Although Gary Lewis never had the best musical chops in the business, he and his Playboys managed to have a respectable string of hits through ’65 and ’66. Backed by a production team including Snuff Garrett and Leon Russell, some of Gary’s best known songs include “This Diamond Ring,” and “Count Me In.” The compilation, The Complete Liberty Singles, weighs in at a hefty 45 songs, showing the best, and sadly more of the worst, of this band.
The first disc starts right away with the Playboys most memorable song, the Al Kooper-penned “This Diamond Ring.” It debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, introducing us to Lewis as the “boy next door.” He was the safe, clean-cut alternative to the ragged mop-top look of the British Invasion, which had American boys and girls screaming in ecstasy, and American parents just screaming.
“This Diamond Ring” quickly became a huge hit, even though Kooper was not thrilled with the Playboys' version. I would have preferred to hear “Diamond Ring” as a later track because the collection immediately loses momentum and never fully gains it back. Track seven comes close with the simple innocence of “Save Your Heart for Me,” another of Lewis’ eight singles to reach gold status. In between, tracks two and three (“Hard to Find” and “Tijuana Wedding”), are almost painfully forced upon us. Both instrumentals, they were, at different times, B-sides to “Diamond Ring.”
“Tijuana Wedding” sounds eerily similar to other familiar songs of that time: “La Bamba” and “Louie Louie.” Sort of like an ugly step-child of two really good looking parents. According to the producers (Russell and Garrett), Gary Lewis and the Playboys never played on these tracks, which is why you get the feeling that you’re listening to a completely different band.
Track four is the hit “Count Me In,” another squeaky clean, aw-shucks, teen frolicking kind of song. Track five, “Little Miss Go Go” an obvious Beach Boys sound-alike is good but skipable. By the time you reach track six, “Doin’ the Flake,” you realize you’re not listening to a real band but the commercial concoction of producer Snuff Garrett. “Doin’ the Flake” was recorded for Kellogg’s in 1965, and children received it free when they sent in two box tops to the cereal company. It’s unnecessary in this collection, and should have been left out, or at least put in at the end as a bonus track with a warning that too much sugar can cause cavities.
The CD gains some strength with “Save Your Heart For Me,” and the streak continues on for the next eight songs (“Without a Word of Warning,” "Everybody Loves a Clown,” "Time Stands Still,” "She’s Just My Style,” "I Won’t Make that Mistake Again,” "Sure Gonna Miss Her,” "I Don’t Wanna Say Good Night,” and Green Grass”). “She’s Just My Style,” is another obvious Beach Boys “influenced” song, but written and produced so well, it could have been found tucked between “Wouldn’t it be Nice” and “Caroline, No” on Pet Sounds if not for Lewis’ vocal range, or lack thereof.
With the simplistic “I Can Read Between the Lines,” the CD nose-dives once again and ends with a forgettable version of “Down on the Sloop John B.” These two tracks offer nothing new, and in some instances like “Paint Me a Picture,” are sadly even a little laughable. It’s at this point, that you realize there is still another disc to go before you have completed The Complete Liberty Singles.
Disc two features some interesting songs, but no major hits like "This Diamond Ring." Those who are still listening may find themselves reaching for a Beach Boys or the Beatles album, since these songs draw heavily from those two bands but lack the same artistic and musical quality. There is, however, a sprinkling of decent material on this CD. An example is, track one “Where Will the Words Come From,” a fine song to be sure, but it’s followed by, “May the Best Man Win,” a vocal monstrosity. Sung in a higher register, by a man who never sounds comfortable with his normal voice, you can guess the outcome. The next track, “The Loser,” another good song, this time by producer Russell, never realizes its full potential, again because of poor vocals. Tracks four through seven, “Ice Melts the Sun,” "Girls in Love,” "Let’s Be More then Friends,” and "Jill,” are more or less unlistenable.