Featuring blond-haired vixen Gayle McCormick’s soulful lead vocals, Smith was a one hit wonder band who had a notable No. 5 hit in the summer of 1969 with a cover of “Baby It’s You” [not to be confused with later ’80s English rock band the Smiths, best known for introducing Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr to a national stage].
The song, a defiant declaration of a girl’s steadfast love even when friends try to convince her that her boyfriend’s no good (or vice versa, depending on the singer), was originally composed by Brill Building stalwarts Burt Bacharach, Mack David, and Luther Dixon. Pioneering African American female quartet The Shirelles got their hands on the song first in 1961. Their version nearly topped the R&B chart [No. 3] but stalled at No. 8 pop wise.
The Beatles, especially John Lennon, took a shine to the girl group’s intricate vocal harmonies and recorded it along with “Boys” on their debut long player, Please Please Me. The Beatles’ 1963 cover closely emulated The Shirelles’ rendition although the four lads from Liverpool opted for some innovative “cheat, cheat” call and response vocal theatrics after the telling line, “Is it true what they say about you?”
Formed in Los Angeles between the influential Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and swiftly discovered in a nightclub by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Del “Runaway” Shannon, Smith combined rock, pop and blues into an alluring melting pot perfect for late ’60s AM radio.
Sometime in the spring of 1969, Peter Fonda was compiling the soundtrack to his counterculture-affirming Easy Rider and wanted to include The Band’s roots rock single “The Weight.” Unfortunately, licensing issues with The Band’s record label, Capitol, kept their song in the definitive film but not on the hugely successful soundtrack. Fonda was forced to select an alternate version by another artist. Enter Smith.
Fortuitous timing – or perhaps strategic maneuvering – by the quintet’s record label, Dunhill, encouraged the simultaneous release of A Group Called Smith in late July 1969, eventually guaranteeing a Top 20 chart position although the other covers on the album were generally pedestrian and uninspiring. Nevertheless, “Baby It’s You”, the concluding two-and-a-half minute track on side one of the original vinyl, had all the ingredients required for hit single status. And boy, did it deliver in spades.
Shannon aided in the basic roots rock arrangement, albeit uncredited, with horns by Jimmie Haskell during the chorus. McCormick belts the lyrics with intense abandon. Her soul-drenched, awesome vocals led many to believe McCormick was African-American. A wild organ solo leads a short instrumental vamp, anchored by a perfectly mixed rhythm section, until the singer signals the final crescendo with a spine-tingling scream of “Babaayyyy…It’s You!” Smith’s reimagining sounds nothing like The Shirelles or Beatles.
Smith scored additional fans when they appeared live on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. Bolting from the usual tradition of having guests mime their latest hit, Sullivan demanded that everyone perform live vocals and instrumentation. The band rose to the occasion in fine fashion, resplendent in fringe and exotic love beads (the video accompanies this article).
Relatively little is known about Smith beyond their one major hit single. Subsequent A-sides and a follow-up album, the much more cohesive Minus-Plus strengthened by guitarist Jerry Carter’s songwriting, were released with diminishing returns (“Take a Look Around” was their second highest charting A-side at No. 43) until the band unceremoniously folded two years after its formation.
Sadly, McCormick, who seemed destined for star status, had a brief solo career on various record labels but basically abandoned the limelight by the mid-’70s. She remained reclusive until her death from advanced lung cancer on March 1, 2016. McCormick’s decision to withdraw from public life draws ample comparisons to “Ode to Billie Joe” singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry. Incidentally, both had hit songs arranged by Haskell.
Nearly 40 years later, Quentin Tarantino rejuvenated “Baby It’s You” in his grindhouse action flick Death Proof starring Kurt Russell. Smith’s fleeting but memorable trajectory into the upper rock echelon is ripe for reappraisal among ’60s rock and pop aficionados.
Vintage collectors label Real Gone Music apparently agrees. A CD coupling A Group Called Smith and Minus-Plus, Smith’s complete two-album discography, is now officially available. The latter album had previously only been floating around in inferior sounding bootleg editions.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Rick Nelson, the true inheritor of Elvis Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll crown, ruled pop airwaves in the ’50s and ’60s, sailing 35 Top 40 singles onto the charts with relative ease. Female fans felt comfortable bringing him home to meet their parents, while guys had no qualms taking him out for a round of drinks. Three-time Grammy winner Jimmie Haskell, who also orchestrated Smith’s “Baby It’s You”, got his start producing Nelson’s impressive oeuvre. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records: Jimmie Haskell Revisits Rick Nelson”, Haskell sets the record straight on the day Nelson nearly got in big trouble with his demanding father for smoking in the studio, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Nelson’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Nelson’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985. Don’t miss it!
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Exclusive Interview: Dennis Wilson honed his drumming skills during the swinging ’60s. Wilson was a late bloomer compared to his mega talented brothers –Brian and Carl – but he ultimately emerged as the Beach Boys’ most underrated songwriter, producer, and vocalist. A Dennis-led performance was an emotionally wrenching experience, combining deeply personal lyrics, a majestic yet delicate instrumental track, and a vocal so weathered as to be almost ravaged. On the anniversary of what would have been Dennis’ 68th birthday, a slew of Beach Boys experts documented the drummer’s tragic trajectory and legacy among modern musicians in “Like Heat from a Blast Furnace: The Sheer Raw Force of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.” It is required reading into the window of a tortured yet extremely gifted soul.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Dubbed the resident genius of The Monkees, a still-controversial band among some rock critics who rivaled The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for a time, Michael Nesmith knew he wanted to play music upon graduating from San Antonio College. The son of the inventor of liquid paper, Papa Nez participated in the incredible rat race of Monkee celebrity, but his heart lay in songwriting. After composing Linda Ronstadt’s first hit, “Different Drum,” Nesmith exited the band that made him a household name and ventured into the uncharted waters of country rock with his First National Band. The cosmically conscious musician surprised fans by spending much of 2013 on the road and agreed to spend some time with this writer on his musical back-pages, Elvis Presley, some tunes worthy of rediscovery, and the unimagined joy of touring again. Visit “Still Rollin’ with the Flow: Twists and Turns with Songwriter Michael Nesmith” for the juicy enchilada.
- Further Reading: Did you know that former Beatle George Harrison followed up his critically-acclaimed solo debut, the triple-LP “All Things Must Pass”, with another number one record featuring the drumming expertise of compadre Ringo Starr? Surprisingly, “Living in the Material World” contains one song that remains largely undiscovered by the general record buying public. “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” is a Beatlesque and pop-oriented track that deserved to be a hit single. No stone is left uncovered in the fascinating feature, “Rediscovering a Superb Love Song…”
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the ’50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, which documented the first time Presley was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame, why one prominent authority controversially believes “Mystery Train” was the singer’s last honest recording, and a surprising defense of Tickle Me, visit the following link: [“On The Brink of Becoming An Artistic Phenomenon…”].
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