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Steven Holcomb: Olympian, American, Friend May 15, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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Note:  all photos by author unless otherwise stated.

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Steven Holcomb and his 4-man team, piloting the “Night Train” sled during the second of four runs at the 2012 4-man Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Holcomb and the team proceeded to reign victorious in this event, thus further cementing his legacy as the greatest American ever in the sport.

Steven Holcomb, the greatest bobsledder in the history of Team USA, died on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He was only 37 years old.  Friends found him in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.  An autopsy, which was conducted the following day, gave preliminary indication that the likely cause of death was pulmonary congestion.  He likely died in his sleep.  Toxicology reports indicated zero drugs in his system, as well (hear that, Russia?).

Needless to say, this sad and sudden news has shocked not only the men’s and women’s bobsled and skeleton teams, but also the sliding sports community around the world and the entire U.S. Olympic community.  We have all lost a friend.

His achievements, by the numbers alone, are staggering.  Three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze); three world championship gold medals (five counting mixed team events); five other World Championship medals; eight overall World Cup trophies (including four outright overall championships); sixty medals in toto.  Since 2009, he was acknowledged as one of the best bobsled drivers in the world.  More interestingly, though, he came to the sport from an unlikely background, and overcame a debilitating physical condition that almost ended his career before it took off in earnest.

Most bobsled athletes come through the track and field ranks.  As long-time bobsled broadcaster John Morgan has often noted, “[Y]ou can teach someone to drive a sled, but you can’t teach speed.”  Within the ranks of track and field, decathletes are prized above all others for their ability to both sprint (e.g., the 100 m sprint and the 110 m hurdles) as well as their ability to throw around weight (e.g., discus and shot put events), which are both key skills when pushing a sled that weighs almost 400 pounds.  The U.S. and Canada also enjoy another sport from which to recruit that most other countries lack – American football.

Ironically, Holcomb followed neither path to the sport he came to love.  A native of Park City, Utah, he was first an alpine skier, starting competitive ski races at the tender age of six, and continued to race for the Park City Ski Team for 12 years.  In this, he was in good company, as the late, legendary bobsled driver Eugenio Monti of Italy (double-gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble) also was a skier before he took up bobsledding.

To be sure, as Holcomb advanced in age, he participated in other local youth sports, such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball, and track and field.  So suffice it to say, he was a formidable all-around athlete.  In 1998, at age 18, he went to a local try-out for the USA Bobsled team, and scored enough points to where he was invited to stay and train with the national team for an additional week.  Though he finished eighth place in pushing competitions, he was passed over for the national team due to his young age and his short stature (he was only 5’-10”, which is roughly my own height!).

An injury on the team later that year led him to be invited back onto the team, where his involvement steadily grew.  He participated as a push athlete for four years, and served as a forerunner for the Olympic events at Park City in 2002.  By 2006, his seven-year stint as a combat engineer in the Utah National Guard had concluded with an honorable discharge, and he then committed himself to the sport full-time.

Not a moment too soon, either.  The men’s bobsled team was shut out of the medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics.  In fact, Holcomb, who piloted the USA-2 team sled, finished sixth in the 4-man event, ahead of Todd Hays in the USA-1 sled.  The overall showing was very disappointing, considering that both Hays’ and Brian Shimer’s sled teams won silver and bronze, respectively, in the 4-man at Salt Lake in 2002, thus ending a 46-year medal drought in the sport for Team USA.  The showing in 2006 was thus a major let-down.

Hays retired from the sport after the ’06 Winter Games, thus passing the torch to Holcomb, known as “Holcy” (holl-key) to his friends.  His full-time devotion to the sport paid off quickly.  At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 World Cup season, he won the 2007 Two-Man World Cup title, the 2007 Combined World Cup title, and finished second in the World Cup standings in the 4-man.  Suffice it to say, the U.S. men’s team had found its leader to take them to the proverbial promised land.

But just when Holcomb’s career in the sport was about to blossom, it almost ended.  He suffered from a degenerative corneal disease called keratoconus.  Basically, he was slowly going blind, and obviously did not want anybody to know.  Ironically, this condition gave him a competitive advantage, up to a point.  His eyesight continuing to decline, he learned to navigate the narrow, icy tracks of the sport more by feel and increasingly less by sight.  But if one went totally blind, not even one’s exceptional ability to feel would be enough to compensate.

As his sight got ever worse, he feared he would be forced to retire, but he still kept it a secret from the team.  Disgusted with his self-deception and depressed with the prospect of his career in bobsled soon ending, he felt like ending it all.  Then, in a Colorado Springs hotel room, after an evening of schmoozing with Olympic team donors, he almost did.  That night, he shoved 73 sleeping pills into his mouth – yes, he counted – and downed them all with the rest of a fifth of whiskey he had been drinking.  He gradually went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, not even leaving so much as a note.

Miraculously, the next morning, he woke up anyhow.  Holcy was the first to acknowledge this miracle, and instantly got the message that he had been given a second chance.  He started by coming clean with everyone about this keratoconus, telling the story about his battle with the disease, raising awareness of it in so doing.  Then, the following year, opthamologist Brian Boxer Wachler corrected his condition with a revolutionary, new treatment that did not even involve surgery.

His eyesight restored, Holcomb’s success on the frozen track continued.  By the 2008-2009 season, things really came together.  For one, the USA-1 team of Holcomb, pushers Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler, and Curt Tomasevicz truly gelled.  For another, they used the season to gradually break in a brand-new sled that the BoDyn program had designed and built for them, a sled that quickly became the envy of the top national teams everywhere.  With its intimidating flat black primer coating, the guys of USA-1 dubbed it the “Night Train,” and with it, they won the FIBT 4-man World Championship, the first time an American team accomplished that feat in literally 50 years (1959).

Team chemistry aided in this great feat, and that too must be credited to Steve Holcomb. His friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp explained the dawn of Holcomb’s innovation.  “A few months before the 2002 Olympics, we were [competing] at the ice house push track in Calgary, trying out new combinations of pushers.  I said [to the coach] ‘[P]ut Steve over there with me, and I’ll show you what we can do!’  We were ‘lightweights’ at the time.  We only weighed 205 pounds each, but we pushed together so well mechanically and we had such good chemistry that we were still able to out-push other combinations….the only reason we didn’t push together in the Olympics that year was because the team coaches kept re-shuffling the teams even after all the push tests.”

Sharp continued:  “Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”  According to Sharp, if a change then needed to be made, they would switch out one pusher and then test the new combination over a number of races to ascertain the effectiveness of the move.  The fact that the coaches listened and enacted this recommendation has shown with the improved start times, of which the late, storied driver was also a part.

It was shortly after Holcomb and his team were world champs for the first time (2009) that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area about 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates who had pushed together often in the same sleds and were usually roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

It was at this time that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  His former teammate, Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area around 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates, and were even roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

By the Spring of ’09, I had gathered the courage to reach out to Steve via Facebook, and he quickly responded to my outreach by stating “[A]nyone who’s a friend of Doug’s is a friend of mine!”  Such was the graciousness of Holcomb that he would quickly accept the friendship of a fan he had never met.

In any case, the 2009 World Championship was only a warm-up act.  Not even a drunk driving arrest later in ‘09 could halt his and his teammates’ training focus for what was to come.  The following year, at the Winter Games in Vancouver (specifically the sliding track at Whistler), Holcy and Team Night Train won Gold in the 4-man, ending a 62-year drought at the top of the podium for that event.  Team USA was back as a forced with which to be reckoned in the sport of bobsled.

The significance of this feat was not lost on Holcomb.  Katie Uhlaender, the 2012 Women’s Skeleton world champion and good friend of Holcy noted after his death that on one occasion, he told a fan who asked to see his gold medal, “[I]t’s not my medal, it’s America’s medal.”

Whosever gold medal it was, it made him a Winter Olympics star.  In the months following the huge win, he met with Barack Obama; he golfed with Charles Barkley; he even hung out with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who, yes, were still a couple then.  He threw out a ceremonial pitch at a Cleveland Indians game, visited the New York Stock Exchange, and attended the 2010 Indianapolis 500 (not surprisingly, he was a huge racing fan).

Also in the wake of winning Olympic gold, he published an autobiography:  “But Now I See:  My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Glory”.  It was in this book that he first confessed to the world about his suicide attempt in Colorado Springs that blessedly failed.  He used the story as a way to help others who might have been contemplating something similar, to show them that there are always better solutions.

Though he was a focused, humble, grinder, he was always cheerful.  Bobsledding is a fraternity.  The men and women who compete from different countries may always try to out-race each other on the track, but there remains a respect for everybody – to varying degrees – throughout the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton.  Competitors throughout the world admired Holcomb for the aforementioned qualities he possessed.  He even came up with the “Holcy dance” around 2009, a less-than-rhythmic shuffle that he did at each race of the World Cup circuit to make fellow competitors laugh and to keep everyone loose while competing.

After having reached the pinnacle of success in his sport at the 2010 Winter Games, it was only natural to anticipate a slump in performance, a let-down.  But despite his drunk driving arrest in ’09 (the judge sentenced him to 180 hours of community service), a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the publicity and endorsements that came with it, even with teammate Steve Mesler retiring after said Olympics, Holcy and Team Night Train continued to maintain their diligent efforts and forge ahead.  They even won bronze at the FIBT 2011 World Championships at the Koenigssee track in southern Germany.

It did not hurt that Steve Langton replaced pusher Steve Mesler upon the latter’s retirement.  Langton worked his way up the team ranks and soon pushed for the USA-2 sled.  By the time he joined Team Night Train, he was considered one of the best push athletes in the world.

As well as Holcomb’s performance continued to be for the 2010-2011 season, he still maintained focus and diligence, as he felt there were still key things yet to achieve.  For one, the United States had never won a world championship in the 2-man event, and he was still out to prove that he could continue to win in the 4-man.  No doubt these were some of the biggest motivating factors as he and the rest of Team Night Train tackled the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in the world championships at a home track, Lake Placid.

As a long-time fan, I saw this serendipitous occasion as my opportunity to travel up there to watch (and photograph) Holcy and the boys in action.  It helped a ton that my friend, Doug Sharp, joined me up there and provided me with insider access that I shall forever treasure.

The weekend prior to my arrival in Lake Placid – home of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – the 2-man world championship had already taken place, and Holcomb, along with brakeman Steve Langton, had already made history with the U.S.’s first-ever world championship in that event.

But now it was Feb. 25, 2012; time for the 4-man event, the marquee event of all sliding sports.  Holcomb and the rest of the USA-1 team finished the first of four runs in second to Germany-1, but put themselves in the lead after the second run.  As incredibly eventful as the day was, it was far from over after those two runs.  Doug Sharp took the opportunity to visit with his friend and former teammate, and brought me along over to the Olympic Training Center for this blessed opportunity.  There, in a small, garage-like building at the complex, the two of us entered, and there they were.  Despite having two strong runs earlier that day, there was no time to be complacent, as three of the four guys were there, Holcomb included, polishing their sleds’ runners as part of preparations for tomorrow morning’s final two runs.

Naturally, I wasted little time introducing myself in person to Holcy and to everyone else, thanking them for honoring our great nation.  To my amazement, Holcomb actually remembered me from Facebook!  The gratitude I offered to these fine fellows was very well-received, too.  Bobsledding is obviously a niche sport, one that does not attract the massive fan following of NFL or college (American) football, of the NBA, of Major League Baseball, or top-tier professional soccer in Europe and South America, for that matter.  As such, these fellows treasure the relatively few fans they have, and it shows.

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On the evening of Feb. 25, 2012, two old friends caught up on things.  Holcomb, ever the grinder, was visiting with his friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp, while he is polishing one of his sled’s runners for the last two runs of the 2012 4-man World Championship the next morning.

What immediately struck me about Steve Holcomb when I was able to converse with him was how humble he was in his achievements.  Here he was, the most decorated American bobsledder of all time, whose achievements have been without parallel despite a long tradition of American success during earlier eras of the sport.  Yet he acted as if they were no big deal:  what mattered was what he achieved lately, as he kept his nose to the grindstone, maintaining an unshakably calm demeanor all the while.

 

The following morning, Holcomb and Team Night Train picked up where they left off, and maintained their lead through runs 3 and four, winning the world championship in the 4-man event convincingly.  Naturally, many a set of congratulations and ‘atta boys showered upon the team.  Holcomb was on top of the world for his sport, having won the world championship for both the 2-man AND 4-man (again, an unprecedented feat in the history of American bobsledding).  Indeed, he had just won his third gold medal/world championship in the 4-man in a span of only four seasons.

Yet through all the victory celebration and awards ceremonies immediately following the race, what amazed me was Holcomb’s persistently even keel and humility.  Here was a consummate “grinder,” an incredibly focused, diligent person, refusing to let this success or previous successes go to his head.  Naturally, his easy-going demeanor, his understated happiness, and approachability persisted as well.

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Holcomb, flanked by the author and our mutual friend, Doug Sharp, as he hoists the Martineau Cup, the trophy his team won upon winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  Even in victory, Holcomb remained as humble, gracious, and approachable as ever.

Even with this latest pinnacle of achievement, he and his team remained as diligent as ever.  There was always still some other new feat to achieve, some mountain left unclimbed.  A medal at World Cup races at the legendary St. Moritz track in Switzerland (the only natural ice track left on the circuit) continued to elude him, despite his record of success elsewhere.  It just so happened that the World Championships were to be held at this Mecca of a track in 2013.

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Friends, both brand-new and old, together for a group shot during a VIP luncheon in celebration of Holcomb and Team Night Train winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  L-R:  Frank Briglia, the engineer who designed the cowling for the Night Train sled; Brian Shimer, the coach of the team and driver for the Bronze-winning USA-2 4-man team from the 2002 Winter Olympics; the author; Steven Holcomb; Doug Sharp and Mike Kohn, who together with Shimer won Bronze in 2002.

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The legendary “Night Train” 4-man sled, with which Steven Holcomb and his team won both the 2009 and 2012 World Championships, Bronze in the 2011 World Championship, and Gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver.

That medal continued to elude Holcomb in the 2-man event of the 2013 “Worlds”, putting even more pressure on him in the 4-man event.  But this time, he and Team Night Train came through, winning Bronze.  Another mountain was finally climbed, this one far more personal than previous feats.

The 4-man USA-1 team remained intact since the 2010-’11 season.  What changed following the 2012 world championship were two things.  One was that Christopher Fogt eventually replaced Justin Olsen in the line-up.  The second was a new sled, also provided by the BoDyn project.  Naturally, the team immediately dubbed it “Night Train II”.  Whereas the previous sled was built to take advantage of the unparalleled speeds on the Whistler track for the 2010 Winter Games, this one had different aerodynamic qualities built to better-negotiate more complicated tracks, such as the one at Sochi.  Whereas the Whistler track remains the fastest sliding sports track on the planet (top 4-man speeds have been known to reach 95 mph), the Sochi track was one of the slowest.

The Sanki Sliding Center was the track for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  Its first world cup race was held following the 2013 worlds at St. Moritz to cap off the 2012-’13 season.  Like Lake Placid, it too was a “driver’s track,” but complicated in a very different way.  Teams were lucky to reach 80 mph.  Those “in the know” pointed out that you didn’t make any time at all on this track.  You just tried your best to minimize the time lost.  Holcy and the boys did not even place in the first 2-man and 4-man race at the Sanki Center.  They obviously had their work cut out for them come the 2014 Winter Games.

In other words, there was yet another mountain yet to climb, all the more incentive to keep grinding away as always.  This time, he and Steve Langton had a new weapon at their disposal.  BMW took over the design of the 2-man sleds, and unveiled a new prototype by 2013.  Some tests and tweaks throughout that year ensured that it and other 2-man models were ready for Team USA – both for men’s and women’s events – for the 2013-2014 Olympic season.

By the time the Winter Games at Sochi rolled around, Holcy and the boys were ready to go.  One achievement that eluded him and Team USA was medaling in the 2-man event.  The United States had not done so since 1952.  This time, Steve Holcomb rose to the occasion and won bronze in that event.  Amazingly, the two came back from 5th place starting the 3rd run and made up the deficit in the last two runs to medal.  In so doing, he and Steve Langton quenched another 62-year medal drought for USA bobsledding.

The 4-man event was agonizingly close between the top five finishers.  But Holcomb piloted Night Train II on the fourth run to maintain a .03-second lead over Russia-2, thus guaranteeing the team Bronze.  With that achievement, Holcomb double-medaled in the 2-man and 4-man events at the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1936.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso is so fond of saying, “That’s a ‘yo’!”

More amazingly, he achieved this playing through pain.  He strained a calf muscle during the second run of the 2-man, which slightly hobbled his push-runs at the top of the track, and possibly compromised the team’s start times on a track where that was more crucial than most.  Yet he pulled off the double-bronze anyhow.

Obviously, bobsledding was what he did well above all else, which is why he stuck with the sport after the rest of the 2013-’14 iteration of Team Night Train retired, and Justin Olsen would eventually go on to start piloting a sled of his own.  Still recovering from his lower-leg injury during the 2014-’15 season, and leading an all-rookie team of pushers, the team’s performance understandably suffered, and continued to do so the following season as Holcomb’s full strength gradually returned while the team struggled to find its inner rhythm.

But Holcomb’s leadership through persistent diligence started to pay off once more, as the team did find its inner rhythm just as the storied pilot returned to full strength.  The 2016-’17 World Cup season ended with Holcomb finishing third in both the 4-man standings and in the combined 2-man and 4-man standings.  Obviously, Team USA was making a comeback.  Clearly, Holcomb was expected to lead the U.S. men’s bobsled team to and through the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang.

“Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”

-friend and former teammate Doug Sharp

But now, all of a sudden, not anymore.  In the wake of the shock, eulogies have poured in within Olympic circles throughout the United States.

“USA Bobsled and Skeleton is a family and right now we are trying to come to grips with the loss of our teammate, our brother and our friend,” U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said.

“The entire Olympic family is shocked and saddened by the incredibly tragic loss today of Steven Holcomb,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “Steve was a tremendous athlete and even better person, and his perseverance and achievements were an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family and the entire bobsledding community.”

Teammate Nick Cunningham, the driver for USA-2 and who inherited the first Night Train sled for the 2014 Winter Games, reminded us of who and what we have lost:

“The only reason why the USA is in any conversation in the sport of bobsled is because of Steve Holcomb.  He was the face of our team. He was the face of our sport. We all emulated him. Every driver in the world watched him, because he was that good at what he did. It’s a huge loss, huge loss, not just for our team but for the entire bobsled community.”

During a recent celebration of his life, held in Lake Placid on May 11, Mike Preston, who has worked at the OTC in Lake Placid since 1985, summed it all up nicely:  “He won gold, and he had a heart of gold.”

No surviving friend or family member could ever disagree.  Yes, he made the occasional mistake, but we all do from time to time in our lives.  Moreover, they must never obfuscate the importance of the man, or how he touched so many lives so positively.  He was not only the greatest American bobsledder of all time, but he was an unabashed patriot as well; a humble, cheerful, ever-diligent teammate, and an example for all to follow.  In short, he was not only a great (nay, superb) American athlete, but more importantly, a great American.

General George Patton once admonished, “[I]t is foolish and wrong to mourn the dead.  Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

As shocked and saddened as we all are at this most sudden passing of a friend, exemplar Olympian, and fellow patriot, we must always be grateful to the Lord our God that he was here on Earth to apply his talents in such a unique way.  With his gold medals, we shared great joy in the honor he brought to our country.  As a person, we shall always remember the gold in his heart.  On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, my friend, and rest in peace.

Amicus noster nobis reliquit multam nimis cito mane et mortua est in vita.  Sed perpetua laus Deo sumus qui sciebant eum esse beati atque in perpetuum sui memoriam.

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: 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: I’ll Be Seeing You December 4, 2013

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“I’ll Be Seeing You” qualifies as one of the lower-echelon selections within the Great American Songbook.  That said, it stands out uniquely for the reason that it originated from one Broadway show but later became the namesake in a movie several years later.

Written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal in 1938 and first performed that same year, it soon became a jazz standard and has been recorded by many notable artists over the course of the decades.  The show for which it was written was “Right This Way”, but six years later it was the title song in the 1944 film “I’ll Be Seeing You” starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten.

Billie Holiday recorded a version of the song the same year the aforementioned film was released.  Other artists, in no particular chronological order, who have covered the song include Bing Crosby (same year as Billie Holiday’s version), Anne Murray, Jo Stafford and Carmen McRae (both 1958), The Five Satins (1959), Brenda Lee (1962), Ray Charles (1967), Barry Manilow (1991), Etta James (1994), Rod Stewart (2002), Linda Ronstadt (2004), not to mention Jimmy Durante, Liza Minnelli, Mel Tormé, Michael Bublé, the Skyliners, even Queen Latifah, and a host of others.

But the one that clearly stands above the rest is definitely the Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey version from 1940.  A simple listen will verify this:

Not surprisingly, during World War II this song became an anthem for those who were serving overseas, what with its strongly emotional power, a power that Frank and Tommy capture very subtly in their landmark 1940 recording.

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: I’ve Got Beginners Luck October 30, 2013

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When deciding on a particular tune to highlight for a blog entry, that decision becomes a particularly keen challenge when trying to decide among tunes that Fred Astaire broke to the public.  After all, the tunes that broke out thanks to Fred Astaire’s rendition of them on the silver screen make up a list of upper-echelon legends within the already-hallowed Great American Songbook itself.  One such ditty is the George and Ira Gershwin classic “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck.”  Pretty much anything the Gershwin Brothers wrote together was solid gold — some a greater degree of karats than others to be sure — and while this might be, say, 16 karat gold compared to the full 24 karats of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or even “Shall We Dance,” it’s a classic among classics nonetheless.

Moreover, can one think of a better tune that encapsulates the lucky feeling that a fellow experiences when happening on that special lady for the first time?  Or vice-versa, for that matter?  The shame of things is such that, as great as the song as it is, it has been under-performed by recording luminaries over the years, particularly when compared to other Great American Songbook favorites.  Ella Fitzgerald did a version of it in 1959, and that is the only non-Astaire example of performance than comes to mind for this particular tune, and more the pity.

Nevertheless, the lyrics have that perfect eloquence that match with other Tin Pan Alley legends, as Fred Astaire himself demonstrated in the great 1937 musical “Shall We Dance.”  “…There never was such a smile or such eyes of blue!”  Enough said!

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: 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.

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-06-13 August 6, 2013

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Yes, no doubt many readers are thinking that of all the outstanding Benny Goodman records that the King of Swing cut in his prime years, I chose “Thanks for the Memory” as the first to highlight on my blog.  Suffice it to say, I have my [undisclosed] reasons.  Adding further irony to the situation is that Goodman’s take on the tune is not considered its definitive version — Bob Hope is commonly thought to ‘own’ the song, along with Shirley Ross.  The two did render, perhaps, the definitive version of the song, and is no doubt closest to the original intent of the songwriters and of the storyline.

What is interesting is the contrast in tones that the two renditions set.  Whereas Hope and Ross version strike a very poignant chord of a long-time couple now splitting up, and they reminisce together right before going their separate ways, the Goodman version is far more upbeat.  Withholding the later verses about the lamentation of what has come to an end, Martha Tilton’s vocal talent instead concentrates on the fond memory of good times of two apparent travel companions.  All this is to say nothing of the contrast in key and tempo.  The Hope and Ross version has a strong tinge of melancholy and poignancy throughout the song, making you feel it, and feel for the soon-to-be-ex-couple.  All well and good, but that is far from Goodman’s style; thus, the song — recorded on Dec. 2, 1937 — is arranged in typical “businessman’s bounce” fashion, as only the King could deliver.

Moreover, this version does a better job of celebrating those ultra-special moments with very special people.

To all those with whom I’ve had special moments over the years — particularly this past weekend — thanks, for the memory.

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!