Bob Crewe In Philadelphia
Bob Crewe cut singles for Brunswick, Melba, RCA’s Vik subsidiary and other labels in the early ’50s, but none of them made an impact. He found himself competing in a Pop music market that was in the midst of a sea change. An exciting sound called Rock ‘n’ Roll had burst upon the scene. As a vocalist, Crewe was firmly Jazz-oriented and had no desire to be an Elvis Presley clone; however, he was keen to try his hand at writing songs in this new style. In 1953, he met Frank Slay Jr., a young bandleader from Texas who was similarly inclined, and struck up a writing partnership with him.
Bob wanted to be a singer, and I don’t know exactly how quickly that occurred, but we started writing almost – I mean certainly for that session “Don’t You Care” and “Queen of Hearts” …sessions were both written by the two of us, so it had to come very quickly after I met him. He’s a very inventive person. You fall into his spell so to speak with his clever lyrics and his quick words and phrases and so forth, and so he’s a natural songwriter, he really is –Frank Slay, Jr.
With Crewe as demo singer, they managed to place several original compositions with record company A & R reps in the mid-50s; however, they always hated how their songs sounded after staff producers got finished with them. They feared that these inferior recordings would bring their writing careers to a premature end, so in late 1956, they decided to produce their own masters. The team would start a label, sign acts, and market their own product. Crewe was acquainted with music publisher Gene Goodman, the brother of ’30s Swing King Benny Goodman; somehow, he persuaded Gene to finance the launch of a new Rock ‘n’ Roll-oriented record company. Based in New York City, XYZ Records was the first of several labels Crewe would run. On this and all future business projects, he hired his older brother Dan as administrator. Dan Crewe always took care of the business end so Bob could concentrate on the creative side.
The label’s first signing was a doo-wop outfit known as The Rays, who’d cut some early Crewe/Slay material while signed to Chess Records. The Rays’ debut single on XYZ, “My Steady Girl”, was a flop, as were subsequent releases by Les Seevers, The Chancellors, and Hank and Frank. However, a Rays record called “Silhouettes”, broke for a hit after Crewe gave a demo copy to Hy Lit, the most popular deejay in Philadelphia. Realizing that their tiny imprint lacked the clout to break a record nationally, Crewe and Slay sold the master to Cameo Records. “Silhouettes” became a solid smash, vaulting into Billboard’s Pop and R & B Top Five during the Fall of 1957. Soon afterward, the partners dissolved XYZ Records and began freelancing. During the late ’50s, Philly was the undisputed hub of the Rock scene, so they moved their base of operations there. The team’s work with Swan Records duo Billy and Lillie in 1958 yielded a pair of novelty best-sellers, “La Dee Dah” and “Lucky Ladybug”. The names Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, Jr. were finally starting to carry weight.
At the suggestion of “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark, who was a major stockholder in Swan Records, they started working with an energetic young singer/songwriter named Freddy Cannon. He brought them a self-produced demo called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Baby” which boasted a pounding rhythm and blistering guitar solos. The team got together with Cannon and completely revamped the song. Crewe renamed it and penned additional lyrics, and Slay wrote a churning big band arrangement to complement the guitar track. The single they cut sounded so raucous, Swan initially refused to issue it. Finally, Crewe and Slay’s pleading secured a release for “Tallahassie Lassie”, and it went on to be one of the Top hits of 1959.
Under the team’s direction, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon cut several albums and a string of best-selling dance rockers. Cannon’s thunderous remakes of “‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” reflected Bob Crewe’s love of Swing standards; both scored big on the charts. Although less successful, original numbers like “Humdinger”, “Happy Shades Of Blue” and “Buzz-Buzz-A-Diddle-It” gave Crewe the chance to perfect his skills as a Pop lyricist. His ability to turn a phrase was nothing less than diabolical; rockin’ rhymes don’t get much better than she’s my bell-ringin’ witty ditty California city kitty/Swell-of-a-belle-of-a-girl! The songs he penned for Cannon during this period boast some of the cleverest lyrics ever committed to wax.
While freelancing on the East Coast, Crewe got to know many music business heavyweights of the day. Dick Clark was a friend, Roulette Records co-founder George Goldner was a friendly acquaintance, and he had frequent contact with Swan Records’ CEO Bernie Binnick and Cameo Records’ head honcho Bernie Lowe. Atlantic Records’ A & R chief Jerry Wexler became his close friend and mentor. “I learned a lot from Jerry Wexler,” he says in the music industry tome Off The Record. “Jerry always said, ‘if you want to know how much promotion is being done on your record, just consider how much you’re doing and cut that by 90%’ . . . you have to get on the phone, you have to be in contact with people (and) keep the dialogue running.” Crewe took Wexler’s words to heart, and became highly skilled at getting singles played on the radio. Recalling the Payola scandal that rocked Swan and other labels in the late ’50s, he insisted: “I never got into it. I gave parties instead, and everybody had a grand time!” Over the years, Bob Crewe’s party-giving proclivities would become a source of legend. Sometimes, when he needed rowdy-sounding backing tracks for a record, he’d stage those parties right in the studio! — Don Charles Hampton