The Olympics

TrackSingle
Western MoviesDemon FF-1508
(Baby) Hully GullyArvee A 562
Shimmy Like KateArvee A 5006
I'm Comin' HomeLoma 2010
Good Lovin'Loma 2013
Baby I'm YoursLoma 2017
Mine ExclusivelyMirwood 5513
Baby Do The Philly DogMirwood 5523
I'll Do A Little Bit MoreMirwood 5529
The Same Old ThingMirwood 5529

The Olympics photo

(l-r): Eddie Lewis, Melvin King, Charles Fizer, Walter Ward

 

 

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The Olympics playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Before diving into the Olympic-sized pool of Olympics music – and that pun might actually be justified if you consider the group’s amazing longevity – I felt that a couple of interesting/instructive/entertaining/none-of-the-foregoing song stories were in order.

In 1972, a John Lennon double LP was released entitled Some Time In New York City. The second disc was recorded live with side 3 from the Lyceum, London and side 4 from the Fillmore East, New York. The backing on side 4 was provided by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I’m zeroing in on track 1 from that side, Well (Baby Please Don’t Go), which you’ll gather once you’ve kickstarted the clip isn’t a variant on the extremely well known blues number which has been spotted in places as varied as the Mississippi Delta and Belfast. Look up the writer and you’ll see Walter Ward which does stand out since the late Walter is the only composer listed against the songs on the LP who isn’t John Lennon, Yoko Ono or Frank Zappa. Walter was lead singer and one of the founder members of the Olympics. Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) was a marginally renamed version of Walter’s song, Well, which appeared on the B-side of the Olympics’ first single, Western Movies. Is it my imagination or are there relics of gospel in there amongst the more obvious R&B (like that bass man)?

Anecdote #2: You may well know the record, Good Lovin’, which was a number one hit for the Rascals in 1966 (when they were still Young and wore those silly outfits). The song was first recorded by obscure soul singer Limmie Snell using the name, Lemme B. Good in 1965. The Young Rascals version bore only limited relation to the original. A month after the Lemme B. Good record was released, a version from the Olympics produced by Jerry Ragavoy hit the shops, jukeboxes and DJs. Ragavoy plus arranger Gary Sherman had simplified the original, in the process playing up the Louie, Louie/Twist And Shout/La Bamba riff. The Young Rascals take came out in February ’66. It took the Olympics version as a base and dressed it up, I guess, along the lines of an interpretation by a Brit group. Mention of a Brit group reminds me that Brian Poole and the Tremeloes picked up on the Olympics cut and recorded the number before the Rascals. Subsequently, almost everyone and their dog recorded the song with the Dead including it in their live act initially as a specialty for Pigpen. The main versions I’ve highlighted are below; I think all of them have merit.

 

 

Back in the second paragraph, I made mention of the Western Movies single which Lennon must have bought/borrowed or stolen. I strongly suspect he’d have loved the record. It certainly made an impression on me, as it did on UK record buyers back in ’58; it made the #12 spot in our chart, and #8 in Billboard. We, and by that I mean UK record buyers including myself, were just getting used to the Coasters and this record seemed to come from that same incredible mother lode of technicolor americana, and you’ll gather that I’m widening that collective noun from the way in which it’s used now and putting things in the context of grey old Britain in the fifties. Couple that with a whacking great beat, it was yet another glorious example of this fabulous thing we’d learned to call rock and roll.

To save my soul I can’t get a date,
Baby’s got it tuned on channel eight
Now Wyatt Earp and the Big Cheyenne
They’re comin’ through the T.V. shootin’ up the land
Ah … um … my baby loves the Western movies
My baby loves the Western movies
Bam, bam, shoot ’em up Pow
My babe loves the Western Movies

The Coasters – if that group name doesn’t mean anything, Google them, play YouTube clips or read my Toppermost on the boys. In there I said “There were vocal groups and there were the Coasters” and I still stand by that. Yes, the Olympics did sound somewhat like them on this record but that wasn’t our boys’ raison d’être even if they sometimes did on other records too. As will come clear when we listen to later platters, they wanted to make great dance records. And they did.

 

THE BEGINNING

Walter Ward was born in 1940 in Jackson, Mississippi but the family moved to L.A. in the early fifties. In Jackson, Walter had worked with other members of a large extended family in a gospel choir. In the City of the Angels, he set up the West Coast Gospel singers with his cousin Eddie Lewis plus James Lloyd and Walter’s uncle, Jimmy Ward. After Walter and Eddie started at Centennial High School in Compton, L.A., the boys went secular, forming a group they called the Challengers. They did the street corner thing and gradually started picking up gigs.

In 1956, after appearing on a TV show, they were given the opportunity to make a record and the result was a single called I Can Tell / Mambo Beat. At that time the group comprised Walter (lead vocal, usually and in this case on the A-side), Eddie (tenor), Charles Fizer (baritone and lead on the flip here), Walter Hammond (baritone) and Marcus Banks (piano). The A-side was a lugubrious blues ballad, credited to Walter Ward and the Challengers. The flip for which the credit read “Charles Fizer and the Challengers” was a more up tempo affair but neither of the sides would have set the world on fire. Not long after the release of the record (on the Melatone label), the group learned of the existence of an existing group with the name of the Challengers. Hence the Olympics were born.

Which brings me almost up to where we were, but not quite. According to Marv Goldberg’s fine R&B Notebook on the band based on interviews with Walter Ward which has been my source for much of this section and elsewhere, the boys’ idol Jesse Belvin introduced them to John Criner who took the as-yet unfilled role as their manager. It was Criner who negotiated a contract with Sy Aronson of Demon Records out of L.A. The A&R men at Demon were Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith who had a song – Western Movies – and needed someone to sing it. This pair, and Smith in particular, were of major import in the Olympics story, writing the vast bulk of their records – and that’s both A- and B-sides – up to late 1963/early 1964 and often having a hand in production too.

 

DEMON AND ARVEE – “THEY GOT A NEW DANCE”

Record #2 from the boys for Demon, (I Wanna) Dance With The Teacher, had the cheek of the Coasters, was as doo woppy as they ever got and happily plagiarised the riff from Larry Williams’ Bony Moronie which had been a big hit in the preceding 12 months. In addition to all that, it introduced the concept of ‘dance’ which would turn out to be the Olympics big thing as I’ve already more than hinted.

The single was also unusual in that it had a ballad Ev’rybody Needs Love (replete with shrill sax) on the flip, something that would turn out to be extremely rare in the records to come. (I Wanna) Dance With The Teacher suffered the fate of many of their records up to 1963 plus a few further on in the decade: low end Hot 100 chart position – in this instance, #71 – but great sales in L.A.

The final Demon single from the group – there were but three in all – coupled Chicken with Your Love which set the pattern of two up tempo, up on your feet dance style sides. Even Your Love which you might have expected to be a ballad had a fairly chunky beat. The A-side, although it wasn’t about a new dance, was a step in the direction of the dance discs to come, with the background boys chanting the title over a medium tempo and slightly draggy rhythm set to a very basic 12 bar structure. With that title there was the predictable plethora of chicken noises and cock-a-doodle-doos (and a great minimalist tenor sax solo) even though the song wasn’t about the bird. Nope, they called him chicken ‘cause he was scared.

By July of the following year (1959), Smith and Goldsmith had split from Demon and moved to Arvee, taking the Olympics with them. Hollywood-based Arvee was founded by Richard Vaughan, from whose initials, the label name came. Judging by its output which included the Marathons, the Belairs and others with “The” in the front, it was more vocal group oriented than Demon. The Olympics first Arvee single set the tone for several years to come. I’m talking about (Baby) Hully Gully which wasn’t even the original A-side of the disc. That position went to Private Eye, a Coasters-ish affair set to the Peter Gunn riff, which was OK but not a patch on Western Movies.

Flip it though and you got something that was likely to have been much more of a surprise to record buyers. Even with Searchin’, the Coasters never got as down and dirty as this. I have occasionally been known to post on Twitter the odd music clip with the hashtag #rawandgreasy; this track fits that bill perfectly. It’s based on a piano riff from way down yonder in New Orleans, but not just any old riff, it’s the one that Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns featured on the majority of a glorious series of records in the mid/late fifties. That riff had been transported to L.A, given a rhythm and tempo that was even more draggy than Chicken – I’d call it sluggish with the slug having gotten inebriated – and a lead singer (Walter) sometimes so far off key that he could have been in a different key altogether.

A there’s a dance spreadin’ round like an awful disease
(Hully, Hully Gully)
Oh well you shake your shoulders and you wiggle your knees
(Hully, Hully Gully)
This dance goin’ round from coast to coast
(Hully, Hully Gully)
When me an my baby do it, tryin’ to do it the most
(Hully, Hully Gully)
Momma hully gully, Poppa hully gully,
Baby hully gully too

Did it chart? Well, sort of. Numero 72 in early 1960 i.e. one position down from Dance With The Teacher so hardly progress. Add in the fact that in 1961, the Marathons/Vibrations cut the same single but with different lyrics and called it Peanut Butter, and it hit #20 in the Hot 100, and it was on the same label! – well I guess you could call that an insult. Mind you Smith and Goldsmith didn’t do badly, nor did H.B. Barnum who was added in as one of two extra co-writers. See footnotes for an explanation on the Marathons/Vibrations thing.

Plenty more dance tracks from the Olympics followed, some using the Hully Gully formula, some not. Of the former, I have something of a soft spot for The Slop in which I would swear that there’s an extra note in the piano riff and that Walter is even further below the note on the drawn out “welllllll”. The Stomp took things back to the basics but with the usual enthusiasm on display, while Dance By The Light Of The Moon, a rare outing with strings, was based on the traditional Buffalo Gals, sometimes known as Lubly Fan.

For my final selection from the Demon/Arvee days, I’ve gone for an updated oldie: I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate reduced to Shimmy Like Kate. With predictable (for an oldie) but satisfying chord sequence it romps along nicely. No sophistication but that’s not what Arvee (or the L.A. punters) were asking for.

With national chart activity not improving, the Olympics moved back to Sy Aronson in late 1962, only to a new label Tri-Disc and then, after a few releases, Duo-Disc, since Demon was now defunct. Fred Smith went with the Olympics in both producing and song writing roles. The move did give them a #40 hit with The Bounce on which the piano figure was rather more like the one from Brother Ray on What’d I Say (which the boys also cut for an Arvee LP, Doin’ The Hully Gully). At least, in Toppermost terms, the semi-success of The Bounce did mean that they couldn’t be called a one-hit-wonder group any more. Of more interest and originality was Dancin’ Holiday which boasted the addition of strings once more. However, towards the end of the stays with Tri/Duo Disc, titles like Bounce Again, Return Of The Watusi and Return Of Big Boy Pete suggested desperation creeping in …

 

LOMA – “THAT SWEET SOUL MUSIC”

… but the switch to Loma Records in 1965 brought about a wholesale change to the Olympics’ stylistic approach. Loma was a new subsidiary of Warner Brothers, set up in 1964 with a brief “to broaden singles coverage” (source: Wiki) which in practice seemed to mean, to target the black audience. In the early years it was run by Bob Krasnow but he resigned during ’65 and Russ Regan took over the management. Disc #1 for Loma coupled I’m Comin’ Home and Rainin’ In My Heart with Walter given composing credit for both. The A-side, with minor changes to the lyrics could have been a gospel song with Walter and the Olympics operating in genuine call & response mode rather than putting on silly voices. It seemed as if someone had been listening to Stax and Motown and at long last it was all coming out. Have mercy, I guess!

The flip wasn’t the Buddy Holly song of that name but it wasn’t a new number either. It was an attempt by Walter and producer Bob Krasnow to put a soul stamp on Slim Harpo’s number with that title, one that in its original format seemed to blur the boundaries between swamp blues and swamp pop. Note the rock styled guitar break and the predominance of guitar in general in the backing on both sides, which suggests that Krasnow had at least half an eye on white buyers. Bear in mind that this single was released near the start of ’65 when the US was being successfully bombed by Brit bands several of whom were very happy to include soul and R&B fare amongst the grenades.

Regardless of that, the Olympics Loma single #2, Good Lovin’, didn’t pay any explicit attention to white buyers, probably working on the principle that if Motown could sell into the white market, so could they. They didn’t though, only a measly #81 position was achieved. I wouldn’t blame any part of the creation process though; it was the selling that was at fault.

Loma single #3 was released in August 1965; it was to be the last of the three and probably the best of them. The flipside No More Will I Cry was a sophisticated dance item, about which the uploader comments “The Olympics in New York with their rarest and very best Northern 45 in the Mirwood style”. The Mirwood reference will become clear very shortly but I have no argument with the rest of that comment.

The A-side was even better. Its title, Baby I’m Yours, could well be mistaken for the Barbara Lewis song of that name which only happened to have come out two months earlier (and it’s beautiful too, don’t get me wrong). But no, this was an original though it did get covered a couple of months later by Dee Dee Warwick. She cut a fine version and her management had the good sense to rerelease it with an alternate title – Another Lonely Saturday – when they saw how well the Barbara Lewis disc was selling.

But the Olympics’ Baby I’m Yours stood on its own, quieter with less drama than the Dee Dee take, but the feeling was there. This was class. Could you believe that less than a year ago these guys had sounded like this on Return Of Big Boy Pete. It’s hard to credit it’s the same group.

“On August 14, during the Watts riots, Charles Fizer was shot to death while on his way to an Olympics rehearsal. If that wasn’t enough, Melvin King’s sister was also killed the same day. Melvin did one more performance with the group and then left them for good.” (Source: the Marv Goldberg R&B Notebooks)

I haven’t kept the reader fully up to date with every group movement over the years though none of the changes were major. The group retained considerable stability compared with, say, the Drifters. Melvin King had been in, out, then in again in the Demon/Arvee period. The immediate replacement for Fizer and King was Mack Starr (a tenor who was also known as Julius McMichael, ex-Paragons), and they operated as a trio for the next few years.

 

MIRWOOD – “SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW”

That heading needs some explanation, so here goes. Mirwood was a new-ish record label (1965) which was founded in L.A. by ex Vee-Jay president Randy Wood. According to Wiki, “it has been described as ‘among the definitive Northern Soul labels’”. Something Old, Something New was the title of an Olympics LP released by the label on which side one consisted of 6 tracks of rerecorded Demon/Arvee tracks and 6 tracks of new material released on Mirwood singles. But that phrase, something old, something new, had more subtle implications. At least a couple of the new Olympics Mirwood tracks showed influences that harked back to those early days but as part of arrangements that were bang up to date.

A significant thing about Mirwood in relation to the Olympics was that Fred Smith joined the label early on and was in the producer’s chair for the label’s second release, The Duck from Jackie Lee (also known as Earl Nelson as in Bob & Earl) which sold very nicely indeed giving Mirwood a bit of a cash cow for the next few months/year.

Perfect illustration of the old/new thing can be found on the flip of the boys’ first Mirwood single, Secret Agents with its punch line of “how my baby loves secret agents” throwing the listener right back to the Coasters styled Western Movies, while the vibes and the complexity of the arrangement say NEW out loud. That arrangement came from an exciting new name on the scene, James Carmichael; the mix of arranger James and veteran producer Fred was New/Old. Skip ahead to single #2 and the Smith/Carmichael team was at it again, with a dance disc no less. Baby Do The Philly Dog opened with sizzling vibes and didn’t let up. Number 20 in the R&B Chart and 63 in the Hot 100, it was good to have chart recognition again.

In my skipping I managed to bypass single #2, Mine Exclusively, an all-new near single chord stomper which matched the best that Motown could offer. The uploader of this particular clip was “Lancashire a go go” offering a hint of where the record found favour in later years.

The final single from the Mirwood stopover was effectively a double A-side (though curiously the flip got omitted from Something Old, Something New while the A-side was there). No comment needed from me. Just Listen.

 

I’ll Do A Little Bit More

 

The Same Old Thing

Surely one or the other of this pair of sides should have at least nudged the charts.

 

AND AFTER

After Mirwood, the label changes came more frequently with typically no more than one release per label and lengthening gaps between labels. That’s not to say that nothing of interest was released. Musically, every now and again a new single came out, almost invariably listenable but usually interspersed with retro discs endlessly recycling those tracks from the glory days. They issued salutes to a couple of major soul names, Bobby Womack/Valentinos and James Brown: Looking For A Love and Please, Please, Please respectively.

I’ll draw the reader’s attention to one of the ‘70s and beyond’ singles since it’s a track that was under serious consideration for a place in the ten. 1973’s There Ain’t No Way was the solitary release from a label called Songsmith. Both Fred Smith and his redoubtable sidekick from the Mirwood days, James Carmichael, were involved which at least in part accounts for its quality (and also makes me suspect that the label was a one-off venture from Fred). Writer’s credit for the song is down as Ken Sinclair who had joined the group in 1971 (increasing it from a trio) and stayed up to 2003 when he died. Given that info I suspect it’s Ken on lead vocal but I’ve no confirmation. All that said, there are great performances both from the lead singer and the boys (and the brass section) and the disc deserves wider attention (and haven’t I said that before!).

Walter Ward died in December 2006.

Eddie Lewis died in May 2017. He was the last of the founder members.

Outside of Southern California, the Olympics never achieved household name status like the Drifters and some of the Motown groups yet they showed an admirable capacity for reinventing themselves resulting in some fine records and sweet memories.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. In terms of longevity, I would merely quote the closing statement from the History & Influence section on the group in Wiki:

“Eddie Lewis, tenor singer and last original member of the Olympics, died on May 31, 2017. Current and remaining members of The Olympics are Vel Omarr, Alphonso Boyd, and Samuel E. Caesar.”

2. John Lennon’s introductory remark prior to his live Well (Baby Please Don’t Go): “This is a song I used to sing when I was in the Cavern in Liverpool. I haven’t done it since, so …” wasn’t strictly true. He had made a studio version in February 1971 but it didn’t get released. It eventually appeared on the 4xCD John Lennon Anthology in 1998.

3. The sequence of recordings of Good Lovin’ that I have documented comes from Wiki. The dates and comments in 45cat suggest that the sequence and story might have differed somewhat but detail is scant.

4. There’s not a lot to say about Demon Records, a typical small L.A. based indie which was in existence from 1958 to 1961, but their only other claim to fame apart from having the Olympics first and biggest hit, was doing the same trick with Jody “Endless Sleep” Reynolds. The records were released consecutively with Endless Sleep having serial number 1507 and Western Movies, 1508 from a sequence which started with 1502.

5. Fred Smith, born in 1933, was the stepson of John Criner, which throws light on the Olympics connection. He and friend Cliff Goldsmith started song writing in the early sixties and Western Movies was their first song of any note. The pair co-produced many of the Olympics records with Fred going solo in production terms circa 1963. It was in that year also that he co-produced Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle. He effectively took Bob & Earl plus the Olympics to Mirwood when it started and was one of the key producers for the label. He worked with Bill Cosby, the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and other soul performers. He spent a spell with Stax in the early 70s but left the music business in 1975 after Stax folded.

6. Here are a couple more facts about the Olympics (Baby) Hully Gully record:

– It was their bestselling single in L.A., reaching the #2 position in March 1960 (source: Wayback Attack).

– The Olympics with the Hully Gully craze predated Chubby Checker with the Twist by about six months. Okay, Hank Ballard’s Twist came earlier but the dance itself didn’t spread outside the black ghettoes until the fat fellow got his hands on the song.

7. Marv Goldberg writes in reference to Peanut Butter, that the song “was originally written with the Olympics in mind, but they were off on a tour, so the Vibrations got to record it”. AllMusic puts things slightly differently: “The five singers who sang on Peanut Butter, a popular R&B novelty tune, were really the Vibrations masquerading as the Marathons. These same guys, save for a couple of changes, had previously recorded as the Jay-Hawks, charting with Stranded In The Jungle in 1956.” They went on to say “A lawsuit resulted when Checker Records discovered the charade. The Vibrations’ members had individual contracts with Checker, and the label won the rights to market copies of Peanut Butter under their logo. Not to be denied, Arvee Records promptly secured the rights to the name the Marathons.”

8. The Olympics and/or their manager weren’t above playing the odd tricks with record labels and releases. In 1963, they raided Don and Dewey’s back catalogue and came up with I’m Leaving It All Up To You (from 1957) which they recorded under the name “The Specials”. It was released on the Marc label. This wasn’t the first time they’d used D&D as a source; Big Boy Pete from the Arvee days came from the twosome. I should also add that while the Olympics/Specials belated cover did zilch, Dale & Grace recorded the number a couple of months or so later and got themselves a number one hit with the song becoming a swamp pop classic in the process.

9. I didn’t mention the flip of the Olympics’ Good Lovin’ because it was of minimal interest. Olympic Shuffle was an instrumental, or to be precise, a backing track. Marv Goldberg pins it down as “the instrumental track to the Blossoms’ Latin Boy Shuffle”.

10. The song Baby I’m Yours recorded by the Olympics was written by Bob Elgin and Kay Rogers (a pseudonym for Eddie Snyder). The pair had also been the composing team, along with Luther Dixon, for Gene McDaniels’ A Hundred Pounds Of Clay and separately or with other co-writers the two had written for artists like Garnett Mimms, Frank Sinatra and the Shirelles.

11. Yet another example of the Old/New thing during the Olympics Mirwood period came with their penultimate record for the label which coupled the revived version of The Bounce with their take on Jackie Lee’s The Duck – “There’s a new dance, it goes like this, huh”.

12. Clips of the boys live are few and far between but below are a couple from distinctly different stages of their career. The first is from the Shindig TV Show with date not given but circa 1965/66. I am informed that that is Billy Preston on organ and it does look like him.

The second is from a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania live show in 1997. Once the boys get going the order from the left is Kenny Sinclair, Eddie Lewis, William DeVase and Walter Ward. All four members – with two being founder members – are now dead. The song is Big Boy Pete (which I’ve eventually managed to fit in).

 

 

The Olympics photo 2

 

The Olympics Discography (45cat)

The Olympics biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens has written over one hundred posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #924

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Dec 27, 2020

    Wonderful! Just wonderful.

  2. Cal Taylor
    Dec 27, 2020

    What a great Toppermost. Really well done, Dave.
    Followers of pop music and its associated genres through the last sixty or so years would all know of The Olympics but depending on how forensic they were about it, most likely (like me) could only instantly name “Western Movies”. However, Dave’s splendid piece did remind me of four or five other ones that I did know but had forgotten. I was quite amazed to find that in the UK the Olympics had around 15 or 16 different singles and two original LPs released in the late-1950s and 1960s.
    Their history, transformations, their trendsetting, their trend following, the recordings under different names and other shenanigans fairly typical of American small label practices are all there besides some fabulous music. That music in pop terms was quite varied too – from Coasters type fun, to doo wop, to dance records, to ballads and even deep soul are all in there. Their best stuff was definitely in the first ten years of their existence from 1958 but credit to them for performing, with relatively few member changes, well into the 21st century.

    • Dave Stephens
      Dec 27, 2020

      Thanks gentlemen. Factors like the sheer volume of good records the guys made (some of which surprised me), the fact that none of the usual things like ego enhancement got in the group’s way (indeed they just seemed like regular guys) and the presence of one or two good stories made the creation of this Topper a thing of joy.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Dec 28, 2020

    Thanks for this great piece Dave. My musical morning started off with a David Kitt livestream and then moved on to this Toppermost – both superb. Knew vaguely of the Olympics but hadn’t realised how many fine songs they had recorded. Thanks again …

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