Monday, March 19, 2012

Those Were The Days

Random Hits: Part 4
Well, it's been a few weeks, but we're finally finishing up last month's Random Series (for now) with more artists that have yet to be featured on this blog. Up next, it's the Memphis-based, blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops. Active from 1967-1970 (with brief reunions later), this group combined elements of soul music and light pop, and was lead by the distinct, gruff voice of teen singer Alex Clinton (17 in this clip). In August of '67, The Box Tops released their first single, "The Letter" (a cover version already featured here), which became an international hit, reaching #1 for four weeks in the US. Selling over four million copies and nominated for two Grammy Awards, it was ranked the #1 song of 1967. Under two minutes in length, this classic tune includes a string and horn arrangement, an "I'm a Believer"-like organ riff, and the sound effect of an "aer-o-plane" take-off (and yes, the group appears to be making fun of this mimed performance towards the end).

This next group was considered a one-hit wonder twice (once in the UK and once in the US) with two different songs under two different names (huh?). Okay, first named Pinkerton's Assorted Colours, this British pop band scored one Top-10 hit in the UK in the mid-60s. Failing to chart again, the group renamed themselves The Flying Machine in 1969, and this time, had a major hit in the US. Released in late '69, "Smile a Little Smile for Me" peaked at #5 on the US Billboard chart and sold over a million copies by that December. Despite its British origins, the song did not even appear on the UK Singles chart. Although the group followed up with two more singles, The Flying Machine became frustrated with their pop-oriented image and disbanded by 1971. Although this video quality is quite poor, it doesn't take away from this timeless piece of beauty, featuring Tony Newman on lead vocals.

Our next artist is the sweet Mary Hopkin, a talented folk singer from Wales and one of the first musicians to be signed to The Beatles' Apple label (founded in 1968). After winning a British talent show on TV, Opportunity Knocks, she was recommended to Paul McCartney, who went on to produce her debut single (and signature song) "Those Were the Days." Released in August of 1968, this song became a #1 hit in the UK and #2 in the US (even topping the US Easy Listening chart for six weeks), with global sales topping the eight million mark. Accentuating the melody's Russian origins, the klezmer-sounding arrangement was unusual for a Top-10 pop song, including a clarinet, hammer dulcimer, and children's choir. She also recorded the song in four other languages for release in Italy, (West) Germany, France, and Spain. Performed by many other artists, Mary Hopkin's excellent recording will always be the best-remembered version. (This song will always remind me of my little sister, who, I remember, picked up the words quite quickly that first time we heard this as kids, and I thought "wow, when did she learn that?").

And last on the docket for today, it's the teenage doo-wop group, The Tokens, originating from Brooklyn, New York. First formed in 1955 (originally including Neil Sedaka for the first two years), The Tokens established their most famous name and crew in 1960 with Jay Siegel on lead vocals and their youngest member, 13-year-old multi-instrumental Mitch Margo. In 1961, the group had their biggest success with the #1 single "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," an adaptation of a song first recorded by South African singer Solomon Linda in 1939. The Tokens' version went on to earn $15 million in royalties for covers and film licensing, however, the group has yet to receive publishing credit for their specific, original composition portions of the song. In 1963, the doo-wop group also created their own company, Bright Tunes Productions, and began serving as record producers for other groups like The Chiffons, Randy & the Rainbows, and The Happenings. Filmed much later in 1969, here are The Tokens (all grown up with late '60s scruffiness!) on a show called "Upbeat."

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