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College Football Opening Weekend 2013: What to watch August 29, 2013

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Georgia-Clemson2013Note:  Rankings are based the ESPN-Coaches Poll, not the AP Poll as is usually the case on this blog.

Though many good games kick off the season on Thursday (hello, North Carolina @ South Carolina!) and Friday, the real action begins, as it always does, on Saturday (Aug. 31, in this case).  Let us cut through the clutter and focus on the good games to watch.

Noon (12:00 PM, EDT):  Let’s face it; in recent years, most noon games have been throw-away games (generally, lots of lower-tier Big Ten, ACC and Big East matchups).  This seems to be mostly the case this time around, too (case in point:  Florida International @ Maryland, which makes Louisiana Tech @ N.C. State look like a marquee game).  Yet one game in this time slot is rather intriguing, that being Purdue @ Cincinnati.  Both programs have new coaches.  Purdue’s Darrell Hazell is working diligently to breathe new life into a program that has underachieved since the 2003-2004 season.  Meanwhile, U-Cincy brought in Tommy Tuberville to provide some stability to a program that lost Brian Kelly to Notre Dame after the 2009 season, and just lost Butch Jones to Tennessee prior to this upcoming one.  From a business managerial standpoint, the two new coaches make for an interesting study in contrast in that Hazell’s role is clearly turnaround CEO, while Tuberville’s role is that of caretaker to a program that Kelly built up quite well and Jones did reasonably well in maintaining.  Talent-wise, it ought not to be close, as odds are the Bearcats could dust the Boilermakers.  Nevertheless, this game is far more interesting than the rest of the game fare offered at noontime, and it goes without saying that this game merits a nod for “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” award.

3:30 PM EDT:  Normally, one can always look forward to at least one strong SEC matchup during this time slot, but there are none to be had on this date.  Syracuse @ Penn State makes for a poor substitute indeed.  BYU @ Virginia is for more intriguing than that.  Still…next!

With that said, a potentially good game that few people are talking about occurs at this same time, that being Mississippi State at Oklahoma State.  The Bulldogs have grown in strength under head coach Dan Mullen, while the Cowboys have also grown in stature under Mike Gundy’s leadership (not to mention T. Boone Pickens’ money).  Seeing these two teams butt heads could be very engaging.

5:30 PM EDT:  Granted, this is not your traditional time slot for a Saturday game, but it’s the opening weekend, so who cares?  If anybody doubts that Atlanta is one of THE epicenters of college football, then they would be well-served to take not that No. 1 Alabama opens the season in the Georgia Dome against Virginia Tech.  On paper, it’s a decent matchup in that a top-tier SEC team is about to take on an upper-tier ACC team.  But as decent as the Hokies are, the game could very well be a bloodbath, as odds are the Crimson Tide is going to roll.  Still, it’s better than the 3:30 PM options.

7:00 PM EDT:  Washington State @ Auburn — now we’re getting somewhere.  We the fans are not treated to SEC vs Pac-12 matchups enough, in my estimation, so when it happens, it is always something to be relished.  What makes this game especially interesting is that the dread pirate Mike Leach is trying to turn around the Cougars program while Guz Malzahn has just been brought in to revive the Tigers’ very quick fall from grace.  Could be interesting, especially when one considers how a Pac-12 team not named USC can handle a hyper-hostile SEC stadium crowd.

The other interesting game that evening is the Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky game in Nashville, Tenn.  This too merits an “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” nod in that it also pits first-year coaches at both schools, both of whom came there under radically different circumstances.  Mark Stoops took the UK job as a top-rated assistant coach at Florida State, with the mission to turn around a perennially struggling Wildcats squad.  Thus far he has made lots of recruiting hype, but the actual product he can deliver on the field remains to be seen.  On the Hilltoppers’ end is Bobby Petrino, one of the best coaches in the business, but left his CEO job at Arkansas in disgrace and scandal.  The WKU job is a rung or two down the ladder from the jobs he has previously had, thus is objective is twofold:  maintain what predecessor Willie Taggart had already built (something at which he is more than adept), and also rehab his reputation.  Look out for a possible Hilltopper upset over the Wildcats, as it is always dangerous to give Petrino more than a week to prepare for a game.

8:00 PM EDT:  No. 5 Georgia @ No. 8 Clemson — easily the biggest game of the day, if not the whole weekend.  Head Coach Mark Richt takes a loaded Bulldogs team led by talented QB Aaron Murray (no relation, sadly) in to Clemson to take on a Tigers program that Dabo Swinney has slowly yet quietly strengthened over the past several years (they did beat a strong LSU team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, after all).  This will be a great opening test for the Bulldogs, who are no doubt looking to eventually unseat Alabama at the number one spot in both the conference and the nation.  Odds also are that you will be “looking LIVE, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.,” as in all likelihood this will be the game that Brent Musburger calls along with Kirk “Herbie” Herbstreit, folks!

9:00 PM EDT:  No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU in Dallas (Arlington, Texas, specifically).  Just as Atlanta has its season kickoff Peach Bowl with a SEC-ACC game, over the past few years, Dallas has endeavored to do the same thing with a season kickoff Cotton Bowl of sorts, usually bringing in an SEC and a Big XII team (though there has been the occasional SEC vs Pac-12 game thrown in sometimes, read:  LSU vs. Oregon in 2011) as is the case this time.  Les Miles almost always has the Tigers up for big games, while it will be a quasi-home game for the Horned Frogs as they have but a half-hour drive (at the most) from their home base in Fort Worth.  Moreover, Gary Patterson has built up a strong program over the course of more than a decade, even recently taking TCU to a Rose Bowl just a couple of seasons ago.  Moreover, though the Horned Frogs are ranked lower than the Bayou Bengals, they have the good fortune of playing LSU at the beginning of the season, which is historically when the team is most vulnerable to a loss.

10:30 PM EDT:  No. 22 Northwestern at California.  Normally, the only game one might find on the cable tv guide this late at night is a home game at Hawai’i.  Not this time, though.  This time, head coach Pat Fitzgerald takes his nimble Wildcats westward from Evanston, Ill., to the west coast.  The rankings could be deceiving.  Yes, on paper, Northwestern could possibly crush Cal.  But that could easily be nullified because of geography.  Take a team in the eastern or even central timezone out to the Pacific timezone, and strange things happen to them.  Pro teams do not have this issue (say, the New York Giants journeying out to Seattle to play the Seahawks), because they’re older, more mature, and, well, professionals.  But in the college game, folks*, you’re dealing with 19-20 year-old kids, who are far more apt to be out of their element when traveling such a distance.  Let us also not forget that Northwestern’s internal clock will still be on Chicago time (9:30 PM), not San Francisco time (7:30 PM), which could also make a difference.  One could therefore expect a close, hard-fought game, if not even an upset by the Golden Bears.  That said, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most underrated coaches in the business, and has proven to be very adept, time and again, at not only recruiting decent players into a school with the most academically-rigid standards in the Big Ten Conference, but also coaching them up to be competitive in that conference and in bowl games, too.  No doubt he’ll have a trick or two up his proverbial sleeve to try to nullify the problems of geography and time discrepancy.  We shall see soon enough, as that is why they line up and play.

* Another Musburger-ism, in case you missed the reference!

America’s Greatest Music: Cheek to Cheek August 29, 2013

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The great Irving Berlin has been estimated to have written 1,500 songs throughout his 60-year career (he lived to be 100 years old).  A good many of this estimated 1,500 have become legendary in their own right within the Great American Songbook.  Quite possibly his most-recognized musical contribution is “God Bless America,” which, when he wrote and published the song in 1939, it became so popular so quickly that it threatened to supplant the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem.  One of the positive developments in the wake of 9-11 is that the tune has enjoyed an extra boost of popularity over the past almost-dozen years.

But that important song aside, Berlin’s contribution-in-song to American popular culture is vast, and one of his most famous — aside from the aforementioned patriotic tribute — is “Cheek to Cheek”.  Enter Fred Astaire, who himself is legendary not just for his amazing dancing ability, but also for the fact that he himself broke some of the most famous tunes ever to grace the Great American Songbook, this ballad being one of them.

First sung in the film “Top Hat” (1935), which is considered by many to be the quintessential Fred-and-Ginger movie, its original version from that picture remains famous to this day.  Indeed, it can be argued that not only did Fred Astaire break many famous American popular songs, but that he often performed the definitive version of them for all time.

Note that I said “often.”  In this case, that is debatable, not because the version is mediocre — far from it; in fact, what Astaire clearly lacked in vocal ability, he made up for this intangible quality of making the listener/viewer “believe” the tune — but because the competition is very fierce when it comes to great singers trying to out-do each other on the ultimate version of this song.

The term “fierce competition” is not an exaggeration when one considers that Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Desi Arnaz, Chet Atkins, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Ziggy Elman, Eddie Fisher, (take a deep breath) Billie Holiday, Harry James, Joni James, Al Jolson, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra (from this 1958 album “Come Dance With Me”), Rod Stewart, Mel Tormé
, and Teddy Wilson — among many others.

But one version does stand out above most others, and that is the one cut by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the Verve label in 1956.  Indeed, Louie and Ella as a duet recorded many tunes from the Great American Songbook; many a fine version at that (one could argue a few of which are some of humanity’s [many] greatest recordings).  This particular rendition is one of the finer examples of the duo’s body of work from the latter half of the 1950s, and could rightfully be classified as one of humanity’s great records.

If the reader has never heard this version before, then the reader is in for a treat!  Regardless, though, the song itself wonderfully describes the bliss one experiences when dancing with that special partner.  Guys, when you’ve danced with that special girl before, you know what this song means!

America’s Greatest Music: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby August 15, 2013

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Whenever you meet a girl whom you instantly recognize as a cut above the rest, this tune instantly enters your mind.  You know that even further when this tune pops up on the radio (assuming you’re tuned in to the SiriusXM 40s on 4 channel) and without hesitation you start singing along to the record.  But the question becomes, along with which version do you sing?

Such is a valid question.  After all, like many legendary tunes in the Great American Songbook, it has been recorded by many a legendary artist throughout the ages.  At different times, Artie Shaw, Lee Wiley, Perry Como (1946), Rosemary Clooney, The Crew Cuts — who made their mark on the business by doing cover versions of early ’50s R&B and doo-wop hits — Vic Damone, Joni James, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra have all taken their individual cracks at this song.  Let us also not forget Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin (1961), The Dave Clark Five (1967), or Michael Bublé (2001, which, compared to the years of the previous records, might as well be literally yesterday).

But this does not even acknowledge the spate or recordings made of this song when it was written (1938) by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics — figures!).  That year, Tommy Dorsey recorded his version with Edythe Wright on the vocals.  Chick Bullock — who provided the vocals for some of Bunny Berigan’s small group recordings on the Vocalion label in 1936 — also rendered his version that same year, as did Russ Morgan.

Yet the version that clearly stands out above all others was also recorded the same year the song in question was written (1938, in case you skipped the previous paragraph), and it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby (recorded on the Decca label, of course!).  It is this version that sticks out in one’s mind when a guy meets a girl that stands out from all the rest; it is this version that you joyous sing along with in your car when it comes on the radio….and it swings!

For anybody who doubts that Crosby owns the definitive version of this song, take a moment to notice its reference elsewhere in popular culture.  In the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” (1950) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, an obvious reference to this record surfaces in the middle of the show.

A scene depicts Elmer Fudd coming across, by happenstance, a down-and-out Bugs.  Of the four characters that Fudd passes up before reaching Bugs, the first is a caricature of Al Jolson (“mammy” being a lyric often found in some of his songs), the third is a caricature of Eddie Cantor, and the fourth is obviously a satirical depiction of Der Bingle himself, singing a line of from the featured recording of this very article.  Watch for yourself!

Such humorous references to contemporary pop culture were a hallmark, and indeed, a distinctive competency (to borrow a business term) of the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoons!  But as hinted previously, this very reference also demonstrates that Crosby’s version stands apart from all others, much like that special lady.

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-06-13 August 6, 2013

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Yes, no doubt many readers are thinking that of all the outstanding Benny Goodman records that the King of Swing cut in his prime years, I chose “Thanks for the Memory” as the first to highlight on my blog.  Suffice it to say, I have my [undisclosed] reasons.  Adding further irony to the situation is that Goodman’s take on the tune is not considered its definitive version — Bob Hope is commonly thought to ‘own’ the song, along with Shirley Ross.  The two did render, perhaps, the definitive version of the song, and is no doubt closest to the original intent of the songwriters and of the storyline.

What is interesting is the contrast in tones that the two renditions set.  Whereas Hope and Ross version strike a very poignant chord of a long-time couple now splitting up, and they reminisce together right before going their separate ways, the Goodman version is far more upbeat.  Withholding the later verses about the lamentation of what has come to an end, Martha Tilton’s vocal talent instead concentrates on the fond memory of good times of two apparent travel companions.  All this is to say nothing of the contrast in key and tempo.  The Hope and Ross version has a strong tinge of melancholy and poignancy throughout the song, making you feel it, and feel for the soon-to-be-ex-couple.  All well and good, but that is far from Goodman’s style; thus, the song — recorded on Dec. 2, 1937 — is arranged in typical “businessman’s bounce” fashion, as only the King could deliver.

Moreover, this version does a better job of celebrating those ultra-special moments with very special people.

To all those with whom I’ve had special moments over the years — particularly this past weekend — thanks, for the memory.

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-04-13 August 4, 2013

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Inspiration hit me over the course of this weekend to share with friends and/or readers alike the many splendors of the golden age of American Popular music.  The era of this golden age is rather lengthy (more than three decades; to be defined more precisely at a later time), and thus what becomes truly vexing is where to begin.  Then again, if one were to continuously vacillate over the myriads of delectable options, one would never decide on a starting point to begin with, and no articles on this marvelous subject would be written.

So, to borrow a decision-making technique in the business management world known as “satisficing,” I’ll go with an example that is as good as any.  It has been a great weekend for yours truly, largely defined by an occasion — without going into excessive detail — that has left me in the best of moods.  It is only therefore fitting that we first take a look and a listen at the designated song below.  Moreover, the record in question turned 60 years old earlier this year, thus further augmenting the appropriateness of the occasion.

The chosen song in question is “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Frank Sinatra.  Ol’ Blue Eyes made a smash debut with this tune in light of his recent switch from Columbia to Capitol Records in 1953.  Recorded in April of that year, it set the upbeat tone for Sinatra’s body of work with Capitol for the next eight years.  The song itself was already 21 years old at the time, written by the notable duo of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1932 (they would also write a number of other timeless tunes in the Great American Songbook, including, for example, “Stormy Weather“).  Louis Armstrong produced a wonderful version of it the following year (1933), and in subsequent years would be covered by Lee Wiley (1940), Louis Prima (1957), Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford (both 1960), Diana Krall (1995), Barry Manilow (1998), and even Celine Dion (2004) and Michael Buble (2007).

But Frank Sinatra’s 1953 version clearly stands out above all others.  Behold, listen to, and appreciate the record that set the tone for arguably the best era of the body of work for the Voice of the Century!