When I was a four year-old pre-school music fan, I would often borrow records from our neighbours. One of my favourites from their collection was ‘Deep Purple’ by Nino Tempo & April Stevens. I don’t suppose I could have explained how it made me feel at that age, but for what is essentially a beat ballad, ‘Deep Purple’ created a strangely ethereal mood. Hearing it again all these years later, together with the other recordings collected on “Hey, Baby!”, it’s clear that the key ingredient to Nino & April’s sound was the warmth conjured up by the sibling harmonies of the brother/sister duo.
Nino & April had each experienced a degree of success both independently and as a duo by the time ‘Deep Purple’ hit, Nino cutting his teeth as a session sax player and occasional film actor, while April enjoyed an on-off career as a feline, temptress-styled chanteuse. A selection of Stevens’ early sides is included here, sounding a little kitsch nearly 60 years on, but still rather alluring.
Following a series of near-miss 45s together, the duo casually knocked off a cover of the 30s chestnut ‘Deep Purple’ at the close of a session. Almost by accident, they’d hit on something. In spite of label boss Ahmet Ertegun’s doubts about the recording’s hit potential (“the worst thing they ever recorded,” he claimed at the time), it climbed to the top of the US chart, winning the Grammy for Best Rock & Roll Recording a few months later. The success of ‘Deep Purple’ led to the duo recording a slew of updated pre-rock standards, timed – rather unfortunately – to coincide perfectly with the British Invasion. Suddenly their audience had no interest in the hits of yesteryear, and it seemed that Nino & April’s moment had passed as quickly as it had arrived.
However, Tempo’s days as an in-demand saxophonist had led to a friendship with Phil Spector. This bond clearly paid off big time: the Tempo & Stevens magnum opus from ’66 – ‘All Strung Out’, originally written for the Righteous Brothers – is a powerful piece of work, and possibly the best Spector-influenced recording of the era, though the equally wall-of-sound-alike ‘The Habit Of Lovin’ You Baby’ gives it a run for its money.
Still other influences abound throughout this collection. The ache and yearn of Tempo's ‘Boys Town’ cuts so true it could be a “Pet Sounds” out-take. ‘Out Of Nowhere’ acknowledges – if not quite embraces – the Liverpool sound. And, while also tipping the hat to Holland-Dozier-Holland, April’s solo ‘Wanting You’ 45 from 1967 seems to look ahead to the UK studio sound of the end of the decade (think Macaulay-MacLeod or Cook-Greenaway).
This career-spanning compilation of Nino & April’s work is a real eye-opener if your familiarity with their output starts and ends with the hits. And on a personal level, hearing ‘Deep Purple’ 40-plus years on takes me straight back to being a four year-old, gazing at the Dansette in pure awe. Timeless and evocative, “Hey, Baby!” is a joy.
By Harvey Williams