Episode 60, December 8, 2018: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome back to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m about 25 feet higher than I used to be.
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Here’s a trivia question for ye—what musician from the rock and roll era, who died just a few weeks before his 27th birthday, had his body stolen and partially cremated in a national park? I’ll have the answer—and the story behind it—at the end of the show.
So if I sound a little different, it’s because I’m in a new space. I’ve moved out of the old Bob Cratchit Studio in my basement, and into a spare room on the second floor of my house. And I’m still playing around with the way everything is arranged. But I’m above ground, I’m in a warmer place and I even have windows to look through, except I’ve got my back to them just now.
OK, this is supposed to be the second Shel Silverstein show, but I had some trouble with organizing my elements. Basically it got weirdly complicated, so I’m going to hold off for a bit until I can come up with something better arranged. So instead, this week we’re going to take a peek at a Neil Sedaka hit which has an interesting distinction about it. But first, of course, we have to look at a different song.
[IT WILL STAND]
The Showmen was a doo-wop group that was based out of New Orleans, although the individual members were not. The group came from the Norfolk, Virginia area and they were originally called The Humdingers. When they got to New Orleans they became The Showmen they recorded about fifteen different tracks in the early 1960s under the supervision of Allen Toussaint. Nowadays they’re best known for the Carolina Shag standard “39-21-46 Shape”, and this 1961 track, called “It Will Stand”…
…The Showmen, incidentally, was fronted by a man named General Norman Johnson, who founded the group when he was 12 years old. The Showmen broke up in 1968, and Johnson tried a solo career for a brief period before forming the group Chairmen of the Board. ”It Will Stand” peaked at Number 61 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year, and re-charted at Number 80 in 1964, so while it didn’t do a lot from a charting standpoint, it does stand as one of doo-wop’s better tracks, and it did provide some inspiration for Neil Sedaka. It doesn’t sound quite the same, but some of the structuring is similar.
[BREAKING UP 1962]
Now by 1962, Sedaka’s records had been in the Top Ten eight times, but he still had yet to reach the Number One slot. He and Howie Greenfield put the song together, and they then brought it to Barry Mann. Barry Mann, of course, is half of the songwriting duo of Mann and Weill. As it turned out, Mann didn’t really think much of it, so Sedaka added that “dooby-doo dom dom” opening and closing, which appears to have made the difference.
Oh, by the way: the backup singers on this record are The Cookies.
The song was recorded and released at the end of June in 1962, and it became his first Number One hit, and probably the song of the entire summer that year, given that it took the top spot in mid-August. It also went to Number 7 in the UK and was generally a worldwide hit for Sedaka, including this version that he recorded for the Italian market:
[Tu non lo sai]
I don’t think The Cookies sang backup on this version.
What’s interesting to me is the fact that the song’s tempo and overall feel really don’t quite match the sentiments being expressed. It’s very upbeat and danceable, but it’s basically about a guy begging a girl not to leave him, because he’ll be miserable if that happens. It’s a very torchy kind of song.
The song was covered several times, including a couple of versions that actually charted.
The Happenings did it in 1968 and took it to Number 67 with this version, which kind of turned it into a Vegas act, but that’s pretty much what The Happenings did with songs…
In 1972 it was the Partridge Family which came back a little closer to the original, returning some of the doo-wop backgrounds, and the song cracked the Top Thirty in the US, and was Number Three in the UK and Australia, making it the most successful cover of the song.
But I think it was this version by Lenny Welch in 1970, which peaked at Number 34, that may have inspired Neil Sedaka to re-visit the song in 1975…
Sedaka re-recorded the song as a ballad for his album Overnight Success, which was released in the UK that year. Overnight Success was released later in the year in the United States with a slightly different track listing and re-titled The Hungry Years. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” was the second single off the album, following “Bad Blood”, and it reached the Number 8 position in the US, it was a Top Ten hit in Canada, but doesn’t appear to have done much in the UK. Still, not bad for a track that was thrown in as an afterthought. AND, if my research is correct, this makes Neil Sedaka only the second artist to chart twice with two different arrangements of the same song. The first would be the Ventures, who went Top Ten both times with their recordings of “Walk Don’t Run” in 1960 and 1964.
And now, it’s time to answer this week’s trivia question. Back on Page Two, I’d asked about the musician who died just a few weeks before his 27th birthday, who had his body stolen and partially cremated in a national park.
That artist would be Gram Parsons, of the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons was a remarkably influential artist who managed to fuse Country and Rock together, and is considered the creator of Country Rock and alt-Country, and could easily be credited as the reason that bands like the Eagles and Poco came to prominence. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that he’s the reason that artists like Lucinda Williams and Counting Crows enjoyed the success that they have. At any rate, Parsons was fascinated by Joshua Tree National Monument, and he visited it as frequently as he could. He’d said at one time to his road manager Phil Kaufman that after he died, he wanted to be cremated, and his ashes scattered in the park. Now, scattering ashes in a national park is legal, but there are some rules about these things, and this is where things get sticky.
Parsons died of an overdose at the age of 26 on September 19, 1973, meaning he missed the infamous 27 Club by about six weeks. Shortly afterward, Parson’s assistant Michael Martin and Kaufman contacted the coroner’s office and learned that the body was to be shipped to New Orleans for the funeral. So they went to Los Angeles International Airport and impersonated a couple of mortuary workers. The airline, thinking that they’d been hired by Parsons’ family to ship the body on a charter flight, released the body to them. Kaufman and Martin then brought it out to Joshua Tree National Park, poured five gallons of gasoline into the casket and set the it on fire. Then they LEFT. Some campers nearby saw a fire going on that clearly wasn’t a campfire and alerted the authorities. A Western Airlines body bag was found beside the casket, and the body had only been partially cremated.
After some investigation, Kaufman and Marin were arrested and charged with grand theft. They were given 30-day jail suspended jail sentences, fined three hundred dollars and charged $708 for the funeral expenses for his burial in New Orleans. There’s an unofficial memorial in Joshua Tree dedicated to Parsons, but it’s not officially recognized by the park, and it doesn’t appear on the maps, but while it’s located at Cap Rock, the failed cremation actually took place about a quarter-mile away.
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.
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