California Theming

To thank one of the most anti-Trump states in the recent presidential election, California will be the subject of this blog post.

I’ll discuss uplifting as well as depressing novels set partly or completely in The Golden State — whether it be Los Angeles, San Francisco, or less-urban locales.

Last week, I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, an excellent crime novel set in Los Angeles — with protagonist Easy Rawlins taking a memorable side trip to the famous Santa Monica Pier. Visiting L.A. and Santa Monica this past summer added to my enjoyment of the book, though it takes place in a much earlier 1948 California filled with disturbing racism that would warm Donald Trump’s shriveled heart.

Among many other crime novels with a California milieu are Thomas Pynchon’s spoofy Inherent Vice (set in 1970s L.A.) and Dashiell Hammett’s iconic The Maltese Falcon (set in 1920s San Francisco).

Beautiful S.F. is one of two metropolises (along with New York City) featured in Robin Sloan’s quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And the greater Bay Area is where the action happens in Philip K. Dick’s post-apocalyptic Dr. Bloodmoney and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, and where some of the story unfolds in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

Immigrants are a big part of the California story, and that’s reflected in Dubus’ book (an Iranian-American is one of three protagonists) and Hosseini’s novel (which features a family from Afghanistan). The Golden State is also a place where people already in America go to start anew, as is the case with Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Plus real estate is a “yuuge” thing in California, where a dispute over ownership of a modest home sparks the major plot explosion in Dubus’ novel. Then there’s that state’s abundant good weather…unless you start thinking about things like droughts that lead to devastating fires. And the fabled Pacific Ocean, as mentioned in Devil in a Blue Dress and many other California-set novels.

Of course, the movie business is “bigly” associated with California, too, and we see that in novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s absorbing but unfinished The Last Tycoon, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and Charles Bukowski’s hilariously satirical Hollywood that fictionalizes the author’s experience writing the real-life film Barfly.

Other novels set partly or completely in The Golden State? Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (California Gold Rush!), Dave Eggers’ The Circle (Silicon Valley vibe), Maria Semple’s This One Is Mine (which includes music-industry elements), Darryl Brock’s time-traveling If I Never Get Back (20th- and 19th-century scenes in San Francisco), Karl Alexander’s same-genre Time After Time (H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper go back to 1970s S.F.), etc.!

We can’t forget that John Steinbeck used a certain state as the setting for many of his novels — including The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, The Wayward Bus, and To a God Unknown, to name a few. (He did occasionally place his fiction in other locales, such as Europe for The Moon Is Down and Long Island, N.Y., for The Winter of Our Discontent.)

Also, Jack London started The Call of the Wild and ended White Fang with scenes in California, while his Martin Eden is set mostly in Oakland and The Sea-Wolf begins on a San Francisco ferry.

Of course, there are many other California-based novels. What are some of your favorites that I have or haven’t named?

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I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

63 thoughts on “California Theming

  1. Again, I wasn’t quite sure where to add this comment to the discussion of Trump, so here go my latest thoughts. I was actually appalled the other day when I read that CNN commentator and Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes made the statement that, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” That’s been simmering in my mind ever since, and it finally came to a boil this evening when I finally finished the Flavia de Luce mystery, “As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust.” (It doesn’t normally take me so long to read a book, but there have been too many distractions lately with the holidays, etc., as well as a low-level post-election depression.) One of Flavia’s older sisters, Daffy, is a prodigious reader who spends all of her time in the family library and often reads aloud to her family at night. Flavia writes, “I was quickly learning that I couldn’t exist in a world of shifting shadows and whispered half-truths. I needed facts the way a tree needs sunshine. If ever I had met a kindred spirit, it was the hard-hearted Mr. Gradgrind, in Dickens’s Hard Times: ‘Stick to Facts, sir!…In this life we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’ … as Daffy read aloud to us: ‘Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.'” While some might consider this as over-the-top, I certainly think it’s much better than a President-Elect who only deals in conspiracies, lies, or at best half-truths. What message are we sending to the children of our country?

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    • Kat Lib, very well said by the real-life you and the fictional Flavia. I was also appalled by Scottie Nell Hughes’ statement. But not surprised, of course — the right, the far right, Fox News, etc., like a fact-free or minimally factual approach, because they couldn’t win if they stuck to the truth. And, yes, a rotten message to send to children that lying (as well as bragging, bullying, racism, sexism, etc.) paid off big time for Trump.

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  2. Here’s another one set in the Golden State:

    from wikipedia:

    “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948) is a short, satirical novel by British novelist Evelyn Waugh about the funeral business in Los Angeles, the British expatriate community in Hollywood, and the film industry, written as a result of Evelyn Waugh’s trip to Hollywood in February and March 1947. MGM was interested in adapting Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Waugh had written that, “I should not think six Americans will understand it” and was baffled and even angered by its popularity in America,referring to it as “my humiliating success in [the] U.S.A.”

    Waugh had no intention of allowing MGM to adapt Brideshead Revisited, but allowed the film studio to bring him and his wife to California and pay him $2000 a week during negotiations. MGM was offering $140,000 if he granted them the film rights, but Waugh was careful to ensure that the weekly stipend was paid regardless of the results of the negotiation.

    His trip to Hollywood was successful, however, in a literary way. He wrote “I found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there.”

    Forest Lawn’s founder, Dr. Hubert Eaton, and his staff gave Waugh tours of the facility and introduced him to their field. Waugh also had a copy of Eaton’s book, Embalming Techniques, which Waugh annotated with marginalia. As Waugh felt that the eschatological or apocalyptic implications he had intended in Brideshead Revisited had escaped many American readers, he was determined to highlight eschatological aspects of American society in The Loved One.”

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  3. Joseph Hansen wrote a series of detective novels featuring gay insurance investigator David Brandstetter. I’ve read two, and enjoyed them, but a while ago, so I can remember the title Nightwork, but not the title of the second. Brandstetter is is fairly open for his time, and Hansen explores a few usually uncharted areas, such as the relationship (ongoing) of Brandstetter and his straight playboy father.

    As insurance investigation tends to be local, and the two books I read were set in California, I’m guessing the rest of the Brandstetter books were set there also.

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    • Thanks, jhNY! It’s nice that there’s now such a variety of detectives: gay and straight, black (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins) and white, female and male, human and…animal (the cat and dog in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries).

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  4. California, if not a subject of outright fiction for the man, was still crucial to the career of one the nation’s finest writers.

    Mark Twain made his first splash on the national scene thanks to his 1860’s sojourn in the American West, where among other places, he visited San Francisco and Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County, California. There he heard a tale that became The Celebrated Jumping Frog, which he wrote up and published to much acclaim. Further details of his adventures in California and further west (Hawaii– a hilarious and heartbreaking portion of the book) appear in his later travel book, Roughing It.

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    • jhNY, very true about Mark Twain’s (embellished) California-set nonfiction jump-starting his career.

      As we’ve discussed before, Twain’s nonfiction (also including books such as “The Innocents Abroad” and “Life on the Mississippi”) was often just as amazing as his fiction.

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  5. Just read through the other comments. I’ve read a lot of those books and loved them. The others are still awaiting my library card. Somewhere down the line I added a comment about “alphabet murders” by Sue Grafton – advice about reading in sequence.

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    • I saw your other comment. Thanks, energywriter! Keeping my fingers crossed that my local library will have “A Is for Alibi” next month.

      “The others are still awaiting my library card” — really enjoyed that line!

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  6. Raymond Chandler (one of my favorites) is a must for this list! You may enjoy Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works by Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver – it’s a delight!

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    • Thank you, Barb, for mentioning Chandler! I had thought of including him in the column, but hesitated because I had never read him. I think it’s about time I finally do read him — and I plan to soon. 🙂

      That sounds like a very interesting photography book, too. Los Angeles is a visually fascinating city (the people, the buildings, the terrain, etc.), as I belatedly experienced this past June.

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      • I was going to write up a comment re Raymond Chandler; he came to mind straightaway. May I recommend The Long Goodbye– Chandler tries for things that you don’t often see in a crime novel, and overall, succeeds….

        But any one of the Marlowe books, really anything Chandler wrote, is worth your time. Within his genre, and beyond, he is one of the most influential prose stylists working in the last century.

        Ross Macdonald, a gifted crime writer himself, is often named as Chandler’s stylistic successor. He too set many, if not all, of his novels in California.

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        • Thanks, jhNY, for being another person to recommend Chandler. You highly praised “The Long Goodbye” and his other works! I plan to have “A Short Hello” with that author when I quickly grab one of his novels at my local library in a couple of weeks.

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  7. My favorite authors whose books are set in California (my home state) are John Lescroart – legal thrillers set in San Francisco – fabulous dialogue and plotting, and Sue Grafton – set in S. Cal. As you can tell, murder is on my mind!

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      • Thank you, Cathy! You’re the second person (along with Betsy Bitner below) to mention the alphabet-mystery-writing Sue Grafton. She’s on my list for my next library visit. (“L Is for Lawless” AND “L Is for Library”?)

        Also, thanks for the John Lescroart mention!

        Ha! It’s hard to be “Anonymous” in California. Too many people… 🙂

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  8. Hi Dave,

    I’m surprised at how many books I’m able to think of that are in some way set in California. “The Grapes of Wrath” was the obvious one. I’ve never read John Jakes’ “California Gold” but I’m guessing it’s also set in CA. I have however read his epic “Kent Family Chronicles”. Part of the fourth novel is set during the Californian gold rush and there is just SO much wealth. A young woman runs a pub and has a GLASS window installed. One of the local miners has so much money, he pays the bar owner to let him ride his horse through the glass. Most of Stephen King’s novels are set in Maine, however “The Stand” begins in California, and then quickly spreads through the rest of the U.S.A.

    I guess three novels isn’t really that many. But for a sometimes geographically challenged Aussie, I think I did ok 🙂

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    • You did more than okay, Sue! Thanks for mentioning those novels.

      I had forgotten that some of “The Stand” takes place in California; I read that book ages (pages) ago. I’m now trying to think how many other Stephen King novels strayed far from his beloved Maine. I know a lot of “Rose Madder” is set in what is probably Chicago.

      I wish the miner you mentioned had consulted his horse before riding through that glass window. Don’t think that animal was as eager as its rider to pull that stunt…

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  9. So many books set in California – I actually have read more than one of the books mentioned in your post. A first for me! I’d also mention The Joy Luck Club and other books by Amy Tan, with San Francisco’s China Town as a back drop and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City are set in SF, too. Plus there’s Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries. The list goes on!

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    • Thank you, Betsy, for those excellent additions! And I’m glad you’ve read some of the books mentioned in the post.

      I can’t believe I forgot to include Amy Tan! (I’ve read “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife.”) I haven’t read Sue Grafton, but would like to — I suppose I should start with “A Is for Alibi”?

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      • Dave, I’ll chime in here with a response about Sue Grafton, also noted in a comment above. Yes, you must start with “A is for Alibi,” if for no other reason than it’s obviously easier to keep track of the series and is a good introduction to Kinsey Milhone. I loved her books at first, but as I generally do, I grow tired of a very lengthy series about the same character. I honestly can’t remember when this happened with this particular series, but it was somewhere around M or N. Another well-known female protagonist PI living in San Francisco, is Sharon McCone, written by Marcia Muller. Muller is married to Bill Pronzini, and while I’m not sure where his PI lived, he is referred to as Nameless Detective. Pronzini is also well-known for his many different anthologies, and collaborated with his wife on several novels. Another San Francisco mystery series is the one about the Spellman family written by Lisa Lutz. The Spellmans (mother, father, Izzy (the narrator) and her young sister Rae) own a firm for private investigations, but they sometimes are more interested in tailing and blackmailing each other than dealing with actual clients. The books are hilarious, and Lutz calls her work comedic novels rather than crime fiction. Again, these are best read in order, and there are only six of them!

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        • Thanks, Kat Lib, for the advice about Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and your other knowledgeable info from the mystery genre!

          Those Lisa Lutz novels sound intriguing — the mix of crime and humor can be very appealing when done right. (I think Rita Mae Brown’s cat/dog mysteries strike that balance nicely).

          Yes, there can be some series fatigue, or at least a certain amount of repetitiveness given that authors are not machines and can’t be endlessly original with each book. Of course, repetitiveness can be kind of endearing and comforting for some readers. 🙂

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        • Thanks, energywriter! I think it’s an excellent idea to start a series from its first book.

          There have been a few cases where I didn’t do that — such as with the Jack Reacher novels (instead relying on what happened to be in my local library in any given month). That made things a bit confusing at first, though still understandable.

          Many series authors make each book stand-alone in its way, yet we do miss a good deal when not following the story chronologically.

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  10. When I think about California and literature I think almost immediately of Bret Harte, who used to drive Mark Twain nuts, though they were friends. But while California once lived through the Gold Rush, about which Harte wrote, Florida now is living through an Old Rush.

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    • Thanks so much for mentioning Bret Harte, Bill! I was thinking more of novels than short stories for this week’s column, but some of Harte’s tales set in California Gold Rush times are terrific — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” etc. You recommended Harte to me earlier this year, and I ended up reading his stories this June while flying to, while in, and while flying home from…California. (National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference!)

      Florida’s “Old Rush” — ha ha. 🙂

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  11. Hi Dave, I think one of the most iconic mystery writers whose books were set in Southern California was Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar) whose protagonist was Lew Archer. I read all of his novels years ago, but purchased all of his reissues sometime in the last 10 years ago or so. As far as his film career, there is this from Wikipedia: The character has been adapted for visual media several times: Two feature films starring Paul Newman[3] as “Lew Harper” (rumor supposes the name was changed from the original because Newman felt characters with “H” names were “lucky”):
    Harper (1966,[3] directed by Jack Smight) derived from the novel The Moving Target (1949)
    The Drowning Pool (1975,[3] directed by Stuart Rosenberg) derived from the novel of the same title
    The Underground Man (1974, directed by Paul Wendkos) a television movie starring Peter Graves.

    How can one wrong with Paul Newman?

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! Given my somewhat sparse mystery-reading history, Ross MacDonald is one of that genre’s authors I haven’t gotten to yet.

      The fascinating California can be a fascinating setting for mysteries. I haven’t read Raymond Chandler, either, but didn’t he set some of his novels in California?

      One can never go wrong with Paul Newman — great actor, and great philanthropist!

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      • Yes, Dave, it’s true that Marlowe set his mysteries in California, but I found Lew Archer as a much more compelling character than the other, but I think it’s just a personal preference.

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        • Thanks for confirming that, Kat Lib — and we all indeed have our character preferences!

          Speaking of California, crime fiction, and your possible future reading of a Jack Reacher book or three, Lee Child’s “Never Go Back” (which the second, current Reacher movie is based on) is partly set in California. And there might be one or two other Reacher novels — not remembering which — with some California scenes. Jack definitely gets around…

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          • I read the first two of the Marlowe novels, ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Farewell, My Lovely’, and prefer him immensely to Hammett’s Sam Spade, at least in the novel, ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Raymond Chandler perfected that hard-boiled poetry of the L.A. streets, at least in those novels. I think I prefer ‘Farewell, My Lovely’. Plus, there was an outstanding film version of it in 1975 with Robert Mitchum. Although by that time he was a bit old to play Marlowe, he had that world weary jaded persona perfected. Plus, you can’t beat Mitchum’s voice for first person narration that lends itself to parody although Chandler, like I said, made it into street poetry. In fact, with Chandler the plots are secondary to the mood and atmosphere. I almost don’t care who done it; I just like going along for the ride. Haven’t read Ross McDonald yet although I’ve heard good things about him over the years.

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            • Agree as to Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely– yep, too old, but he had ‘jaded’ down to a fine art– especially in that scene with that tough woman who then presided over his torture. The expression on his face before he lashed out– all-knowing: he would pay dearly for it, but he did it anyway– and paid dearly. Also liked Dick Powell as Marlowe in the earlier movie version of the tale.

              “I almost don’t care who done it”– me too!

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    • Didn’t see this before I wrote a reply above re Chandler mostly, and Macdonald too.

      When I first made acquaintance with Chandler, I was an enthusiastic reader. A writer pal suggested I read Macdonald in between doses of Marlowe books, and I must say, it made reading both authors more pleasurable, I think, than had I tackled each separately and with time in between.

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    • Thank you, Kira! “Of Mice and Men” IS a terrific novel, and I agree that the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” is touching and powerful. (I love most of the rest of “Grapes,” too.) I’ve read that Steinbeck came up with the end scene first, and basically wrote his way toward that scene.

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    • Dave…I am so glad you liked the book, there is a movie so well done with Mr. Washington. You would Love charcoal Joe as well.
      I was so trumped out blues then being sick made things worse. But having close family for the Holidays helped to boost my psyche.

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      • “Devil in a Blue Dress” was excellent, bebe — especially for a debut novel. I’ll definitely read more Easy Rawlins books, though I’m thinking I might go chronologically rather than jump all the way to “Charcoal Joe” immediately. 🙂

        I hope you’re starting to feel somewhat better? Yes, being with family — especially family we get along with — can be a nice morale booster!

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        • True Dave, well that is a good idea to go chronologically.
          Hot political discussion as well. DT`s Jared Kushner is basically running the show, DT is on drugs, has to be a 70 year old sleeps 3-4 hrs. Scattered brain and what not. They wanted him and they got him.They also thinks Bernie will run and will win….so enjoy the circus next four years 😀

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          • Jared Kushner does seem to have a lot more power than he deserves, bebe, and Trump is indeed a “senior” whose brain is definitely scattered. What a circus the next four years is going to be. 😦

            I hope Bernie runs in 2020 (after America’s white working class realizes they’ve been totally conned by fake-populist Donald), but Sanders will be in his late 70s then. He does seem pretty healthy…

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              • Very true about blatant sexism, bebe. In politics and everywhere else. 😦

                I guess McCain was a bit younger in 2008 (72) than Sanders will be in 2020 (79). If Sanders doesn’t go for it in 2020, I wouldn’t mind someone like Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, or Nina Turner of your state’s senate. But I would NOT want another centrist such as Andrew Cuomo, Cory Booker, etc. If people want change, it would be nice to try a left-wing version for once.

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            • “What a circus the next four years is going to be. 😦”

              Sometimes the attractions under the bigtop are not content to remain there. In the case of lions and tigers and bears, this can become quickly troublesome. One can only hope we spectators do not become a part of the show.

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              • True, jhNY. If only the coming shenanigans could be confined to the ring (gold-plated, of course). To mix metaphors, it’s going to be like a NASCAR race where the cars go flying into the terrified crowd.

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        • The title comes from a Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels single, released in 1966, itself a cover of an earlier unsuccessful 1964 release by Shorty Long. Interestingly, the Ryder version is part of a medley, and ‘live’, the other part being Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly. May be one of the only instances of a hit appearing first, nationally anyway, as part of a medley…

          I’ve got Moseley’s book here, right toward the top of my mystery pile. Soon!

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