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“In the Mood” and the 1939 Context August 1, 2019

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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August 1 of this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the recording of one of the most legendary records of all time.  Of course, I mean “In the Mood”, which Glenn Miller and his Orchestra cut on this day in 1939.  It would become the most famous record that this notable musician and his band would produce, and would also become part of American culture itself.

The song did not emerge out of a vacuum.  The iconic melody itself was based on a pre-Swing Era hit jazz instrumental by Wingy Joe Manone called “Tar Paper Stomp” from 1930 (re-released in 1935).  Arranger Joe Garland adapted that melody to the iconic one now famous for eight decades.  That said, Miller did not even produce the first version of “In the Mood”, which earned the new title from lyrics by Andy Razaf.  Rather, Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra released the first version of the song the year prior (1938).

But Miller’s version is the most famous by far of any versions, before or after.  Is it the most swinging record of all time?  Certainly not, but its pep and rhythm are enough to appeal to all ages throughout the decades.  Many jazz players and scholars have had problems with Miller’s overly cautious approach to swing, and one can feel a touch of this constraint even in this rather jumpy tune.

Nevertheless, there is an energy that is enough to give the record a timeless feel, constrained or not.  Moreover, dueling saxophone solos between Tex Beneke and Al Klink are one of the most famous duets of that era, followed not long afterwards by a memorable 16-bar trumpet solo by Clyde Hurley.  Then, Miller’s use of undulating volume, from a pianissimo chorus to a fortissimo at the end with a crescendo on the coda all lead to very satisfying, even triumphant finish.

The buying public certainly took well to the song.  Released in early 1940, it topped the charts for 13 straight weeks.  Not even Elvis Presley’s legendary single of “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” could match that in 1956 (11 weeks).

One irony of note was that RCA Bluebird stablemate Artie Shaw took an earlier crack at that tune, with Jerry Gray arranging.  But his version was over six minutes long, too long to fit on one side of a 78 RPM record, and the audience response was lackluster.  Nevertheless, Shaw did a produce fine, live version of the song which has been captured and thoroughly circulated among swing aficionados.

Though the song was recorded in 1939 and certainly belongs in that vintage, as noted earlier, it peaked in record sales the following year (1940).  That same year, Miller and his band starred in the movie Sun Valley Serenade, (released in 1941) where they perform a live rendition that’s even more energetic than the famous studio version.

To zoom the proverbial lens out further, though, 1939 itself was a banner year for big band and for American popular music as a whole.  For starters, little-known singer named Frank Sinatra made a strong debut with Harry James’ band, most notably with “All or Nothing at All”.  When James was not utilizing the young crooner for ballads, he was tearing up some hot swing music in his own right, with “Ciribirbin”, and, even better, “Two O’Clock Jump.”

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, would cut one of his most famous records early that year with “And the Angels Sing”, a collaboration between his then-first chair trumpet player Ziggy Elman and exalted, legendary American lyricist Johnny Mercer.  It would also be one of the last records on which Martha Tilton would contribute her vocal talents.  Later that year, Goodman left RCA Victor to sign with Columbia, as his good friend, John Hammond, was the A&R man there (and, three years later, Hammond would also become Goodman’s brother-in-law), making 1939 nothing if not a very transitional year for His Majesty of Swing.

Meanwhile at RCA Victor, Goodman’s chief rival, Tommy Dorsey, made some fine contributions to that vintage, in very different ways.  One was with a two-side semi-upbeat instrumental ballad in “Lonesome Road”, which offers some very precise, refined reed section performances, among other things.  The other is the swinger “Stomp it Off”, a guaranteed toe-tapper.

Miller’s RCA Bluebird stablemates also made their contributions, such as Charlie Barnet, who cut his most famous record in “Cherokee” that year.  Bob Crosby — brother of Bing — and his Bobcats produced one of that band’s finest records that year, “Over the Rainbow” (tastefully cashing in on the Wizard of Oz hoopla).

Back to Artie Shaw;  although his best vintage was the previous year (1938), he made indelible contributions to the 1939 vintage that range from the powerful businessman’s bounces such as “Deep Purple” (with Helen Forrest, in her young prime, contributing the vocals) to the strong swingers like “Prosschai“, to the unfathomably energetic “Carioca” and “Traffic Jam”, the latter of which to this day, evokes imagery of cartoon characters Tom and Jerry tearing around the house with reckless abandon!

If “In the Mood” were not enough for Miller himself in 1939, earlier that year he recorded his own breakout hit with “Moonlight Serenade”, the record in which he allegedly discovered his own distinctive sound, that of the double-tenor sax lead on the clarinet.  That same year he also cut perennial favorites for his repertoire, such as Moonlight Serenade’s hit follow-up, “Sunrise Serenade” and also “Little Brown Jug”.  “Ain’tcha Comin’ Out” showcases both the vocals of Marion Hutton as well as his lead tenor sax player, Tex Benecke, and “Stairway to the Stars” proved to a breakout record for vocalist Ray Eberle, as well as one of the finest versions of this Tin Pan Alley standard.  Other fine records by the band in question that year include “Blue Evening”, “Pagan Love Song”, the appropriately upbeat “Runnin’ Wild”, and Miller’s take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Blue Orchids”.  All these and more add up to the conclusion that 1939, in addition to being a banner year for the Swing Era, was also, arguably, Glenn Miller’s finest vintage, too.

All this said, while Glenn Miller may have ‘owned’ “In the Mood” with his legendary version, he did not produce the swingingest.  That distinction belongs to Goodman, who performed his own rendition in November of ’39 on a Camel Caravan broadcast for NBC, and is yet further proof as to why he was the King of Swing.  If that is not enough, he also outdid Miller earlier that year on other Camel Caravan radio shows with peppier versions of “Moonlight Serenade”, and “Blue Orchids”, proving that whatever Miller could do, the King could do better.

All in all, 1939 proved to be a very fecund, banner year for Swing and thus for American culture.  It would also be the last of the high-energy years of the big band era, as recordings would transition into smoother, more polished-sounding tunes starting in 1940, but that is for another article at another time.  Suffice it to say in the meantime, though, that Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was arguably the most iconic record of a key year/vintage in the high watermark of American culture.

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Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” at 60 December 19, 2018

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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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.

 

Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.