"When Buddah Records was formed two years ago, most songs were about crime and war and depression. At the time we felt there was a place for a new kind of music that would make people feel happy. So we got together with two talented young producers named Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz who had an idea for music that would make you smile. It was called 'bubblegum music.'"
The above quote, taken from the liner notes to a circa-l969 sampler LP called Buddah's 360 Degree Dial-A-Hit, gives us both a succinct statement of intent for the critically reviled '60s pop music phenomenon called bubblegum and an equally-succinct recap of the genre's origin.
Although bubblegum has gained a certain cachet of cool in some circles over the past few decades (while remaining a pop pariah in other circles), during its original heyday it was viewed strictly as fodder for juvenile tastes, pure pabulum for pre-teen people. Furthermore, the music was blatantly commercial at a time when such materialistic goals were deemed unacceptable by an emerging counterculture. Bubblegum music held no delusions of grandeur, nor any intent to expand your mind or alter your perceptions. Bubblegum producers only wanted you to fork over the dough and go home to play your new acquisition over and over to your heart's content (and, no doubt, to your older brother's consternation).
Bubblegum is absolved of any perceived counter-revolutionary sentiments because it was so damn catchy. Once “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin',” or “Goody Goody Gumdrops” embedded its sweet pink hooks into your mind, it was likely to remain stuck there like its sugary namesake would stick to the underside of a classroom desk.
Decades after the opening salvos of the bubblegum revolution, the best bubblegum records still stand up as sterling examples of hitmaking craft, characterized by sing-a-long choruses, seemingly childlike themes, and a contrived but beguiling innocence, occasionally combined with an undercurrent of sexual double entendre. And oh yeah—did we mention the hooks? There were hooks a-plenty.
As with many genres, from punk to funk to power pop, it's difficult to precisely define the parameters of bubblegum, to say with authority that this record is bubblegum and that record is something else again.
According to writer Bill Pitzonka, a bubblegum historian and author of the liner notes for Varèse Vintage's brilliant Bubblegum Classics series, "The whole thing that really makes a record bubblegum is just an inherently contrived innocence that somehow transcends that. It transcends the contrivance. Because there were a lot of records that were really contrived and sound it. And those to me are not true bubblegum. It has to sound like they mean it."
Writing in Mojo magazine, writer Dawn Eden put a finer point on her description of bubblegum music. "From the get-go, bubblegum was a purely commercial genre. Producers like Buddah Records' Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz had no higher aspiration than to make a quick buck and get out. Yet, with the help of talents like Joey Levine, they propagated a musical form that continues to influence acts the world over." Drawing a distinction between bubblegum and power pop, Eden went on to note, "Power pop aims for your heart and your feet. Bubblegum aims for any part of your body it can get, as long as you buy the damn record."
While we're going here with a working notion of bubblegum as defined by the uptempo confections perfected by Kasenetz & Katz's Super K Productions, our intent isn't really to disabuse you of your belief that, say, The Partridge Family was the sine qua non of bubblegumdom. Consider this as simply as a very informal history lesson. Chew away!
Pre-History: The Big Bubble Theory
Although the birth of bubblegum as a genre is generally dated from the success of The 1910 Fruitgum Company's “Simon Says” and The Ohio Express' “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, there are important antecedents to consider in tracing bubblegum's history. In fact, there are too many antecedents to adequately cover here. You could conceivably think of virtually every cute novelty hit, from pre-rock ditties like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” to transcendent rock-era staples like “Iko Iko,” as a legitimate precursor to bubblegum's avowedly ephemeral themes.
Moving away from mere novelties, the field of garage punk served as a swaggering, cantankerous and (perhaps) incongruous breeding ground for some of bubblegum's sonic attack. No one in his right mind would call The 13th Floor Elevators or The Chocolate Watchband bubblegum groups, but there were undeniable links between the two genres. The most obvious such link would be the overriding simplicity prized equally by garage and bubblegum groups, both of whom recognized the excitement to be generated by three chords and an attitude.
Moreover, garage and bubblegum groups were generally singles acts. There were exceptions, but few garage or bubblegum acts were capable of creating full albums that sustained the compact punch of their essential 45s. And the singles, concerned as they were with quickly hitting the hook and hitting the road, were not as far apart stylistically as one might think. Chicago's prototypical punks The Shadows Of Knight, famed for their hit take on Them's “Gloria,” would eventually make a record for Super K. And bubblemeisters The Ohio Express scored their first two chart singles with punk-rooted tunes: The Rare Breed's awesome “Beg, Borrow and Steal” and The Standells' banned-in-a-neighborhood-near-you “Try It.”
(The former is actually the very same Rare Breed record, reissued under the Ohio Express name; the latter was co-written by a guy named Joey Levine, who would play a large role in The Ohio Express' rising fortunes. Levine would also co-write and produce The Shadows Of Knight's Super K hit, "Shake.")
Falling somewhere between garage and bubblegum was an Ocala, Florida group called The Royal Guardsmen. They managed a #2 hit in 1966 with “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” a novelty tune based on the funny-looking dog with the big black nose in the Peanuts comic strip. The single combined a campy kid's appeal with a punky bridge nicked without apology from “Louie, Louie.” Although “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” and its lower-charting sequels were certainly precursors to the recognized bubblegum sound, Bill Pitzonka insists The Royal Guardsmen were not a bona fide bubblegum group.
"The Royal Guardsmen kind of came out of that whole '20s-revivalist kind of thing," Pitzonka says. "That was their camp. But, you know, just because they were on Laurie and they did the “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” song, which some people consider bubblegum... that's a fringe to me. That's pointing in the right direction, but it's not quite there yet.
"But The Royal Guardsmen definitely contributed," Pitzonka continues. "It was aimed at kids, and unfortunately they couldn't rise above their 'Snoopy' image."
By the same token, a Stamford, Connecticut group called The Fifth Estate scored a #11 hit in 1967 with “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead.” The Fifth Estate had originally been called The D-Men, and as The Fifth Estate had released a killer pop single called "Love Is All A Game" that sold zilch. For "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead," the group took a song from the movie The Wizard of Oz and redid it as a pop song, replete with a Renaissance music underpinning. Though considered a novelty tune, its musical accomplishment transcended novelty value. Unfortunately, it was the group's only hit.
And, of course, there was no shortage of acts in the mid-'60s actively cultivating some aspect of the adolescent market. Herman's Hermits had a string of cuddly hits, with “I'm Henry VIII, I Am” veering the closest to bubblegum, but they were never quite a bubblegum group. The Lovin' Spoonful had a goofy, goodtime vibe all about them, but they were far too... well, authentic-sounding to be called bubblegum. And Paul Revere & the Raiders had funny costumes and lots of TV exposure, but they simply rocked too hard for bubblegum—if they were bubblegum, then so were The Rolling Stones.
Which brings us to the strange case of The Monkees. On paper, The Monkees seemed the perfect prototype for a bubblegum band. First and foremost, they were a prefabricated, fictional rock 'n' roll group, a manufactured commodity concocted to sell records and TV advertising time. But it's a point of some debate whether The Monkees could really be called a bubblegum band.
Let's review the evidence. The Monkees--Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork--were four guys selected from auditions to play a rock 'n' roll group in a weekly TV series. As part of the package, pop music veteran Don Kirshner was brought in to oversee music production. Kirshner's machinery clicked into place, and Monkees music was created by an array of top pop songwriters (Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, et al.) and played by top session musicians, with The Monkees themselves relegated to strict vocals-only duties on their records. The group staged a coup, and lobbied successfully for the right to function as a working, recording band on their third album, 1967's Headquarters.
Bill Pitzonka considers The Monkees bubblegum, at least up to a point.
"Up until Headquarters," he says, "I completely agree that they were bubblegum because they were prefab. As long as you're under the control of somebody else and somebody else is picking your material and you're just there to sing along, that to me is the whole foundation of bubblegum. That whole Jeff Barry angle [veteran pop songwriter/producer Jeff Barry produced The Monkees' smash "I'm A Believer"]--Jeff Barry was a quintessential bubblegum producer. So basically anything he touched had that kind of bubblegum feel to it."
Still, some of us remain unconvinced that the original Monkees were ever really a bubblegum act, their prefabricated status notwithstanding. Put simply, most of The Monkees' recordings don't sound like bubblegum records. "Last Train To Clarksville"? "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"? Nesmith compositions like "Sweet Young Thing"? Nope. None of these fits the bubblegum mold later cast by Kasenetz and Katz. Each sounds like a stirring example of AM-friendly pop-rock, with The Monkees' (inaudible) artificial origin the sole, negligible difference between these records and contemporary records by the Raiders (who cut "Steppin' Stone" shortly before The Monkees), Turtles, Dave Clark Five, Hollies, etc. Even "I'm A Believer," regardless of its gooey pop savvy and Jeff Barry's involvement, is more an unabashed, hook-filled pop ditty than genuine, chewy chewy bubblegum.
"I would agree once they started doing their own stuff it ventured away from bubblegum," Pitzonka concedes. "That's one of those gray areas. It's also difficult because there's this whole Monkees mythology that goes beyond the manufacturing. And they were also the one band that really turned the tide on the British Invasion and made the charts safe for American acts again."
Regardless of which side of this debate one favors, it's worth noting a specific song that helped mark the transition from puppet Monkees to hey-hey-we're-a-band Monkees. In 1967, Kirshner presented The Monkees (and Chip Douglas, whom The Monkees had chosen as their new producer) with a new Jeff Barry/Andy Kim tune he wanted them to record. Instead, The Monkees rebelled, rejected the song, and started a chain of events that would ultimately lead to Kirshner's expulsion from the project and he recording of Headquarters.
The song in question? A little something called "Sugar, Sugar," a song which we'll be discussing at greater length in just a bit. As Chip Douglas later told writer Eric Lefkowitz for the book The Monkees Tale, "I'm glad I was in there at the time. I probably saved The Monkees from having to do some real bubblegum." [2016 NOTE: although this story has been repeated often, by a wide range of folks from Don Kirshner to Micky Dolenz to..um, me, it is now generally believed to be hooey. "Sugar, Sugar" was written specifically for The Archies in 1969, so the song didn't even exist when these other events occurred. The rest of the account is true.]
Meanwhile, another act was busy writing its own chapter in the bubblegum story. Tommy James and the Shondells first made the charts with a # 1 hit, "Hanky Panky," in 1966. The success of "Hanky Panky" was a fluke--it had been recorded in 1963, been a short-lived regional hit in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, and the Shondells had long since disbanded by the time that forgotten record very unexpectedly connected with a national audience.
No dummy, James (nee Thomas Gregory Jackson) formed a new Shondells group and set about the task of coming up with a follow-up record. Toward that end, James partnered with producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell, and proceeded to craft a series of singles that perfectly presaged the bubblegum sound. The first big hit of these was "I Think We're Alone Now," a pulsating pop tune that coated its tale of adolescent sexual curiosity with a candy-shell of wide-eyed innocence. Its throbbing bass line, which James is said to have improvised on guitar as a sub for an MIA bass player, provided a model for the chunky rhythm of what would soon be known as bubblegum.
Tommy James didn't remain with a bubblegum style for long, but the singles "I Think We're Alone Now" (# 4), "Mirage" (# 10), and "Mony Mony" (# 3) were solidly in that vein, all produced by Gentry and Cordell. James broke with Gentry and Cordell for his next hit, the chart-topping "Crimson And Clover."
"I don't consider 'Crimson And Clover' bubblegum," Pitzonka says. "I don't consider 'Hanky Panky' bubblegum and I don't consider 'Crimson And Clover' bubblegum--everything in the middle, yes. I consider their output to be bubblegum in that whole time. I mean, you look at those records and they're just picture-perfect production masterpieces. They were all about the song. Tommy James evolved with the psychedelic angle and all that stuff [and] went away from all that. But he knew it was bubblegum; he knew it was bubblegum when he was doing it."
And now the era of full-fledged bubblegum was nearly upon us. By 1967, a new label called Buddah was looking to score some hits. A brilliant promotion hustler named Neil Bogart was coaxed from Cameo Parkway to helm Buddah, and Bogart had some definite ideas about the kind of hits the label was going to make.
The ushering in of this new era was initially accomplished with “Green Tambourine” by The Lemon Pipers, which entered the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of '67 and hit #1 in February 1968. Bubblegum was now this close to exploding. “Green Tambourine” was a perfect, giddy bubblegum single, and two follow-up hits, “Rice Is Nice” and “Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade),” were cut from the same chewy cloth, but The Lemon Pipers themselves had little interest in becoming bubblegum's favorite sons.
"The Lemon Pipers I never considered really bubblegum," Pitzonka says. "They were acid. [Their singles] are bubblegum; they do have real strong roots there. I just never thought that it carried over as intensely as it did with the groups that didn't exist. Because [The Lemon Pipers] hated that stuff."
To be sure, The Lemon Pipers only recorded “Green Tambourine” because they knew they'd be dropped by Buddah if they didn't record this tune, which Neil Bogart saw as a surefire hit. Thus, The Lemon Pipers scored the first bubblegum #1, but it was clear that their hearts were not in it.
So, with “Green Tambourine,” Buddah had the right song at the right time to snap the bubble heard 'round the world. Now, bubblegum just needed the right people. Two producers from Long Island, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, would be the guys.
Yummy Yummy Chewy Chewy Goody Goody
The era of bubblegum music took off in earnest with the 1968 release of two Buddah singles, "Simon Says" by The 1910 Fruitgum Company and "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by The Ohio Express. The task of building the wall o' gum fell to producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, whose Super K Productions had already come up with a # 2 hit with The Music Explosion's "Little Bit O' Soul" for Laurie Records in 1967. Super K had also enjoyed some success with two Ohio Express singles on Cameo Records, which is where they met one Neil Bogart.
The origin of Super K Productions can be traced back to when Kasenetz and Katz met at the University of Arizona, where Katz was attending on a football scholarship and Kasenetz was one of the managers of the football team.
"And that's how we met," Kasenetz and Katz tell Goldmine. "And we had certain businesses we went in there, we were selling discount cards and doing advertising and that together, and that's really how we met and got together."
When Katz subsequently left the University of Arizona and returned to New York, he received a phone call from his college partner.
"Jerry had called me from the West Coast and says, 'Come on out to the West Coast, we're gonna go into the music business.' And I said, 'Music business? What do I know about the music business?' He says, 'Don't worry, we did well at school, we're gonna do well.' I says, "Listen, I'd love to do something with you, but I can't come out to the West Coast. Good luck to you.'
"I think it was two weeks later I get another call. I say, 'Jerry, how's everything going?' He says, 'What do you mean? I had to come to you, you wouldn't come to me.' And we went into business."
Kasenetz and Katz began their music careers as managers, with several acts gigging in Greenwich Village.
"And then we had this black group, King Ernest and the Palace Guards, and they were sensational. We got 'em signed to Mercury, and I don't remember who did the record, a single, and we heard the record--it was terrible. And we said, 'We could do better than that.' And that's actually how we got into producing.
"The first thing we did was a thing called "S.O.S. (Heart In Distress)" by Christine Cooper, and that was for Cameo Parkway. Neil Bogart, who later left Cameo and went and started up the Buddah situation, was at Cameo and that's where we first met him. And we did a record, as I said, by Christine Cooper called "S.O.S. (Heart In Distress)," and it was a Top 100 record in Billboard--Cashbox, Billboard, the whole thing. [NOTE: Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles book has no Hot 100 listing for Christine Cooper or "S.O.S. (Heart In Distress)."] And that was our first sort of entry into the music business, and that's how we met Neil.
"And then when Neil moved we went over to him with some other things. In fact, my partner was working for Neil in Cameo Parkway as a promotion man, and he was working, I guess it was 5 Stairsteps were on Cameo at the time I think, and he was on the road with them, and that's how he learned about promotion, et cetera et cetera. We then went and sold the Music Explosion record, 'Little Bit O' Soul,' to Laurie Records. And then when we went over, we had actually success with 'Little Bit O' Soul.' Neil called Jerry into the office and said, 'I think it's time for you to leave and do your own thing.' And Jerry said, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'You've got a hit with "Little Bit O' Soul."' And from there it just sort of blossomed, and we had hit after hit.."
When Neil Bogart left Cameo to run the fledgling Buddah label, Kasenetz and Katz followed. Their first project for Buddah was The 1910 Fruitgum Company, an act discovered by Jeff Katz's father.
"[He] was working out in New Jersey," Kasenetz and Katz recall, "and he was eating lunch in the diner. And he had met one or two of the members [who] were in the diner eating also. And I don't know how it came about, he heard them talking about music and this and that, and said, 'Gee, my son is in the music business and had a hit or two, and if you have a card or something I'll have him call you and see if something happens."
The band in question had gone under the names The Lower Road, The Odyssey, and Jeckyll and the Hydes, the latter named for guitarist Frank Jeckell.
"We went out to see them," Kasenetz and Katz continue. "They were doing a show at somebody's house out in New Jersey, and we liked them. We loved the lead singer [Mark Gutkowski], we thought he had a unique type of voice, and we signed them. And we said, 'Okay, we would like to call you The 1910 Fruitgum Company.' They didn't care, and that's how 'Simon Says' came about. We gave them the song, told them we wanted to work it up this way, worked it up, and it was a big hit."
"Simon Says," a # 4 hit in early '68, established bubblegum's working prototype, with its happy, upbeat music and kid's-game theme. These themes continued on the group's next single, "May I Take A Giant Step (Into Your Heart)," though this one charted no higher than # 63. This was also the last single to feature members of The 1910 Fruitgum Company playing; commencing with "1-2-3 Red Light," singer Mark Gutkowski was the only band member on the records.
In fact, Gutkowski was MIA on the next Fruitgum Company single, "Goody Goody Gumdrops," a Billy Carl/Reid Whitelaw ditty with lead vocals by Carl.
"I talked to one of the writers, Reid Whitlaw," Bill Pitzonka reports, "and he said they didn't even know they were doing the final version of 'Goody Goody Gumdrops' until Kasenetz and Katz came into the studio, heard the demo, and said, 'That's gonna be the next single.' And [Reid] said, 'Well, we're gonna get Mark in here and have him do the vocal.' [And Kasenetz and Katz said] 'No, that's the single!'" Gutkowski resumed the lead vocal chores for "Indian Giver," The 1910 Fruitgum Company's last big hit (# 5).
Concurrent to the development of The 1910 Fruitgum Company, Kasenetz and Katz were also working up big things for The Ohio Express. And Kasenetz and Katz's plans for The Ohio Express involved working more closely with the guy who'd co-written "Try It," that Standells tune the Express had recorded. Enter Joey Levine.
"We had gotten a song," says Kasenetz and Katz. "Originally The Ohio Express were on Cameo/Parkway also. We had done a record, and the record we had done as I recall was something that was written by Joey Levine. And we had gone to the publisher and gotten the tune. And we liked it, we did it, it wasn't really a big hit or anything, but we liked the style. And then we went and inquired and found him, and didn't even know that he could really sing. And when he was playing us some of the demos we said, 'Wow, what a great voice!' We always looked for a unique voice. Even today, you hear certain voices, and you know immediately who it is, whether it's a solo artist or whether it's a voice from a group. And we were looking for that also for our acts, because we felt, you know, when you get to know a voice you don't even have to know the name. It just all of a sudden clicks. We loved his voice, and we loved some of his songs--his style, I should say--and we signed him up."
Joey Levine, one of the pivotal figures in bubblegum, was a New York-based writer and singer who had released a non-charting single, "Down And Out," as Joey Vine in 1965.
"Yeah, that's probably the first release I had," Levine says. "My father was a composer and a bandleader. And [I] just always heard music around the house, so it just kind of seeped through. I did the Joey Vine records, I did a bunch of dummy groups, so I was the singer for groups but my name didn't appear. There's only one record I ever put out by myself, a record called 'Becky And Joe,' and I don't think it got played on a single station."
Levine's first brushes with success came in 1967, as a songwriter for The Standells, and as a writer/performer for The Third Rail. The Third Rail consisted of Levine and the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Artie and Kris Resnick, and they scored a modest (# 53) hit with "Run, Run, Run," a bouncy bit of proto-bubblegum social commentary.
"Artie Resnick was a partner of mine," Levine says, "and we were writing this very satirical kind of tongue-in-cheek, you know, clever kind of commentaries on the state of politics and different things. It wasn't only politics. And he had known a producer at the time who was doing pretty well over at Columbia called Teddy Cooper. And Ted and Artie were friends. We submitted one or two things and he said, you know, 'Let's do an album.' Well, first we did a single, I think, 'Run, Run, Run' was a single. Actually that may not be true, it may have just gone for the whole album. 'Run, Run, Run' had kind of hit the charts in the middle there somewhere."
And, as mentioned before, The Standells recorded "Try It," a tune Levine had co-written with pal Mark Bellack. The single actually did not chart for The Standells, but it certainly wasn't lacking notoriety.
"'Try It' was banned on a lot of stations," Levine recalls. "And there was a DJ in California, he had liked the record so much and they wouldn't let him play it. He bleeped out certain words that they found objectionable, or thoughts. And that's really why the record became such a big hit. I remember that record being around for a long time, and being like a cult kind of record in certain areas. Like in California, I think it was a # 1 record, and in Florida and certain areas, Texas, it would go to # 1 and they all bleeped [it] the way he did. And that's kind of what made it a hit record. If you listen to the record now, you go, 'What could possibly have been objectionable?' It was a sexy song, that's all."
Although "Try It" was only a regional hit, it created quite a stir. The Standells even found themselves debating the issue of the record's supposed obscenity in a TV forum hosted by Art Linkletter. And it was "Try It" that first brought Levine to the attention of Kasenetz and Katz.
"I wrote for a bunch of different publishers," Levine says. "And I used to go around the city, it was the day of songwriters kind of peddling their songs around New York City. And I used to work with around three or four different publishers. So [the publisher] got the song to The Standells. And then a couple of years later, The Ohio Express recorded the song as a follow-up to, I think, 'Beg, Borrow And Steal' or something. They had a hit, and then they followed it up, and that's how our union with Kasenetz and Katz came about."
At Buddah, Kasenetz and Katz were in search of a single for The Ohio Express, and Levine had a song called 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,' which he'd co-written with Artie Resnick.
"We had written 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,'" Levine says, "and we wrote it for Jay and the Techniques. So we went up to them, and this guy [Jerry] Ross, he was producing them, and he thought it was a little too young-sounding. And then I had made this contact with Kasenetz and Katz, so I said, 'Let's play it for them and see what they think for one of their artists.' And they liked it for The Ohio Express."
Originally, Levine thought he was just selling a song to Kasenetz and Katz; he never expected to wind up as the song's singer as well.
"Artie and I went in and cut the demo with Jimmy Calvert's band, which was the house band for Kasenetz and Katz, did a lot of their records. And we cut it as a demo, and I put on a dummy lead for the Express to learn it, and then I heard it on the radio around three days later. It was out on Buddah as the Ohio Express record because Neil Bogart liked my vocal so much he said, 'Don't dare touch that guy's voice, leave it alone.' Vocally, the record was never finished. I mean, that's the demo voice, the lead and the backgrounds. Because backgrounds are always a little flat, [but] gee, at least you should have let me...you know, it was just thrown out like this as, you know, what they call a dummy lead."
Levine's discomfort with the dummy lead notwithstanding, "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" was The Ohio Express' first and only Top 10 hit, peaking at # 4. And the success of Levine as The Ohio Express' songwriter/frontman virtually guaranteed there'd be more such collaborations.
"I sang a lot of stuff for 'em," says Levine. "You know, after the formula was just happening, we kind of kept it that way."
Levine's next Ohio Express record was the goodtime bass-is-thumpin', everybody's jumpin' rouser "Down At Lulu's," a # 33 hit that deserved to follow "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" into the Top 10. Co-written with Kris Resnick, Levine is unsure if "Down At Lulu's" was composed for The Ohio Express, or if it dated back to The Third Rail.
"'Down At Lulu's' may have been [written for] the Third Rail album," he says, although the song did not appear on the group's lone LP. "I don't know. That may have been a song we picked from the past, because all of a sudden, when The Ohio Express hit with 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,' we had to come up with something fast. And, you know, we hadn't thought, you know, as a lot of times when you come up [with something] as a writer, you don't know what made it a hit, you don't know why it was a hit. And I don't know if we sat down and wrote that for that album or if it was, like, 'Gee, that's a song we always liked on the Third Rail album.' I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong."
Levine and The Ohio Express followed "Down At Lulu's" with the willfully bubbly "Chewy Chewy" (# 15), the terrific "Sweeter Than Sugar" (a disappointing # 96--shoulda been # 1!), and "Mercy (# 30), Levine's final Ohio Express record in 1969.
As The 1910 Fruitgum Company and The Ohio Express started enjoying hits, Bogart knew he needed a name under which to market this new, sweet 'n' bouncy stuff. Kasenetz and Katz quickly obliged.
"Well, we were the ones," Kasenetz and Katz recall, "when we were talking about different things, we would gear 'em toward a certain audience, and we figured it was the teenagers, the young kids. And at the time we used to be chewing bubblegum and that, and my partner and I used to look at it and laugh and say, 'Ah, this is like bubblegum music.'"
Bogart loved the term and seized upon it immediately.
"That's when bubblegum actually crystallized into an actual camp," Bill Pitzonka says. "There was a lot of stuff leading up to it, coming out of garage and novelty records, basically. And I think Kasenetz and Katz really crystallized it when they came up with the term themselves, and they came up with that nice little analogy. And Neil Bogart, of course, being the marketing person he was, just crammed it down the throats of people. And I think that's really the point at which bubblegum took off."
"We were looking to sort of do something that nobody else was doing on a steady basis," say Kasenetz and Katz. "Bubblegum music, in the real sense of kiddie records, was around for quite a while, like various artists doing various songs. But there were very few that were doing it with some sort of continuity where it was the same type of style. We were gearing with all our writers for a specific kids' appeal. We want hits, obviously; but we want these types of things, and we want our artists to be known for them. And that's what we were knocking out."
"It was just basically young music," adds Levine.
"I think the inherent quality of a bubblegum band is a non-existence factor," Pitzonka explains with a laugh. "A contrivance. The Lovin' Spoonful was a band, they united. The Music Explosion was put together, The Ohio Express was put together, you know, there's that prefabrication quality which I think definitely even extends to bands today like The Spice Girls and Take That, which are built around the idea of selling records. And that's the whole idea behind bubblegum. It wasn't to create art—Kasenetz and Katz don't even remember half the records they worked on. They were just trying to get stuff out.
"Kasenetz and Katz kind of did the mud-against-the-wall thing," Pitzonka continues. "They just hired people and had them do stuff. They were more like contractors than producers. There's very much a sub-contractor quality about bubblegum."
With their stable of writers and growing roster of fictional recording groups ("We made up all the names for the various groups," say Kasenetz and Katz, "and we own all the names, even to this day"), Super K soon developed its own hit factory, like a chewy junior Motown.
"Well, Motown was kinda that way," Levine says. "Guys would write their songs, they'd go in and cut their tracks, and they'd figure out which artists were gonna do 'em. It was a factory of music. It was like, you're hot and there were around three or four or five groups of writers and they would all get their studio time and it was booked in a certain way. You'd do your writing in one or two days, you'd do your tracking on this day, you'd do your overdubbing another day, you'd do your vocals another day. You had your studio time and your writing time. In other words, those were your days, that was your deadline: Wednesday we go in and do tracks. And I'm sure a lot of companies work like that today, companies that become big production companies. They run 'em a little like, I don't know if [they're] factories, but you know."
"In our offices," say Kasenetz and Katz, "we used to have a back room with a piano and sofas and chairs and what-not, and [Jerry] used to spend hours and hours in there with different writers. Sometimes we'd try to get all the writers together to come up with things, sometimes Jerry did it individually. And he would sit there and say, 'This what we want, and this is what we're looking for.'
"And then they would start writing the tunes, and he would say, 'No, that's not good, Let's change that and make this this or that.' I always said to him, ' You should have gotten part of the writing, because you were the one that was working with all these people, getting out what you liked and what you didn't like.
"And we just used to write every week. We had it so all the writers were very competitive. We said, 'This is what we want, whoever comes up with the tune gets the next Ohio Express record, or the next Fruitgum record, depending on what we were doing. And we were just knocking them out. The funny thing is, if you look at all the hits, when The 1910 Fruitgum Company had a million seller, The Ohio Express had a half a million seller. And then The Ohio Express would have a million seller and the Fruitgum Company would have a half-million seller. It was really weird, but we knew we needed a smash for the group after they didn't get that million seller, so it switched every other record. It switched back and forth.
"I mean, we were looking to have hits and we were looking for upbeat, fun danceable [hits]. They weren't really dance records in the sense that you have dance now, but you could certainly dance to 'em, they were all happy-go-lucky type of things. Some of the lyrics, it was like a double-entendre type of thing. And if you really got into it—I mean, people overlooked some of the lyrics, thinking that, 'Oh, it's just happy-go-lucky'—and some of them were nitty-gritty.
"We used to laugh about that. “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” was actually a knock-off of “Feels So Fine.” Everything was sort of knock-offs of other things, just turned around with different lyrics. I mean, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,” everybody said, 'Oh, what a great bubblegum record, innocent.' But if you listen to the lyrics, it wasn't so innocent."
"I don' t know," Levine says. "It was a young music, it wasn't deep and heavy, though a lot of things probably people would say there was a lot of stuff hidden within it."
So, were the double entendres intentional?
"Of course, yeah," he replies.
And the Super K machine rolled on, concocting groups and pumping out chewy chunks o' pop bliss. Joey Levine co-wrote (with Artie Resnick) and sang "Quick Joey Small (Run Joey Run)," a # 25 hit in 1968 for The Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus.
"That was a big idea they had to put all their groups together," Levine says, "It was, I thought, kind of a lame idea, but it was just a merchandising thing. I don't think it ever really took off, though they had the one record, 'Quick Joey Small,' that did fairly okay."
Kasenetz and Katz recall that there were specific elements they wanted in the groups they created. "We were always looking more for, more than an actual group, if we found a singer that we felt had a unique voice, we would build a group around the individual. We were stern believers that we needed that vocal, that something that stands out.
"A lot of the records that were done, obviously with The Ohio Express, the actual group that appeared--or the several groups, because sometimes the groups changed--for the most part, other than the album fillers, never really recorded any of the hits. We had our own crew of musicians that used to do that. The 1910 Fruitgum Company, I believe, only on very few actually recorded their own as a group. Mark, for the most part until the very end, was the lead singer on all of them, but we had the same group of musicians. You know, we'd go into the studio and we would knock out the thing and then have the lead singer go put his voice [on]. Sometimes some of the groups would do backgrounds, but for the most part we also had our own background singers.
"And that's the way we were doing it. We were interested in just, you know, getting this down right and sounding right, and we had musicians that knew exactly what we were looking for, and that was it."
Although Levine had obviously become Kasenetz and Katz's star player by now, it should be made clear that he was not synonymous with Super K. One particularly glaring, erroneous Levine credit that's been repeated so often that it's now taken by many as fact regards Levine's involvement with The 1910 Fruitgum Company. Levine has been credited time and time again as the singer and songwriter for The 1910 Fruitgum Company, and his actual contribution to the group was, well, practically non-existent.
"There's been a lot written," say Kasenetz and Katz. "People credit Joey Levine for The 1910 Fruitgum Company and for this and for that, and he had nothing whatsoever to do with The 1910 Fruitgum Company. And he didn't even do all of the Ohio Express records, he did just a couple. We had a hit with The Ohio Express before we even were dealing with him."
For his part, Levine is claiming no credit for The 1910 Fruitgum Company.
"No, I kind of sang on some backgrounds on records, because Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell were cutting stuff," Levine says. "So I sometimes did some vocalizing and stuff. And in that office there was a lot of collaboration of ideas on a lot of different songs that people wouldn't go down as writers. It was like, 'Gee, you know, I hear it going here' or this or that, it'd be, 'Oh yeah, that's great, that's a better place.' You'd kind of help out, Bo and Bobby Bloom and Ritchie Cordell and myself, we'd kind of like work on some things together, which none of us appear [officially] on each other's work."
Meanwhile, Levine may (or may not) have been involved in "Bubble Gum Music" by The Rock and Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Company of Philadelphia 19141, a Buddah single written by Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, and produced by Goldstein outside of the Super K aegis; it peaked at # 74. Levine was unquestionably involved in the eponymous single by Captain Groovy and his Bubblegum Army, with lead vocals by Bobby Bloom and Levine; that single was intended to tie in with a Kasenetz-Katz TV cartoon series that was never produced, and the single missed the Hot 100. But, best of all, Levine was involved with Crazy Elephant's "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'."
"Crazy Elephant was a guy named Bob Spencer," Levine says. "Spencer had been a member of The Cadillacs, best remembered for their 1955 hit "Speedo."
"And he was a singer that Bo [Gentry] had been using for a couple of things," Levine continues, "and I had written this song with Ritchie Cordell, and Ritchie said, you know, it'd be great for this Bob Spencer. So I said, 'Well, let's get him in.' And Bob sang it, and I did the laughs on it."
"Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" became a # 12 hit in 1969, and its throbbing rhythm and soulful vocal have made it a perennial bubblegum favorite. According to The Billboard Book Of One-Hit Wonders, its release was accompanied by an outrageous story in Cashbox that the guys in Crazy Elephant had been Welsh coal miners, workin' in a coal mine by day and a-rockin' and a-rollin' by night, and signed by an enterprising London nightclub manager who'd read about them and figured the publicity of how they were discovered would guarantee them record sales, regardless of their actual musical prowess. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but record-company hype has 'em both beat. (Um--Crazy Elephant was, of course, just another Super K studio group--you knew that, right?)
Levine and Kris Resnick also came up with "Shake," a transcendent # 46 effort for The Shadows Of Knight. "That is like the pinnacle of where garage and bubblegum meet," Bill Pitzonka says, and we'd be hard pressed to disagree.
How did the Chicago punk group wind up making a record for Super K? "I don't remember the exact circumstances," say Kasenetz and Katz. "I think [lead singer] Jimmy Sohns came up to the office one day and said he was free and, you know, liked some of the things we were doing. And we signed them to a recording contract."
Levine is also unsure of how The Shadows Of Knight fell into his domain.
"I don't know. You know, at a certain point, when producers were having a track record, everybody wanted records. We were getting a lot of artists who had been one-hit acts and had fallen a little out of favor. And for a while it seems like we were doing a ton of people. We did The Outsiders, we did Chris Montez, we did The Shadows Of Knight, we did Question Mark, I did a record with him, I did records with The Kingsmen. So, you know, all of a sudden you would get these guys, and it was like hey, they have a name, it was like maybe two or three records ago, and maybe you can resurrect their career.
"But we came in as the singles guys; we wouldn't do albums. The Shadows Of Knight, for some reason, we did an album. I guess that was their deal, they had an album deal. I cut some of it, and I mean I was there, but a lot of it I was like, 'Guys, do what you want to do. It's your album, do what you want to do.'"
Kasenetz and Katz remember that whole brief bubblegum period as a tumult of constant activity.
"For two years running," they say, "we were in the studio almost every single day. I mean, it was incredible--even on Saturday, Sunday. I remember we did 'Indian Giver' at Broadway Sound Studios, which was Herb Abramson, who was originally one of the owners of Atlantic and then went into the army or something, and I think his first wife sold him out or something. I don't remember the whole story.
"But I was recording that on a Sunday, and I lived on the East side, on 79th Street. And I would walk through the park, right over to Herb's studio. But that Sunday, we had a big snowstorm--I don't remember, it was like 14-15 inches of snow. And I was wading through the snow, because I called everybody to make sure they were gonna be there. I wanted to get it done.
"And we went through, and it was a snowy day, and we were doing this song. And Herb was just putting in--he didn't even have glass between the studio and the control room [yet]. I said, 'Herb, how'm I gonna do this in here?' He said, 'Don't worry, just be quiet, we'll get this done.' You'd hear the buses, he didn't even have insulation on the windows, and you hear the buses and cars honking outside. And I was going nuts! And he says, 'I promise you, you're not gonna notice it.'
"And sure enough, when it was all done, we never noticed any of that. But it was an experience. And the thing, when it came out, I knew it was a million-seller. There were certain ones we knew were absolutely gonna be million sellers."
While Kasenetz and Katz undeniably got the gumball rolling, they were not to go without significant competition. And the biggest competition came from an act that, like much of the Super K roster, didn't exist. But this particular fictional band had the added advantage of weekly television exposure, and five members who were individually identifiable to fans, while still guaranteed to remain obedient puppets in their producer's hands. You know 'em as Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and Jughead—Riverdale's newest hitmakers.
No Sleep 'Til Riverdale
The story of how a TV cartoon group based on a then-20-year-old comic strip came to be the hottest band in the land has its roots in what happened with the previous made-for-TV rock 'n' roll group.
"The whole thing about The Archies was that it was Don Kirshner's revenge," Bill Pitzonka says. "That was the whole story behind The Archies. He was really upset that he was ousted from The Monkees and he said, 'I'm gonna make sure, I'm not gonna have anybody take this away from me. I'm gonna make a two-dimensional band.'"
For The Archies, Kirshner enlisted songwriter and producer Jeff Barry to oversee the music. And, with cartoon characters fronting the act, and without any pesky Monkees around to complicate matters, the singers and players on The Archies' records would be anonymous. The anonymous voice of The Archies belonged to a young singer-songwriter named Ron Dante (nee Carmine Granito), who'd previously visited the pop charts as the lead singer on The Detergents' 1965 novelty hit, "Leader Of The Laundromat."
Like Joey Levine, Ron Dante was introduced to music through his father.
"A guy who worked for my dad was in a group called The Elegants," Dante says, "and had a hit record called 'Little Star.' And it was 1959, I think [NOTE: it was 1958], and it was the # 1 record at the time. And he was the bass singer. He had worked for my dad. And he took me to one of their sessions when I was around 14. And I got the bug. I said, 'This is great!' I thought it was all magic; I had no idea how they made a record.
"So it kind of inspired me, and I just started to form little groups and things, you know, played little local CYO centers and stuff and YMCAs, whatever I could get where there was a stage and they needed a band.
"So I had a band for a while. And I started writing some songs. Since I lived in New York City in one of the boroughs [NOTE: yay, Staten Island!], I would go to Manhattan on my off hours, with my guitar, and visit the Brill Building, and also another building called 1650, which was around the corner, [and] was part of that Brill Building-Tin Pan Alley type scene.
"And I kept walking into people's offices, and I got a manager, " Dante says with a laugh. "I'd just walk in and say, 'I'm a singer, I'm a writer, anybody wanna listen to me?' Any publisher, anything that had anything to do with music, I would walk in. I would walk into classical record [firms], jazz, I'd walk into any kind of company before I finally found a pop company. And I found a manager, and he took me up to audition for Don Kirshner, after about six months of being managed. And Don Kirshner signed me as a singer-songwriter when I was in my teens."
Dante's first single was called "Little Little Lollipop," released under the name Ronnie Dante.
"Yeah, it was a definite bubblegum song," Dante says. "I wrote it with two friends of mine, Danny Jordan and Tommy Wynn. And we recorded a demo, and they put the demo out on some label; Steve Lawrence's brother had a label, and he put it out on his label. So that was my very first. That, and I had another record I did with somebody at 1650, which was called 'Kai-Wakki-Kumba,' which was a kind of 'Wimoweh'-type record. And that came out, but I have never seen it. To this day, I have never seen a copy of it. But that was like the first few records that actually got released. I was thrilled.
"[Then] I met a fellow named Paul Vance, and Lee Pockriss, two songwriter-producers who had written 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.' And they had a record for me as a soloist called 'Don't Stand Up In A Canoe.' So I recorded it, and it came out and it got a lot of attention. It got some play in New York City as I remember, but it wasn't a hit."
Although "Don't Stand Up In A Canoe" didn't chart, Dante's union with Vance and Pockriss would soon prove beneficial.
"So about six months later they had this novelty idea," Dante continues. "They wrote a song--these are the same fellows who wrote 'Catch A Falling Star' for Perry Como many, many years earlier--and they wrote 'Leader Of The Laundromat.' And they said, 'Why don't you come in and do one of the voices on the record?'
"Leader Of The Laundromat," a broad but cute parody of The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack," was a # 19 hit at the end of 1964. Dante had already split from Kirshner at this point.
"I had left Don Kirshner after about two to three years of being with him," he says. "Things weren't happening, and I saw this opportunity to get recorded and out. So I didn't speak to him for a few years, three or four years."
Dante toured with The Detergents for a while before returning to New York and a new career making commercials.
"Right after The Detergents came off the road," Dante says, "we were on the road for about a year, year and a half--I came back to New York City and I kind of became popular doing some commercials. A few of my demo people--I used to do demos for people, I'd be their singing voice on their songs--they started to write commercials. I ended up singing for Johnson's Baby Oil and all kinds of products that had just started, Kleenex, Campbell's Soup. So by the time I got to do The Archies again I had become a full-fledged jingle singer, where I would do four or five sessions a week at least, maybe more sometimes."
And, at this point, Riverdale beckoned.
"I heard they were auditioning for The Archies. A friend of mine was playing in the band, he said, 'They're looking for a voice.' And I said, 'Well, I know Don Kirshner, he started me.'
"So I called, and the office set up an appointment, and I walked into RCA studio. And there was the writer, Jeff Barry, producer, and Kirshner. And they auditioned me, they said, 'Well, can you do different type of voices?' So I did, like, two or three different type of voices for Jeff and Donnie, and they finally locked into one sound. They said, 'Oh, you'll be good for this sound, let's use that one.'
"In fact," adds Bill Pitzonka, "Ron Dante wasn't even the original guy they were considering to do The Archies. He went to an audition and was taken to the audition by Ron Frangipane, who was the arranger for the sessions. And he went to the auditions, Don Kirshner and Jeff Barry listened to him. And I don't remember who it was who really flipped out over him. One of them had to be persuaded by the other one, because they both had worked with him. So he wound up cutting over 150 songs for The Archies."
Regardless of who else was considered for the singing voice of Archie Andrews, it was indeed Ron Dante who got the gig. Dante would sing lead on every single Archies track on five albums, plus the mountain of unreleased Archies tracks said to be languishing in Don Kirshner's vaults. Back-up singers would come and go, and singer Toni Wine would provide occasional second lead vocals on the early records (notably on "Sugar, Sugar"), but the guy in front was always Dante.
Oddly enough, there may be some who believe the voice of The Archies was...Joey Levine?
"You know," Dante says, "my friend Joey Levine did The 1910 Fruitgum Company and '1-2-3 Red Light' [CC'S NOTE: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!]. The Fruitgum Company actually probably gave bubblegum its name. He'd taken credit for my records half [the time]. The last interview I saw with Joey Levine, he was taking credit for 'Sugar, Sugar.' I called him up--it was in New York magazine--I said, 'Joey, what's wrong with you? Don't you have enough credit? You're only the biggest commrcial producer, jingle producer, in town, in New York.' And he misspelled my name! So if you would do me a favor, in this interview, mention that 'Joey Levin'--please do this for me, Joey L-A-N-E-N, something like that. Misspell his name. Don't dare spell his name correctly, because I know he definitely did that to me. He took credit for 'Sugar, Sugar' in that New York interview, and he went ahead and misspelled my name," Dante says, laughing.
Joey Levin, er, Lanen, um--Levine (whew!) replies, "I think I gave him credit for The Archies. I said I sang with groups, I never sang lead with The Archies. I was asked to sing lead for The Archies, and I turned it down because they didn't want to pay royalties. They wanted to pay session payments, double session payments, and I said I wouldn't do it. I said, you know, my sound's too identifiable, I'm gonna be this group, I'm not gonna get paid as an artist. And they didn't really need an artist; 'It's all our concept, Jeff Barry's writing all the songs, all we really need's a voice.'
"So Ronnie did it. So I didn't really do anything with them. I sang, there's some backgrounds, because I sang backgrounds with a lot of people in those days, The Monkees and The Archies and all of those things. I'd be like one of the singers in New York that would show up on background sessions and things for people. But Ronnie's definitely The Archies, him and Toni Wine and Ellie Greenwich, they were the main core Archies. Jamie Carr, I think, may have been in there.
"Ronnie's only pissed off because they got his name wrong in the article. They called him 'Ronnie Dugan' or something. Which I said [to him], 'Hey Ronnie, I didn't call you Ronnie Dugan, I remember your name,' I said. 'But at least I gave you credit!'" he concludes with a laugh. "He's a nice guy, Ron."
"Once in a while we had groups," Dante recalls, "and Jeff Barry would sing with me. People would come in and out in the background groups. But I was the lead voice on every one of the records. I mean, some girls came in, a few background singers. Toni Wine, of course, sang on 'Sugar, Sugar,' she was that famous solo voice just for one line [NOTE: the bubblegum-friendly line "I'm gonna make your life so sweet"]. We did maybe an album's worth of material with Toni. So the background group was Toni Wine, Jeff Barry, and Ron Dante. It was nice."
Although The Archies' record-making machinery was obviously cast in the image of The Monkees' hit factory, it did not duplicate The Monkees' immediate sales and radio success. While The Monkees' debut recordings in 1966 were instant hits--the "Last Train To Clarksville" single went to # 1, and the LP The Monkees topped Billboard's chart for 13 weeks--The Archies' success was far less dramatic. The debut single, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," was a # 22 hit, but the album The Archies stalled at # 88. And the second single, "Feelin' So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y.-D.O.O.)," never climbed above a disappointing # 53.
The Archies' chart fortunes changed dramatically, of course, with the third single, "Sugar, Sugar," a # 1 smash for four weeks in 1969. And, considering The Monkees' own fading success in 1969, the ascent of "Sugar, Sugar" must have made Kirshner's revenge seem all the more triumphant.
For the record, it should be noted that Dante is unaware of The Monkees ever being offered "Sugar, Sugar." "I don't know about that story," he says. "To me, it seemed that 'Sugar, Sugar' was written for the project; it was written for The Archies specifically as I remember. Because everything I thought was being written at the same time."
While the success of "Sugar, Sugar" was no doubt gratifying to Dante, it was an anonymous success.
"When 'Sugar, Sugar' became the # 1 hit in the country, people were still asking me what was I doing, was I doing anything with my career, 'Are you okay, are you still singing those jingles?'
"And then, on a Sunday night, I heard that The Archies were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. And I turned it on, and sure enough he introduced the # 1 record in the country this week, 'Sugar, Sugar' by The Archies. And then they played the cartoon from the TV show. So I got to be on The Ed Sullivan Show, but not on.
"It was wonderful, because it was my first # 1 record with my voice singing,and it was frustrating because I really wasn't known. It was an anonymous thing--it was a children's project for Saturday morning TV stuff that became a popular record kind of eccentric thing. So it was frustrating at the time."
Even among the few who knew that Dante was the voice of The Archies, respect was not necessarily forthcoming.
"And a lot of my friends thought bubblegum music was really hokey," Dante says. "And they said, 'How can you even do this kind of stuff? This is embarrassing. You know, we're rock 'n' rollers, we're hip. It's the late '60s, everybody's hip, Jim Morrison and The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and here you are in this bubblegum group.'"
But even then, Dante knew there was some merit in bubblegum.
"When the record went # 1," Dante says, "I knew it was in the history books. And then it became the # 1 record of the year, meaning it got more time in the # 1 position and sold more than any other single. And that was the year of "Honky Tonk Women" and "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In," two huge, powerful singles. [NOTE: The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits credits "Sugar, Sugar" as the top single of 1969, but Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1993 gives that honor to "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In (The Flesh Failures)" by The Fifth Dimension, with six weeks in the top spot to "Sugar, Sugar"'s four.]
"So when I noticed that Billboard gave us the # 1 spot for the year, I figured somebody would always wanna know a little bit about this record. Because it became part of the history, like there was only one 1969 and there's only one # 1 record for that year by Billboard's calculation. So I figured somebody would be talking about it.
"And also it was a TV show. But I am astounded that it has had so many incarnations, where they've put it in movies and things, and TV shows and commercials. So that's astounding, because I know Jeff wrote it in about five minutes," Dante says with a laugh. "I don't think he took a long time writing 'Sugar, Sugar.'"
Dante remembers Jeff Barry leaving the project around this time, following the second album, Everything's Archie, which was soon re-titled Sugar, Sugar to capitalize on the single's success.
"Jeff came in for the first album, and maybe the second one," Dante says. "I don't remember if he was involved in the second album. But he did the first season's music for the TV [show]. And then I think he just got involved in other things--his own label, Bobby Bloom, Andy Kim. There were other people involved in the next consecutive album. I actually produced one or two of them."
Barry did, however, co-write (with "Sugar, Sugar" collaborator Andy Kim) and produce the next single, "Jingle Jangle," an irresistible confection that made it to # 10 in late '69.
[NOTE: Jeff Barry is listed as the producer of the first four Archies albums, as well as the single "Who's Your Baby?". And, although Toni Wine is widely said not to have appeared on "Jingle Jangle," it most certainly sounds like her doing the fab Betty/Veronica voices on that single.]
Still, that was about it for The Archies as far as big hits were concerned. The 1970 "Who's Your Baby?" and "Sunshine" singles charted at # 40 and # 57 respectively. Not counting a greatest-hits set, there were two more Archies albums, Sunshine and This Is Love. But there was a lot more Archies music recorded.
"There had to be hundreds and hundreds of songs," Dante says. "Because we were putting two or three in each show, and it was on for three seasons. So we did a lot of that music for the show. And then we did five or six albums--I thought there might have been a sixth, there may be a sixth album that was recorded. So there was at least six albums' worth of material, and then the TV stuff. So there was a lot of material recorded. I remember doing 20 to 30 songs in a two or three week period for the TV show. They didn't use all the stuff we did, so there's a lot of archival material still existing."
The success of The Archies led to an odd tangent in the bubblegum story: Saturday morning cartoon characters singing pop-rock songs and, frequently, making pop-rock records. Kirshner himself was involved with many of them.
"He did a couple of other bands like the Chan Clan," Bill Pitzonka says, "which was also Ron Dante—it was Ron Dante and Barry Manilow, go figure that—and then there were all the other Saturday morning TV shows like Josie and the Pussycats."
Even the animated version of The Harlem Globetrotters played on this field, courtesy of Kirshner. "Kirshner did that with Sedaka and Greenfield," Pitzonka says. "A lot of this is languishing in Don Kirshner's vault because he's for some reason going into delusions of grandeur that it's going to be worth a lot some day.
"There were a couple bands before The Archies. There was a band called The Beagles, which I know nothing about. They put out an album on Columbia and I knew nothing about them until I got this one CD which had their stuff on it."
"That was a show that was produced by Total Television," says writer and animation historian Mark Evanier, whose television credits range from Welcome Back, Kotter to Garfield and roughly a zillion other series, specials, one-shots and pilots. "The Beagles were—there were two of them, it was a team. That was one of the few shows like that done out of New York that was like that. That was produced out of New York, and I think that was a case where somebody bought the show based on the name.
"There were a number of shows about music groups, and you could go back even further than that, I think. Did the Beatles cartoon show precede that? Certainly the success of the Beatles in other media spawned a lot of interest."
Still, animated pop groups proliferated to an unprecedented degree in the wake of The Archies.
"Yeah, a lot of that was a Fred Silverman belief," Evanier says. "Fred liked those. Fred was programming CBS quite successfully in the late '60s and his influence certainly bled over to the other networks. I'm not even sure chronologically what was the first show that did it, but the success of The Archies certainly didn't hurt any.
"The other trend that had a lot of parallels here was there was a trend toward pre-established properties. Which was a case of using characters that already existed. The idea was that, because of the way the cartoons were sold to the advertisers, frequently sold before the show even was finished, there became a very strong interest in programming cartoon shows that existed in other media. In other words, something that was based on a TV show, based on a movie. There was a dislike of shows that were 'only' cartoon shows. And one of the ways in which they took a property that otherwise was not known—like, say, Jabberjaw—and gave it some sort of a feel of familiarity was to try to spin a record group out of it, or to try to spin something akin to The Archies out of it.
"There were attempts several times to replicate the success of The Archies," Evanier continues, "because The Archies had a hit record, and The Archies were on a record label, and such. It also became a simple case of believing that that was an element that was popular in the shows, particularly with female viewers. One of the problems that Saturday morning animation has frequently had is attracting female viewers. It's very tricky to find a show that girls will watch that doesn't alienate boys. And the music segments seemed to be something that had some value there.
"There were a lot of reasons. But also, at that time the shows were a little more formularized than they later became, or than maybe was desirable. And the idea of just putting a music segment in, making that part of the format, it was pretty easy to crank them out assembly-linewise. The writers would write up to the chase scene, and then the idea would be that there'd be a minute-and-a-half song that would take over the action. You'd notice they would reuse animation an awful lot in those, and I think that was also a powerful incentive. Basically it was simply a case of a belief that kids liked [the music segments]; just as Scooby-Doo spawned a whole raft of shows where four kids went out and solved mysteries, The Archies spawned a whole raft of shows where, although the characters were not necessarily a rock group, they would at some point pull out their keyboards and drums and play something."
As noted previously, Kasenetz and Katz were also approached to provide music for a proposed Saturday morning cartoon, Captain Groovy & His Bubblegum Army.
"Well, we were approached," say Kasenetz and Katz. "We were dealing with Hanna-Barbera, and the reason it really didn't come about is because they wanted 50 percent of whatever we did. And we said, 'Hey listen, if we're gonna do it for you, we're gonna do it for you--it's our stuff.' And we really didn't want to give everything up. And I think more than anything that's why it never came about. We thought they were asking for too much, and it wasn't worth it to us."
While pop music seemed to take over kiddie TV, no such music ever really crossed over to the pop charts after The Archies. "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)," which was he theme song to The Banana Splits (actually a non-animated Saturday morning show featuring four guys in animal suits as a rock group) managed a # 96 showing on The Hot 100, but that was about it. Joey Levine did contribute one song to The Banana Splits, "I Enjoy Being A Boy (In Love With You)," but it wasn't even released outside of a limited-edition mail order offer. Still, the song had some high-profile fans.
"Basically, the only thing that became big about that was R.E.M., early in their career, used to play around with that song," Levine recalls.
A relative lack of chart success doesn't necessarily mean there wasn't some tasty bubblegum music being created for the Saturday morning crowd. "Two of the best bubblegum albums ever are the album that The Sugar Bears did and the album done by Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution," Bill Pitzonka says. "And both of those were for prefab artists. That's the point at which they realized again that the faceless aspect was taking its toll, so they hitched onto TV shows or, in The Sugar Bears' case, a breakfast cereal."
It's also worth noting that reruns of The Monkees' TV show, which had completed its prime-time run on NBC in 1968, began airing as part of CBS' Saturday morning lineup in September of 1969.
One Saturday morning act that may have deserved a better fate was Josie and the Pussycats. The group is something of a pop culture footnote for introducing the world to one Cherie Moor, later to find fame as actress/singer Cheryl Ladd. Though based on an Archie Comics title, the music for Josie And The Pussycats was produced, not by Don Kirshner, but under the direction of songwriter Danny Janssen, best known for co-writing "Little Woman" for Bobby Sherman. And the sound Janssen chose for Josie and the Pussycats was cast, not in the image of The Archies, but in the soulful pop style of The Jackson Five.
"That was fully the intention of Danny Janssen," Bill Pitzonka says. "They held auditions for the girls for Josie and the Pussycats and he had selected the three girls. Cheryl Ladd—who wasn't Cheryl Ladd then—Cathy Dougher, and Patrice Holloway. And when he presented them to Hanna-Barbera they said, 'Well, we really like Patrice Holloway, but we've never had a black cartoon character before.' And he said, 'Well, tough, '" Pitzonka notes with a laugh. "'I won't do the project unless she does it, because she's got the greatest voice for it.'
"So they sat on it for a while and he didn't hear back, and then they said, 'Come down to the studio, we're doing Josie and the Pussycats.' And (Janssen said), 'You didn't fire her, did you? Because I wasn't gonna do it.' And they said 'No, just come down to the studio.' They hired every major soul musician in L.A. to work on those sessions. Because they said, "We're gonna do this right, we are gonna do this right.' And that's why there is a black character in Josie and the Pussycats, and why the music has such a soul slant.
Unfortunately, neither of Josie and the Pussycats' two Capitol singles, “Every Beat Of My Heart” and “You've Come A Long Way, Baby,” made so much as a light indentation on the Hot 100. (A competing version of “Every Beat of My Heart,” by 11-year-old singer Shawn, also failed to chart.) With the notable exception of Ladd, Josie and the Pussycats soon faded into obscurity.
"One of the things that a lot of different companies have tried to do over the years," Mark Evanier says, "is they like the idea of owning a group. You know, one of the things that made The Archies the envy of a lot of other people in the music business was that The Archies were anonymous, The Archies were owned. The Archies couldn't hold out for more money. I mean, I think they were always shocked that The Monkees, when they were done, turned into kind of independent guys. You couldn't just yank Mike out and put in somebody else. You had to go with those four guys.
"And I think that were was a couple of attempts in Saturday morning, through animation and through live action, to create groups like Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. It was owned by the Kroffts [TV producers Sid and Marty Krofft]. They could pluck people out, put people in. They could own all the publishing, they could own the likenesses, they could own the costumes, they could merchandise the characters in a way that you couldn't do if you had a comparable group that was using their real names and faces and such.
"And I think that's one of the appeals of some of these attempts, was, 'Well, we'll make our money on the records, we'll make money on the merchandising, we'll send the group out to tour.' I think at one point there was this dream that they could have four or five troops of Banana Splits going around the country touring, if The Banana Splits had been bigger. All you need is a set of costumes. Anybody in the world can be in the costumes, and anyone in the world can record the records. Like you have this generically-created music. In the same sense that right now a lot of live-action movie studios kind of envy Disney, because Disney doesn't have to cope with stars who want 25 million dollars. They can tear their stars up if they ever get out of line.
"A lot of the animation studios had deals with different people to produce the records," Evanier continues. "For instance, I did a live-action pilot for Hanna-Barbera in 1977. I did a show called The Beach Girls, which was about three girls in a rock group who lived at the beach and put on bikinis and played rock music. Frankie Avalon was the guest star on the pilot. And for the music tracks for these girls to sing, they didn't even let the three girls they'd hired sing; they pulled some of the music tracks which had been recorded for Josie And The Pussycats years earlier by some company that had produced those for Hanna-Barbera. And this was the same type of thing, you know, 'We own these songs, we madea deal for these, so we're going to use them.
"That was the attitude. And we did this live-action pilot, it was a sitcom, trying to kind of cross The Monkees with a beach party movie. It was that period of time where every show had three girls in bikinis in it. But there was a lot of that studio attitude of 'Let's create stars we own.'"
With no substantial hits to follow up The Archies' success, and with The Archies themselves already fading, the cartoon rock trend ran itself out.
"I think it was like a fad that (ended)," Evanier says. "See, you know, this business tends to always run in cycles of imitation. There was a period when everything was Scooby-Doo imitations. Somebody called them a 'Four kids and a nyaa-nyaa' show, or 'Three kids and a nyaa-nyaa.' Three kids and a dog, four kids and a horse, three kids and a car, you know, whatever it is, go solves mysteries. And you go through cycles on that until something else comes along. And I suspect that there was no specific catalyst here—The Archies was a hit, a bunch of other shows like that were tried, they weren't hits, something else was a hit, people tried other things."
The Bubble Bandwagon
While bubblegum was hot, a lot of other hit-seeking acts tried their hands at chewy tunes. One was a studio group called The Cuff Links, who had a # 9 hit in 1969 with a Vance and Pockriss tune called "Tracy." The Cuff Links' lead singer was our old pal Ron Dante. Since "Tracy" entered the Top Ten before "Sugar, Sugar" fell from the top spot, Dante had two simultaneous Top Ten hits, but neither of them under his own name.
"They were out at the same time," Dante says. "And it was by the same team that wrote 'Leader Of The Laundromat,' Vance and Pockriss wrote that song. And they brought me in, and they said, 'Could you sing this?' And I said, 'Well, I've got a big hit in 'Sugar, Sugar.' And they said, 'Well, you know, for old time's sake, come sing this for us. If it's a hit maybe you'll do an album.'
"So I went in with them and I did like 16 voices on it, and I did the vocal arrangements, came up with something to help arrange it vocally. And it became a [Top Ten] record. And it was funny to have 'Sugar, Sugar' as # 1 and Cuff Links [at # 9], and I had another group called The Pearly Gates, which had a record called 'Free' on Decca I think it was. So at the same time I had three records on the chart under different names."
In spite of the success of "Tracy" (and, to a lesser degree, its sprightly follow-up "When Julie Comes Around," which made it to # 41),Dante declined to return to the mic for the second Cuff Links LP. His spot was filled by Rupert Holmes, later to achieve pop infamy with The Bouys' "Timothy" and his own solo "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," two perennial candidates for the All-Time Top Ten in Hell.
A couple of former hitmakers who'd gone a while without a big record each staged a return to the Top Ten via bubblegum. Lou Christie had a # 1 hit in 1965 with "Lightnin' Strikes," but had been absent from the Top 40 since "Rhapsody In The Rain," a # 16 entry in 1966. Recording for Buddah--where else?--Christie cut a gooey, gooey, thick 'n' chewy number called "I'm Gonna Make You Mine" and bounced up to # 10 in 1969. "I'm Gonna Make You Mine" was written by Tony Romeo, who'd earlier penned The Cowsills' "Indian Lake," and would later write the Partridge Family smash "I Think I Love You." "I'm Gonna Make You Mine" was Lou Christie's last hit, but it was arguably his best.
Tommy Roe also bubblegummed his way back into the hearts of radio listeners with “Dizzy,” a superbly sweet trifle that topped the charts for four weeks in 1969. Roe's first hit had been the amazing Buddy Holly soundalike “Sheila,” a #1 hit in 1962. Roe also hit with “Everybody” (#3) in '63, and two 1966 singles, “Sweet Pea” (#8) and “Hooray For Hazel” (#6) that were definite bubblegum prototypes. But “Dizzy,” co-written by Roe and the Raiders' Freddy Weller, was his first hit in a couple of years, and it was certainly one of bubblegum's defining singles. Two more bubblegummy singles, “Heather Honey” and “Jam Up And Jelly Tight” were also hits at #29 and #8, respectively.
In the same time frame, a British session singer named Tony Burrows was writing his own anonymous chapter in the bubblegum story. Burrows has been referred to as the only person in pop history to be a one-hit wonder five times. The first four of these all occurred in 1970: "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" by Edison Lighthouse, "My Baby Loves Lovin'" by White Plains, "United We Stand" by The Brotherhood Of Man, and (gulp!) "Gimme Dat Ding" by The Pipkins. The first two of these were solidly in the bubblegum mold, while "United We Stand" was slightly more ersatz-soulful (and the novelty hit "Gimme Dat Ding" was in a remedial class all by itself). Burrows' last hit was with The First Class: the incredible Beach Boys pastiche "Beach Baby" in 1974.
(Note: in 1996, the Varese Sarabande label put out a Tony Burrows career retrospective under the title Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)--The Voice Of Tony Burrows, collecting Burrows' various incarnations in one package.)
The Cowsills were a family group from Newport, Rhode Island, consisting of five brothers, their mother, and their little sister. By virtue of their clean-cut image and such chirpy singles as "The Rain, The Park And Other Things" (# 2 in 1967), "We Can Fly" (# 21 in '68), and "Indian Lake" (# 10 in '68), The Cowsills were thought of as a bubblegum act, though their music probably had more in common with The Mamas and the Papas than with any Super K concoction.
"I think The Cowsills were bubblegum against their will," Pitzonka says. "They were a family, they really had aspirations to be The Beatles, they really wanted to be this jangly power pop band. But then the record company said, 'Oh, look! A wholesome family from Rhode Island!' And they kind of got lumped in that way. But their later records--let's say from 'Hair' [#2, 1969] on--they really dug their heels in and tried to break that image in whatever way they could. But they were also hawking milk.
[NOTE: I originally wrote this bubblegum history in 1997, prior to the release of The Cowsills' terrific 1998 album Global, which I now regard as one of the best albums of that decade.]
"The Cowsills were also the basis for The Partridge Family. And The Partridge Family is definitely a bubblegum band. I mean, they actually retained some credibility by the fact that David Cassidy actually sang; originally it was supposed to be the Bahler Brothers [singing lead]. The whole thing was that originally they didn't even know he could sing, he was just supposed to lip-sync his way through it."
Like The Monkees and The Archies before them, The Partridge Family found a weekly TV series to be an effective tool to promote record sales (or vice versa). "I Think I Love You" topped the chart for three weeks in 1970, but The Partridge Family's finest moment was "I Woke Up In Love This Morning," a # 13 stunner in 1971 that would have been a great record no matter who did it.
And, without conceding our position that The Monkees weren't really a bubblegum act during their heyday, it should be noted that the final pre-reunion Monkees album, 1970's Changes, was at the very least on bubblegum's periphery. Reduced by now to the duo of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (following the departures of Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith), Changes found the Monkee pair again working with "I'm A Believer" producer Jeff Barry, as well as with bubblegum stalwarts Bobby Bloom and Andy Kim.
Though not really as bad an album as it's come to be regarded--the "Oh My My" single was a pretty good soulful-pop number that deserved a much better fate--Changes was still The Monkees' most disposable work (at least until Pool It! in 1987). The album did not chart until its 1986 reissue, in the wake of resurgent Monkeemania. "Do It In The Name Of Love," a bouncy bubblegum tune left over from the album sessions, was issued as a Mickey [sic] Dolenz & Davy Jones single in 1971. (Interestingly enough, when Dolenz and Jones regrouped with songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to form Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart in 1976, Dolenz defended the group against "charges" that it was bubblegum by saying something to the effect that, "Yeah, but we're progressive bubblegum!")
And then there was Dawn, originally a studio creation featuring lead singer Tony Orlando and background singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson. With Orlando recording in New York and Hopkins and Wilson recording their contributions in California, the first two singles--"Candida" and "Knock Three Times"--raced up the charts to # 3 and # 1, respectively. Orlando had previously been a solo singer in the early '60s, and had fronted a studio group called Wind, which made it to # 28 with the single "Make Believe." Further illustrating how all this stuff seems to tie together, Joey Levine was also involved in the Wind single.
"We had this record company out of Kasenetz and Katz," Levine says. "Artie [Resnick] and I had Earth Records, which was then L & R Records, and we had [Bobby Bloom's] 'Montego Bay,' we put out that record. And we had a record called 'Make Believe' with Wind,put out that record that Bo Gentry and I wrote, which was Tony Orlando's first record. Matter of fact, the follow-up to that was 'Candida,' but the record company went under, and he went over and sold it over to someone else. Or 'Knock Three Times,' I forget--one of those two."
In any case, Dawn's success prompted its members to become an actual touring, performing unit. Bill Pitzonka sees this as the cut-off point for the end of the bubblegum era.
(Wait For It) The Bubble Bursts
"I think bubblegum itself," Bill Pitzonka says, "the ending point can be pretty clearly cut off around 1971, '72. I like to cut it off right at the point where Dawn became a real act. Where all of a sudden this band that was making these pop singles and was just supposed to be this singles factory, you know, became a real band and had a real identity.
"The whole thing about bubblegum is it's kind of faceless. And that is a good thing and a bad thing, because I don't know a lot of people who go around knowing the names of the members of The Ohio Express," Pitzonka notes, laughing. "That wasn't the point."
Although one can say accurately that bubblegum never really went away, its golden era had clearly passed by the early '70s.
"I think bubblegum had no place to go around '72, "Pitzonka says. "I mean, you could only work so much mileage out of a band that didn't exist. Unless you're like The Alan Parsons Project, which is a completely different animal. You can't make a career out of singles; hard as you try, you just can't. Even back then, you could have ten hit singles, but then it just dries up—there's nowhere to go.
"I think the genre pretty much dictated its own course. Kasenetz and Katz stopped hitting the charts as of the '70s. Then Bell (the label that inherited The Monkees' label, Colgems) took over—Bell was big. And that was the stuff like Tony Macauley, who also did “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes).” That's when you also had Dawn and you had The Partridge Family. Davy Jones recorded for Bell.
"I've got the Bell singles listing. And it's funny, because until The Partridge Family, Bell had never had a gold album. All of a sudden, once they had a gold album, they had money. And you notice their singles release schedule goes from 20 singles a year to 40 singles a year to 70 singles a year to 90 singles a year to then, their last year of operation they had something like 125 singles. Now, in the process of doing 125 singles, and a lot of these were studio things--they'd hire producers to concoct bands for them. They didn't have any albums. They put out ten albums a year to 100 singles. That's kind of an example of how bubblegum was progressing and couldn't really pay for itself."
Kasenetz and Katz, for their part, attempted to move on past bubblegum.
"You know," they say, "a lot of people don't even know that we were involved with a lot of other artists and things; like 10cc, before they were 10cc, were doing a lot of things for us also [specifically, as a post-"Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" incarnation of Crazy Elephant]. That was Graham Gouldman, [Kevin] Godley, [Lol] Creme, [Eric] Stewart. We were involved with Bobby Bloom, who had the 'Montego Bay.' We did Bo Diddley, not that it was successful, but we recorded a lot of other people. You know, there's a whole lot of things that a lot of people don't remember.
"And even like The Music Explosion, 'Little Bit O' Soul,' which I never thought was a bubblegum thing, people still refer to that at times as, 'That was a bubblegum type of thing.' and I said, 'Bubblegum?' That really wasn't bubblegum, that was like a lot of other things. But I think it was because of us--if we put our name on it, everybody said, 'Oh, it's another bubblegum thing,' whether it was or wasn't.
"We were good to most of our people," say Kasenetz and Katz. "We used to send them on trips and get 'em pianos as bonuses and this and that. Because we had to keep them pepped up so that we could keep everything going. And then that was it. The groups had changed, and I think at the time that they were all burned out on the type of songs or whatever it was. And that was it, and then we went on to other things. We had a hit with the Ram Jam group with Bill [Bartlett], who was originally in The Lemon Pipers." Ram Jam's cover of Leadbelly's "Black Betty" was a # 18 hit in 1978.
Joey Levine also moved on. "I did a bunch of work with this record company," he says, "and some things happened, but then we had fallen into a situation of...I don't know, it was over. So what happened was I kind of sat out for a while. I just sat down and just did some songwriting and thinking. I was doing some songwriting, and some people recorded a couple of things. You know, I had songs recorded, James Taylor recorded something ["Ain't No Song," co-written by Levine and David Spinozza], a little later on Bonnie Raitt ["I Got Plenty," co-written with Jim Carroll]. And I was getting records, but I stopped for a while. And then I started doing commercials."
As noted before, Ron Dante refers to Levine as the biggest jingle producer in New York.
"Um, probably in the world," Levine corrects with a laugh. "I probably have been at it longer and more successful than anybody."
Levine did return to the charts one more time in 1974, as the lead singer on "Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)," a # 8 hit for a studio group (of course!) called Reunion.
"Reunion's an old friend of mine," says Levine, "who I hadn't seen in a while. I had been writing with this guy Mark Bellack [co-author of "Try It," by The Standells and Ohio Express] a little up at Aaron Schroeder's office. And Mark wasn't really a great writer, but he was a good friend of mine and we worked on a couple of things. And up at Schroeder, at a certain point they wanted to sign me, which I didn't wanna be signed. So I said, 'But you should sign Mark. Because if Mark is here, I'll write here,' you know? But then when the contract came up, I said to Mark, 'Listn, don't renew your contract, 'cause I'm not writing over there any more.' And he renewed it! And I got a little peeved, I said, 'Mark, I told you not to renew it.' And he said,'Well, I'm gonna write with some other guys, I think I got the handle.'
"So we didn't talk to each other for about...not aggressively, but we didn't see each other for about two years. And then he came to me with that song, and he was cutting it and he said somebody was interested. But I listened and I listened and I said, 'I like the song a lot,' I said, 'I think you're production's no good. And I'm not trying to weasel in, but if you wouldn't mind, let me go and cut it.'
"And we re-cut the record, and I fixed up some of the lyrics and stuff, and it became a Top 10 record."
Ron Dante, now free of any compelling reason to remain an anonymous voice, returned to recording under his own name.
"I had a record called Ron Dante Brings You Up," he recalls,"and 'Let Me Bring You Up' was a Jeff Barry/Andy Kim song, and I thought it was a smash. And [it] just did not happen big across the country. But it was a really good record, 'Let Me Bring You Up.' And it was kind of The Archies meet some of those 'Happy Together' type of groups. It was a pretty damn good record. I always liked that record and song. So it was kind of close--it wasn't as bouncy as the other stuff. I wrote a bunch of stuff for the album. I wanted to write a bunch of stuff, so I wrote a lot of the album."
During this period, Dante also recorded a single for Bell, "Don't Call It Love," under the name Bo Cooper. He also returned to doing commercials, and it was in that field that he met a songwriter named Barry Manilow. Dante went on to produce Manilow's first hit, "Mandy," and continued to co-produce Manilow's records until 1980. Manilow, in turn, produced Dante's own (aughh!) disco remake of "Sugar, Sugar" in the mid-'70s.
Today, Dante remains proud of The Archies. "Just two years ago," he says, "I did a cerebral palsy benefit type of thing where I went to the Hard Rocks and visited and performed for a special occasion to raise money for the Oreida Tater Tots. Oreida put The Archies on their Tater Tots, and every bag you bought a few cents went to [fight] cerebral palsy. And the Archie publication went into conjunction with that. So I actually did the Hard Rocks last year, a year and a half ago. And then I did The Greek Theater last October as The Archies, a special favor. You know, I don't do it a lot because The Archies are owned lock, stock and barrel by the Archie comic book people.
Which is why Dante is interested in working out a deal with Archie's publisher to create a new Archies project.
"They're very protective of their copyright," he says. "And they have other projects going, a Broadway show, a TV movie or a movie, a TV series, that are all potentially in development. And they have signed deals with these people. So I wanted the record rights to The Archies, and I negotiated with them for six months, because they wanted to see what the Broadway show did or what the TV show did. So I understand their hesitancy. But I think eventually I will end up with th right to the Archies recording group, and I will do a '90s version."
Dante goes on to describe his vision of the new Archies. "In The Archies, the original group, the male lead voice was the strong lead voice and carried it. In the '90s, I would use the female voices of Betty and Veronica. The '90s would be more current. Jughead might get an album out of it, you know, because he looks like a grunge rocker. He could be a garage-band type of sound, with Jughead playing drums, have maybe a funny lead sound.
|Reggie, Archie, and Jughead in 2016|
"So there's many ways to do it. The danceability of the records are important, and the fun, up, positive nature of it, because it does appeal to a younger market, I think, it does appeal to a pre-teen, teen [market]. But it's not hard-edge, if you know what I mean. The average readership of an Archie comic is age seven to 13 girls, about 70 percent girls. And it's very popular with that kind of innocent age too, that kind of not-yet-hip teenager," he says with a laugh, "still some babysitting jobs and things. Some clean, wholesome music I think is necessary for popular music to be balanced. If we have all one thing, as you know, it becomes very boring."
And, a few years ago, a clip of a whole group of Ron Dantes singing "Sugar, Sugar" began airing occasionally on VH1.
"When I was on tour as a solo artist in the 1970s," Dante recalls, "I went to Cleveland and did a show called Upbeat. And I think Upbeat decided to tape me five or six times, singing 'Sugar, Sugar,' playing different instruments. I think that's where I did it, I think I did it in Cleveland. I know I was on tour for about six months, visiting all the major cities and doing all the local TV shows. And I think I might have done that in Cleveland. I was as surprised as anybody when [VH1] started to play it," he notes with a laugh. "I had forgotten all about it."
Over two decades after the cartoon Archies appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, TV viewers finally had a chance to match the face with the voice of "Sugar, Sugar."
Cleaning Up This Gooey Mess
Although bubblegum's heyday had passed, its influence continued to be felt, often in some unexpected guises.
"I think Europe kept the idea going more than America did," Pitzonka says. "Which is kind of ironic when you consider that bubblegum in America was a response to the British Invasion. But yeah, I'd say the early ABBA records are definitely bubblegum. And of course, a friend of mine pointed out to me that a lot of the Eurovision records were very, very, very contrived, and they were meant to appeal to the broadest common denominator. But in the process, they also got very onomatopoeic in the early '70s. You had stuff like “Boom Bang-a Bang” and “Jack In The Box” and all these songs that sounded like “Abergevenny” [a #47 hit in 1969 for Shannon, a.k.a. singer Marty Wilde], only more schmaltzy.
"It then became more of a teen idol phenomenon, which was a different thing entirely. Because they realized that they did need faces, they couldn't have faceless bands. What do you attach to? Oh, attach to a cute guy who you can market to a magazine. So I think bubblegum kind of evolved, and it evolved separately. In Europe it evolved into glam; in America, it evolved into the teen idols. Bell Records, while they had The Partridge Family and The Bay City Rollers, they also had Gary Glitter. Sweet, of course, started out as a bubblegum band—there's no question that “Funny Funny” is a bubblegum record. And then, of course, that came back and you've got The Ramones, based on that melodic garage angle."
The dialectic of bubblegum is indeed far-reaching. Aside from the obvious, inherent bubblegum appeal of various teen-idol records in the early '70s, from The Osmonds to The Jackson Five to The Kids From The Brady Bunch, British glam/glitter owed a very real debt to bubblegum. Glam records were catchy, clunky, artificial creations, designed to grab you with mindless, repetitive and frequently irresistible hooks. It’s not a huge jump from The Ohio Express to The Sweet, Gary Glitter, Mud, Hello, or even Slade and Suzi Quatro. Heck, The Bay City Rollers had a foot in both camps, as a teen idol band with vague glam roots.
Speaking of The Bay City Rollers, they also wound up with a weekly TV series, although theirs came after their hit-making career had stopped. One of the writers on that show was Mark Evanier.
"I worked on the show with The Bay City Rollers, Krofft Superstar Hour," Evanier says. "There were two [different] shows: there was The Krofft Supershow on ABC, which had Kaptain Kool and the Kongs [as] the hosts, and then we did Krofft Superstar Hour on NBC, which had The Bay City Rollers. That show was later re-titled The Bay City Rollers show.
"That was a case where we had ABBA signed to do the show. At the last minute ABBA pulled out, and The Bay City Rollers were substituted at the last minute. The Bay City Rollers had actually dissolved the group; they put it back together because a couple of them needed money. So they took the offer and came over and did the show. And I think they dissolved the group right after that again."
(Note: lead singer Les McKeown did indeed leave The Bay City Rollers after the TV show ended. The remaining members--Alan Longmuir, Derek Longmuir, Stuart "Woody" Woods, and Eric Faulkner--recruited a new lead singer, Duncan Faure, and recorded a few little-heard [but pretty damned good!] albums under the truncated name The Rollers before finally folding in the mid-'80s.)
Another genre with connections to bubblegum was disco. "Disco was actually another bubblegum outgrowth," Bill Pitzonka agrees, "because that's where all the producers went. Neil Bogart [who'd left Buddah to form Casablanca Records, probably the preeminent disco label] was a marketing genius. In fact, [superstar Eurodisco producer] Giorgio Moroder used to put out these bubblegum singles out of Germany, with titles like “Looky Looky” and “Moody Trudy” and stuff like that, and they're these infectious little pop tunes that all sound like “Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Which actually leads us back to [bubblegum]. Because, you know, “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” “Wooly Bully,” these onomatopoeic things, had a real base appeal. And that's what bubblegum tapped into."
It is not a huge jump from The Archies or The Banana Splits to a prepackaged disco act like The Village People, who recorded for Bogart's Casablanca. Another Casablanca act with bubblegum roots was KISS, whose outlandish costumes and merchandising efficacy—not to mention their punchy, spunky singles, which drew inspiration from pop-rock as often as they did from hard rock—made them the kind of act Kasenetz and Katz would have killed for.
And then there's punk. Though the anger 'n' anarchy clatter of early punk was what got all the attention, punk also placed a premium value on concise ditties with immediate, visceral appeal. "The punk movement was about breaking down barriers," notes Pitzonka, "and basically breaking through that whole art-rock thing that was going on. But also, once they got over the rage, once they actually learned how to play, no movement can go along without melody for long."
Punk acts like The Undertones, Generation X, The Rezillos and—especially!—The Ramones all drew readily-apparent inspiration from bubblegum. The Ramones actually covered both “Indian Giver” and “Little Bit O’ Soul” on record, and even the seemingly humorless Talking Heads used to cover “1-2-3 Red Light” live. At one point, Bomp! magazine openly wondered when The Ramones would get around to covering an Ohio Express tune; one regrets that they never did.
"It's just a dark edge," Ron Dante notes of punk's similarity to bubblegum. "They had a dark edge to it. But musically it's very close. I always thought musically it was very close. It was that band sound, formula type of song, that kind of predictable but fun [approach]. Their themes were a little darker, that's all. You're right, there was a definite connection. Nobody in that area is gonna admit it," Dante concludes with a laugh.
Don't be too sure about that, Ron. As legendary Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone told Goldmine in 1994, "We started off, and I think we wanted to be a bubblegum group. At one point, The Bay City Rollers were becoming popular. They had written 'Saturday Night' and then we sat down and said, 'We have to write a song with a chant in it, like they have.' So we wrote 'Blitzkrieg Bop.' Somehow, in our warped minds, I think we thought we were a bubblegum group."
Sticky Residue: Bubblegum's Legacy
While bubblegum music still has its vocal detractors, its appeal has transcended such criticism. "It depends on what circle you're in," Ron Dante says, "If you're in the Aerosmith circle or the R.E.M. circle, it might be looked down on. The trick is, bubblegum is inherently young, and younger than the rock 'n' roll that surrounds it, probably. Who are the bubblegum chewers that they were talking about? It's usually the pre-teens or the very early teens, 13-14.
"So I think it had its place in terms of very clean, fun music, bubblegum music. And I think it can be used as a derogatory term. But to me, it's not a derogatory term. Mostly it's just another niche of music, like country is, or R & B, or any of the others. And it's got its own little niche and its particular sound. To me, there are bubblegum records made today. If you listen to that [sings a bit of Donna Lewis' “I Love You Always Forever”] 'I love you, always forever, la, la, la,' that is bubblegum. Or, [sings a bit of The Cardigans' “Lovefool”] 'Love love me say that you love me'—I mean, that is as bubblegum as you get! These girl groups and girl singers are doing bubblegum today.
"Bubblegum exists today in those kind of records, and it's very welcome, 'cause it's fresh and it's honest and it's very simple, straightforward kind of stuff that is appealing and very memorable. The minute you hear it you wanna hear it again, and you remember it. So there are things out today that equate to bubblegum. And bubblegum in its time was very popular."
"There's always songs that come out that are bubblegum songs," adds Joey Levine. "I mean, The Cars were certainly a big bubblegum group. But there's always been songs that are hit songs and they wrapped up a little bubblegum. I mean people call The Spice Girls the bubblegum of today. Is it a bad connotation? I don't know. It's a commercial connotation. And then it just becomes up to you to make the decision whether being commercial is bad or good, so I don't know."
"I tell ya, we had a heck of a good time," say Kasenetz and Katz. "We took The Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus, we went out to some junkyard in New Jersey. We did a video there and shots for album covers and what-not, and to move everybody we had buses rented. And that was the first insight into sort of movies or what-not, where we did a whole thing. It was an exciting time in general for things that were going on. I mean, we were on the charts, I would say three years straight we were never off the charts. And we ranked in one of those years, I don't even remember what it was, second to Motown in the number of chart records—and here we were, we weren't even really a record company, we were a production company.
"So we were very excited and happy. The only thing we felt that was missing is we felt that no one really, and even to this day, they don't look at is as quality so to say. And I think we don't get our just due for what we did and for the amount of hits, because we had a lot of hits. I mean, to this day, from all over the world and what-not, I would say we're close to 42 or 43 gold records. But, you know, that's show biz," they say, laughing.
"It was really an era in time that has great memories to us," Kasenetz and Katz continue. "And I speak to people now even, they have a lot of the stuff out on compilations, and they sell. I don't know if they sell because of the compilation or because of the people that want certain things or what-not. But it was a very exciting time. It was a style of music that was very popular for several years."
"It was fun doing," Dante says. "And I'm still making music, I still do some commercials. I've been working for a different company lately. The last thing I did was the Publisher's Clearing House theme. I did [sings] 'Publisher's Clearing House, the House where dreams come true.' That was the last commercial I sung on. I'm still cooking. I'm producing a couple of new artists, and I keep my hand in. But definitely that was a wonderful time. Some famous poet once said, 'It was the perfect time—the time we keep trying to repeat, imitate or sell," he concludes with a laugh.
"There really is something to be said about these songs that went in there, hit the hook and left," Pitzonka says. "There's something very vital about that, and bubblegum was all about that. Bubblegum was for disenfranchised 12-year-olds who couldn't listen to The Beatles anymore, because they didn't get the drug references.
"My personal slant on the whole thing or how I came to it actually is that I had a sister 14 years older than me and I used to collect records when I was a kid. Then in 1978 there was this album on TV called Super Bubble, which I ordered. It was like the first album I ever ordered, mail order, and I just fell it love with it.
"And around that time I was getting really upset with how music was. There wasn't really a lot in the late '70s/early '80s, because that was when arena-rock was coming into the fore, and I just couldn't get worked up about Journey. It just reminded me of the guys who hung out in the back of the school at the auto shop wearing the t-shirts. Those bands to me were all about the t-shirts. And the logo bands—I just couldn't get into it. So at that point I got into The Beatles. And then from The Beatles, instead of most people going from The Beatles to the Stones to Zep, The Doors, I went from The Beatles to The Monkees to The Archies to The Cowsills.
"Bubblegum really did lay a deeper foundation than anybody's willing to give it credit for," Pitzonka continues. "Yes, it is responsible for Take That and New Kids On The Block, but it's also responsible for The Ramones. A lot of the melodic metal comes out of that too. Bubblegum was based in melody; it was all about the song. It was all about getting the message across in two and a half minutes. A lot of people forget that; they kinda just look at it and say, 'Oh, these bands never existed.' Yet everybody remembers 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,' everybody remembers 'Simon Says.' And it was the perfect antidote to everything that was going on. In the late '60s, everybody was trying to make messages and make albums, and here are these people just happy to sing about bubblegum subject matter, which is kid's games, double entendre and stuff like that."
There is indeed a lot to be said for a record that hits the hook and hits the road. Bubblegum's appeal is that it's short, sharp, and to the point, and once it's stuck in your brain it's impossible to scrape off. In times of too much trouble (and not enough treble), there is a tremendous, cathartic rush to be had simply from joining in a rousing chorus of bubblegum's central mantra: "Pour a little sugar on me."