This is the third and final part of my interview with Joe Dowell. Part 1 can be found here, and part 2 can be found here.
In this part, Dowell talks about the recordings that he made after "Wooden Heart," the end of his contract with Smash Records, and the beginning of his career as a jingle writer.
After "Wooden Heart," your next single was "Bridge of Love." That seemed like an attempt to tap into the foreign-language motif of "Wooden Heart."
Yeah, we used French that time. It was obviously a ripoff, trying to take off on the "Wooden Heart" style.
It was a good song, though. It did pretty well.
It was a pretty good record. But it certainly didn't do what "Wooden Heart" did. As we spoke earlier, I wish that I could have worked toward a balladeer [style] like Ed Ames or Andy Williams—more evergreen lasting kinds [of songs]—but, unfortunately, Mercury forced me to do gimmick stuff like "Bobby Blue Loves Linda Lou," "Bringa Branga Brought," some songs that I'm extremely embarrassed about, yet it's the history of what they had me do, and it has its place.
And "Little Red Rented Rowboat" was your third hit single.
Now that was a pretty good song, in the summer of '63. There's a funny story about that. I was hired to perform for the WLS Barndance. Does that ring a bell?
Yeah, up in Chicago.
Famous station, still going great. But they had a barn dance on WLS, and the people had accepted me to perform "Little Red Rented Rowboat." Well, it was a very family-oriented show, and I had not been real happy about one of the lyrics. Maybe in today's world—forty years later—these lyrics would be absolutely nothing to offend the censors, but then, even this was considered too licentious, too extreme, and I had to rewrite the words before I sang it. The original words are like this: "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they wore bikinis way down to here." That threw the ownership and the head of the radio program into a tizzy, and so they insisted that I rewrite the lyrics that night. So I took the original, "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they wore bikinis way down to here"—I had to change it to something more milquetoast and acceptable. So here's what I wrote and performed that night: "I saw two pretty girls sunbathing on a pier/they could see my rowboat way out here." [Laughs] They accepted that, and the show went on. But I can never be accused of racy lyrics, because that's not my style. My parents didn't raise me for that kind of blue lyric.
At some point you were able to convince the label to let you start cutting your own songs?
It was kinda half and half. It was more of an afterthought, because they never really intended to promote the tunes. They were just B-sides. Just in the studio, but they never really gave me a chance, like John Denver, to emphasize my own skill as a singer/songwriter. One tune, "Just Love Me," which everybody loves—in one town, Fargo, North Dakota, it went to #1. I think if we had promoted that instead of the song on the other side.... "Just Love Me" was a B-side of "Bridge of Love."
So, poor, sad little tune "Just Love Me" was a hit and they blew it. They could have released that as a third song and put "A-side" on both records.
They didn't see this as a quality song?
They just didn't value it because you'd written it?
That's a part of it. In several markets it was a monster. And I think it's still a very good song.
You also did a Christmas single ("A Kiss for Christmas").
It didn't have any hit behind it. It didn't make any real noise.
It "bubbled under" the Billboard Top 100.
Yeah. "Kiss for Christmas" was okay, but it didn't become a big hit like "Jingle Bell Rock." That would be a giant record.
So then you did your second LP.
Joe Dowell Sings the German-American Hits. We thought that would be a nice niche.
Whose idea was that?
Again, the label. The people have no names. "The management." I was real happy to do a lot of good German songs. The melodies!
But you were becoming associated with Germany.
You don't have any relationship to Germany, do you?
Only through my parents. My grandparents were born there on both sides. My mother's folks—both sides of the mother's folks, her mom and dad—were born in Germany. So the only claim to Deutschland is one-half, is the maternal side. My grandparents came here though Ellis Island. That's another story. But my dad's side is from, I believe, Wales. The Welsh influence.
Did people start to believe that you were German?
Yeah. They thought that I married a German girl because of "Wooden Heart," and there's no connection whatever.
Then you recorded "Poor Little Cupid," "Bringa Branga Brought," "Bobby Blue Loves Lindy Lou." Again, these novelty songs that you don't prefer.
And, I wish, you could tell me, maybe—what was my last song? Was it "Rowboat" in '63?
The closing of that part of the Smash Records then led to a fantastic experience of being radio/television spokesperson all over the country. "Wooden Heart" opened the door to tremendous success as a radio and TV voice. And within three or four years of 1961—let's say that when the door closed to Smash Records, the TV doors opened, and within four years I had commercials on 24 different banks in 24 different cities, from Salt Lake City to Pittsburg.
And we had some outstanding successes with radio/TV commercials. It was a lot of fun and had some really great achievement in terms of population or sponsor memory. For instance, when I say that, I'm talking about sponsor recollection or the consumer that can remember my commercials.
For example, I went to Peoria, signed a contract with Jefferson Memorial Bank. Within a year, Jefferson Bank people wanted to find out whether my commercial was reaching the populace. They had Bradley University marketing department run a comprehensive survey, and took a hundred people out of the phone book—a hundred families' indiscriminately chosen phone numbers—and of those, people were played a portion of the jingle, and 82.6% could remember my commercial. The national average is down to 15%. So, it shows the power of melody versus the idiocy of rap today, which is to me a cancer against the wonder and the body of true melody and beautiful lyrics and clever use of melody and word. It's really devastatingly awful stuff. You couldn't make a good commercial using rap—that's the proof right there, is that the integrity of beautiful melody and clever lyric can be remembered in a good commercial. Richard Zinser, who was a marketing executive, wrote me a letter and said, "You have conquered Peoria." He couldn't believe the statistics of almost 83% of the whole town of Peoria. That's a big village.
Over the years, I consistently batted that average, with market statistics of 70% to 80% of the population could come back and remember my commercials.
Talk about your last days at Smash.
"The last days of Smash," like the last days of Pompeii. [Laughs]
"Wooden Heart" was huge. You'd think they'd experiment with you more.
They didn't. It was like a can of beans thrown in the supermarket, and when that particular equation of gimmicks didn't work, they just dropped me.
The last days.... It was in summer of '63, I got a phone call from Charles Fash, who rather abruptly said, 'Our distributors are having to eat your records. They're not selling. Goodbye." And, abruptly, just rather coldly, cut me from the label without even a lunch or a letter, and it was quite disappointing. But then, of course, it threw me back onto my own wiles and my own talents, and that one abrupt drop forced me to go into a very exciting world of radio/TV commercials.
But you did the one single for Monument. [The B-side, "Indian Summer Days," is really great. I'd link to it, but there's no video on YouTube.]
That was my last effort to try to do something. I went to see the owner of Monument Records—this was '66.
Fred Foster, the owner, and Bill Justis, the producer, and I convinced them both to give me a try with a tune I wrote about the Vietnam situation, "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong." We released it in '66. It didn't do anything, but that was my last effort at Top 40 or commercial records. And then that was in the midst of.... I was already having great success with radio/TV commercials, with what I'd call "ad ballads." But that was my last effort to try to do something with hit records.
Do you have any photos of your Thunderbird tour?
No. I wish I did.
Do you have any performance photos?
I don't think so. It just went too fast. I didn't pre-plan to have anyone with a camera.
Did you appear on American Bandstand?
I just barely missed it. If "Wooden Heart" had been in the charts a few more weeks, I would have been on Dick Clark's show, but, sadly, I didn't make that. I did make radio shows and interview-TV things around the country, but nothing network.
I did a big show at Gimbels in Milwaukee. It was a big teen thing where I sang and thousands of teenagers came, and I had to have a police escort down the elevator. That was kind of a typical "Johnny Record" deal.
Well, you were a teen idol.
For about fourteen minutes. There are a lot of fun stories that came out of it. There's a man, Joe Ricky, in Missouri, and he's finding me all over the internet, and recently sent me a CD he made himself of taping different things where my music is in the background. He took about seven or eight of my records and actually recorded a little bit of footage so that I could look at some series of little pictures going on of different things. When he played "Bridge of Love," he took pictures of bridges. It's on a DVD and I haven't even been able to see it yet because we don't have a DVD player.
But over the years, a lot of fun things have happened because of "Wooden Heart." Friends on a fishing expedition in Northern Minnesota heard it on a jukebox not so long ago. Once in a while I get a letter from somebody that they heard "Wooden Heart." One amazing thing is, it's still one of the top most-played oldies in the country; it's getting more and more on the playlists, like 93.3 in Peoria, Illinois. Dick Clark played it on Rock, Roll & Remember a few years ago. My optometrist heard that. I've got to get in contact with Dick Clark. Wouldn't it be interesting if he played my new Christmas song, "Holly Hallelujah"? If he would air it on his national radio show?
So, I'm hoping to get some interest and a label to release what very respected broadcast man Paul Dunn, in Bloomington, Illinois—he's from Pasadena, California, originally, wound up in Bloomington as one of the top radio personalities at a radio station, by the way, nominated as the best small-market radio station in the United States. Now, it ain't that way today, it's—I can say this because I'm in Bloomington today—going down the drain because of the format that they're doing. But Paul Dunn thinks, and this man has written for Paul Harvey, got a great mind, very talented broadcast man—he thinks "Holly Hallelujah" could be a Christmas standard in American music. So I've got great hopes for this new Christmas song, and I plan to start making contacts in Nashville to try to record it, have it ready for a CD single next year for Christmas of 2004. So I haven't given up dreams of recording. We're hoping for some success with "Holly Hallelujah."