It is one of the great ironies of the Twentieth Century that pop idol Norm Wooster is best known for a song which he did not, in fact, perform on. "Lovin' You Lots And Lots," a #1 single for three days during the Fall of 1964, was actually recorded by Wooster's backup band, the Norm Wooster Singers, after a bitter breakup.
Norm Wooster (b. Normauceau Woostechevski, Brooklyn NY, Nov. 12, 1932) was the self-titled "King of Barbershop," at one time an international pop idol whose fortunes eclipsed even those of stars such as Jim Nabors, Zev Damone and Guy Smiley. Wooster came from a musical family. His father, George "Poppa" Wooster, was a Trans-Lithonian immigrant who led a regional dance orchestra in the early 1920s, and pioneered the crooner style along with Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Wooster's mother, Evelyn Bain, began her career in Vaudeville, eventually gaining national fame as the featured vocalist in her future husband's big band, the Poppacats (pictured below). In addition to leading one of the Midwest's most popular dance bands, George Wooster is also noted for helping launch the careers of early jazz legends such as Ben Pollack, "Wildman" Tommy Uebel, and guitarist Emmet Ray.
Classically trained, young Norm learned the oboe from his uncle Czeslaw ("Checky") Woostechevski, a Polish multi-instrumentalist who led several ethnic dance bands (and for a time played in the Poppacats). At age three, young Norm fell under the spell of Benny Goodman, briefly switching to clarinet, and then back to the oboe, at the urging of his parents. However, it was as a vocalist that he would make his mark. In 1943, Wooster debuted at his uncle's restaurant, Club Checky, in Cleveland's Lower East Side. Already performing his own original compositions, the young artist was spotted by none other than famous talent scout John Hammond's senior assistant secretary, who brought Norm's budding talent to the attention of the Columbia Record label's A&R Department. However, because of the wartime recording ban, Wooster's earliest compositions never made it onto wax.
America wouldn't have to wait long, though. Winning the 1948 Tri-State Middle School Talent Search, Wooster got his first recording contract, cutting "The Whooping Crane Song" b/w "Are You Still Asleep?" for the tiny independent Aazzaxx label. Although song pluggers originally pushed the well-known "Whooping Crane Song" for radio airplay, it was the Wooster original, "Are You Still Asleep?" that became a regional jukebox hit in 1950. Since then, "Are You Still Asleep?" has become one of Wooster's best-beloved compositions, recorded in twenty-two different languages, and topping the charts in 1967 in Timi Yuro's version from her tribute album, "Nothin' But Norm."
Success came easily for Norm Wooster, and the 1950s were his oyster. With Big Band dead and sensing that oompah, too, would soon become passe, Wooster pressed for artistic control over his records -- almost unheard of at the time. Norm fought doggedly with his manager, "Sleepy" Bob Blandon, and eventually was forced to buy his way out of his contract with Aazzaxx. Waiting in the wings, though, was Wooster's number one fan, a young entrepreneur from Scranton, named Solomon ("Sol") Siler, whose struggling Play-Tone Records was looking for fresh talent. Play-Tone had started as a jazz label, recording several singles by Scoots Jameson and Del Paxton which did well in the south, despite being accidentally distributed to jukeboxes in country bars. By 1951, though, the bebop-a-billy craze had died down, and Sol Siler was on the prowl for something new to make the coin box jingle. Norm Wooster, with his innovative barbershop arrangements and showbiz savvy, was just what Siler needed.
The rest, as they say, is history. For most of the 'Fifties, Norm Wooster's string of hits seemed unstoppable. His songs reflected the serenity and confidence of the Eisenhower Era. Songs like "Gonna Buy A House," "Feelin' Great About My Job," and "Red Sofa, White Picket Fence, And Sweet Baby Blues" reassured a nation and set the standard for the barbershop genre. Although some songs (such as "Bobbysoxer Baby") seemed a bit risque, it was Norm's snappy patriotic Korean War anthem, "The Reds Are Red With Envy," that made him a household name.
In 1954, Wooster turned down an offer to join the cast of the Jack Benny show, choosing instead to move out to California with Sol Siler, and become head of A&R for the newly-relocated Play-Tone. Although he was new to the talent scouting game, twenty-two-year-old Norm Wooster seemed born for the job. "We saw this kid coming," recalls Columbia's Mitch Miller, "and we could tell he was gonna kick all our asses around the block." Indeed. Wooster quickly lined up the hottest young talent, stellar artists such as Jimmy Jet and Diane Dane, whose records soared to the tops of the charts.
In Hollywood, Wooster also found fresh new talent for his own band. Counter-tenor Tad Munich joined the Norm Wooster Chorale, as an arranger and bandleader. Gradually, Wooster handed more and more of the band's day-to-day operations over to Munich. Wooster's busy schedule, packed with regular television appearances and movie cameos, as well as extracurricular duties at Play-Tone, made running the Chorale a secondary concern. As Wooster faded into the background, Munich stepped to the fore, taking over as the Chorale's featured vocalist, and changing his name to Teddy Moon. Many a teenage heart swooned before the unconquerable combination of Wooster and Moon, and "Wooster Booster" fan clubs sprang up across the country as well as overseas.
Although Norm Wooster was one of the highest paid entertainers during the 1950s, his fall from grace during the next decade came hard and fast. In retrospect, the split between Norm Wooster and Play-Tone founder and chairman Sol Siler seems inevitable. Siler was a tough pragmatist from the circuit back East, who steadily grew disenchanted with Wooster's increasingly lavish, experimental barbershop concept albums (and corresponding decline in sales). Running with a fast, flattering Hollywood crowd, and isolated inside the studio booth, Wooster left himself open to Solly's infamous changes of heart. Tensions came to a boil in 1962 when Siler changed the name of the Chorale to the Norm Wooster Singers, sending Teddy Moon out solo as the road manager of the first Play-Tone Musical Caravan without first consulting Wooster. Furious, Wooster threatened to sue Play-Tone for breach of contract. The following spring, Siler retaliated by releasing "Lovin' You Lots And Lots" under the new group's name, and cutting Wooster's name out of the songwriting credits. For months, the song languished in the bottom rungs of the Top 100, though eventually it soared to Number 1. Norm Wooster, however, was not around to savor this success. His lawsuit against Play-Tone now pending, Norm returned home to his beloved New York where he "dropped out of the rat race for a while."
In later years, Wooster would claim that he had never wanted to release "Lovin' You Lots And Lots," and that he objected to the songs suggestive lyrics (ie: "you got me all tied up in knots"). However, it was common knowledge that Wooster had in fact been blackballed by Play-Tone Records due to his right-wing political views, and because of his close ties to members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which at the time was investigating Sol Siler's illicit relationship with actress Suzanne Pleshette. Pleshette herself was a bit of a sore point, since rumors flew that both Siler and Wooster held a torch for the fetching star of "40 Pounds of Trouble." (These rumors were compounded by the 1966 release of Wooster's "beat" classic, "Suzie P's Got A Thing For Me", a psychedelic remake of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue").
Back in New York, Wooster immersed himself in the vibrant underground Folk scene. It was in this mixed-up, murky underworld that the adrift Wooster met the woman who would profoundly change the course of his life. Linda Pierre King, a recent transplant from Houston, Texas, had made her home in the famous beatnik hangout, Beanie Baby's Java Hut -- it was here where Norm Wooster first saw her perform, and where he fell in love. King, a follower of the individualist philosopher Ayn Rand, ushered Wooster into the folk scene, and spurred on his first great musical transformation. For several years, Norm did not record much, preferring as ever to play a background role. Yet many remember his friendship and advice fondly. For example, it was Wooster who introduced his friend, Jerry Murad, to a young Robert Zimmerman, backstage at the Beanie Baby. Murad and Dylan sat up all night, as the lead Harmonicat taught Dylan everything he knew about the harmonica. (It is said that Murad also taught Dylan how to roll cornsilk into cigarettes, but Dylan has always denied this rumor).
Wooster's career ebbed and flowed throughout the '60s, and into the '70s. In 1966, he moved back to Los Angeles and took part in the booming psychedelic rock scene. However, his political past caught up to him again, and he was forced briefly to flee the country, where for a time he wrote Spanish-language pop tunes under a variety of assumed names (the best-known of which is the classic, "Dime," or "Feelings," as it is called in English). He returned to the States as a born-again Christian, later moving into country music, then into disco, and finally into retirement.
In 1982, Norm Wooster and Teddy Moon resolved their differences, reuniting for a public television special marking the 25th anniversary of their landmark performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The resulting concert album, "We've Still Got It" went triple platinum in Italy and Finland. Emboldened, Wooster stepped back into the limelight, as manager of the Seattle "appliancecore" quartet, the Power Mowers. Although critical favorites, the Mowers sound was five years ahead of its time: their main claim to fame was when they let a shy young songwriter named Kurdt Cobain his sleep on their couch, little suspecting he would be busted that night for possession of cornsilk. Once the ensuing scandal died down, Wooster again retired to his life as a New England chicken rancher.
Interest in Wooster's career has recently been rekindled by the Play-Tone Records collection "THAT THING YOU DO" which accompanied the 1996 Wonders biopic of the same title. Diehard "Wooster Booster" fans have complained that none of Wooster's earlier material (which provided the financial basis for the Play-Tone Group) is included on this disc, but nonetheless, it is such a treat to hear anything Woosterly on record again, that such complaints seem trivial and small-minded. Wooster has recently re-reemerged, performing at small venues in southern New Hampshire, and it is rumored that a record of new material is due out soon on the Del-Fi label.
We can only hope the wait will not be too long.
Special thanks to Bob Irwin, Billy Vera, Irwin Chusid,
Alec Palao and Miriam Linna for their help researching this article.
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