I love music, all of it, so naturally I love oldies. When I moved to Washington DC there were at least three radio stations that catered to the lovers and listeners of mid 50’s through early 70’s oldies. Now there are none as they have all changed musical formats or converted to talk radio. There is one station remaining which plays classic rock, which I enjoy, but as you know, the classic rock format is not very musically diverse.
I wondered why all the oldies stations faded away so I went to the web and did some investigating. I discovered that in the markets were oldies stations still existed they were popular and their ratings high. But after several studies and listener surveys, advertisers felt that the listeners of oldies radio did not spend money on the goods and services advertised on the radio commercials. So fewer and fewer stations embraced the oldies format because stations that did found it difficult attracting sponsors, so less oldies stations.
I crave musical variety; I listen to pop, rock, dance, R&B, alternative music. From my radio dial I could find all the musical genres I love, all except oldies and I sorely miss them. Then one morning unable to sleep I woke a little before 4:00 am. I decided to turn on the television and watch an early morning movie. I stopped channel surfing when I came upon an infomercial pushing music, and, I love music. The male and female hosts of the infomercial were promoting a CD box set compilation from Time Life Music called “the Teen Years.” Unfortunately I came in at the end of this infomercial while they were showing a video snippet of the legendary r&b/doo wop group the Platters (whom I love) singing "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." Then the infomercial ended with the names of other artists appearing on the Teen Years collection scrolling up the screen, like Skeeter Davis, "The End Of The World," "Mission Bell" by Donnie Brooks, and Ruby and the Romantics' "Our Day Will Come." I was so excited and I thought to myself, "I want that!" and I purchased it.
The Teen Years features 150 pop, rock and roll, R&B, country and instrumental hits from the years 1955 through 1963. I began playing the Teen Years and after hearing songs like “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” by Neil Sedaka, The Cascades “Rhythm Of The Rain,” or "16 Candles" by the Crests I was overcome by that “I’ve heard that song somewhere before” feeling. I didn’t know where I’d heard it but I knew it definitely wasn’t on the radio as there were no personal memories associated with it. I could have just been music heard while I was at a store, in an elevator, on a commercial, at a restaurant, or in a doctor’s office.
There are songs on the Teen Years that I’d definitely heard umpteen times before on the radio and I could rattle off the lyrics as they are oldie’s radio staples, like the Drifters "Up on the Roof" or all the Everly Brothers included tracks like, “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Cathy's Clown,” the Chordettes’ "Lollipop," "I Will Follow Him" by Little Peggy March, “Tears On My Pillow” from Little Anthony and the Imperials, Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” “Peggy Sue,” by Buddy Holly, “He’s So Fine” from the Chiffons, “Surfer Girl,” by the Beach Boys, and the Platters’ “The Great Pretender.”
The Teen Years includes songs that prior to my purchase of this wonderful box set I’d heard the remakes of but never the originals like, "Sea Of Love" and “I’m Leaving It Up To You.” I’d heard the 80’s remake of "Sea Of Love" by the Honeydrippers and thought it bland, banal, dull and listless. Phil Phillips’ original version from '59 is anything but dull; it’s a wonderful piece of rock and roll r&b. With only Phillips’s voice, the thick soulful bass vocals of his background singer, a piano and a guitar so subdued you can barely hear it, his “Sea Of Love” is a minimalist rock and roll/r&b masterpiece. I’d only heard Donnie and Marie Osmond's incestuously icky 70’s remake of Dale and Grace’s “I'm Leaving It Up To You," and I detest it. The Teen Years includes Dale and Grace’s '63 original which is rock and roll dynamite, it’s just fabulous. Comedian/actress/singer Tracy Ullman remade Marcie Blaine's pop hit "Bobby's Girl." Ullman's remake is actually better than Blaine's original included on the Teen Years. That’s not to say that Blaine’s original with its sort of Tex-Mex guitar work isn't good, it's excellent. But Ullman's deliriously giddy girl group-ish 80’s version contains more effervescent vitality, making it far more pop music fun.
The thing I like most about the Teen Years is the sheer number of songs that I’d never heard before. There were so many songs that were new to me and you know me, I love discovering new music. After years of hearing the same old oldies by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Motown Sound, it was refreshing to hear musical gems that were unknown to me. There are many excellent tracks that I heard for the first time like Sue Thompson’s "Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” which is a song about Sue catching her boyfriend cheating on her. This great song turns out to be an unintentional time capsule. You see Sue catches her cheating boyfriend at the movies with another girl, but in singing about this heartbreak she illustrates the movie going experience of a bygone era. In the song Sue mentions newsreels and the color cartoon (which indicates that the film and news are in black and white). Moviegoers today are unfamiliar with that experience as all we get today when we go to the movies are Coca Cola commercials and messages to silence our cell phones. There's Ron Holden with the Thunderbird's "Love You So," with its syncopated r&b rhythms that demand that you listen closely so that you don't miss a single captivating note, yet at the same time it makes your body involuntarily move and groove. Bobby Helms' "My Special Angel" blends country, rock and roll, and r&b creating and irresistible musical concoction. Plus, Helms (whose voice sounds exactly like that of the character Mr. Haney from the classic TV show Green Acres) with his thick country accent pronounces the word special as "spesshall" making the song, well, special. Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” has got to be the most glamorous pop song I've ever heard. Vinton's musical description of this woman and the cloak of blue velvet night that encompasses them is so vivid that in my mind I can feel the glamour and visualize this ravishingly beautiful woman in a low cut blue velvet gown making love with her sparkling blue velvet eyes while standing among a mansion’s marble columns at an elegant party in the Hamptons.
The Teen Years is loaded with the some of the superstars of pop music whose songs we've all heard before. There are several of Connie Francis' hits, but after one listen to her very first hit "Who's Sorry Now" I could see why she became a star. The song itself is wonderful, but at the end of it Connie really vocally pours it on and pulls out all the showbiz stops, it’s a stellar attention grabbing performance. Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" is a simmering slow burning rocker filled with convincing regret and remorse. Roy Orbison's oh-so emotional "Crying," is so filled with pain it makes me want to cry. Bobby Darin's intangible "Dream Lover" with its ghostly dreamlike ephemeral background vocals is almost other-worldly....it's magnificent.
There are several Elvis Presley tracks included on the Teen Years but I won't devote any time commenting on them because Elvis' music has already been discussed by others in great detail over the years. But one cannot escape the influence Elvis had on other artists. On Ral Donner's "You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)," he sounds just like his idol Elvis. Donner sounds so much like Elvis that in 1981 he was asked to narrate Presley's voice in the film, This is Elvis. Another artist with a Presley like voice was Conway Twitty. While watching television as a kid I would sometimes see Twitty, then an old country music singing white guy with the big gray afro and wonder, who is that guy. I had no idea that he was really big in the late 50's and 60's. Now thanks to the Teen Years I can understand why Twitty was big. Back in his youth he could belt out some heated rock and roll as he does with his incredible Elvis influenced track “It's Only Make Believe."
After hearing the tunes provided on the Teen Years I wanted to know more about the artist who made them, so I went to the web and found some interesting stories. Phil Phillips was never paid for his huge money making hit "Sea of Love." Phillips was young and naive when he made the song and his record company took advantage of his innocence and had him sign away his rights. Joanie Sommers who sings "Johnny Get Angry" was the voice of the "Pepsi Generation," as she sang Pepsi jingles during the 1960's. Linda Scott who provides the song that I must sing along with, “I’ve Told Every Little Star” left the music biz, got a theology degree and taught music at a Christian school. Clyde McPhatter left the group the Drifters and had a huge hit with “A Lover’s Question.” But unfortunately McPhatter couldn't duplicate that success and died disillusioned and angry at the world because his solo career stalled and never regained steam. Prior to his death a music writer asked him about the support and admiration of his legion of fans and he angrily stated, "I have no fans." Doris Troy ("Just One Look") had stage musical written about her life titled “Mama I Want to Sing.” Ron Holden ("Love You So") spread a rumor that he'd been heard singing while being in jail after being arrested for pot and alcohol possession, and was given a record contract. This story has not been verified and many think he just manufactured it to give himself some street creed.
I also learned that tragedy and death struck many of the Teen Years artists. Connie Francis was violently raped. Jimmie Rodgers who provided "Honeycomb" was (allegedly) beaten to within an inch of his life by Los Angeles policemen on a LA freeway (the reasons why are still a mystery to this day). What also surprised me is the number of these artists who died due to cigarette smoking. Many like Doris Troy, Buddy Knox ("Party Doll"), Ral Donner, Bobby Helms and Ray Peterson ("Tell Laura I Love Her") died due to smoking related illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema. Oh, there was also a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse among several of the artist too. I also learned that many of these artists were not associated with the big record labels (Capitol, Decca, Columbia, RCA etc) of the era, they were on tiny virtually forgotten little record labels like Hickory, Donna, Montel, Roulette, Coed, and Seville. It appears that the Teen Years were the heyday for the small independent record labels.
Another thing I found interesting about the Teen Years was the way relationships between the men and women were portrayed in these records from the early 60's. Shelly Fabares’“Johnny Angel” along with “Johnny Get Angry” and “Bobby's Girl” reminds me of two 60’s hits not included on the Teen Years, “I Adore Him,” by the Angels and “Maybe I Know,” by Lesley Gore. These songs have one troubling thing in common; these women in these songs want to be dominated by their men. The females within these songs overlook and contend with their boyfriend’s abuse, cheating and inattentiveness. They sing lines like, "he treats me mean," and "I know he's cheating on me." But the women in these songs don't necessarily find this abusive behavior sexy, but they think it is what makes their boyfriend a man. She, being a woman, it is her place to put up with it because she is incomplete if she doesn't have a man, even if his is a total jerk (she sings of being his girl "that’s the most important thing to me"). Also, in her view, if her man isn’t abusive, monogamous, or attentive to her, then he’s not all-man, he's something less....it is all so weird!
The only negative about the Teen Years box set is its name, "the Teen Years," it’s a turn off. During the infomercial that introduced me to this box set, the hosts said something like, “Do you remember your first date and kiss in the 50's?” Well, aaaah, no, I wasn't there…. but does that mean I can’t enjoy this great music? This told me that the Teen Years was being marketed towards a specific demographic and that demographic was folks in their 60s and 70s, who would remember sock hops and malt shops. I personally thought this method of marketing short sighted. Time Life should market music in a way to appeal to all demographics as music is history for all. Also if a person who was a teenager in the 70’s, 80’s 90’s and wanted to musically reminisce about their “Teen Years” they’d hear 50’s hits of the likes of Jack Scott “My True Love,” and Tab Hunter “Young Love” and immediately go, “WTF these songs aren’t MY teen years." A better name for the box set would have been something like "1955-1963 Pre-British Invasion American Pop." Yes I know, that’s kindda long and boring, but I think you get what I’m trying to say. In 20 some years many of the folks who were teens in the 60’s won’t be around to buy this stuff and the records companies will want to pull it out of the vaults and make some money off of their investment. They will have to come up with clever marketing ploys to reach folks who weren’t around when sock hops and malt shops were the in thing.
I believe the saying "You don't know where you're going until you know where you have been" applies to music too. Music progression, technology, craftsmanship, culture and style, its growth and creativity creates new genres and sub genres as well as new musical artist who represent these genres. To continue to make music in the present and future one must take notice of what came in the past and build on it. That’s why I think the Teen Years is worth having, to experience how music has progressed and to experience what those before us enjoyed. Also, like with “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” and “Johnny Get Angry,” one learns not just about musical changes and growth, but also about cultural changes, values and mores.
When you get the yen to step out of the electronic box (and tell the truth, you sometimes do), try the Teen Years, like me you might find it an intoxicating, interesting, informative, captivating, enjoyable blast from the past and an exciting musical adventure.
Artist Link: http://timelife.com/music/pop