Gimme Little Sign

If you approached a cross-section of music fans familiar with the work of Brenton Wood and asked each of them to name his biggest hit, the leading vote-getter would likely be "Gimme Little Sign," a top ten hit from the summer and fall of 1967. It wouldn't be the overwhelming choice, though; there are three other songs that would easily receive a substantial number of mentions. Turns out Brenton, ever the clever singer-songwriter, has followers covering a half-century-long generational span, a considerable distinction for someone who was only successful on the music charts for about a year.

Using his real name, Alfred Smith, he made his first recording in 1958 as a member of a group billed as Little Freddy with the Rockets, having cowritten their single "All My Love," a doo wop ballad released in 1958 on the Chief label. Born in 1941, Alfred moved with his parents, six sisters and four brothers, from Shreveport, Louisiana to San Pedro, a Los Angeles-area beach community, at age two. At nine, piano playing became his obsession; he practiced on a neighbor lady's piano, sometimes for several hours a day. During high school his family relocated to the poorer L.A.-area city of Compton, where he excelled as a member of the school's track team, running the 100-yard dash in an unofficial time of 9.5 seconds, coming close to the official high school record.

Smith (who counted Jesse Belvin and Sam Cooke among his influences) sang with a couple of groups in the early '60s including one he put together in college called The Quotations (a doo wop group from Brooklyn, recording for Verve, went by the same name). He started calling himself Brenton Wood, a play on Brentwood, an upper-class part of L.A. so near yet so far from his Compton stomping grounds. A meeting with Joseph Hooven and Hal Winn, who made suggestions on some of his material (he always used A. Smith on writing credits), began a long friendship and working association. Winn often used Jerry Winn as a thinly-veiled songwriting pseudonym; he penned the lyrics to the theme from the TV series Dr. Kildare, a hit for the show's star, Richard Chamberlain. Hooven was an accomplished musician and session arranger who'd worked with Tab Hunter, Mel Carter and others; he and his wife, Marilyn Hooven, penned the 1960 Doris Day hit "Anyway the Wind Blows" with Bill Dunham. Together, Joe and Hal composed songs for Johnny Crawford including "Cindy's Birthday." Winn became Wood's manager and succeeded in getting one single the three had written (a sweet love song, "Hide-A-Way") released by the New York-based Wand label in early 1964.

Wood remained tight with Hooven and Winn through a difficult period, finally getting another chance with Brent Records (one of Bob Shad's many labels) in 1966; a version of Rudy Clark's "Good Lovin'," already big for The Olympics and The Young Rascals, preceded two Hooven-Winn-Smith originals, but none of the Brent singles were successful. Then Hooven and Winn started their own label, Double-Shot Records, setting up shop in Hollywood and hiring "Promotion in Motion" man Irwin Zucker (his motto: "There's a Zucker born every minute!") to help them get the operation rolling. Rockers Count Five gave the company its first big hit ("Psychotic Reaction") in the fall of '66. Brenton's Double-Shot debut appeared several months later with a wonderfully convoluted title: "The Oogum Boogum Song." When asked what it meant, Brenton said, "They're just two crazy words for a tongue-tied feeling when a guy sees a groovy gal." The record was a mild hit in many parts of the country in the spring of '67 before breaking on his home turf in May; the soulful song with its mod references ('When you wear your bell bottom pants, I just stand there in a trance, huh...I can't move, you're in the groove...') became a Southern California smash, hitting number one in June. After that it was top ten in quite a few U.S. markets, yet somehow managed just one week in the top 40 of the Billboard chart.

Brenton Wood

"Oogum Boogum," it seems, was the warm-up for the song that wound up being Brenton Wood's across-the-board smash, "Gimme Little Sign," the only one of his songs the vast majority of oldies radio programmers in the 17-thousand-or-so days since, researching no further than a number in a book, have bothered to play, an unfortunate omission of Wood's other airplay-worthy hits. Still, this is his career highlight: 'If you do want me, gimme little sweet talkin'...if you don't want me, don't lead me on, girl!' amounted to Brenton putting his romantic desires and anxieties into the grooves of his 45s, an agenda he further embellished with each release. Plus, "Gimme" gives us the added pleasure of a zany Farfisa organ break! The single broke far beyond Brenton's home-base boundaries, a major hit just about everywhere, top ten nationally in October '67.

Wood hit the road with Double-Shot soul group Kent and the Candidates serving as his backing band. His third hit, "Baby You Got It," predictably placed his ideal female on a pedestal ('You got soul, too much soul, foxy clothes, the cutest nose...'). Riding the national charts in the final two months of '67, it spent a little longer in the top 40 than "Oogum Boogum" had; as soon as it dropped off, the song came on strong in L.A., ultimately ranking as one of 1968's biggest local hits after a solid top ten run early in the year...and it was comparably popular in just about every other western city south of San Francisco. At home, Brenton's hits were never quite in sync with the rest of the country, but that didn't faze him much...he was a star in the place where it mattered most!

A side project with Shirley Goodman (of '50s hitmakers Shirley and Lee), the Hooven-Winn production "Kid Games and Nursery Rhymes," appeared on the Whiz label credited to Shirley and Alfred. Two more Brenton Wood singles on Double-Shot, "Lovey Dovey Kinda Lovin'" and "Some Got It, Some Don't," made minor chart appearances, but it was the flip side of the latter single that connected in a way unlike all the others; "Me and You" became a phenomenon of sorts in the City of Angels, Wood's spoken passages capturing the emotions of new fans, a love song sentimental enough to epitomize young love for decades to come; later it became a nighttime request and dedication favorite on former top 40 powerhouse KRLA (the station's "oldies" format lasted until 1998).

He continued working with Hal Winn and Joe Hooven and remained with Double-Shot until 1971, then popped up every year or two on various record labels including Mr. Wood (based in Hermosa Beach), Prophesy and Midget (a Hollywood company as small as its name implied), as well as a major one, Warner Bros., in 1975, still writing his own material while continuing his association and friendship with Winn. There were a few releases on another L.A.-based label, Cream; his dreamy disco do-over of The Fleetwoods' '59 hit "Come Softly To Me" appeared on Billboard's Hot Soul Singles chart in September 1977. After taking a long hiatus he returned to the recording studio and continues to perform live. His late-'60s success, moreso in SoCal than anywhere else, it seems, set him up nicely for the long haul. The "Big Fish in a Smaller Pond" syndrome has served him well; Brenton Wood found out it can lead to a career that lasts a half-century...or longer!

- Michael Jack Kirby


Gimme Little Sign