A few days ago, I went looking for Hank Medress’ phone number. I’d interviewed him last year for my book on the history of the New York music scene, at his Manhattan apartment, and he had been a delight. Now I was trying to piece together the inevitably confusing facts surrounding the Chiffons singles and I was hoping Hank could help: after all, he’d produced their major hits ‘He’s So Fine’ and ‘One Fine Day,’ at least one of which may or may not have been a demo featuring Carole King and the Cookies, and to further confuse things, he’d also recorded them under the name of the Four Pennies in the midst of their major hit run.
Hank Medress was already an important figure in my book for being the only constant member of the Tokens, the Brooklyn group whose initial, 1956 incarnation included his classmate Neil Sedaka, but who are better known for topping the charts a few years later with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ In fact, Medress was one of eight Jewish kids out of Abraham Lincoln High School, on Coney Island Avenue, to have either written, performed and/or produced seven number one singles in just four years. Throw in the neighboring schools of James Madison and Erasmus Hall and you had the writers behind some sixteen number one songs of the early sixties – and maybe another 5000 of the most storied compositions in the American songbook.
“In those days it was much more organic,”
Medress told me of those times.
“It was fun and there was a built in urgency that doesn’t exist today. Back then if you made the record, if you wrote the song, or heard the song, found the song, you would be in the studio that day, finish it, mix it at night and it would be on WABC on an acetate that night! That was amazing. Because your instincts ran everything, you didn’t have time to intellectualize it into the toilet.”
These instincts saw Medress and his Tokens production team also chart with ‘Denise’ by Randy & The Rainbows (the song Blondie covered as ‘Denis’), with the Happenings, with Franki Valli, and later on with Tony Orlando & Dawn’s monumentally massive ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round An Old Oak Tree,’ for which he finally compensated by bringing us Buster Poindexter! Somewhere along the way he headed up EMI Canada, and his last job was helping out at Sound Exchange, which pays digital royalties much as BMI or the PRs pays for airplay.
Anyway, I couldn’t find Hank’s number, and probably just as well. On Tuesday 19th June, he lost his fight against lung cancer. He was 68 years old.
If Medress had not told me during our interview that he was fighting the disease, I would never have known. He was one of the good guys, someone who loved the life he led in the music world, looked after those he worked with, and was always happy to share a story. He had no complaints. His name came up frequently when I was researching this book and no one offered even a hint of anything but love and respect for him. You can get a fuller sense of his personality by reading this interview, conducted by his friend Artie Wayne for the excellent Spectropop web site.