Thursday, May 28, 2009
One-Hit Wonder Week: "The Worst That Could Happen," by the Brooklyn Bridge
The Crests were one of the few interracial doo-wop groups of the 1950s, consisting of two black men, a black woman, a Puerto Rican man and an Italian man. The black woman was Patricia Vandross, Luther's big sister; the Italian dude was Johnny Maestro. "Johnny Maestro" is the fakest-sounding name I have ever come across; I'd sooner believe someone was born "Tre Cool" than "Johnny Maestro." Sure enough, he was born Johnny Mastrangelo.
Maestro was from Brooklyn, although the Crests were formed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was just 18 when the Crests got together in 1957, and they had a local hit almost out of the box with "My Juanita." In 1958 they recorded the immortal "Sixteen Candles," which was a monster, going to Number Two on the pop charts early in 1959. (Appropriately enough, it was on the Coed label.) The Crests followed that up with four more Top Thirty hits by the summer of 1960, at which time Johnny Maestro, still only 21, decided to go solo.
Billed as "Johnny Maestro, The Voice of the Crests," Johnny had two quick Top Forty hits in 1961, "Model Girl" and "What a Surprise," neither of which is remembered much today. His solo career apparently fell on hard times at that point; he had no more chart action. By 1967, a vocal group called the Del-Satins - whose claim to fame was backing up Dion after he cashiered the Belmonts, although they had no hits of their own - ran into Johnny Maestro at a gym in New York City and asked him to become their lead singer. Johnny agreed.
This didn't turn around the Del-Satins' fortunes, however, and in 1968, they found themselves playing in a Battle of the Bands in New York City. Another group in the competition was a seven-man brass outfit called the Rhythm Method. They decided to join forces, this four-man vocal group with a big horn band, and call themselves the Brooklyn Bridge.
At this point, our story shifts to the West Coast, where the 5th Dimension, in the summer of 1967, are recording their album The Magic Garden. After having their first big hit earlier that year with "Up, Up and Away," written by the brilliant Oklahoman Jimmy Webb, they turned the entirety of their next album over to Webb, still just 21, with the exception of a cover of "Ticket to Ride." It didn't really work; the LP spawned two minor hits, "Paper Cup" (which went to Number 34) and "Carpet Man" (Number 29).
It also included a song called "The Worst That Could Happen," another in the series of songs Webb wrote about his doomed love affair with a woman named Susan; other entries included "MacArthur Park" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In fact, Mariyln McCoo called The Magic Garden "Susan's record." "The Worst" followed Susan to her wedding to another man, one who makes her "more safe, more sane and more secure." Given all of Webb's obsessing over his breakup with Susan, I believe the "sane" part.
Back in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge had been given two songs by Buddah Records to cut as singles, but no one was very happy with them. Johnny Maestro happened to listen to the new 5th Dimension album, and thought "Worst That Could Happen" might work for them. They recorded it, and it ended up being the leadoff single for their debut album, Brooklyn Bridge, released late in 1968.
"The Worst That Could Happen" entered the Top Forty in the first week of 1969. It eventually soared as high as Number Three. The Brooklyn Bridge released its second album, The Second Brooklyn Bridge, later that year, but singles like "Your Husband, My Wife" failed to recapture that "Worst That Could Happen" magic. Near as I can figure, they never covered another Jimmy Webb song, to their detriment. Let this be a listen to you, all you musicians out there: Cover Jimmy Webb songs.
This is already a really long item, so since hardly any of you are likely to have made it this far, I wanted to editorialize a bit and say that this entry turned out to be a great story, didn't it? I chose this song because I didn't have another single from the Sixties, I knew this had turned into an oldies-radio staple, and Johnny Maestro is always a cool name to write. But I had no idea that "Sixteen Candles" and Jimmy Webb and Luther Vandross' sister were involved. Every single one of these one-hit wonders I research ends up having a compelling story behind it, rich in detail, except maybe Pilot's "Magic," and at least with that one I found out that those guys were in an early version of the Bay City Rollers. I'd love to do a whole book of them.
The Brooklyn Bridge lasted for a total of four albums on Buddah, although on the last one they changed their name to the Bridge. They reconvened in 1989 to put out a Christmas EP (!), and they've been a standard on PBS oldies shows pretty much ever since. Somewhere along the line they slimmed down to a five-man group, all of whom sang and played instruments, and changed the name to Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite the fact that he had hits in the Fifties, Johnny Maestro just turned 70 a couple of weeks ago. Shoot, Jimmy Webb is only 62. He wrote "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (originally done by our old friend Johnny Rivers) when he was 19.
It appears that there used to be a contemporaneous video for this song on YouTube that has been removed for copyright reasons. And hey, you guys have heard "The Worst That Could Happen" a billion times already anyway. So here's an old video for the Bridge's follow-up, "Blessed Is the Rain," complete with a wrong title on the chromakey: