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America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

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It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

America’s Greatest Music: I Only Have Eyes For You October 31, 2013

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“I Only Have Eyes For You” is yet another great example of a venerable pop standard who writers lack the fame or prowess of the big boys like Gershwin, Berlin or Porter.  Case in point, it was written in 1934 by comparative nobodies Harry Warren and Al Dubin.  Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler introduced it that year in the film “Dames”.  Bandleaders Ben Selvin and Eddy Duchin also had hits with it that same year.  Interestingly enough, it was also used in a film the following year (1935), where it was performed by Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Raymond.  In the years and decades, certain big-name recording artists have added it to their reportoire; for example, Peggy Lee recorded a version of it in 1950.  Even Art Garfunkel had a hit with it in 1975.  In between those years and later, it has been recorded by hundreds, if not thousands of different artists, as it is considered both a pop and a jazz standard.

Frank Sinatra did this song not once (1949)*, but twice (1962), the latter of which he did with Count Basie’s band, just after he switched from the Capitol label to his own Reprise Records brand.  It certainly ranks among the better versions of the tune for sure.  The late-era big band backing gives it a ‘swinging’ quality, something that one would normally not expect from a ballad-type song, but it works well, particularly when paired with Sinatra’s vocal talent.

But let us not kid ourselves.  One version out of all the rest stands out in the minds of music connoisseurs and laymen alike, and that is the Flamingos’ version, recorded exactly 55 years ago today (Oct. 31, 1958), though it peaked on the charts in 1959.

The song in question was recorded with a reverberation effect, which was one of several things that sound engineers were able to perfect within the broader science of analog recording technology during that decade.  The effect gave the record a very dreamy ambience (it certainly left a lasting impression on yours truly as a young boy!), helping it stick in people’s minds for more than five decades.  It also ranks as one of the best love song recordings, not only from the 1950s, but from all time in general.  When you and your significant other are sharing a tender moment, this tune can only add to it!

One very interesting aspect about this record is that it was part of a major trend in the recording industry throughout that decade, that of cutting updated arrangements of pop standards and show tunes from the 1920s and 1930s.  To brief wit:  The Clovers did “Blue Velvet” in 1954 and “Devil or Angel” in 1956.  Fats Domino elevated “Blueberry Hill” to legendary status in 1956, in so doing making it far more famous that it was in its almost 16 years of existence prior to that year.  Connie Francis had her breakout hit with “Who’s Sorry Now” in 1958 (the song was already 34 years old by then!), and let us not forget that in 1957, Billy Ward and His Dominoes had hits not only with the venerable “Stardust” — already 30 years old by then — but also with “Deep Purple“.**  This only scratches the surface of this amazing recording trend that happened more than five decades ago.

*To be sure, Sinatra also performed a live version of this song on a radio show in the 1940s, with the Benny Goodman Sextet providing the instrumentation.

** What do two legendary tunes from the Great American Songbook, “Stardust” and “Deep Purple” have in common?  Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics to both songs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diamond Anniversary of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall January 16, 2013

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BG-album-carnegie-hall-jazz-concertToday, Jan. 16, marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most historic concerts in American history.  For it was on this day in 1938 that Big Band, the music that defined American culture for four decades within the 20th Century, officially went Big Time.  Benny Goodman and his band performed at world-famous Carnegie Hall on that date, to a sellout crowd, and into the history books.  True, Paul Whiteman, the purported “king of jazz” in his day did perform at that historic venue the previous decade, but Big Band, or Swing, was far more refined, more focused, and more definitive a subgenre than the broad category of “jazz,” and it was finally given its big break into the mainstream of American popular culture.

Needless to say, this was no typical Benny Goodman gig.  For one, the make-up of the band was different during some of the tunes that were played.  Granted, most of the overall performance was by the usual players in the band, and photographic evidence of the concert backs this up.  Moreover, some of his bigger names in the band were also present; Gene Krupa on drums and Louisville native Lionel Hampton on vibraphone were both there, as were Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacey alternating at piano.  Harry James, then Goodman’s first-chair trumpet, was also on hand to give some memorable solos, and Martha Tilton, arguably the best female vocalist under Goodman’s employ, was present to sing during certain numbers.

But the band makeup was different for some of the numbers in the program in that there were players used to [temporarily] fill in various side-man roles; a talented makeup of musicians from Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s bands.  The rationale for this unusual move was twofold:  for one, this was an historic occasion, and the folks that spearheaded this whole idea in the first place put on the concert under the theme of “celebrating twenty years of jazz.”  As such, they wanted to pay some homage to the Duke and do updated versions of jazz tunes from the 1920s and early ‘30s.  That explained bringing in the Duke’s boys.  Ellington himself was invited, but he politely demurred, which paid off as he would be given his own moment in the sun at Carnegie a couple of years later.  Some of Count Basie’s players were brought in at the behest of John Hammond, the A&R man for Columbia Records and a friend of Goodman.  Hammond recognized that Basie’s ensemble was up-and-coming throughout 1937, and by including some of his players (including the legendary saxophonist Lester Young), it would give the ensemble for the concert an All-Star band feel.

Goodman_1938b

Benny Goodman in the foreground, with Gene Krupa on drums at left, Allan Reuss on rhythm guitar behind the sax section. Babe Russin is to the immediate left and Art Rollini is to the immediate right of Benny. At the far right corner, one can see some of the last-minute concert patrons in the “jury box” on stage!

Another break from precedence was how the show began.  Goodman usually opened up his gigs with “Let’s Dance,” which he had used for that purpose since at least 1935 (though he never cut a studio record of it until October of 1939, and by that time he left RCA for Columbia).  But instead, for this special show, he opted to kick things off with “Don’t Be That Way” instead.  Edgar Sampson wrote the tune.  An earlier song of his was “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with which Goodman had a big hit in early 1936.  Moreover, Chick Webb had hits with both tunes as well, in 1936 and 1934, respectively.  Goodman, ironically, did not record a studio version for RCA until a week after this historic gig.  But irony or no, it did get things started off on the right foot.

Commercially, from the start, the concert was already a success.  Tickets sold out very quickly upon announcement of the show, but demand for tickets remained so high right up to Jan. 16 that they had to add some “jury box” seating literally on the stage.  For almost two hours, history was made, with the band performing 23 different numbers, including a few by the quartet consisting of Goodman, Wilson, Hampton, and Krupa.

The musical performance line-up for the concert was as follows (note ALL TRACKS have been linked to Youtube clips for your listening pleasure!):

Don’t Be That Way

One O’Clock Jump (likewise recorded in studio a month after the concert)

Sensation Rag

I’m Coming Virginia

When My Baby Smiles At Me

Shine

Blue Reverie

Life Goes to A Party

Honeysuckle Rose

Body And Soul

Avalon

The Man I Love

I Got Rhythm

Blue Skies

Loch Lomond

Blue Room

Swingtime In The Rockies

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen

China Boy

Stompin’ At The Savoy

Dizzy Spells

Sing, Sing, Sing, (With A Swing)  — see clip below!

Big John’s Special

Of course, Goodman and his band saved the best for almost-last with a live, 12-minute rendition of Louie Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.”  He had a hit with it in the summer of ’37, which took up both sides of a 78 RPM record at about seven and a half minutes.  This one was longer thanks to a tongue-twisting trumpet solo by Harry James, extra Goodman clarinet solos, and even a piano solo by Jess Stacey with minimal musical accompaniment.  Let us not forget Gene Krupa carrying the whole number with his drumming, either!  In fact, he used this as a springboard to start up his own band later that year.

Better yet, though, after such an incredible performance, instead of taking all night to bask in the glow of applause in adulation, he signaled for the band to “cool down” like a horse after a race and break into “Big John’s Special.”  Always the professional, Goodman was!

The next day after the concert, while everyone was reading the diversity of reviews in the papers, someone observed to Goodman, “it’s too damned bad somebody didn’t make a record of this whole thing.”  Benny smiled back and replied “[S]omebody did.”  Indeed, a single microphone hung aloft over the band during the concert, hard-wiring the electric signals (and the music they were carrying) straight to CBS’s recording studios.  Two record copies were made.  One headed straight to the Library of Congress, while the other was lost into obscurity, until one of Goodman’s daughter’s unearthed it at the family’s house twelve years later.  When she showed it to her father, he quickly and wisely transferred the records to tape before listening to — and thus re-living — the concert a dozen years after the fact.  The concert was quickly published as an album on Columbia, thus allowing generations of big band/jazz fans to relive it as well over the past 63 years.  But 75 years ago, one night showed that a music that helped define American culture had truly come in to its own, which is incidentally another reason we have to thank Benny Goodman and the players in his band for his/their cultural contribution.

Addendum 01-24-13

Here is a clip of a cinematically-recreated scene from Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall, from “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955).

The part of Goodman was played by Steve Allen, but Krupa and James actually played themselves and did their own solos in this re-enactment of their historic “Sing, Sing, Sing” rendition during the concert.