Jay and the Americans
- 4 Top 10 hits
- 4 Top 20
- 2 Top 40
- 9 Top 100 hits
- “Come a Little Bit Closer” peaked at #3 in 1964.
A combination of crooning, barbershop and gospel that peaked on the Billboard Top 100 in the late 50s and early 60s – before the British Invasion flooded American shores.
New York City was the center of the doo-wop world at that time:
With Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building songwriting teams all creating songs performed by local groups, falling over themselves to become famous: numbering by some estimates to be over 15,000.
Many groups originated within ethnic neighborhoods: Italian, Jewish and African-American teenage singers gained followings within their communities. Quite often, the more talented singers would jump from group to group hoping to find a stronger songwriting team and record company.
Sometimes, it worked.
Like for Jay and the Americans.
In 1959, two Jewish kids from Belle Harbor, Queens started a doo-wop group called the Harborlites.
They weren’t very successful, so they looked to recruit a stronger lead singer.
Meanwhile over in Brooklyn an Italian quintet from Brooklyn called The Mystics earned a Top 20 hit with “Hushabye,” but were regularly overlooked in favor of other groups on the same label.
For instance, “A Teenager in Love” was originally slated for them, but wound up with another group on the same label, Dion and the Belmonts. (“A Teenager in Love” is an 8)
Without a follow-up success to “Hushabye”, Mystics members came and left, including one second tenor named Paul Simon. The Mystics and Harborlites had the same manager, Jim Gribble, who encouraged Simon’s replacement Jay Traynor to jump from The Mystics to the Harborlites.
To encourage Traynor, the group changed their name to ‘Jay and the Americans.’ They added a fourth member, and with the Leiber/Stoller songwriting team writing songs for them (famous for the #1 hits “Hound Dog” and “Kansas City”), they found success.
Their first single “Tonight” was only a local hit, but their second “She Cried” hit #8 in 1962:
There’s a little bit of the doo-wop sound, but the song is dominated by Jay Traynor.
The Americans had made it… or maybe not. When their next two singles failed to chart, Traynor went solo. He’d never chart again.
The music industry was (and is) brutal. From Kenny Vance:
“…about four months after they put it out, “She Cried” became a huge number one hit on the West Coast and slowly made its way back to the East Coast.”
“It became a Top 5 record in Billboard and Cashbox. We were basically starting to get some bookings from that. We made a “She Cried” album and we also made two other singles…”This Is It,” and It’s My Turn To Cry”, and the other single was called “Tomorrow”.
“None of these records were successful, so we kind of packed it in ‘cause in those days, if you didn’t have another hit, you were basically out of show business. We were only 18 years old anyways.”
Eventually more group swapping occurred.
The fourth member Howie Kane dropped out due to conflict with his full-time job as a mortician, so the original Harborlites Kenny Vance and Sandy Deanne needed to find new singers.
David Blatt and Marty Kuppersmith had been recording together since 1958, when they put out “The Two Chaps,” presumably about themselves, and later formed The Empires (not the Harlem-based doo-wop group,) and released 1962’s “Time and a Place.”
Marty played guitar and was recruited first by the non-Jay Americans, and he convinced David to join Kenny and Sandy in the new version of the band…with David Blatt playing the role of “Jay Black” on lead vocals. The band quickly released an album with a bunch of old recordings of Traynor, as well as new ones.
The biggest hit on the album was “Come a Little Bit Closer:”
It was written by Brill Building team Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who would later become famous writing a couple of hits for The Monkees, including “Last Train to Clarksville.” (it’s a 9)
“Come a Little Bit Closer” isn’t doo-wop; the Americans don’t appear until we’re 30 seconds into the song. Even then, they’re well in the background of Jay’s lead vocals and the instruments. Its use of congas, timbales and vocal ululations are designed to set the scene south of the border, full of exotic excitement.
The lyrics are about a man who meets a flirtatious woman south of the border…but she’s taken by Jose, the threatening type.
Our protagonist winds up fleeing the scene through the window, only to hear the woman’s words in the chorus, repeating to her man the same words that had drawn him in the first place. It’s a little bit West Side Story, though the song stops before our singer is chased down by Jose and shot. The similarities aren’t surprising, considering the movie won 10 Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards.
Wes Farrell is the third songwriter of “Come a Little Bit Closer.”
He’s also remembered for writing “Hang on Sloopy” around the same time as this hit (it’s an 8.) The choruses of the songs almost match – try singing the McCoy’s chorus over Jay.
Much like “Hang On Sloopy,” “Closer” is definitely an earworm, though the stereotypical “Bllllllahhhh’s!” are a drawback:
Before “Come a Little Bit Closer” peaked, however, Jay & the Americans were already passé.
They opened for The Beatles at the Fab Four’s first concert in the United States in February of 1964.
Media coverage contrasted the “coolness” of the Brits with the red alpaca sweaters the Americans were wearing.
Surprisingly, they also opened for The Rolling Stones at their concert in New York in June of ‘64. But on the second night they were asked to go AFTER the Stones performed in an effort for security at Carnegie Hall to sneak the Stones out of the building before the crowd noticed.
They failed; Jay and the Americans played before an empty house.
Ah, but they did not go quietly into the night.
They released Blockbusters in 1965.
The first single, “Let’s Lock the Door (and Throw Away the Key)” just missed the top 10.
They followed it up with their doo-wopish take on the David Whitfield classic “Cara Mia”, a song the Americans performed regularly in their sets, and it reached #4. (It’s a 7:)
Three more albums followed, each with declining sales and chart success.
By 1967, they were releasing one-off singles that failed to make an impact.
It seemed that the band was destined for nostalgia tours like so many bands.
But Johnny Rivers showed them a way back to relevance, covering classics from the 50s and early 60s with a mid-60s sound.
In early 1969, Jay & the Americans followed Rivers’ lead with Sands of Time. A remake of The Drifters’ classic “This Magic Moment”, pushed all the way to #6, making it their last Top 10 hit – ten spots higher than the original:
Interestingly, the third single off Sands was The Mystics’ “Hushabye”, bringing Jay & the Americans full circle.
The 1970s saw the band continue releasing updated classics on Wax Museum and Wax Museum, Vol. 2.
They did hit #19 with the Ronettes’ classic “Walkin in the Rain.”
But this period of their history is most interesting for the touring musicians they hired, then fired:
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, before they were known as Steely Dan.
In 1973 the band finally broke up and went their separate ways.
Kenny Vance continued to work with Steely Dan, and was the musical director for Animal House and Eddie and the Cruisers, among others.
In 1980, he was hired as the musical director of Saturday Night Live, lasting one year.
Jay Black continued to perform under the Americans name until he went bankrupt from gambling debts and sold the rights to the name back to the other three members, who then toured again as Jay & the Americans with yet another singer named Jay (Reincke).
The band still performs, though Sandy and Marty are the only surviving members from their heyday…and what a time it was.
TRIVIA: Hard rock bands have found reaching the top of the Billboard charts difficult, unless they bring out a power ballad. Despite twenty-five albums, Nazareth is essentially a United States one-hit wonder, reaching #8 with their power ballad, 1974’s “Love Hurts”. Under which stadium rockers’ power ballad did Tom Breihan mention them? (Tom didn’t rate them; “Love Hurts” is a 6.)
Supertramp was mentioned twice in Tom’s Stereogum column – once under Gilbert O’Sullivan, the other under “Romantic” by Karyn White, since she was a backup singer for the band! (Supertramps’ highest-charting single is the 1979 release “The Logical Song”, which peaked at #6. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BEATS: Enjoy the obligatory Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 clip:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: English goth rock/shoegazers The Horrors quote a couple lines from Jay & the Americans “She Cried”. Sadly, The Horrors have never charted in the United States.
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