116. The Marcels – Blue Moon (1961)

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Following on from their league title victory, Tottenham Hotspur became the first English football team of the 20th century (and only the third in history), to win the double, after a 2-0 victory over Leicester City in the FA Cup Final on 6 May. Two days later, George Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison. He had been found guilty of being a double agent for the Soviet Union.

The number 1 single at the time was this fast-paced doo-wop version of the classic ballad Blue Moon. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart began writing it in 1933 for the movie Hollywood Party, starring Jean Harlow. The main lyrics were:

‘Oh Lord, if you’re not busy up there,
I ask for help with a prayer,
So please don’t give me the air ‘

However, the song didn’t get finished. A year later, Hart rewrote the lyrics to create a track for the Manhattan Melodrama. It was now called It’s Just That Kind of Play, and the words were changed to:

‘Act One:
You gulp your coffee and run,
Into the subway you crowd,
Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed.’

This time, the song was cut from the film, but MGM asked Rodgers and Hart for a song to be used in a nightclub scene. Hart rewrote the lyrics again and renamed it The Bad in Every Man. This time the lyrics had been changed to:

‘Oh, Lord…
I could be good to a lover,
But then I always discover,
The bad in ev’ry man’

Guess what? MGM still weren’t happy, and although they could see there was a great tune there, the lyrics weren’t full of hit-making potential. They asked for some more romantic words and a new title, and a (surely exasperated) Hart came up with:

‘Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own’

Finally, they had completed Blue Moon. Artists including Mel Tormé recorded versions, but it was Elvis Presley that first brought it to the attention of rock’n’rollers. His 1954 recording made it onto his eponymous debut album, released two years later.

Fast forward to 1961, and the Marcels were struggling to finish their debut album. The mixed-race doo-wop group, named after the then-popular marcel wave hairstyle, had formed in 1959, consisting of lead singer Cornelius Harp, Richard Knauss, Fred Johnson, Gene Bricker and Ron Mundy. The Marcels were not a high priority for their label, Colpix Records, and producer Stu Phillips was told not to waste much time on them. However, one night he sneaked the group into the studio after everyone else had left. They recorded three songs and had time for one more, and one band member said they knew Blue Moon. Phillips told them they had an hour to learn it, and the song was hurriedly recorded in only two takes.

Anyone who bought this version expecting a re-run of the original must have got quite a shock when Fred Johnson’s famous ‘bomp-baba-bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp… vedanga-dang-dang-vadinga-dong-ding’ rang out and bounced straight into a comparatively raucous run-through of the track. To many people, this intro is the best bit of the song, and one of most famous intros in doo-wop and rock’n’roll history, but originally Johnson’s vocal came from their cover of Zoom by the Cadillacs. A shrewd Phillips decided to lift it and stick it at the start of Blue Moon to give it some oomph, and it proved to be an inspired decision. Not that this blog should purely be about the intro, mind – the whole track is fun, and a much-needed antidote to some of the tracks I’ve sat through of late. It stayed respectful to the original, yet at the same time, shook things up enough to make it appeal to both young and old.

Blue Moon was huge in the US and UK, and allegedly famous DJ Murray the K (later to try and lay claim to the title ‘the fifth Beatle’ during the British Invasion) played it 26 times in a single show. The Marcels were unable to sustain this success, although a cover of Heartaches did okay. Unfortunately, the group’s white members, Knauss and Bricker, left due to racial problems when they toured the Deep South. Members came and went, and although the original group reformed briefly in 1973, the band splintered into various incarnations. Cornelius Harp died in June 2013, aged 73, and Ron Mundy died in 2017, aged 76.

This doo-wop classic has popped up in many places over the years, but perhaps the most famous appearance is over the end credits of An American Werewolf in London (1981), with versions by Bobby Vinton and Sam Cooke appearing earlier in the comedy horror.

Written by: Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

Producer: Stu Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 2 (4-17 May)

Births:

Bucks Fizz singer Jay Aston – 4 May
Actress Janet McTeer – 8 May
The Cult guitarist Billy Duffy – 12 May
Actor Tim Roth – 14 May

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