Lonely Teardrops: Jackie Wilson; Jay & the Americans; Jose Feliciano.

Hello there! This week our blog features a soul classic, Lonely Teardrops.  This song played a surprisingly important role in the history of rock music. We will first discuss the original by Jackie Wilson; next we will review a cover by Jay and the Americans, and we will finish with a cover by Jose Feliciano.

Jackie Wilson and Lonely Teardrops:

Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson was born in 1934 in Detroit. In his youth he was in and out of trouble, serving a couple of stints in detention in the Lansing Correction Center. While in detention, he learned to box and entered Golden Gloves competitions, until his mother forced him to quit and he began singing.

Jackie Wilson was raised in an extended family that spawned a number of great singers. His cousin Levi Stubbs became the lead singer for the Four Tops, and two other cousins were members of the Motown group The Contours.

Below is a photo of Jackie Wilson doing one of his signature dance moves.

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Jackie was initially managed by a promoter named Al Green (not the solo singer by that name). He got his first big break in 1953, when Billy Ward hired him as the lead singer for The Dominoes, replacing Clyde McPhatter who had left that group for The Drifters.

McPhatter coached Jackie and strongly influenced both his singing style and his presence onstage. The Dominoes had a few minor hits with Wilson, but Jackie left in 1957 for a solo career.

Jackie Wilson had a big breakthrough when he began collaborating with a relatively unknown songwriter, Berry Gordy, Jr. In 1957 and 1958, Gordy and his colleagues wrote a string of hit songs for Jackie. Their biggest hit was the 1958 song Lonely Teardrops. This song was co-written by Gordy, his sister Gwendolyn Gordy and “Tyran Carlo,” which was a pseudonym for Roquel Davis.

The lyrics of Lonely Teardrops describe a man who is in torment because his woman has left him.  It paints a picture of a man whose heart is burning and who spends most evenings crying over his loss.

Lonely teardrops
My pillow’s never dry of lonely teardrops
Come home, come home
Just say you will, say you will
(Say you will) say you will, (say you will)
Hey, hey (say you will)

Just give me another chance for our romance
Come on and tell me that one day you’ll return
‘Cause, every day that you’ve been gone away
You know my heart does nothing but burn, crying

So here is a “live” performance of Lonely Teardrops by Jackie Wilson.

I believe this is lip-synched; however, there is no doubt that Jackie could perform this song at the same level in person. It features Jackie riffing effortlessly through the song and displaying his spectacular vocal gifts.

An interesting trivia point is that Berry Gordy’s initial impulse was to record this song as a slow ballad. However, after it was recorded the executives at Brunswick Records felt that it could be improved; so they turned the arranging over to Dick Jacobs, who converted the song into its final up-tempo form.

Well, Lonely Teardrops hit #1 on the R&B charts and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. And it changed the lives of everyone involved in the song. As the tune climbed the charts, Jackie Wilson appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show (the clip we just showed was from Wilson’s appearance with Dick Clark).

Roquel Davis parlayed his success with Lonely Teardrops into a job at Chess Records. And Berry Gordy used his profits from the song (and managing Jackie Wilson) to open his own record label, Motown Records.

Wilson’s career trajectory at this time was similar to Michael Jackson’s. Jackie had it all – a three-octave vocal range, coupled with a dynamic stage presence.
Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits, spins,back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, [plus] a lot of basic boxing steps.
One of Wilson’s signature knee-drops was seen on the video above, together with his effortless dance moves.

Wilson earned the name “Mr. Excitement” for his electric stage presence. Among artists who were inspired by Jackie were Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael Jackson. In fact, Presley made a point of meeting Jackie Wilson.

Elvis has received criticism for “borrowing” some of Jackie Wilson’s signature moves. However, Elvis was happy to credit Wilson for his inspiration, and Jackie harbored no jealousy over the success of his good friend Elvis. Below is a photo of Elvis with Jackie.

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The movie La Bamba was a bio-pic of singer Ritchie Valens. At one point in the film, Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) gets a big break when he headlines one of Alan Freed’s rock ‘n roll shows in Brooklyn. He appears on the same bill as roots rockers Eddie Cochran (Brian Setzer) and Jackie Wilson.

Here is a clip from the rock ‘n roll show scene in La Bamba. It features Howard Huntsberry, who steals the show as Jackie Wilson. I really enjoy this video as it demonstrates why Wilson was known as “Mr. Excitement.”

After hitting the top rungs in rock and roll stardom in the late 50s and 60s, Jackie Wilson’s later years were truly heartbreaking.

In the late 60s, the IRS filed suit against Jackie Wilson for non-payment of taxes and they seized Wilson’s home. Jackie discovered that Tarnopol, who had power of attorney over his finances, had systematically looted his earnings. Tarnopol and his associates were charged with mail fraud and tax evasion, and were convicted. As part of this trial, they were supposed to provide Wilson with restitution of $1 million; however, an appeals court subsequently overturned the convictions.

On Sept. 29, 1975, Jackie Wilson was one of the headliners on Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue show in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. During the concert Wilson was performing the song Lonely Teardrops, when he sang the lyrics “My heart is crying,” and immediately collapsed onstage.

The audience cheered, thinking that this was part of Jackie’s act. But Dick Clark knew something was wrong. He discovered that Jackie Wilson had suffered a massive stroke. Although doctors were able to revive him, Wilson went into a coma because his brain had been deprived of oxygen.

Over the next year, Jackie recovered slightly, but he then slipped back into a coma. He spent the next nine years in hospitals and retirement homes, until he died in 1984 from complications due to pneumonia.

To make matters even worse, Jackie Wilson suffered his stroke just before he was to go to trial on a civil suit charging his former manager Nat Tarnopol with defrauding him. So Wilson died a pauper at age 49.

Jackie Wilson was an incredibly talented performer. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the R&B Hall of Fame in 2013. He also received the highest compliments from fellow performers and colleagues.

Smokey Robinson said
“Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer that I think I’ve ever seen.”
Berry Gordy stated that Wilson was
“The greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever”.

To make matters worse (if that is possible), for several years after Wilson’s death his records were not available, because Nat Tarnopol owned the rights to Wilson’s music, and his record company had gone out of business because of mismanagement.

However, after Michael Jackson called out a tribute to Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards and dedicated his album Thriller to Jackie, this generated renewed interest in Wilson’s music, whereupon Tarnopol and his son re-issued Jackie’s records.

Jackie – we salute you “Mr. Excitement,” up there in rock ‘n roll heaven.

Jay and the Americans and Lonely Teardrops:

Jay and the Americans were an American pop group who had a number of hit records in the 60s. They began as a quartet composed of students from New York University. Their lead singer was Jay Traynor, together with Howard Kane, Kenny Vance and Sandy Deanne.

The group auditioned for – who else? – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the late 50s, and Leiber and Stoller gave the group its name.

The first big hit from Jay and the Americans was the 1962 release She Cried. That song reached #5 on the Billboard pop charts. It was later covered by the girl group The Shangri-Las and even later by Aerosmith.

Below is a photo of Jay and the Americans from 1970.

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However, after the group’s first hit their next few records bombed, and at that point Jay Traynor left the group. This left “Jay and the Americans” in a quandary, as they could replace their lead singer but it would leave the group with an anomalous name.

They solved their problem by bringing in lead singer David Blatt from The Empires. Blatt was given a condition – you can join our band, but you have to adopt the name “Jay.” He agreed and – voila! – David Blatt became “Jay Black.”

With Jay Black as their lead singer, Jay and the Americans entered their “golden era.” In 1964 their song Come A Little Bit Closer reached #3 on the Billboard playlists, and in 1965 Cara Mia hit #4.

Here is the audio of Jay and the Americans in a cover of Lonely Teardrops.

The song is played to accompany video clips from the movie When Harry Met Sally. I’m not sure of the rationale behind this, as Lonely Teardrops was not featured in that movie. However, this was the only video I could find that included the Jay and the Americans cover of this song.

Jay and the Americans produce a perfectly acceptable version of Lonely Teardrops, but it is just a pale imitation of the pop classic from Jackie Wilson.

Since we could not find a live version of Lonely Teardrops, here are Jay and the Americans singing Cara Mia.

Although this is billed as a “live” performance, I’m convinced that it is lip-synched. It took place on the TV program Shindig in 1965, and showcases the Shindig dancers cavorting around.

Unlike several “oldies” musicians, who continue to perform long after their voices have given out, until recently Jay Black was still able to produce some impressive vocals. In live concerts Mr. Black still reached for the highest notes on Cara Mia, and he usually nailed them.

Alas, a 1969 cover of This Magic Moment was pretty much it for Jay and the Americans. After that song, they never again placed a record in the top 10. In 1973, the group split up, but for many years Jay Black continued to perform as “Jay and the Americans.”

However, Jay Black had a serious gambling problem and eventually was forced to declare bankruptcy. In 2006, the naming rights to “Jay and the Americans” were purchased at auction by former band member Sandy Deanne. At that point the original “Americans” members Deanne, Howard Kane and Marty Sanders re-united.

They found a new lead singer John Reinecke, whose nickname was – you guessed it! – “Jay.” Thus, a new “Jay and the Americans” was formed. That group performed all the old hits from both Jay Traynor and Jay Black.

So, these days you can now catch “Jay and the Americans” touring with Jay Reinecke; the former David Blatt also continues to perform as “Jay Black.”  The original “Jay,” Jay Traynor, was performing with The Tokens (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) until his death in January 2014.

Jose Feliciano and Lonely Teardrops:

We discussed Jose Feliciano in our blog post on the Doors’ song Light My Fire. Here we will briefly review his life and career. Below is a photo of Jose Feliciano performing in the late 1960s.

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Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945. He was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. At the age of five his family moved to Spanish Harlem.

He became obsessed with the guitar, reportedly practicing up to 14 hours a day. Feliciano loved rock and roll, although the greatest influences on his style were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Jose Feliciano developed a trademark guitar style which prominently features both his jazz and flamenco influences. He applied his guitar technique to a number of popular songs with some spectacular success. From his familiarity with flamenco style, he was the first guitarist to introduce nylon-string guitars into rock music.

Feliciano began his musical career by playing in clubs in the US and Canada, and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He then traveled to Argentina and the UK, and became famous across Latin America.

After moving to LA, he hooked up with producer Rick Jarrard. They released a Latin-style version of The Doors’ Light My Fire that became a blockbuster hit. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year.

Here is Jose Feliciano in a live version of Lonely Teardrops.

As usual, Jose Feliciano gives a unique twist to a popular song. Here, he slows down the tempo and produces a raw and searing version of the Jackie Wilson classic.

Feliciano provides a couple of short but stunning flamenco and jazz-inspired guitar runs, one at about the 2:30 mark in the song and a second right at the ending. Those touches are worth the sub-par quality of the video.

One of the hallmarks of a great pop song is that it can be reprised in many different formats, and still retain its power. That is certainly the case with Lonely Teardrops, as evidenced by Jose Feliciano’s jazz-flamenco cover.

Following his one massive hit with Light My Fire, Jose Feliciano hit the big time once more in 1970 with his Latin-inspired song, Feliz Navidad, which has become a Christmas classic.

Since then he has continued to record, to tour around the world, and to garner occasional awards for his records, and for his collaborative efforts with musicians in many varied fields.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Lonely Teardrops
Wikipedia, Jackie Wilson
Wikipedia, Jay and the Americans
Wikipedia, Jose Feliciano

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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