Robert writes about rock & pop music, and vinyl record collecting.
Let's continue our series about "bird" and "animal" groups and artists in rock 'n' roll history, let's start with an iconic 60's vocal group.
Jay & the Americans
A clean-cut vocal group from Brooklyn, New York called Jay & the Americans scored several Billboard Top 40 hits throughout the sixties. Interestingly, neither lead singers - John Traynor nor David Blatt were named Jay, but their names were changed to fit the band billing.
The initial lineup consisted of John "Jay" Traynor, Howard Kane, Kenny Vance and Sandy Deanne, though their greatest success on the charts came after Traynor had been replaced as lead singer by Jay Black (David Blatt).
The group scored a Top 40 hit in 1962 called "She Cried," with John "Jay" Traynor as the lead vocalist. Produced by the team of Leiber and Stroller, the song was full of booming percussion and lush string arrangements and peaked at number five on the Billboard Top 40 charts.
In 1963, a song called "Only In America" (Jay Black's first with his new group) hit the charts, peaking at number twenty-five on the Billboard Top 40. Interestingly, the song was originally recorded by the Drifters, but when their record label decided not to release the song, their vocals were erased and Jay & the American's vocals were added to it.
With the upper-register vocals of Jay Black, the group had their biggest hit in 1964 with a song called "Just A Little Bit Closer." In 1965, the vocal group peaked at number four on the charts with the Mexican-flavored "Cara Mia," with Jay Black's impeccable and legendary high vocals shining with authority.
The group went on to score several more Billboard Top 40 hits including "Some Enchanted Evening," "Sunday And Me" (a 1965 song that was Neil Diamond's first hit as a song writer) and "Crying" (1966). After a long break from the Top 40, Jay & the Americans hit pay dirt again with a million-selling cover of the Drifters' 1960 hit single called "This Magic Moment." Their last hit was a remake of the Ronnette's tune called "Walkin' In The Rain."
Mired in a contractual dispute with United Artists over publishing rights stopped the group from recording for several years. But Jay Black kept the name alive by touring on the "oldie's circuit" well into the 90's. The legendary group reunited in the 90's for special performances and in 2001, Jay was featured in the PBS doo wop series as "Jay Black and the Americans." They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002.
A relentless touring band hailing from Austin, Texas called the Fabulous Thunderbirds helped popularize "roadhouse Texas-blues" and released several critically acclaimed albums in the 1980's. During the group's heyday in the early 80's, the Fabulous Thunderbirds were star attractions on the blues bar circuit, playing compelling blues-rock blended with smart rhythms and genre defining guitars.
Formed in 1974 by guitarist Jimmy Vaughan (older brother of the legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan), bassist Keith Ferguson (who had declined an invitation to join up with the stalwart rockers ZZ Top), drummer Mike Buck and singer/harmonica player Kim Wilson, the band built up a strong fan base and gained notoriety as the house band at Antone's (a popular Austin nightclub/bar). They soon attracted the attention of a local record label named Takoma Records. After their self-titled album was released in 1979, they gained overseas exposure and a new fan base by opening for the new wave rocker's Rockpile and member Nick Lowe would go on and produce the group's forth album. The release proved popular enough to attract attention from major record labels and the group signed on with Chrysalis Records in 1980.
The band's debut release on their new label called "What's The Word" was filled with powerful, zesty guitar rock. They followed this album with two more, 1981's "Butt Rockin'" and 1982's album called "T Bird Rhythm" (with Fran Christina now on drums).
Although the albums were very well-received by the critics, they did not sell very well. But the group gained the respect and admiration of fellow musicians, even opening for the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. However, with sluggish album sales, Chrysalis dropped the band and they were without a recording contract until they were signed by Epic Records in 1985.
With Dave Edmunds (band mate of Nick Lowe) producing the band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds cut their breakthrough fifth album, entitled "Tuff Enuff." The album became a crossover success and the title track was released as a single, and buoyed by repetitive MTV air play, the song broke into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at number ten. The subsequent success of the single propelled the album to number thirteen on the album charts, eventually going platinum. The group also relied on covers of soul music, with cuts like "Wrap It Up," which is a cover of an old Sam and Dave song and it was released as the second single.
But, success was fleeting, the next album "Hot Number" (1987), did very well at first, even producing the Top Ten Album Rock hit "Stand Back," but the album quickly fell off the charts. The commercialism and radio-ready sound alienated long time fans. A single called "Powerful Stuff" was included in the soundtrack for the Tom Cruise movie "Cocktail" and it is also included on the disappointing album release of the same name (1989). This particular release spent only seven weeks on the charts.
Jimmy Vaughan left the band after the "Powerful Stuff" LP to team up with his now famous sibling and was replaced by Duke Robillard and Kid Bangham. With a new line up, the band released the album "Walk That Walk, Talk That Talk" in the winter of 1991. Though the band returns to their roots, playing straightforward blues rock; it was bland in comparison to the band's sound when Jimmy Vaughan was playing with the band. They were dropped by their record label, shortly after its release.
With the group in limbo in the nineties, Wilson released a couple of solo efforts (1993 and 1994) before reassembling the group in late 1994 for the album "Roll The Dice." It was certainly a much better album that its predecessor, and the group followed the release with the album "High Water" in 1997 and a "live" album in 2001, but the magic that was the Fabulous Thunderbirds was gone. However, through many personnel changes, the Fabulous Thunderbirds have maintained their intense touring schedule throughout the United States and Europe since the early 1990s. The band toured Europe during the spring and summer of 2008 and will also perform at many blues festivals throughout the US; keeping their rabid fans satisfied.
Hot Tuna was formed as an offshoot band led by Jefferson Airplane member's guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassidy. As Jefferson Airplane slowly wound down in the early 1970s, Hot Tuna - for whom live performance was always of prime importance - became an independent group. Although not a huge commercial success, Hot Tuna entertained fans with a superb acoustic sound, reflective and smart lyrical content and some of the best unheard music of the 1970's. Their early repertoire was derived mainly from American country blues artists such as Rev. Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Arthur Blake (Blind Blake).
In 1974, the group broke off from their primarily bluesy, acoustic style and Hot Tuna morphed into a heavy rock band. The albums "America's Choice" (1975), "Yellow Fever" (1975), and "Hoppkorv" (1976), showcased a power trio with the addition of new drummer Bob Steeler. This three album series is referred to by the group as their "rampage years."
Hot Tuna live performances during this period were often free-flow improvisational jams and long sets (up to six hours uninterrupted) with extended versions of their studio material. Because of this trait, they are often considered a forerunner of modern jam bands, such as Phish.
As adept as they were acoustically, it is Hot Tuna's jam sessions, with extended blues-rock and ambitious boogie improvisations that have made them a popular concert draw for many years and helped fuel sales of live albums to satisfy their cult of fans.
Jay & the Americans Tidbits:
Did you know that future founding members of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker played in the back up band for Jay & the American's for a time in the early 1970's?
Black still tours under his stage name, "Jay Black." Kenny Vance is currently the lead singer of Kenny Vance and the Planotones, a neo-doo wop band that he formed in the 1970s.
In 2006, Jay Black filed for bankruptcy due to gambling debts, and his ownership of the name "Jay & The Americans" was sold by the bankruptcy trustee to Sandy Deanne, Black's former band mate and an original member of Jay & The Americans for $100,000 to pay Black's debts. With the name purchase, former members Deanne, Howard Kane, and Marty Sanders reunited, and recruited a sound-alike singer from Chicago, coincidentally nicknamed "Jay." Thus, John "Jay" Reincke became the third "Jay" and the band returned to playing the North American oldies circuit.
Fabulous Thunderbirds Tidbits:
The single, "Tuff Enuff" was featured in the 1986 film Gung Ho. It was also featured in the film Tough Guys, as was the follow-up single "Wrap It Up".
Jimmie Vaughan left the band to play in a duo with his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan; and following Stevie Ray's death in 1990, Jimmie pursued a full-time solo career.
On February 16, 2000, The Fabulous Thunderbirds made history, becoming the first band ever to be broadcast on the internet using high-definition cameras. The companion DVD, "Invitation Only," is one of the first high-resolution multi-track recordings of a live concert event.
Hot Tuna Tidbits:
The band name Hot Tuna came from someone Kaukonen refers to as a "witty wag" who called out, "hot tuna" after hearing the line 'What's that smell like fish, oh baby,' from the Blind Boy Fuller song "Keep on Truckin." Kaukonen decided it was a good band name and it stuck ever since.
Throughout the 1990s, Tuna again alternated between acoustic and electric styles. The two live Sweetwater albums are predominantly acoustic sets with guests Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, singer Maria Muldaur, and ex-Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship keyboards player Pete Sears.
Like many jam bands, the group garnered much fan support based on their pro-taping policy that allowed fans to record their live shows. In July 2006, Hot Tuna changed their stance and no longer permit taping.
From 2004-2006, the band have toured with multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Erik Diaz and in April of 2006, Hot Tuna appeared at Merlefest, America's largest folk music festival. In 2007, they played at Bonnaroo.
As former members of Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen and Cassidy are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They became members in 1996.