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Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” at 60 December 19, 2018

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Sixty years ago today – Dec. 19, 1958 – more music recording history was made.  Specifically, Bobby Darin cut his biggest hit, “Mack The Knife”.  Released first as a single and later on his career-defining album “That’s All”, it was a song that would help define an era just as said era was coming to an end.

The song itself was not new.  For that matter, neither was the musical style in which it was recorded.  This alone would be an odd juxtaposition in a time when newer car styles and newer technologies were rapidly entering society.  Yet this record would go on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year for 1959; in the fall of 1959, it stayed No. 1 on the charts for nine consecutive weeks.  Some polls hold it up as the fifth-ranked song of the 1955-1959 Rock Era, despite the song clearly not being rock.  And it all started with one legendary recording session 60 years ago today.

The actual, written song was already 30 years old when Darin recorded it on the Atco label, which was an Atlantic Records subsidiary.  Indeed, the record’s producers were Atlantic’s usual suspects of Ahmet Ertegun (its founder), brother Neshui Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler.

Kurt Weill wrote the melody and poet/writer Bertold Brecht wrote the original lyrics for “Moriat” (its original title) as part of their musical drama “Die Dreigrosschenoper”, or “The Threepenny Opera” in English.  In the musical play, an organ grinder sings the song which tells the tale of Mackie Messer, a murderous criminal who in turn was based on the Macheath character from John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” from 1728.  So yes, it’s all very derivative.

The word “Messer” means “knife” in German, hence the easy transition from Mackie Messer to Mack the Knife.  And yes, the original lyrics to “Moriat” were indeed auf Deutsch.

An English-language version of the opera was first offered to the public five years later (1933), with translated lyrics by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky.  The production had a run of only ten days.  In 1954, though, another English-language production of the Threepenny Opera was staged, and it enjoyed an off-Broadway run of six years.  Mark Blitzstein used his own English translation of the murder ballad of Mack the Knife, and these lyrics became the standard we know and love today.

Louis Armstrong actually beat Darin to the punch in having a pop hit with this song, recording his rendition in 1956, and giving it his typical Dixieland-inspired flavor.  But despite Satchmo’s first-mover advantage, the song today is associated with Darin, and rightly so.

This is not to say that the song’s success came easily.  Recording it was not even an easy sell.  Dick Clark advised Darin not to record the song because he feared its perception as an opera song would alienate rock n’ roll-oriented audiences.  But rather than repel such audiences, it attracted them instead.  Moreover, while Darin’s traditional young target demographics embraced his more mature music, the parents of the young audiences were reassured by the record’s strong Big Band sound (shouts to Richard Wess, who directed the orchestra for this track and indeed, the whole album), and enjoyed the record, too, as a result.  In short, this timeless track appealed to a massive range of the buying public, which clearly was a leading factor in its stunning success.

Other notable names soon jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions of “Mack the Knife”, such as Ella Fitzgerald recording a live rendition in 1960, and Dean Martin doing a nice, live version the previous yearFrank Sinatra recorded it with Quincy Jones as part of his 1984 album “L.A. is My Lady”, yet he himself confessed that Bobby Darin did the better version.  Other notables offering their respective takes on the tune include Tony Bennett, Brain Setzer, Kevin Spacey, and, not surprisingly, Michael Bublé.  Bill Haley and His Comets recorded an instrumental version of the tune in 1959, which would be the last track the legendary singer and group would cut for the Decca label.  Other notable acts have recorded variations and instrumentals of the song over the years.

One sterling example of the song’s timeless appeal:  superstar music judge Simon Cowell once named “Mack the Knife” as the greatest song ever written.  That is a stretch, to say the least, considering the bodies of work of Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern, to say nothing of George and Ira Gershwin.  But on the other hand, it’s refreshing to hear a current superstar with a credibly discerning ear remind us of what a great song “Mack the Knife” is.  It might not be the best ever, but it surely ranks up there.

Cool trivia:  both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin give a nod to actress Lotte Lenya in their respective versions.  Lenya was Kurt Weill’s wife, and she introduced the song during the first productions of Die Dreigrosschenoper.

 

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These three Christmas records are 60, and they still sound great! December 19, 2018

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This year, 2018, marks three Christmas songs that have become classic hits over the decades.

The Chipmunks Song

One of the three is “The Chipmunk Song”, the title alone sounding confusing to those unaware of its context.  First of all, let us be clear on who The Chipmunks were.  No, in this case, they are not Chip & Dale (that was always my default assumption regarding The Chipmunks back when I was, say, five years old!), rather the other Chipmunks, Simon, Theodore and Alvin.  They were the brainchildren of one David Seville (which was his stage name:  his mother knew him as Rostom [Ross] Bagdasarian), a singer-songwriter, the latter part through which he had hits spanning the whole 1950s.  For example, he wrote “Come On-A My House” in 1950, which Rosemary Clooney had a million-selling hit with the following year and launched her career in the process.

By 1958 he had come up with an idea for a novelty record after experimenting with different playback speeds on a tape recorder.  That idea manifested itself into a No. 1 hit in the Spring of that year with “Witch Doctor”.  Liberty Records released it under Bagdasarian’s new stage name, David Seville.  The tune is a duet consisting of Seville’s real voice and an accelerated version of it, the latter being the genesis of The Chipmunks characters.  “Witch Doctor” went on to sell 1.5 million copies in 1958, and Seville realized he had the opportunity to expand his chipmunk character into a trio.  The names for the three new characters all came from the names of the executives at Liberty:  Simon (Waronker), Theodore (Keep), and Alvin (Bennett).

This new trio debuted with an even bigger smash hit, “The Chipmunk Song”, which sounds generic on the surface, until you hear it and realize how timelessly familiar it is (“We can hardly stand the wait; Please, Christmas, don’t be late”).  So yes, the title might not suggest it, but it’s a timeless Christmas classic.

Such a status came almost instantly: it was released on Nov. 17, 1958, and was No. 1 in America by the week of Dec. 13, and would remain at the top of the charts for the rest of the month, selling 4 million copies in this inaugural run.  At the first-ever Grammy Awards in May of 1959, it won three such coveted awards; Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Non-Classical Engineered Song.

Seville himself reaped an outsized share of the benefit of such a huge hit, since he wrote the song, provided all of the vocals, and even produced the record itself.  Its success allowed for him to launch an entertainment franchise based on this rodent trio.  Indeed, Seville/Bagdasarian founded and owned Chipmunk Enterprises, which was the business end of said entertainment franchise, which in turn allowed for him to scream at Alvin (on his records) all the way to the bank until his premature death in 1972 from a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at age fifty-two.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Unlike the first entry, the second entry leaves nothing to confusion from a generic title, for it makes no bones about what it is and the season for which it is intended.  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” By Brenda Lee, a.k.a., Little Miss Dynamite, a nickname she earned because of her short stature – 4’-9” – and her 1957 hit “Dynamite”.  She had already started recording Country hits on the Decca label in 1956 at age 12, and in December of that year, had a minor Christmas hit with “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus”.

The years 1958 through 1962 were her peak period of fame and recording success, having two No. 1 hits alone in 1960, for example (“I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted”), with other big successes coming with “Sweet Nothin’s” and “All Alone Am I” that same year.

But her biggest hit was, yes, a Christmas song, the aforementioned “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from sixty years ago this month.  The song was written by Johnny Marks, who already had “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to his name (written in 1949 ten years after his brother-in-law wrote the story about the red-nosed titular character as an assignment for the Montgomery Ward department stores) and four years later would write “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, which by Christmas of 1964 would forever be associated with Burl Ives.

Unlike “The Chipmunks Song”, which was practically an instant hit, “Rockin’…” was a delayed hit.  Despite the memorably twangy guitar by Grady Martin and the raucous-sounding sax by Boots Randolph, it only sold 5,000 copies upon its first release.  It was released a second time in 1959 and did not do much better.  Not until two years later (again, 1960), when Lee had her banner year with her aforementioned hits, did Decca re-release “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and it exploded as a hit, eventually selling 5 million copies.

It remains a perennial favorite by folks of all ages six decades later, and is obviously the record by which Lee is best known to this day, not to mention a favorite to sing in grade-school music classes for 60 years and counting.

Interestingly, the record is a deceptively seminal one.  That is, it was one of the first to use what became known as the “Nashville sound”, which at its core consisted of a string section overlayed with legato vocals, combined to make up the musical background of a recording.

Run Run Rudolph

Last but not least, the third entry is the hardest-rocking of all.  But this one is by Chuck Berry, so one would expect nothing less!  And yes, there is a tie-in with the previous entry, and not just with the year, either!  Just as Johnny Marks, who, as mentioned earlier not only wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949 and later wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas” in 1962, in addition to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958, also wrote “Run Run Rudolph” (well, the lyrics, at least) as a follow-up to his 1949 classic that very same year.

Musically, the credit goes to Marvin Brodie, and some of Berry’s signature, nay, inimitable guitar riffs on his Gibson ES-335 echo that of “Johnny B. Goode”.

More to the point, this rocking Christmas classic is actually a close musical copy of a hit Chuck Berry had earlier that year in “Little Queenie”.  Indeed, one could easily transplant the lyrics of the former and superimpose them on the latter.  Hear for yourself:

Ironically, “Run Run Rudolph” peaked at only No. 69 in 1958, but it remains a perennial favorite anyhow.  Its popularity does not manifest itself so much in record sales, as its appeal in other areas:  the numerous cover versions this tune has invited over the decades.  For example, Luke Bryan, Whitney Wolanin, and Justin Moore have all made cover versions of this timeless rocker within the past 10 years alone.  Other previous covering artists included Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Grateful Dead, Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Buffet, Dwight Yoakum, and that’s just the short list.  This (admittedly) random selection does nevertheless beg a question:  what do all these country artists within said list want to want to do with a 12-bar blues riff?  Food for thought.

So as we continue to enjoy these hits at this month’s Christmas parties, let us pause to appreciate their timelessness and how well they have endured over the course of six decades.  If nothing else, it’s further proof that, as Danny and the Juniors famously said, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”, especially at Christmastime.

Three Disney Cartoons from 1937 November 19, 2017

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Before the year 2017 comes to a close, let us take the time to observe the 80th anniversary of three particular cartoons that Walt Disney produced.

One is “The Clock Cleaners,” a nice cartoon from 1937 starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.  The title obviously tells us what the occupation is of the three protagonists.  The cartoon consists of the three involved in various perilous circumstances, often with slapstick results.  Especially funny is seeing Goofy getting clobbered by a mechanical mini-Statue of Liberty because he was between it and the bell the automaton was supposed to ring instead.  Classic.

There are two very inventive aspects to this cartoon.  One is the postering match Donald finds himself in with a large quill spring that has become undone and seems to have assumed a mind of its own.  This animated spring seems to be able to speak at one point.  The sounds it emits sound like speech, but very much processed through electric instruments.  This was no small feat of sound effects given that the recording industry was still decades away from synthesized sound.

The other inventive aspect to this cartoon is the feeling of height.  The three characters are all high aloft, washing the face and other parts of a clock at looks like Big Ben adorned with mechanized characters in statue form timed to strike a huge bell at given intervals.  It is not an animated film for the acrophobic.  Let’s us not get started on the lack of safety harnesses that would be prevalent at such a job site today.  Regardless, that Disney was able to achieve this sensation in audiences in that era of animation is nothing short of remarkable.

Just as remarkable is Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoon “The Old Mill”, released this month (November) in 1937.  By this time, Mickey and Donald were quickly growing in popularity, and as such, Walt Disney was not emphasizing the Silly Symphonies like he did earlier in that decade.  This one is typical of the later Silly Symphonies in that he used it to test advanced animation techniques.  It shows, and it delivers.

There is no dialogue at all in this animation.  Rather, it is a tone poem, using the music from the song “One Day When We Were Young” from the operetta “The Gypsy Baron” by Johann Strauss II.  What we see are a community of animals, living in and around an old abandoned mill.  We the audience are to observe how these animals deal with rapidly deteriorating conditions during a harsh summer thunderstorm.

The cartoon starts out on a pleasant note, with a summer sunset in the background as we are introduced to the animals living in the abandoned mill.  We see a pair of bluebirds at the bottom level with the mother of the two tending to a nest.  Further up we see a pair of doves, then an owl, a group of mice, and in the rafters, a colony of bats, who instinctively know that it’s time to wake up and leave for their nightly flight.

Outside, with the sun having completely set, we are treated to frogs in the nearby pond finding each other and building up to a serenade, supported by crickets in the nearby field.  All that ends once a stiff wind descends.  The frogs, instantly sensing the coming storm, quit the ribbiting and hop under a giant lily pad together to hunker down and ride out the storm.

Back inside the mill, the strong winds are about to wreak havoc on the inhabitants therein.  A single, deteriorated rope is all that holds back the entire mechanism from engaging.  The force of the wind becomes too much, the rope breaks, and the poor mother bird is in for a horrific ride going around repeatedly on a large gear wheel.  All that saves her from sudden death is that a gear tooth on the massive gear driving said wheel is missing.  Further up, we see the owl dealing with the movement of shafts, and later, with increased leaks in the roof as more shingles are blown off.  The doves and mice are left to ride out the storm together.

Soon, though, the violence of the storm is too much for the old, abandoned mill.  The denouement is reached when a lightning bolt causes a mill fan blade to break, causing things to come to a sudden halt.  At the same time, collateral damage causes the whole structure to sag, creating a “new normal” for the animal inhabitants.  But at least the mechanical workings and resultant havoc have ceased, and the audience feels a sense of relief in the process.  The storm eventually passes, as do the clouds.  At dawn, the bats return to their rafter domicile, and the bluebird parents bring more worms to their nest, as the eggs have now hatched.  It’s a new day.

The true beauty of this animated short is in the details.  Walt Disney used his multiplane camera to the utmost, creating an incredibly realistic sense of depth.  One of the first things we the audience see at the beginning of the cartoon is a spider web, with all its strands realistically shimmering in the twilight.  The textured details of the exterior of the mill are also works of art.  One can practically feel the texture of the aged timber, inside and out, battered by the elements and the wooden shingles that are torn off the roof during the height of the storm.  The mill’s dithering reflection on the pond is also worth much merit, and even the glow in the eyes of the nocturnal animals lend all the more touches of realism that Disney strove so hard to achieve.

Moreover, the musical effects are incredibly inventive.  The use of wind passing through old, decaying shrubbery and bending stalks to convey expressive sounds from woodwinds showed impressive musical creativity.  That was but one element of timing used to produce certain dramatic and emotional effects.  It was beyond fitting and proper that the U.S. Library of Congress selected this film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Can’t it be all of the above?

The third cartoon worth exploring is  “Lonesome Ghosts”.  Ostensibly a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in reality it also features Donald and Goofy.  It is arguably the most famous cartoon from 1937, and deservedly so.  The three this time are teamed up as Ajax Ghost Exterminators.  Not exactly in a booming business, they enthusiastically embrace the hire to drive out four ghosts who hang out in a decrepit, abandoned mansion.  Little do these “exterminators” know that they were “hired” by the ghosts themselves.

Indeed, the ghosts in question are plain bored.  Having chased the living far away from the house already, they want to lure these supposed exterminators into the haunted house for their own personal amusement.  Once Mickey, Donald, and Goofy arrive, these ghosts pull off a number of pranks on them.  Slapstick and hilarity inevitably ensue.

One innovative aspect of this cartoon is the portrayal of ghosts.  Instead of the traditional portrayal of ghosts as spooky, ethereal spirits, these four are portrayed with many anthropomorphic qualities, albeit in cartoon, caricature form (all the better for the humor of the cartoon).  Complete with very human vices and habits (e.g., cigar-smoking, idly playing cards, improper grammar), all of them engage in fashion satire by wearing derby hats, something that had fallen out of favor for roughly 15 years by that time.  The irony comes with their last, biggest prank on the humorously beleaguered trio.  This prank culminates in them crashing into a wall of the basement, causing them first to be covered in molasses, then immediately thereafter by flour.  The immediate visual effect – abetted by the heroes’ struggle to free themselves from the mess – causes the unsuspecting poltergeists to recoil in horror at the impression that they have stumbled upon real ghosts.  Without delay, and with deliciously ironic horror, they find the quickest route out of the dilapidated house, crashing through everything in their path like bulls through a china shop.  They even crash through windows in the desperate haste to flee.  The last thing we see of these poltergeist pranksters is their footprints in the snow, made in real time.  Mickey, Donald, and Goofy thus savor the moment of switching from being the victims of their pranks to being able to live up to the title of their occupations.

Another innovative aspect of this animated short is the subtle, cultural references in the ghosts’ pranks.  Their mid-story march includes waving pajamas on a cane as if it were a flag, while the remaining three march behind playing drum and fife, to the strains of the popular Revolutionary War melody “The Girl I Left Behind Me” in an atonal, minor key.  Anybody with a grasp American history would quickly appreciate the satire therein.  Immediately, the ghosts follow up with a mocking dance line that hints at that of a turn-of-the-century minstrel show.  Goofy’s mirror scene with one of the ghosts wonderfully echos the Marx Brothers scene from “Duck Soup” (1933) that clearly inspired this series of gags.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is the cartoon’s release date.  The theme of the cartoon is perfect for Halloween, yet it was released in theaters on Christmas Eve of 1937, just three days after the general release of Disney’s legendary, ground-breaking, and otherwise pioneering “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.  The year 1937 would thus prove to be a very fecund one indeed for Walt Disney.

Fats Domino, New Orleans’ Founder of Rock, dies at 89 October 28, 2017

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fats domino1Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino, one of the last surviving “Founding Fathers” of Rock n’ Roll, has died at the age of 89.  According to the Jefferson Parish Medical Examiner’s office, Domino died of natural causes.  A life-long resident of the New Orleans area, he gave the city a rock music vibe to complement its status as the birthplace of jazz.  Young and old alike easily recognize his signature vocalization of the famous lyrics “I’ve found my thrill…on Blueberry Hill…”, a recording 61 years young.

Domino helped usher in rock n’ roll with his boogie-woogie piano played in his signature style, and did so thoroughly.  Not only did he have hits at the dawn of rock’s explosion (1955) and for the rest of that decade, but he had R&B hits that helped firmly plant rock’s roots prior to then.

From the start of the 1950s through the early ‘60s, we sold 65 million singles and had 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis as the strongest commercial force at the dawn of the genre.

To add depth to the legend, his image and persona were unforgettable.  He stood at 5 feet, 5 inches tall (joking that he was as rotund as he was tall), and sported a big, infectious grin.  During performances, he exhibited a fondness for the bling in the form of jewel-encrusted rings that he wore on most of his fingers – again, he wore these while playing the piano.  His easy-going demeanor surely helped his public persona as well.

As each of Rock’s founding fathers contributed their own style to the genre, Domino was no exception, he having brought New Orleans parade rhythms to the proverbial party.

Domino was born on Feb. 26, 1928, the youngest of nine children.  He grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and spent most of his life there.  His life changed forever when his family inherited a piano when he was ten.  His brother-in-law was a jazz musician who wrote down the notes for young Antoine, and taught the boy some basic chords.

He threw himself fully into learning to play the piano, becoming almost entirely self-taught.  Part of the self-teaching included playing records from noted boogie-woogie artists, including Amos Milburn, who would later have a slew of R&B hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

At this same time, he dropped out of the fourth grade so he could take a job as an iceman’s helper.  He supplemented his piano practicing by playing pianos for customers in their homes while making deliveries.  Later in his teens, he started working at a club called The Hideaway with a band led by a bassist named Billy Diamond, who first dubbed him “Fats”.  It did not take long for Domino to become the face of the band and a huge local draw.

A songwriter, arranger, and producer named David Bartholomew took notice of this strong, local draw, and realized he found a special artist in Domino.  By 1949, Bartholomew brought over the owner of Imperial Records, Lew Chudd, to The Hideaway in New Orleans to see Fats Domino in person and the amazing effects he had on the club’s patrons.  As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2010 interview, “Everyone was having a good time. When you saw Fats Domino, it was ‘Let’s have a party!’ ”

Together with Mr. Bartholomew, Fats Domino established his boogie-woogie style of piano playing early on with his first record, “The Fat Man,” an instant R&B hit when it charted in 1950 on the Imperial label.  The song title would give him a stage persona for the rest of his career, and he would stay with that label for over a decade, churning out hits that helped define the 1950s.  Another trait he established with his first record was his mastery of the non-word lyrics, namely the “wah-wah” sound that soon evolved into “woo-woo”.

Indeed, those very sounds added much to the character of another early 1950s R&B hit from 1953, “Please Don’t Leave Me”.  A close listen indicates that, from the opening bars of that record, he already had honed his signature style of rapid piano triplets.

His most solid contribution to someone else’s record came in 1952, when he just so happned to visit a New Orleans studio.  He was asked to help a nervous teenaged singer named Lloyd Price.  Domino not only obliged, but came up with another memorable piano riff at the beginning of the track that set the tone for the entire song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”.  The R&B record proceeded to become one of the first to cross over to the pop audience.

His style continued to gradually evolve to the right point at the right time when he had a hit that helped trigger the Rock n’ Roll explosion of 1955 with “Ain’t That A Shame”.  But that was only a warm-up for what he was to record for the following year.  People of all ages to this day can easily recognize his version of “Blueberry Hill” from its semi-staccato piano opening.

As a preschooler, it was within a handful of the first of popular tunes I recall hearing.  At that time, the recording was not even 30 years old.  The almost plaintive-sounding response/reactions of the horn section to Domino’s vocals are unlike anything recorded before or since, and undoubtedly contributed to the legendary status of the record.  Those strains have certainly remained with me all these years.

The irony of “Blueberry Hill” is that, unlike, say, “The Fat Man”, it was not a Domino original, but a long-standing cover.  The song originated in Big Band Era, with Gene Autry actually cutting the first know version in 1940.  Glenn Miller followed suit on May 13 the same year (with Ray Eberle on vocals).  Other bands and notable singers contributed their own “take” on it in the early half of the 1940s, including Kay Kyser, Russ Morgan, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Connie Boswell.  Glenn Miller’s version actually made it to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1940.  Louis Armstrong would later cut a version with Gordon Jenkins’ band in 1949.  But 16 years after the song’s introduction, Fats Domino truly made it into his own, so much so that it now comes as a surprise to many that earlier versions of it by other artists even exist.

Although Domino already had such a legendary record to his credit by 1956, he did not cease to cut great, memorable tunes.  That same year, he produced some other notable tunes such as his version of “My Blue Heaven” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (also holdovers from the Big Band Era).  With both, Domino offered refreshing takes, particularly the latter.  Also in Domino’s 1956 vintage is “I’m In Love Again”.

At the end of 1956, he churned yet another of his most memorable tunes, “Blue Monday”.  Who can forget the quasi-chorus “Saturday mornin’…..Oh, Saturday morning…..all my tiredness have gone away….”?  Clearly grammar was not the Fat Man’s strong point – no doubt a product of his aforementioned truncated education — but the tune was great anyhow, bluesy yet upbeat at the same time.  As kid in junior high, I learned how to play the brief sax solo in the middle of the record in question.

His most notable track from 1957 was “I’m Walkin’”, another uptempo tune that has found its way into movie soundtracks and commercials over the years.  Who can forget the sequence in “Blues Brothers” (1980) when the protagonist duo trapse all over Chicagoland announcing the Blues Brothers Showband and Revue?

Whole Lotta Loving” is the stand-out tune in Domino’s discography from 1958, and he closed out the Fifties strongly with “I’m Ready”, “I Want to Walk You Home” and “Be My Guest” in 1959, all having different tempos.  The first of the aforementioned three is particularly catchy.  Its energy would make one think as though it was recorded closer to the rock explosion period of 1955-’57.

Even the early 1960s were a rather fecund period for Domino, having a hit in 1960 with “Walking to New Orleans”, a track played ad nauseam on the SiriusXM 50s on 5 channel.  Other tracks from this period included Hank Williams covers (“Jambalaya”, “You Win Again”), originals such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, and other covers such as “I Hear You Knocking” (Smiley Lewis’ hit from 1954) and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (A Mills Brothers hit from 1944).

By 1963, his record sales were lagging considerably, and a switch to ABC-Paramount did little to revive them.  But he remained a popular live act throughout the 1960s, touring Europe for the first time in 1962, and met the Beatles in Liverpool during that tour – before they became huge stars.  By the mid-1960s, he appeared in Las Vegas for 10 months a year making live performances.

He quit touring for good in the 1980s, and settled back down in his hometown of New Orleans.  Part of the reason for staying in his native city was that, according to him, it was the only place where he liked the food.  Lucky for those in attendance, he was a regular performer at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Still alive and well when Hurricane Katrina hit his native city on Aug. 29, 2005, he refused to leave his home in the Lower Ninth Ward even as it was flooding.  Eventually he was rescued by helicopter on Sept. 1, and evacuated to Baton Rouge, La., where for a couple of days he stayed in then-LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s apartment until taking up shelter elsewhere pending the receding of the floodwaters.  The flood in the hurricane’s wake caused major damage to his home, having risen up 20 feet on the house, but it was fully rebuilt by 2007.

The timelessness of Domino’s music was discerned by some even when it was new.  Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer at Atlantic Records, made a prediction as early as 1953, stating “Can’t you envision a collector in 1993 discovering a Fats Domino record in a Salvation Army depot and rushing home to put it on the turntable?” he wrote. “We can. It’s good blues, it’s good jazz, and it’s the kind of good that never wears out.”  The fact that “Blueberry Hill” and other riffs from his other records remain recognizable today prove just how thoroughly that prognostication has come to pass.

Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” Turns 80 July 6, 2017

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Eighty years ago today, on this day (July 6) in 1937, Benny Goodman and his orchestra recorded the legendary instrumental version of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”.  The song originally came with lyrics, written by none other than Louis Prima, who also wrote the song’s music in 1936.  Indeed, Prima cut the first version of the tune that same year, along with his New Orleans Gang band.  Fletcher Henderson cut his own version with his band shortly thereafter.

But it was Benny Goodman who elevated the song to legendary status.  In typical Goodman fashion, they started performing the song during live gigs before eventually recording a studio version for record sales.  Of further interest is that Goodman seemed to waste little time to cover Prima’s song, as his band began performing his own version during the band’s second trip to the Palomar Ballroom, which was in 1936.

Goodman’s band finally cut the famous studio version on July 6, 1937 in Hollywood, Calif.  The location for the recording was likely influenced by the band either doing a West Coast tour, or the fact that they were finishing up their roles for the film “Hollywood Hotel” from the same year.  Naturally, the hit record featured in this article is also featured in the film!

Regardless, the band line-up remained largely intact from the core that helped launch the Swing Era two years earlier.  Red Ballard and Murray MacEachern were on trombones.  The two tenor saxes were played by Art Rollini and Vido Musso.  The two alto saxophones were played by George Koenig and Hymie Schertzer (Toots Mondello must have taken an hiatus, as he was largely a mainstay with the band through the end of the decade).  The rhythm section consisted of Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother) at bass, Allen Reuss at rhythm guitar, and Gene Krupa, arguably the “g.o.a.t” of drummers.  Goodman’s trumpet section was the only part of the band that had changed, and arguably for the better, as it boasted an all-star roster of Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, and chaired by Harry James, who enjoyed a lengthy solo during the second half of the record.

Speaking of which, the track was unique for its length.  Most Big Band Era recordings were restricted to three minutes, thirty seconds or less (usually about three minutes and several extra seconds) on account of the spatial and timing constraints of the 10-inch records played at 78 RPM.  “Sing, Sing, Sing”, conversely, lasts eight minutes, 43 seconds, thus taking up both sides of a 12-inch 78 RPM record.

Whereas most of Benny’s swingingest hits were Fletcher Henderson arrangements, Jimmy Mundy arranged this legendary cut.  Not that this was necessarily an anomaly, has he also arranged the great Goodman killer-diller “Bugle Call Rag” from late the previous year.

To be sure, many other artists over the years have covered Louis Prima’s catchy melody, from the Andrews Sisters to Goodman to Bunny Berigan to Teresa Brewer.  Even Paul Anka issued a cover version in 1958.  But clearly, Goodman’s version stands out above all the others.  Appropriately, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982, as the tune reached the age of 45 years.  Now at 80, let us all take the time to celebrate and appreciate its timeless appeal, its perpetually youthful vigor, and its everlastingly positive contribution to American popular culture!

Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

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Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

On finding the best version of “The Christmas Song” December 23, 2016

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“The Christmas Song”, recorded by Nat King Cole has been a perennial favorite secular Christmas recording by folks both young and old for more than fifty years.  When this aforementioned record’s familiar strains hit the airwaves each holiday season, almost everyone quickly recognizes it.  It’s a “comfort record”, a tune that takes us back to the simpler Christmases of our youth, and the very lyrics encapsulate the warm feelings and the nostalgia that this time of year readily inspires.*

But there is only one problem:  the best-known version is not the best version.  Moreover, most people are not even aware that Cole recorded multiple versions over a span of 15 years.

The most familiar version is the one that Nat King Cole cut in 1961.  Those who are familiar with this legendary artist’s body of work would not be surprised.  Cole’s tenure at Capitol Records lasted over 20 years, from 1943 (the label began the previous year) to his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965.  He was such an integral part of the label’s success that when Capitol moved to its current location near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles in 1956 – the world’s first circular office tower, interestingly – it became known as “The House that Nat Built.”

Those who are familiar with Cole’s body of work at that label would be aware that he recorded multiple versions of many of his hits.  He recorded a spate of new versions of his biggest hits from the 1940s and ’50s during the early 1960s, for example.  When one examines this pattern, the fact that he cut another version of arguably the most legendary secular Christmas record should come as no surprise.

But as many musical connoisseurs – this one included – will quickly point out, Cole’s early ’60s versions lack the sharpness and the soul of the originals.  His early ‘60s renditions of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Paper Moon” are pathetic imitations of the 1940s counterparts.  His early ‘60s re-dos of his 1951 hits “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young” likewise fall short.  Same goes for many more of his respective songs.  As great as his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” may be, it too falls short of previous versions he himself recorded.  The only reason he made the later versions was to give the public the option to hear his songs in stereo, as his hits from the ’40s and ’50s were all recorded in monaural (due to the technological limitations of the time).

Rewind 15 years to 1946.  “The Christmas Song” itself was only a year old on paper.  Crooner Mel Tormé wrote it in 1945, on a sunny summer day in California, while lounging by a pool.  Tormé’s rationale for this irony was that it was a blistering hot day, and he wrote it as a way to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

Nat King Cole fittingly recorded the first versions of the song, at his own behest, the following year, at first with his Trio.  Thus, the legendary song was truly born:

Later that same year, Cole re-recorded that song again, this time with a string section.  With his youthful energy and younger vocal chords, this version is a treasure, with a quality and a capturing of Americana far superior to the better-known ’61 rendition.  One needs only to give the large-group 1946 version a listen to discern the positive difference.

 

(Is it just me, or were 80 percent of all record labels before the 1950s colored black?)

But wait, there’s more!  As truly wonderful as his “With String Choir” version from 1946 is, Cole, truly on top of his game the following decade, recorded yet another version of the song in 1953.  This will sound rather similar to the ’61 cut, but it has a certain sharpness that the later one clearly lacks, as one would expect from a time when the great singer was clearly in his prime.

(Note the iconic, purple, Capitol Records label from the Fifties!)

I first heard this 1953 version on the radio at age nine.  Even my lesser-educated ears at that tender age could quickly discern that this rendition was far better than its 1961 doppelganger.  The soft beat of the drums in the 1953 recording alone make a huge difference, as they give the tune a key dimension the later one sorely lacks, and that’s just for starters.  Plus, the orchestra was conducted by Nelson Riddle, who was one of the chief reasons why Capitol owned the pop market that decade, but more on that some other time.

Let it also be known that he performed this song live a few times, some of which have been captured as airchecks for posterity, so they too are floating out there for the hard-core music fans to enjoy.

Indeed, it becomes difficult to decide which is the best performance of this song by this artist:  his large-group 1946 version, or the 1953 version?  The latter is probably more palatable to most ears, as it sounds a bit more similar (compared to the former) to the 1961 edition that everyone who has not been living in a cave since then already knows.

The answer comes down to which sort of Americana one prefers, the early post-WWII flavor of Americana, or the 1950s flavor?  They’re both absolutely wonderful, so don’t overthink it and add BOTH to your playlist this Christmas season!

*Unless you’re an unreformed, unrepentant Scrooge.  But as Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd would say, “[T]hat is a ‘you’ problem!”

 

James Bond: SPECTRE is Back October 22, 2015

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Daniel Craig rocks the black turtleneck a la Roger Moore in “Live and Let Die”. As the Sterling Archer character would say, “It’s the tactical turtleneck, Lana, the…’tactle-neck’!”

In just two weeks (and change), a new James Bond film shall hit the theatres.  It shall be the 24th in the official series dating back to 1962 (“Never Say Never Again” from 1983 was never acknowledged as official), and Daniel Craig’s fourth go at the iconic, timeless role.  His inaugural appearance as Bond in “Casino Royale” in 2006 was a smash debut, initiating a new tone to the franchise unseen to such a degree since Roger Moore debuted as Bond in “Live and Let Die” in 1973.  Oddly enough, Craig’s second appearance as Bond (“Quantum of Solace”, 2008) frankly did not work out quite so well, but that was primarily the fault of how badly the story was written, for Craig maintained his intense effort toward the role.

Throughout the Bond series that spans 53 years and counting, there has been a consistent pattern of the third time being a charm.  That is to say, Sean Connery in particular and the series in general truly hit its stride during the ever-popular “Goldfinger” from 1964, the third in the series.  Roger Moore came to truly “own” the part in “The Spy Who Loved Me” from 1977, his third turn in the series.  Similarly, Craig truly put his mark on the same role in “Skyfall” (2012), which is considered by most to be his finest effort/contribution to the franchise thus far.  Indeed, “Skyfall” has had mass appeal, as many viewers have considered it one of the all-time greats of the series as a whole.  What was particularly intriguing about the 23rd installment film was that it was released on the 50th anniversary of James Bond on the silver screen, and, moreover, the story set things up for the entire series to come full circle, complete with a new “M” and his relatively modest, albeit stately, office by film’s end.  Even the story began its final act with Bond driving his silver 1963 Aston Martin DB5 though some of the most desolate Scottish terrain imaginable, as if it were the early 1960s.

So at this point, two major questions arise, and both are variations on ‘where do we go from here?’  To put it another way, after such a grand contribution to the series in “Skyfall,” are we setting ourselves up for disappointment the movie that is soon to follow?  Also, in what direction is the series to head, now that the storyline has come, as already mentioned, full circle?

 To answer the first question, we ought to look at history.  Sean Connery followed up from “Goldfinger” with “Thunderball,” which, while not nearly as iconic as its predecessor, was still a huge hit when it was released in 1965.  Similarly, Roger Moore followed up on “Spy Who Love Me” with “Moonraker” in 1979.  Full confession:  the latter is a personal favorite of mine.  James Bond goes into space, after all:  no other movie in the series can lay claim to that!  Better yet, they brought back the iconic Bond henchman Jaws; Moore’s performance was reliably smooth; and Lois Chiles remains one of the most underrated of all the leading Bond Girls (lightyears better than Olga Kurylenko from Q of S, but that sets the bar quite low).

The bottom line is, both follow-ups were at least very pleasing.  If the pattern holds, we ought not to be disappointed with the upcoming installment.

 But let us get further to the point.  For the longest time, we Bond fans have been hungry for a return of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executives for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) to the series for a very long time.  The last time Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Ol’ “Number One” in the evil organization) made an overt appearance was “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971, for goodness sake.  Granted, SPECTRE was originally meant to operate in a Cold War-dominated world.  Author Ian Fleming made no mention of it in his novels, but rather used SMERSH, the Soviet equivalent of the CIA, instead.  The switch to SPECTRE was made with the introduction of James Bond to major motion pictures with “Dr. No” in 1962, where the main villain of the story/film openly described the organization to Bond over dinner in said villain’s luxurious lair.  To this day, nobody has been able to pronounce the acronym in such a delightfully sinister way as Joseph Wiseman did in his role as the half-German, half-Chinese evil nuclear scientist!

Bond_24_SpectreLogosSo yes, it’s been so long since we last heard an overt reference to S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  The fact that it shall be front-and-center to the plot (and title) of the upcoming new Bond movie has us fans practically chomping at the bit to see it.  With the storyline having come full circle upon the conclusion of the last film, it has been as if the writers read our minds in thinking that it is time for the return of this evil “A-Team.”  The shattered windshield in one of the movie’s posters has been designed to appear as the octopus-like logo of the nefarious organization, in another nod to the classic Connery-era bond films.

SPECTRE_ONE_SHEET2Even more intriguing is the garb in which Craig has been wearing in the movie’s promotional photos.  The white dinner jacket is perfectly within the grand traditions of Connery and Moore, but what has really grabbed the eyeballs, so to speak, is the black turtleneck, which Roger Moore rocked quite well during the nighttime raid sequence on the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique (a thinly-guised Haiti, because voodoo) in “Live and Let Die.”  But why?  Do so many fans and casual observers alike recall such a garment?  Or is it on account of another, semi-iconic spy character in Sterling Archer?  He is the main character in the animated TV show on FX, “Archer,” who is well-known for wearing this shirt during his shenanigans as a secret agent.  The comedic show in question has attracted a strong following among the educated 20-and-30-somethings, and that alone has created considerable cross-franchise intrigue.

 Regardless, we eagerly await the release of the 24th official Bond film, “S.P.E.C.T.R.E.”  The historical parallels of the series, combined with timeless elements lead us to a prognostication that this is an installment surely not to disappoint!

“Ol’ Blue Eyes” and “Ted” February 18, 2015

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After three years, fans of the Seth MacFarlane comedy “Ted” are about to be relieved from suspenseful waiting, as a sequel, “Ted 2,” is about to debut in theatres come late June.  In case the reader is unaware, the protagonist is a live, talking teddy bear, who is foul-mouthed, lecherous, super-lascivious, and given to bouts of indolence, drunken revelry, and pot-smoking, yet altogether strangely endearing nonetheless.  Basically, he is a modern, crude adaptation of Charlie McCarthy (or, to put it another way, MacFarlane’s Ted is analogous to Edgar Bergen’s McCarthy), and needless to say, it has proven to be most amusing!

This commercial-length preview — which debuted during the Super Bowl, no less — alone is enough to have one rolling in the aisles.  Once the dear reader has recovered from hysterics, though, re-run the ad again and listen to the tune used for background music.  That’s right, they are using Frank Sinatra’s “Can I Steal A Little Love?” which has, er, interesting implications, given the sub-theme this part of the movie explores!

“Can I Steal A Little Love” was released in 1957, and one of Sinatra’s many wonderful swinging singles from that year.  Indeed, that year turned out to be yet another banner one for Ol’ Blue Eyes, who not only had a spate of hit singles, ranging from “Witchcraft” to “All the Way,” to three albums produced as well, such as “Where Are You?”, “Come Fly With Me,” (both title cuts remain famous in his repertoire) and his ever-popular, ever-timeless, ever-wonderful Christmas album. But as a brief summation, “Can I Steal A Little Love” is one of a plethora of great examples of why not only was 1957 a banner year for Sinatra, but also why his body of work at Capitol Records remains so timeless to this day, as is evident by its use in a major movie commercial 58 years later.

The Top Three Greatest Christmas Albums December 18, 2014

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NKC-the-christmas-songNo. 1:  Nat King Cole:  The Christmas Song.  What merits this as number one?  Start with the fact that the title cut of the album is perhaps the most iconic recording of a secular Christmas song.  Add in the fact that A) this is Nat “King” Cole, whose vocal talents just feel perfect for music to promote Yuletide cheer, and B) this is a Capitol Records album, produced at the time (1960, specifically) when the label included not only Cole, but also both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as his stablemates and thus the label pretty much owned the mainstream popular music market in that era.  But Cole mixes well the secular and religious songs, making fun, upbeat versions with some (e.g., “Deck the Halls” and “Hark!  The Herald Angels”) and poignant versions with others (e.g., “O Tannenbaum” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), making for a compilation that spans the proper emotional gamut during this sentimental time of year.

The only irony is that it does not contain the best version of “The Christmas Song,” a tune that Cole himself would record officially at least three different times, but that is a discussion for another day.

FS_XmasNo. 1a:  A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.  Make no mistake about it, this album was cut in 1957, when Ol’ Blue Eyes was on top of his game, only a year or so removed from recording his two greatest albums ever (“Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair”).  It shows in this album, too.  Just as the previously mentioned album introduced me to Nat “King” Cole, so too did this particular album introduce me to Sinatra at a very early age.

Certain songs grab you in such a way that you remember where you were the first time you heard them.  For me, it was Christmastime while I was in kindergarten when I first heard the opening track, “Jingle Bells,” on this album, and it stuck with me ever since.  The song is so well-known as to be trite, but every once in a while, one hears a version that is so well-rendered as to rise above the triteness.  This is one of those songs.

But if you are first grabbed by that opening track, you stay for “Mistletoe and Holly.”  To this day, few have attempted to cover it because Sinatra did it so well the first time.  But two additional tracks truly cement the album’s timelessness.  Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz” truly helps define the song collection, and no Christmas season is complete without enjoying this track a few times.  Others have tried to duplicate Frank’s efforts with this song over the years, but each time, they keep coming up short.

The other track that seals the album’s greatness for all time is Sinatra’s definitive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sinatra truly captures the essence of the song itself, arguably outdoing the other definitive version by Judy Garland from 1944.  Listening to this song proves to any discerning listener why Frank Sinatra was indeed the singing voice of the 20th Century.

The religious songs on the latter part of the album are not too shabby, either.  Recent re-releases of the album include an alternative version of “The Christmas Waltz,” which is not quite as good as the official rendition, but it remains a good listen nonetheless (it being a Nelson Riddle arrangement, compared to the Gordon Jenkins arrangements that populate the rest of the track line-up).

AChristmasGifttoYoufromPhilSpectorcoverNo. 3:  Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You (1963).  One unique aspect of this album is that it does not center on one artist, but rather on several artists/groups that were the talent pool on Spector’s label at the time.  The recording effect that defined the legendary producer’s records came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” (a primer for those unfamiliar with this effect of recorded sound) and while that effect lifted many Spector-produced tracks to legendary status and made for a definitive element in some music from 1960s, one could argue that this effect was perfected on this very album.  If that exceeds credibility in the minds of some readers, I invite them to listen to the last several bars of instrumentation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by The Crystals:  it’s vintage Phil Spector (this is not to mention that the song’s arrangement has been copied by many artists in the 50+ years since).

There is not a bad track in the line-up, and they include some of the most iconic versions of certain secular Christmas songs.  The Ronettes’ version of “Sleigh Ride”, for example, remains the definitive version of this song – in most circles – to this day, though ironically paced with a shuffle beat (one of the oldest rhythmic patterns in popular music).  Bob B. Soxx’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is a fresh take on that song, too.   Indeed, there is a timeless “hipness” to these tracks, which is what makes the album so classic.

Of course, Darlene Love contributed the lion’s share of musical gems.  Her version of “White Christmas” is the closest one to rival Bing Crosby’s eternally popular 1942 and 1947 versions.  “Baby Please Come Home” has become an iconic song in its own right, and her multi-dubbed vocals on “Winter Wonderland” have made it arguably the best version of that winter-themed song to date.  With such a strong line-up of recordings, it almost makes “Marshmallow World” get lost in the mix, but an attentive listen reveals that this track is the most underrated on the album.  This is easily the greatest version anybody has made of the song, and the energy that Love puts into the vocals on this track are positively contagious.  Moreover, if one focuses just on Love’s contributions to this song compilation, one cannot help but conclude that these make up the very cornerstone to her musical legacy.

Put all three albums together, and you have a solid trifecta of timeless Christmas music that has stood the test of time for more than five decades, which is all too fitting for a holiday season partially defined by timeless traditions.