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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: Artie Shaw’s “Non-Stop Flight” and others September 27, 2013

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As I stated in my previous AGM entry, there are those occasional recording sessions in history where not just one legendary record is cut, but a whole plethora.  Today (Sept. 27) marks the Diamond Anniversary (that’s 75 years, for those of you who are graduates of Indiana University — or the University of Kentucky, for that matter) of one such session undertaken by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.  On Sept. 27, he and his band cut, for one, “Nightmare”, a haunting tune which he used, oddly enough, to open all of his live gigs.

But that is not the half of it.  In addition to “Nightmare” (also used frequently throughout the Martin Scorsese biopic “The Aviator” about Howard Hughes), Artie Shaw also cut the definitive rendition of “Non-Stop Flight,” a popular staple with Lindy Hoppers to this very day!

Things did not stop there, for Artie Shaw and his band also recorded the Jerome Kern hit “Yesterdays” from his musical “Gowns for Roberta” (the same musical in which Kern also wrote the legendary song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), and thus we have the triple-whammy of one of the greatest of all songwriters writing a song that belongs in — or at least near — the upper echelons of the Great American Songbook, and the record is performed by one of the greatest legends in American Popular Music in Artie Shaw.  The quality of music does live up to the billing, too!

Next up we have “What Is This Thing Called Love?”  Much like the aforementioned “Yesterdays”, it too is the same sort of “triple-whammy,” except this time it was penned by Cole Porter, not Jerome Kern.  Artie Shaw had an incredible knack for scrapping the wonderful lyrics of Cole Porter tunes and rendering them as instrumentals, yet somehow still doing the songs considerable justice (e.g., “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, just to name a few).  No wonder that when Porter finally met Shaw face-to-face in the late 1930s, the first thing he said to the King of the Clarinet was “[H]appy to meet my collaborator”!

For the last two tracks, Shaw brought in Helen Forrest on the vocals to sing a nice little ditty already featured in this blog, “You’re a Sweet Little Headache”.  Part of that song can be heard in a scene in the very-underrated 1991 film “The Rocketeer”.

The other tune for which Helen Forrest sang was “I Have Eyes”.  Much like the previously-mentioned tune, Benny Goodman recorded it around the same time, during the same year, and Martha Tilton provided the vocals for both.  It therefore makes for a fun time for vintage music devotees to compare and contrast the respective merits of both songs and their counterpart recordings!

The Goodman version can be heard below for reference:

While I personally prefer the sound of the reed section in the Goodman rendition, overall I prefer the Artie Shaw version, for its sound is smoother, Shaw’s clarinet is more melodious, Helen Forrest’s vocals “click” a bit more effectively with that tune than Tilton’s for the same song, and the tempo on the Shaw record is much bouncier.  Moreover, I say all of this as a Goodman fan!  Such is miraculous effect that Artie Shaw had on key records, so relatively many of which were produced 75 years ago today.

Why are all these Artie Shaw records such a big deal?  A huge chunk of that answer lies in the fact that he left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape.  To wit, as Mark Steyn pointed out in his fantastic obituary piece on Shaw over nine years ago:

“On the eve of World War II, Time reported that to Germans America meant ‘skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.'”

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-04-13 August 4, 2013

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Inspiration hit me over the course of this weekend to share with friends and/or readers alike the many splendors of the golden age of American Popular music.  The era of this golden age is rather lengthy (more than three decades; to be defined more precisely at a later time), and thus what becomes truly vexing is where to begin.  Then again, if one were to continuously vacillate over the myriads of delectable options, one would never decide on a starting point to begin with, and no articles on this marvelous subject would be written.

So, to borrow a decision-making technique in the business management world known as “satisficing,” I’ll go with an example that is as good as any.  It has been a great weekend for yours truly, largely defined by an occasion — without going into excessive detail — that has left me in the best of moods.  It is only therefore fitting that we first take a look and a listen at the designated song below.  Moreover, the record in question turned 60 years old earlier this year, thus further augmenting the appropriateness of the occasion.

The chosen song in question is “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Frank Sinatra.  Ol’ Blue Eyes made a smash debut with this tune in light of his recent switch from Columbia to Capitol Records in 1953.  Recorded in April of that year, it set the upbeat tone for Sinatra’s body of work with Capitol for the next eight years.  The song itself was already 21 years old at the time, written by the notable duo of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1932 (they would also write a number of other timeless tunes in the Great American Songbook, including, for example, “Stormy Weather“).  Louis Armstrong produced a wonderful version of it the following year (1933), and in subsequent years would be covered by Lee Wiley (1940), Louis Prima (1957), Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford (both 1960), Diana Krall (1995), Barry Manilow (1998), and even Celine Dion (2004) and Michael Buble (2007).

But Frank Sinatra’s 1953 version clearly stands out above all others.  Behold, listen to, and appreciate the record that set the tone for arguably the best era of the body of work for the Voice of the Century!

Oz recalls its glorious past April 19, 2013

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oz-the-great-and-powerful-poster-1(Warning:  a few subtle spoilers herein.)
One hallmark of a great prequel is that it shows/explains how something well-known came to be.  For example, just how did X-Man Dr. Hank McCoy, a.k.a., “Beast,” become, well, so blue?  You find out in “X-Men:  First Class.”  Just how did Indiana Jones develop a pathological aversion to snakes?  You find out during the prequel segment of “Last Crusade.”  So it goes for the Oz canon.  Just how did this so-called wizard make his way from Kansas in a balloon to this famous, enchanted land?  Just how was the relationship between the sister witches?  All of that and more is explained in this movie.

By now, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has been released in theaters for over a month, so it’s likely that most readers have seen the film.  As a Johnny-come-lately to the party, it’s hard to say anything that has not been said already about this film, but I nevertheless feel strongly compelled to try.  The reason I do is simple:  there is so much to like about this film that it is hard to know where to begin.

Why not start with the actors’ portrayals of the main characters?  James Franco delivers as the protagonist; sure, a number of others could pull it off just as well, but his portrayal of the so-called “Wizard” of Oz — in reality, a traveling circus magician/con man/womanizer — is quite satisfactory, and gives you a plausible origin of how the whole Wizard myth began.  When circumstances take him to a place that most certainly is NOT Kansas, he encounters not one, not two, but three witches, and eventually learns that the combined encounter is a family power struggle in which he is now ensnared.  Oops!  The first witch he meets, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, ends up taking character development to the extreme.  We the audience first meet her as a young, naive, pretty young lady, almost exuding Meg-like innocence (she provides the voice of Meg in “Family Guy”*).  Nobody would consider a witch, though she is, and moreover, she later undergoes a metamorphosis, shedding her naive facade and afterwards remains, shall we say, jaded, both inside and out.  Soon, though, Oz meets her sister, Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, who, as the story unfolds, seems to be channeling her inner Famke Janssen-as-Xenia Onatopp (you fellow James Bond aficionados know what I mean!) both in terms of appearance/attractiveness (Giggity!* — although that changes at the end of the film) and in terms of which side of good/evil she truly has chosen.  Not until Oz meets the third witch, Glinda, that he becomes enlightened as to who is actually good and who is actually — queue the Mike Myers voice — evil (/puts pinky finger to side of mouth).  Speaking of Glinda, her portrayal by Michelle Williams is superbly charming.  Any man with a pulse would jump at the chance to make her queen of his kingdom.

The secondary roles are more than ably filled, too.  Tony Cox, whose image as the foul-mouthed, sawed-off sidekick in “Bad Santa” is forever humorously etched in my mind, is extremely well-suited for his role as an irascible munchkin.  Bill Cobbs as a jack-of-all-trades tinkerer practically brings a smile to your face, too.  Other key characters are brought to you via the wonders of modern film-making magic.  Indeed, the biggest reason we the movie-going public were never treated to a big-time, big-budget adaptation of, say, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was that the things described in that story were so fantastical, the special effects technology simply was not there until the middle of the last decade to finally do it justice on the big screen.  Same things goes for this film in question in many respects, one being two of the characters that become part of Oz’s group as he finds himself on a mission in a land that coincidentally bears his name.  Only the latest in special effects could properly portray a flying monkey dressed like a ritzy hotel bellhop, or a young girl who is a walking, talking china doll.  The latter character brings much to the proverbial table, as some of the interactions between her and Oz are the most tender scenes in the whole film.

But what I loved most about the film was all the special efforts made in recalling the original 1939 masterpiece to which this movie is a prequel.  Start with the treatment they give to the opening segment of the film.  In the 1939 original, everything is in black and white.  Only when Dorothy’s house crashes into Oz, thus sending the Wicked Witch of the East to an early albeit timely demise, does the film turn to color.  Keep in mind that color films in the late 1930s were few and far between. Color alone would have amazed the audience, but the Technicolor that MGM employed was exceptionally vivid.  Same thing goes for this new film.  The opening, “real-world” segment of the story is also depicted in sepia, and only after the protagonist survives his ordeal of a journey into the magical land does the eye-popping color open up before the audience’s eyes.

But that is just for starters.  The start of the Yellow Brick Road as a spiral directly recalls MGM’s standard-bearing predecessor, as does the physical setting of the Emerald City.  One can see its sparkling skyline in the distance behind fields of ultra-colorful poppies, which in turn run up to the edge of a dark forest.  Speaking of the city’s skyline, it also recalls the original from ’39; maybe not as art deco, sadly, but it makes up for it with its realistic imagery, not just a large painting on the wall of a sound stage.  Even the way the curtains drape in the throne room and in the hallway leading up to it seem to recall the timeless classic.  Better yet, Glinda’s memorable arrival in a magical bubble is recalled in fashion more splendid than ever before.  Speaking of memorable entrances, one of the witches making a scary entrance with red fire is a fitting nod to how that character did the same thing in the [much] earlier film.  Moreover, though the story obviously predates the rest of the dramatis personae (Dorothy et al.), it does well in making oblique references to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.  Even the turban that Franco’s Oz wears on his head while an illusionist with the traveling circus in Kansas recalls that atop Frank Morgan‘s head as Professor Marvel.  Let us also not forget the parallel characters in the protagonist’s life between Kansas and Oz.

Regarding the explanation of how things come to be, not only is the origin of the Wizard’s throne room act of smoke and bombast cleverly explained, what is even more clever is the scenario that first necessitated it.  Plenty of other things about the film recommend it, though, in addition to the wonderful references to the 1939 classic.  When Oz finds himself in this strange yet beautiful world, part of the incredible scenery he takes in are various exotic plants making music; such is a classic, vintage Disney touch, right out of “Fantasia” or “Alice in Wonderland.”  Ol’ Walt would have been proud of these touches, and indeed of the whole film.

*See?  Even when talking about the Wizard of Oz and Disney, we can still make Family Guy references!  And who’da thought that Meg could so effectively channel her inner Margaret Hamilton?