Music News


Quick--who did more for rock 'n' roll, Martha and the Vandellas or Peter, Paul and Mary?

Your first instinct is to go with the girls from Detroit. Martha and the Vandellas' biggest hits--"Heat Wave," "Dancing in the Street" and "Nowhere to Run"--were driven by heart-pounding rhythms and what sounded like a zillion tambourines. In stark contrast, Peter, Paul and Mary's biggest hits, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind," didn't even have drums on them.

Yet Martha and the Vandellas were essentially an interchangeable cog in Motown's unstoppable hit factory. This is proven by the fact that there were no fewer than six different Vandellas between 1963 and 1971. Martha and company were fleshing out a vision written, produced, groomed and choreographed by a team of other people. Martha's input, besides her great, piercing voice, was minimal.

Peter, Paul and Mary, however, charted their own destiny. The trio took the political activism of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and delivered it to the fledgling rock generation in an intimate package. Without its patronage of the early Dylan songbook, who knows how much longer the former Robert Zimmerman would've continued at a coffee-house level instead of enjoying mass acceptance almost overnight?

In doing these things, Peter, Paul and Mary accelerated the notion that pop music could have a message beyond "do the Hully Gully." Today, people think of "Dancing in the Street" as a political song since it was unofficially an anthem of the civil rights marches. But it wasn't Martha and the Vandellas who participated in the march from Selma singing "Blowin' in the Wind" through a bullhorn while standing on a platform made up of empty coffins. It was Peter, Paul and Mary. If Motown was "The Sound of Young America," then Peter, Paul and Mary were its conscience for those early years in the Sixties.

Yet last year, Martha and God-knows-which Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their efforts, while Peter, Paul and Mary have probably never even been considered.

No one's puzzled more by this exclusion than Noel (Paul) Stookey, the middle partner in this seminal folk trio for 36 years. Now ready to embark on a tour behind the group's 17th album, Lifelines, Stookey speaks matter-of-factly about the group's past and present achievements via telephone from his Boston home.

"It's always been a curious thing to me how Peter, Paul and Mary live outside the circle of rock 'n' roll fame," he marvels. "We're seldom included when they do a rehash of the Sixties. And yet we had three albums in the Top 5 in 1963. It's not like it's sour grapes, it's just curiosity--a kind of sense that we don't belong. Like folk is too big a category to cram into rock 'n' roll."

In 1960, Stookey was a singer and part-time standup comedian, working the Greenwich Village folk circuit. After some hesitation, he gave up his lucrative solo gig to team up with Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow at the behest of manager Albert Grossman, one of rock's most colorful and enigmatic figures. Grossman, who would later go on to steer the careers of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Band, saw a need in folk music that wasn't being fulfilled, despite the growing popularity of folk acts like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters.

"The Kingston Trio were about having a good time, singing 'Scotch and Soda,'" Stookey recalls. "When we began to sing, we brought an individual kind of concern for the world around us. And we drew on those songs that had that as a perspective."

The group's first single in 1962 addressed a strong concern for why love was like a "Lemon Tree." The trio followed it up with a rousing cover of the Weavers' "If I Had a Hammer." Unknowingly, they were providing Trini Lopez with his future Live at PJ's set lists. They nipped that trend in the bud with their next hit, "Puff the Magic Dragon," which was written by Peter Yarrow and his college roommate three years earlier. If there is one reason that PP&M are today considered little more than an oldies act that specializes in campfire songs, that reason is Puff.

Though "Puff" was prevented from reaching No. 1 by Jimmy Soul's offensive paean to ugly women "If You Wanna Be Happy," PP&M could console themselves with the knowledge that Soul was never invited to the White House to sing with the commander in chief. While President Kennedy tried getting into the act by singing "Puff," then-vice president Lyndon Johnson wanted to get closer to the group in other ways. Stookey jokes about LBJ "purportedly putting a move on Mary," but refers any further questions to Ms. Travers herself.