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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.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddy Holly still timeless at 75 September 13, 2011

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Last week (September 7, to be exact), marked the would-be 75th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s birth.  In case you have been under a rock, though, for the past 52 years, Buddy Holly has been dead for that long, having died in a plane crash in the wee morning hours in a frozen Iowa cornfield.  It is not uncommon for rock stars to burn briefly but very brightly.  But the degree of brightness to which Buddy Holly shone as a star eclipsed most others in his day, and influenced countless others in the years that followed.

Buddy Holly is rightfully recognized as one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers.”  The most notable of our nation’s Founding Fathers each made their own unique contribution as our nation was born.  Washington, for example, was the most gifted leader and capable administrator.  Adams was one of the leading advocates in Congress for independence.  Jefferson was the philosopher-statesman who was able to articulate the American experience and the rights of all men.  Hamilton was the sharpest financial mind, Madison was the most detail-oriented, and Franklin was the most pragmatic, hence the most practical of an already-practical bunch.

When it comes to the founding generation of rock music, the unique contributions in that field manifest themselves as well.  Some examples would include Bill Haley, who inaugurated the era; Chuck Berry, who combined blues music and folk themes for his own inimitable style; Little Richard, who found the holy grail of rock with his freight train-style tempo; Jerry Lee Lewis, who changed our paradigm of what a piano was meant to do; Carl Perkins, who owned the Rockabilly sub-genre; Elvis, who sang our kind of songs the way we wanted them to be sung; then there’s Buddy Holly, arguably the most timeless artist of a bunch who recorded music that remains timeless after more than five decades, and the most pioneering in a rare group of accomplished pioneers.

The music speaks for itself.  “That’ll Be the Day” — the first record this author ever recalls hearing in his life — was his only Number One hit State-side, but he and his group The Crickets recorded a slew of other songs that helped define the era as well.  In just 18 months, Buddy Holly and the Crickets had 27 Top 40 hits.

Just try to avoid tapping your feet to “Oh Boy,” or joining The Crickets in call-and-response fashion to the lyrics that make up the title.  Same thing goes for “Rock Around with Ollie Vee“, “I’m Looking for Someone to Love” (the flip-side to “That’ll Be the Day,” fyi), with a guitar solo that would even make Ted Nugent proud.

Same thing goes for “Rave On.”  Speaking of which, “Rave On” personifies the “hiccup” vocal style the Holly pioneered (that is, he introduced it to Rock, as it was already long-standing in Country-Western singing).  But that just scratches the surface of Holly’s firsts.  A full decade before Jimi Hendrix made a name for himself playing his Fender Stratocaster, Holly had already given the Fender Strat guitar a mystique all its own.  Compared to the warm tones of most Gibson hollow-bodies, Holly’s Fender Strat had a distinctly piercing tone, which one can readily recognize in Ollie Vee or, better yet, “Blue Days, Black Nights”, both of which were recorded during a session for the Decca label in Nashville in 1956.

As an aside, there is often confusion on the part of many with regard to Buddy Holly vs. “The Crickets.”  “What’s the difference?”, or some variation thereof, is the top FAQ.  The historical evidence on hand does nothing to alleviate that confusion, as the group recorded on two different labels — both Decca subsidiaries at the time — and due to contractual quirks had to essentially split their name in two. Examples are shown below.

Source: author’s personal collection

Despite the separation of names, it was all illusory:  on both labels, the complete group of Buddy Holly & The Crickets were performing the songs.  Speaking of which, it is on that note that Holly’s pioneering is most pronounced.  Putting things into context is the key to understanding this important point, for this was a time when solo artists and groups alike sang songs written and produced by others.  Not Buddy Holly and the boys, though.  They were the most notable first four-piece band (two guitars, a bass and drums) who wrote their own songs, then performed them their own way.  In so doing, they created a template that rock bands of all sub-genres have followed for more than fifty years.

Holly was also one of the most influential artists of all time.  The Beatles not only drew inspiration from Holly and his group, they even drew inspiration from The Crickets’ group name — wanting to follow along the insect-themed name in tribute to their own favorite group.  The band that defined the genre in the 1960s, that ushered in the “British Invasion”, cut their teeth covering Holly’s hits.  Indeed, as one article in particular points out, it was Holly who led an “American Invasion” into Britain in the 1950s.

But that does not even scratch the surface of Holly’s lasting influence.  An excellent LA Times piece puts it in nearly-poetic words:

“Listen to Me” opens with Stevie Nicks happily rocking atop the Bo Diddley beat of “Not Fade Away” and includes the Fray handling “Take Your Time,” Ringo Starr shuffling through “Think It Over,” Chris Isaak crooning “Crying Waiting Hoping” and Cobra Starship reimagining “Peggy Sue.” Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, who said “Buddy Holly’s sweet voice and his trademark hiccup always intrigued me,” layers his signature harmonies into the title track.

Zooey Deschanel sweetly follows in Linda Ronstadt’s footsteps on “It’s So Easy.” That’s one of three Holly songs Ronstadt — with Asher producing — brought back to the radio airwaves in the mid-’70s, a time when it wasn’t universally hip to revisit the ’50s rock canon.”

Keep in mind that Holly accomplished all of this before he died tragically at age twenty-two.  As long as the issue of youth has been mentioned, it is to that very end that notable artists are serious about keeping Holly’s music relevant in the minds of the young people of today.  Such is the reason why this anniversary coincides with a recently-released tribute album to Holly.  Other tributes have coincided with the birthday in question.  Sept. 7 was declared “Buddy Holly Day” in Los Angeles, where he was posthumously given a star on the Walk of Fame.

IMG_4966_1

Buddy Holly’s star of fame on a sidewalk in Hollywood is, interestingly, right next to the famous Capitol Records studio building. Photo by author, Jan., 2015.

His widow Maria Elena was there to witness the unveiling, along with Don and Phil Everly (a.k.a., the Everly Brothers, who were friends of Holly, as well as fellow performers), and, appropriately, Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying him in The Buddy Holly Story (1978).

Evidence of the timelessness of Buddy Holly’s music is everywhere, not just in recordings such as “Listen to Me” or “Words of Love,” but others as well.  AT&T even used “Every Day” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue”) in one of their recent commercials.

Holly, along with Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, left this world on Feb. 3, 1959, in what became known as “The Day the Music Died” (even his death inspired a number-one hit song – who can forget Don McLean’s “Miss American Pie“?*).  But given Holly’s lasting influence and timelessness, perhaps the name of that fateful date should be seriously called into question.

*For the sake of clarity, “Miss American Pie” was the name of the plane that crashed in 1959, taking the lives of Holly, Valens and Richardson.