Cynicism may be the reaction to the hit singles of mid-late 1960s pop band, Gary Lewis and The Playboys. As son of the famous comedian Jerry Lewis, Gary and his Playboys were fortunate with the luxury of the Lewis family bank account to line the grooves of their first hit single, “This Diamond Ring”, a 1965 number one smash hit helmed by ace producer Snuff Garrett. It was co-written and arranged by in-demand session producer/musician Leon Russell.
“The Playboys” were Allan Ramsay, David Costello, David Walker, and John West. Because they relinquished their garage band playing to the expertise of renowned session players for the recording of “This Diamond Ring”, and Lewis’ lead vocals were made velvety smooth by blending them into session vocalist Ron Hicklin’s voice (singer of countless TV commercial jingles and the “voice” of those wonderful Partridge Family records) Gary Lewis and The Playboys were as artificial as the corporate-controlled “The Monkees” (who amazingly were the headlining act to Jimi Hendrix in 1967).
The small arsenal of producers, arrangers, and players that were Gary Lewis and The Playboys had an amazing and successful run on the pop charts in 1965 and ’66, placing seven consecutive records into Billboard’s Top Ten Singles chart. While they mock-played their instruments to pre-recorded music on TV’s showcase, The Ed Sullivan Show (where Lewis’ lead vocals were sung live at Sullivan’s insistence), their records blazed the radio airwaves with sunshiny pop that boasted a recognizable shadowy anchor of off-key baritone and complex arrangements.
Real Gone Music’s reissue of The Complete Liberty Singles is a comprehensive account of their career: a two-disc, 45-track CD set that includes all their hits and every B-side, cover, and miss-hit, making it more Gary Lewis and The Playboys than you may ever want to hear. It ultimately traces a cultural history of playful teen-inspired ’60s pop music abruptly altered with the induction of Lewis into the Vietnam conflict in 1967, which fairly ended his career.
The group’s records seduced listeners’ budding sexual glands with romantic, lulling invitation while reaching into their pockets for their allowance change. Their debut hit, “This Diamond Ring” is a fiery blueprint for hit-making success, with an exotic mid-Eastern flair of tampini, tambourine and bass drum that stirs up a delicious concoction of dark pop melody. “Save Your Heart For Me” is a dopey warm summer ballad that is as addictive and disposable as a pre-teen wad of bubble gum. The circus atmospheric “Everybody Loves A Clown”, another Russell composition, has a piano-driven bouncy rhythm that will have its listener helplessly playing and singing along. And the Flamenco-inspired “Sure Gonna Miss Her” lights up a Tijuana sunset in a gliding melody highlighted by a gorgeous Spanish guitar by Tommy Tedesco.
The non-hit tracks offer more interest and enjoyment than I would have supposed. Changing musical tastes bringing a more radical agenda alongside bubble gum pop in Top 40 radio, finds the band scrambling through genres to reclaim their hit-making status with flourishes into The Turtles psyche baroque (“Jill”), The Archies kiddie jangle (“Hayride”), and straight-up rock and roll (“I Saw Elvis Presley Last Night”).
Gary Lewis and The Playboys, while forever labeled a “producer’s band”, delivered a solid package of fun hit records that still demand attention today when heard on oldies radio. Lewis, who may have been a better producer, promoter and manager than he ever was a musician, was a likable and unassuming pop star. He looked like the tall geeky kid without a date at the school dance, when all around him were pin-up boys and British invaders. He possessed a simple but effective vocal enunciation that placed itself squarely into the listener’s psyche like a friendly dumbed-down mantra.
This CD package is a nostalgic joy to listen to. It comes with a 12-paged booklet of liner notes and pics.