The image that I use for the blog is a Panasonic phonograph model SG-336. It is identical to the one that was probably the most important birthday present I ever received. When I turned 4, my parents decided that I could probably handle my own phonograph. This may have been partly motivated that I was constantly asking them for help using theirs – a giant old Magnavox “portable” that was perched high atop a shelf that I could not reach. The theory was that I could listen to my records, which consisted of the original Sesame Street songs on 45 RPM in the cardboard sleeves with cast photos. (Orange Oscar was among them.)
Pretty quickly I outgrew the Sesame Street music. The playlist was limited, and I was always somewhat of a high-TSL programmer. (That’s a radio joke. Play lots of songs in the hopes that no one turns the channel due to boredom, hence higher “time spent listening.”) My parents saved their 45s from when they were in grade school and high school, and they lived in a box that sat near their phonograph. I asked if I could look through them, and they agreed. They had stopped playing them years ago.
There were a couple of the records that I immediately decided I liked. In the box was “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by Elvis, and a few dozen other titles. But the one I decided I liked the most was “Raindrops” by Dee Clark. I loved the rainbow colors around the edge of the Vee-Jay label, which Capitol later used. I think I was also drawn to the sound of the storm at the beginning of the record, wondering how they managed to get it to thunder inside the studio just as the record was beginning like that.
Dee Clark was born in the South but moved to Chicago at the age of three. It was there that he was signed to Vee-Jay Records (a subject I plan to research in great detail) . His early recordings were released on the subsidiary Abner label, named for Ewart Abner, who later became the president of the company. Clark was a member of the Kool Gents, who were discovered by Herb “The Kool Gent” Kent, the legendary Chicago disk jockey. Clark went solo in 1957, and by 1959 had hit the Top 40 four times with songs like “Just Keep It Up” and “Hey Little Girl,” a song that borrowed no small amount from the “hambone” sound of Bo Diddley.
1961 looked like the breakout year for Clark. His first single that year, “Your Friends,” stalled at the bottom of the Top 40. The next single was the smash. “Raindrops” was a Number 2 hit on the mainstream pop chart and Number 3 on Billboard‘s R&B chart. The song contained lush instrumentation and strings, and is a pop masterpiece.
About those strings: it wasn’t until years later, when I went from picking the music in my bedroom on Nottingham Drive to picking the music for Chicago’s WJMK that I finally heard them. The scratched up copy of the 45 that I had as a kid (and still have, of course) was a mono pressing. The stereo mix of the record brings the strings front and center, while they were completely buried in the mono mix. The first time I heard the record in my headphones I thought we had the wrong version of the song. It turned out that I was missing a portion of the song for over twenty years. That’s the fun of rediscovering old music: there’s often something there that you never noticed before, or perhaps never had the capacity to notice when you were younger.
You can enjoy the fake thunder and lush strings of Dee Clark’s “Raindrops” by clicking here.