Single of the week

Theme From A Summer Place (Percy Faith & His Orchestra)

This week’s suggestion was described, in 1976, by the American DJ Casey Kasum as, “The biggest hit on the American charts by a Canadian artist.” It is the longest-running number one instrumental hit on Billboard ever where it spent nine weeks at the top and, not only that, it was the first film theme and the first instrumental to win a Record of the Year Grammy.

In the UK, Guy Mitchell’s Feet Up became the first ever song to peak at number two which was back in 1952 when the chart compilers were using the New Musical Express source up until 26th February 1960. Those compilers changed from NME to Record Retailer (later Music Week) from 10th March 1960, hence there was no actual chart for week ending 5 March 1960. The chart that was printed in Record Retailer on 10th March  was actually dated 5th March and more or less corresponded with the NME chart dated 4th March. Are you keeping up? So, the first number two hit with the new chart compilers was Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place taken from the film of the same name, and starred Dorothy McGuire, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, and was favourably compared to the already established Peyton Place. Now that’s out of the way we can get on.

Faith  was born in Toronto, Canada on 7 April 1908, learned violin as a boy and by 11 he was playing piano at the silent film theatres, before moving to the U.S in 1940. Ten years later he joined Columbia Records as conductor and arranger and worked with a variety of names including Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Doris Day.

In 1927, he was involved in an accident, in which, as recalled in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of American Number Ones, his sister’s clothes caught fire and Percy had tried to put them out with his bare hands. Later, medical experts told him that he wouldn’t be able to play piano for about five years, and so he turned to composing music.

Having said that …Summer Place was not written by Faith, it was a cover of the Austrian film composer Max Steiner, who also wrote the score for Casablanca. It was Hugo Winterhalter’s original orchestral version which was used in the film.

The song has been covered by a multitude of people in its instrumental form by the likes of Mantovani, Santo & Johnny, Chet Atkins, the Tornados, Bert Weedon and Duane Eddy. In 1960, Mack Discant wrote some lyrics to it and has been recorded as a vocal version almost as many times but by The Chordettes, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Cliff Richard and Dorothy Squires.

Such is its appeal that it has been featured in stacks of films including, The Omega Man (1971), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Batman (1989), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022).

Faith, who passed away in February 1976, aged 67, had so much faith (no pun intended) in the track that he re-recorded it…twice, firstly in 1969 which included a female choral vocal then, in 1976, as a disco version which he retitled Summer Place ’76 and done in quite a classy way as you probably expect.

Echo Beach (Martha & The Muffins)

Xanadu, Heaven, Hotel California and China Grove are among many song titles about mythical places. Penny Lane, Last Train to Clarksville and Last Night in Bangkok are songs that are written about real places, but, the question is, is this week’s suggestion of Echo Beach real or fictitious? Read on to find out.

Martha & the Muffins were originally formed as a punk band in 1977 and comprised lead singer Martha Johnson, guitarists David Millar and Mark Gane, Gane’s brother Tim was the drummer and Carl Finkle played bass. They believed a lot of the punk bands at the time had fairly aggressive names so they thought up the name Muffins as a holding name but, “We decided to use it as a temporary name until we could all agree on something better, Mark Gane said, “the name ended up sticking for the next seven years.”

Gane was an art student but during the summer he worked in a wallpaper factory. He explained in an interview with Songwriting, “My job was to sort damaged wallpaper from the good wallpaper. In the factory there were these huge presses with these monstrous rolls of wallpaper. Not infrequently, something would go wrong on the press and the whole thing would grind to a halt. They’d run up, cut this big part of a roll off and then roll it over to me. I then spooled it off and there would be giant X’s marked where it had been ruined. So, I would cut off those ruined parts and then roll up the good stuff on smaller rolls.” The job was, at times, a little tedious, so Mark used to go into a daydream which is he started thinking of better things which, in turn, led to song lyrics.

The first bit that came was probably the song’s most memorable line, “So instead of going, ‘My job is very boring I’m a wallpaper inspector,’ I tried to think of something more universal and so… office clerk,” he explained. Now, as to whether Echo Beach is a real place of not, the answer is…..not directly. Gane can explain, “The inspiration was Sunnyside Beach on the shoreline of Lake Ontario in Toronto. The lake and beach could have been in the middle of nowhere while the city behind became a ‘surrealistic sight’.” He went on, “The second verse primarily came a couple of years later. A friend of mine had a motorbike and we rode down to the shore of Lake Ontario one evening and I was looking back at the city and basically, the second verse, ‘The sky’s alive with lights,’ all that stuff was basically a description of what the city looked like that night. So those two ideas fell together and ended up being the main lyrical content.”

So, with some lyrics and images in his mind, how did the song form? “I had the music first,” he continued to Songwriting, “The very first recorded version I did was when I was an art student at the Ontario College of Art because they had what they called The Sound Lab, which was a very basic studio. The guitar riff came from nowhere, I was fiddling around and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’ As a guitarist I’m self-taught, I tend to think in patterns if I’m not just doing chords. My riffs tend to be based on patterns and are often circular and I guess it was something circular about that that I liked.”

Echo Beach may not have originally been a real place, but what it has inspired is untold. “When the song became well known, we started getting letters from all over going, ‘oh you must mean the one in Australia,’ or you must mean the one in northern Ontario,’ and of course, I said, ‘No.’ One of the greatest things about it was that we were getting all this reaction from people around the world that were personalising it with whatever spot they knew. Maybe that added resonance for them as well. I actually have a list and this is one of the astounding things about being a songwriter is how this song has embedded itself into various cultural memes. So, over the past several decades we have: a German dub label, hotels in Bali and Zanzibar, a racehorse, there’s a sci-fi short story called Back To Echo Beach, an Australian youth hostel, a British TV series and a gay porn film.”

Echo Beach was actually the band’s eighth single and the only one that charted in the UK where it peaked at number 10. The record company re-issued the two previous singles, Saigon and Suburban Dream but nothing made any impact. For three years in the mid-80s they went by the name M + M  but in 1987 reverted back. Various members have come and gone and most have been involved with an array of side projects but the band are still ‘trading’ and are now just the duo of Martha and Mark Gane.

My Girl Bill (Jim Stafford)

People who write TV shows like Jonathan Creek and films like The Sixth Sense have my utter admiration. To able to produce a piece of work that have the viewer/listener confused and keeping them fooled and in suspense throughout is the work of a genius. I’ve given TV and film examples and in the music world there equally songs that do the same;  Escape (The Pina Colada Song), I’m The Urban Spaceman and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Clair are just three of the many that spring to mind. Songs with a twist and this week’s suggestion fits the bill (no pun intended) perfectly.

Jim Stafford was born in Florida in 1944 and is a musician who is self-taught on violin, piano, guitar and harmonica. He is also a comedian, which most people in the UK would not have known and seemingly the Yanks may have overlooked when it came to the song My Girl, Bill. He was a huge talent who also had his own Theatre in Branson, Missouri which he co-owned with his wife, Ann Britt-Stafford and he headlined for 30 years from 1990 to 2020. Incidentally, in the late seventies he was briefly married to the sing/songwriter Bobbie Gentry.

When a man sings a song that opens with the lyrics, ‘Bill walked me to my door last night and he said, before I go there’s something about our love affair, that I have a right to know’ you pretty much jump to the conclusion that it’s going to be the story of a gay relationship. This song was written 1974 and seemingly quite daring because the public acceptance of gay relationships was in its very early stages.

By the time the narrator gets to the second verse which tells us, ‘And I could see we both felt the same and when his eyes met mine’ followed by, ‘Let’s just sit here on the couch and face this, man to man’. We were all taken in.

It’s only in the final verse, that we discover the truth as Jim states, ‘Bill, you know we just left her place and we both know what she said, she doesn’t want to see your face and she wishes you were dead! Now, I know we both love her and I guess we always will but you’re gonna have to find another ’cause she’s my girl, Bill!’  We finally realise that both Jim and Bill have a mutual love interest and Jim is explaining to Bill that she no longer wants you, she wants me, so she’s my girl Bill.

Had the title been written on the label as My Girl, Bill (with the comma) we might have had an early clue, but clearly it was purposely left out.

Stafford explained that the Covid pandemic closed his theatre but in 2021 it was announced that the theatre was to be demolished. Stafford, however, still tours at the age of 78.

Ha! Ha! Said The Clown (Manfred Mann)

Until he joined 10cc in the early 70s Graham Gouldman was an unsung hero of the song writing world having written hits for the Yardbirds, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits among others. The writer of this week’s suggestion falls very much into that same category except he never went on to have any solo success as an artist. Let’s find out who he is and all about him.

For two and a half years from January 1964, Manfred Mann was fronted by Paul Jones, half way through 1966, Jones left for a solo career and was replaced by Mike D’Abo who wrote many songs and jingles but nothing for the Manfred’s. D’Abo’s most famous compositions are Build Me Up Buttercup and Handbags and Gladrags and, on television, the 70s/80s adverts A Finger of Fudge.

The man who did write Ha! Ha! Said the Clown was Tony Hazzard, a Liverpool-born singer, guitarist and songwriter who has written hits for The Hollies, Lulu, The Tremeloes, Herman’s Hermits and Gene Pitney among others.

Before making it big as a songwriter, “I was working for the Performing Rights Society as a filing clerk for few months,” he said, “I was filing my own name which was very strange. I went to see Gerry Bron [a UK record producer and band manager] and I played him some songs, three of them he didn’t like so I said that there was no point in playing the fourth one as he probably wouldn’t like it either but he insisted so I played it and a big grin came on his face and he said it was a hit, that was Ha! Ha! Said The Clown. I couldn’t tell what was commercial or not, I just wrote what I wanted to write. I was very lucky that a lot of what I wrote thereafter got recorded.”

The flute intro on Ha! Ha! Said The Clown is distinctively different from other songs of the era with a foreign feel, “I did a Hungarian East-European thing. Actually, it wasn’t about a clown but rather a comic in a night club. If you look at the words he goes to a show and the clown is a comic,” Hazzard explained. “While he’s there he’s excited by a girl on the dance floor and starts to chat her up. He thinks he’s getting somewhere and then his excitement is deflated by her announcement that she’s married to the comedian who then, in turn, laughs at him in the chorus,” he continued in an interview with Songfacts.

Tony explained how the band came to do the song, “I was very lucky that Manfred Mann and I shared the same manager. Manfred was very pernickety about what he would do. He actually preferred simple demos but I did full ones. I heard a lot of demos sent in by Randy Newman and Bob Dylan and they were basic. Just piano or guitar and vocal whereas mine were more sophisticated. For him to do it was quite surprising. Musically, there’s a lot going on in this song. The flute sounds were created by group leader Manfred Mann using a Mellotron, which could play tape loops of actual instruments. The big drum beats came from a tympani.”

Tony recorded the original demo version, which was only issued in 2022 on a CD called Demonstration, and he said of it, “I was into odd times signatures at the time, like 5/4 and 7/8, and also inserting odd bars of 3/4 and 2/4 in a 4/4 song but in a way where the listener barely noticed because it sounded perfectly natural. This is one of those songs. The other feature is the epigrammatic style with a (hopeful) economy of phrase: I’ve tried not to waste words.”

The Manfred’s version reached number four in the UK in April 1967 but completely missed in the States, The Yardbirds, however, did a cover later the same year a reached number 45 on Billboard. Both versions are similar; “The only thing I didn’t like about the Manfred version is that the mellotron was rather sharp,” Hazzard revealed. He also gave a more revealing insight to Songfacts, “I think a lot of Yardbirds fans really don’t like it as it’s too much of a pop song and therefore not ‘cool.’ It’s quite a copy of the Manfred version but Mickie Most, who produced it, often did straight copies from demos so it’s not surprising. I don’t think the band actually played on it, as Mickie tended to use session men, including John Paul Jones (who wrote the arrangements) on bass and Jimmy Page on lead guitar. To be honest, I’m not that keen on either version, although grateful for the royalties, and prefer my original demo.”

The Only Way Is Up (Yazz & The Plastic Population)

The first time I ever saw Yazz, but didn’t know it as she wasn’t famous then, was when I was travelling through Leicester Square station in London and was talking to the station master by the ticket barrier. I had travelled through that station many times and had got to know his name as Winston and this particular morning he was talking to a young lady. A week or so later when passing through again and said good morning he said, “That girl you saw me with last week was my daughter Yasmin and she’s going to be famous. How right he was.

She was born in London in 1960 and attended school in London when she excelled in sport and was once a member of the England under-19 volleyball team. In 1983, she began a modelling assignment and met Austin Howard, later of Ellis, Beggs and Howard. They both signed with a management company and formed a band called The Biz. She joined as keyboard player and, “One day the singer didn’t turn up and I started singing instead and decided I quite enjoyed it.” she told Spencer Leigh. Their one single, Falling, failed to chart and performed one concert, but being unhappy with the management company; they quit and then broke up.

A couple of years later she was spotted by two electronic DJ/producers Matt Black and Jonathan More who went by the name Coldcut and they recorded the track Doctorin’ The House which was credited to Yazz & the Plastic Population and if you’re wondering who the Plastic Population was, that was also a pseudonym for Matt Black and Jonathan More. The song went into the Top 10 despite no airplay on Radio 1 but both More and Black were both DJs on the London pirate station Kiss FM before it became a legal station. Just like Swinging Radio London and Caroline in the 60s, pirate radio certainly had an impact.

In the mid-80s, she married Jazz Summers who had been Wham!’s former manager and had set up his own Big Life record label in which he had signed Yazz. The first song they chose was The Only Way Is Up, which was originally recorded by American soul singer Otis Clay on his 1982 album of the same name. “There is a really heavy sentiment to that song,” explained Yazz at the time. “It’s about being down-and-out and on the dole but not worrying about it; keep on doing what you want to do because you can get through in the end. It’s exactly what I’ve done to get where I am now.” In more recent times, that song has been brought to a brand new young audience where it’s been used as the theme tune to the popular reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex.

She found fame hard explaining on her website, “Fame did not rest well on me. From day one I struggled as an artist balancing the attention of fame with the lusts and greed in the business affecting me both personally and professionally.”

As for Otis Clay, he wasn’t a new-comer. He was born in Mississippi in 1942 and began as a singer with various gospel groups before launching a solo career. He signed to One-derful! Records and had a couple of R&B hits That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love) and A Lasting Love in 1967. Four years later, he teamed up with Willie Mitchell, who had been Al Green’s producer and co-songwriter and recorded the song Trying to Live My Life Without You which charted in the States in 1972. Nine years later, Bob Seger recorded a cover version and had a much bigger hit with it.

Talking of bigger hits, Clay launched his own Echo record label and two songwriters, George Jackson and Johnny Henderson offered him a song they’d written called The Only Way Is Up and he recorded it in 1980. It didn’t make any impact to the record buyers, but when it was released on his 1982 album of the same name, the Northern Soul fraternity picked up on it and it became a massive dance anthem in the Northern Soul clubs. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2013, Clay said, “My life always has been a combination of things musically, every Saturday night I listened to the Grand Ole Opry. During the day, later on, you listened to (radio) coming out of Memphis. During the noonday, at 12 o’clock, we listened to Sonny Boy Williamson, coming out of Helena, Arkansas, and I’m listening to Vaughn Monroe and Rosemary Clooney and listening to Hank Williams and Roy Acuff.” That same year Clay was an inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Yazz went on to have a few more hits, but never comfortable with the whole industry as she explained in an interview with Tony Cummings, “In the blink of an eye a product is born and money is smelt. I remember sensing it and knowing my life was never going to be the same again. I remember fear entering my life and thinking this is it, ignore the worry and go for it. Success is measured in the world in such a sad way – what you’ve done, what you own, what you look like, how you speak, what you wear, all outward conditions and all temporary. I was completely and inextricably caught. I felt like a chased rabbit! Loving the music, the song and desiring to become a better artist I sang my heart out. But inside I was running. I was struggling desperately with all the attention on and off stage, finding myself around lawyers and men in suits quite unable to understand their speak with contracts formed and stylists employed. I remember being in one meeting being sold the idea that wearing what looked like a nightie would sell loads more records than jeans! It was like a circus.

She turned to religion saying, “I read everything from Buddhism to gurus to the Koran and the New Age umbrella of Eastern ideologies. But I judged Christianity by those two visits as a child to that Baptist church. I chose to place my preconceived ideas upon it and said God isn’t there. How poor and weak I was.”

She looks back on her greatest hit with affection, “The song became an anthem for people’s lives and I am humbled by its consistent energy and joy that it brings to generations.”

Otis Clay returned to religion later in life and died in Chicago of a heart attack in January 2016. Yazz now resides in Spain where she is an active member of her local church. She still records music and occasionally returns to the UK to perform live usually in churches often interpolating them with stories about her Christian faith.

I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (Electric Prunes)

Psychedelia was a short-lived genre in the late sixties. There were a number of psychedelic bands with very extravagant name like New Riders of the Purple Sage, The 13th Floor Elevators, Dantalian’s Chariot, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control and this week’s subject The Electric Prunes.

The most successful psychedelic tracks came from established bands who were experimenting – The Beatles (I Am The Walrus & Tomorrow Never Knows), Small Faces (Itchycoo Park) and The Pink Floyd (See Emily Play) et al.

There’s no doubting that some of these songs may well be better understood if the listener had indulged in some illegal substances and The Electric Prunes’ debut European hit, I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) is a good example. If you read the opening lyrics, ‘Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room, I touched your golden hair and tasted your perfume, Your eyes were filled with love the way they used to be, your gentle hand reached out to comfort me’ you would imagine it to be a romantic love song, but the Prunes turned it into a psychedelic masterpiece.

The Electric Prunes were formed in 1964 in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles and first named The Sanctions followed by Jim and The Lords. They originally  comprised lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Lowe, lead guitarist Ken Williams, bassist and keyboard player Mark Tulin and drummer Michael Weakley and often rehearsed in a garage.

Annette Tucker was an L.A based songwriter who had co-written a minor hit called High on Love for The Knickerbockers and she explained in an interview with how the Prunes got started, “My friend at that time, Barbara Harris discovered them, and I hired them to play at a surprise party that I was giving for my husband at that time. I thought they were great & I had just written I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) with Nancie Mantz. Barbara took that song to Dave Hassinger (an engineer for the Rolling Stones 1964-1966) and later record producer signed the group and had them record that song.” Hassinger also owned the rights to the name.

The lyrics of another Prunes hit, Get Me to The World On Time, could also be interpreted as a love song with some sexual connotations, ‘One kiss from you and my whole body starts to actin’ strange, you shake up all my hormones, you put me through a change’ but how intentional was it? Tucker explained, “We very aware of the sexual overtones. It was definitely well thought out as we were writing it and I took the title from the title of the musical Get Me To The Church On Time.”

Tucker played the song to the band on piano and they loved it. It had an underlying Bo Diddley beat which, as Tucker remembered, “The Prunes came up with that riff. I thought that was so creative of them.” The band’s keyboard player, Tulin recalled, “Get Me to the World on Time’ was brought to us primarily because of the title. It was up to [us to] put credibility to their clever lyrics. I can guarantee there was no Bo Diddley beat when Annette played it on the piano.”

The band had numerous line-up changes even as early as 1966 and after their two remembered hits, the band released a further 10 singles including Dr. Do-Good, The Great Banana Hoax and Help Us (Our Father, Our King) but none set the world alight and all failed to chart anywhere and, in 1970, the band split up.

In 1981, Thaddeus James Lowe (as he is now known) bought 20-odd acres of land in a remote area of Southern California, in the hills north of Santa Barbara. At the top of one of the hills he physically built a beautiful home. Soon the area became very popular with the rich and famous. It was in this house in 1999 that some original members of the band – Williams, Tulin and Weakley – got together and started recording some tracks and decided to reformed and the release of a new album called Artefact soon followed. The line-up has changed at various times but the only constant member is lead singer James Lowe.