Run as a sideline by the owners of the heavyweight publishing company Hill & Range (most famous for supplying songs to Elvis Presley), the Big Top label never really established either an artistic identity or much of a commercial track record. Despite landing the occasional hit, they remain most remembered by rock & roll fans for issuing Del Shannon's first hits. Perhaps because it was a secondary concern of the owners, the company didn't seem to have much of a focus, and listening to this 26-track compilation of 1958-1964 Big Top releases is a little like getting a pack of random overstock 45s from one of those record stores that used to sell them in batches of ten for a dollar. But though the resulting unevenness means this compilation is unlikely to appeal to anyone but serious rock & roll collectors, it's actually a little better and more interesting than many such specialty anthologies. For one thing, it does actually have a few hits, including Shannon's "Runaway" (presented in a rare stereo mix with a slightly different vocal than the familiar hit single) and "Little Town Flirt," as well as Don & Juan's 1961 doo wop smash "What's Your Name?" Some of the smaller hits are very cool, for different reasons. Lou Johnson's 1964 single "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" (covered for a number one U.K. hit by Sandie Shaw in 1964) is the original version of that Bacharach-David classic. The Dynamics' odd, minor-key tail-end doo wop number "Misery" (from 1963) was rewritten almost note-for-note as the B-side of the debut 1964 single by the Who (then called the High Numbers), "Zoot Suit." (Although "Zoot Suit" is usually cited as a rewrite of the Showmen's "Country Fool," it clearly is far more similar to "Misery" in both melody and arrangement.)
Elsewhere, there are a number of intriguing oddities, even if some are more odd than good. Don & Juan's "True Love Never Runs Smooth" is another overlooked original version of a Bacharach-David tune (covered by Gene Pitney for a hit); Andrea Carroll offers quite good girl group-styled tunes with "The Doolang" and "It Hurts to Be Sixteen"; and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote a few of these rarities, including "White Bucks and Saddle Shoes" by a pre-teenage, girlish-sounding Bobby Pedrick, Jr., who would in the '70s later score hits as Robert John. There are also a few very early, clearly yet-to-hit-his-stride productions by Phil Spector, including one of ex-Chantels singer Arlene Smith's "He Knows I Love Him Too Much," written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King (and redone with more success by the Paris Sisters); an "answer" record to Elvis Presley's "Return to Sender" in Gerri Granger's "Don't Want Your Letters"; a solo single by "Maximillian," aka Del Shannon's musitron player Max Crook, and quite interesting notes about the label's history and origins, and there are enough curveballs to keep serious early rock scholars entertained.