Joe Meek / Tom Jones – Chills & Fever
Tower Cat# 190 US – Year 1966
Joe (Meek) Versus The Volcano!
I have to say, Chills And Fever is one of my favourite R&B songs of all time. It’s had a handful of great and worthy interpretations, from reputable artists including Jet Harris, Allen Wayne and of course the unsurpassed Ron Dunbar. But being the Meek Geek that I am, it’s this delectable elusive cut that intrigues me the most, and in which I chosen to share.
But first…a bit about this Mr. Jones.
Tom began singing at a very early age, and wasn’t really into sports or even school. But he was a kid who would receive far more fulfillment when singing at family gatherings, weddings and in his school choir. At 12 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, causing him to spend 2 years in bed recovering. While he does describe it as the worst time of his life, it did give him the opportunity to do nothing other than sing and draw. In his teens he was becoming something of a tearaway, missing school, drinking and chasing girls.
By the late 1950s Tom had become entranced by the new rock ‘n’ roll sounds coming from the radio, and was big on the sound of American soul music, with early influences including blues and R&B singers Little Richard, Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson and Brook Benton, as well as Elvis Presley, whom Jones idolised and would later become good friends with.
Tommy Scott and the Senators – In March 1957, Tom married his high school catholic girlfriend, Melinda Trenchard, when they were expecting a child together, both aged 16. The couple’s son, Mark, was born in the month following their wedding. To support his young family, Tom took a job working in a glove factory and was later employed in construction. His big full-throated, robust baritone voice first became apparent when he became the frontman for Tommy Scott and the Senators, a Welsh beat group, in 1963. The band’s leader Vernon Hopkins, lured Tom away from his usual drinking spot after Tommy Redman (their current singer) failed to show up one night. Hopkins persuaded him to perform with the Senators at the local YMCA (with the help of a crate of beer). It was only meant to be a one-off, but Tom was bitten by the bug.
They soon gained a local following and reputation in South Wales. In 1964 the group recorded several solo tracks with producer Joe Meek, who took them to various labels, but they had little success. Later that year Decca producer Peter Sullivan saw The Senators performing in a club and directed them to manager Phil Solomon, but the partnership was short-lived.
The group continued to play gigs at dance halls and working men’s clubs in South Wales, and one night, at the Top Hat in Cwmtillery (which only just burnt down a couple of years ago), Tom was spotted by London-based manager, Gordon Mills. He became Tom’s manager and took the young singer to London, and renamed him Tom Jones, to exploit the popularity of the Academy Award winning 1963 film.
Now I’m only going to touch on the genius that is Joe Meek here. This complicated yet marvelous man definitely deserves a much more in depth write up, and I can assure you that this will not be the only Meek production I will cover here on Seven45. This pioneering record producer and songwriter, is most likely known for the that Tornados instrumental Telstar, (which became the first record by a British group to reach No.1 in the “Billboard Hot 100” in 1962), but his life story is truly fascinating, be it too short. A wiz kid with electronics, Meek had a unique sense of adventure when it came to music production.
Meek was born on April 5, 1929, at 1 Market Square, Newent, Gloucestershire. His early upbringing was rather bizarre, as apparently, the first four years of his life, he was raised as a girl thanks to his mother’s intense desire to have a daughter. As a child, Meek had performed theater plays of his own making with the neighbour’s children, and whenever possible, he himself would play the princess. Of course his classmates bantered him about that, as well as his brothers did. More than likely, this is perhaps why Meek more and more, backed out into his own isolated fantasy world.
He acquired an adventurous passion for performance art and sound experimentation, from a very early age, filling his parents garden shed with begged and borrowed electronic components, building circuits and what is believed to be the region’s first working television. By the age of ten he had built a crystal radio set, a microphone, and a tube amplifier.
At age 14, he expanded his rig, working dance parties as a mobile DJ. And at 16 he acted as a musical supervisor, providing sound effects for local theater groups, that he had recorded on a homemade tape machine. (He built a disc cutter when he was 24 and used it to cut his first record – a sound-effects library).
When he grew up, he did a stint doing his National service in the Royal Air Force as a technician, which only escalated his lifelong interest in electronics and outer space. From 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electricity Board. He used the resources of the company to develop his interest in electronic music production, including acquiring a disc cutter and producing his first record.
Meek In London…
Meek first arrived in London in 1954 after landing a job as a sound engineer for Stones; a popular radio and record shop on Edgware Road. After spending time working at Stones, Meek progressed to a new job, becoming a producer at Lansdowne Recording Studios, moments away from his home on Arundel Gardens in Notting Hill.
At Lansdowne, Meek proved to be quite the maverick, frequently ignoring his superiors in order to pursue his quest to develop new sound techniques. He maintained a strictly guarded “secret box of sounds”…a container kept under lock and key which held all manner of unusual objects for creating unorthodox audio effects. Confident in his new role, he wrote a letter home to his mother stating, “I’m sure your son is going to be famous one day, Mum.”
But before long, Meek became tired of working within a large organisation and decided to go it alone as an independent record producer and established his own label, RGM Records (Joe’s full birth name actually being Robert George Meek).
Between 1961 and 1967, the accommodation above 304 Holloway Road was rented out by Meek, where he set about creating a makeshift but innovative studio. Back then, such a move was revolutionary, as it was a time when pop records were the domain of big corporations, tightly controlled by cigar-puffing businessmen. The sound engineers who worked for these companies did so in strict, clinical environments, armed with clipboards and donned in white lab coats.
Joe Meek’s way of working was the complete opposite to the traditional methods. From the stairway to the bathroom, all rooms were made available for recording sessions. Joe would also use seemingly every day domestic items to create all manner of new sounds, the flat itself more or less becoming an instrument in its own right. He was particularly fond of stamping on the upper floors to enhance drumming effects.
As his experiments developed, Joe Meek’s work took on an eerie, futuristic sound; one which he hoped would define an era as the space-age began to grip the 1960s.
The first major hit to be produced at Holloway Road was John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me, a song about a young man haunted by his dead lover. The single reached UK number one in July 1961. But that success was followed by an even bigger hit in August 1962, with Telstar, an instrumental track created to celebrate the success of the radical new communications satellite which had been launched in July 1962. Played by Meek’s (other) backing group, The Tornados, the ode to space technology featured all manner of sci-fi sounds which had been concocted in the unlikely setting of the north London studio. The record was an instant success. It became the first record by a British group to reach No.1 in the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, which was a massive achievement!
Telstar’s popularity should have set Meek up financially for life. However, a French composer by the name of Jean Ledrut claimed that the tune was pinched from a score he’d written for the Napoleonic film, Austerlitz. This led to a lengthy legal battle which prevented Joe Meek and the Tornados receiving any royalties from their hit.
In 1963, Meek had himself another band to record, a bunch of fairly unknowns who went by the name Tommy Scott & the Senators. They recorded seven tracks with Meek, who then used Ritchie Blackmore (and The Outlaws) to enhance some of those RGM recordings which were done in a single day session. Meek took them to various labels in an attempt to get a record deal, with no success.
But soon Jones, who had had a name change and a fresh signing to Decca, would score that worldwide hit with It’s Not Unusual in 1965, and shot to mega stardom. With this sudden popularity, Meek, who had always refused to release his “Jones” recordings, now decided to cash in and sold the tapes to Tower (USA) and Columbia (UK)…releasing Little Lonely One – That’s What We’ll All Do. This was all done much to the singer’s annoyance. Jones -“We really pinned our hopes on that recording session. Meek said it was going to be released but we never heard anymore…I want to disassociate myself from it”. Meek released another single in October, Lonely Joe – I Was a Fool, then finally Chills And Fever – Baby I’m In Love.
Chills And Fever fever!
The first and original release of Chills and Fever was on the Detroit label Startime (Cat# 45-5001), who credited the track to Johnny Love and his Orchestra. But when it was picked up for national distribution by Dot Records (a label that licensed a huge array of records including some of my most treasured gems) Johnny was changed to Ronnie Love…and it signaled the beginning of one man’s incredible career in music.
Turns out the man behind the record was neither the earlier personas, but instead one Ron Dunbar. A man of talents who ended up becoming one of the most prolific writers in Detroit this side of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and his name appears on a mind-boggling assortment of writing credits, including Patches, Give Me Just a Little More Time and Band Of Gold. Ron also had a hand in A&R work, most notably with Holland-Dozier-Holland when they split from Motown in ’68 to form their Invictus/Hot Wax production company.
Love laid down Chills and Fever, which was penned by Bobby Rackep and Billy Ness, in 1960, and managed to make it to #15 in R&B and #72 in Pop.
Tom Jones & The Squires did finally make it into the Decca studios in the summer of ’64, to re-record Ronnie Love’s hit for a second time. While the band were comfortable with the “demoed” version, the label wasn’t happy with quality, and took the opportunity to augment the arrangements with experienced session musos. The result is a go-go stomping version with classy backing gals and sharp horns, but some would say, all too over produced. To me this version sounds more like a session studio band, and not so much a closely bonded band, but either way, a far turn from Meek’s production. It was Tom Jones’ official first single, and it failed to chart when it was released in late 1964 through Decca.
I just adore Love’s version, and it’s the one that I like to play out the most…the kids love it! But when I first found out that Meek had a version with Jones, I just had to find it. I love the meek sound. It’s really grown on me over the years, and I love the man and his story. As I said, there’s just too much Meek to write about in one post, and I have to encourage you all to read up more on him (there’s some amazing posts mentioned below, and even a movie was made about him recently called Telstar: The Joe Meek Story). He had a tragic ending to his short life and obviously he had his issues and faults. But he left us some very cool and diverse yet Meek typical tunes. The Rondos, Little Baby is one of my favourites, driving and dreamy. The Honeycombs Can’t Get Through To You is fab raw pop punk garage and The Moontrekkers spooky Night Of The Vampire is a hoot! But when I listen to The Cryin Shames Please Stay…well…there’s proof that this “tone deaf” sensitive genius, had an incredible talent that should have made him far, far more recognised.
The Outlaws, who’s name was originally conceived by Meek , were the house band that did all the session work for his productions. As such, they were used for recordings,”Demo (music)” and Audition. Many of the The Outlaws’ songs were written by Meek and credited to his pseudonym Robert Duke.
The Cryin Shames Please Stay is a cover version of The Drifters’ 1961 release, written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard.
Ron Dunbar’s Grammy for Patches was recently pawned on an episode of “Pawn Star”. Rick admits to not having a clue about the song or even Dundar. He ends up with it for $2350 (thinks he can get $5000 for it). News is from Dunbar’s facebook page, it is now back with it’s rightful owner.
Tower Records was a subsidiary of Capitol Records from 1964 to 1970. A label that often released music by artists who were relatively low profile in comparison to those released on the parent label, including a number of artists such as The Standells and The Chocolate Watch Band. For this reason Tower is often associated with the “garage” rock phenomenon of the 1960s. Freddie and the Dreamers‘ I’m Telling You Now, became Tower’s only #1 hit on Billboard. Tom Jones’ only 6 songs recorded in 1963 by Meek, were released by Tower two years later in 1965, while he was actually signed to London subsidiary, Parrot. Four of those singles were released in the U.K. (Columbia – Meeksville Sound) but Meek’s version of Chills wasn’t, making it very much “in demand”.