THE BEAT GOES ON 1960’s – BILLY THORPE AND THE AZTECS

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Over the Rainbow (H Arlen/E Harburg) 1964 and I Told the Brook (M Robbins) and Twilight Time (S Ramm/A & M Nevins/A Dunn) and Love Letters (E Heyman/V Young) – Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs 1965.

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were an unstoppable force throughout 1964-5, their local popularity rivalled that of the Beatles and although they failed to write any credible original songs themselves, with the possible the exception of Blue Day by Tony Barber, their cover versions were astutely-chosen, to showcase the seductive vibrato, and heart throb appeal of front man Billy Thorpe.

This was an Aztecs song without Billy Thorpe, Tony was more comfortable holding a guitar, but he displayed his vocal chops here.

The only aspiring songwriter in the group, Tony Barber, would soon depart and write and record Someday, a solo hit for himself in 1966, which would have been a perfect song for the Aztecs, and Tony Barber produced his best Billy Thorpe sound-a-like vocals, to capitalize on the fan appeal of his former band.

When the Aztecs released Over the Rainbow, a somewhat schmaltzy, saccharine, string-laden ballad made famous by a 16-year-old Judy Garland in the 1938 movie the Wizard of Oz and took it to #2 nationally and to #23 on the biggest-selling records chart of that year, they seemed to be on the crest of an unstoppable wave of success. In its original form the song was developed by Harold Arlen and Edgar Harburg, who had already collaborated on the hit It’s Only A Paper Moon, and Harburg had also written Brother Can You Spare Me A Dime, a song which brilliantly captured the human cost of the Depression.

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Arlen saw the Wizard of Oz as a parable for a brighter future if people used their head, their heart, and their courage to rebuild the nation after the economic dislocation of the 1930’s. The song survived a threat by producer Louise B Mayer to cut it from the film, as he didn’t like his star singing the song in a barnyard and thought it slowed down the tempo of the movie too much. But it went on to win an Oscar for Best Song of the year, was voted the best song ever in a movie and the greatest song of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001, and it also became Judy Garland’s signature song. Thorpe’s tenor voice was well suited to the song, which opened with a bold leap straight up an octave from middle C, and he delivered the right amount of light and shade in his vocal tones throughout, aided by a great string arrangement by Franz Conde, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The reformed original Aztecs were brilliant at 2002’s Long Way To The Top concerts as captured here.

The choice of this song as the band’s next release, and their continued reliance on cover versions, particularly the execrable three- word song Mashed Potato Yeah, convinced Tony Barber that his original compositions would never be used by Thorpe, and he departed for a solo career.

The band were by now the new Kings of Rock and Roll in the country, a position that the former occupant of that position, Johnny O’Keefe, was not comfortable with. When the Aztecs were booked to appear on JO’K’s TV show Sing, Sing, Sing, an hour before the show was due to go to air the Aztecs received a note from O’Keefe in their dressing room requiring them all to have a haircut before the show started, Johnny would graciously make his personal barber available for the boys. Below- L-R An appearance on Sing, Sing, Sing – Johnny O’Keefe, Billy Thorpe, the Bee Gees, the Aztecs,

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Billy and the Aztecs not too politely, told JO’K where to put his request and left the building, but just before they departed the carpark one of the production crew chased after them and advised that haircuts were no longer required, the band made their spot in front of the cameras with less than five minutes to go to air- a year later JO’K’s show would be cancelled and replaced by- Billy Thorpe’s show It’s All Happening in 1966.  

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In June of 1965 they released their version of US country-pop crossover star Marty Robbins I Told the Brook, a country-tinged ballad replete with metaphors about nature and the course of true love, ” I told the brook, that runs down to the valley/A secret my best friends never knew/ The brook told the trees and the trees told the breeze/ That I was in love with you…”it was given a gentle beat treatment, with impressive strings and orchestration, and became the first and only #1 hit for the band.

A vocal tour de force by Thorpe, the images in the vid are courtesy of Ivor William Jones Productions and feature “animated” scenes from books, which were idealisatic/surreal in a comic book style.

After the release of I Told the Brook, all the original Aztecs, except for Billy Thorpe, departed over internal disputes about income-sharing, Vince Melouney would head for Swinging London and become a Bee Gee, while Thorpie simply recruited replacements and carried on, the new Aztecs were Johnny Dick (drums), Jimmy Taylor (keyboards), Colin Risbey and Mike Downes (guitars) and Teddy Toi (bass). Below- The New Aztecs L-R Colin Risbey (guitar), Teddy Toi (bass), Mike Downes (guitar), Billy Thorpe, Johnny Dick (drums) , Jimmy Taylor (keyboards) is absent here.

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They quickly followed up with Twilight Time, a huge hit for the Platters with lead vocalist Tony Williams in 1958, written by Samuel “Buck” Ramm and members of The Three Sons, the band who had originally recorded the song in 1944 – Al and Morty Nevins and Arty Dunn.

Another cover of a 1950’s ballad, this was a hit for The Platters in 1958, who were also covering a previous version of the song, albeit an instrumental version.

An earlier cover of Twilight Time by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas in 1965 was most likely the template for the Billy Thorpe version, Digger Revell also covered the same song in 1965, and took it to #19 but was outsold by the Aztecs version which hit #2 nationally. They quickly followed up with the Jerry Lee Lewis/Bob Turbot rocker, Baby, Hold Me Close, backed with the Ray Charles 1956 charter Hallelujah I Love Her So, a song already covered by the Beatles, for their seventh consecutive top 20 hit in less than two years.  

Solo Thorpie here without the Aztecs, bass guitar and piano delivered a subtle backing for Billy’s vocals.

In December the band opted to record Love Letters, a hit ballad for US singer Ketty Lester in 1962, which had been part of the score for a movie of the same name released in 1945. Originally the song was released as an instrumental without lyrics at the time of the movie’s premiere, but subsequently Ed Heyman added lyrics to Vic Young’s music and Dick Haymes had the original hit version of the song. The Aztecs scored a #3 hit with Love Letters, but this would be the last time they would enter the top 20, until a reformed Aztecs emerged in the 1970’s and blazed a hard rock trail through the music festivals of that decade. Thorpe went solo in 1966 and briefly hosted his own TV show, It’s All Happening, loosely based on the format of Shindig, the iconic monochrome US show of that decade, but Billy’s personal life would spiral down, and he would endure a widely publicized bankruptcy which brought this phase of his career to an end in 1968.

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In 1971 Billy commenced a relationship with Lynne that would endure for the rest of their lives, they married in Las Vegas in 1979 and had two daughters Rusty and Lauren, their loving relationship for over 35 years was quite unique in an industry where infidelity, travel and separation, and drug abuse were frequently the cause of marriage failure. Below L-R – The Aztecs at Sunbury, Sunbury Crowd 1972, Billy Thorpe.

In 1972 Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were the star turn at the inaugural Sunbury Rock Festival, they were loud, profane, bluesy, and Thorpe had re-invented himself as a guitar-slinging lead singer in front of a high octane, no-nonsense, four-on-the-floor heavy rock band, and then unexpectedly released one of his biggest hits, the folksy, spiritually-inspired, country rock of Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy), which charted #2 and sent his career off into another direction.

Billy Thorpe was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame along with Glenn Shorrock, Pete Pawson and Don Burrows in 1991, and sadly passed away in 2007.

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