Hello there! Our song this week is Barbara Ann. This is a bouncy, catchy doo-wop song. We will review the original version by The Regents, and we will also discuss versions by The Who and by The Beach Boys.
The Regents, Barbara-Ann:
The Regents were a New York-based doo-wop group in the 1950s and 60s. The original vocal group was called The Desires. It consisted of Guy Villari on lead vocals, tenors Sal Cuomo and Chuck Fassert, and baritone Donnie Jacobucci.
In 1958 the group recorded a couple of songs. One of these was Barbara-Ann, which was written by Chuck Fassert’s brother Fred Fassert. But when the group was unable to land a recording contract, they disbanded – I guess you could call them “unfulfilled Desires.”
Then three years later, a group called The Consorts (also called The Darts) was looking for material to record. One of their members, Eddie Jacobucci, found his brother Donnie’s demo of Barbara-Ann.
The recording was brought to Eddie Chichetti, the owner of Cousins Records. Chichetti liked Barbara-Ann, and subsequently contacted the songwriter, Fred Fassert. But when Fassert showed him the original demo by The Desires, Chichetti decided to release that version instead.
One additional wrinkle was that, in the meantime, The Desires had changed their name to The Regents. I have heard two possible explanations for this new name: first, the group had cut a couple of demos at Regent Sound Studio; second, lead singer Guy Villari smoked Regents cigarettes.
At left is the cover of a four-song EP by The Regents. This EP was issued only in Sweden, and just 2000 copies were printed.
So, in 1961 Cousins Records released Barbara-Ann in New York. The song was a big hit locally, and became the best-selling song in New York. At that point, Cousins leased the song to Roulette/Gee Records, who could release the song worldwide.
Like many doo-wop songs, the lyrics to Barbara-Ann are extremely simple, even trivial. The singer is smitten by a girl whom he met at a dance. He expresses his conviction that Barbara-Ann is superior to other girls with whom he had danced.
Went to a dance
Looking for romance
So I thought I’d take a chance
Barbara-Ann, Barbara-Ann, take my hand
Oh, Barbara-Ann, Barbara-Ann, take my hand
You’ve got me rockin’ and a-rollin’
Rockin’ and a reelin’
Ba ba ba ba Barbara-Ann
Barbara-Ann became a big hit for The Regents; it reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It starts with the instantly recognizable line, Ba ba ba ba Barbara-Ann, sung a capella by the lead singer. Here is the audio for Barbara-Ann by The Regents.
In 1973, director and writer George Lucas included The Regents’ version of Barbara-Ann in his movie American Graffiti. This was a coming-of-age film set in southern California in the late 50s. American Graffiti was one of the first movies that replaced a film score with a series of original rock and roll songs.
Here, the audio of The Regents singing Barbara-Ann is interspersed with
random clips from American Graffiti. You can see the great attention to detail in George Lucas’ film. Those great hot rods from the 50s are featured performers in this film, that also highlights drive-in soda shops, high school dances, the legendary West Coast DJ Wolfman Jack, drag racing, and a little bit of sex.
Like the best doo-wop songs, Barbara-Ann is an effervescent, bouncy tune. It satisfies my “doo-wop criterion” that it is terrific for singing in the shower.
Before releasing The Regents’ demo, Cousins Records overdubbed some instrumental parts. The net result is highly professional for doo-wop songs. In some cases, doo-wop groups were taken directly from the streets into the studios, where their songs were taped. It is claimed that in some cases groups had never seen the inside of a studio before their songs were recorded.
This explains the extremely poor quality of some doo-wop songs. However, that is not the case here. The Regents managed to release a song with relatively high production values, without losing the “street-corner” character of a doo-wop group.
After the success of their first record, The Regents released a second single, Runaround. It was also fairly successful, reaching #28 on the Billboard pop charts. Afterwards, two more records followed. However, when these songs did not make the charts, the group became involved in a dispute over royalties with Gee Records, and subsequently disbanded.
In 1964, the group changed their name to The Runarounds, but again failed to crack the pop charts. In 1995, The Regents re-formed; at that time, Guy Villari was the only original member in the new band.
Here is a re-shuffled version of The Regents, performing live in 2012 at the Beacon Theater in New York.
This is video from an “oldies” concert. After all this time, The Regents sound pretty good. They are still capable of producing an authentic doo-wop sound, and they perform here before an enthusiastic crowd.
Well, The Regents were pretty much “one-hit-wonders,” but their big hit Barbara-Ann spawned a number of covers. This is not surprising, as the melody and tempo are so catchy in this “feel-good” song.
The Who, Barbara Ann:
The Who were one of the greatest rock groups of all time. Three members of the band (everyone except Keith Moon) had been high school classmates in Acton, England.
Originally, Roger Daltrey had been the leader of a group called The Detours. He recruited John Entwistle and then Pete Townshend. In early 1964, the group changed their name to The Who when they discovered another group with a name similar to The Detours. Below is an early photo of The Who. From L: lead guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend; drummer Keith Moon; lead vocalist Roger Daltrey; bassist John Entwistle.
By the time I saw The Who in London in 1966, they were well on their way to becoming the quintessential hard-rock band. The Who were innovators in using the massive stacks of Marshall amplifiers to create ear-splitting volume. Plus, by turning the amplifiers up to unheard-of levels, they could produce significant feedback and distortion, which they utilized in their music.
Eventually, Pete Townshend began writing all of the songs for The Who. He has turned out to be an exceptionally creative songwriter. When I caught The Who in live performance in 1966, my recollection is that the only non-Townshend song they performed was Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.
However, in their early days, The Who performed covers from several other artists. Roy Orbison was one favorite of the boys, and apparently they also included a cover of Barbara Ann (note that in later versions of the song, the hyphen in the girl’s name disappears).
So here are The Who doing a live cover of Barbara Ann.
This is from a concert in 1965. Here, drummer Keith Moon sings the falsetto parts. The Who are much more spiffy in these early days, decked out in suits and ties. It also has some enjoyable crowd shots, with people bopping in the aisles.
This video includes great clips of Keith Moon’s drumming, and also some closeups of John Entwistle’s impressive fingering on bass guitar. Unfortunately, we see almost nothing of Pete Townshend playing the guitar. For the most part the group simply presents a vigorous but straightforward version of this doo-wop classic.
And here is a later clip, this one from the documentary about The Who, The Kids Are Alright. The Who rehearse Barbara Ann, and play snippets from the song.
Clips of the band rehearsing are interspersed with interviews with various band members. Again, the song is played primarily for kicks. We get some thrash guitar and a few nifty moves from Pete Townshend, and things totally disintegrate at the end of the song.
Later on, The Who became known for their showmanship, as well as their aggression onstage. Roger Daltrey nearly always appeared bare-chested, and would fling his mic high into the air. Although John Entwistle was relatively sedate, he was known for his blistering fingerwork. Entwistle is considered by many to be the greatest rock bass guitar player of all time.
However, Townshend and Moon were often completely over the top. At the end of performances, it was not unusual for Moon to smash his drum set, and in a couple of instances he quite literally blew up his kit.
Pete Townshend often seemed to be in the midst of a manic outburst. He would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showing off his legendary ‘windmill’ style on guitar power chords. Townshend also became famous for smashing his guitar to smithereens at the conclusion of a performance.
At some point, a friend of mine summarized the British Invasion in a single sentence: “The Beatles were about love; the Stones were about sex; and The Who were about aggression.” Like most pithy epigrams, the statement is facile and only partly true; nevertheless, it captures the essence of much of the music of that era.
After my first experience at a Who concert, I thought they were essentially a novelty act: big on aggression and showy displays, but short on talent. I suspected that they would rapidly burn out.
Well, Keith Moon did die from a drug overdose in 1978; and John Entwistle died from a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002. However, The Who have enjoyed an amazingly long and distinguished career, and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still touring at age 70. Who would have guessed?
Pete Townshend’s body of work is exceptionally impressive. He wrote the rock opera Tommy, and a sophisticated song cycle Quadrophenia. He also produced some exceptional hard-rock anthems like Baba O’Riley and We Won’t Get Fooled Again.
So, as Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still rock on, we wish them all the best. Thank goodness they didn’t take their own advice and “die before I get old.”
The Beach Boys, Barbara Ann:
The Beach Boys were one of the greatest rock and roll groups in history. They were formed in 1961 in California, and initially were primarily a family band. The three Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl teamed up with cousin Mike Love and family friend David Marks. They were initially known as the Pendletones, named after the Pendleton wool shirts popular with California surfers.
At first, the Beach Boys sang while the instrumental work was provided by studio musicians. However, the brothers gradually became proficient on various instruments – Carl on electric guitar, Brian on bass and Dennis on drums. Fairly early on, David Marks left and was replaced by Al Jardine.
Below is a photo of the “classic lineup” of the Beach Boys. This photo was taken in Nov. 1964. From L: Mike Love; Al Jardine; Brian Wilson; Dennis Wilson; and Carl Wilson.
Early on, the Beach Boys were managed by Murry Wilson, the father of the three Wilson brothers. However, it became clear that Brian Wilson was the brains of the outfit. Brian wrote the songs, oversaw the productions, and began to take control of all major decisions. In sharp contrast to Brian’s brilliance, Murry seemed to have truly awful instincts regarding the group’s musical directions and financial decisions. Once Murry was ousted as the group’s agent, Brian took charge.
The good news was that Brian was a musical genius. His songwriting and producing was incredibly creative. Under his leadership, the Beach Boys became a tight musical combo, known for their trademark close harmonies and their mastery of the West Coast “surf rock” genre.
Here is the audio of the Beach Boys singing Barbara Ann. This is by far the best-known version of this tune. It appeared on the album Beach Boys Party!, that was released in Dec. 1965.
There is a fascinating story behind this song. As you can hear, the Beach Boys had apparently been up all night drinking in the studio. Dean Torrence, from the group Jan and Dean, was recording in the next studio. Apparently his recording session was not going well, so Dean wandered next door and joined the Beach Boys.
With the tape rolling, the group began an impromptu version of Barbara Ann, with Dean Torrence singing lead. There is laughter and running commentary between the verses, and the group screw up the lyrics.
During an instrumental break, you can hear “It’s Hal and his famous ashtrays!” This refers to studio drummer Hal Blaine, a member of the southern California “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians. Blaine played drums on a number of Beach Boys records, and here he was clinking ashtrays together.
Apparently Capitol Records included this song on the album Beach Boys Party! without notifying the group. The record company executives knew that Brian Wilson was a perfectionist, and would have vetoed such a messy, amateurish effort.
However, the producers realized that this was an amusing, spontaneous version of this doo-wop classic. They were betting that teenagers would get a kick out of the tape. And from the public reception, Capitol Records was correct. The single of Barbara Ann hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts in early 1966.
I have to side with the Capitol Records executives. The lyrics to Barbara Ann are truly trivial; however, the song is so upbeat that it almost invites parody. Whenever one plays Barbara Ann, the tendency for everyone to join in on the chorus is almost irresistible.
And despite the informality of the recording session, the Beach Boys manage to produce their trademark harmonies on Barbara Ann. Along with Good Vibrations and Fun Fun Fun, Barbara Ann is considered one of the Beach Boys’ “signature songs.”
Now here is a live performance of Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys.
Here, the Beach Boys are performing on the Jack Benny Show in 1965. This is one of the later live performances I have seen with Brian Wilson playing bass. Brian had stopped playing on Beach Boys tours in 1964, after he suffered a panic attack on an airplane.
So it’s nice to see Brian joining his mates on this song. As you can see, by this time the Beach Boys had pretty well mastered their instruments. In particular, Carl Wilson produces some admirable “surf guitar” licks.
As time went by, Brian Wilson became the dominant force behind the Beach Boys. In the studio, he pioneered a number of innovative techniques, working closely with the Wrecking Crew studio musicians. Brian Wilson’s work became progressively more complex and novel. This culminated in the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds.
Pet Sounds is now considered one of the greatest pop albums of all times. In addition to extremely sophisticated vocal harmonies, recording techniques and instrumental arrangements, the album also incorporated a number of unique sounds – sleigh bells, bicycle horns, barking dogs.
Pet Sounds was essentially Brian’s individual creation: his pet project, if you will. In that album Brian shared very personal experiences and thoughts. The other Beach Boys simply showed up to record their vocals, did not play instruments, and otherwise had essentially no input into the project.
Unfortunately, Brian Wilson found himself under terrific strain. A combination of drug-related and mental health issues made him withdraw more and more to himself. Brian was able to oversee one more record – the stunning, extraordinarily complex 1966 single Good Vibrations. However, that project took an exceptionally long time to complete, for what was at the time an unprecedented cost.
Eventually Brian became unable to function normally; as a result, he was unable to complete his next album concept, Smile. That particular album eventually became the most controversial and anticipated ‘unfinished album’ of all time.
From 1967 to about 1977, Brian Wilson became a less dominant force in the Beach Boys. He collaborated with other band members on songs and albums, but was often unable to bring projects to completion.
After 1977, Brian Wilson went through an extremely difficult period. The combination of mental health issues plus the effects of psychedelic drugs took a tremendous toll on him. Eventually Brian became a patient of a highly controversial psychotherapist, Eugene Landy.
In the meantime, the other Beach Boys worked with additional members and studio musicians to produce records. They have now been touring for well over 50 years without Brian, and have been making records for about 40 years.
Over the years, the Beach Boys became primarily an “oldies” band. When they toured, they played a catalog of their older hits, which was just fine with their legion of fans.
At the beginning of their career, some critics considered the Beach Boys to be a low-brow garage band. However, over the years people have realized the complexity in their music, the sophistication of Brian Wilson’s innovative techniques and his mastery of the recording studio.
The Beach Boys (the three Wilson brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The Pet Sounds album has been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 2001 the Beach Boys were given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
So we salute Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and we hope they find that “surf’s up forever.”