Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jan and Dean -- "Dead Man's Curve" (1964)

He passed me at Doheny then I started to swerve

But I pulled her out and there we were
At Dead Man's Curve

I always assume when I start writing one of these things that I have a pretty good idea what the final post will look like.  But often I'm surprised by what I discover along the way, and how one detour leads to another.  That's the best part of doing this blog -- not writing about my favorite subject (that's me!), but rather the seredipitous little surprises and coincidences that pop up out of nowhere.

"The shortest distance between two points" is rarely a term that can be applied to this blog, and today's post is no exception.  We have a lot of ground to cover today.

Let's begin by going back to 1964, which was the year that Jan and Dean released "Dead Man's Curve" -- which was about a street race between a Corvette and a Jaguar that didn't end well for the Jaguar driver.  At age 12, I was much more into songs about cars than songs about girls. (Remember "Hey Little Cobra" by the Rip Chords? "Little G.T.O" by Ronnie and the Daytonas?) 

I still have my copy of this record:

"And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve . . ."
Now that I think about it, we'll have go back to 1962, when I won the second round of the KFSB-1310 spelling bee and took home a little red portable record player.
(Don't worry, folks -- this is as far back in time as we're ever going on this blog.  I won't be posting about "Christmas Song" by Alvin and the Chipmunks -- "Me, I want a hula hoop"/"Alvin!!!") or my other childhood favorites.)  

The very first records I remember playing on that record player were "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis (1961) and "Twistin' the Night Away" by Sam Cooke (1962), which I think I knew about from the old KODE-TV "Teen Hop" show on Saturday afternoons.  I had pretty good taste for a 10-year-old, I think.

I bought those 45s at a little record store that was located on the south side of Main Street between 15th and 16th (I think) with the $3 I got for winning the first round of the spelling bee.  (By the way, I didn't win the bicycle that was the grand prize, however.  I got tripped up on an "e-before-i or i-before-e?" word and finished a disappointing third.  Bummer, dude.)

"Dead Man's Curve" is pretty self-explanatory.  It was 50% souped-up car song and 50% teenage vehicular death song, although unlike all the other teenage vehicular death songs I can remember (think "Leader of the Pack" and "Last Kiss" and "D.O.A."), there was no girl in "Dead Man's Curve."

In the early 1990's, when I left my job as a government attorney and went to work for a direct-marketing company, I had occason to go to Los Angeles regularly to oversee infomercial shoots.  On one trip I was driving west on Sunset Boulevard and crossed North Doheny Drive and immediately thought to myself, "That's what they were singing about in 'Dead Man's Curve'!"

I was such a fan of this song that I later bought a Jan and Dean album -- "Surf City (and Other Swinging Cities)," which included the duo's #1 hit, "Surf City," and a bunch of other songs about cities: "Memphis, Tennessee" (made famous by Johnny Rivers), "Detroit City" (a country hit for Bobby Bare -- "By day I make the cars/By night I make the bars"), "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" (originally written in 1922, it was a hot for Freddy Cannon in 1959), "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," etc., etc.  I agree this was one of the lamest "concept album" ideas ever, and most of the cuts were tepid cover versions of forgettable, gimmicky songs, but you can't argue that "Surf City" had a brilliant chorus:

You know we're goin' to Surf City 'cause it's two to one,
You know we're goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun now,
Two girls for every boy!

Jan and Dean are remembered today for their surf and car songs -- sort of a poor man's Beach Boys -- but they had been around years before the surfing craze hit.  Jan (as part of "Jan and Arnie" -- Dean was in the army in 1958) had a top 10 hit, "Jennie Lee," in 1958 -- more about who Jennie Lee was a bit later -- and Jan and Dean had several other singles that cracked the Billboard "Hot 100" prior to 1963, when "Surf City" hit big.  They followed up on the success of  "Surf City" with six consecutive top 25 songs n 1963 and 1964, including "Deadman's Curve" and "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," which made it all the way to #3. 

The B-side of one of those hits was a follow-up to the "Little Old Lady" was titled "The Anahiem, Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association."  I remember hearing it on an evening call-in-and-dedicate-a-song radio show on a Joplin station that I listened to religiously in those days.  When you called in to request a song dedication, you only had to give your initials -- I was brave enough to request Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" for a couple of girls under those conditions, although my intials were probably unique enough to identify me if  either of those girls had ever heard the dedications.  (For some reason, I'm thinking that show wasn't on KQYX-1560, which was a top-40 station during those years, but WMBH-1450, which I remember mostly as Joplin's country-western station.  Does anyone remember if WMBH was following a top-40 format in 1964?)

Riding their 1963-1964 string of hit singles like a real surfer would ride a big pipeline wave, Jan and Dean were invited to be the emcees of a two-night concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1964 that featured perhaps the greatest collection of top-40 musical talent ever assembled in one place at one time:  "The T.A.M.I. Show," which was filmed as released as a movie that I remember seeing at the old Lux theatre in Joplin in early 1965.  ("T.A.M.I." stood for "Teen Age Music International.")  Raise your hands -- or just type in the "comment" window below -- if you saw the movie there.

The movie was finally released on DVD earlier this year, and I just watched it in its original form for the first time in over 45 years.  (I saw it not only in Joplin in 1965, but also a midnight showing of it while I was in college.  We knew something was wrong with that version of the movie, and just assumed that the projectionist was high and had just forgotten a reel, but it appears that there was a legal dispute that resulted in the footage of the Beach Boys being removed from the movie after its initial theatrical run, so that may explain why the movie I saw in college was so f.u.b.a.r.).

All I have to do to explain why this is such a great movie is to list the performers who appeared in "The T.A.M.I. Show" (in order of their appearance):

-- Chuck Berry
-- Gerry and the Pacemakers
-- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
-- Marvin Gaye
-- Lesley Gore
-- Jan and Dean
-- Beach Boys
-- Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas
-- Supremes
-- James Brown and the Famous Flames
-- Rolling Stones

Here's the trailer for the movie:

Most of the acts played three or four songs.  But two of the acts did six songs -- Lesley Gore and the Rolling Stones.  Yes, that's right -- Lesley Gore was a really big star at this time.

Here are the Beach Boys performing "I Get Around":

James Brown, who absolutely stole the show, may actually have been on stage longer than any of the other performers.  Everyone else pretty much just came out and sang.  The Miracles had a very cool set of dance moves -- they actually unbuttoned their matching sports jackets and loosened their ties by the end of their act -- but James Brown far surpassed them. 

I need a nap just from watching his performance.  He must not have had anything left at the end of his shows.  I've never seen a man sweat so much.  It's an amazing contrast to the robotic, lip-synched performances that were the norm on American Bandstand and similar TV shows of that era. 

The one thing I remember from seeing the movie in 1965 is the way Brown would fall to his knees while singing, either from exhaustion or despair (or both), then be helped to his feet and led off the stage by a couple of his backup singers -- one of whom would gently place a cape on his shoulders -- only to fling the cape off and stride back to the microphone stand to deliver one more impassioned chorus.  (The fun starts a couple of minutes into this clip.)

Mick Jagger -- who looks about 14, but is actually 21 -- does his best but couldn't hope to match Brown's showmanship.  (Keith Richards later said that agreeing to follow Brown in this show was the dumbest thing the Stones ever did.)

Click here if you'd like to buy this movie -- believe me, you won't be sorry:
The T.A.M.I. Show Collector's Edition

Jan crashed his Corvette into a parked truck in 1966, suffering serious brain damage and partial paralysis.  Ironically, the crash occurred not far from "Dean Man's Curve."  Jan never recovered completely from his injuries, although he did continue writing and producing music and eventually started performing in "oldies" shows with Dean.  At the time of the accident, Jan was attending medical school -- he was said to have had a near-genius IQ.  Jan died in 2004.

Back to "Jennie Lee," the 1958 hit by Jan and Arnie.  The "Jennie Lee" in the song is your basic innocent and lovable girl next door type, but there was a real Jennie Lee as well.

"The Bazoom Girl"
The real Jennie Lee -- a/k/a/ "The Bazoom Girl" -- was a famous burlesque dancer in the 1950's.  (Arnie of the Jan and Arnie duo had seen her perform in a Los Angeles burlesque house.)  Jennie had actually started a strippers' union -- the "League of Exotic Dancers" -- in 1955 to protest the low wages paid by burlesque joints in Los Angeles.  Jennie also collected photographs and burlesque memorabilia, and her collection was eventually turned into a burlesque museum.  She died in 1990, at age 61, a victim of breast cancer.  

Jennie Lee was born Virginia Lee Hicks in Kansas City.  After graduating from high school, she got a job as a chorus-line dancer at the Folly Theatre.  When another dancer at the theater said she could get Jennie a booking as a strip-tease dancer, Jennie thought it sounded like a good idea. 

The rest of the story can be found on the website of "The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society":

So she bought a gown with red fringe on it from a gal for $10 and headed off to work a stag show in Joplin, Missouri. . . .

For this first booking Jennie was required to appear on stage twice. The first number was to be played straight, but in the second number she was told to take it all off. Needless to say her first performance as a strip-tease dancer was a smashing success. But Jennie Lee was so embarrassed she couldn’t go back out on stage for a curtain call and hid in a closet backstage until the audience left. Of course it’s quite apparent that the initial shyness wore off and Jennie Lee eventually became a star in the world of burlesque.

Anyone out there have a father or grandfather who told them about seeing Jennie Lee strip in Joplin before she made it big in the world of burlesque?  No one?

Jennie had one unusual talent -- she could twirl the tassels that were attached to her pasties clockwise, counterclockwise, or both.  Watch this truly astonishing video if you don't believe me:

And to think that she got her start in my home town, little ol' Joplin.

A final note.  It seems like a lot more time than just three years passed between the time I saw "The T.A.M.I. Show" at the Lux in 1965 and the time I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" at the same theatre in the spring of 1968.  

Bonnie and Clyde's hideout
My friends came bounding out of the theatre like 7-year-olds on a sugar high, all jacked up from the old ultraviolence (you remember "Clockwork Orange," don't you?), especially the apocalyptic final scene.  You might remember that Bonnie and Clyde paid a visit to Joplin, and had to shoot their way out of a police ambush.

Here's "Dead Man's Curve" in all its 45 rpm glory:

Here's a link so you can buy it from iTunes:

Or click below to buy it from Amazon:

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