Usually this “Forgotten Gem” column features a popular song of some success that, for one reason or another, seems to have been lost over the passing of time. This edition, however, we’re going to take a look at an entire album — and one of the few instances in which a television star legitimately plunged into pop music.
In the mid-1960s prime time television was primarily campy or absurd. Campy was well represented by shows like The Green Hornet and Dragnet. Absurdity abounded in shows like The Munsters, My Favorite Martian, and of course Gilligan’s Island. Some shows managed to be both campy and absurd — Batman for example. On the “campy” side was a show called The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which unexpectedly turned a young Scottish actor named David McCallum into an international sensation.
McCallum had enjoyed a succession of important dramatic roles in the late 1950s and early 60s, including notable characters in the films The Great Escape and The Greatest Story Ever Told. In 1964 he landed a role as a Russian secret agent in U.N.C.L.E., a show that was intended to capitalize on the popularity of the James Bond movies. It originally starred Robert Vaughn an agent who, like Bond, would work alone — in fact named “Napoleon Solo”. The villain in the plot was a secret group called “T.H.R.U.S.H.”, which was so heinous that cold war combatants from the USA and USSR worked together in an organization called “U.N.C.L.E.” to fight it. Enter McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, in what was intended to be a minor recurring role. Viewers’ response to the character was overwhelming, however, and McCallum quickly advanced to the status of co-star.
Incredibly, the introspective Scotsman became a sex symbol, whom some called “The Blonde Beatle.” To this day the name “Illya Kuryakin” actually enjoys greater recognition than McCallum’s own.
That’s a rather long introduction to this article, but it’s necessary to understand the size and scope of McCallum’s appeal in the mid 1960s, and how a series of record albums came about.
Like any huge overnight television sensation, the star-maker machinery’s next move was to try and make an Illya Kuryakin record. Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Kildare) did it dreadfully, as did John Travolta a decade later. Both efforts, however dismal, sold remarkably well. Lorne Greene did a capable job, while the cast of The Brady Bunch did not. One of the notable exceptions to this phenomenon was Henry “Fonzie” Winkler, who simply refused to do it, citing his utter lack of musical talent. The Fonz eventually sang on a million-selling record, but that’s another story.
Anyway, back to McCallum. His star was rocketing thanks to U.N.C.L.E., and overtures were made from record labels. He gave them an answer that was totally unexpected.
McCallum’s father, David Sr., was a master violinist and an orchestra conductor of great renown in the British Isles. He was quite possibly the most prolific and accomplished violinist in the history of the UK. The entire family was musically oriented; David himself capably played the oboe, the english horn, and a few other instruments. So when record deals were floated, McCallum replied that he would arrange and conduct an orchestra, in his way, his style.
This wasn’t the AM-radio pop the labels had in mind, but Capitol Records — richest and most successful at the time — signed McCallum to a deal. The record would be his music, his way. Capitol stuck a full-color “autographed” picture inside the jacket, figuring that if the semi-odd orchestral interpretations of pop hits failed to excite record buyers, McCallum’s fans would at least want the picture print.
The project worked surprisingly well, although it had a few dreary moments.
Capitol assigned staff producer David Axelrod and arranger H.B. Barnum to McCallum. Axelrod was a rising star at the Tower, already producing a string of hits for Lou Rawls and “Cannonball” Adderley. Axelrod leaned heavily toward jazz, although he worked on all sorts of recordings. He was beginning to put together his own “wrecking crew,” using session giants like Glen Campbell and Carol Kaye to create flawless recordings.
McCallum selected a number of tunes that he wanted to work with, and spelled out exactly which instruments he wanted in his unusual orchestra. He drew mostly from the current roster of pop/rock hits. From the new world, McCallum covered “1-2-3,” “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “A Taste of Honey.” From the British Invasion offerings, he picked “Yesterday,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” He also did an admirable job on Petula Clark’s signature song, “Downtown.”
That recording was one of the few standouts, mainly because it recalled the original so well. Generally the album is quite enjoyable, starting off with a fun if occasionally plodding rendition of Motown’s “1-2-3”. Unfortunately a few of the numbers fell into some sort of mushy musical purgatory. Axelrod’s stamp is all over the record, as you might expect; he’s the professional while McCallum was really just a capable hobbyist in 1966. It seems Axelrod pushed the musical boundaries at time; doing so with McCallum’s collection of woodwinds and weird horns almost sounds like some of the musicians are tuning up…or at least should be.
In McCallum’s own words from the jacket, eight of the songs need no explanation. Four remaining cuts were originals composed by Axelrod, arranger Barnum, and a pair by McCallum himself. These four are decent efforts, with titles like “Far Side of the Moon” and “Insomnia,” but nothing especially noteworthy.
The record sold reasonably well, and considering the mix of good and glurge, it fared reasonably well with critics. Jazz enthusiasts were thrilled that a major television star tossed them a bone. McCallum’s fans pointed to this record to prove that their beloved Illya was not only nice, he was also cerebral; nevermind the fact that few gave it more than one or two listens.
Bolstered by the success of Music: A Part of Me, McCallum and Capitol put out two more albums within a year. The follow-up LP, Music: A Bit More of Me, was more of the same fare; much of it was probably leftovers from the first album sessions. It was equally enjoyable, like the first it had moments both muddled and momentous, and sold well. One song from that album, “The Edge,” has become something of a jazz/pop classic. It’s generally credited to David Axelrod & David McCallum as artist. A version of the “Batman Theme” included on this LP has also mysteriously withstood the test of time; it’s generally credited to McCallum alone as artist.
Why mess with a good thing? The third LP, Music: It’s happening Now managed to scrape more sales out of the 1967 market, mixing oddments like “Alfie” with “Winchester Cathedral” and the ubiquitous “Louie, Louie.” By this time the UNCLE franchise was starting to erode a bit, and with it sales plummeted accordingly. McCallum wasn’t done, and in 1970 released a final record that is probably his best, but made no impression on the market at all. In retrospect, it has to be said that McCallum’s vision — brought to reality by Axelrod — did have an influence on the future of “lounge” music. Lounge collections to this day still raid McCallum’s discs; a few years ago his horned-up version of “Satisfaction” from 1966 was surprisingly popular.
Forever linked to the role of Kuryakin, McCallum nevertheless had a busy acting career during the ensuing decades. In his 70s he starred in a television show called NCIS, and he remains universally beloved by fans old enough to remember. Our point in presenting this column is to try to define his place in pop music history — although a minor role, and however brief — David McCallum did have an influence on the current “lounge” sound, and his popularity provided a forum for expanding the boundaries of the pop instrumental.