Jess Conrad: Jess For You: The Definitive Collection (El Records)

A sudden shift in commercial trends might easily be one of the worst things that can happen to a band or artist. For every type of musical genre—or any creative field, honestly—one can find superb art that went ignored or neglected, simply because the market and tastes changed.  Disco in 1980, hair metal in 1992—those are but two examples of genres that seemingly and suddenly became passé overnight.  British actor and singer Jess Conrad is one such unfortunate victim of a musical sea change, but Jess For You: The Definitive Collection, which compiles almost all of his recorded output, shows that even though his brand of teen pop was waylaid by the arrival of the Beatles, he continued to make music.

Jess Conrad’s musical career began just as his acting career began to take off, as he had to sing in some of his early roles. Sensing that he could have crossover potential, he signed to Decca Records, and released his first single, “Cherry Pie,” in 1960. With sappy, overwrought strings and saccharine sweet vocals, it was a pop confection in its purest sense: a quick pleasure, but not very filling. Still, it was a minor hit. Its b-side, “There’s Gonna Be A Day,” was another trifle. He would fare better with his third single, “Mystery Girl,” a jaunty pop number that blends an Elvis Presley-style vocal with a bit of Roger Miller panache. It’s not as bad as some of the material found here, but it’s not a particularly great number, either. Decca would release several more singles over the next two years, but nothing stuck, and these songs are almost instantly forgettable; if you’re going to imitate Elvis, make sure to not imitate his movie soundtrack era!

Curiously enough, when he signed to Columbia Records in 1963, his material became a bit more sophisticated. The three singles he released for them, the lushly orchestrated “Take Your Time,” the catchy, Wall Of Sound imitation of “Tempted,” and the dreamily arranged romantic ballad “Things I’d Like To Say,” are catchier, less hokey, and devoid of the quickly-becoming-dated arrangements of his Decca years. But successful, these singles were not. His next single release—his sole for Pye Records—has had a longer shelf life, thanks to it being produced by the infamous eccentric producer Joe Meek. “Hurt Me” is a record that sounds wonderfully produced—Meek is definitely wearing his Buddy Holly influence here—and “It Can Happen To You” is catchy, but unfortunately these two tracks suffer for being in an outdated style, especially in the innovative musical year of 1965.

That he released no music for the next four years might have signified that he didn’t really put much stock into his musical career, but he returned with a trio of singles released between 1969 and 1972. There’s a hint of The Association and a little bit of Nilsson to be found in “Crystal Ball Dream” and “My Idea” show that even though he hadn’t had much luck with his music career, it wasn’t for a lack of talent.  Meanwhile the one-off 1976 mini album, A Souvenir Of An Evening Spent With Jess Conrad, recorded to sell at cabaret shows and dinner theatre performances, was a surprisingly well thought-out collection of covers of rock classics (“Be Bop A Lula,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) along with more contemporary fare; “First Thing Monday Morning” is a soulful song with a powerful message of hope, while “Give Me A Star” is the big ballad you sort of knew he was always capable of delivering. After 1977’s country rockers “Save It For A Rainy Day” and “Lock Up Your Daughters,” Conrad quietly moved on to other, more meaningful work.

And that’s the point with Jess For You. There’s a ton of material here, some of it good, most of it not. Ultimately his lack of success as a recording act didn’t hurt his career; he has worked and still works as an actor on stage and screen, even earning an illustrious Officer of the Order Of The British Empire in 2011 for his career achievements. His attempt to cross over as a recording act merely serves as a curiosity in an otherwise outstanding career.

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