Segarini: Chick Singers and a Few Men you May Have Missed Part One – The Public Whim and a Little History

There is nothing wrong with popularity or financial success. In fact, both are pretty damned sweet. Some popular and financially successful music artists are deserving of this, and the great ones not only live up to our expectations, but grow their status into a career and continue to reward us with brilliant music and performances. The Sinatra’s, the Presley’s, the Bennett’s and the Martin’s. The Lennon’s and McCartney’s and Harrison’s. We not only grow to love and respect them, they reward us with more greatness, sometimes for years to come…and their music lasts through generations. But what about the ones who fail to achieve popularity and financial success, but are no less deserving?

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In another column not too long ago, I questioned why Madonna, Britney, and Amy Winehouse and Adele (you can toss Cher onto that pile too) have all had monumental gobs of celebrity, popularity, and financial rewards, while equally (if not more) deserving artists failed to scale the public mountain. Mysteries like that gnaw away at me far more than who built the pyramids or why 11,000,000 people bought a pet rock.

The easy answer of course, is that collectively, we are an odd, miss-informed gaggle of opinionated individuals whose tastes differ from one another in wildly inexplicable ways, confusing even the most qualified sociological analysts and learned pop culture archeologists. When questioned about the hows and whys of mass popularity, most experts will offer you an indecipherable, over-analytical and confusing explanation that is either cleverly delivered in such a way as to be interpreted in several different ways by people of opposing viewpoints, or answered with the truth, which is a simple 6 word phrase that states the best answer; “How the fuck should I know”. Unfortunately, most learned academic folks’ egos won’t allow them to tell you that, so we have shelves full of books explaining why Elvis is the King of Rock and Roll, The Beatles are revered, and How to Write a Hit Song in 3 Hours or Less Following These 5 Time-Tested Rules and a Dart Board. Well, forgive me for saying this, but most (not all) of what is written that tries to explain these things to us is just a bunch of hooey, or as my mother used to call it, bull flop.

Truth is, nobody really knows the secret of success in the music business, but I do have a theory about why we can’t nail the reasons down.

It’s because they are constantly changing due to what I like to call The Public Whim.

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Meteorologists can fairly accurately predict the path of a storm because the variables are pretty simple; the wind blows in one direction. If the wind shifts and blows in another direction, the storm goes with it. When it comes to people, however, the wind blows in all directions. You can’t tell which way the wind blows when it comes to people. What you do learn from this is also simple. The average direction of the wind, i.e the direction most people are headed in, will determine what will be popular and therefore (usually) financially successful. So, to sum up, the public whim (the collective average/median/middle) will blow an artist or song up the charts and into the collective consciousness. Mostly (statistically speaking) this guarantees that what generally rises to the top is good…but not necessarily great. Oh, sometimes we get lucky (the aforementioned Elvis/Sinatra/Beatles) but we miss as much as we get…probably more. Appealing to the most people is the goal of those who are interested in being popular and hopefully rich. In fact, a lot of people try to appeal to the masses…which to me, can’t possibly be conducive to doing your best work. How could it be? You are automatically compromising your vision in order to attract the most people. In my experience, artists don’t give a horse’s patootie if you like what they do or not. They care that their creation is as honest to their vision as possible, that they themselves love it. To do any less is to admit you are more interested in commerce than you are in art.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wish more people were aware of the difference. Like McCartney said to Lennon when they realized that they could do no wrong…”John, let’s write a swimming pool”.

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By now you are probably wondering what the fuck any of this has to do with Chick Singers and a Few Men you May Have Missed?  Well, your patience is about to be rewarded….

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There is nothing new in the music business that hasn’t either been done before or that is influenced by what has been done before. The music business has always had a knee-jerk response to a breakthrough artist or song…after all, their business depends on it. They do (and should) place commerce above art, although there have been periods in the history of the music industry where all things were equal, the best labels, record men, managers, agents, and lawyers were as colourful, creative, and artistic as their artists. We have not been in one of those periods for decades, but we are entering one now.

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that for every artist that has made a career based on popularity and financial success, there are many artists who were overlooked, even ignored, because their timing was off, or The Public Whim’s idea of ‘great’ was watered down by popular sentiment. Whatever the case, (and for a reason known only to the voice in my head that makes me listen to it) I felt the necessity to address this (to me, anyway) interesting theory of why some incredible music and artists are nothing more than a blip on the public radar, even though some of them were more influential on popular music than some of their more successful peers. Some of these influences were immediately recognized by some of the public’s biggest and most well-known heroes, and yet the public still managed to ignore them. Not only is that interesting just on its own, but what does it say about the general public when it comes to believing that what they make popular isn’t just a flip of the collective coin, and based on nothing more than a general consensus by the largest segment of the populace who, to the music industry, buy (or used to buy) the most records, and in that context, must be right. That…is a slippery slope. It means that eventually, creativity and talent doesn’t even factor into the equation for success, it’s a bonus, to be sure, but immaterial to the initial popularity achieved by the very few. What if, for example, The Beatles had continued to make albums that just delivered more of the same, like Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Dave Clark 5? Would their music have survived for half a century, or would they just be the answer to a trivia question likeThe Nashville Teens or Herman’s Hermits? The Beatles popularity enabled them to use their creative ability and extraordinary songwriting talent to continue to captivate their audience and add new generations of fans long after lesser lights faded into obscurity. Even now, every new generation discovers them, and like Neil Young and a handful of other artists that never seem to stop growing, continue to fascinate with their originality and timeless musical legacy. Most hugely successful artists fail to sustain, their contributions meager, and any residual success they may have is attributable to nothing more than nostalgia and the public’s rather odd love affair with their youth and the past. My peers miss so much great music because they simply don’t want to hear it. They are happy with what they remember from ‘the best years of their lives’, while people like me love discovering the undiscovered and are willing to keep searching for the budding greatness that is as surely out there waiting for us like a picture of a kitten on Facebook.

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There are waaay too many artists and songs I want to talk about here to be able to get to all of them, but a post from one of our writers about a cool radio station decided my approach for me. The picture accompanying the post was of a beautiful young redhead (I have a weakness) who was about to do an interview at the station. I had never heard of her. I tracked down her music. I listened and watched. I found out she has been around for a few years…and I hated that I hadn’t known about her sooner, but thankful I did now. (Thanks to Darrell Vickers) Then I thought about all the female singers that are on the radio these days, and all the ones who aren’t, and I realized that radio truly is no longer in the business of musical discovery. Even though it is slowly starting to swing back, the pendulum is so firmly ensconced in the commerce side of music, that it may take the general public years to come back to the idea of creativity and talent being of any importance…but the fringe of the public, the minority public, is filling small clubs and downloading great music, and don’t care if the general public and terrestrial music radio stations ever catch on. And that is how the great eras of music always start…not with the general public, but locally, with the few, the fans, the fringe, the public who wants to embrace quality and will never stop looking for it.

We start with a little history….

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Chick Singers….

There was a time when the female voice was rarely heard on the radio. There were no female DJs or news readers, very few female announcers, and after the big band era, very few solo female performers. Most of the females that were on radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s are still remembered, but in the ‘50s there was a young girl that came out of nowhere and brought something new to the air. So talented that there were runours that she was actually a midget.  She, like Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber after her, appeared to be a fluke of nature at first glance, a novelty, a chicken dancing on a hot plate, but she was so much more than that.

Brenda Lee – Dynamite

Brenda Lee came from a dirt poor family and started showing her musical ability when she was 2 years old by whistling songs she heard on the radio. At 3 she was standing on the counter at a candy store singing for candy. By 8 she was winning talent contests and by 10 she was a regular on local radio and television in Georgia. Her big break came when she turned down money to perform on a radio show and instead, went to see a hero of hers, Red Foley.

From Wikipedia: “Her break into big-time show business came in February 1955, when she turned down $30 to appear on a Swainsboro radio station in order to see Red Foley and a touring promotional unit of his ABC-TV program Ozark Jubilee in Augusta. An Augusta DJ persuaded Foley to hear her sing before the show. Foley was as transfixed as everyone else who heard the huge voice coming from the tiny girl and immediately agreed to let her perform “Jambalaya” on stage that night, unrehearsed. Foley later recounted the moments following her introduction:”

“I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.”

Brenda Lee – Hound Dog

The Little Bitty girl with the great big voice channels Elvis.

Brenda Lee – Sweet Nothings

Sweet Nothings was one of her biggest records. She had 37 US chart hits during the  ‘50s and ‘60s, a number surpassed only by Elvis PresleyThe BeatlesRay Charles and Connie Francis. She is best known for her 1960 hit “I’m Sorry“, and 1958’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree“, a US holiday standard for more than 50 years.

At 4 ft 9 inches tall, she received the nickname Little Miss Dynamite in 1957 after recording the song “Dynamite”; and was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following. She is a member of the Rock and RollCountry Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame, and justifiably so.

Brenda Lee – Jambalaya

Brenda still tours and still has it, but the majority of public has all but forgotten her and with the exception of her two biggest hits, “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothings”, rarely receives any airplay on even the hippest oldies stations. Even so, her impact on female singers who followed her was enormous. The catch in her voice, a trademark, has been borrowed by many, and her ability to toughen up her voice to make a dramatic point is also a standard trick for female singers in the country, rock, and roots genres. Many a modern country star owes Ms. Lee a hearty ‘thank you’, and I am sure they have all paid her the respect due.

Next up, a preacher’s daughter who was a friend of Brenda Lee’s in High School.

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Where Brenda’s voice was tough and brassy, Rita Coolidge’s voice was as smooth as butter. One of the great singers, Reet makes it sound so easy, and was so in demand as a session singer and a backup singer on tours, that she could have made a very comfortable living without ever making a record of her own. Down to Earth, sweet as her voice, and an inspiration to everyone from Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, to Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Kris Kristofferson. Rita (whose sister Priscilla was married to Booker (Green Onions) T, was a magnet to those musicians and artists who gravitated to greatness. Her door was always open, and Rita would make the best cornbread you have ever had when you found yourself in her home. When I lived in Laurel Canyon, my writing partner, Randy Bishop and I spent a goodly amount of time there. One day, we were singing around the little spinet piano in her kitchen with her and Graham (Nash) when Prissy and Booker came over and joined in, Booker edged Randy over on the piano bench and started layin’ it down.  Rita made everyone she ever worked with better for the experience, and introduced everyone to everyone. There are lots of stories for another time. Rita is my daughter, Amy’s Godmother.

Rita Coolidge – Crazy Love

If you listen closely, you can hear Randy and I singing backups with the Blackberries (Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews) on this track. Singing with these people was a lesson you cannot get in a classroom.

Rita Coolidge w/ Bob Segarini

The story behind this song has been told here before, and there is a mini version of it on the YouTube page that this is on. Singing this duet with Rita was the greatest singing lesson I ever had, and I would receive more from her when we performed together when Roxy with Rita Coolidge rehearsed in a Lake Tahoe Cabin for a week or two and then played Santa Monica, Hollywood, Russian River, and the Fillmore in San Francisco. In the band; Randy, Jim DeCocq, Travis Fullerton, Lee Dorman (Iron Butterfly), Spooner Oldham, and Graham Nash.

Rita Coolidge – Higher and Higher

Rita’s breakthrough record and the beginning of her stay in the mainstream’s public eye. Her influence and recognition in the music community, however, was much more enduring and certainly more rewarding. There isn’t a more sincere or honestly talented singer out there, and her simple and down to earth spirituality and unaffected demeanor was a distinct change from her more ostentatious and ‘show-biz-y counterparts. When we were soundchecking for the opening of the Bitter End West on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood with the Grateful Dead, my wife, Cheryl, Rita, and Janis (Joplin) , sat in a booth drinking Southern Comfort and Tequila like 3 old friends on a girls-night-out. You would never have guessed they were anything more than that… and that’s what made them special. Where today’s popular female artists do much to attract attention or stand out in the crowd, Janis and Rita were approachable, regular folk. The real deal comfortable in their own skin and more interested in the music they made than the fame that followed it.

We also had some friends that Rita introduced us to that she had worked with at Elektra Records and who we greatly admired, and in my opinion, the most important and influential husband and wife in the history of popular music…

Sunday: Part Two of Chick Singers and a Few Men you May Have Missed

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Segarini’s regular column appears here every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, and The Segarini Band and nominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late Great Movies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now 85), and now publishes, edits, and writes for DBAWIS, continues to write music, make music, and record.

5 Responses to “Segarini: Chick Singers and a Few Men you May Have Missed Part One – The Public Whim and a Little History”

  1. Mike Fieldman (ex-Stockton) Says:

    Yeah.

  2. Warren Cosford Says:

    My favourite Rita Song. We played it a lot on CHUM-FM when I was PD http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI8euctz3UQ

  3. Engage. Inform. Inspire. Your blog has done all three for me, today, Bob. Thank you!!

  4. You were right, it was worth the wait. Thanks Bob. P.S., when we moved to Stockton in 57 we rented the little house behind the store on Hampton and El Dorado. small world, many memories in that little house and the old hood. Marc Lawrence

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