During the past 20 years it has become stylish for rock and roll stars to “rediscover” the Great American Songbook. Rod Stewart made a series of albums, while vocalists like Linda Ronstadt and Christina Aguilera have dolled themselves up to smolder their way through torch songs. And it seems like any artist who wants to be taken seriously trots out a duet with Tony Bennett.
This may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, despite the occasional foray during the 1980s by people like David Lee Roth doing b-movie sendups of Louis Prima, or the 1990s “Mambo #5” homage to Perez Prado. Fact is, this is nothing new at all.
Ella and Frank
The first attempts to preserve and re-promote “traditional pop” really began in the mid 1950s when Frank Sinatra began revisiting songs he had performed just over a decade earlier. But it really took off in 1959 when Ella Fitzgerald struck gold with an album strictly comprised of Gershwin songs. It was a statement that this music, this page from the great American songbook, was more important and more lasting than the rock and roll du jour being played on the radio at the time.
Even these efforts were not really nostalgia, just new arrangements and recordings of favored songs. During the early 1960s most of the older stars of the late 1940s had moved on to new record labels, and offered up new recordings of old favorites. Artists like Dinah Shore and Frankie Laine are prime examples. There were still plenty of fans for this music, and so the records still sold well. It wasn’t so much a nostalgia trip as it was a way to have the songs on a single stereo LP versus a stack of brittle and scratchy 78s. Keep in mind, as of 1962, the heyday of the late 1940s was barely just a dozen years in the past.
More importantly, the Great American Songbook was still very much a work in progress during the 1960s. Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” was typical of the time, and despite the onslaught of rock and roll, traditional pop was still a mainstay. Perry Como no longer had a weekly TV show, but was under contract for specials at least twice a year. Dean Martin had a new show, and Andy Williams kept things in prime time each week. Burt Bacharach was composing the soundtracks of the day — the sound of American Popular song hadn’t gone anywhere.
But it was different, the music had changed. Some of the greats were either showing their age or beginning to die off. By the late 1960s, big budget movie musicals were no longer a guaranteed hit at the box office. Slowly but surely, there was a growing recognition that traditional pop of the 1930s and 1940s was being lost to the ravages of time.
Enter The Tikis
In 1967, Warner Brothers bigwig Lenny Waronker decided that he wanted to try his hand producing a special version of Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” better known as “Feelin’ Groovy.” He brought in a Southern California band called The Tikis, which featured the vocals of Ted Templeman and Dick Scoppetone. The resulting single was such a departure from The Tikis sound that Waronker released the record under the name of Harper’s Bizarre, allegedly to prevent alienating any Tikis fans. The record was a huge success, enough that Templeman, Scoppetone & company said to heck with the Tikis. An album deal was made, and the group worked toward perfecting the new sound.
The new sound soon evolved into an old sound. Waronker and Templeman began working with songwriters, producers and arrangers like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Van Dyke Parks (featured in one of our “Forgotten Gem” articles), each of whom were more in tune with traditional pop than with contemporary rock. Almost immediately the group began exploring the songs of Cole Porter, and sort of found their way to a baroque-pop sound.
The Harpers’ first album, smartly named Feelin’ Groovy, featured the hit single of course, then was filled out with a number of songs by Newman, along with a couple of numbers from the great American songbook: “Happy Talk” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and “Come Love” by Bergman, Keith & Marks. A Leon Russell song, “Raspberry Rug,” with some psychedelic references was tossed in, but like the Newman songs wound up sounding more like 1947 than 1967. A second single from the album, “Come to the Sunshine” was penned by Van Dyke Parks, although it was hard to convince listeners that it wasn’t a long lost Cole Porter composition in disguise. The Harpers even dressed the part for the album cover, wearing various suits from the early 20th century.
Buoyed by the success of the first album, the quintet returned in 1968 with an album that was even more of an homage to the golden age of traditional pop. The record was aptly named Anything Goes. It led off with a snippet from a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song “This Is Only the Beginning,” which was created to sound almost like an old hand-cranked cylinder being played. The LP then launches straight into two Cole Porter tunes, “Anything Goes” and “Two Little Babes in the Wood.” Next is a Randy Newman number with full orchestration, followed by the Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen standard, “Pocketful of Miracles.” Side one ends with a rollicking version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a single of which fared quite well on the Billboard Easy Listening charts.
Side two featured two songs by Templeman and Scoppettone that fit the mold nicely, and a pop/big band treatment of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man.” Sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it did, quite nicely. A song by the duo of Mike Gordon and Jimmy Griffin called “Jessie” is one of the more compelling songs on the disc. Gordon & Griffin went on to write the Oscar winning “For All We Know,” a massive pop hit for the Carpenters that would firmly engrave the songwriters in the great American songbook. Another offering from Van Dyke Parks finished off the album.
Although they’ve largely been lost to the passage of time, the albums released by Harpers Bizarre were really one of the first calls to preserve the sounds of the 1930s and 1940s. This came at a time when pop culture was rebelling against anything that had to do with previous generations, calling itself the counter-culture. Harpers albums pointed out that perhaps young people may not agree with the ideals and values of an earlier time, but they should embrace the music.
A third LP, The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre, featured more songs from the canon of traditional pop. Yip Harburg & Burton Lane’s “Look to the Rainbow” led the way, followed on track five by Les Brown’s classic “Sentimental Journey.” Track ten is Gershwin’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” followed shortly by Frank Loesser’s “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” The arrangements are smooth, the vocals light and refreshing.
By 1969 Harpers drifted from the formula. Legend has it that Templeman was quite frustrated by the group’s inability to match their recorded sound in live performances. As a quintet the group was understandably limited in scope; had they debuted with today’s well-synched sound recordings, it’s probable that the group would’ve enjoyed greater longevity.
The groups fourth album had a name as uninspired as the music it contained: Harpers Bizarre 4. It was a definite departure from the previous sounds, with no Newman or Parks songs, and no Gershwin-era classics. With standard fare of the day such as “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” the Harpers dwindled to little more than a group with nicely arranged vocals.
In retrospect, the Harpers first three albums — and the 2nd and 3rd in particular — are among the best recordings of traditional pop made during the 1960s.