Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rambeau, Part II

Back in the 1960s, there was a young man who was making quite a lot of noise in the music industry, whether people realized it or not. If they danced and sang along to hits like Mark Valentino’s “The Push And Kick” or Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue” and “Kiss Me Sailor,” they were digging the songcraft of Eddie Rambeau and his frequent collaborator Bud Rehak. If they tuned in to a popular television series such as Shindig, they might have seen Mr. Rambeau swingin’ and swayin’ as he sang “My Name Is Mud,” “The Train,” and Unit 4+2’s “Concrete And Clay,” all of which brought Eddie a fair amount of success as a recording artist. This multi-talented lad with the well-groomed appearance and boy-next-door charm was simply made for teen idol status. The girls screamed at him on TV and ambushed him in person.

But now, Eddie Rambeau has grown up. And changed his name. To Ed Rambeau.

Ed Rambeau is no longer in the ‘60s—now, he’s in his 60s. Fortunately for him, he’s always looked younger than his actual age. And he’s no cute and cuddly boy-next-door type. He’s a hunky, swaggering ladies man who occasionally sings songs with naughty lyrics and has a tendency to pose topless—or just in a pair of short shorts. I personally could stand to see fewer such photos, but who’s to fault Ed for showing off what he’s got? After all, the females still love him, although it is a somewhat more mature crowd now. But they still scream at him and they leave him MySpace comments containing all sorts of come-ons and titillating graphics. You might say that Ed Rambeau is putting the “sex” in “sexagenarian.”

Please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes at me.

Musically—and his music is what matters most, right?—Ed Rambeau has been recording in his own studio in New York and using the internet not only to promote his work but also to stay in close contact with his impressively loyal fan base. He records and releases new albums at a dizzying pace. Ed still knows how to write a good song and puts those skills to use every now and then. But more often, he covers other people’s material, tackling a mind-boggling variety of styles. Who else can swing a standard like “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” move on to a recent pop favorite such as “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” soul it up with “Wake Up Everybody,” then rock a bit on “Proud Mary,” and do it all convincingly? Ed adds his own signature style to each song he sings, and sometimes his interpretations are noteworthy for their arrangements and productions as well as his vocals. He took a minimalist approach to Cher’s “Believe” while retaining the basic feel, transformed Low Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” into a downbeat ballad (though he also did it in its original Philly soul style), gave Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” a swanky uptown treatment, and recast The Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” as a heart-wrenching slab of pop-soul. He’s also known for taking many classics and revising the lyrics, often in a humorous fashion—lest you think that “The Lady Is A Tramp” originally contained the line “To get ahead, she would never kiss butt.” A former Broadway actor, Ed also records numerous songs from musicals, proving that showtunes often make great pop songs as well; I’m particularly fond of his reading of “Storybook” from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I never even knew existed as a musical until Ed enlightened me.

My original game plan was to interview Ed and use a few quotes for an article, but he gave me such fascinating answers that I had to publish the interview in its entirety. Here is a recent e-mail correspondence between me and today’s Rambeau:

SJ: When did you resume your recording career?

Ed: Actually I left recording for a while to study acting and then played on Broadway and traveled with Jesus Christ Superstar for a while then returned to recording in the early ‘80s, I believe.

SJ: When did you start using the internet to distribute and promote your music?

Ed: I suppose I've been using the internet about 3 years now.

SJ: Have you been working consistently with Bud Rehak throughout the years?

Ed: Bud is a very dear friend and we work off and on together. He and I did a great deal of special tributes to various Stars and Personalities. Kind of like a “This Is Your Life” in song. We've done them for Bernadette Peters, Kaye Ballard and many many others.

SJ: How do people react to the new Rambeau versus the old Rambeau—specifically, the spunky sex symbol versus the clean-cut boy next door?

Ed: Well, it's almost hard to get them to listen to my music. Once they see the CD cover they always comment on that and very seldom say anything about my music until much much later. Perhaps I'm selling the wrong thing here. LOL. But the women seem to love it. Here's a funny story that just happened today. I went to Port Authority Bus Terminal to purchase a ticket to New Jersey and I asked for a Senior Citizen rate. This large black woman looked at me strangely so I said, "You wanna see my ID?" And she replied, "Hell, no! I wanna see your body!" So I just happened to have a few copies of the new CD with me and when I handed it to her she took one look and began fanning herself with the CD itself. So I gave her a copy.

SJ: What inspires you to perform such a wide variety of material?

Ed: All my life I've listened closely to fellow performers and discovered I had the ability to emulate their sound. So what I try to do in my cover recordings is kind of get the essence of the original performer with a slight Rambeau touch. People are used to the original sound and have a hard time accepting a change so I try to reproduce the original sound as closely as I can and then throw in some of my own style.

SJ: When and how did your love of showtunes begin?

Ed: As far back as I can remember. I suppose it's because a great showtune has a great lyric and a singer is a story teller. What better way to tell a story than with great set of lyrics? My very first Broadway show (that I saw as a high school student) was Bye Bye, Birdie. From that moment on I was hooked.

SJ: With covers, how do you decide whether to stick to the original arrangement or change it?

Ed: I prefer to change it unless the original arrangement is so identifiable with the song that it almost forces me to use it. I've often done many songs two different ways.

SJ: Why change the lyrics to some of the standards? How do people react?

Ed: Many standards are so old and have to be brought a little up to date. Sinatra did it in his time and many artists still do it. I think it also grabs the listener who is familiar with the original lyric because they're suddenly hearing something unfamiliar and it makes them listen. I've never had a bad reaction to any lyric changes that I've made...thus far anyway.

SJ: Describe a typical session at Studio Rambeau.

Ed: I make myself a hot cup of coffee and then turn on my equipment. Then I put the original version on two tracks with the original singer (because I'm terrible at reading lyrics). Then I put my instrumental track on two other tracks and set up my vocal track. I listen to the first few lines of the original singer and then record those lines. Then the next few and so on. But it isn't always done that way. Many times (as with standards) I know the lyrics so I just sing the entire song completely thru and then hone the lines I feel I can do better. Listening is very important because it inspires you to do other things so I listen over and over and over looking for that inspirational moment. It usually takes me anywhere from two to five hours to record a single song. Then it has to be mixed which usually takes another hour or so. Some songs I get in one take but I usually go back the next day or so and correct things that I don't like and know I can do better.

Many thanks to Ed Rambeau for the interview.

To hear literally hundreds of Ed’s songs, visit:

Also visit:;

And to learn more about Ed’s previous ventures, visit:

[Have you read the article from Red Bird Entertainment? Okay, here’s why ABC put the kibosh on “Summertime Guy” and not “Palisades Park.” ABC had granted Chuck Barris permission to peddle “Palisades Park”—which was titled “Amusement Park” at the time—because ABC didn’t believe in the song. When it became a hit, ABC got egg on its face and was determined not to let that happen again. The rest, as they say…]

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures Await You

Guilty pleasures. Things you shouldn’t like. Things you may never admit to liking. And in truth, you don’t like them. You love them. Oh, you’d never get caught enjoying any of them in public. But in the privacy of your home, when there’s no one else around and all the windows and doors are shut tight, you gladly partake. And as long as no one knows, everything is okay.

The music industry has produced many guilty pleasures. These are songs and recordings that some critics, historians, and other “serious” music connoisseurs like to scoff at. But not me. I am brave enough to admit that I like—nay, love each and every one of these naughty indulgences. And I’m not alone; every one of the following made the Top 40 on at least one major Billboard chart.

“Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne (2007): Lavigne shouts bitchy lyrics in a cheerleader style over a stomping beat, creating the feeling that a bunch of punk wannabes have infiltrated and commandeered a Gwen Stefani session. But consider the actual lyrical content: “Hey you! I don’t like your girlfriend! I think you need a new one! […] I’m the motherfuckin’ princess!” As if this didn’t already sound less like a song and more like a drunk chick trying to pick up a bar patron who’s clearly on a date, Avril lets you know that you ain’t heard nothin’ yet: “She’s like, so whatever!” But then she drops the line that makes it all worthwhile: “You could do so much better.” And that’s what makes this number so special: Lavigne may be ridiculously self-absorbed, but deep down inside she thinks this guy deserves better than the airhead he settled for. Aww, isn’t that sweet? Well, even if it’s not, the tune is so catchy and the beat so danceable that no one really needs to care. [July 10, 2007 update: Another reason for “Girlfriend” to be a guilty pleasure. According to The Associated Press, Lavigne is being sued by members of the ‘70s band The Rubinoos for ripping off their classic song “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” My advice is to acknowledge guilt and settle this one out of court.]

“Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds (1985): A lot of hits from the ‘80s qualify as guilty pleasures, but usually because they’re so loud and cheesy. Few ‘80s classics are as quietly bizarre as this one. For one thing, it’s a clumsily structured composition. The title line seems to constitute the chorus until it shows up elsewhere in the song, sung with the exact same melody. The lyrics appear to flow in a free-form, stream-of-consciousness manner until the eyebrow-raising statement “I’ll be alone dancin’, you know it baby” reappears out of nowhere. The band’s treatment of this peculiar tune is replete with all the usual ‘80s pop/rock gimmicks: guitar strings plucked frantically so as to sound like teeth chattering, synthesizers chiming in with computerized noises worthy of a low-budget sci-fi flick. But the mix is rather unusual, with everything drowned in echo and compression and the drums pushed so far ahead of the other instruments that the beat nearly knocks a hole in your chest. Lead singer Jim Kerr delivers most of the song in such a creepy, nervous whisper that he sounds like a stalker rather than a desperate lover. After what seems to be a bridge passage in which Kerr pleads and begs, “Will you call my name?” you might think that the song will return to the chorus, but no—in the most un-rock ‘n’ roll moment on any record to score high on the rock charts (#1 on Billboard’s Album Rock listing), Kerr leaps into that unforgettable rideout: “I said laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la la la la la la la laaaaaaa…” The whole record is so strange that it just shouldn’t work. But somehow, it does. Apparently it owes much of its hit status to its inclusion in the movie The Breakfast Club; I don’t even remember that film and yet I fell in love with this song anyway. The truth really is stranger than fiction.

“I Need Somebody,” ? & the Mysterians (1966): In 1966, these guys hit #1 with the amazing “96 Tears,” one of the earliest punk rock records. On the follow-up single, they concoct an R&B-infused stomper which allows them to display their inherent quirks to (almost) the fullest extent. Organist Frank Rodriguez plays a standard R&B riff over and over and over again while his fellow Mysterians attack their instruments with far more attention to volume than, you know, playing the right notes or anything. Lead singer ?—that’s his name, dammit!—shouts across the band’s endless riffing in such an unmelodic style that we might as well just call it rapping, free associating the lyrics to the point that many of them don’t make the least bit of sense (“I have a love that can make love”???). When Rodriguez breaks out into “Mary Had A Little Lamb” mid-song, you know that you just can’t take this record seriously. It’s not supposed to be a joke, but it sure is funny! A lot of people think that “96 Tears” was this band’s only hit, but “I Need Somebody” actually made it to #22 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

“I Likes To Do It,” The People’s Choice (1971): The most obscure number in this roundup, “I Likes To Do It” broke into the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (the main pop chart at the time) and the Top 10 of that publication’s R&B listing in the summer of ’71. It was the first hit for the Philly funk band that would later score with the disco-ish “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” and like much funky music before and since, “I Likes To Do It” broke away from the traditional patterns of song structure. But this one was pretty extreme. I have friends who toil for hours, days, even weeks writing songs that have, um, melodies and, uh, you know, lyrics. These guys were too smart for that. Just some simple, primitive keyboard riffing, a shuffling drumbeat, syncopated basslines, and some scatting. Oh, and somebody beating the living daylight out of a tambourine. That’s it. “I likes to do it, y’all, hey hey! [scatting] I likes to DO IT, Y’ALL, hey hey! [more scatting]” On some level, it’s wrong that I am such a big fan of this record. And on that same level, it’s even worse that this record became a hit. But I guarantee you, once you’ve heard it, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Even if you hate it.

“…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears (1998): I don’t know what it is about the Swedish, but they have long had a knack for making attention-grabbing pop music. Producer Max Martin continued that tradition here, building on the in-your-face character of his memorable productions for Robyn (“Do You Know What It Takes,” “Show Me Love”) simply by adding more clutter to the basic formula. Layer upon layer of vocals, instruments and sound effects popping out everywhere, a two-note piano riff applied in such a dramatic fashion as to sound profound—“overproduced splendor,” I used to call it. But then there was the star of our show, Ms. Spears herself. Any suspicions that Britney was poised to become the next great American singer were laid to rest as soon as she opened her mouth and let out a trashy “Oh, baybay baybay” in that piercing teenaged voice of hers. Her performance throughout this debut hit set the stage for her entire music career thus far: delightfully overblown, proudly sleazy, struggling to hit the right notes but not always succeeding, and often substituting panting or moaning for actual singing. With this record, she established herself as an unmistakably manufactured popstar, relying on creative production and infectious material rather than any noticeable talent of her own. Martin, with his keen ear and a finger constantly placed on the pulse of the market, delivered the goods. And as a slightly smitten 17-year-old who fell head over heels with this recording during his senior year of high school, I had no idea that Spears would someday become a total wreck, with all the sad, sordid details of her personal life on display for the world to see. Normally such a development would make an artist’s music harder to enjoy; in Britney’s case, it has merely increased the “guilty pleasure” quotient.

“24 Hours From Tulsa,” Gene Pitney (1963): Imagine your sweetie writing you a letter to say, “Sorry, honey, but I was on my way home when I met this real hottie at a cheap motel and damn, we hooked up big time! And let me tell you exactly how it happened in excruciating detail!” And then your now-ex does just that. Yes, you can get the play-by-play of how the love of your life cheated on you while you waited patiently at home, and you can live with the satisfaction of knowing that your sugar dumpling broke up with you in a letter! Oh, there’s nothing wrong with “Tulsa” if you remove the lyrics. It has an engaging melody (courtesy of Burt Bacharach), and Pitney’s record features a stylish vocal performance and a spicy Latin-flavored arrangement (Bacharach again). But Hal David—who tended to be a thoughtful, sensitive lyricist—came up with some pretty mean-spirited material this time around. If it weren’t so deliciously salacious, it would be garbage. And again, that melody!

“Intuition,” Jewel (2003): The gentle guitar-strumming singer/songwriter belts out an aggressive dance-pop tune in which she drops names like Sheryl Crow, paying tribute to J Lo’s ass in the process. If it weren’t so cleverly written, beguilingly arranged, and well-performed, it would be laughable.

“Getcha Back,” The Beach Boys (1985): You know from the heavily processed drums—with every fourth beat sounding like somebody opening and abruptly closing the door to the world’s biggest echo chamber—that this is an ‘80s pop record. The corny synthesized saxophone sounds merely drive that point home. And it’s simultaneously pleasing and disconcerting to hear The Beach Boys—a band that had one of the most distinctive vocal sounds of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s—doing a near-perfect impersonation of The 4 Seasons. The nasal lead vocals and falsetto refrain bear a striking similarity to Frankie Valli, while the band’s clipped chant of “get-cha back, bay-bay” makes one wonder whether Mr. Valli’s fellow “Jersey Boys” sat in on this session. This case of vocal identity disorder, in the context of a quintessentially ‘80s pop sound, would be enough to qualify “Getcha Back” as a guilty pleasure, but the lyrics take the cake: “Took me back, darling, to that time in my car/When you cried all night ‘cause we’d gone too far.” Amazing how these guys were in their 40s and it was 1985, yet they were singing lyrics that would have been more fitting for a bunch of 20-somethings in 1965. Or were they? When Mike Love asks, “If I leave her and you leave him/Can we ever get it back again?” he genuinely sounds like a middle-aged loser who regrets his youthful indiscretions and wants to reach way back in time to regain his past glories. We know she won’t let him, but again, the melody is infectious, the vocal hooks are addictive, and Steve Levine’s production is so unabashedly flamboyant that it’s hard to walk away from this recording once it has started playing.

“Rama Lama Ding Dong,” The Edsels (1958, 1961): So nice they released it twice, but it didn’t become a hit until the second time around. There were a lot of novelty songs in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, but this one is—here comes that word again—extreme: “I’ve got a girl named Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong! She’s everything to me, Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong!” Even the arrangement is pretty goofy, almost an overwrought parody of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll bands and doo-wop conventions. An archly deep-voiced, mumbling bass singer babbles and stutters the title and offers some barbershop quartet-like bom-bom’s in a split second or two before noticeably taking a breath so that he can continue singing on the bridge. The lead singer wails oooh’s and ooooweee’s in an equally over-the-top falsetto and jumps into an emphatic tone in the most bizarre places: “I’ve got a GIRL named…rama lama LAMA lama ding dong…” All of this while the backup band chugs along in perpetual double-time, the obligatory sax solo sounding much too forceful considering the extremely fluffy lyrics. Simply put, the whole affair is absurd, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Those who made it a hit were probably not thinking in such terms, however. Indeed, the best way to enjoy this oddity is to stop analyzing it and apply an old American Bandstand adage: “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

“Telephone Line,” Electric Light Orchestra (1976): Some of ELO’s work is truly brilliant, but some of it is so campy and/or derivative that I have to enjoy it with a certain sense of self-consciousness. I really shouldn’t like such a shameless pastiche as “Telephone Line.” The opening lines (“Hello. How are you? Have you been alright?”) are a little too reminiscent of The Easybeats’ “Hello, How Are You” (“Hello. How are you? It’s good to see you here.”) and are sung in a remarkably similar melody. The phrase “blue days, black nights” is the title of a Buddy Holly song, which can’t be a coincidence considering ELO leader Jeff Lynne’s love of early rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, how did a string of doo-wop and girl-group nonsense syllables such as “doo-wop, doo be doo-doo-wop, doo-wah-doo-lay-ya-yang” end up in a tender love ballad from the ‘70s? Lynne has always had a tendency to wear his influences on his sleeve, but here he goes a tad overboard. No matter. He sings the song with so much emotion, and the orchestration and harmonies are so superb that when all is said and done, this is a great record. A shameless pastiche, but an exemplary one.

“Ain’t Got No Home,” Clarence “Frogman” Henry (1956): “I love to sing,” he proclaims, adding, “I’ll sing like a girl, and I’ll sing like a frog.” And so he proceeds to sing like a girl. And sing like a frog. Enough said.

[Note: At the time of this writing, all of these tracks can be downloaded from iTunes. In the case of “Ain’t Got No Home,” beware of latter-day re-recordings. The original version is on the album Ain’t Got No Home: The Best of Clarence “Frogman” Henry.]

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.