Saturday, September 1, 2012

Who is Rob Robbins?

“All American Boy”
Bill Parsons, Fraternity Records 835, 1958, Billboard #2

In the first verse of “All American Boy,” the rube, a kid somewhere between Elvis Presley and Stag Preston, promises that if you “buy you a guitar and put it in tune, you be rockin’ and rollin’ soon.” Every time I listen to the record, I cant help but think of Patti Smith’s story about her first guitar and how she hadn't realized that guitars needed to be tuned. (Just Kids, p. 164) She would carry the guitar around with her and ask people if they wanted to play it. The mark would tune it up and play and Patti would have a freshly tuned instrument. This in turn brings to mind the legend of Tommy Johnson going down to the crossroads where a strange man diabolically tunes his guitar and hands it back to him. These stories are not necessarily directly linked, but it is fascinating to me that there is a persistent theme of the guitar as some sort of magical instrument and the tuning of the guitar being the “key” to the secrets.
In the third verse, our hero “practice all day and up into the night, my poppa’s hair was turning white cause he didn’t like rock & roll.” Again, being the wrong age and looking through the glass backwards, this always reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s stories about his dad and “that goddamn guitar.” (Two Hearts, p. 205) Whether he is singing “well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk” or recounting for the umpteenth time the story of Clarence walking out of the storm into the bar, Springsteen is not alone in extending the recurring themes of origins and magic guitars, as if “Johnny B. Goode” extends both backwards and forwards in rock & roll mythology.
It would be silly to suggest that Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen got their stand-up material from a pokey little novelty hit, but it is the case that they both got some of their musical DNA from pokey little novelty hits. It would be equally silly to suggest that “All American Boy” is some kind of Book of Revelations peek into the future, but by the last verse of the record Uncle Sam comes knocking and hands the kid a rifle, snatching the guitar out of the kid’s hands. The last word on the record is Uncle Sam drooling a “yeah” of unmistakable depravity.
“All American Boy” was an affectionate (and envious) swipe at Elvis. The Uncle Sam business was simply the spectacle of Elvis getting his hair clipped and getting inducted, but over the next few years Uncle Sam was handing lots of kids rifles and shipping them off to Vietnam. Again, this is all just me retrofitting the events of my childhood to match up with a record made a year before I was born, but it does seem funny peculiar that such a flimsy little novelty record seems to detonate all these little firecrackers of connexion and confusion.
In that same spirit, let us fast-forward ten years to Bob Dylan and the Band knocking off, in the words of Greil Marcus, “a gravely lunatic parody” of “All American Boy.” (Invisible Republic, p. 82) Sid Griffin positions the track next to “Clothes Line Saga,” which seems reasonable enough, and suggests that it is a dig at Albert Grossman, which seems an oddly literal reading of the song from someone as perspicacious as Griffin, although that would be a nice extension of the Colonel Parker lines in the original record. (Million Dollar Bash, p. 182) Dylan departs quickly from the original record and ranges Tarantula-like into the wilderness, but he seems to use that lecherous “yeah” at the end of the original as the jumping off point for a tale of sordid indentured servitude.
As a stray aside, Dylan refocuses the song, making the drum the fetish object, instead of the guitar. Whatever could that mean?
The name on the 1958 record is Bill Parsons, but, as everybody knows, it is Bobby Bare singing.  Or, if you prefer, talking. In his book, Griffin sticks with the story that seems to circulate most widely, that the released version was in fact the demo and was released by mistake. The explanation offered in the liner notes of the venerable Golden Age Of American Rock & Roll series on Ace Records suggests that Parsons was struggling with the song and that Bare stepped in to get it done. This sounds more plausible, but the two stories are darn close and the Golden Age liner notes have hints of embroidery around the edges, so who knows.
I mention this because the confusion of singing and talking and the confusion of Parsons and Bare are echoed in the basement tapes version with Dylan singing (or, if you prefer, talking) and Richard Manuel chiming in like the demented bass vocalist on some sub-Coasters record. In places he sounds like the All American Boy hisself, but nowhere does he sing as beautifully as he can.
So, there I am plunked down in front of the stereo, listening to all these old records and marveling at the echoes and the caroms, just like Uncle Greil taught us to. I am hunched over my guitar listening for the changes on the records and thinking that Bobby Bare’s promise that I could “learn how to play in a day or so” was off the mark by many thousand days.
Fast forward to a lazy Saturday morning when I am cranking tunes and surfing the Internet. I stumble across a CD called Elvis Mania Volume 2, some kind of budget label, gray market compilation of Elvis tribute records and novelty parodies.  I scan the tracks and I recognize Roy Hall and Titus Turner and Baker Knight, but the rest of the tracks are by people named Mad Milo and Jaybee Wasden. For Pete's sake, there is a Rick Dees number. I am about to click away from this page when I notice that “All American Boy” is on the compilation, but it is credited to Rob Robbins. I am puzzled for I have known only the story of Bobby Bare and Bill Parsons. Who is Rob Robbins?
I chisel away at the interweb and find that the Rob Robbins track is also on a compilation called Bob Dylan Cover To Cover Volume 2. (Over at Music Melon where Jeffrey Lee Pierce takes his seat next to Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Miles Davis. You just know the felicitously named Melon Sisters had nothing to do with this.)
I am running in circles, finding nothing except these two collections. No expert at search engines, I chip away in futility for a while. Then sifting through the chaff, I end up at Rate Your Music. There it is, the second track on a six song EP on Promenade Records. Even has a catalogue number. Score. This will be a cakewalk.
Except that it is not a cakewalk. I have been spoiled by the detailed discographies to be found out on the Internet. Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Bob Dylan, they have all been discographied and annotated to the nth degree. There is a chronology for the Benny Goodman band, tracking its zig-zag wanderings from ballroom to ballroom, pieced together using the morgues of small-town newspapers. I figured I could go to Soulful Kinda Music or Hoy Hoy or some such place and all the hard work would be done.
But, no. It turns out that a gentleman named mustangcats over at antiqueradios had posted a query of exactly this nature: “Does anyone have information about Promenade 45 rpm records that were made in the late 1950s?” Seven minutes later, one Ken Doyle sends mustangcats and the rest of us scurrying over to Wikipedia where we can read about the wonderfully named Synthetic Plastics Company. As if a glorious name were not riches enough, these guys were in Newark, New Jersey. Perfect. Philip Roth should write a novel about this. The heck with gloves, this is records.
Go read it - it’s a treat. The short version for our purposes is that the Synthetic Plastics Company had a record label, Peter Pan Records, children’s records, with a bunch of subsidiary labels including Promenade.
So I crawl back to Rate Your Music and find that they list about twelve or fifteen releases on the Promenade label, including the curiously numbered A-54-4, which includes the Rob Robbins track in question. I get a sinking feeling just looking at the track listing - “Donna” by Pat Vale, “Stagger Lee” by Al Freud, “My Happiness” by Dottie Gray. I'm not certain I want to hear “Stagger Lee” by someone named Al Freud. There is a Sigmund Freud mentioned in Cecil Brown's book, but no Al Freud.
Eventually it occurs to me to head over to YouTube and see what comes up there. I had recently spent some days listening to old jazz 78s on YouTube, finding an odd comfort in the videos of a pair of hands placing an old 78 on a turntable and lowering the stylus to the dusty grooves. In search of Promenade Records, I found no end of excitement watching a pair of hands place an old 45 bearing a black and yellow label on the platter and lower the needle to the record. “MyHeart Reminds Me” by Bella Grant. “Tammy” by E. Baron. Best of all - “Stardust”by the Promineers.
Between YouTube and eBay, it seems that Rob Robbins also knocked out versions of “Personality” and “Pretty Blue Eyes.” There are versions of “Let The Bells Keep Ringing” and "Diana" credited to Bob Robbins, but I think we can assume that this is Rob Robbins, tweaked to cater to the adult market. There is a version of “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow” on Curio from 1962 and a version of "What Kind Of Fool Am I" on Power, and while it seems likely that they are Synthetic Plastics productions, it’s hard to tell.
All of this to arrive in a strange little twilight zone where the hits of the day were replicated more or less note for note to be sold at half the price of the actual hit records. Technically, these are cover versions, but not in the sense that I usually think of cover versions. I picture Pat Boone and his producer sifting through records looking for one that they can have a hit with. But when they get in the studio, they don’t make a note for note copy, they make a Pat Boone record. At Promenade, they are not sifting through a stack looking for a potential hit, but are taking the hits and reproducing them, like knock-offs of handbags and sunglasses
It is fascinating to compare the Cadets and the Jayhawks doing the same number, but these Promenade recordings are a different thing. Now, along with the Diamonds and the Gladiolas, we have the Promineers chiming in with their take on “Little Darlin’.” The hit is already made and the Promineers record is not an attempt to have a hit of their own, but an attempt to score the loose change of the industry. Sorta like a bar band, but on a record.
As much as I like “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the delightfully named Melon Sisters, it sticks too close to the Tune Weavers record to be much more than a knock-off. But it is not a bloodless knock-off and here I think (I think I think) I see most clearly the faint line between the hustlers going for broke on all those crazy little labels of the era and the hustlers merely going for chump change over on Promenade. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe the gang at Promenade thought they might one day hit the jackpot.
I am in a murky gray area and as I try to tease out the differences between these records, I think back to competing versions of “Macarena” or “I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing” or – a personal favourite of mine – “Mamy Blue.”  In the face of such straightforward commercial opportunism, it seems a little pretentious to apply too much mental elbow grease to the Promenade Records crew. I sort of kind of like the idea that this was a grab for market share, albeit not a very large share, not so different from the rest of the record business in practice, but different in scope.
So, I’ve started making a list that may one day turn into a Promenade Records discography. Cobbled together from YouTube and eBay and Rate Your Music and elsewhere, it peters out after a while with a few artists I haven’t been able to match to records and a version of “I Shot Mr Lee” that I haven't been able to attribute. I hope it turns out to be my beloved Melon Sisters, but maybe that’s expecting too much.
The catalogue numbers on the EPs are muddled and beguiling. The series with the HIT prefix may the Hit Records label that did much the same thing in the sixties. That is the drift I got from the mustangcats/Ken Doyle thread, but those records keep popping up next to the Promenade stuff, so for now we’ll keep them close at hand. Go check out the LP covers on eBay as they are unlikely to be collected in a nice big coffee table book. Poking around in second-hand shops, I’ve seen a few Hit Records and a few Peter Pan Records, but no Promenades so far. There are a couple on eBay, but I’m unlikely to pull the trigger, unless I happen across a listing for A-54-4.

1 comment:

  1. This is like flash fiction, only it's not fiction. Also, it was a devilish decision to include hyperlinks because I can't not click on them. So much great music and I loved watching them spin. Makes me want to go get records and a record spinner/suitcase thing but all the stores are closed today. Twas esp. fun to read about Synthetic Plastics Company. I want a tour of that place.

    Also, also ... Several months ago I bought some Bobby Bare albums, so was really pleased to hear him mentioned here. Around the same time I got some Dr. Hook, too.

    So who is Rob Robbins? Sounds like a fake name.