Before I get to “why did I buy this record?” I want to start by breaking it down.
This is a song about a gold-digger. The protagonist is said gold-digger. With no humility. She has one ambition in life: finding a rich husband with the titular “green backs”. She has been plotting this since the age of 10. Now that she has her man hook, line, and sinker, she is going to string him along just a little bit longer before she accepts his marriage proposal. Holding out for another 40-karat diamond ring no doubt.
The kicker: she refers to this man she is going to marry, a man who should be the love of her life, as her “friend”. Not her love. Not her guy. Not her man. Not her sweetheart. Her “friend”. She is marrying into the friend zone.
With lyrics like this, it is no wonder the youth of America gobbled up Bob Dylan like a greasy hamburger.
Imagine these lyrics playing out over a simplistic lounge-jazz backing done in a minor key with a combo of drums, bass, guitar, and flute. What melody there is to the song is rudimentary at best. The guitar is way in the background as another rhythm instrument. The lead instrument playing the riff is a flute.
Yes, a flute.
On paper, this record is another of the thousands of records released in 1959 destined to go nowhere.
Why did I buy this record? It is true, “Green Backs” went absolutely nowhere. Which is a bit surprising. It is actually a good song. It is good because two elements came together in a happy accident: the singer and the musicians. After the description of the lyrics, a more enlightened mind of 2017 might ask, “how did they convince ANYONE to sing such denigrating lines?” Keep in mind this is 1959, thousands upon thousands of records are being released by producers, publishers, and artists hoping to strike big. Or at least in the case of the producers and publishers, hoping to make a quick buck. Sometimes they literally plucked someone off the street, and those recruits are only too eager to sing anything given to them, just for a shot at fame. I do not know if Tobi Funaro was indeed plucked off the street, but this 45 is the only record of her foray into the music business. Nothing about her before or after this record was made is known to the world at large. My guess is that Ruth Stratcheborneo, the songwriter and (likely) producer, or Vita owner Larry Mead heard her signing in a talent show or Elks Club and said, “wanna make a record?” Based on the biography, it was probably Ruth.
Tobi is not exactly a compelling singer. This is evident if you listen to the complete drivel of a B-side, “Could It Be That I’m In Love”. She can stay in key, and has decent enough range. But at this point in her life as a singer she is raw. Subtlety, nuance, phrasing, emoting: these are not in her tool box. She hollers and belts and flails her way through “Could It Be”, which is best enjoyed by not listening to it. Stratchborneo uses SO much echo and so little restraint in her production of Funaro’s performance that she makes Tobi sound like a worse singer than she actually is.
However, for “Green Backs”, Tobi’s style and skill level are perfectly suited. A lack of subtlety (and production) is exactly what the lyrics need. While her singing style may be immature, that is what the listener would expect of a young woman who has been dreaming of being kept since the age of 10. Had Tobi been more skilled, or if Stratchborneo told her to sing it like Eartha Kitt, Tobi may have over-played her vocals and “Green Backs” would have been complete and utter camp. Instead, she sings it straight, with a touch of naïve sass, and it works perfectly. The song evokes Megan Draper, with a wink and a nod thrown over her shoulder as you turn around for a second look at that 40-karat diamond ring. “That’s right, I got me a rich man. Jealous yet?”
As for the music, instead of the overblown rock ‘n roll freakout of the B-side, the band plays it cool for the A-side. Thank goodness for L.A. At that time, the city was full of musicians from all different backgrounds and styles, players who had spent years honing their craft in swing, jazz, jump blues, rhythm and blues, and other outfits. Los Angeles may have been the best place in the country to own an independent music label, offering a huge pool of talent to play in session bands. A label like Vita, which had several regional hits under its belt, would have the money to pay for the best.
The actual band playing on this track is unknown. Both Mead and Stratchborneo were known to work with drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist/bassist René Hall, and sax/flutist Plas Johnson. By 1959, these three legends were seasoned players on the L.A. session scene. I am inclined to believe that Johnson, at least, played on this record. Listen to the flute solo and then one of his more famous works, like the sax solo from “The Pink Panther” theme. Johnson frequently gigged with Palmer and Hall, making me more inclined to credit them as players.
Whomever the session players are, they stick to playing a cool, easy beat. The flutist plays the riff light and airy. A song like this has no need for anything serious. S/he saves the virtue for the solo. Not exactly what one would expect on a throwaway number targeted at teen-agers. This is what one would expect from seasoned pros: take a mediocre crossover jazz number and make it sound like a hit.
Peter Potter, famed L.A. DJ, thought it was a hit. “Green Backs” won “pick of the week” on his local bandstand show. With Potter’s endorsement to prime the pump, Mead and Stratcheborneo pressed the first run and probably sat back, waiting for the green backs to start rolling in.
Apparently only Funaro’s family bought copies of the first pressing as “Green Backs” was ignored like so many pennies on the sidewalk. Maybe the music was too jazzy and sophisticated-sounding to appeal to teens. It certainly seems too pop and juvenile to appeal to adults. “Green Backs” vanished into obscurity. Even the Popcorn DJs in Europe somehow missed this one.
Welcome back to the limelight, “Green Backs”.