The only song by Dowell I know is "Wooden Heart".
The only reason I know Dowell’s song is because it was a facsimile cover of an Elvis track on the "G.I. Blues" soundtrack which was given to me by an older cousin when I was a kid, in the 70s.
Elvis’ song was written for the film (and for him) and takes its music from an old German Folk Tune and it became a big hit in Europe (#1 in England, Austria, Belgium, Holland, but oddly #2 only in Germany. It also went to #1 in Australia).
The song was cute, romantic, sugar-y and when sung by Elvis totally sublime. Check it out below with the clip from the film. Perfect comic timing from Elvis. He makes it look easy. No rock era pop star has crossed over into film quite like him.
Whoops, I digress.
RCA Victor had failed to release "Wooden Heart" as a single in the United States. Some halfwit probably thought the public wouldn’t go for it because Elvis sings some of it in German.
Country producer Shelby Singleton then suggested Dowell cover it at his first recording session (future country star Ray Stevens played organ). He was on the money. It became a phenomenal success going to number one.
Hey, Elvis had a lot of number 1s but RCA were forever dropping the ball in the 60s in relation to his singles and denying him even more.
OK, this is not about Elvis but about Dowell, but if Joe hadn’t recorded this Elvis song we wouldn’t be here looking at this album.
Biography from Dowell’s website: "Joe Dowell was born on January 23, 1940, in Bloomington, Indiana…..He was in the ninth grade when he made his first public performance, singing "Unchained Melody" at an amateur talent show. He competed in country fair talent contests while majoring in radio and television at the University of Illinois. "I listened to WLS radio after and during homework," Joe says. "I tried to envision that I would be on the radio. I could actually hear my own voice on WLS." With that dream in mind, he went to Nashville on a semester break, three weeks before his 21st birthday, to find a record company that would sign him … He borrowed a friend’s VW and drove to Nashville, where he rented a room for three dollars a night at the YMCA. A week of knocking on doors proved fruitless. On his last day in Nashville, he went to the office of Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, regular singers on the Grand Ole Opry show. They liked his voice and his "all-American Jack Armstrong look" …Joe resumed his studies, then returned to Nashville by train the following May for his first recording session. He followed "Wooden Heart" with two more singles on Smash, "The Bridge of Love" (number 50) and "Little Red Rented Rowboat" (number 23)".
Dowell apparently had visions of being a "singer-songwriter" which was not how the label saw him and he was dropped (when he didn’t follow up with a hit). I believe he only recorded three or four commercial albums, this one, “Sings Folk Songs” (1963), Of Earth and Heaven (2002), and “Wooden Heart” (1961) which featured (again), you guessed it, the song “Wooden Heart”. He eventually started a radio commercial production company and had a successful career as spokesperson for banks and financial institutions across the USA.
This album is clearly a cash-in on the single.
What kind of an album do you put out when you have a number one with a gentle German folksy pop tune sung in English?
Well you put out an album of gentle German folksy pop tunes sung in English.
Don’t get me wrong I like it when rock-pop artists do foreign versions of songs. Johnny Cash did “I Walk the Line” and others in German, Gene Pitney recorded in Italian as did the Monkees, Petula Clark did French, Connie Francis did Italian and Yiddish etc etc.
But, unlike those albums, this album is geared for the American market. It isn’t so much a foreign language album as it is a German flavoured American pop album.
Maybe there was a mini German boom going on?
- Elvis had just come home from military service in Germany and the film “GI Blues” was in the cinemas;
- “Combat” was about to be shown on TV;
- One of the (then) biggest budgeted and star studded World War Two war films, “The Longest Day”, was being filmed and another “The Great Escape” was in pre-production;
- The big box office German set film, “Judgment at Nuremberg” was released in late 1961, as was the less successful James Cagney film "One, Two, Three";
- Marlene Dietrich was going through a career resurgence as a cabaret star (one of the highest paid in the world) and visited Germany (with some controversy) in 1960;
- German film stars Maximilian Schell, Hardy Kruger, Horst Buchholz, Curt Jurgens and Romy Schneider were all making inroads into Hollywood;
- Croatian crooner, Ivo Robic, had had a big hit (#13) in the US with the German language song “Morgen” in 1959;
- Connie Francis had had a number of successful German language singles in the preceding two years in Germany);
- The Berlin Wall had just gone up.
Or maybe they just wanted to cash in on the German flavour of the song.
The album didn’t sell (but then again I suspect it still made money the way they churned these things out).
At the very least I hope Joe got to shag the chick on the sleeve.
The album has that “after Elvis pre Beatles” clean pop sound which I find quite appealing. There is an uncomplicated innocence which when combined with melody and good, clean production creates some glorious (though arguably undemanding) pop. Dowell has a more traditional baritone so he is more of a Pat Boone rather than a “rocker” cleaned up for the new clean sound.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
To find the right German flavoured pop songs the label and producers had to dig deep into the trad pop songbook and have come up with tunes where, even today, the melodies are familiar.
A little goes a long way and a lot of the sound is quite dated, but the innocent nostalgic appeal of the sound is there, even for those of us who never lived through the era.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Lilli Marlene (Lady Of The Lamplight) – (Al Stillman / Norbert Schultze / Hans Leip) – Vera Lynn, Marlene Dietrich (naturally enough), Connie Francis and Perry Como have all sung it (The great Bear Family record label has released a 7-CD box set featuring 195 different versions of the song).At the time Dowell dii it the song was being heard in the film “Judgement at Nuremberg”. I know the lyric has been changed to have the male narrator waiting for Lili Marlene but the song is such a female song it’s hard not to smile (or wonder about a gay subtext) especially when he sings of waiting outside the barracks. Some cheesy keyboard (?) ads to the decadent cabaret of it all.
- Auf Widerseh’n Sweetheart – (Eberhard Storch / John Sexton / John Turner) – English singer Vera Lynn (again) had a US #1 with it in 1952. Another song identified with female vocalists. There is a heavenly chorus to go with cheesy keyboard.
- Underneath A Linden Tree – (John E Qualkinbush / Eddie Wilson / Bob Ferguson) – This may have been written for the session. OK, clearly yht cheesy keyboard is central to the session.
- Only Once (Nur Binmal) – (Harry Charles) – Man lebt nur einmal! (You Only Live Once!) is a waltz by Johann Strauss II written in 1855. A little haunting and quite effective.
- Morgen – (Peter Moesser / Noel Sherman) – This song was originally sung in German by Croatian crooner, Ivo Robi?, in collaboration with German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. Robic was forever associated (he was nicknamed Mr Morgen) with the song when it became an international hit (#1 in many places around the world and #13 in the USA in 1959). That version was sung in German and was the highest German language song in the US, ever, up to that point. There is no attempt to translate the lyric and the song comes off fairly well.
- Wooden Heart – (Fred Wise / Ben Weisman / Kay Twomey / Bert Kaempfert) – the Elvis song and hit. This seems (?0 to be a re-record of his hit record. This second has a similar instrumentation to the other tracks on this album.
- The Happy Wanderer (Val-Dera) – (Frederick W. Moller / Antonia Ridge) – used in the film Windjammer (1958) and sing by kids everywhere in the 50s , not to mention the 70s, specifically at Marist Brothers Rosalie (Junior). I think we did it better at school ….we were happier at least.
- Wonderland By Night – (Klaus Gunter-Neumann) – Bert Kaempfert had an orchestral hit (#1) in 1961 that was a Billboard number one hit for three weeks, starting January 9, 1961. Louis Prima also charted in 1961 (#15) as did Anita Bryant (#18). So why wouldn’t Joe tackle it?
- Oh! My Papa (O Mein Papa) – (Paul Burkhardt / John Turner / Geoffrey Parsons) – Swiss composer Paul Burkhard wrote this song about the death of a beloved clown-father, in the late 30s. The song has been recorded by everyone including Billy Vaughn, Connie Francis, Eddie Fisher, The Everly Brothers, Harry James. This version is so so.
- Gift Of Love – (Schroeder / Gold) – based on melody of "Oh Tannenbaum". Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold wrote many songs for Elvis. This wasn’t one of them. Maybe it was turned down by him. Crooner Jack Jones did a version on his album of the same title from 1962. Hmmmm, a little dull.
- Little Dolly – (Wise / Weisman) – Fred Wise and Ben Weisman wrote many (many) songs for Elvis also. This wasn’t one of them. Maybe this to was turned down by him. Ben Weisman who also co-wrote “Wooden Heart” wrote 57 songs for Elvis. Bouncy, this sounds like a reject from a Elvis film.
- Fraulein – (Lawnton Williams) – Country singer Bobby Helms had a hit with this in 1957 (#1 country, #36 pop). Pleasant Nashville pop.
Joe’s voice is good (though a little anonymous on some songs) but this is an average album and so mellow it would make Pat Boone seem like a wild rockabilly madman. But, with a view to obvious and laboured eccentricity …. I’m keeping it.
1961 Wooden Heart Adult Contemporary #1
1961Wooden Heart The Billboard Hot 100 #1
Wonderland By Night
tackling Ricky Nelson
Elvis does Wooden Heart
more Wooden Hearts (Tom Petty, Erasure, Mental as Anything and many others)
the Wooden Heart Story:
• Bobby Vinton (Bobby is Polish American)recorded his version in 1975 with those lines translated into Polish. So much for the Fall Weiss invasion of Poland in 1939.