One of the great vocal groups, Jay & the Americans, is often overlooked
(No. 20 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
The loss of their lead singer, the British Invasion…nothing stopped this group, a throwback to the great vocal groups of the 50s. There wasn’t much of the doowop era left when the Beatles hit. But in the midst of all the British hits, it certainly was a kick to hear a taste of Frankie Valli’s unbeatable falsetto, the Drifters taking us “Under The Boardwalk,” the mighty Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions serenading us with a steady parade of classics, Little Anthony’s unique phrasing or the Miracles leading the Motown charge through the car radio to keep the street corner spirit alive.
However, nothing topped the segue of the last chord of “Wooly Bully” or the last bongo tap of “For Your Love” melting into the operatic thunder of Jay Black opening “Cara Mia.”
You had to be there. In a convertible, if available.
As many of you know, the story of Jay & The Americans began much earlier behind then lead singer John (Jay) Traynor. Traynor, who sang with the Mystics, known for their 1959 classic “Hushabye,” was the lead voice on the group’s debut album, which featured the now legendary “She Cried.”
In the midst of the era of the 45, the ensuing “She Cried” LP was unusual, lacking the filler most albums of the time possessed. Including the group’s first single, a terrific version of “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” “Dawning,” “Yes” and other gems, the “She Cried” album established the template for Jay & the Americans’ future long-players. In those days, groups released albums every three months and a lot of potential hits failed to reach single status. But they certainly made for good listening and Jay & the Americans’ LPs were perfect examples. Each LP featured a hit or two, a cover of some of the days biggest sides and a few obscure gems that make digging into the group’s catalog worthwhile, rather than just purchasing a “Greatest Hits” compilation. (Skip “Live At The Cafe Wha?,” though).
But back to the story. The follow-up to “She Cried,” “This Is It,” though a fantastic record, failed to chart and Traynor then left for what amounted to an unsuccessful solo career. The loss of its lead singer – especially one as talented as Traynor – should be the death knell for a vocal group. Enter David Blatt, who became Jay Black. Traynor was a terrific lead, but Blatt was something else again. The greatest instrumental virtuoso can’t compare to an unforgettable voice, and Blatt, as Jay Black, was one of the greatest voices in rock. When Bruce Springsteen said, “no one sings like Roy Orbison,” he was correct. But Black gave “the Big O” a run for his money and carried the Americans along with him.
The new lineup’s first release, “Only In America,” was steeped in controversy. Originally recorded by the Drifters, it was canned and the backing track was given to the white group. After all, no one would believe a black group, even as big as the Drifters, singing anyone could grow up to be President. What a thought. Gads.
The ensuing “Come A Little Bit Closer” album included “Only In America,” which reached No. 25 on the Hot 100 and the title track, the group’s highest-charting single at No. 3. But almost every track, including two little known Burt Bacharach and Hal David gems, “Look In My Eyes Maria” and “To Wait For Love,” are worth savoring.
“Let’s Lock The Door,” was the first single from the next album, aptly titled “Blockbusters.” While that single was reaching No. 11, Black was filibustering for the release of “Cara Mia,” which he had sung at his audition. He won out, despite “Cara Mia” being anything but the typical single, and the result was a No. 4 classic.
Now keep in mind, all this was taking place in 1964 and 1965, when the United States was being overrun by the British Invasion spearheaded by a plethora of the greatest bands in the history of music. Thanks to splendid material and Black’s phenomenal vocals, Jay & the Americans were more than holding their own when most American acts with their roots in the 50s were being swept away with the tide of the onslaught from the mother country. In fact, Jay & the Americans appeared in concert with both the Beatles and Stones, certainly a daunting assignment for anyone but the cream of the crop.
The group pulled their 1965 hit, “Some Enchanted Evening,” from Broadway’s “South Pacific.” Though it had scored for Perry Como in 1949, most teens in the 60s were unfamiliar with the classic. Of course by then most teens were unfamiliar with Perry Como. The Americans made the song their own from the opening “Once you have found her, never let her go.”
The follow-up, “Sunday & Me,” reached No. 18 and became notable as the first major hit penned by Neil Diamond. Orbison’s “Crying,” followed, reaching No. 25. Few would even attempt to duplicate Orbison, and Black’s effort shows the strain of trying to match the greatest voice Rock has produced. It was a good try, though.
Two excellent albums, “Livin’ Above Your Head” and “Try Some Of This,” followed, but neither produced a hit single and it appeared as if Jay and the Americans’ run as chart-toppers was over after four years.
But for the next LP, “Sands Of Time,” the group turned back the clock and proved there still was a considerable market for “oldies” of the doowop genre. Dedicated to Alan Freed, and featuring his final signoff as the album closes, the group covered many of their favorites from their younger days and, surprisingly, the lead single, a cover of the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” soared to No. 6. Remember, we’re talking 1968 here. Immediately above it was “Crimson & Clover,” by Tommy James & the Shondells, with Creedence Clearwater’s “Proud Mary” at No. 2 and “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone at No. 1.
Pretty impressive company for a remake of a 1960 hit.
The next album, “Wax Museum,” was another collection of classic oldies, though the major single was a cover of “Walkin’ In The Rain,” which the Ronettes had pushed to No. 24 just five years earlier. Jay & the Americans took it all the way to No. 19.
And they did it all on United Artist records, a label that once prompted Dean Torrence to remark, “If Patty Hearst were on United Artists Records, she never would have been found.”
At 72, Jay still makes appearances today and Kenny Vance has done successful movie work and still appears on the Jersey shore scene with his own group, the Planotones. Traynor appears with a current version of the Tokens. Marty Sanders, Howie Kane and Sandy Deanne, meanwhile, are keeping the Jay & the Americans name and tradition alive, appearing with a new frontman, John (Jay) Reincke.
The equal of most of the vocal groups already inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and better than some, Jay & the Americans were inducted into “The Vocal Group Hall of Fame” in 2002. They deserve induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as well.