In the 1960s record production and popular singer’s vocal style were as over-the-top as women’s hair pieces. I was listening to a Jackie Wilson record a few weeks ago and it really hit me how much not just popular music but singing itself has changed. For every Adele who is a delicious throwback to a blue eyed soul great like Dusty Springfield (and her big hair), it seems as if there are literally dozens of young singers whose electronically manipulated voices lack any differentiating qualities whatsoever. In fact if it weren’t for protools and other studio wizardry, many pop singers today would never have advanced professionally beyond Home Depot. As a sort of musical bromide for our Auto-tuned nation, I thought this would be a propitious moment to look back at some of my favorite completely over-the-top vocal performances of the 1960s—a time when singers really sang, and sang, and sang. This list is by no means complete, the better to create subsequent volumes.
1. Jackie Wilson, “Night” (1960)
Jackie Wilson was one of the great soul singers of all-time, though perhaps he is not as well remembered today as he should be. Known as “Mr. Excitement,” Wilson enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1960s with huge hits like Doggin’ Around, Lonely Teardrops, and (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, before tragically collapsing from a heart attack on-stage in 1975 and subsequently falling into a coma where he remained for nine years until his death in 1984 at age 49. This was a catastrophically sad end to a great artist, for Wilson was not only a singer of astonishing skill and range, but also a peerless performer. I miss soul music that actually had soul, which makes me miss Jackie Wilson all the more.
2. Eydie Gormé, “If He Walked Into My Life” (1966)
Back in the 1960s there were still big pop hits that originated on Broadway. By the 1990s even featuring Stevie Wonder with the cast of Rent on their recording of the very poppy and oh-so-catchy Seasons of Love couldn’t help it crack the charts. But back in ’66, the great Eydie Gormé enjoyed a moderate size hit (#120 Pop, #5 Adult Contemporary) with her cover of Jerry Herman’s 11 o’clock number from Mame. Here she is belting it out within an inch of its life. When I hear this performance, I don’t just see Eydie, I clearly see a room full of older people—my aunts, uncles, and grandparents, kvelling over her enormous talent and loudly commenting when the last note ends. “Now that’s a singer!” It’s not that this actually happened, of course, but the spirit of the memory is very true to what it felt for me to be gay, Jewish, and (very) young in the late-1960s.
3. Little Anthony and the Imperials, “Hurt So Bad” (1965)
A huge crossover hit in early 1965 (#10 pop, #3 R&B), the Don Costa-produced ballad was a showcase for the soaring tenor of the group’s lead singer Anthony Gourdine. The Imperials began as a Doo-Wop group scoring their first hit with the 1958 monster “Tears on My Pillow” and smoothly transitioned into the 1960s by which time most other doo-wop groups had been eclipsed by the new soul sounds that dominated the airwaves. “Hurt So Bad” was the follow-up to another completely over-the-top performance, their big hit “Goin’ Out of My Head.” To be honest it was a hard choice, like deciding between two giant and equally beautiful beehive wigs. Like so many great soul songs of the 1960s, I first became aware of “Hurt So Bad” when it was covered in the late-1970s by Linda Ronstadt, herself no stranger to big vocals. Though she was frequently vilified at the time for not being a songwriter, Ronstadt did a huge favor to writers, music publishers, her record label and, especially audiences, by introducing a new generation to some of the greatest songs of the rock era. Many of her exceedingly respectful and often artful cover songs surpassed the originals on the charts and in terms of cultural presence and still sound wonderful today. Oh but if every singer didn’t also fancy themselves a songwriter how the world would be populated by less disposable pop songs.
By the late 1960s Columbia Records executives were panicking about what to do about “the Barbra Streisand problem.” The label’s biggest female artist by far, Streisand had enjoyed unprecedented success in the early- and mid-1960s singing standards, some of which were old fashioned in her own mother’s day. Though it may seem counterintuitive, being square actually made Barbra seem quite hip when she was a beginning, but by 1967’s Simply Streisand, the artist’s sales were beginning to dip, primarily due to the ever widening chasm between pre- and post-rock era cultural preferences. Caught in the crosshairs of the British invasion, psychedelic rock, and the ascendency of Motown, Streisand’s kooky Greenwich Village outsider persona was having trouble holding up not just against the changing sounds of radio, but also against her own immense success, power, and mainstream cultural presence. By 1966 even Easy Listening radio was changing, preferring the comparatively hip sound of Petula Clark and the Mamas and Papas over Barbra’s torchy show tunes. What’a a girl to do?
Before suits like Clive Davis sorted out the problem with 1970s Richard Perry produced “Stoney End,” a top-10 record that actually succeeded in getting Streisand on Top-40 radio, there was 1969’s What About Today?, as thoroughly misguided an effort to make someone who was young and hip seem young and hip as has ever been cooked up in a board room. Confused? So was everyone else at the time. Barbra was at the peek of her vocal power and even though she seems at times as confused as Goddard Lieberson, Columbia’s then president, must have been about why exactly What About Today? more closely sounded like What About 1958?, Streisand is up for the challenge and approaches the songs with complete commitment despite whatever lack of musical cohesion the project suffered from. There’s a little Jimmy Webb, some Beatles, Bacharach, Bergmans, and a whole lot of belting. Paradoxically, the title song, written by Broadway greats David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., ostensibly addresses the issues that bedeviled Columbia’s marketing team while at the same time illustrating the problem. Can’t connect with the doped up youth culture of 1969? Then how about a big Peter Matz arrangement with a huge studio orchestra?
In the end, What About Today? sold poorly and did precious little to solve the apparent widening disconnect between Barbra and music fans her own age. (Even the message from Barbra on the back of the LP, which clearly intended to bridge that gap, in fact exacerbated the problem through its unfortunate copywriting:
“This album is dedicated to the young people who push against indifference, shut down mediocrity, demand a better future, and who write and sing the songs of today. With my deepest admiration,
Mamie Eisenhower,— Barbra Streisand.
For these reasons What About Today? can be considered both a big failure and a great success. Today, What About Today? is completely essential for anyone who appreciates great singing, though it still stands as a clinical example of the musical generation gap the defined the pre- and post-rock eras by the late-1960s.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of the greatest all-around performers ever whose prodigious gifts were numerous. More than a great singer or showman, Davis was also a towering cultural figure for most of his life. From the early 1950s through his death in 1990, Davis was a visible and frequently vocal pop culture presence. Somehow he managed to weather his personal demons, the vicissitudes of popular opinion, and the tremendous racism he faced both within and outside of the various groups that counted him as a member, to become one of the true giants of show business in the twentieth century.
This late-1960s clip from the Andy Williams Show demonstrates the staggering enormity of Davis’ vocal talent and showmanship as well as any I’ve come across . And though perhaps it doesn’t qualify as an over-the-top vocal performance as much as a very straightforward performance of one of the most over-the-top songs to emerge from the Great White Way in the 1960s, it’s a pleasure to include it is a pleasure to behold. From Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s 1962 Broadway hit Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” was a top-20 pop hit that also took home the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. Of course it was recorded by scores of singers, but I think Sammy’s version wins hands down.
The English songbird Cilla Black was one of the most successful female vocalists of the 1960s in the UK, racking up 11 top-ten hits between 1963 and 1971 before becoming a successful TV presenter. If she is not as well known in the U.S., it’s certainly not because her voice lacked projection, as you are about to learn. Americans may be familiar with the song from Helen Reddy’s 1977 recording which was a modest hit, but Helen’s fluttery air box sounds anemic compared to Black’s brassy belt.
Dusty Springfield was one of the greatest pop singers ever and her influence continues to be felt almost fifteen years after her tragic death from cancer. While in general Springfield could never ever be described as over-the-top—in fact she is accurately regarded as a paragon of great vocal restraint—this particular single happens to just be an extremely big production, and Dusty rides it for all it’s worth. Fact is, when it came to her vocal style, Dusty had much more in common with the laid-back Peggy Lee then she did with fell Brits Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black. “Give Me Time,” which was the B-side of “The Look of Love” in the U.S. and a top-30 hit in the U.K., was about as close to brassy (or Bassey!) as the divine Dusty ever got.
I have solved the Little Anthony and the Imperials decision issue by deciding to include the charming Michelle Lee’s caffeinated cover of “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Lee’s vibrant vocals here are even more over-the-top than Anthony Gourdain’s—and that’s sayin’ something. If Dusty Springfield was the epitome of a light touch, Broadway baby Michelle Lee is the ultimate belter. Lee burst onto the Broadway stage at age 19 in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying which led to a contract with Columbia Records (sound familiar?). In a series of sincere if not completely successful albums, Michelle brought great enthusiasm as well as her unmistakable Bedknobs and Broomsticks vibrato to the party. Unfortunately most of the tepid covers didn’t really give her the chance to more effectively articulate her individualism and her recording career ultimately gave way to a much bigger career on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. Still I enjoy hearing Michelle completely in-your-face theatrical way with a song and that not unsubtle vibrato that could flatten anything in its path! And with lungs like Michelle’s, the song really had no choice but to submit. So will you.
No survey of over-the-top 1960s vocal performances would be complete without hearing from Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona, better known to the world as Vikki Carr. The Mexican American songbird from El Paso, Texas was a big star both on records and on TV before transitioning to a second career singing in Spanish. “It Must Be Him” was her biggest hit by far. The schmaltzy victim song, which could have derailed the burgeoning women’s lib movement singlehandedly, went to number three, selling over a million copies and receiving three Grammy nominations. Carr has enjoyed the distinction of singing for five presidents—from Nixon to Clinton—which might say as much about an apparent lack of political conviction as it does about her talent. The success of “It Must Be Him” in the final days of the “Summer of Love” throws the schizophrenic nature of American popular musical taste at the time into sharp relief.
I loved this record when I was a kid. I remember being at my father’s tiny apartment in Bergenfield, New Jersey around 1973 and listening to a Jay Black greatest hits 8-track tape with a pair of headphones that were much larger than my head. To my ears, his pseudo operatic vocal style was hypnotic; I had just never heard anyone sing like that before and I would listen to this song over and over. When I hear it now I still enjoy it, though I am struck by the difference in intonation when he sings the words “Cara mia” like he’s Caruso and then the word “why?” with his naturally flat Brooklyn accent. (Jay Black was born “David Blatt” and grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.) “Cara Mia” peaked at number four on the pop charts.
Dame Shirley Bassey is the patron saint of over-the-top and I mean that with tremendous respect. To say the least, Bassey is a song stylist of great intensity, capable of infusing even the most mundane lyric with Anna Magnani-like urgency. When material is well-suited to this approach, the results are indelible and absolutely unique. Though Bassey has never been everybody’s cup of tea, the years have been kind to the legend, lending her theatrics a humanness that gives the listener a greater appreciation for and wonderment at her utterly unique brand of musical witchcraft.
Bobbi Martin’s musical troubleshooting guide for women with low self-esteem and indifferent husbands was shockingly anachronistic even in 1970, which only makes its great success more fascinating—to wit, to contextualize For the Love of Him’s singular achievement, the record succeeded the Beatles’ Let it Be as the number one Easy Listening single in the country. From a contemporary perspective, there is nothing easy about listening to crazy Bobbi’s creepy recommendations for how a woman should hold on to her man, but I defy you to turn it off! It is simply not possible. Besides, in true back-in-the-day Top-40 style, the record only lasts 2:39 seconds! I’m so thrilled to be able to propagate a song this bad! If you’ve never heard it before, you owe me one.
In the 1960s Tom Jones was a welcome, ubiquitous presence on the radio and TV, with a big, versatile voice and great stage presence. On the one hand he was a true Vegas-style crooner, but there was and is—he’s still out there recording and performing—something soulful about his approach. This assurance made him greatly more comfortable singing uptempo material than many of his brethren. Indeed Jones brought a soul music swagger and energy to his performances that was extremely appealing, especially to woman. My first memory of him was watching him do his thing on The Tom Jones Show in the late 1960s while women threw their undergarments at him. That always struck me as a strange way to say you care, but then again no one has ever thrown a bra at me. Without Love was his last big hit of the sixties and his gigantic vocal attack is a doozy.
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Now That’s What I Call Vibrato!: On Oscar Wilde, Lena Zavaroni, and the Curious Art of Being Natural
The Gayest Song of All-Time!, or How Bruce Roberts and I Got Jackie Collins in the Recording Studio and Learned the Difference between Good and Bad Leopard Print!
The Saddest Album of All-Time: How Joining the Columbia Record Club at Twelve Led to a Childhood Fixation with Janis Ian’s Between the Lines