In the early 1960's, when young British musicians were discovering the joys of African-American music like the blues, it seemed like popular music in America itself was turning its back on those very 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 – 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 of this era 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, but 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 as 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 out an album.
It was these circumstances that gave rise to producers – particularly Phil Spector – whose reputations grew as they generated more hits and the more of a genius they seemed regardless of who was used to record the songs. Nowadays if a band's lead singer quits it usually spells the end for them or at the very least will mean a significant change in their sound. However, with the producer in charge, controlling the sound and choosing the material, the members of the band were nearly irrelevant. Such 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 Bernstein'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 to decide, but I couldn't tell the difference between the band which sang "Tonight" back in 1961 with John "Jay" Traynor and the one which sang "Come A Little Bit Closer" in 1964 with Jay Black. Once the band fell apart in 1970, Black continued on as Jay & The Americans until a judge ultimately revoked his right to use the name in bankruptcy court. 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 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 catalog from the first time around.
It doesn't seem to have mattered whether Traynor or Black was lead singer, as the harmonies and vocals are impeccable on each of the songs. I've always liked West Side Story and I 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 are supposed to be the cream of their repertoire, a good many of these songs are nowhere near being up to the same quality as the opener; and some are just downright embarrassing. "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 listening to it isn't impossible. Unfortunately, no matter what the song or who the lead vocalist is, they are also virtually indistinguishable from each other. Sure some tracks have a sort of Latin sound to them, but it's been so toned down that I don't see why they bothered. Anyway the vocals sound so "All-American," white, and bland. If the music were any spicier it'd be completely out of place.
If you're a fan of Jay & The Americans, 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 also 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.