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Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

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Chuck_Berry_1958

Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

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The Top Three Greatest Christmas Albums December 18, 2014

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NKC-the-christmas-songNo. 1:  Nat King Cole:  The Christmas Song.  What merits this as number one?  Start with the fact that the title cut of the album is perhaps the most iconic recording of a secular Christmas song.  Add in the fact that A) this is Nat “King” Cole, whose vocal talents just feel perfect for music to promote Yuletide cheer, and B) this is a Capitol Records album, produced at the time (1960, specifically) when the label included not only Cole, but also both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as his stablemates and thus the label pretty much owned the mainstream popular music market in that era.  But Cole mixes well the secular and religious songs, making fun, upbeat versions with some (e.g., “Deck the Halls” and “Hark!  The Herald Angels”) and poignant versions with others (e.g., “O Tannenbaum” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), making for a compilation that spans the proper emotional gamut during this sentimental time of year.

The only irony is that it does not contain the best version of “The Christmas Song,” a tune that Cole himself would record officially at least three different times, but that is a discussion for another day.

FS_XmasNo. 1a:  A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.  Make no mistake about it, this album was cut in 1957, when Ol’ Blue Eyes was on top of his game, only a year or so removed from recording his two greatest albums ever (“Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair”).  It shows in this album, too.  Just as the previously mentioned album introduced me to Nat “King” Cole, so too did this particular album introduce me to Sinatra at a very early age.

Certain songs grab you in such a way that you remember where you were the first time you heard them.  For me, it was Christmastime while I was in kindergarten when I first heard the opening track, “Jingle Bells,” on this album, and it stuck with me ever since.  The song is so well-known as to be trite, but every once in a while, one hears a version that is so well-rendered as to rise above the triteness.  This is one of those songs.

But if you are first grabbed by that opening track, you stay for “Mistletoe and Holly.”  To this day, few have attempted to cover it because Sinatra did it so well the first time.  But two additional tracks truly cement the album’s timelessness.  Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz” truly helps define the song collection, and no Christmas season is complete without enjoying this track a few times.  Others have tried to duplicate Frank’s efforts with this song over the years, but each time, they keep coming up short.

The other track that seals the album’s greatness for all time is Sinatra’s definitive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sinatra truly captures the essence of the song itself, arguably outdoing the other definitive version by Judy Garland from 1944.  Listening to this song proves to any discerning listener why Frank Sinatra was indeed the singing voice of the 20th Century.

The religious songs on the latter part of the album are not too shabby, either.  Recent re-releases of the album include an alternative version of “The Christmas Waltz,” which is not quite as good as the official rendition, but it remains a good listen nonetheless (it being a Nelson Riddle arrangement, compared to the Gordon Jenkins arrangements that populate the rest of the track line-up).

AChristmasGifttoYoufromPhilSpectorcoverNo. 3:  Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You (1963).  One unique aspect of this album is that it does not center on one artist, but rather on several artists/groups that were the talent pool on Spector’s label at the time.  The recording effect that defined the legendary producer’s records came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” (a primer for those unfamiliar with this effect of recorded sound) and while that effect lifted many Spector-produced tracks to legendary status and made for a definitive element in some music from 1960s, one could argue that this effect was perfected on this very album.  If that exceeds credibility in the minds of some readers, I invite them to listen to the last several bars of instrumentation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by The Crystals:  it’s vintage Phil Spector (this is not to mention that the song’s arrangement has been copied by many artists in the 50+ years since).

There is not a bad track in the line-up, and they include some of the most iconic versions of certain secular Christmas songs.  The Ronettes’ version of “Sleigh Ride”, for example, remains the definitive version of this song – in most circles – to this day, though ironically paced with a shuffle beat (one of the oldest rhythmic patterns in popular music).  Bob B. Soxx’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is a fresh take on that song, too.   Indeed, there is a timeless “hipness” to these tracks, which is what makes the album so classic.

Of course, Darlene Love contributed the lion’s share of musical gems.  Her version of “White Christmas” is the closest one to rival Bing Crosby’s eternally popular 1942 and 1947 versions.  “Baby Please Come Home” has become an iconic song in its own right, and her multi-dubbed vocals on “Winter Wonderland” have made it arguably the best version of that winter-themed song to date.  With such a strong line-up of recordings, it almost makes “Marshmallow World” get lost in the mix, but an attentive listen reveals that this track is the most underrated on the album.  This is easily the greatest version anybody has made of the song, and the energy that Love puts into the vocals on this track are positively contagious.  Moreover, if one focuses just on Love’s contributions to this song compilation, one cannot help but conclude that these make up the very cornerstone to her musical legacy.

Put all three albums together, and you have a solid trifecta of timeless Christmas music that has stood the test of time for more than five decades, which is all too fitting for a holiday season partially defined by timeless traditions.

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.