I need to come up with an acronym for the inspirations to Muse I get from “Buried Treasure” show on SiriusXM, because Tom Petty keeps doing it to me.
This time, what I couldn’t get outta my head last week was a song called “I’m Blue,” by the Ikettes. This No. 19 hit from 1962 utilizes a stylistic device found in rock and roll — non-verbal vocalizations — so much that its title includes the parenthetical “Gong Gong.”
Which the single by Ike and Tina Turner’s backup vocalists has a lot of, gongs. After leading off with a couple actual words — or maybe three, depending on how you count ’em, i.e., the title — you hear a bunch of ue’s, some doo be doo’s, and gong after gong after gong. Then there are four, maybe five actual lines that have subjects and predicates and that sort of thing. Ike took credit for writing it …
Anyway, hearing that song set me to thinking about other “lyrics” that include words that aren’t really words. The technique goes back to the roots of rock, and some of the most notable examples come from artists who practiced one of the musical forms that influenced the genre, doo-wop.
Exhibit A: “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. This 1957 hit’s opening line gave a 1960 and ’70s retro-rock band its name — although why wasn’t it called Sha Na Na Na Na? — and follows that up with “dip dip dip dip dip dip dip dip” and “mum mum mum mum mum mum.” It’s a little light on the lyrical content, like Ike’s masterpiece, but it at least contains some social commentarty.
The following year, we got “The Witch Doctor,” recorded by David Seville before he started consorting with Chipmunks. But, truthfully, this probably needs to be in a different category, because Ross Bagdasarian Sr. — understandable that he used a stage name — is quoting the witch doctor when he sings “Oo ee oo ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang.” (This song nearly drove my parents to suicide back in the day, because their sons sang it over and over and over again on a day-long car trip to northern Wisconsin.)
1961 was perhaps the crest of the wave for the phenomenon, at least in the ’60s. From the doo-wop influence came the Marcels, and “Blue Moon,” with its classic “bomp-baba-bomp, dip-da-dip” opening line.
Also a big hit that year, and also by a doo-wop band, was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” However, the repetitive “awimbawe” is not non-verbal — the Tokens’ hit was based on a South African song, written in Zulu, and retained that word from that language.
Another hit that year was “Dum-Dum.” The title of that Brenda Lee song is taken from its opening verse, which is repeated in the chorus, neither of which has much to do with the actual lyrics, the verses of which don’t seem to have much to do with each other. Surprisingly, the songwriting is not credited to Ike …
You can’t blame the non-verbal in “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” Neil Sedaka’s 1962 No. 1, on doo-wop. Like the opening line of “Dum-Dum,” its “Down doobie down down down, comma comma” lead-in seems pretty random.
Back in the early and mid-60s, there were plenty of songs with non-words thrown in as a sort of vocal percussion, as in “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters (1961) and “Cherish” by the Association (1966). Sometimes writers and artists tossed in shorter, non-verbal things in between lines: “Hey la ley la” in “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels (1963) and “Wo-wo-wo-wo” in Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” (1960)
Sometimes, the seemingly non-verbal stuff was just leading into, or extending, actual words: “Barbara Ann,” the Beach Boys (1965) and “Two Faces Have I,” Lou Christie (1963). And were the Beatles just being affirmative about the lady when they sang “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in 1963’s “She Loves You”?
Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” (1965) doesn’t really count, because the nonsense names are part of a rhyming game that is the premise of the song. “Do Wah Diddy”? Mandred Mann in 1964 — and the Exciters, who first recorded the song the year before — had more in common with Seville Sans Chipmunks; they were just quoting some chick walking down the street. Maybe she had talked to the Witch Doctor.
Otis Redding sang “Fa Fa Fa Fa” in 1966 to represent the Sad Song (another parentheses in a title) that was all he was doing at the time. Or maybe he — hat tip to the Von Trapp Family — had a really, really, really, really long way to run.
How about “Iko Iko”? The Dixie Cups’ 1965 No. 20 was a cover of 12-year-old song by Sugar Boy (James Crawford) and His Cane Cutters. Crawford years later said the words in the title, and the “Jock-a-mo fee na-na,” were chants used by New Orleans Mardi Gras “Indian” tribes. But when pressed on the issue, he admitted he had no clue what they meant, and that he was just trying to write a catchy song. Like Ike …
Probably the ultimate non-verbal lyric, albeit not a ’60s thing, was Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” from “Dark Side of the Moon.” Interestingly, the woman who rendered that remarkable vocal performance, Clare Torry, sued the band for co-writing credit, because she improvised the scat-style vocal over keyboardist Richard Wright’s composition. And won. Take that, Ike Turner.
But, when it comes to this phase of The Music, the $64,000 question is: “Who put the bomp/In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp/Who put the ram/In the rama lama ding dong”? Barry Mann and the Halos made that query, as a commentary about songs by the Edsels, the Marcels, the Diamonds and Chubby Checker — all released, including Mann’s number, in 1961.