Bob Shell: Musical Fun

Composite photo of various musical instruments
Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2021.

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2021

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During my recovery from my recent illness I’ve worked hard to keep my mind occupied and not dwell on how bad I was feeling. One thing I’ve had a good time with is a book belonging to a friend here. It’s ‘The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits,’ and contains every song that made it onto Billboard’s Top 40 list from 1955 through 2009. The one he has is the 9th edition. There may be newer editions that cover later years, but this edition covers my formative years perfectly. In addition to listing the place on the Top 40 that the song reached and how long it stayed there, this 900+ page dictionary-size book contains a brief bio of the artist(s) who recorded the song. I find it very interesting to learn the real names and other info about some of these stars. 

One of my favorites early on was Connie Francis, whose real name the book tells me was Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero. Her first hit, ‘Who’s Sorry Now,’ made it to number 4 in 1958 and held on there for thirteen weeks. She was only twenty at the time, and went on to chart 35 Top 40 hits until her last in 1964. She was a real beauty, too, and acted in a bunch of teen movies during those years. I remember watching her on the big screen of a drive in theater. There’s never been another voice like hers! I heard that voice coming from my radio and fell in love. 

In 1955, I was nine years old, and just starting to really notice music. My father was a radio DJ at the time and was always bringing stacks of records home to play. He thought rock and roll when it first hit with people like Bill Haley and Elvis, was going to be a passing fad. He was very surprised that it not only hung on, but grew to eclipse everything else on the radio. He hated it at first, but later came around to liking some of it. 

Another favorite of mine was and is John Henry Ramistella. Not familiar? You know him as Johnny Rivers. Although born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Baton Rouge, where he soaked up the musical influences of the Mississippi, and adopted his stage name. His first Top 40 hit was a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis,’ which reached number 2 in 1964 and stayed there for an astonishing ten weeks. Other hits followed ranging from the hard rocking ‘Secret Agent Man’ to the gentle ‘Fire And Rain’. My favorite, and one of my all-time favorite albums, is 1967’s ‘Realization.’ I played the grooves off of that LP album in 1967. Years later I bought it on CD, and still listen to it regularly today as MP3 files on my tablet. It never gets old. 

There are many interesting and sometimes odd stage names chosen by recording artists. How about Ray Stevens? Now there’s an all American name for you. Would he have found success as Harold Ragsdale? Elton John as Reginald Dwight? Would Freddie Mercury have headed up Queen as Farouk Bulsara from Zanzibar! Would John Kay have been ‘born to be wild’ as Joachim Kauledat? Would Marty Balin have cofounded Jefferson Airplane as Martin Buchwald? How about going down country roads with John Henry Deutschendorf? Or blowing in the wind with Robert Zimmerman? Or plain old boring David Jones instead of exciting, dangerous-sounding David Bowie? Would ‘Scott McKenzie’ have sent you to San Francisco to wear flowers in your hair as Philip Blondheim? Would The Big Bopper have succeeded as Jiles Perry Richardson? Would Mac Rebennack have succeeded if he hadn’t taken on the persona of voodoo legend Dr. John? Why did Arthur Wilton change his name to Arthur Brown before he caught fire? Would Alice Cooper have made it big as Vincent Furnier? Or Kiki Dee as Pauline Matthews? We’ll never know, but probably not. 

Unfortunately, many of my favorite bands from the 1960s didn’t get enough national radio play to make the Billboard Top 40. They may have been big on local or regional radio, but didn’t get airplay elsewhere. Consequently, they’re not in the book. I’m speaking of exceptional 1960s ‘psychedelic’ bands like Mandrake Memorial, Fever Tree, Clear Light, H.P. Lovecraft, and more. Even the supergroup Grateful Dead only ever got one Top 40 song, ‘Touch of Gray,’ as did Captain Beefheart with ‘Clear Spot.’ 

The great singer/songwriter Laura Nyro isn’t in the book, either, although her songs are — sung by other people. That’s a shame. 

There are some real surprises in the book, like Senator Everett Dirksen doing ‘Gallant Men.’ 

And, as well as unusual real names of artists, there are the names of some of the bands. I just opened the book at random, and there at the top of the page is a band called ‘Right Said Fred,’ that had a hit in 1992 with a song titled ‘I’m Too Sexy.’ I couldn’t make this stuff up! Some others are: ‘Peach Union,’ ‘Mint Chocolate,’ ‘Jimmy Eats World,’ ‘Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers,’ ‘Butthole Surfers,’ ‘Ghost Town DJs,’ ‘Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen,’ ‘Faster Pussycat,’ ‘Amboy Dukes,’ ‘Edison Lighthouse,’ ‘Bingoboys,’ ‘Deep Blue Something,’ ‘Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys,’ and on and on. 

This book is loads of fun for anyone who is into popular music. Over the last week, I’ve spent hours going through it until I’ve now read every entry and expanded my knowledge of musical trivia greatly. Sure beats sitting around bored, letting my mind rot.

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About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author, former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine and veteran contributor to this blog. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read additional articles by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/marijuana-legal-virginia/

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.

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