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NINO TEMPO & APRIL STEVENS - Hey Baby! Anthology

As far as magical pop music moments go, the story of Nino Tempo and April Stevens' almost-never-was hit "Deep Purple" is a swell one. It’s a classic tale of in-studio goofing off gone right; Nino couldn’t remember the lyrics to the second half of the Tin Pan Alley tune, so sister April gently cooed them to him. The charming improvisation was captured in two poorly rehearsed takes, and a number one hit was born.

The success of Nino Tempo and April Stevens (née Tempo) was indeed not overnight, in spite of the fluke of their massive hit. As children they moved to California to pursue their musical and theatrical dreams, with April cutting a saucy single "Warm Soft Lips" in 1953 (included in this compilation and the reason for the 'Stevens' surname change; gushingly singing about warm, soft lips had the potential to ruin young April’s reputation and any chance of a wholesome career)! Nino dabbled in film but got his true break as a jazz musician turned sought-after session player, becoming a favourite of Atlantic Records head honcho Ahmet Ertegun which led to Nino and his sister signing to Atlantic’s subsidiary label Atco.

This new Ace compilation is a full retrospective of Nino and April’s careers that includes numerous solo efforts by both. Their efforts as a duo initially took inspiration from the success of "Deep Purple" with Nino and April singing sweet sound-alike tunes featuring Nino's signature imperfect harmonica and April's spoken interludes.  A 'don't mess with success' attitude meant that there was a definite emphasis on reinventing 1920s and 30s classics (dig on their organ-anchored and sibling-harmonized take on "Honeysuckle Rose") and love songs of a more recent vintage such as "Hey! Baby." One's enjoyment of the duo's polarizing version of the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" (recently heard on the stellar Nuggets: Where the Action Is! box set) depends on how much heavily panned bagpipe one can handle (this writer is planted firmly in the pro-bagpipe camp). As their follow-up singles struggled to find an audience, Nino and April left Atco to land at White Whale records, home of The Turtles.

White Whale gave Nino carte blanche in the studio, leading to 1966’s All Strung Out LP, a gorgeous more-Phil-Spector-than-Spector production that used the Wrecking Crew musicians as well as Gold Star Studios. It yielded two stunningly lush singles, "All Strung Out" and "I Can’t Go On Living Baby Without You’" (the latter song becoming a bit of an obsession for this writer in the weeks since this compilation was released). 

It’s evident in the variety of the material on this compilation that Nino and April had difficulty developing a marketable niche for themselves in the competitive pop landscape, and it’s a definite bummer that they never sustained their initial success, especially considering the easy charm of their early recordings and the killer playing and production on their later work. The sequencing of this compilation is thankfully not chronological, giving each track the opportunity to shine outside of any contextual confines. All in all, it’s one of the year’s most satisfying reissues—let’s give Nino and April their due!

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