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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Ohio Express

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

 

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece. It's separated here for convenience.


In the '70s, there was a persistent rock 'n' roll legend--not a true story, but a persistent one--that singer Rod Stewart had collapsed on stage during a concert, and had to be rushed to the hospital. In the ER, it was said that Stewart's stomach was pumped, revealing that he had ingested 10cc of seminal fluid. And again, this absurd and homophobic story was not true. But when I first heard it, its nonsensical nature didn't stop me from immediately quipping that Stewart went straight from the ER to the studio to record his cover of The Ohio Express' bubblegum hit, "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love In My Tummy)."

This was, of course, not where I first heard of The Ohio Express.

The Ohio Express were never going to be candidates for The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, no way, no how. They were less a band and more a means to an end, a vehicle, or really just a name for a vehicle Kasenetz-Katz--producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz--could drive to the bank, a bubblemobile loaded with cash taken from eager adolescents in exchange for chewy-chewy catchy-catchy 45 rpm records to spin on Close-N-Plays across the USA. There was another vehicle called The 1910 Fruitgum Company, and other limited-use vehicles with names like Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral CircusCrazy Elephant, and Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box. The whole fleet was built for speed, not durability, slapped together by an assembly line that valued a fast joy ride over safety, comfort, or aesthetics. But these were sweet rides nonetheless--sweeter than sugar. None was sweeter than The Ohio Express.

It's a common misconception to say that The Ohio Express didn't really exist, that they were strictly a fictional construct for Kasenetz & Katz's to toil within as a DBA shell company. This is almost true, but not quite 100 % true. There was a band called The Ohio Express. It's just that this band called The Ohio Express didn't really have anything to do with most of the records credited to a "band" called The Ohio Express. This was certainly the case with the very first Ohio Express single, a stunning garage stomper called "Beg, Borrow And Steal."



"Beg, Borrow And Steal" by The Ohio Express may be The Greatest Record Ever Made, and it will get its turn in that particular Boppin' blog spotlight sooner or later. After that single was released and starting to chart in 1967, Kasenetz & Katz recruited an Ohio band called Sir Timothy & the Royals to be The Ohio Express, playing live dates to promote this new single, even though Sir Timothy and company had nothing to do with the record. In fact, the record predates even the concept of The Ohio Express; "Beg, Borrow And Steal" had previously been a failed 1966 single credited to The Rare Breed on the Attack label, and that very same Rare Breed track became an Ohio Express single on Cameo Records. Lawyers, start your engines!



Creative branding aside, The Ohio Express did one album (Beg, Borrow & Steal) for Cameo, which included the title track, a couple of tracks by future superstar Joe Walsh, a charting cover of The Standells' salacious "Try It," and a simply superb LP track called "Had To Be Me," the latter written by Jim Pfayler of the Royals and the Express. Real success came when The Ohio Express moved on to the new Buddah Records label, and embraced a new marketing concept: bubblegum music.





Joey Levine, the singer/songwriter who'd penned "Try It," provided the scratch vocal for a demo of "Yummy Yummy Yummy," a song he'd co-written with Artie Resnick, and which Jay & the Techniques had rejected as too juvenile. Yes, it was rejected as too juvenile by the group that hit big with "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie." Holler Oy! By contrast, Kasenetz & Katz flipped out over the demo, and released it--scratch Levine vocal and all--as the next Ohio Express single in 1968. It was an international Top 10 hit, # 4 in the U.S., and far and away the best-selling record to ever bear the Ohio Express brand name.  Levine never joined the band, but he became their de facto lead singer on subsequent singles "Down At Lulu's," "Sweeter Than Sugar," "Mercy," and "Chewy Chewy." A later studio incarnation of The Ohio Express recorded a Graham Gouldman song called "Sausalito (Is The Place To Go);" that studio incarnation included Gouldman, Eric StewartKevin Godley, and Lol Creme, a combo that would later be known as 10cc.


I'm not in love. I don't have love in my tummy. The things we do for love in my tummy!
Um--don't tell Rod Stewart about the 10cc/Ohio Express bit.

Me? I first heard The Ohio Express on AM radio, warblin' about all that love they had in their tummies. Yummy! I may have heard it when it was a hit, or I may have caught up to it later on oldies radio in the '70s. My first copy of the song came on a flea-market purchase, a sampler LP called 20 Heavy Hits20 Heavy Hits was a 1970 release on the Crystal Corporation label, though I snagged mine several years after that. I may have bought it just to get The Turtles' "She'd Rather Be With Me," but it had a varied wealth of pop single tracks, from The Amboy Dukes' "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" to The Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You." Among these was "Yummy Yummy Yummy," but I was far more taken with the pumpin' "Down At Lulu's," which I'd never heard before. Consider that track a plank on my path to punk and The Ramones.



I liked "Yummy Yummy Yummy" a little. I liked "Down At Lulu's" a lot. But The Ohio Express, whether creation or contrivance, never meant much to me until one evening around 1983 or so. I was at a Buffalo, NY nightclub called The Continental, and the DJ was noted rock 'n' roll journalist (and key Boppin' [Like The Hip Folks Do] inspiration) Gary Sperrazza! I don't remember many specifics of what Gary played that night--if it was Buffalo in the '80s, I was probably drinking--but one track stands out with crystal clarity: "Beg, Borrow And Steal" by The Ohio Express. I had never heard the song before. It was love at first spin.

Over time, I developed a bit more appreciation for The Ohio Express. "Down At Lulu's" was the theme song for a great radio show of the same name, hosted in the mid '80s by DJ Cal Zone on Buffalo's WBNY-FM. In the '90s, I interviewed Joey Levine for my massive Goldmine piece An Informal History Of Bubblegum, and became a big fan of the song "Sweeter Than Sugar." Much later, I tracked down a beat-up copy of the Beg, Borrow & Steal  LP, and played The Ohio Express' version of "Try It" on This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio. Then Mike McDowell of Blitz magazine said to me Sure, fine, "Try It," great. But you should be playing "Had To Be Me." I pulled out the LP, which I'd only purchased for "Beg, Borrow And Steal" and "Try It" before filing it away, and I gave "Had To Be Me" my first listen.

Damn. When Mike's right, Mike's right.

"Had To Be Me" went on to become one of the defining tracks of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio's long mutant existence; my pal Dave Murray chuckles at the notion of an Ohio Express album track receiving saturation airplay, but we all agree that the track deserves it. Yummy Yummy Yummy indeed. It had to be The Ohio Express.



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