Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Curse of the Versatile

Teresa Brewer died last week at the age of 76. Best known for her novelty song "Music, Music, Music" ("Drop another nickel in/in the nickelodeon . . .") Brewer had great substance as a singer that many people missed.

Perhaps it was because she hit her stride in the 1970s—a time when singers in general were marginalized as rock took complete hold of the popular audience. It was during this period that Brewer recorded a series of songbooks that make a nifty companion to those of Ella Fitzgerald.

She and Fitzgerald both becames sensations because of their novelty songs (Ella's was "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"), but while Ella honed her craft in the realm of jazz, Brewer navigated a variety of forms. Scanning her albums, I appreciate the variety of material she sang—ragtime, blues, pop, and jazz.

When she settled into jazz in the '70s, her artistry blossomed. My favorite album of hers was dedicated to Fats Waller. It was recorded with Earl "Fatha" Hines and features a knockout version of "Black and Blue." If you search for one album by Brewer, this is the one to get.

Brewer also recorded with Count Basie and Stephane Grapelli. She also worked with rock and country musicians into the 1980s and 1990s.

Really, to see a prime example of how to sing with VERVE, give Teresa Brewer a listen! You'll be delighted to add her to your iPod!

Here's a link to a video of Teresa Brewer singing a song called "Willy Burgandy" on YouTube.

Friday, October 19, 2007

John Denver Part I

Last week marked the anniversary of the death of John Denver—an important singer-songwriter (at least in terms of the popular consciousness).

Liking John Denver always seemed like a guilty pleasure. His music is so innocent and sincere. For someone who was as popular as he was, Denver now seems an obscurity—except for anyone around my age. Reflecting upon John Denver stirs thoughts about how ephemeral fame is and motivates me to rescue his legacy.

There IS a significant legacy. Let’s begin in 1970. That is the year that Earth Day was established in this country. At the time, we were embroiled in the Vietnam War, so the conservation message had serious competition for space in the public mind.

John Denver was unknown—he’d only recently finished his tenure with a folk group called the Chad Mitchell Trio and set out to establish a solo career. RCA, a label specializing in folk/country pop crossovers, had Denver on its roster, largely because of his promise as a songwriter—Peter, Paul, and Mary had scored a tremendous hit with his “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” a couple of years earlier.

His initial release—1969’s “Rhymes and Reasons”*—is such a product of its time. The photography features Denver as he’d be shown on all his albums—outdoors, and loving it. (The guy was all teeth when he smiled, which was often.) On the back is a poem that Denver wrote about how “the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers” followed by the label’s declaration that

“JOHN DENVER—born—lives—cares—believes!”

Doesn’t the salability of this sentiment seem so quaint today? The public had an appetite for it, though—in the early part of the last decade, singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs had struck a chord with what was dubbed “protest music.” The “Movement” —which, broadly speaking, represented peace and social justice—was fatigued by the continuing prosecution of the war, the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, and the ascension of Richard Nixon. This appetite was soon to be awakened by Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.

That’s right—John Denver named himself and, looking back, one finds the audacity truly remarkable. In a few years, Denver was destined to make Colorado and Montana paradise in the public mind. This was a singer with a vision, and a desire to be famous.

Listen to John Denver today. I’ll continue to pay homage and make my case in subsequent posts.

* The album title doesn't actually spell out "and" but Blogger won't seem to allow an ampersand.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Homeless Brother

Don McLean established himself in the early to mid-1970s. His output was remarkable, and it’s not surprising that he couldn’t sustain it. But when he was in flight, McLean was a brilliant and completely idiosyncratic singer-songwriter. Among his peer group—Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, et al—he stood out because of his voice and musical versatility.

His 1974 album Homeless Brother really marked his creative peak. All of his influences are on display here. Pete Seeger provides vocal backing for the title track, a tribute to the hobo or “Whitman wanderer” –this descendant of the cowboy for McLean who is “livin’ on good fortune” not “dyin’ on his knees.”

McLean even, in classic folk music topical fashion, pens a song inspired by a news story—“The Legend of Andrew McCrew.” It’s about a hobo (again) who gets mummified and turned into a circus attraction.

There’s a doo-wop influence on “La La Love You”—a snide, lascivious appeal wrapped in sweet harmonious coating. (“Well I like the way you’re moving/and I like the way you go/I like the way you let your/locomotion show/’Cause my drivin’ wheel is driving/and my piston’s working good/so if your motor gives you trouble, baby/I’ll take a look underneath your hood.”) McLean also pulls in the a cappella group the Persuasions for Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel.”

The romantic ballad receives strong play also. “Did You Know” is one of McLean’s best: absolutely gorgeous lyrics supported by a strong melodic line. (Sample: “Ev’ry place and ev’ry face/casts a spell and leaves a trace…with you in mind/and with you near/the myth is gone/the past is clear…and here with scars of now and then/so you and I begin again.”) McLean also adds what can only be called a torch song—“Winter Has Me in Its Grip.” Simple lyrics here, with Yusef Lateef playing flute to layer the sentiment wistfully. Rounding out his romantic output in 1974 was “You Have Lived”—a ballad addressed to someone McLean loves for his/her “courage in this frightened atmosphere.”

Pessimism pervades this work—it is in some ways keenly a product of its time. Written in the throes of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam conflict, there are constant allusions to the mistrust that had filled the body politic. What’s known today as “the man” gets addressed by McLean directly in “Great Big Man,” a rolling, heavily orchestrated assault on a figure who the writers sees as having “rust on your fingers . . . rubble at your feet.”

One of McLean’s proudest accomplishments from this release was the lullaby “Wonderful Baby.” It was recorded a couple of years later by Fred Astaire—as a songwriter, to have the same man the Gershwins favored recording your material must have been an incredible thrill. The song is sweet, but the sentiments are slightly askew, as when the singer tells the “wonderful baby” that “the world has gone crazy/I’m glad I’m not you.” Can’t shake off that Watergate ennui!

In addition to “Crying in the Chapel,” the only other number on this album not written by McLean is George Harrison’s charming “Sunshine Life for Me.” It’s delivered via banjo and its theme neatly fits the album’s overarching concept of the freewheeling, drifting life of the road.

Take it from someone who specializes in Don McLean. Homeless Brother is the second work that you must have by this terrific singer-songwriter.

After this album, McLean’s output slowed considerably, but there’s much more to say about his musical journey. I’ll be writing again soon.

As Pete Seeger would say, “Take it easy—but take it!”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Don McLean and Me

Don McLean crosses borders with his music. What makes him so substantial as an artist is his familiarity and comfort with a variety of styles. He started as a folk musician (sailing with Pete Seeger on the Hudson), but “American Pie”—which thrusted him permanently in the spotlight—is mainly a rock song. Coupled with this hit was “Vincent”—a romantic ballad that stunned audiences with its pure poetry.

During the fuss surrounding these songs, McLean released an eponymous album adorned with a black and white photograph on the cover. The winter scene depicted unfortunately reflected the album’s lack of commercial appeal. On this release McLean continued writing in a romantic vernacular with the lovely “If We Try”, “Birthday Song”, and “Oh My What a Shame.”

With “Bronco Bill’s Lament” he paid tribute to a show business cowboy: “I could have been most anything/I put my mind to be/but a cowboy’s life was the only life for me.” The song is a longing for a simpler time, when a handshake sealed an understanding and there were no lawyers “who could pull a fountain pen/and put you where they choose/with the language that they use/and enslave you till you work your youth away.” Coming on the heels of a poem about Hopalong Cassidy that McLean wrote in his liner notes on the American Pie album, the song translated well to the time of its release (during the height of Watergate and continuing revelations of Nixon’s paranoia).

How fitting to recall the chastity and moral purity of movie/television cowboys at this time. Don McLean was born in 1945, and as a child he was deeply influenced by these cinematic heroes. Coming of age with television, this young boy in New Rochelle dreamed of being atop his horse, guitar in hand, and silver spurs a-jinglin’. It’s a peaceful, powerful dream—fueled by a soundtrack provided by Crosby, Autry, Sons of the Pioneers, and so many more.

The cowboy is a loner and—most important to McLean—an individual, but in the dawning TV age it’s impossible to stay on your saddle, given the hyperintense pressure of the mass audience. (McLean hits this theme directly when he sings about the fate of George Reeves in 1987’s “Superman’s Ghost.”)

McLean’s follow-up guaranteed that he’d remain outside mainstream commercial boundaries. 1973’s Playin’ Favorites back cover shows him in a rocker with a banjo—take that rock audiences! It’s a terrific collection of songs from the traditional (“Bill Cheatham = Old Joe Clark” and the hauntingly gorgeous “Mountains O’Mourne”) to songs associated with some of McLean’s idols—Buddy Holly (“Everyday”), Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), and Roy Rogers (“Happy Trails”).

With this release McLean shows the breadth of his musical capability. Now he’d played folk, rock, and country. He’d displayed great skill with romantic balladry, and even a penchant for old novelty numbers like Ivor Novello’s “On the Amazon.” (This New Rochelle native was no stranger to the cabaret music emanating from the Big Apple.)

By 1973 his major themes were established. I’d write more about Don McLean in future blog. Give him a try—or revisit him once more.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Leaving Port

I come from a musical family, although none of us play an instrument.

I'm mostly Irish, and a love of language seems programmed genetically for me (and my children as well, I'm discovering). My father was taciturn, but he would come to life when playing a record or watching a variety show on TV. It was quite a spectacle to admire his smile and observe him reaching out to our mother for a twirl. What was this strange power that a song had?

As a baby, I could be quieted by singing a popular song of the day--"True Love" by Cole Porter (from the movie "High Society.") I can't hear or sing that song now without getting teary.

I'm glad my wife pushed me to blog. I need a vehicle for pouring out all my thoughts about songwriting and music in general. I know a lot of music and I sing a lot, so lyrics are always in my head, and I'm always admiring a muscular melody or a memorable turn of phrase.

I'm also pleased that the name of my blog turned out to swiped from a title of a Loudon Wainwright III CD. Great songwriters like Loudo are rare (although there are many very good ones). I'll be sharing with you why I love his work, as well as the songs of Randy Newman, Don McLean, Paula Cole, Nellie McKay, Joni Mitchell...et al. And let's not forget the masters, who you should always refer back to--Berlin, Porter, Gershwin, Kern, et al.

I'm obsessed with good singing too, so expect many posts on singers that I admire.

Oh, it will be pleasant cruise! Recline in your deck chair, close your eyes, and let your thoughts curl around a well-written and well-delivered lyric. I promise I'll post links so that you can see and hear what I mean when I write about my heroes. Bye for now!