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America’s Greatest Music: A love song “twofer” from 75 years ago today. September 15, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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A 1938 Cadillac is shown on the right and a 1935 Packard (similar to a 1938 model) is shown on the right. This image montage is included for visual reference to some of the text below. Photos by the author.

Sometimes certain recording sessions prove to be particularly fecund, if not downright one for the ages.  That was especially the case, for example, when Artie Shaw and his band cut the legendary record “Begin the Beguine,” in addition to other greats such as “Any Old Time,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Yesterdays,” and so on, all on July 24, 1938 for RCA Bluebird.  It happens that way in recording sessions, sometimes:  things just happen to click, and one great record after another is put to acetate for all of posterity to appreciate.

Such turned out not to be the case with the recording session the Billie Holiday undertook 75 years ago today (Sept. 15) for the Vocalion label (a Columbia subsidiary at the time), this being contrary to that which I wrote in this very article earlier.  I apologize for misleading the readers, as I did get my discography information incorrect, which led to the inaccurate info.  Nevertheless, these are two incredible, timeless records that were produced in 1938, and both just so happened to be the [arguably] definitive versions of two songs that definitely belong in the Great American Songbook.

One is “You Go to My Head.”  Written by the relatively obscure duo of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie — interestingly, the same pair that wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”; seriously! — the song itself has been recorded by numerous artists and has become a venerable pop/jazz standard over the course of three-quarters of a century.  Nan Wynn and Teddy Wilson (on piano, naturally) took a stab at the song the same year Lady Day cut her version.  Marlene Dietrich recorded a version the following year, and in the years since then, luminaries including Frank Sinatra (1946 and 1960), Lena Horne, Doris Day (1949), Charlie Barnett, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington (1954), Dinah Shore, Patti Page (1956), Louis Armstrong (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (of course; 1960), and many others all have a version under their respective, figurative belts.

An outstanding yet relatively obscure version was done live in 1938 by Benny Goodman and his band during a Camel Caravan radio broadcast from Chicago, with Martha Tilton on vocals.  Goodman’s sound and ‘take’ on the tune certainly did it justice, as is the case with most Goodman records.  But the one that stands out above all is Billie Holiday’s version from that same year (she actually cut this track on May 11, 1938, not Sept. 15, as originally posted).

How could it not?  The very first thing the listener hears — and never forgets it when he/she does for the first time — is a fantastic opening tenor sax solo by Babe Russin (a member of Goodman’s band at the time, though the year prior capped off the legendary Tommy Dorsey record “Marie” with another great solo!) that simply oozes Art Deco imagery in the listener’s mind.  For best effect, try hearing the record while beholding the styling craftsmanship of, say, a 1938 Cadillac or Packard!  Claude Thornhill on piano and Cozy Cole on the drums make for a nice touch, too.

But that’s just the beginning.  Holiday’s expressiveness was practically tailor-made for the lyrics, and how they so accurately personify the incredible sensations one experiences of adoring “the one”, the potential significant other, despite how diligently the rational side of our minds tries to remind us of key apprehensions.  Hear for yourself!

On a related note is another love song, one just as timeless, and that being “The Very Thought of You.”  (And this was recorded on Sept. 15, 1938!)  The lyrics focus more so on the pure adoration aspect regarding the feelings one has for a significant other, and how “the one” tends to become the center of one’s focus.

Sid Ascher — later the manager of Tony Bennett — wrote the song in 1934, and sold the rights to the great British bandleader Ray Noble, who cut a fine version of it that year with Al Bowlly providing the vocals.  Bing Crosby himself did his own version that same year.  Vaughn Monroe recorded his rendition a decade later, and the inclined movie connoisseur can hear a band-accompanied piano instrumental of the song during a scene inside Rick’s Cafe Americain in the 1942 hit film “Casablanca.”  Doris Day later sang a version of the song for the 1950 film “Young Man with a Horn.” Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole all have their respective versions (the latter of which is particularly lovely), and Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett recorded a duet of it together.

But as is the case with the previously-examined song, Billie Holiday’s version stands out above the others.

A rather modern, repeated reference to this record can be heard throughout the 1992 film “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson; the song being used as something of a constant, a source of continuity, a bridge to two very different eras and how certain things were meant to stand the test of time, much like the song itself.

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The Real King of Rock turns 85 December 5, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Editor’s update:  This article was originally written in 2012 in honor of Little Richard’s 80th birthday.

Today marks the 85th birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a., Little Richard, one of the most important of Rock n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers,” and arguably the real king of the genre.  “The cat with the ten-inch crew cut” was rocking and rolling at the very beginning of the music, and kept on rocking long after others hung it up or had softened into balladeers.  But he was also a great innovator, coming up with rhythms that spoke to the essence of the genre, using the funkiest of saxophone backings than others, played the piano more frantically than others, and combined it all with over-the-top, gospel-style singing, along with wails and moans.  It all added up to the hardest rocking and rolling of the era when the music was born.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, Richard had been performing on stage since his early teens in 1945, but started recording in earnest as early as 1951, the same year that Ike Turner’s band recorded what most historians consider to be the first Rock and Roll song in “Rocket 88.”  LR started making an impact in the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Get Rich Quick” that same year.  The tune clearly has the influential finger prints of R&B pioneers such as Roy Brown, and Richard seems to be channeling him to an extent on this and other tracks he cut around the same time.  The following year, 1952, he showed that he could cut strong, moderate tempo songs with his R&B hit “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens.”  He took things to a higher level in 1953 with “Little Richard’s Boogie,” using a percussion instrument that nobody would associate with a Little Richard song, as none other than Johnny Otis (of “Hand Jive” fame, 1958) himself played the vibraphone on that track.  Fans who already know Richard’s more familiar tunes can easily sense the direction he was taking in developing his music in terms of the rhythmic pattern.

And what a pattern!  Little Richard took inspiration from the sound of trains that he heard thundering by him as a child and molded that idea into a unique 2-2 time, boogie-woogie tempo that helped him drill down to the very essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself as the music and its era exploded onto the scene by the middle of the 1950s.  Indeed, by September of 1955, he joined Arthur Rupe’s Specialty label, and really began to fully hit his stride.  Not even 23 years old yet, he cut a hit in “Tutti Fruitti” that year, and thus helped demonstrate that the new era in youthful music was not just a flash in the pan, and it set the template for many other hard-charging hits to follow.  Even today, “Tutti Fruitti” ranks as a great pre-game hit at football stadiums to enliven the crowd, as well as to psyche players up before taking the field of battle.

While it reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1955 (and was also covered by Elvis and Pat Boone[!]), what “Tutti Fruitti” also did was help open the floodgates for many other awesome Little Richard records to soon follow – 17 hits in three years, to be more exact.  A good bulk of those hits came the following year in 1956, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “She’s Got It,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “All Around the World” and even “Lucille.”

But one tune that stands out above all others that year was his inimitable “Long Tall Sally.”  That recording exemplified the freight-train effect rhythm that Richard gradually crafted to perfection, and in so doing, achieved the holy grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Giving the sax solo an extra eight bars certainly did not hurt, either!

One can hear that defining tune prominently played during the helicopter scene in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie “Predator” from 1987.

To be sure, Little Richard did not save his recording energies for only “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.   That same year yielded some other gems, including one of the hardest-rocking tunes he ever cut in “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” though that record was not released until 1958.  Same thing goes for “True Fine Mama,” a true, hard-core gem, where Little Richard augmented the funkiness level with a call-and-response vocal backing; recorded in ’55, but not released until ’58.

The year 1957 was also a strong one for Richard, in that “Send Me Some Lovin’” (the flip side to Lucille, and a good example of his ballad capabilities) charted, but he also had hits with “Jenny Jenny,” – one his most vocally energetic hits of them all, which is saying something! – “Miss Ann,” and one of the hardest rockers he ever did in “Keep A-Knockin.” Those who doubt the early influence of the swing era on rock ‘n’ roll from later decades clearly overlook that Louis Jordan had a hit with the same song – albeit a more comparatively sedate version! – in 1939.  If that were not enough, 1958 also yield two more marvelous, rocking holy grails, such as “Ooh My Soul,” and the ever-timeless “Good Golly Miss Molly

Richard’s hits on the charts started to wane not because he lost his recording energy, as so many of his contemporaries eventually did, but rather he was making major transitions in his life of the spiritual nature.  In 1958, he enrolled in a theological seminary and soon started recording gospel music instead of rock ‘n’ roll, though by 1962 he made the return back to secular music, and even started touring in England that year, where his records were still selling well.  A fine example of how he still maintained his energy that decade can be seen in this 1964 live performance of “Lucille” in that county (it is arguably a better version than the original 1956 recording):

Little Richard’s influence and legacy spread far and wide throughout the popular music world.  Otis Redding claimed that he entered the music business because of him.  The Beatles cited him as an influence in general; Paul McCartney idolized him while still in high school, and wanted to learn to sing like him.  Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones also referred to LR as his “first idol.”  Jimi Hendrix actually recorded with Little Richard in 1964 and ’65.  George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Rod Stewart, band AC/DC, and even Michael Jackson have claimed LR as a primary influence to some varying extent.  One can hear his influence in popular recordings of later years on one’s own.  Surely one can recognize, for example the direct influence that the opening drum riff on “Keep A-Knockin” has on the ever-famous opening drum riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

Over the past 30 years, Little Richard has appeared on TV and in films as an actor as well as in dozens of soundtracks.  Even within the past few years, Richard has still managed to remain in the spotlight, having appeared in a Geico commercial, as well as one for Zaxby’s.

But as good as it is to casually remain in the spotlight, these recent examples must not obscure his real cultural contribution as being one the greatest standard-bearers Rock ‘n’ Roll has even known.   His unmatchable energy in his recordings and on the stage, along with his everlasting legacy of some of Rock ‘n’ Rolls greatest, most timeless, most energetic records demonstrate time and again that Little Richard is, and ever shall be, in a class by himself.  Happy 80th birthday, your majesty!