Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Them's Triplets

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
60s
Frank Sinatra
Dean Martin
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Them's Triplets

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Them’s Triplets

In his first year out in Burbank, Reprise general manager Mo Ostin was feeling both welcomed and insecure. Security in his job would mean that “his” label – Reprise – would need to produce hits, income, profits. Lotsa. Only that way would Mo and his small gang not be just some Frank Sinatra left-over.

So far, Mo was doing … mmm … OK. Trini Lopez had been a first hit, but not a forever. Then The Kinks had been better, but ...

On his Reprise staff, Mo had kept a “today’s sound” producer named Jimmy Bowen. Bowen had been a one-hit rockabilly star back in the 1957.

Back then, he’d gone Top 20 with his song, “I’m Stickin’ with You,” originally a B-side to Buddy Knox’s “Party Doll.” Bowen played bass in their group, The Rhythm Orchids. Soon, Bowen’s B side became an A side, came out on Morris Levy’s Roulette Records, sold over a million, and went to #14 on Billboard.

A few years of semi-stardom, but no career was felt ahead; Bowen did not want to keep hauling his bass from gig-to-gig forever. So Bowen had moved to Los Angeles. There he ended up with Reprise as a “catch all” producer. He’d met with Mo Ostin, and the price for Bowen to join Reprise was no object. Mo Ostin would hire him as a full-timer for $150 a week. Bowen flexed the sum down to $100 a week plus 1% royalty on his producings. Mo liked saving Reprise the $50. Away we go.

Now it’s 1964, Reprise has moved to Burbank, and Bowen had taken on more and more recording duties.

(Bowen was still only Reprise’s #2 in A&R, while its distinguished A&R head, Sonny Burke, was #1. Burke handled albums with lots artists in their fifties.) Burke was the gentleman in A&R.

Bowen found other niches in A&R.

Fixing “Everybody” Up

In the Reprise offices, Bowen was unlike the rest of the Reprise clan. Bowen drawled. He shucked and jive, and was your buddy. He wore clothes that were too tight, or else he’d overeaten inside them. Dark glasses indoors.

Now out in Burbank, Bowen worked with various Reprise artists; with Dean Martin, he’d recorded Dream with Dean. Little rockin’ in that one; dreamy it was.

But one Dream song in the album had captured Bowen’s interior voices: he kept hearing a new kind of “Everybody Loves Somebody.” After an evening of pool and beer, the hum of “Everybody” would not leave his head. Bowen asked his housemate for help. “I’ve got an idea, but I can’t sing and play triplets at the same time. You play piano and beat out triplets while I sing.”

(Triplets, for those who feel at sea right now, “triplets” means three beats against a time measure meant for two: like ding-ding-ding, iang-ding-ding.) So Jimmy and Jack (McGraw, Reprise’s sales manager) played and sang and, under “Everybody Loves Somebody,” triplets made it sound like a song that would sell forever.

Bowen talked to Dean Martin the next day. Dean was willing; he’d not had a big hit ever with Reprise (since ’58), and Bowen talked like he knew one. This one. It’d mean a one-song recording session, which cost money. Mo Ostin agreed to it: “If you feel that strong about it, go.”

In the studio, with Ernie Freeman conducting, the tempo was up from dreamland to hip-land, 35 musicians out front, engineer Eddie Brackett at a four-track board, where he sweated as this new arrangement came to life. And under it all: ding-ding-ding-ing.

Triplets had crept into Reprise. But not into Dean’s home. His 14-year-old son Dino’s ears were where most teens’ were: into the Beatles now. Martin was no teen. He told his son, “I’m gonna knock your pallies off the charts.”

“Everybody Loves Somebody” was rushed out, leapt up the charts, and out in radio and record stores it now became Dean Martin vs. – get this! – vs. the Beatles. Dean outsold everybody. On August 15, 1964, he buped the Beatles from #1. “Everybody” went gold. In Burbank, Mo now had two hits going for him: The Kinks and now … Dean Martin. People began saying “Mo has an ear.”

Dean Martin told his son, Dino, “See, what’d I tell you?” The song became important to Dean. The words “Everybody Loves Somebody” were eventually etched on his grave marker in the Westwood Cemetery.

Was Sinatra Jealous?

Sinatra liked having chart hits, too. Even before Dean, Frank had recorded “Everybody Loves Somebody,” without triplets, of course. It just became another album cut.

But now..?

Now, when Frank spoke with Bowen, he mentioned his distaste for being a rock star. Bowen said, “Not to worry.” If he recorded Sinatra, he promised Frank that he (Frank) would not have to change a thing about how he sang. The only change would be in the arrangement underneath. “For the modern marketplace,” Bowen reassured. Sinatra agreed.

Bowen chose the song: “Softly as I Leave You.” It was a new song, but its publisher assured Bowen that he’d have an exclusive. Nobody else would get it. Deal.

Then, the night before the recording session, Bowen was idly chatting with Kapp Records artist Jack Jones at a star-filled restaurant in Hollywood, Martoni’s. Jones enthused over a new song he’d just been handed: “Softly as I Leave You.” Bowen smiled, and said not a word about any “exclusive.”

But when Bowen mentioned that competitor problem to Sinatra, Frank answered “I don’t give a damn if God recorded it. I like the song and we’re going to do it.”

The next morning, Sinatra personally called Mo Ostin, saying how he’d worked hard, they’d worked hard, how they wanted this single OUT!

Now.

Mo Ostin called his promotion heads, then arranged for forty $20 bills to get taken to the recording studio at the end of the session. Mo knew better than to ask why, exactly.

The same day: Ernie Freeman grinds out the arrangements, now!

That night, recording of the single was set at Hollywood’s United Recorders. It was set for the last hour of a Dean Martin session, from 10 to 11. Once again, Ernie Freeman first rehearses his arrangement with the band.

When Sinatra strolled into the studio, he heard a pair of flutists going tweet-tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet-tweet. He stopped and just stood there.

Bowen watched as Sinatra just stared at the flute guys. Then Frank turned to Jimmy and asked “What’s that?”

“Them’s triplets,” Bowen answered.

“Oh.”

Sinatra sang the way he sings. Bowen and Freeman took care of the rest.

Midnight. In a side room of the studio, dubs were getting made, fast. Copy after copy is cut into a single. Each was handed to the promo exec from Warner/Reprise, who’d previously made a lot of deals for runners, guys who’d take finished dubs of the single out to LAX, to schmear stewardesses to carry them on flights to places like Chicago, where they’d be met on arrival by local Reprise promo men, who’d re-schmear the carriers, grab a cab and, with the promo copy, zip over to meet their key DJ, hand it to him with the confidential comment: “For you. From Frank.”

Jack Jones got leveled. With triplets, Sinatra won.

Singles Are Just Not Albums

Fond of hits, without rock, Frank Sinatra now led a double life. For lush albums, his producer was the white-haired Sonny Burke. Burke knew how to make distinguished recordings, like Frank recording an album with Antonio Carlos Jobim.

But Sinatra now also had Jimmy Bowen to take care of “those singles.” And sometimes his “albums.” Together with Bowen, Sinatra in 1966 made a full album: “Strangers in the Night.” That single went up to #1. It went Platinum.

Perhaps it was the album’s liner notes, which won a Grammy for the album.

Grammys or no Grammys, Sinatra privately confessed that “he never really was fully comfortable with that kind of music.” After “Strangers in the Night,” for instance, he’d never perform that song. Never thought it was a good song,” he once said.

But for Jimmy Bowen, now he was feeling his hits. His percentage fee went up to 3%. He made good money, maybe two hundred thousand a year now. He started living with Keely Smith. Dated Nancy Sinatra. Still stayed up ‘til his eyes felt like corks.

And for Dean, he’d never want to be without “Everybody Loves Somebody.”

Reprise had found the public. The door was now open wide, and Mo and his gang rushed through it.

- Stay Tuned