Back in the 50s and 60s an instrumental record could burst from nowhere and become internationally known virtually overnight. With no language barriers to hinder its passage, a great tune could cross borders and be an instant passport to enormous worldwide sales. The String-A-Longs' Wheels was just such a tune, enjoying wide popularity throughout Europe in 1961 and rising to #8 in the UK and #3 in the US where only a Top 30 cover version by Billy Vaughan stopped it from going all the way to #1. Written and produced by Norman Petty in his Clovis studio, it was more than just a great tune. The String-A-Longs' innovative four guitar line-up enabled an interesting rhythmic counterpoint to be added to the melody, and their use of Magnatone amplifiers gave the band a fresh and appealing sound. With its measured, leisurely tempo Wheels had a sort of stately grace - the String-A-Longs didn't so much rock'n'roll as glide and stroll and the disc had an endearing unique charm.
But once a tune has achieved such widespread fame and a band such sudden success, they both become prey to any number of likely predators. While it is easy for those of us with a cynical mindset to anticipate the fate that would befall the band in its native land, the gruesome fortune that awaited Wheels in the UK was beyond prediction. So, in the States their US label Warwick went bust, having paid the band only $5,000 for a record that sold millions of copies worldwide. It was a blow from which they never fully recovered. However, in the UK a far more ignominious fate awaited Wheels...
After the String-A-Longs' initial success with Wheels the tune was recorded as a cha-cha by band leader Joe Loss, the veteran king of the pasa-doble and the rumba, who took it to #21 in the UK charts. Dead Loss, as he was somewhat unkindly known to most rock'n'roll fans, not only succeeded in throttling all of the delicate charm from the tune, but also popularised it as a witless novelty to a large scale, heavily sequined, showbiz audience. And so it came to be that in 1964 Wheels was adopted as the signature tune of a body-builder by the name of Tony Holland. He became the undefeated champion of Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks weekly television talent show, the swim-suited Holland flexing his pecs and rippling his buttocks in time with the music. His act was widely seen and still makes me shudder to this day. If there had been a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Music then surely they would have been deeply involved.
Returning to a more rational world, it should be said that there was a lot more to the String-A-Longs than was generally realised. When buyers of Wheels turned the disc over and heard Am I Asking Too Much, a vocal track with a huge amount of quirky teen-age charm, they may well have thought it was by another band entirely. It could easily have been an enormous hit in its own right, and three decades later its quality was rightly acknowledged when it was included in the second volume of Ace's Fabulous Flips series (CDCHD 645). The giant success of Wheels, however, meant that the vocal side of the String-A-Longs would remain buried - until now.
The band had arrived at Norman Petty's studios early in 1959 when they were known as the Leen Teens. The tracks that they recorded prior to the success of Wheels were all vocal and full of the bright, catchy teen-pop typical of the era with a distinct Buddy Holly influence pervading everything - just like Am I Asking Too Much in fact. Some material was released under The Leen Teens banner, while more was later issued under the name of Bryan (or Brian) Keith - an alias for their vocalist Keith McCormack - as Petty sought to double his chances of success in the same way he did with Buddy Holly & The Crickets and Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs.
Alec Palao's latest foray into Petty's Clovis vaults have furnished us with shiny new masters for the Leen Teens material, including some unissued tracks, and many rare singles released under one or another of Keith McCormack's several aliases. There is also the band's very first single from 1958 under the name of the Rock 'n' Rollers, where their rockabilly roots bubble effervescently to the top. We also have Keith McCormack's magical original demo for Sugar Shack, a tune that the String-A-Longs turned down and subsequently found giant success in the hands of the Fireballs. Finally, we have not forgotten their loyal instrumental fans, as we mop up all of the instrumentals that did not appear on the band's first Ace CD (Wheels CDCHD 390), including all of their US hits and their mighty rare later 45s.
THE TEX-MEX TEEN MAGIC OF THE STRING-A-LONGS shines a fresh and exciting new light on this sometimes overlooked band. Their instrumentals are extremely well crafted, and their vocals capture the innocent teen-magic of the early 60s perfectly. Surely too it is time to reclaim Wheels from showbiz hell and return it to its rightful place in the hall of classic rock instrumentals. As a certain television presenter was once wont to say, "I mean that most sincerely, folks..’’