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On This Day in History, April 18: Street Corner Harmony: Part 26

BROOKLYN — One of the most popular singing groups that had its beginning in Brooklyn was Jay and the Americans. The group started out originally as the Harbor Lights. Jay Traynor had been a member of the Mystics but left to form his own group in 1959. He, Howard Kirshenbaum, Kenny Rosenberg and Sandy Yaguda christened themselves the Harbor Lights. The quartet recorded two singles, one for Mala Records and one for Jaro Records in 1960 neither receiving notable exposure. (Jaro incidentally is formed from the initials of the J. Arthur Rank Organization.)

In 1962, the group met producer/writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller via an audition, resulting in a United Artists recording contract. Leiber and Stoller built on the group’s natural doo wop ability. They broadened its appeal by emphasizing John’s lead and the pop flavor of the sound. Leiber and Stoller almost named the group “Binky Jones & the Americans.” Fortunately Traynor objected and they were named “Jay and the Americans,” using the leader John Traynor’s childhood nickname.

The first recordings made by Jay and the Americans were in October 1961. At that time the recording company’s movie-making section United Artists was producing its major release West Side Story and promised Jay and the Americans a great deal of promotion if they would record the “Tonight” number from the show. It was a hit, selling well in New York — about 40,000 copies, although it failed to chart nationally. It received considerable New York airplay. The piano duo, Ferrante and Teicher, also under contract to U.A. recorded the song and it became a big hit for them as well.

The American’s second single, “She Cried,” was one of the eeriest, most haunting 45s released during the ’60s, and it headed straight up the charts to number five in the spring and early summer of 1962. The next single, “This Is It,” failed to chart. Jay decided to leave and by 1963 had begun a solo career on Coral Records. His first release was “How Sweet It Is.” His last single came three years later with “The Merry Go Round is Slowing You Down,” It also suffered a chartless fate.

The Americans, meanwhile were without a lead singer. Guitarist Marty Sanders, the group’s backup vocalist since the “She Cried” session, brought in…his friend to audition. The friend, David Blatt, was currently lead singer for the Empires, an all-Jewish vocal group from Tilden High School in Brooklyn who had just released a single on Epic entitled “(A) Time and a Place.” David won the spot. The remaining Empires (Gary Kessler, Phil Horowitz, Richie Kaufman, and Eddie Robbins) were upset over his departure from their group and renamed themselves the Squires.

Leiber and Stoller were reluctant to change the group’s name to David and the Americans, so David Blatt became Jay Black. Other names changed as well: Kenny Rosenberg became Kenny Vance; Howard Kirshenbaum, (a mortician when he wasn’t singing) became Howie Kane. With a new lead and three new names, the group resumed its career. Unfortunately the next two singles, “Tomorrow” and “Strangers Tomorrow, “failed to make the top 100.

Even “Tomorrows’” B side, “Yes,” with its Latin feel and simple-though-catchy hook, deserved to see some chart activity. The group didn’t realize it at the time, but “Yes” was the first of several future connections they would have to the Drifters. While Leiber and Stoller had been working with the Americans they simultaneously had a chart record with “When My Little Girl is Smiling,” a song with an almost identical feel to “Yes” as recorded by the Drifters.

Jay Black’s soaring vibrato and powerful mid-range were just waiting for the right song. It came through an unusual set of circumstances. Early in 1963, the Drifters (produced since 1959 by Leiber and Stoller) were recording a song titled “Only in America,” written by the producers with the legendary team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. It looked like a sure smash until Atlantic Records decided not to release it. The original Drifters vocals were wiped from the track and replaced by Jay and the Americans. The Americans changed some of the offending lyrics like, “only in America, do they make you sit in the back of the bus.” Nor was it politically correct at the time to have a group singing about a black becoming president. The unreleased (and eventually erased) Drifters version of “Only in America” surfaced on a compilation album packaged in Europe in the 1970s, and is a much sought after collector’s item. Jay and the Americans’ version was released in July 1963, and it became their first chart hit with Jay Black as lead, reaching number 25 by late summer.

One year and two singles later they hit with their biggest record, “Come a Little Bit Closer.” This resulted in the group’s participation in the Beatles’ first American tour in 1964, along with the Righteous Brothers.

“Let’s Lock the Door” and “Think of the Good Times,” two Wes Farrell-penned compositions, kept them on the charts into the summer of 1965. At that time they began the second phase of their career with the recording of David Whitfield’s 1954 opera-styled hit, “Cara, Mia”; it soured up the charts to number four. Starting with this song, the group found extended chart life covering successful oldies. Their next release was another operatic gem, “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific. It reached number 13 and was followed by Neil Diamond’s first songwriting success “Sunday and Me.”

The 10 singles released between 1966 and 1968 produced only one top 30 record, a powerful remake of Roy Orbison’s classic “Crying.” They had gone back to originals during this period but in what had become the psychedelic era the public wasn’t buying Jay and the Americans without a familiar song. They dipped back into the oldie’s bag, reworking the eight-year-old hit by the Drifters, “This Magic Moment,” which became their biggest hit since “Cara, Mia” and even outdistanced the original (No. 6 to the Drifters’ No. 16).

From 1968 through 1971, they charted with three more remakes, including the Turbans’ “When You Dance”, the Mystics’ “Hushabye” (original lead Jay Traynor must have gotten a charge out of that), and the Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain.” Ironically, their last chart record was an original song, “Capture the Moment”, in the spring of 1970, and their last single was another Drifters classic, “There Goes My Baby.”

In the early ’70s the oldies revival gave the group new performance opportunities; Jay Black stayed on as lead into the 1980s while other members dropped out. Two band members at the time, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, went on to form the hit rock group Steely Dan. Kenny Vance began working with record producer Joel Dorn and recorded one of the last doo wop classics in 1975, “Looking for an Echo.”

More than any group of the ’60s, Jay and the Americans paid tribute to the ’50s vocal sound. Whether by circumstance or design, Jay and the Americans were one of the few successful groups to spend their entire career with one record label. All of the 32 singles and numerous LPs (18 of which were top 100) were with United Artists.

April 18, 2012 - 9:00am


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