Teenage Cleopatra

In the summer of 1963 the overblown 20th Century-Fox production of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, packed curiosity seekers into theaters. The media had been buzzing loudly since filming began, beset by creatively crippling executive decisions and production delays. Costs careened out of control, setting the studio back over 40 million dollars, more than any of today's expensive blockbusters when adjusted for inflation. Once released, it became the top moneymaker of the year at around 16 million, but to what end? The excessive budget basically guaranteed failure. A largely negative critical reception didn't help (personally, I'll take Cecil B. DeMille's deco-splashed B&W 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert anytime). The four hour finished product was edited from an original six hour length and the result came off as somewhat confusing to the viewer, yet it went on to win four Academy Awards, a baffling postscript. All in all, it was a major studio mega-failure and, strangely, the film industry failed to learn from the experience; in the decades since, big-budget gambles of this sort have become common to the point of routine and losses have mounted into the billions.

So with the movie being such a big topic of conversation, it figures someone would come up with a silly Cleo song as a parody of sorts, and that's just what happened that summer. Songwriter Beverly Ross updated the Egyptian experience of 30 B.C. by throwing the whole story out the window, asp and all, and boiling it down to its most basic adolescent priority circa 1963 A.D.: 'He called me his teenage Cleopatra...he called me his princess of the Nile...but I laughed at him and I said to myself: Isn't he silly and doesn't he talk like a child?' In some ways, the song made more sense than the movie!

Jersey girl Ross had broken into the music business at the age of 15. While hanging around with the Brill Building crowd in New York she struck up a casual songwriting partnership with Julius Dixon and the two wrote "Dim, Dim the Lights," a hit in 1954 for Bill Haley and his Comets. A few years later she teamed with fellow teenager Ronald Gumm and recorded "Lollipop" as Ronald and Ruby (possibly rock and roll's first interracial male-female act, though you wouldn't have guessed it from the cartoonish ads for the record running in the trade magazines). A cover version of the Ross-Dixon song by The Chordettes quickly hit the market; the original made it to the top 40 in the spring of 1958 while the Chordettes' cover shot to number two, a win-win for Ross the writer, who scored with one of the year's biggest sellers. Beverly had a good run in the late '50s and early '60s, collaborating with Sam Bobrick on "The Girl of My Best Friend," recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960 for his highly-anticipated post-Army album Elvis is Back! and a big hit for Elvis soundalike Ral Donner in the spring of '61. Other hits by Beverly include Roy Orbison's "Candy Man" and one of the great teen angst sequels, Lesley Gore's "Judy's Turn to Cry."

Tracey Dey

Enter Nora Ferrari, a blonde cutie from Yonkers, New York with a dream of becoming a recording artist. About the time she was enrolling at Fordham University in 1962, a demo she had made fell into the hands of Bob Crewe, producer of "Sherry" by The 4 Seasons, which was in the process of making a seldom-seen leapfrog move from outside the top ten, straight to number one in a single week. Before Nora knew what hit her, Crewe had produced her first single, "Jerry (I'm Your Sherry)," an answer song to the chartbusting hit, rapidly releasing it on the Seasons' label, Vee Jay, while bestowing a shiny new professional name, Tracey Dey, upon her. High hopes were shattered when the song was ignored by radio en masse; a follow-up single was overlooked as well.

Vee-Jay had no further interest in the young singer, so she focused on her studies for the remainder of the school year. Meanwhile, Crewe toiled to keep up with the demand for more music from the red-hot 4 Seasons as gossip columnists obsessed over the illicit romance between Cleopatra costars Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, both of them married...but not to each other. After the film's June '63 release came Beverly Ross's inevitable "Teenage Cleopatra," sung by Dey, produced by Crewe, and released by Liberty Records. The song's spoken passage '...Then one day I saw him walking down the street with another girl...and I could see they were in love!' could have been taken straight out of Sybil Burton's diary. In August, the record rose quickly on Los Angeles radio playlists and came very near the top ten the following month. Nationally it had a tougher time, spending several weeks on the lower rungs of the charts. Still, it was the breakthrough Tracey had hoped for.

Tracey landed a contract with the Amy label and her next single was "Here Comes the Boy," written by Eddie Rambeau and Bud Rehak (who went on to compose hits for another blonde Crewe discovery, Diane Renay); the less-gimmicky teen tune hit the charts at the end of the year. In April of '64 she took a different tack with a song by Milton Kellem that had already been a hit for Teresa Brewer in '52 and Patience and Prudence in '56; "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" suddenly placed her in competition with a version by country gal Skeeter Davis. Dey's was the "tough-girl" version while Davis took a more gentle approach; the records ascended the charts in close proximity, peaked mid-chart the first week in June and promptly fell off the map. Another promising Dey single, "Hangin' On To My Baby," stalled during the summer.

Three more singles came out on Amy, then in 1966 she signed with Columbia Records, still under the guidance of Bob Crewe, and made solo recordings in addition to being paired with singer-songwriter Gary Knight for two singles as Dey and Knight. In the late 1960s, she gave it all up and resumed life as Nora Ferrari. To many music fans, Tracey Dey remains a goddess among girl singers.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Teenage Cleopatra