Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taking Chances: The Red Bird Label Story

Record labels used to have a certain cache in the days before corporate takeovers and media-mergers began to happen in the eighties. To put it in contemporary marketing lingo, the labels once “branded” their music. Consider Motown: a distinct sound and style that stood for high quality performance and catchy pop R&B. Another might be Elektra records, the West Coast label featuring folkie Judy Collins and The Doors. Sun Records had Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. What would jazz be without Blue Note, Impulse and ECM, each featuring their own distinctive styles? Labels meant something in the middle of the last century before larger companies scooped them all up. Their interest was more in profiting from sales rather than promoting the art form. But there was one label, Red Bird Records, that understood the relationship between good music and the profit motive.

In 1962, American songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, authors of hits for Elvis Presley ("Jailhouse Rock") and The Coasters ("Searchin'"), were ambitious businessmen eager to earn more money for their work. At the time, they were songwriters for Atlantic records earning 2 cents for every single sold of one of their songs. By forming their own company, they would earn 21 cents a record. So they decided it was in their best economic interests to form Red Bird records. Having their own company allowed them to take more risks with their music.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
For The Red Bird Story, Snapper (Charly) Records, an excellent independent re-issue label out of England, has assembled 60 tracks covering the musical story of Red Bird Records and its subsidiary labels, Daisy, Blue Cat and Tiger. (Multiple box sets have been issued since 1991.) The 2-CD collection isn't without its share of misses. But in those days, record labels never really knew if their next single would hit. Such was the case of Jimmy Rice, who took a real stab at sounding like Elvis Presley on the Latin inspired, "Spanish Perfume." Rice gives it everything he's got, but falls miserably short of the King. The same can be said about a quartet called The Trade Winds. This group was trying to capture the harmonious sound of both the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Their earnest attempt on the poorly written song "New York's a Lonely Town" fails miserably. It's pretty hard to empathize with the lead singer's lament that "New York's a lonely town/When you're the only surfer in the city."

But the gems do outnumber the duds on this collection. The familiar classics such as "Leader of the Pack" and "(Remember) Walkin' in The Sand" by the Shangri-Las; "Iko Iko" and "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups are included along with some demo recordings by the late Ellie Greenwich, principal songwriter for the label. For me, the outstanding tracks are those lesser-known acts that probably failed to make an impression due to their name such as The Jellybeans ("Baby Be Mine" and "I Wanna Love Him So Bad"). The Ad-libs' infectious "Boy From New York City" is far superior to the cover by Manhattan Transfer in 1981. Another great song is "Come Back Baby" by female vocalist Roddie Joy, whose real name was Rita Coleman. She signed with Cameo/Parkway Records when Red Bird folded but never had a major hit with the label.

Most of the tracks are mono recordings, but they are cleaned up to sharpen the high end and focus the vocals. The label did issue some stereo recordings, such as "Leader of the Pack," which here features a motorcycle sound crossing from left to right and back again. Most of us only heard that song in mono out of a cheap transistor radio. This time we get the full widescreen effect, so to speak.

Another gem is the irresistible Sam Hawkins with a song called "Hold On Baby." In this instance, the track has a serious R&B groove a la Otis Redding. In fact, by 1965, the bulk of the songs being written for the label were much more R&B influenced, most likely due to the lack of success, both financial and artistic, of the surf songs the Brill Building songwriters tried to achieve. The better numbers are "Hold On Baby" and "Ask Anybody" by the Ad-Libs, as well as Steve Rossi's performance of "Nobody But You," written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

But Red Bird also tapped into the Motown sound with a girl group called The Bouquets, doing "Welcome to My Heart," which is arranged exactly like the Supremes' big hit, "Where Did Our Love Go." This single was released on Red Bird's subsidiary label, Blue Cat, one that featured strictly soul and R&B artists. An exceptional singer on the label was Evie Sands. Her voice had a refined quality to it while pushing the envelope on "Take Me For A Little While" released in 1965 on Blue Cat. Her version of "I Can't Let Go" that was later covered by The Hollies and Linda Ronstadt, is a first-rate R&B classic.

The label often issued singles performed by the songwriters themselves and it's interesting to hear the voices of Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Jeff Barry as featured vocalists. In this respect, Red Bird took some risks because at the time, singers and songwriters were usually separate and distinct artists, principally working out of the Brill Building in New York City. So it's refreshing to hear how good Barry Mann performs "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" that was a hit for The Animals. His version is much more sympathetic and soulful, while Eric Burden's performance seems more political in tone as if he's singing for a generation.

Likewise, Ellie Greenwich's efforts are strong, although she doesn't have the vocal range to create a convincing performance. In other words, she doesn't belt it out like Roddie Joy or Sam Hawkins. Her Red Bird single "You Don't Know" b/w "Baby" in 1965 isn't strong enough to make an impact much like the rest of the Red Bird catalogue.

Tiny Tim
By 1966, the label took a complete left turn and introduced the world to the one and only, Tiny Tim. His debut single was "Little Girl" b/w "April Showers," produced by Richard Perry. While Perry's career moved on to include albums with Carly Simon and Harry Nilsson, Tiny Tim was the definitive novelty act whose ridiculous falsetto became familiar on MOR radio stations around the world. The irony is, the falsetto cut is on side B. Tim sings in his normal baritone voice on Leadbelly’s “Hey Girl” making him sound like a creepy, sex-starved stalker of young, uniformed students.

The Red Bird Story is an excellent collection of music that made its mark in the very competitive pop music industry of the mid-1960s. It was a label that took chances to make an earnest impression on the kids and on the music business. It launched a few careers and left an important, if forgotten, legacy. How many labels can you say the same about today? 

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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