Episode 104: "He's a Rebel" by "The Crystals"
Episode 104 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "He's a Rebel", and how a song recorded by the Blossoms was released under the name of the Crystals. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.
A lot of resources were used for this episode.
The material on Gene Pitney mostly comes from his page on This is My Story.
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson is a good overview of the Brill Building scene.
Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including articles on both The Crystals and the Blossoms.
I've referred to two biographies of Spector in this episode, Phil Spector: Out of His Head by Richard Williams and He's a Rebel by Mark Ribkowsky.
And information on the Wrecking Crew largely comes from The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman.
There are many compilations available with some of the hits Spector produced, but I recommend getting Back to Mono, a four-CD overview of his career containing all the major singles put out by Philles.
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A brief note -- there are some very brief mentions of domestic abuse here. Nothing I think will upset anyone, but you might want to check the transcript if you're at all unsure.
Up to this point, whenever we've looked at a girl group, it's been at one that had, to a greater or lesser extent, some control over their own career. Groups like the Marvelettes, the Chantels, and the Bobbettes all wrote their own material, at least at first, and had distinctive personalities before they ever made a record.
But today, we're going to look at a group whose identity was so subsumed in that of their producer that the record we're looking at was released under the name of a different group from the one that recorded it. We're going to look at "He's a Rebel", which was recorded by the Blossoms and released by the Crystals.
[Excerpt: “The Crystals” (The Blossoms), "He's a Rebel"]
The Crystals, from their very beginnings, were intended as a vehicle for the dreams of men, rather than for their own ambitions. Whereas the girl groups we've looked at so far all formed as groups of friends at school before they moved into professional singing, the Crystals were put together by a man named Benny Wells. Wells had a niece, Barbara Alston, who sang with a couple of her schoolfriends, Mary Thomas and Myrna Giraud. Wells put those three together with two other girls, Dee Dee Kenniebrew and Patsy Wright, to form a five-piece vocal group. Wells seems not to have had much concept of what was in the charts at the time -- the descriptions of the music he had the girls singing talk about him wanting them to sound like the Modernaires, the vocal group who sang with Glenn Miller's band in the early 1940s.
But the girls went along with Wells, and Wells had good enough ears to recognise a hit when one was brought to him -- and one was brought to him by Patsy Wright's brother-in-law, Leroy Bates. Bates had written a song called "There's No Other Like My Baby", and Wells could tell it had potential. Incidentally, some books say that the song was based on a gospel song called "There's No Other Like My Jesus", and that claim is repeated on Wikipedia, but I can't find any evidence of a song of that name other than people talking about "There's No Other Like My Baby". There is a gospel song called "There's No Other Name Like Jesus", but that has no obvious resemblance to Bates' song, and so I'm going to assume that the song was totally original.
As well as bringing the song, Bates also brought the fledgling group a name -- he had a daughter, Crystal Bates, after whom the group named themselves.
The newly-named Crystals took their song to the offices of Hill and Range Music, which as well as being a publishing company also owned Big Top Records, the label that had put out the original version of "Twist and Shout", which had so annoyed Bert Berns. And it was there that they ended up meeting up with Phil Spector.
After leaving his role at Atlantic, Spector had started working as a freelance producer, including working for Big Top. According to Spector -- a notorious liar, it's important to remember -- he worked during this time on dozens of hits for which he didn't get any credit, just to earn money. But we do know about some of the records he produced during this time. For example, there was one by a new singer called Gene Pitney. Pitney had been knocking around for years, recording for Decca as part of a duo called Jamie and Jane:
[Excerpt: Jamie and Jane, "Faithful Our Love"]
And for Blaze Records as Billy Bryan:
[Excerpt: Billy Bryan, "Going Back to My Love"]
But he'd recently signed to Musicor, a label owned by Aaron Schroeder, and had recorded a hit under his own name. Pitney had written "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away", and had taken advantage of the new multitracking technology to record his vocals six times over, creating a unique sound that took the record into the top forty:
[Excerpt: Gene Pitney, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away"]
But while that had been a hit, his second single for Musicor was a flop, and so for the third single, Musicor decided to pull out the big guns. They ran a session at which basically the whole of the Brill Building turned up. Leiber and Stoller were to produce a song they'd written for Pitney, the new hot husband-and-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were there, as was Burt Bacharach, and so were Goffin and King, who wrote the song that *Spector* was to produce for Pitney. All of them were in the control booth, and all of them were chipping in ideas. As you might expect with that many cooks, the session did not go smoothly, and to make matters worse, Pitney was suffering from a terrible cold. The session ended up costing thirteen thousand dollars, at a time when an average recording session cost five hundred dollars.
On the song Spector was producing on that session, Goffin and King's "Every Breath I Take", Pitney knew that with the cold he would be completely unable to hit the last note in full voice, and went into falsetto. Luckily, everyone thought it sounded good, and he could pretend it was deliberate, rather than the result of necessity:
[Excerpt: Gene Pitney, "Every Breath I Take"]
The record only went to number forty-two, but it resuscitated Pitney's singing career, and forged a working relationship between the two men. But soon after that, Spector had flown back to LA to work with his old friend Lester Sill. Sill and producer/songwriter, Lee Hazelwood, had been making records with the guitarist Duane Eddy, producing a string of hits like “Rebel Rouser”:
[Excerpt: Duane Eddy, "Rebel Rouser"]
But Eddy had recently signed directly to a label, rather than going through Sill and Hazelwood's company as before, and so Sill and Hazelwood had been looking for new artists, and they'd recently signed a group called the Paris Sisters to their production company. Sill had decided to get Spector in to produce the group, and Spector came up with a production that Sill was sure would be a hit, on a song called "I Love How You Love Me", written by Barry Mann with another writer called Jack Keller:
[Excerpt: The Paris Sisters, "I Love How You Love Me"]
Spector was becoming a perfectionist -- he insisted on recording the rhythm track for that record at one studio, and th…