Thursday, April 19, 2012


Getting older usually means getting wiser, and a little darker.

The giddy novelty hit "Mr. Bass Man" gave teenage Johnny Cymbal instant fame, and optimism for a bright future. But he never had another hit. He even tried many name changes. Into his 20's and 30's he tried generic pop songs about love, as opposed to doo-wop nonsense noises. "Cinnamon," (1968) was the closest he had to another Top 40 success, released under the name Derek. He also recorded as "Brother John" or "The Non Conformists," and other names that distanced himself from the novelty of precocious doo-wopping comic "Johnny Cymbal"

The real novelty about Cymbal is…that his name was no drumbeat invention to go with the bass man. He was born John Blair in Scotland, but his stepfather was a Polish guy named Cymbal. The family moved to Canada where Johnny enthusiastically pursued his dream of being a teen idol. His dream began coming true. At the time, managers and disc jockeys could "discover" talent, and open doors to record labels. Only 15, he was signed to MGM. Though his singles, including teenager in love ballad "Always Always" didn't do much, a side released by Vee-Jay ("Bachelor Man") got some airplay, and he was picked up by Kapp, and bankrolled with studio time and veteran producer Alan Lorber. "Mr. Bass Man" was a hit. His next single, about a girl who wants to get married (with a bass man offering the first four notes of the wedding march, "Dum Dum De Dum") was not.

With no more light-comedy hits coming, Cymbal dipped briefly into the dark side with a strange teen-agony single. At a time when "Teen Angel" and "Tell Laura I Love Her" and other death tunes were popular Johnny offer "The Water Was Red," (about a shark attack on a young couple. It didn't bubble up into the Top 40. It may have been the romantic melody and soothing crooning, and the first stanza's imagery of red sunset on the water that lulled listeners into not closely following the end (literally) of the story. Likewise, his version of "Teenage Heaven," a morbid list of dead stars (including bass-man Big Bopper) and forecast of future inductees, didn't liven up his royalty check either. Apparently because he was a "one hit wonder," or that his very credible teen tunes of the late 50's and early 60's were spread over a variety of record labels, there was always a shortage of Johnny Cymbal compilations on vinyl, and the few CD compilations are such poor sellers that it's hard to find 'em on eBay or Amazon at a "nice price."

In his up and down career, he mostly survived as a producer (for Mae West and Gene Pitney among others) and songwriter. While songwriting royalties aren't as big as ones that include performance, his bank account got healthy from a sappy Hallmark ballad covered on hit albums from Glen Campbell and Elvis Presley ("Mary in the Morning"). Johnny couldn't resist coming up with novelty tunes now and then and one of them got some airplay: "I'm Drinking Canada Dry," covered by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

A songwriter's agony is rejection, and being ignored, and having some favorite songs never go anywhere except around and around on a worn-out acetate passed from cynical manager to dumbass agent to tin-eared record exec and back. To quote a line from a Gilbert O'Sullivan song posted on the blog: "I like it…but it doesn't knock me out. I think it's great! But it could be better…" Sadly, while the Lee Hazlewoods and Randy Newmans of the world could manage to get a record deal and at least get their quirkier, less commercial, or simply neglected songs out there in their own versions, Johnny Cymbal was tarred with the feathery "one shot wonder" tag, and rarely had such an opportunity. Long after his death, songs he "left behind" have finally been released on a pair of CDs, and there are some neglected gems. Here are two dark beauties:

"Here's to the Hunter" could easily have been sung by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, each taking a sullen chorus in this sullen, sinister story of an encounter between a drifter and a woman living alone. Not that it would've been a hit, but it would've been a respectable album tack, and that would've provided some validation and some royalties.

"This House is Haunted (by your memory)" is more upbeat in tempo, more in the style of R. Dean Taylor's 'There's A Ghost In My House," and other bleak but commercial pop tunes. Taylor pushed his rhythms in the direction of Motown, but the swamp stomp on this one means that Cymbal was hoping to find some grim C&W performer to take that darkness into the light.

The darker side of Johnny Cymbal's songwriting was not seen by the public. Getting older for a "one hit wonder" is not very commercial. Being "young at heart" is. And that's why the oldies circuit thrives on performers who look fairly close to the way they did 20 years ago (Peter Noone, Frankie Avalon, etc.) still have the energy and/or the range despite the graying hair (Lou Christie, Jay Black once leader of Jay and the Americans), or had a hit song that transcends any era and his ageless (nothing can stop Gene Chandler, "The Duke of Earl.") Johnny, still youthful with a full baby face, could indeed sit at a piano and tackle both the falsetto and the bass of his one-hit wonder. The original bass line was provided by Ronnie Bright of The Valentines…who was only a notch below other wacky practitioners of the day, such as fabulous Fred Johnson, who dipped and wurped for The Marcels). Cymbal performed "Mr. Bass Man," "Cinnamon," and other songs in his catalog on March 11th 1993 at a songwriter workshop-event, looking good and singing strong. A few days later, March 16th, he was dead. He was only 48. Yes, the picture of him at the top was taken less than a week before he was taken.

And so it goes, and so it went, for Johnny and for so many other songwriters who score a hit or two, and try to make it into a career. You knock 'em out and you hope for the best, and yes, you also hope that the music industry (the RIAA, ASCAP, BMI, RCA, etc.) tell the accountants not to screw you so badly you can't pay for health insurance. Not that the alternative today…giving it away free, or streaming it for pennies, is better. (Note, the songs offered in the link below are of a lesser bit-rate than both CD and mp3 downloads available on line from the major music selling sites).

In the old days, fans hunted for music in record stores. Now the internet makes it easy, and free. "Here's to the hunter, here's to the great pursuer. Here's to the hunter. Drink to the evil doer….here's to the hunter in us all."




Anonymous said...

Get out! I always thought 'Cymbal' was so lame. Why not Johnny conga/cowbell/djembe? I have been informed. Thank you.

Bird Man said...

Cymbal was a great human being and one talented sumbitch !

Bird Man said...

Cymbal was a great human being and one talented sumbitch !

TrueWrite said...

It's easy to hide behind a keyboard and run your clearly uninformed & opinionated, mouth. God, I wish Johnny was still here to give you an old-fashioned, down-home, ass-whipping!

Ill Folks said...

I hope the kneejerk "lame-sayers" download these tracks and realize there was more to Johnny Cymbal than "Mr. Bassman."

PS, nothing wrong with "Mr. Bassman," one of the best fun-songs of a novelty era that included "Purple People Eater" and The Marcels doing their bompin' "Blue Moon."

Anonymous said...

My Daddy sung Mr. Bassman. Ronnie Bright. ��