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

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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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!”

 

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The Real King of Rock turns 80 December 5, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Today marks the 80th birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a., Little Richard, one of the most important of Rock n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers,” and arguably the real king of the genre.  “The cat with the ten-inch crew cut” was rocking and rolling at the very beginning of the music, and kept on rocking long after others hung it up or had softened into balladeers.  But he was also a great innovator, coming up with rhythms that spoke to the essence of the genre, using the funkiest of saxophone backings than others, played the piano more frantically than others, and combined it all with over-the-top, gospel-style singing, along with wails and moans.  It all added up to the hardest rocking and rolling of the era when the music was born.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, Richard had been performing on stage since his early teens in 1945, but started recording in earnest as early as 1951, the same year that Ike Turner’s band recorded what most historians consider to be the first Rock and Roll song in “Rocket 88.”  LR started making an impact in the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Get Rich Quick” that same year.  The tune clearly has the influential finger prints of R&B pioneers such as Roy Brown, and Richard seems to be channeling him to an extent on this and other tracks he cut around the same time.  The following year, 1952, he showed that he could cut strong, moderate tempo songs with his R&B hit “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens.”  He took things to a higher level in 1953 with “Little Richard’s Boogie,” using a percussion instrument that nobody would associate with a Little Richard song, as none other than Johnny Otis (of “Hand Jive” fame, 1958) himself played the vibraphone on that track.  Fans who already know Richard’s more familiar tunes can easily sense the direction he was taking in developing his music in terms of the rhythmic pattern.

And what a pattern!  Little Richard took inspiration from the sound of trains that he heard thundering by him as a child and molded that idea into a unique 2-2 time, boogie-woogie tempo that helped him drill down to the very essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself as the music and its era exploded onto the scene by the middle of the 1950s.  Indeed, by September of 1955, he joined Arthur Rupe’s Specialty label, and really began to fully hit his stride.  Not even 23 years old yet, he cut a hit in “Tutti Fruitti” that year, and thus helped demonstrate that the new era in youthful music was not just a flash in the pan, and it set the template for many other hard-charging hits to follow.  Even today, “Tutti Fruitti” ranks as a great pre-game hit at football stadiums to enliven the crowd, as well as to psyche players up before taking the field of battle.

While it reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1955 (and was also covered by Elvis and Pat Boone[!]), what “Tutti Fruitti” also did was help open the floodgates for many other awesome Little Richard records to soon follow – 17 hits in three years, to be more exact.  A good bulk of those hits came the following year in 1956, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “She’s Got It,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “All Around the World” and even “Lucille.”

But one tune that stands out above all others that year was his inimitable “Long Tall Sally.”  That recording exemplified the freight-train effect rhythm that Richard gradually crafted to perfection, and in so doing, achieved the holy grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Giving the sax solo an extra eight bars certainly did not hurt, either!

One can hear that defining tune prominently played during the helicopter scene in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie “Predator” from 1987.

To be sure, Little Richard did not save his recording energies for only “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.   That same year yielded some other gems, including one of the hardest-rocking tunes he ever cut in “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” though that record was not released until 1958.  Same thing goes for “True Fine Mama,” a true, hard-core gem, where Little Richard augmented the funkiness level with a call-and-response vocal backing; recorded in ’55, but not released until ’58.

The year 1957 was also a strong one for Richard, in that “Send Me Some Lovin’” (the flip side to Lucille, and a good example of his ballad capabilities) charted, but he also had hits with “Jenny Jenny,” – one his most vocally energetic hits of them all, which is saying something! – “Miss Ann,” and one of the hardest rockers he ever did in “Keep A-Knockin.” Those who doubt the early influence of the swing era on rock ‘n’ roll from later decades clearly overlook that Louis Jordan had a hit with the same song – albeit a more comparatively sedate version! – in 1939.  If that were not enough, 1958 also yield two more marvelous, rocking holy grails, such as “Ooh My Soul,” and the ever-timeless “Good Golly Miss Molly

Richard’s hits on the charts started to wane not because he lost his recording energy, as so many of his contemporaries eventually did, but rather he was making major transitions in his life of the spiritual nature.  In 1958, he enrolled in a theological seminary and soon started recording gospel music instead of rock ‘n’ roll, though by 1962 he made the return back to secular music, and even started touring in England that year, where his records were still selling well.  A fine example of how he still maintained his energy that decade can be seen in this 1964 live performance of “Lucille” in that county (it is arguably a better version than the original 1956 recording):

Little Richard’s influence and legacy spread far and wide throughout the popular music world.  Otis Redding claimed that he entered the music business because of him.  The Beatles cited him as an influence in general; Paul McCartney idolized him while still in high school, and wanted to learn to sing like him.  Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones also referred to LR as his “first idol.”  Jimi Hendrix actually recorded with Little Richard in 1964 and ’65.  George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Rod Stewart, band AC/DC, and even Michael Jackson have claimed LR as a primary influence to some varying extent.  One can hear his influence in popular recordings of later years on one’s own.  Surely one can recognize, for example the direct influence that the opening drum riff on “Keep A-Knockin” has on the ever-famous opening drum riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

Over the past 30 years, Little Richard has appeared on TV and in films as an actor as well as in dozens of soundtracks.  Even within the past few years, Richard has still managed to remain in the spotlight, having appeared in a Geico commercial, as well as one for Zaxby’s.

But as good as it is to casually remain in the spotlight, these recent examples must not obscure his real cultural contribution as being one the greatest standard-bearers Rock ‘n’ Roll has even known.   His unmatchable energy in his recordings and on the stage, along with his everlasting legacy of some of Rock ‘n’ Rolls greatest, most timeless, most energetic records demonstrate time and again that Little Richard is, and ever shall be, in a class by himself.  Happy 80th birthday, your majesty!