Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The Magnificents, Up On the Mountain.
The Heartbeats, A Thousand Miles Away.

One bright morning, Johnny Keyes, the lead singer of the Magnificents, climbs a mountain. I'm not sure where exactly, because the band lived in Chicago, but at any rate, he hauls himself up to the top of some crag, falls to his knees and sings a song of lamentation, begging for his girl not to leave him. Nothing happens. He goes back down, asks the girl's sisters and mother what went wrong--they have no answers for him either. Years pass, and he still wonders what happened, and where his money went, too.

Recorded on January 21, 1956 and released in April as Vee-Jay 183. Although "Up on the Mountain" was a national hit, the group never succeeded in making a viable sequel (many great details are on Marv Goldberg's page). On Doo Wop Greats.

"A Thousand Miles Away" is as desperate a story, if a bit more optimistic. The couple in this song are parted, living across the country (it could be a GI and his girlfriend; lead singer James "Shep" Sheppard, who wrote the song, was inspired by his girlfriend leaving Queens for Texas). Like many long-distance relationships, theirs consists of measures of denial and hope. Sheppard falls to his knees and prays--he knows the couple will be reconciled and reunited--he sings with such tender assurance that you know it will work out all right.

"Thousand Miles," which became a huge hit for the Heartbeats, is the start of a remarkable series of "concept" singles which the Heartbeats released over the next four years. In '57, for example, came "500 Miles to Go", a year later was "One Day Next Year." The story even continued after the group fell apart and Sheppard formed Shep and the Limelites--the Limelites' "Daddy's Home," which completed the cycle in 1961, closed with the refrain of "Thousand Miles". (And it began a new cycle at the same time--the Limelites put out a number of singles in the early '60s detailing the sad truth of happened after the guy finally did come home--one critic compared them to John Updike's "Maples" stories.)

In a sad, ridiculous bit of legal malice, the publisher of "Thousand Miles" successfully sued the publisher of "Daddy's Home" for copyright violation, even though Sheppard had written both songs--the judgment destroyed both the Limelites and Hull Records. Sheppard's career never recovered, and he was found dead on the Long Island Expressway in 1970, the victim of an apparent robbery.

"Thousand Miles" was recorded in August 1956 and released in September as Hull 720. On Golden Age of American Rock and Roll Vol. 8.

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