Label anthologies on Ace can be the most hugely enjoyable of nostalgia trips even though by definition they seem more specialised in their remit.
Big Top was run as a sideline by the plutocratic owners of Hill& Range, a New York-based song publishing empire which took in two continents. Its five-year heyday spanned the fading days of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, a period when songwriters and music publishers, rather than recording artists, ruled the record business. This was no back street label run on a wing and a prayer. Big Top shared Hill & Range’s well appointed offices in the penthouse suite of the legendary Brill Building. There was oak panelling adorned with fine art, inch high carpet pile; the fug of sweet smelling cigar smoke could be seen curling above the sound of hard nosed deal making.
Big Top was helped by the great songwriters at its disposal – such as Leiber and Stoller, Pomus and Shuman and Burt Bacharach. It was also unashamedly commercial and rarely got its motives confused. Early hits included Sammy Turner’s ‘Lavender Blue’ and Bobby Pedrick’s ‘White Bucks And Saddle Shoes’; there were also lesser successes with ‘Sunglasses’ by the Shades, a studio concoction featuring Mort Shuman and Linda Laurie and ‘Don’t Look Now But…’ by the Honeytones, a song that was successfully covered in the UK by the Vernons Girls.
In 1960, Big Top signed the hit-making instrumental band Johnny & the Hurricanes through Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik, two Detroit-based hustlers who ran a booking agency in that city. Some minor hits followed including ‘Rocking Goose’ and ‘Down Yonder’ (both bigger hits in the UK than in America). The association with the men from Detroit was to pay far bigger dividends in 1961 when Big Top signed Del Shannon. His first single, ‘Runaway’ was recorded at a split session with one Maxfield Crook, the keyboard player in Shannon’s band. As well as co-writing and playing on Shannon’s sides, Crook cut a quirky instrumental titled ‘The Snake’ which everyone concerned deemed the hit. In the event, it was ‘Runaway’ which caught the public’s imagination, reaching #1 in the USA and UK and charting throughout the western world. The rare stereo mix with miniscule variations in the performance is the version heard here, as is Maximillion’s ‘The Snake’, taken directly from a master for the first time since its original release.
In 1960, a new kid began hanging out at Big Top. His name was Phil Spector. Ingratiating himself with the powers to be at the label, he was assigned to produce Sammy Turner (‘Raincoat In The River’), former Chantels lead, Arlene Smith (‘He Knows I Love Him Too Much’ and an unknown named Karen Lake (‘Air-Mail Special Delivery’). These three 45s are reissued here legally for the first time.
By 1964, Beatlemania had taken hold and Big Top made a concerted move away from pop towards soul, one of the few areas where American product could compete successfully. Bert Bacharach’s protégé Lou Johnson became the company’s principal artist scoring with ‘Reach Out For Me’ in 1963, a year that also saw Big Top hits by Andrea Carroll and the Dynamics. Johnson’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ (released on a subsidiary label, Big Hill) was only a modest hit in America but a smash in Britain for Sandie Shaw. Big Top eventually went out with a whimper. The owners didn’t really need the money or the hassle of running a label, and for the last couple of years it served as a charitable trust for sporadic Lou Johnson releases.
A top notch blend of hits, classy misses, early Spector productions and some groovy instrumentals, together with a booklet load of pics and captivating story telling make ‘The Big Top Records Story’ an exquisite souvenir of pop’s legendary Brill Building era, one which we soon hope to repeat with a follow-up volume.
By Rob Finnis