This is the 96th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the early 1960s, teenagers Bobby Balderrama, Larry Borjas, and Robert Martinez formed a trio, playing covers of Duane Eddy and The Venures. The teens decided to call themselves The Mysterians after watching a Japanese sci-fi movie of the same name. Soon, they recruited Martinez’s older brother Rudy to be the band’s singer. But he did not go by Rudy; he went by ?, and would eventually change his legal name to Question Mark.
The band played shows around the area, though Balderrama later said at least one club didn’t book them because the manager didn’t want a band full of Mexicans on his stage. The Mysterians played shows at a ski resort, and through those shows, they ended up on the radar of Flint DJ Bob Dell. It was Dell who first referred to the band as ? & The Mysterians.
Soon, the lineup changed: organist Frank Rodriguez Jr. was in, and Robert Martinez and Borjas were out, replaced by Frank Lugo and Eddie Serrato. Through some local contacts, ? & The Mysterians managed to get a recording date. And at this recording session, in Bay City, Mich., the band recorded what would be its defining achievement: “96 Tears.”
The song told the story of a man who wanted to get back together with the woman who dumped him, just so he could dump her and make her “cry 96 tears”:
Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying
Too many teardrops for one heart to carry on
You’re way on top now since you left me
You’re always laughing way down at me
But watch out now, I’m gonna get there
We’ll be together for just a little while
And then I’m gonna put you way down here
And you’ll start crying 96 tears
The story of how the song came about and got its name varies depending on which band member is telling the story. Balderrama said the song was originally called “Too Many Teardrops,” and that there was a desire to call it “69 Tears” as a tongue-in-check innuendo. The consensus, according to Balderrama, was to switch the numbers and call it “96 Tears.” But in an interview with Songfacts, lead singer Question Mark said the song was always called “96 Tears,” because the number 96 had a “profound meaning.” But he refused to say what that meaning was. In other interviews, Question Mark has reiterated the importance of the number 96, claiming that he knew 9/11 was going to happen because one of the planes hit the 96th floor.
Regardless, of what the song originally was called, it was ultimately called “96 Tears.” And while it eventually became a hit, the band had to work to get the song any attention. The band members themselves took the initial copies to record stores and radio stations. Over the spring and summer of 1966, “96 Tears” became a hit in the Detroit area. When the single got the attention of Cameo, it was reissued. And that’s when it started its ascent up the national charts.
Overall, “96 Tears” peaked at Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 37 in the UK. Over the next year, the band released the sings “I Need Somebody,” “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” and “Do Something to Me,” but ? & The Mysterians never had another hit on par with the success of “96 Tears.”
But the band has toured off and on over the years, milking the success of the song that made them famous. In the more than 50 years since “96 Tears” first came out, that song has taken on a timeline of its own, as it has been recorded dozens of times.
Garage band The Music Machine was probably most famous for “Talk Talk,” which appeared on the band’s 1966 album, “(Turn On) The Music Machine.” That same album included a cover of “96 Tears” that more or less sounded like the original, with the main difference being Sean Bonniwell’s tortured delivery.
Big Maybelle was known for her booming yet soulful voice, and on her 1967 cover “96 Tears,” she added gravitas to the lyrics first sung by Question Mark. To be fair, Question Mark was barely an adult by the time he sang this, but in comparison to Maybelle’s robust singing, Question Mark sounded like a petulant child, whereas Maybelle sounded calculating and in control. Her cover peaked at Number 23 on the Hot R&B charts.
Also in 1967, Aretha Franklin covered “96 Tears” for her album, “Aretha Arrives.” That year was a prolific year for the Queen of Soul, as it was the year that she recorded her epic cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” “Aretha Arrives” featured more covers, including “Satisfaction” and “96 Tears.” Franklin built her cover of “96 Tears” around the song’s iconic organ riff, but added horns and back-up singers to give a soulful, almost Gospel feel.
Ohio garage band The Music Explosion never had a hit beyond “Little Bit O’Soul,” which hit Number 2 in 1967. That same year, the band covered “96 Tears,” and if one wasn’t paying attention, one would think it was the original by ? & The Mysterians.
Soul singer Jimmy Ruffin was offered a chance to join The Temptations, but turned the job down so that his younger brother David could join the group in his place. Jimmy Ruffin’s career ended up being nothing to sneeze at, despite passing up the opportunity to be part of one of the most iconic groups in Motown history. When he died in 2014, a headline referred to him as “Motown’s Underrated Soul Singer.” One can hear why on his cover of “96 Tears” from his 1969 album “Ruff ‘N Ready.”
Eddie & the Hot Rods likely had a bigger following in the band’s native England, and even there, the band was probably best known for its single, “Do Anything You Wanna Do.” The band’s style was a mesh between punk and new wave. That blend was on display on the cover of “96 Tears” on the band’s 1976 release, “Live at the Marquee.”
In a bio of R. Stevie Moore on AllMusic, Stewart Mason wrote that “Moore’s music, a blend of classic pop influences, arty experimentalism, idiosyncratic lyrics, wild stylistic left turns, and homemade rough edges, is one of a kind, but entire generations of lo-fi enthusiasts and indie trailblazers, from Guided by Voices to the Apples in Stereo, owe much to Moore’s pioneering in the field.” His 1978 album “Sheetrock” featured a cover of “96 Tears” that checked most of those boxes: arty, experimental, homemade, and rough. And yet charming.
Five years after having an international hit with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Thelma Houston applied her disco touch to another cover when she covered “96 Tears” for her 1981 album, “Never Gonna Be Another One.” It was reminiscent of Precious Wilson’s disco-flavored take on “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” which came out around the same time. Of note about Houston’s “Never Gonna Be Another One”: The album has a song called “Too Many Teardrops,” but that song has nothing to do with “96 Tears,” oddly enough.
Singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys drew upon several genres over his prolific career, drawing upon rock, soul, and reggae, among others. His cover “96 Tears” on his 1981 album, “Escape Artist,” didn’t reinterpret the song or recast it as something new. To hear the nuances of his cover, one had to listen attentively, but his stylistic quirks and flourishes were there. Jeffreys’ version reached Number 66 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Inspiral Carpets’ sped-up cover of “96 Tears” had the goofiness of “Yakety Sax,” the theme from “The Benny Hill Show.” And yet it sounded like it was played by a ballpark organist. And those two traits gave it some charm.
Af first blush, The Stranglers’ “96 Tears” sounded like the original, in much the same way that Jeffreys’ version did. But it was a little slower than the original, even if only slightly. Beyond that subtlety, what stuck out was the pounding drums, which almost overpowered the defining organ sound. Almost.
Released in 1995, Iggy Pop’s “We Are Not Talking About Commercial Shit!” was a ragtag collection of odds and ends, including some weird live covers. Besides a funny version of “Batman Theme,” the album included a live version of “96 Tears.” The cover paid homage to the original, though it sounded like Iggy Pop and the band wanted to get it done, because they blitzed through it in no time.
Primal Scream, the band credited with introducing the British mainstream to acid house and techno, also deserves some acknowledgement for the part it played in reviving the sounds of ’60s rock. The band’s 1997 single “Kowalski” showcased both parts of the band’s legacy: the decision to cover “96 Tears” highlighted the band’s roots in the rock of the ’60s, and the decision to do it as a sped-up, messy electro song served to remind the listeners that this was always a trippy band.
The Modern Lovers’ 1998 album, “Live at the Longbranch and More,” collected two decades worth of live tracks. On “96 Tears,” Jonathan Richman applied the same fist-pumping energy that defined “Roadrunner.” It worked for this song, even if the recording sounded less than ideal.
That same year, a live version of Suicide covering “96 Tears” appeared on a remastered version of the duo’s self-titled debut. As weird as the Primal Scream version was, that at least had some resemblance to ? & The Mysterians’ version. But Suicide’s “96 Tears” was even more bizarre, and except for the word “cry,” was basically unintelligible and incomparable to the original.
French punk/new wave band The Dogs included a live version of “96 Tears” on the 2001 album, “Short, Fast & Tight.” Though it ended up being a faithful cover, the opening riff sounded more like David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” than ? & The Mysterians’ “96 Tears.”
Texas Tornados was hailed as a supergroup comprising some of the most beloved names in Texas music: Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender, and Flaco Jimenez. The band’s popularity came from as its versatility, as its members could vacillate between country, early rock & roll, Mexican folk music, R&B, and blues. Though “Live From Austin TX” was released in 2005, the material on the album came from a 1990 taping of “Austin City Limits.” The band ended its set with “96 Tears,” and it was harder to tell who was having more fun: the audience, or Texas Tornados.
Psychedelic/garage revival band Fuzztones, who we last mentioned in the review of “I Put A Spell On You” covers, included “96 Tears” on the 2013 compilation, “Snake Oil.” As far as covers go, it was a fine, albeit faithful version. What stood out, though, were snippets of Question Mark being interviewed at the beginning and end of the track.
The Tibbs so expertly recast “96 Tears” as a soul/funk track that casual listeners would be forgiven for thinking the Amsterdam band had recorded it during the heyday of the genre. But vocalist Elsa Bekman and her bandmates didn’t record the song until the middle of this decade, as they were part of Europe’s soul revival. Each member of The Tibbs showed talent on this track, but it was Bekman who stole the show.
Throughout this series, I’ve pointed to the number of times a song has been covered as a way of measuring its influence. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, so I don’t think that a song that has been covered 20 times has twice the influence of a song that has only been covered 10 times. There seem to be as many covers of “Kids In America” as there are of “96 Tears,” but in no way would I say that “Kids In America” has the same gravitas or importance as “96 Tears.” Because while the two songs might have been covered around the same number of times, it’s “96 Tears” that has been covered by Aretha Franklin, Thelma Houston, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman, and Big Maybelle. That’s not a shabby showing.
In a 2011 poll, readers of Rolling Stone voted “96 Tears” Number 9 on a list of the top 10 one-hit wonders. But to relegate the song as a “one-hit wonder” is to ignore the monumental influence of “96 Tears” and ? & The Mysterians in general. Not only do music writers say that the band inspired the genre of punk rock, many say that the term “punk rock” was first applied in music writing when Dave Marsh reviewed ? & The Mysterians for CREEM magazine in 1971.
For his part, Question Mark seems to know the influence his band had on music. When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “96 Tears” was ranked Number 213. When Mark Jacobson interviewed Question Mark for Vulture, Jacobson said the song should have been higher. Question Mark balked at that.
“Higher? It should be Number 1. What are you talking about?”