During our research and discussions for a PopularSong.org feature “artist” article on Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, the name of another late 1960s-era Columbia Records singer came up frequently, the highly talented Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders fame. Like the Union Gap, the Raiders wore historic military costumes. Like Puckett, Lindsay had an incredible vocal talent. And last but not least, Lindsay seemed to drop out of circulation — just like Puckett.
Before he went on hiatus, Lindsay accomplished what Puckett seemed unable to by putting out a series of successful and extremely acclaimed solo albums. The first of these was Arizona in 1970, which was comprised mainly of middle-of-the-road covers and was quite a departure from Lindsay’s Raider sound. Upon release the record was ridiculed by the rock press and not taken seriously by easy listening stations. The public, however, paid no attention to the pundits and bought the record. Even Lindsay’s teenybopper fans got enough satisfaction from the title track, and pushed it to the top ten nationally.
Forty years later the record is still acclaimed by fans. It includes tremendous performances on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” among other modern standards. One of the standouts is a cover of a minor Frank Sinatra hit penned by Rod McKuen, “Love’s Been Good To Me.” The song had originally been recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1964. The better-known version was released in 1969 on Sinatra’s A Man Alone, and album comprised entirely of McKuen songs.
This sort of “concept” album was nothing new for Sinatra, who more or less started the idea in the late 1950s with Come Fly With Me and a series of “come (fill in the blank) with me” follow-ups. Now more than a decade later, Sinatra was fully involved in a series of much more narrowly-focused concept albums. Bossa nova, Duke Ellington, and now McKuen — some of the music was just too obscure and hard to grasp for many pop music consumers. Prior to A Man Alone, he released My Way – Frank Sinatra, which was very safe for traditional fans and should’ve grabbed a lot more sales than it did. [Editor’s note: The single “My Way” was not an overwhelming chart success upon first release, even though it a signature song for the latter part of his career.] It seemed the record buying public was forgetting about Ol’ Blue Eyes. Incidentally, his follow-up to the McKuen concept was Watertown, which would become little more than an answer to the trivia question: “Name the obscure 1970 album Sinatra recorded with the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio about a broken man in upstate New York.”
Like “My Way,” the lasting impact and popularity of “Love’s Been Good To Me” belies its original chart success, which wasn’t much. The song peaked at #75 on Billboard, although it fared better on the relatively new Easy Listening charts. For some reason the British listener didn’t take so long to warm up to McKuen’s quirky lyrics of wanderlust; the song went top ten in the UK almost immediately. In its phrasing and pacing the song seems tailor-made for Sinatra, and again like “My Way,” he performed it regularly enough to make it a staple despite its original lukewarm reception by the American public.
At the end of 1969 the song caught Lindsay’s attention, and he promptly decided to include it on his first “grown-up” album. In some circles the question was raised, “does he think he’s Sinatra?” And the answer is no, but he wanted to be respected for his musical talent. While Lindsay’s recording lacks the unique style and timing that made Sinatra so successful, the vocals are as good in almost every other respect. Why then did Mark Lindsay fail to sustain his initial success as an adult contemporary vocalist? The most reasonable explanation seems to be that it was too much of a stretch to go immediately from teen idol to adult standard-bearer. History tells us that Sinatra faced the same difficulties, but that his indomitable will separated him from scores of artists who were unable to recover from career setbacks.
Lindsay wasn’t the only artist intrigued by McKuen’s song. Johnny Cash performed it on his television show, and would revisit it later in his life. Other artists used it as filler material, and a couple of pinup idols attempted to turn it into a teen love ballad; Bobby Sherman released a perfectly dreadful rendition as late as 1971. All of this conspired to make the song a “standard,” even though nobody ever had significant U.S. chart success with the song.
An interesting coda to this story: Just as Sinatra was finding his records ignored by the American public in 1969, Johnny Cash was enjoying a meteoric rebound on the strength of his San Quentin album. In our Feature Artist article this month we mention that Gary Puckett had been the largest selling artist in 1968 — Cash knocked him off that pedestal in a big way in ’69. In fact, almost one out of every ten albums sold in 1969 was a Johnny Cash release. Cash of course fell out of favor again in the 1980s and early 1990s, but rebounded yet again when the American public realized that he was in ill-health and it had better discover this living legend before it was too late. And one of the last songs Cash recorded before he died was — you guessed it — “Love’s Been Good To Me.” The song was included on posthumous Cash album called American V, which went to #1 on both the Billboard pop and country album charts. Oddly enough, this recording is better known than Sinatra’s to many American listeners.
As for McKuen, he composed a host of extremely successful songs in the adult contemporary genre. The most prolific pairing for the beat poet was with Anita Kerr. Although the Kerr albums significantly outsold Sinatra’s McKuen album, those recordings haven’t enjoyed the longevity of Frank’s single song. McKuen’s biggest hit was a flowery song called “Jean,” which was the title track from the Academy Award-winning Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The song was an instant standard, but has dimmed over the years. As of this writing, “Love’s Been Good To Me” is arguably McKuen’s most signficant contribution to the Great American Songbook.