Of all the successful pop acts of the 1960’s, few are as critically disrespected as Gary Lewis & The Playboys. This is due to a unique combination of factors tailor-made to annoy rock critics. For starters, Gary Lewis is the son of Jerry Lewis and anything smacking of nepotism is off to a bad start with critics. Also, the group mostly didn’t play on their own records: the cream of the L.A. session musician scene did the honors and Lewis’s vocals were always double-tracked with another singer, Ron Hicklin, to blend out any imperfections. The fact that they didn’t write their own tunes sealed the group’s rock-crit fate.
However, that doesn’t mean their records are junk. In fact, the Playboys’ singles were always well-crafted affairs during their boom years. They had a hidden weapon in the form of Snuff Garrett, a fixture of the L.A. scene who could synthesize the trends going on in pop music circa the mid-1960’s (Phil Spector, Motown, the British Invasion) and synthesize them into insidiously catchy teen-beat fodder. He also had fantastic taste in session musicians, using a young Leon Russell as his arranger/right-hand man on the Playboys sessions and getting aces like drummer Hal Blaine to provide the backing. The fact that the Playboys racked up top-ten hits in the midst of peak-level success for the Beatles, the Stones and the Supremes says a lot for Garrett’s skills as a producer.
With Garrett’s help, Lewis and his Playboys rode the pop charts for a few years via a string of hits that would become oldies-station evergreens: “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In” and “She’s Just My Style” are amongst the best pre-packaged pop of the mid-1960’s. Their successful period was enough to ensure that the hits have stayed in print over the years via a number of greatest-hits collections… but what about their non-hits? A few albums have been available intermittently on CD but they were often padded with throwaway covers so they weren’t the best way to size up the group. Meanwhile, the greatest-hits discs inevitably skipped the non-hit singles, not to mention several non-album b-sides.
Thankfully, fans who want to go beyond the familiar hits now have an opportunity to do so via The Complete Liberty Singles, a lovingly assembled 2-disc set that collects the a and b sides of every single the Playboys cut for this label as well as few oddities. The first disc covers the group’s two biggest years, 1965 and 1966. All the key oldies station favorites (including the trio mentioned above) are here. There are also some strong singles that aren’t as well remembered today but offer the same pop craftsmanship of the more familiar items: “Save Your Heart For Me” is a breezy ballad with nice acoustic guitar hooks and a sing-along style while “Green Grass” is lovey-dovey bubblegum pop with a kitchen-sink arrangement that turns what would have otherwise been a mild ditty into a post-Spectorian pop cathedral.
The b-sides on the first disc also provide plenty of entertainment, sometimes the offbeat kind: “Tijuana Wedding” is an instrumental that sounds like the Ventures jamming on “Tequila” (it also features a bizarre gibberish-Spanish recitation by a justice of the peace!) and “Time Stands Still” lampoons its own saccharine nature with campy backing vocals and a funny stretch where Lewis impersonates his famous dad’s “idiot” alter-ego. An unreleased cover of the folk standard “Sloop John B.” is a lifeless, thin rendering that deserved to stay in the can but the promo-only “Way Way Out,” theme song from a Jerry Lewis vehicle, is jaunty fun.
The second disc finds the Playboys’ star on the slide but the first half is still plenty interesting for 1960’s pop fans: “The Loser (With A Broken Heart)” is an odd frat-soul/garage rock blend of with an oddly dreamy bridge and nihilistic lyrics, “Jill” is a top-flight sunshine pop ballad that devotees of that style will enjoy and a heart-on-sleeve rendition of “Sealed With A Kiss” succeeds as a well-crafted tearjerker. In fact, the sunshine pop style fits Lewis nicely: “Girls In Love” and “Has She Got The Nicest Eyes” are other gems in that vein that pop up on this set.
There is also some strong on the b-sides from this era, as well: “May The Best Man Win” is a romance-melodrama ballad that could have been an a-side and “New In Town” is a low-key declaration of loneliness with a beautiful arrangement (and a killer bass line). The b-sides decline in quality as the disc progresses – Lewis’s attempts to rock it up on covers of “C.C. Rider” and “Great Balls Of Fire” sound like self-parodies – but the a-sides are often surprisingly good. For instance, “Hayride” is insidiously catchy bubblegum and “Something Is Wrong” is a convincing stab at blue-eyed soul.
The Complete Liberty Singles will probably be overkill to those with casual interest in the Lewis/Playboys career but truth be told, it wasn’t designed for them. This is one for the obsessives, complete with a great set of liner notes: Garrett’s comments are often hilarious and you get plenty of inside dirt on how the songs were selected and recorded. Better yet, the set’s producers went back to the single masters for each song so each mix is faithful to how the original releases sounded way back when. If mid-1960’s pop of the non-psych variety is your obsession, The Complete Liberty Singles is worth the spin.