THE FLEETWOODS MR. BLUE, 1959, Dolton Records
When I was in elementary school, an investigator in the local D.A.’s office gave my father, then a rising local prosecutor, a precious gift. For my sister and me, this gift passed beyond mere rite of passage into the realm of legend. It was a four volume compilation of hits of the Fifties and Sixties transferred with great care and the finest technology onto four 120-minute TDK high-quality cassette tapes. Each tape had been meticulously labeled in tiny print that would’ve made a Japanese miniature painter envious. And they were grouped not by date or preference or chart placing, but by mysterious thematic designations such “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”
The tapes became a kind of sonic blue flame around which our family would gather to swap tales. Well, mostly my father did the tale-swapping while we listened to his persistent editorial commentary on interminable (six-hour, actually) car rides in our Pontiac sedan to Panama City Beach, Florida, for Spring Break. Needless to say the marathon of “Oldies But Goodies,” as my father referred to them, provided the only acceptable soundtrack, as it not only made him happy, but sent both him and my mother into long wavy nostalgia trips, each thinking separately of his/her own long-ago Florida Spring Break trips down this same road.
I realized quite early, intelligent boy that I was, that by feigning a sincere interest in the Oldies But Goodies I could commandeer a seat up front for the duration, and I played it to the hilt, especially after we hit Montgomery, AL (our traditional midpoint stopping place for dinner) and Dad was eager for someone to stay awake with him after it got dark on the long, lonely two-lane state highway. I hung tough with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, glided through the Supremes, Chiffons and Shirelles without knowing the difference, walked in the rain with Dion and the Belmonts, rallied strong with the Everly Brothers, even managed to keep a smile pasted on my face through the agonizing novelty songs like "Hello, Muddah, Hello Faddah" and "The Monster Mash." But when the hushed coo of the Fleetwoods started… Something strange happened…
“Ba-doo-be-do… dum dum dum doo dummmmm doo be do…” I froze. It was so dreamy, so soft, so yearning, like the glittery drip of a falling star. Something in that innocuous Caucasian doo wop croon exerted a mystical spell over my childish mind. It whispered, in its inaudible gray shadows, something desperate, feathery and pleading. Something humid. Something sexual. Dragonfly wings. Silver candles. Aurora Borealis. Ebony coffins. Frozen caves. Something coming out of the black, flying straight towards our car on icy blue-violet wings, like an angry swan… And it freaked me out. “Dad, can we fast forward this one?” I would always ask. In the dead dark, the reply would come, “Sure, son.” And then Frankie Avalon brought merciful relief in the form of “Venus.”
Twenty-four years later, “Come Softly To Me” still freaks me out. And I love it. The Fleetwoods formed in Olympia, Washington, in the late 1950s when the high school singing duo of Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis sought out a trumpet player to accompany their vocals. Gary Troxell fit the bill, but he wanted to sing, as well. The girls quickly acquiesced when he shared with them a little doo wop number he’d been working on. By 1959, the duo had become a trio, the Fleetwoods had signed with Seattle-based Dolphin (later Dolton) Records, and “Come Softly to Me” had become a smash worldwide #1 hit single. The Fleetwoods were one of the few white bands of the era to place on the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. (Even today All Music Guide lists them as an R&B band.)
The LP Mr. Blue appeared the same year, and it contains at least four of their all time biggest hits: the title track, "Come Softly To Me," "Confidential," and "Come and Go With Me." The cover image looks so innocent and precious: A boy stands in his tuxedo ready for the prom, his white gloved hands holding a top hat, while two pretty girls in matching taffeta gowns bedecked with bows and tiaras look on admiringly, like little ballerinas. You know what this record will be— a soft, doe-eyed, blandly harmonic, tranquilizing, nausea-inducing bore. But you are wrong.
Chalk it up to the enigmatic, elusive atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest, land of rain and disdain, but what emerges is subtly well-structured and deceptively complex, with marvelous falsetto harmonies that run the gamut up and down the register, always tight and in tune, like roller coaster cars. The originals are full of unique and interesting elements—Gary’s introductory acapella lament to “Mr. Blue” ending in trombone riff; the insistent snareless snare-drum running through “Raindrops, Teardrops” that balances the girls’ glissading voices, evoking an authentic summer shower, all the way though the vamp-out ending; the playful, hilariously anachronistic (for three white suburban Washington teenagers) choruses of “Three Caballeros”; and the teen angst on display in ultimate unrequited-love ballad “You Mean Everything to Me.” But it is their unorthodox, carillon bell-like arrangement of “Unchained Melody” that’s a true original. Unlike any other version of the song you’ve ever heard, They take what is so familiar and make it sound like an ancient siren song, a plaintive call from a faraway, mythical place—earnest, yearning, deeply felt. For the first time almost, you’re made aware of just how pretty the lyrics to this tired old chestnut are. Forget Ghost and Demi Moore freaking a potter’s wheel. The Righteous Brothers didn’t know shit.
Needless to say, I love this record. The whole album has an eerie, spectral, dollhouse quality. It evokes pale fires in crystal-filled rooms; waterfalls, wisteria-hung trellises, moonlight and night-blooming jasmine; teenage girls with training bras and itchy corsages dancing awkwardly with boys in hard-soled shoes and peach fuzz on their lips, each partner nervously imagining what may happen later in the backseat of the car. After all, the band named itself after a Cadillac, one of “the finest automobiles in the world (according to the album liner notes).” What do you think Gary means when he croons, “Your love will always be confidential to me…”
There’s something dreamy and wistful in this music, but also something breathy, unexamined and obsessive that has a stalker-ish, notebook-doodling, “I-heart-you!” intensity. It’s the perfect music for a rainy day, a lonely night, or a casual romantic interlude. Just don’t give them your real number afterwards…
You Mean Everything To Me