Live

The Top Ten Most Successful “Missing” Number Ones Artists: Number 8: Jay and the Americans

269 views

(Note: Criteria, Scoring and Rationale for this series may be found here.)

Jay and the Americans
(63 pts):

  • 4 Top 10 hits
  • 4 Top 20
  • 2 Top 40
  • 9 Top 100 hits
  • “Come a Little Bit Closer” peaked at #3 in 1964.

If you haven’t had a chance to dive into V-dog’s series on musical genres, he did a fantastic job covering doo-wop:

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.

GRADE6/10

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.

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

15

Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Subscribe
Notify of
22 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 8, 2023 6:46 am

Good writeup! I know it’s cheesy, but I always thought “Come a Little Bit Closer” stood out as a fun and clever well-crafted piece of pop when I would hear it on oldies radio. I didn’t know they opened for the Beatles when they came across the pond. The contrast between the two that you mentioned helps paint a picture of how and why the British Invasion was so easily able to conquer what was happening here.

I do not know the answer to your Nazareth trivia question, but I will turn the tables and throw out one of my own. “Love Hurts” is a cover of a very different sounding version of the song by what duo that was featured in Tom’s column in its early days?

Last edited 6 months ago by rollerboogie
LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:02 am
Reply to  thegue

Phil and Don! I really think that Nazareth’s version is fantastic. I’m guessing it was mentioned in the writeup for REO’s “Keep on Loving You”?

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:16 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Correct on the Everly Brothers, Link!

R.S.Wonham
Member
Noble Member
R.S.Wonham
Offline
November 8, 2023 9:01 am

Cheers for the J&A profile. The group has parallels to the Four Seasons with their sound, strife, and gambling debts, although membership was more stable on the Seasons side. I love overdramatic pop songs and there are a number of J&A tunes that satisfy this need. Cara Mia is in my book a solid 10 for the emotion and being so over-the-top. Although I am a Gene Pitney fanatic, I prefer J&A’s version. Happy that Come A Little Bit Closer got included on the Guardians soundtrack (loved the first 2, the last one is meh). In a perfect world, the group, musicians, and writers got some $, but likely not. Still, this is pretty impressive validation. Firing Becker & Fagen; DOH!!!

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
November 8, 2023 10:08 am

Connections to The McCoys AND Steely Dan? How very odd.

They’re one of those bands that will never come to mind when I hear “Come A Little Bit Closer” or “Cara Mia” in the wild. Maybe it’s the changing lineup but they don’t really have an identity. Nice sweaters, though. And an excellent write up. Nice job, thegue!

Last edited 6 months ago by Bill Bois
Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
November 8, 2023 10:46 am

Great stuff, thegue.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:04 am

I know I’ve read something about Fagen and Becker’s time in JATA’s touring band…like the band commented on the weird songs that Fagen and Becker were starting to write. (Fagen and Becker started out just wanting to be a songwriting team).

“She Cried” is a little overwrought, but there are times when I hear it and it really gets to me. I am not immune. I love it.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:20 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Wouldn’t it be crazy if Jay and the Americans actually kept Fagen and Becker aboard, started performing their songs and became Steely Dan instead of Steely Dan? It would have never happened, but it’s fun and also a bit horrifying to think about.

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
November 8, 2023 11:41 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I like how Becker and Fagen started out looking like college students and ended up looking like college professors.

spacecitymarc
Member
Noble Member
spacecitymarc
Offline
November 8, 2023 12:44 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Who try to hook up with their students.

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
November 8, 2023 11:26 am

The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Other than the honorable Burl Ives there’s a common factor so far in that these made little impact outside of North America. Not that that explains why Tom has ignored any of them.

Jay & The Americans is yet another name that means nothing to me. No presence on the UK charts but interesting to learn of their cameo role in the British invasion. They got the short straw in both preceding The Beatles and following the Stones. Your description of the difference between them and The Beatles seems instructive in why they didn’t make it here. Having a listen I can’t say I feel that I’ve been missing out, Cara Mia is especially grating to my ears.

Though we get to the end and it turns out I’ve heard them plenty. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is my daughter’s favourite film, we’ve watched it many times so I’m very familiar with Come A Little Bit Closer. Being 12 she finds the music from the films a mixed bag, her opinion is that it’s no Pina Colada Song.

stobgopper
Member
Famed Member
stobgopper
Offline
November 8, 2023 5:20 pm

Your daughter is an incisive critic with whom I agree wholeheartedly. She needs to be here!

spacecitymarc
Member
Noble Member
spacecitymarc
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:32 am

Between Jay And The Americans and Chevy Chase, Steely Dan’s journey was a wild one. I await the day when, after Donald Fagen dies (*ptu* *ptu*), Steely Dan continues on with no original members, which would be perfectly Steely Dan. Anyway, we know why Tom’s never mentioned them.

I very much enjoy how Jay and the Americans think that the U.S.A. is the only place where women make questionable choices in men.

stobgopper
Member
Famed Member
stobgopper
Offline
November 8, 2023 5:18 pm

We were crossing guards in elementary school. Whenever we had a foggy day and we were on duty, we’d rush out into the middle of the street when we could first see the hint of a car’s headlights coming and stand there, beckoning the car and singing ‘Come a Little Bit Closer’ at the top of our lungs.

We were stupid.

Also, great write-up, thegue!

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:44 pm

My mom and stepdad were big country music fans, so this is the version that I heard first (although not until about four years after it charted):

https://youtu.be/8Nkwtash6wY?si=dkNri3R87iVs9snT

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 8, 2023 11:46 pm
Reply to  Aaron3000

Oh, and my guess for the trivia is a certain song from 1988 whose title wasn’t too different than “Love Hurts”…

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 9, 2023 7:07 pm
Reply to  thegue

I just figured that trivia question was so good, you were trying to make it last forever.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Online Now
November 10, 2023 5:38 pm

My first job was at a supermarket. The new guy played guitar and was knowledgeable about sixties-era music. I told him that Paul Revere and the Raiders were underrated. He agreed. I got some cred. And then I lost my cred by confusing them for a British Invasion band.

Jay and the Americans, I’m pretty sure, are Americans, without me needing to check Wikipedia.

And they are underrated. Out of their four charted songs, the only one I recognize is “This Magic Moment”, which I identify mostly with Sha-Na-Na.

Ozmoe
Member
Famed Member
Ozmoe
Offline
November 10, 2023 10:53 pm

Come a Little Bit Closer was a hit that intrigued me chiefly because of its chorus. A guy was singing “Come a little bit closer/You’re my kind of man, so big and so strong/Come a little bit closer/I’m alone and the night is so young” on a major song from 1964?! Was anybody listening to it casually taken aback by that notion?

Oh well, regardless, it’s clever songwriting put over well by the group. I give it an 8. And great job as always with this, thegue!

cstolliver
Member
Famed Member
cstolliver
Offline
November 11, 2023 7:30 am
Reply to  Ozmoe

I suspect it’s one of those “ear of the beholder” situations where you and I might hear something that others might not (at least back in 1964… today, I’m guessing the average listener might catch those nuances more readily).

22
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x