[8 October 2009]
The New York City pop vocal group Jay and the Americans is best known for a handful of hits from the ‘60s that include “She Cried”, “Come a Little Bit Closer”, “Cara Mia”, “This Magic Moment”, “Let’s Lock the Door (and Throw Away the Key)”, and “Only in America”. Collectors’ Choice has just released a three-CD box set of the band’s singles (both A and B sides) and a few promo items, digitally remastered from the master tapes, in their original mono mixes. While 66 tracks of Jay and the Americans may be too much for the casual listener, old fans will be pleased to hear pristine versions of old songs. Those too young to remember the group would be better off buying a more limited collection. The quality of material here varies in quality and works best in small doses, which indeed was how the music was first intended.
Before the British Invasion of 1964, Jay and the Americans took up the torch of teenage angst and coolness with mini-melodramas about adolescent life. The group’s first single in 1962 was the tune “Tonight” from the musical
West Side Story, which was set in the mid-‘50s. While the song did not chart, it did set the tone for the group’s Jet-like persona as Empire City street kids. This image was regressive for the period. Hipper white groups embraced the newly popular folk revival sound. Jay and the Americans had a doo wop sound that made them sound dated, even when the group was current. That was part of its appeal. The band evoked a simpler era of rock and roll, the ‘50s. This meant one thing during the early ‘60s, but quite another later in the decade, until the group finally disbanded in 1973.
Jay and the Americans were discovered by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who gave the band its name. Lieber and Stoller wanted to name the band Binky James and the Americans, but lead singer John Traynor refused to be known as Binky. He did accept the nickname of Jay as a compromise. However, his tenure with group was short-lived. He sang lead on just a few tracks, but left to start a solo career after the band’s second single, the symphonic tearjerker “She Cried”. “She Cried” peaked at number five on the national Billboard magazine charts in 1962 and made the group famous. Traynor was replaced by David Blatt, who changed his name to Jay Black and became the new lead member. The band continued to release period pieces about “the girl” (e.g., “This Is It For Me”, “What’s the Use”, “Yes”), pop ditties about the object of one’s true love that will either solve all one’s problems or make one cry in lonely pain.
Jay and the Americans were part of the Brill Building sound, where songwriters like Lieber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Berry, and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, pitched songs to commercial bands in search of hits. The group’s next big success was a Lieber, Stoller, Weil, Mann composition in 1963 originally written as a socially conscious theme (with different lyrics) for the black vocal group, the Drifters. When the record company balked at the controversial lyrics and had the Drifters cover it with new, safer ones, the Drifters found the song too corny. The Drifters’ vocals were erased and Jay and The Americans sang it as an optimistic ballad.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 dated the positive message of “Only in America”. Jay and the Americans continued to release more songs about “the girl”, like “My Clair de Lune” and “Look Into My Eyes Maria”, as well as covering upbeat songs by black doo wop groups, such as the Coasters’ “Baby, That Is Rock and Roll”.
A throwaway tune at the end of a Brill Building session written by newcomers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart became the band’s biggest hit, “Come a Little Bit Closer”. The cut had an infectious Latin percussion section (with Willie Bobo on timbales and Johnny Rodriguez on conga drums) and sexy yet silly lyrics (“so I dropped my drink from my hand /and through the window I ran”). Again, the song sounded old-fashioned compared with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other English bands that ruled the charts in 1964, but that also made the sound distinctive and special. This hit was quickly followed by the similar sounding “Let’s Lock the Door (and Throw Away the Key)”, replete with mariachi horns and a doo wop chorus (“shom-dooby-dom, dooby-dom-dom”).
The band became known for its retro sound, a notion reinforced by the band’s cover of a 1954 UK hit, “Cara Mia”. The operatic sound had more in common with past music than what was happening on the chart in 1965, but became the band’s second biggest success because of its nostalgic, romantic elements that recalled a more innocent time. This pattern was followed in Jay and the American’s next two Top 40 hits, a rendition of the show tune “Some Enchanted Evening” (from South Pacific ) and a cover of an earlier pop song, Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. The group’s other Top 40 song from this period was penned by Neil Diamond, a Brill Building discovery. Jay and the American’s “Sunday and Me” was Diamond’s first successful songwriting effort in the U.S.
The hits stopped coming for Jay and the Americans during the most fertile period in rock history, with the group failing to crack the Top 40 in 1967 and 1968. That’s a shame because the band took some risks and put out some strange but catchy material, including a cover of Traffic’s “Shanghai Noodle Factory”, the soft psychedelic “(We’ll Meet in the) Yellow Forest”, and clever, sardonic put downs of conformist non-conformity like “You Ain’t As Hip As All That Baby” and “French Provincial”. The songs work as strong examples of ‘60s pop with an edge.
Jay and the Americans went back to what the band was most successful for and self-produced an album, Sands of Time, of old songs by black vocal groups like the Drifters (“This Magic Moment”) and the Ronettes (“Walkin’ in the Rain”). These two songs hit the Top 40 singles chart in 1969. By the time of Woodstock, rock audiences again hankered for that old-time rock sound (as evidenced by Sha Na Na and 10 Years After on the festival’s film soundtrack). However, Jay and the Americans could not capitalize on this success. The group put out two singles in the early ‘70s, including the band’s weirdest track, “Tricia (Tell Your Daddy)”, which gently asks President Richard Nixon’s daughter to appeal to her father to feed the hungry and end the war (“because he’s everybody’s daddy for a while”). Jay and the Americans broke up soon afterwards, reforming for oldies gigs and employing young musicians such as Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, and Warren Zevon, but the band was history.