It’s been said that rock and roll slumped in the late 1950s, when Elvis Presley entered the army and Buddy Holly died, and that it remained in weakened condition until the Beatles and other British Invasion acts emerged to revitalize it in 1963 and 1964. In fact, many great artists rode the charts during the ostensible down period, including the Everly Brothers, Del Shannon, the 4 Seasons, the Crystals, and countless others. But it’s not difficult to see why these years have a reputation for shlock, as they also witnessed the rise of many syrupy and forgettable pop acts.
One of the most prosperous record labels of the time, Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway, straddled the fence, scoring hits with songs that became deserved rock and roll classics (“96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians comes to mind) while also issuing a fair number of throwaways. Among three new well-annotated reissues from the label, you’ll find music that belongs in both of these categories.
The series devotes one whole disc solely to the label’s biggest seller, Ernest Evans, who is better known as Chubby Checker (a name derived from Fats Domino). Songs that popularized assorted dance crazes dominate the CD, which is called Dancin’ Party: The Chubby Checker Collection (1960-1966).
Most notable among these crazes was the twist, the anyone-can-do-it dance that made the singer rich and famous. Checker started the fad with “The Twist,” a cover of an old Hank Ballard tune that Billboard magazine named the biggest chart hit of the past half century in 2008. Checker took that song to No. 1 not just once but twice, in 1960 and again in 1961. He then had big hits with “Let’s Twist Again” in 1961, “Slow Twistin’” (with Dee Dee Sharp) in 1962, and “Twist It Up” in 1963, all of which you’ll find on Dancin’ Party.
Checker—who also appeared in two movies built around the twist—followed his success with this dance with popular songs about a bunch of others, including “The Hucklebuck,” “Pony Time,” “(Dance the) Mess Around,” “The Fly,” “Limbo Rock,” and “Let’s Limbo Some More.” All of these are on Dancin’ Party, too, as is a song that shares the album’s title, where he namechecks a variety of dances.
Typical of this era, incidentally, almost none of this music was penned by the singer. Much of it came from the team of Kal Mann and Dave Appell; Checker’s only writing credit in this anthology is for a song called “Hooka Tooka,” which he cowrote with folksinger Judy Henske.
Listening to this material, you may find it difficult to understand why Checker became such a phenomenon. He was a likable and energetic vocalist but not an exceptional one, and his frequently sax-spiced records, while spirited, have not aged well. At best, they work as catchy reminders of a simpler time; at worst, on tracks like “(At the) Discotheque,” “Popeye the Hitchhiker,” and the aforementioned “Limbo Rock,” they seem simply inane.
A second Cameo-Parkway anthology demonstrates that Checker had no monopoly on dance-floor music. Called You Can’t Sit Down: Cameo Parkway Dance Crazes 1958-1964, this collection includes three of his biggest hits, as well as his “Twistin’ U.S.A.,” which uncharacteristically stalled on the charts at No. 68; but the bulk of the 22 tracks on the CD—many by Appell and Mann—feature other artists.
Some of them, such as Bobby Rydell’s “The Cha-Cha-Cha,” Don Covay’s “The Popeye Waddle,” and the Taffys’ “Everybody South Street” (not to be confused with the Orlons’ “South Street”) represent the nadir of late 50s/early 60s rock. But there are also several excellent recordings here, such as the Orlons’ “The Wah-Watusi,” and Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” both of which were No. 2 hits in 1962, and the Turbans’ “When You Dance,” which—this album’s title notwithstanding—entered the top 40 in 1956.
Most of those numbers have been widely anthologized before, but that’s not the case with many of the 20 tracks on the last and most noteworthy of these new collections. You Got the Power: Northern Soul 1964-1967—which skips the dance business in favor of the genre suggested by the title— embraces quite a few first-rate obscurities that you won’t find even on the four-CD, 115-track 2005 box set, Cameo-Parkway 1957-1967.
Highlights abound. Among them: Evie Sands’s “Picture Me Gone” which was written by the great singer/songwriter Chip Taylor (whose “Angel of the Morning” Sands also recorded before Merrilee Rush turned it into a smash hit); Bobby Paris’s “Night Owl” which sounds like a Phil Spector production (but isn’t); and “Envy (In My Eyes),” by the Orlons, which seems redolent of the Fifth Dimension.
Also: Nikki Blu’s “(Whoa Whoa) I Love Him So,” written by Thom Bell, who later became a Philly soul hit machine; Hattie Winston’s “Pass Me By,” which pledges allegiance to both pop and Motown; Ben Zine’s “Village of Tears,” a likable 1966 throwback to pre-Beatles pop/rock; and “You Didn’t Say a Word,” from Yvonne Baker, who is best known as the lead singer on the Sensations’ Top 5 hit from 1962, “Let Me In.”
Steve Forbert and the New Renditions, Jackrabbit Slim Live in Asbury Park. Singer/songwriter Steve Forbert has delivered a lot of excellent music since 1979, but his sophomore release, which came out in that year, remains a fan favorite for 10 good reasons—11 if you count the bonus track (“The Oil Song”) that initial pressings included.
The John Simon-produced Jackrabbit Slim includes Forbert’s biggest hit, the addictive, bouncy “Romeo’s Tune,” as well as such beautifully crafted folk/rock as “The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes a Long, Long Way)” “I’m in Love with You,” “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” and “Make It All So Real,” not to mention the terrific “January 23-30, 1978,” an apparently autobiographical chronicle of a visit to his Mississippi hometown.
Forbert, who now lives in New Jersey, recently performed the whole record (including the aforementioned bonus track) live in Asbury Park, and the concert has just been digitally released. Fans should grab this album, which finds the singer in fine form throughout and well-accompanied by his current band. Not a fan? It’s hard to imagine that you won’t become one after hearing this release.
Jimmy LaFave, Highway Angels Full Moon Rain. More than a few listeners (including yours truly) consider Jimmy LaFave to have been the best Dylan interpreter of all time, but he was just as good at writing and delivering his own material. Moreover, he was good for a long, long time, as this reissue of a 32-year-old album demonstrates.
LaFave, who died of cancer in 2017, delivers 10 remastered tracks, including nine originals and Bob Childers’s “The Lone Wolf,” on the record, which features consistently strong lyrics and band work. LaFave’s blend of folk, rock, and country is memorable but as usual, it’s his masterfully phrased, emotional vocals that steal the show.