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“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.

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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.

America’s Greatest Music: Beyond The Sea, etc. December 25, 2013

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Bobby-Darin-Thats-AllThe past five days mark of the 55th Anniversary of some of the best records made over that span of time.  Starting on Dec. 19 1958, Bobby Darin and the in-house orchestra at Atco Records (a pop subsidiary label of Atlantic), conducted by Richard Weiss, cut the tracks for the album that arguably would define his career:  “That’s All.”

By this time, Darin had already established himself in the teen market with hits such as “Splish Splash” (1957) and “Queen of the Hop” (1958) and “Dream Lover” (1959), but everyone thought he was crazy when we wanted to cut an album for the adult market.  Nevertheless, the Atco executives green-lit the project, and in late December of ’58, these key tracks were cut, starting with what would become the biggest record of 1959, “Mack the Knife.”

Recorded on Dec. 19, 1958, this song was written by Bertholt Brecht for his famous “Threepenny Opera” (little known fact:  it was originally written in German) 30 years earlier, and Louis Armstrong had already given a bit of new life to the song with a hit of it in 1956.  But no matter who came before or later (Dean Martin did a live performance of it in ’59), Darin clearly owns the song with this definitive version, which remains an all-time classic to this day.

That same recording date, Darin also cut “That’s the Way Love Is,” which is also a fine record, and one that does an excellent job of nailing the feeling one feels when a guy has that one special woman in his life and how strangely all that works.

In between this aforementioned span of time, he also cut two other dynamite records, both being strong, jazzy versions of the standards “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” and “I’ll Remember April,” which are great for getting you up in the morning.

But the session was capped off with another definite pop record of the 1950s, and of Darin ‘s career:  “Beyond the Sea.”  The song was first recorded as “La Mer” by Charles Trenet in 1946, but Darin sang it to the English lyrics we all know and love today.  If ever somebody dear to you has been situated overseas, this song is the ultimate morale-booster, and it was recorded on Christmas Eve of 1958, 55 years ago today.

Oh, and the title cut was, ironically, the last track on this album: it’s arrangement is, er, rather unique compared to the more traditional arrangements of this particular standard.

America’s Greatest Music: The Man/Gal That Got Away November 14, 2013

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This tune is something of a break from most American pop standards spotlighted within this series of blog entries in that it is not from the Golden Age of the Great American Songbook (ca. 1920-1945).  Nevertheless, it quickly merited a place in the aforementioned Songbook because of its eloquent lyrics that easily compare to those of said Golden Age.  The viewing public first heard this from the hit 1954 film “A Star Is Born,” and was broken by none other than Judy Garland.  The fact that is was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics) certainly does not hurt, and indeed, accredits the song all the more (they being two songwriting veterans whose penmanship contributed plenty to America’s Greatest Music)!

What is interesting is that the title must be slightly modified depending on whether the person that is singing this is male for female.  When Judy Garland broke the tune, the title was “The Man That Got Away”.  Not so with Frank Sinatra, who recorded his own version on the Capitol label shortly after the song became a hit off the silver screen.  It could not have been recorded any later than 1955, for that was the year that the album “This is Sinatra” was released.  Interesting side-note:  “This is Sinatra” was no concept album, unlike his “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” album from the previous year.  “This is…” was merely a compilation of hit singles he had over 1953 and ’54, not that such a distinction should detract from the collection of masterworks found in one album!

For my money, Sinatra’s version is the definitive one, though that ought not to detract from Judy Garland’s heartfelt rendition.  Whichever your preference may be, few songs better personify the feeling one experiences when the person-of-the-opposite-sex that they thought was “The One” for them has gotten away from them.  That alone should be reason enough why this song belongs in the Great American Songbook, Silver Age or no.