Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sunday, January 24, 1960: Oldies But Goodies

According to Joel Whitburn’s The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums (Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, 1995), by Sunday, January 24, 1960, the compilation album Oldies But Goodies, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), The Teen Queens (“Eddie My Love”), The Medallions (“The Letter”), The Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”), and others, released on Art Laboe’s Original Sound Record Co. label, had been on the charts for well over twenty weeks. Peaking at #12 on September 28, 1959, Oldies But Goodies would remain on the charts—this again according to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums—for a total of 61 weeks, that is, well over a year.

Most famously known (at least in the Los Angeles area) in the late 50s as a disc jockey for radio station KPOP, Art Laboe (pictured) is credited with having invented the phrase “Oldies But Goodies.” But in addition, by issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era--"The Original Recordings of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits Of All Time" is boasted on the album cover (in Hi-Fi to boot, a sonic upgrade in the form of "reprocessed" stereo), while the title itself is emblazoned in gold. Outside of Atlantic’s Rock & Roll Forever (which had the virtue of including Joe Turner’s versions of “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “Flip, Flop & Fly,” popularized by Elvis), which briefly peaked at #20 on the charts in late 1956, the huge success of Oldies But Goodies (peaking at #12, but remaining on the charts, as I indicated earlier, for well over a year) has to be the reason why rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums became such a defining feature in the later consumption of rock 'n' roll--including, of course, numerous additional volumes of Oldies But Goodies.

I’m using the word “album” here in contrast to the word “record,” following my friend Mike Jarrett on this matter, who observes that while a record is a material object, an album is a concept. (As Jarrett points out, the word “album” is from the Latin, albus, “white,” meaning “blank tablet.”) Thus all compilation albums are conceptual, however banal that concept might be. For instance:

Various Artists, Oldies But Goodies (Original Sound) (pre-Elvis R&B, with special attention to L.A.-based R&B bands)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino) (historical reconstruction of doo wop as a baroque reinvention—this according to Mike Jarrett--of rhythm & blues)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box II (Rhino) (same as above, with the designation "II," meaning that if you own both box sets, you have most of the songs defining the genre, enough to be considered "exhaustive")
Various Artists, The Time-Life History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Teenage Years 1957-1964 (Time Life Music) (diachronic slice of popular hits as determined by chart ranking, duplicating Top 40 radio format)

But Art Laboe did more than historicize rock with his compilation album. By giving rock a past, he thereby also gave it a future, and so significantly contributed to the institution of rock music developing a self-reflexive discourse (aware of itself)—all of which happened rather quickly, in fact. After the Oldies But Goodies album, in 1960, Art Laboe issued yet another compilation album on his Original Sound label, Memories of El Monte, the title alluding to Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. The title of Laboe’s compilation album, in turn, became the inspiration for one of Frank Zappa’s very first compositions, “Memories of El Monte” (co-written with Ray Collins), a pastiche of doo wop incorporating allusions to several of its biggest hits (according to biographers, Zappa had fond memories of seeing shows in the 1950s at the El Monte Legion Stadium). Eventually recorded with lead vocal by Cleve Duncan of The Penguins, the single was released on Laboe’s Original Sound label in 1963. Here’s an instance of the song’s self-reflexivity:

And I, Cleve Duncan, along with the Penguins will sing:/
"Earth Angel, Earth Angel/
Will you be mine?"/
At El Monte

But the story doesn’t end there. Just a few years later, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded an entire (concept) album of doo wop pastiche, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). Subsequently, according to a statement to be found about the impact of the album at, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets led to the formation of Sha Na Na, an “oldies” act that early on in its history (1969) appeared at Woodstock (“At the Hop”). But there’s a crucial difference between a band such as Sha Na Na and a band such as The Mothers of Invention. Sha Na Na misread Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, thinking it was homage, a self-conscious tribute hearkening back to a more “innocent” age. Hence, Sha Na Na sang and played “oldies” music as an act of homage--meaning band members sang and played as fans. In contrast, the music of Zappa and the Mothers consisted of parody and pastiche--mock imitation--that is, their music was created by artists, by those who are self-consciously aware of traditions, styles, as well as historic periods and movements.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool! See this... Various Artists video