Music Review: Jay & The Americans - Jay & The Americans The Complete United Artists Singles
In the early 1960's, when young British musicians were discovering the joys of African American music like the blues, it seemed liked popular music in America itself was turning its back on the same influences. Indeed the charts were dominated by groups who sounded like their major influences were the crooners of the fifties and musicals. It was music that wouldn't make any waves or make anyone feel at all threatened and was a far cry from the exciting music that had burst out of Sun Records in the 1950's. However what it lacked in energy, it made up for with technical prowess, as it was distinguished by polished arrangements and impeccable vocal harmonies.
Most of the bands relied on other people's songs for material, and were at the mercy of their record labels as to what songs would be promoted and how. The majority of the bands weren't really bands either, rather a group of four or five singers, either all male or all female but very rarely a mixture, who were supported by whatever session musicians were on hand when they were in the studio. With the only goal in mind generating a hit single, record companies would devote the majority of a group's studio time to recording the one or two songs they thought might have the best chance of becoming a hit and then quickly recording enough material to fill an album. .
It was these circumstances that made producers like Phil Spector their reputations as the more hits a producer generated the more of a genius he looked regardless of who he was using to record the songs. Now a days if a bands lead singer quits it usually spells the end for them or at the very least will mean a significant change in their sound. However when it's the producer who is controlling the sound and the choice of material who was in the band was nearly irrelevant. Which goes a long way in explaining how there could have been two different "Jays" in Jay & The Americans from the time they released their first single, "Tonight" from Leonard Bernstien's musical West Side Story until they broke up in 1970.
That's one of the things which makes listening to the new three CD set, Jay & The Americans: The Complete United Artists Singles, just released by Collectors Choice Music such a novel experience. Whether it's a negative or a positive is up to you decide, but I couldn't tell the difference between the band which sang "Tonight" back in 1961 with one lead singer (John "Jay" Traynor) and the one who sang "Come A Little Bit Closer" in 1964 with Jay Black. When the band fell apart in 1970 Black continued on as Jay & The Americans until he lost the right to use the name when he went bankrupt and the judge auctioned off the name in an effort to raise money for his creditors. The band has since reformed featuring two of the original 1961 band members, Sandy Deanne and Howie Kane, with a third Jay, Jay Reincke.
Now, as you've probably gathered by the tone of this so far, I'm not the biggest fan of this type of music. I find the majority of it insipid, sentimental, and just plain boring, However, I had recently heard Willy DeVille do a version of "Come A Little Bit Closer" which I thought was great. So I was curious to hear not only what the original version of the hit sounded like, but whether or not there was more to this style of music then I had first believed. There was obviously nothing wrong with some of the material they had been performing and this collection would be a perfect opportunity to revisit the era to check out the rest of their catalogue from the first time around.
It doesn't seem to have mattered whether it was Traynor or Black who was lead singer as the harmonies and vocals were impeccable on each of the songs. I've always liked West Side Story and hadn't been aware that "Tonight" had ever been recorded as a single, so that was a nice surprise to hear right off the top. Unfortunately, even though these were supposed to be the cream of their repertoire, a good many of the songs were no where near being up to the same quality as the opener, and some were just downright embarrassing to listen to. "Only In America" is the worst sort of sentimental, jingoist trash, and "Baby This Is Rock & Roll" is just tripe extolling the music of the title, which is silly considering how little these songs have to do with rock and roll.
However, the band seems able to rise above the quality of most of their material so at least it isn't impossible to listen to. Unfortunately, no matter what the song or who the lead vocalist is, they are also virtually indistinguishable from each other. Oh sure some of them have a sort of Latin sound to them, but it's been so toned down that I don't see why the bothered. Anyway the vocals sound so "All American", white, and bland, if the music were a little spicier it completely out of place.
If you're a fan of Jay And The Americans than this collection will be something you will probably want to snatch up right away. Not only does it contain pristine versions of all the singles the band recorded from 1961 to 1970 it comes with a booklet that gives you a very good history of the group. On the other hand if you've never liked this style of music, a triple disc set will seem like three discs too many, as nothing about it will do anything to change your opinion.