s Diary of an Unborn Child. Words fail me; a grown man pretending to be a child tries to guilt couples considering abortion into having their child by documenting its progress in the womb. It’s horrible, as you’d expect, right up until almost three minutes into the song, when Mark Fox’s creepy child-voice announces ‘December 28: today, my mother killed me’.

Based on an anonymously-credited article which appeared in Awake!, the magazine of the Jehovah's Witnesses, in 1980, Diary of an Unborn Child really is one of the most vile performances ever committed to vinyl, and as such deserves its place here among the rest of the World’s Worst Records. Enjoy!

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Wonderful Mrs Miller

Over the years I’ve mentioned the wonderful Mrs Elva Miller on a number of occasions but, as regular contributor Ross Hamilton points out, I’ve yet to feature her on her own. Well, today I aim to make amends – and to supply you with a real treat (more of which later) with a rare Mrs Miller track whose solitary appearance (as far as I am aware) was on a radio-only promo.

But first, allow me to introduce you to Mrs Miller.

Elva Ruby Connes Miller first came to fame in 1966 when Capitol records, not known for having much of a sense of humour, released her first album, Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits. The shrill and off-key warblings of this 59 year-old grandmother seemed to strike a chord with the public – that debut album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks - and her bizarre versions of rock and pop standards (including such greats as Downtown and These Boots Were Made for Walking) led to her becoming known as the worst pop star of all time.

But the Mrs Miller story didn’t begin there – this overnight sensation had already self-financed a number of recordings and had released at least one EP (Songs for Children) before Capitol snapped her up.

She originally came from Dodge City, Kansas, married John Miller (a man thirty years her senior) in 1934 and moved to Claremont, California. An active member of her local church, producer Fred Bock - who made a career out of religious music - heard Elva’s EP and convinced her to try more modern songs which he then took to different record labels in the hope of securing her a deal. Disc jockey Gary Owens (who wrote the sleeve notes for Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits and went on to become the announcer on Laugh-In) was friendly with Bock and featured Elva on his radio program as early as 1960 and included her on his first comedy album, Song-Festoons, in 1962. Owens claim to have created the character of Mrs Miller is stretching it a bit, but he can certainly be credited with having brought her to the attention of Capitol Records and producer Lex de Azevado – who long-time WWR followers will know as the producer of Ric King’s dreadful Return of a Soldier.

Mrs Miler’s fame spread like wildfire. She made appearances on countless TV shows, including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and Laugh-In; performed for the troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope, and appeared in the film The Cool Ones with Roddy MacDowell. Her cover of Petula Clark’s Downtown was a minor chart hit, she played the Hollywood Bowl and went on to release two more albums for Capitol and a fourth and final album in 1968, Mrs Miller Does Her Thing (with her dressed in a psychedelic muumuu on the cover holding a batch of hash brownies and singing songs about marijuana) on the Amaret label. She later issued several singles on her own label, but retired from singing in the early 1970s when interest in her novelty act had all but waned. It was a short, sparkling career, echoed by contemporaries such as Tiny Tim and in some ways aped by Canada’s Mme St Onge.

But there's more to Mrs Miller than a mere novelty act. She initially claimed to be serious about her singing and to resent the fact that Capitol made her recording sessions difficult for her in order to get the performance that they wanted. As she said in an interview in 1967: "Capitol Records created the angle that 'she's so bad that she's good.' I don't sing off key and I don't sing off rhythm: they got me to do so by waiting until I was tired and then making the record. Or they would cut the record before I could become familiar with the song. At first I didn't understand what was going on. But later I did, and I resented it. I don't like to be used."
Even so, once she became fully aware that her singing was being treated as a joke by her record company, she went along with it. Yet that all changed by the time her final album was released. On Mrs Miller Does Her Thing the joke was starting to wear thin. The overt drug references on the cover and in the lyrics of songs such as Mary Jane, the Renaissance of Smut and Granny Bopper were too much for her, as was the attempt to repackage Elva as a late sixties hippy icon. Even though Mary Jane went on to become the theme to a film starring pop star Fabian, playing a school teacher fighting a drugs gang, Elva Miller had had enough. That same year her husband took ill and passed away, so Elva sold up and moved and all but turned her back on the music business.

Two singles were released on her own Mrs Miller Records in 1971 but sales were disappointing and Mrs Miller disappeared from the spotlight. Sadly Elva's apartment building collapsed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. She moved to a convalescent hospital in Vista, California, where she passed away in 1996.

So, today I bring you, as a tribute to the wonderful Mrs Miller, both sides of a rare promotional EP issued by Capitol in 1966 to help publicise Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits. Record companies often issued open-ended interviews; these were banded discs which just contained the answers to questions by the artist involved. The disc would be sent out with a cue sheet full of questions and with timings for musical interludes, allowing the local radio DJ to, in effect, interview the artist in his own studio.

This rare recording also includes Mrs Miller performing Happy Birthday – a track which does not appear on any of her albums. It’s short, sweet and currently unavailable in any official form. I've even included the cue sheet for you so that, should you wish, you can posthumously interview Mrs Miller in the comfort of your own home. Enjoy!

Learn more about Mrs Miller at Mrs Miller's World

Friday, 6 April 2012

Music, Man

Advertising himself as Britain’s Number One Dwarf, Rusty Goffe has had a long and distinguished career in this business we call show. There’s scarcely a movie you thank think of which has needed an actor of his stature (4’2”) in which he has not appeared: five of the Harry Potter films, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Willow, Funnybones, Flash Gordon and Fred Clause to name just a few. He played no less than three roles in the first ‘proper’ Star Wars movie (the one that’s now stupidly been relabelled IV: A New Hope). He’s even in Ken Russell’s short film A Kitten for Hitler – now that’s something to be proud of.

His list of television credits just goes on and on: the League of Gentlemen (he was part of Papa Lazarou’s circus), Are You being Served?, The Goodies, the Two Ronnies, the Kenny Everett TV Show, Crackerjack, Dave Allan….Rusty is Britain’s ‘go-to’ dwarf.

And before you get all PC on me, in an interview with the BBC the multi-talented Mr Goffe had this to say: “I'm happy to refer to myself as a dwarf. That’s what I am – dwarfism is a form of achondroplasia. I’ve had 'vertically challenged’, but the best was 'superior depth' – I thought that was hysterical!”

Born in October 1948 in Kent, Rusty and his wife Sarah (who stands 5’7” tall) now live in Bedfordshire and have two sons, Ben and Jack (both also dwarves and both also busy actors). He left school at 15 and went straight into showbiz: for 13 years the couple ran the Sarah Goffe Theatre School; he has been in constant demand for pantomime, has appeared in two Royal Variety Shows (an annual stage shindig performed in front of a member of the royal family) and for many years he toured the music halls and variety theatres with his one man band act. In fact his first job was playing the piano and the trumpet in a band show in Portsmouth six nights a week.

And it’s this last talent which interest us. For Rusty released a single. Not just a single, but a rather wonderful three track EP – Cabaret Time on Crotchet Records - which I present for you today in all of its glory, thanks to the kindness of Mick Dillingham, who originally included a track on his must-have CD Music for Mentalists. Earlier in his career Rusty also released an album, For Your Entertainment on Le Marc records, on which he played 10 instruments; the sleeve notes to this EP claim that he can play 32 instruments, however his website proudly boasts of his ability to play no less than 44.

Side one of the EP includes two tracks that had previously appeared on his album: Ten Feet Tall (a self-penned number rather than a cover of the XTC classic) and an instrumental version of The Bells of St Marys. But it’s side two that’s the pip; Rusty’s rendition of the perennial favourite The Music Man, in which he showcases his ability to play (with varying degrees of success) the piano, the trumpet, the organ, the saxophone, guitar, the bagpipes and the drums.

It’s a wonderful, kitsch record and, as the sleeve claims: ‘Cabaret Time with Rusty Goffe is a must for your record collection’. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Enjoy!

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