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Let yer hair hang down with this Vanguard Visionaries ten-track folk retrospective.

Music Review: Vanguard Visionaries: The Rooftop Singers

Bring up the early sixties folk boom, and, most likely, one of the first names that'll come up is Peter, Paul & Mary. But for one brief shining moment, another folk trio, the Rooftop Singers, overshadowed PP&M in the two-guys-and-a-gal acoustic sweeps. Their vehicle for chart success was a reworked updating of the Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers blues rag, "Walk Right In," which made it to Number One in 1963. The trio was unfortunately unable to replicate that success, though as the ten-track Vanguard Visionaries set devoted to the group makes clear, it wasn't for a lack of good material. Founder Erik Darling, who earlier had briefly replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, had a clear knack for coffeehouse arrangements that made maximum use of the trio's acoustic facility. Listen to the opening of "Walk Right In," with its dueling twelve-strings happily playing around each other, and you can instantly grasp how this song just popped out on the AM radio.

The threesome's radio career pretty much stalled, however, with the release of their second single, "Tom Cat," after ultra-touchy radio programmers refused to play the song because of its mildly suggestive lyrics. Listening to "Cat" today, it's difficult to hear what the fuss was all about. ("They start romping around," is about as risqué as it lyrically gets.) The Rooftoppers (Darling, Bill Svanoe & Lynne Taylor) regularly took from blues and ragtime, and, compared to their salacious sources, the song's innuendo was pretty darn tame. If this was a tune worth censoring in 1963, no wonder Lenny Bruce had so much trouble.

Perhaps it was the presence of vocalist Taylor in the group that also made programmers so sensitive: a former jazz singer, Taylor brought a cool sexiness that was beyond the reach of most early 60's folkies. It was one of the factors in their hit (weren't a lotta hep daddies back in '63 who were resistant to Lynne's entreaty to let their mind roll on), and it also was used to good purpose in sultry tracks like the bluesy "You Don't Know." Taylor's smart vocals were even capable of transforming a simple kids folk song ("Ha Ha Thisaway") into a fatalistic proto-feminist lament. Her presence was arguably the most subversive element in a group that typically eschewed overt political statements.

The Rooftoppers tried at least more single after "Cat," a sprightly reworking of a song ("Mama Don't Allow") many boomers recognized from an old Max Fleischer cartoon, but it didn't go anywhere. Within five years the trio had split up, though one final track on the "Visionaries" set (recorded, we're unhelpfully told, as "PROJECT X") suggests that Darling had the wherewithal to take a variation of the Rooftoppers into the electric age. After nine tracks of subtle acoustic pickin' and smooth vocals, "Got No Reason to Cry" is a surprise: the song's bellowing bluesy vocals (most likely provided by Taylor's short-term replacement, Mindy Stuart), pulsating organ and electric guitar definitely take Darling & friends into rockier territory. Rooftop Rockers: Get Back, Erik, Bill & Lynne!

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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