Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Lenny's Corps
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.
Inside Warner/Reprise, Lenny Waronker had transformed the San Francisco group, The Tikis, into Harper’s Bizarre in order to produce a record he wanted to make. It made it. Having created a hit single by this new-named band, Harpers Bizarre via “59th Street Bridge Song”;
… then having been noticed within Warners’ A&R row of older producers who knew how to install rock beat into their acts
… well, let’s just call this 1966 …. Lenny Waronker had graduated from kid/assistant status at WBR. He had turned to musicians of his generation, and with them, Lenny made stunning recordings. He produced awesomely.
Semi-officially, he’d become an A&R Man, not a&r boy.
His own office. A noticeable secretary (Judy Betz). Plus good buddies of Lenny’s who hung out now in Burbank. Two, especially.
Lenny’s corps group stated with two of his school-years buddies who knew real music: Randy Newman, who’d played piano on “59th Street,” and Van Dyke Parks, who was now creating an expensive and memorable album for Lenny: “Song Cycle.”
It being 1966, no one at Warner/Reprise expected the depth of change this small corps would bring to the labels. 1996 Reprise was still Dean Martin (“Somewhere There’s a Someone”) and Frank Sinatra (“That’s Life”) with a few side dishes, like a taste of Sonny and Cher.
And 1966 Warners was still Petula Clark (“My Love”); and Peter, Paul & Mary who were trying to do folk-rock, plus a “Batman” soundtrack for seasoning.
A New Kind of Artists and Repertoire
None of the above hit artists wrote, played, or sang like Lenny’s Corps.
When they got a chance, Van Dyke and Randy and Lenny (and a few other Corps members) made deeply-felt records, thoughtfully composed. Their sound was warm, not bang-bang.
For Warner/Reprise, sales of Lenny’s fastidiously produced albums were respected, but not shoved out front when it was time for Sales Demo meetings. The public for his/their albums was hard to find. Radio and record stores were hard to impress. Rolling Stone was not yet even published, so any reviews of this “listen carefully” style mostly showed up in obscure, once-a-week freebie papers with names like “The Independent” or “Free Press.”
Being in Lenny’s Corps was like you’re in high school and you’re over in the corner of the library with a couple of other geeky kids. You all wear glasses, and you’re memorizing what you’re studying, and can only dream of Friday night, of dating that cheer leader over there.
He wore glasses. He came from a Hollywood-famous family, Newman uncles named Alfred and Lionel and Emil, each making movie scores for big pictures.
Randy’s early life had been spent in New Orleans near his mother’s family. (Later, Randy’s songs later sometimes would reflect the attitude of those narrow-minded environs.)
At 11, Randall had moved to L.A. He attended University High there. In his teens, he started song writing like his uncles, but songs, not full movie scores. Yet. His songs had started getting recorded, including “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear,” by English group The Alan Price Set.
In the mid-60s, Randy briefly became a side-member of The Tikis (later Harpers Bizarre), and several of his songs were recorded by them. Randy became a piano man and song writer useful for his teen friend, Lenny Waronker, who, when he made the Bizarre’s first session, reached out for Randy on piano for “59th Street” and the rest. And then, for his songs.
By 1968. Randy created his first album for Warner Bros., perfectly named Randy Newman. Critics and the far outs in the market adored his songs. Even though his album sold few, many artists reached into Randy for his songs to record themselves. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” was one.
Randy’s album sales continued to struggle. In 1970, Harry Nilsson recorded an album full of Randy’s songs: Nilsson Sings Newman. But that album also barely sold. Randy’s own next album, 12 Songs, didn’t make the charts either.
At Warner Bros. Records, Randy became a steady date, but like someone else in Lenny’s Corps, not one you hung with on the best-seller charts.
Like Randy, Lenny’s second Corps man followed the same pathway. Excellence but not pop.
As a child actor, Van Dyke Parks appeared in TV and movies from the age of ten. He attended Carnegie Institute of Tech at ages 17 to 20, then relocated back to Los Angeles where he and his brother Carson (who wrote “Something Stupid” for Frank and Nancy) became a folk group called The Steeltown Two, and others.
His major breakthrough became in 1966, working with Brian Wilson, creating lyrics for the never-really-happened album Beach Boys album, Smile.That year, Lenny Waronker persuaded Van Dyke to slide out of his artist contract with Mike Curb’s MGM Records, and slide over to WBR. Parks started working within the Lenny Corps, and was part of the Harpers Bizarre creation (his song in it is “High Coin”).
Psychedelics were a part of life ~1968, and for Van Dyke, they’d been fully on the table during his year working with Brian Wilson. With them more under control, Van Dyke created his first album for Lenny/Warner.
Song Cycle covered American pop music, from bluegrass to show tunes, to ragtime, a concoction that mixed all those music styles with the progressive styles of late-60s pop. The album amazed, and still amazes, its audiences.
Reviewers often described it with lines like “album of the year.” Other reviews said Song Cycle is…”a milestone of American pop music”… and “…the most important, creative, and advanced pop recording since Sgt. Pepper.”
For WBR, Song Cycle amazed for $35,000 in cost (large for that time). WBR took that to heart and wallet, and began running ads about how this spectacular new “album of the year had lost $35,509 (dammit)”. And a second ad suggesting that those who’d worn out their copies because of over-playing them could send back the old one and get two new copies, the second “to educate a friend with.”
Parks accused Warner’s ad writer of trying to kill his career. But the ads made good impressions, both for Song Cycle and its record label.
The Corps Becomes Bizarre
Out of Harpers Bizarre came more records, but none so compelling as “Feelin’ Groovy.” The vocal arrangements felt like a Spring afternoon – cheerful, airy – no matter the tune. In Harpers Bizarre albums, oldies like “Anything Goes” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were mixed into Sunshine Pop tunes by Randy, Van Dyke, Harry Nilsson.
When it comes to Harpers Bizarre, beyond Randy and Van Dyke, one other name deserves mention: Ted Templeman, a true group member, even the leader of The Tikis back when they were signed to Autumn Records in the mid-Sixties. But Harpers Bizarre as a band broke up after its fourth and final, 1969 album.
One single had not made them “forever.”
But like Randy, like Van Dyke, Teddy Templeman stayed within Warner’s A&R gang. He became a producing star for the label, most famously for the Doobie Brothers. But many others as well.
For more on Teddy Templeman . . .
-- Stay Tuned
Whatever Happened To
Randy Newman: He continued to reach for the Top 40, and made it with “Short People” in 1977. The attitude of the song produced some objection. The Maryland legislature tried to criminalize radio stations that would play it. Other Randy compositions with off-beat viewpoints followed as hits: “It’s Money That I Love” (1979) and “I Love L.A.” (1983), as Randy had a major life beyond making albums. He filled good movies with peculiar song hits. He has a houseful of trophies as well. Oscars and Emmys and Grammys, just to start with.
Van Dyke Parks: In 1970, Mo Ostin gave Parks the job of heading a new, Audio-Visual department. Parks started to use films (pre-videos) to promote Warner’s releases. Parks has continued to perform and, selectively, to issue new albums. His latest (May 6, 2013) are Songs Cycled (semi-vocal) and Super Chief (orchestral) on the Yep Roc label in America.