Remembering one of the golden voices of American Pop, gone at 82
“We came back on the train with The Beatles from the Washington concert, and it was like A Hard Day’s Night.
“There was a crowd waiting on the platform at Penn Station. I thought people were going to be thrown in the path of the oncoming train. For us, the status symbols were the garment bags we’d carried with our outfits, our tight pants and our alpaca sweaters, but now the status symbols were their guitars. We wanted to emulate The Drifters, and to us, guys who played guitars played at the Holiday Inn. I was there at the exact moment when that completely changed. Like that instant. As soon as they came out on stage, there was a roar that you’d never heard in Rock ’n’ Roll before. It was a sound that ushered in a new era, that roar, and I actually heard that sound. We got off the train and it was, ‘Oh, it’s only Jay and The Americans.’”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Kenny Vance and I were in the midst of exploring a project on the group harmony sound of the ’50s and ’60s, and he told me about the time that his group, Jay and the Americans, were one of the opening acts on the first Beatles show in America, in Washington, D.C., in February 1964. It could have spelled the end of Jay and the Americans, a group that had managed to cut a few hits singles, first with their original lead singer, Jay Traynor (“She Cried,” most prominently), and then with Traynor’s replacement, Jay Black (“Only in America,” a song originally written and produced by Leiber and Stoller for the Drifters, until record execs realized that the American Dream didn’t exactly apply equally to everyone). But what now? Could they have wished, at that moment, that they hadn’t been saddled with the name “the Americans”?
VIDEO: Jay and The Americans “Cara Mia”
“It’s only Jay and the Americans.” Jay Black, the second Jay, passed away recently, and the obituaries mention the hits he sang lead on, like the florid pop-oratorio “Cara Mia,” and the versions of “This Magic Moment” and “Walking in the Rain” that revitalized the group at the end of the ’60s. Also referenced are his mountainous gambling debts, his friendship with John Gotti, his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. He was, in a lot of ways, an unlikely ’60s pop star; he might have fit more comfortably in the ’50s, alongside Eddie Fisher and Perry Como. But the path when he was coming up was through neighborhood vocal groups, and that’s where Black (then using his real name, David Blatt) got started, cutting a single for Epic Records with the Empires (“Time and a Place” b/w ”Punch Your Nose”). When Traynor left a Jay vacancy open, Blatt stepped in, and “Only in America” reached a respectable #25 on the Billboard chart in the late summer of 1963.
The train trip with the Beatles might have been an “uh-oh” moment, but Jay and the Americans, now without the guiding hands of Leiber and Stoller, were provided with a couple of very catchy songs, the south-of-the-border saga “Come a Little Bit Closer” (Springsteen has been known to briefly quote it in the lead-up to “Rosalita”) and the not-at-all date-rapey “Let’s Lock the Door (and Throw Away the Key),” both sizable top 40 hits.
Then came “Cara Mia,” with Black building up to a Lanza-esque climax, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” because what could fit more on the radio in 1965—the year of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—than the big ballad from South Pacific? Laugh if you must, but it barely missed the top 10, and was followed by the first Neil Diamond song to enter the top 20, “Sunday and Me.” Jay and the Americans didn’t try to be hip (in fact, they had a song called “You Ain’t As Hip As All That Baby”), until they basically had no choice, in 1967, with “We’ll Meet in the Yellow Forest.” And their albums didn’t strive for anything like stylistic continuity; it was as though they were in a different time.
Try Some of This! was typical. Some of this, some of that. The non–hit single “You Ain’t As Hip As All That Baby,” followed by a Bacharach-David song (“Always Something There to Remind Me”), then Leiber and Stoller’s “Where’s the Girl,” which suggests a world where Black turns into Scott Walker. There’s a Bob Lind song, a Lennon-McCartney one, and versions of “Nature Boy” and “It’s a Big Wide Wonderful World.” And smack in the middle, a song about the Holocaust, partially sung by Black in Yiddish, “Where is the Village” (“Vi iz dus geseleh?”). You could say that Black, a self-confessed “RWJ” (right-wing Jew), was a complicated cat. I have been told stories about how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were treated on the road when they were, briefly, traveling Americans, and how the backing band used to play pranks on stage to fuck with him. (For a counterpoint, Black’s cousin, rock writer Wayne Robins, says that Black called the future Steely Dan founders “Manson and Starkweather”). But give him this: how many pop singers in the mid-’60s were likely to finish up an album side with a bissel Yiddish?
AUDIO: Jay and the Americans “Shanghai Noodle Factory”
Rather than try to keep up with whatever was going on in modern pop (well, they did, with producer Jimmy Miller, do an incongruous cover of Traffic’s “Shanghai Noodle Factory”), Jay and the Americans, who’d been struggling to get back on the charts—at the end of ’66, “(He’s) Raining in My Sunshine,” barely entered the top 100, and it was their last chart entry for two years—decided to flash back. It was the cusp of an unexpected Oldies Renaissance, and the group was in the thick of it, redoing vintage hits by groups like the Mystics and the Turbans. But it was a final flurry of success, one last echo. One of their final UA recordings was 1970’s “Tricia (Tell Your Daddy),” where Jay, backed by a Becker-Fagen horn and string arrangement, politely suggests that President Nixon’s oldest daughter might think about peace and love and feeding hungry people.
Black spent the ’70s in limbo, bouncing around as a solo artist (during the UA years, the label tried spinning Jay off as a soloist, the way Phillips/Smash did with Frankie Valli), making one-offs for Atlantic (Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” b/w Fred Neil’s “Dolphins”), Roulette (a disco single produced by Teddy Randazzo and Valli), Private Stock, Millenium, and Midsong International. Nothing clicked. Back to the oldies circuit. That’s where Jay stayed. You might have seen him, in his later years, on one of those PBS oldies concert specials, keeping a rapt audience waiting for that big note at the end of “Cara Mia.” The money note.
As long as he could hold that note, they would come to see him. When it finally was out of reach, Jay Black knew it was time to hang it up.
VIDEO: Jay and the Americans perform “This Magic Moment” on PBS