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Listen to "Wow"

Sounds in the Night, by Russ Garcia, his Vocal Choir and Orchestra
AAMCO Records ALPS-76, 195?
Also released on Bethlehem BCP-5006

This is another cut that, like David Carroll's "Middle East Mambo," I tend to include whenever someone asks for a sampler of Space Age Pop tunes. It's a power-packed nugget of vocal group pop, with a revved-up tempo, wordless lyrics, Latin percussion and piano, and dramatic volume shifts. It's from a little-known album from a minor label that dropped out of sight within seconds of release, aside from a slender thread of word-of-mouth enthusiasm that's kept running for over forty years after its release.

People who've heard Sounds in the Night tend to rate it as one of the all-time great vocal group albums. Everyone else knows it from Adam. Which is why you'll either pay a fortune for it from a dealer or find it, as I did, for 50 cents in a Salvation Army thrift store. Considering how rare this record is, though, I've been struck by how many fans have a copy of it. Maybe it's a record that finds you rather than you finding it.

It's not really necessary to attribute magical powers to this album, though. Garcia was one of the more versatile arrangers and composers working in Hollywood in the 1950s, the kind of guy who could write the theme for "Rawhide" for one job, create the arrangements for a jazzy version of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" for another, then write original numbers for a classic album of space music, Fantastica for a third. He's already had some experience at the extreme edge of musical emotions, having worked with singer Frances Faye, a pioneering queen of camp, particularly on her aptly-titled Verve album, Frances Faye in Frenzy. He also returned to the territory in the mid-1960s, when he composed the piece "Adventures in Emotions" for Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchesta. (One of the passages in "Adventures in Emotions" sounds a bit like the trombone soloist having an epileptic fit.)

There aren't many details about "Wow" or anything else on Sounds in the Night. Garcia later remarked that he used session singer Marni Nixon on the album, which might imply that the other voices came from Randy Van Horne's ensemble, since Nixon and Van Horne were working together at the time. The album credits the song to "Daniel," which might mean Eliot Daniel, who wrote the theme for the "I Love Lucy" television show and was another busy composer in Hollywood. ASCAP and BMI, however, credit Garcia as the songwriter. Given that the album includes another Garcia tune, "I Lead a Charmed Life," with the appropriate credit, it's not clear why Garcia wouldn't take credit for this tune. It may just boil down to the usual reason for using pseudonyms in show biz: pre-existing contractual obligations. I'd speculate that the pianist is Eddie Cano, who was certainly pounding out a lot of Latin piano solos at the time, but I don't put a lot of faith in my ears when it comes to blindfold tests.

Garcia's arrangement uses the standard approach of adapting an instrumental by replacing reed and brass parts with different voices. But he starts with a wilder tune than just about any other vocal ensemble ever attempted. I can easily imagine Tito Puente or Machito performing this with a full band, the trumpets rising and swaying back and forth on the "wow-oo-wow-oo-wow-oo-wah," then dropping down as the trombones stand to play the "bah-bop-bop-be-bah-dah-bop" passage, and everyone on their feet for the last blast, then collapsing back into their chairs on that last amazed and exhausted "Wow." To me, it deserves to be played alongside the best of better-known vocal jazz groups like Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross and the Double Six of Paris.

Finding an album like this as you're thumbing past Mantovani LPs and the zillionth copy of Thriller gives you the kind of rush that only encourages you to send even more hours thumbing past Mantovani LPs and another zillion copies of Thriller looking for another one like it. But there isn't one, at least not that I've come across. Don't get me wrong--there are plenty of great obscure Space Age Pop albums to go hunting for. But if you find Sounds in the Night, just take a break, sit back, and dig the fact that there are some things in life that are truly one of a kind.

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