Nepotism is nothing new in the entertainment business in general … and the pop music biz in particular. But whereas the last two or three decades have seen the kids of rock and country stars following in their parents' footsteps (although with few exceptions — '80s Rosanne Cash, maybe Jeff Buckley, come to mind — none have even approached the greatness of their pedigree), the '60s rock scene was all about the progeny of the old guard. Nancy Sinatra, with more than a little assistance from the great Lee Hazlewood, scored numerous hits on her dad's vanity Reprise label, while the sons of Dean Martin and Lucille Ball scored on that same label with the relatively lightweight Dino, Desi & Billy. Strangely enough, though, it was one of Jerry's kids (pun intended) who hit biggest with arguably the greatest output.
The Beastie Boys would mimic Jerry Lewis' "idiot" persona years later with "Hey, Ladies," but Gary Lewis thankfully only mimicked his dad's shtick once on record, via "Time Stands Still," certainly the worst, god-awful song on this new collection. But while Gary Lewis & the Playboys were certainly a real band in L.A. before they were signed, in the studio, they were the best band money could buy via session players. As a result, they were one of the few American bands to hit the top of the charts repeatedly during the early British Invasion. Of course, it also wasn't unusual at the time to use studio musicians on pop sessions by bona fide bands. Many of the same musicians — later dubbed the Wrecking Crew — who played on the Lewis hits also played on the Byrds' first album, most of the Beach Boys' records, the Monkees, the Mamas & the Papas … hell, virtually every pop hit that came out of Southern California in the mid- to late '60s.
But the real aces in the hole when it came to Lewis were legendary producer Snuff Garrett and arranger Leon Russell, the latter who not only arranged most of these hits but co-wrote a lot of them. The team first hit pay dirt in December of '64 — a year that belonged mostly to the Beatles — with "This Diamond Ring," written by one Al Kooper. The composer, who'd soon enter legendary territory thanks to his organ work on Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," has griped for years that the song was intended for an R&B act like the Drifters, but we bet Kooper never complains about those royalty checks that are still coming in. Whatever the case, Garrett and Russell created a virtual hit factory with the Playboys, scoring subsequent huge hits with tracks like the Beach Boys-inspired "She's Just My Style" and "Count Me In" (the latter written for Herman's Hermits), as well as "Save Your Heart for Me," "Everybody Loves a Clown," "Green Grass" and the great "Sure Gonna Miss Her" (which was even greater and more rockin' on the alternate album version, not included here, thanks to the terrific Hal Blaine's extraordinary drum fills; Jim Keltner was the other ringer who filled in for Lewis, a drummer himself).
The hits dried up when Lewis was drafted and sent to Vietnam (it's been rumored at his dad's insistence) in early '67, although the second disc here demonstrates this band wasn't made for psychedelia or the late '60s. Interestingly, Disc 1 concludes with a cover of the Beach Boys' cover of "Sloop John B.," which at least musically sounds a lot like the Beach Boys' orchestral pop version — not surprising given that many of the same players worked with Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds.
Most of the principals behind these hits would go onto greener pastures, of course, working with various solo Beatles, Dylan and even successful solo careers of their own. But during the mid-'60s, pop music didn't come any better than the singles featured on this first disc. Sure, the Velvet Underground and Sgt. Pepper, among other things, would soon bring high art to pop music. Nevertheless, if you're in the right mood, Gary Lewis & the Playboys will still satisfy the pop lover in you just fine.
Leon Russell plays Friday, June 26, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.