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The Swinging Blue-Jeans

Although they're only remembered today for their 1964 hit "Hippy Hippy Shake," which charted on both sides of the Atlantic -- the Swinging Blue Jeans were actually one of the strongest of the Liverpool bands from the '60s British Invasion; and, indeed, the Blue Jeans' earliest incarnation goes back about as far as the roots of the Beatles as the Quarry Men. "Hippy Hippy Shake" -- a cover of an obscure '50s rocker that was actually done much better by the Beatles on tapes of their BBC performances -- was their only Top 30 entry in the U.S.. But the band enjoyed some other major and minor hits in the U.K., including a top-notch Merseyization of Betty Everett's (and later Linda Ronstadt's) "You're No Good," which they took into the British Top Five in 1964. The group's origins go back to 1957, when singer/guitarist Ray Ennis decided to form a band. The result was a skiffle sextet called "the Bluegenes" -- the latter a misspelling of "blue jeans" that remained unchanged for a couple of years. Surprisingly, Ennis had already played rock & roll, but -- in a manner the opposite of many other young musicians of the time -- he regarded skiffle as an advancement; equally surprisingly, given their later work, the Bluegenes were heavily jazz influenced, and stayed away from trying to cover songs associated with Elvis Presley and other American rock & rollers, preferring instead to try and emulate the horn and sax parts that they heard on their guitars. The skiffle group lineup also included Bruce McCaskill on guitar and vocals, Tommy Hughes on banjo, Norman Kuhlke on washboard, and Spud Ward on oil drum bass. Ralph Ellis later joined on guitar, and Ward subsequently moved over to Rory Storm's band, and eventually Les Braid took over the bassist spot. Hughes and McCaskill later left, the former for the army and the latter over personal disagreements, replaced by Johnny Carter and Paul Moss, respectively. By 1962, they were working full-time and playing the same venues in Liverpool as rival bands such as the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers et al, and also performed for the first time at the Star Club in Hamburg late in the year. But amazingly, they were still playing jazz-based skiffle, and had even done some unsuccessful record company auditions working in that musical genre. They saw no reason to change until the German audiences, not as tolerant of skiffle music as Merseyside listeners at the Cavern had been, booed them off the stage. At that point, seemingly in the blink of an eye, they switched to rock & roll, trading in their acoustic instruments for their electric equivalents. And in that guise -- and a name change to the Swinging Blue Jeans, they not only won over German audiences but earned a coveted recording contract with EMI's HMV imprint, under producer Walter J. Ridley (who handled such diverse talents -- and not too well, by some accounts -- as Johnny Kidd & the Pirates and Alma Cogan). With the departure of banjo player Paul Moss soon after, they were left as a quartet comprised of Ray Ennis (rhythm guitar, vocals), Les Braid (bass, keyboards), Ralph Ellis (lead guitar), and Norman Kuhlke (drums). They made their recording debut -- still as a quintet -- with a Ray Ennis original, "It's Too Late Now," which made the British Top 30. Their second single, "Do You Know," released in the fall of 1963, failed to sell, but in December of that year they broke through to stardom in with their rendition of "Hippy Hippy Shake." They rode that record's success all the way to the number two chart spot in England, right behind the Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over," and earned a place on the first-ever broadcast of Top of the Pops in the bargain. Their follow-up single, "Good Golly Miss Molly," released in March of that year, charted in England at number 11. And "You're No Good" followed two months later, and soared to number three in the U.K.. That string of successes led to a good debut album called Blue Jeans A' Swinging, issued in July of 1964. They were only to enjoy one more charting single, a rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-authored "Don't Make Me Over," which only reached number 31 in 1965. Ralph Ellis -- who, with Ray Ennis was one of the two songwriters in the group -- left early in the following year, and was succeeded by Terry Sylvester, who had previously played with the Escorts. The band carried on for a couple of more years, but, like most early-'60s Liverpool outfits, the Blue Jeans' career rapidly lost momentum as the '60s progressed. As with most other Liverpool bands of the period, they were masters of that particular brand of rhythm-heavy rock & roll known as Merseybeat, but like most of their compatriots -- and the Beatles were the notable exception -- they were unable or unwilling to let their music evolve into new forms and directions. By 1965 their string of hits was over, though their chart success in America (and elsewhere) with "Hippy Hippy Shake" did give them a higher international profile than all but a handful of Merseybeat bands. Ennis and Ellis had written some catchy and energetic, if slightly sappy, originals in the purest Merseybeat style. And while it doesn't add up to an enduring legacy, there's a lot to be said for the naive energy of the best of their early tunes, and they did hang on quite effectively until 1968, remaking themselves as more of a harmony group in the process. Terry Sylvester left that year to join the Hollies, succeeding Graham Nash in the latter group, but the Swinging Blue Jeans soldiered on, right into the early 1970s. Ennis and Braid stayed on in the core of the band, amid myriad personnel changes, and kept them going for years after that. The group essentially became an oldies act, their playing and recordings mostly consisting of remakes of their '60s hits. Braid passed away in 2005, but a version of the band featuring Ennis was still playing in the 21st century.
© Richie Unterberger & Bruce Eder /TiVo


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