‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy:’ Center stage with sixties soul quintet the Tams
The Tams were a criminally underrated soul quintet during their 1960’s heyday. Notching their fledgling hits on the independent Arlen Records of Philadelphia, the Tams were quickly picked up by ABC-Paramount, where they remained throughout the tumultuous decade.
With hits ranging from “What Kind of Fool [Do You Think I Am],” “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me,” to “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy,” the beloved staples of beach music slogged through 10 excruciating years of low-paying one night stands before mining gold in late 1962 with the churning Top 15 R&B hit “Untie Me,” composed by the late, great Joe South. Before he earned bragging rights as a solo artist with “Games People Play” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” South served as the Tams’ primary producer and songwriter. Incidentally, “The Streak” novelty king Ray Stevens produced and played piano on “Untie Me.”
The Tams didn’t achieve the level of success afforded to their Motown and Stax contemporaries. Possibly to their detriment, they were one of the few vocal groups who remained ensconced in the Deep South, recording at Rick Hall’s legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during its infancy. Later they returned to Atlanta — all were alumni of David T. Howard High School — and waxed vinyl at Bill Lowery’s Master Sound Studio. Perhaps ABC-Paramount didn’t know how to market the group to urban markets. A vinyl connoisseur opined, “The Tams were too pop for soul audiences and too soul for most white fans.”
Regardless, they have had a devoted following in the Southeastern United States for 56 years and counting. So, why is that? Frontman Joseph “Joe” Pope, who unfortunately died in 1996, had a distinctive, gravelly quality in his singing, wringing every bit of emotion out of a song’s lyric, as exemplified in “What Kind of Fool [Do You Think I Am]” or the insanely frantic “I’ve Been Hurt.” Their discography is riddled with ear worm hooks and choruses, in spite of basic instrumentation — guitar, bass, piano, drums, and even flute. The doo wop-inspired background vocals, often reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, also retain a certain period charm.
As the 1960s drew to a close, the band had one more hit in “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy,” a song that oddly failed to see any pop chart action and barely registered Top 30 R&B. However, oldies radio has kept the tune in frequent rotation, ensuring its place as one of the most jubilant mantras of the swingin’ ‘60s. By 1971 the northern soul UK scene was in a nostalgic mood, embracing “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me” seven years after its debut single 45 release. The song shockingly climbed to No. 1, leading to the Tams visiting the iconic Top of the Pops weekly music telecast.
The group regularly accumulates road dates on the beach music aka Carolina shag circuit. There are currently two splinter Tams outfits. One is led by sole surviving original member Robert Lee “R.L.” Smith, while the other features “Lil’ Red” Cottle, whose uncle happened to be Joe Pope. Inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992, it is a downright shame that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hasn’t recognized the soul pioneers, although fellow musicians like Jimmy Buffett have professed their genuine admiration.
To investigate their greatest hits, be wary of the endless compilations floating around containing inferior re-recordings. None of their five original albums on ABC-Paramount have appeared on CD. The 22-track CD anthology Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me: The Best of the Tams is the best recommendation. The songs sound amazing in stereo, but at least one — “Untie Me” — is not the original recording [the compilers chose a drum-heavy 1966 version]. Distributed in 1998 on MCA Records, it costs roughly nine dollars on Amazon or even cheaper on the site’s marketplace in new or used condition. You can also download the compilation on Amazon or iTunes.
The Tams’ Hit Singles
- “Untie Me” [No. 60 POP: No. 12 R&B October 1962]
- “What Kind of Fool [Do You Think I Am]” [No. 9 POP: No. 1 R&B December 1963]
- “You Lied to Your Daddy” [No. 70 POP: No. 27 R&B March 1964]
- “It’s All Right [You’re Just in Love]” (No. 79 POP: B-side of “You Lied To Your Daddy”]
- “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me” [No. 41 POP: No. 10 R&B July 1964: a No. 1 in the UK upon its 1971 re-release]
- “Find Another Love” [No. 129 POP November 1964]
- “Silly Little Girl” [No. 87 POP November 1964]
- “I’ve Been Hurt” [A-side, 1965; their most-played song in the South]
- “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” [No. 61 POP: No. 26 R&B: No. 32 UK June 1968]
- “Trouble Maker” [No. 118 POP September 1968]
- “There Ain’t Nothing Like Shaggin’” [No. 21 UK November 1987]
- “My Baby Sure Can Shag” [No. 91 UK January 1988]
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