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!


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