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America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

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It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

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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: A love song “twofer” from 75 years ago today. September 15, 2013

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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.

America’s Greatest Music: Cheek to Cheek August 29, 2013

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The great Irving Berlin has been estimated to have written 1,500 songs throughout his 60-year career (he lived to be 100 years old).  A good many of this estimated 1,500 have become legendary in their own right within the Great American Songbook.  Quite possibly his most-recognized musical contribution is “God Bless America,” which, when he wrote and published the song in 1939, it became so popular so quickly that it threatened to supplant the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem.  One of the positive developments in the wake of 9-11 is that the tune has enjoyed an extra boost of popularity over the past almost-dozen years.

But that important song aside, Berlin’s contribution-in-song to American popular culture is vast, and one of his most famous — aside from the aforementioned patriotic tribute — is “Cheek to Cheek”.  Enter Fred Astaire, who himself is legendary not just for his amazing dancing ability, but also for the fact that he himself broke some of the most famous tunes ever to grace the Great American Songbook, this ballad being one of them.

First sung in the film “Top Hat” (1935), which is considered by many to be the quintessential Fred-and-Ginger movie, its original version from that picture remains famous to this day.  Indeed, it can be argued that not only did Fred Astaire break many famous American popular songs, but that he often performed the definitive version of them for all time.

Note that I said “often.”  In this case, that is debatable, not because the version is mediocre — far from it; in fact, what Astaire clearly lacked in vocal ability, he made up for this intangible quality of making the listener/viewer “believe” the tune — but because the competition is very fierce when it comes to great singers trying to out-do each other on the ultimate version of this song.

The term “fierce competition” is not an exaggeration when one considers that Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Desi Arnaz, Chet Atkins, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Ziggy Elman, Eddie Fisher, (take a deep breath) Billie Holiday, Harry James, Joni James, Al Jolson, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra (from this 1958 album “Come Dance With Me”), Rod Stewart, Mel Tormé
, and Teddy Wilson — among many others.

But one version does stand out above most others, and that is the one cut by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the Verve label in 1956.  Indeed, Louie and Ella as a duet recorded many tunes from the Great American Songbook; many a fine version at that (one could argue a few of which are some of humanity’s [many] greatest recordings).  This particular rendition is one of the finer examples of the duo’s body of work from the latter half of the 1950s, and could rightfully be classified as one of humanity’s great records.

If the reader has never heard this version before, then the reader is in for a treat!  Regardless, though, the song itself wonderfully describes the bliss one experiences when dancing with that special partner.  Guys, when you’ve danced with that special girl before, you know what this song means!