Friday, October 30, 2009

Boffo Bye Bye Birdie!


Inspired by its inclusion in one of my favorite shows (Mad Men), I recently watched the musical Bye Bye Birdie with Jason Alexander, Tyne Daly, and Vanessa Williams. I'm so glad that I took the time to do so. (Many is the the time I check a title out of the library and never get to it.)

This 1960 musical is the masterwork of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. It originally featured Dick van Dyke and Chita Rivera as the music industry managers of an Elvis Presley-inspired singer named Conrad Birdie. The show was inspired by Presley's 1958 departure for a hitch in the Army. It depicts his time in the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, where he's engaged in a publicity scheme: he's going to bestow a last goodbye kiss on a contest-winning acolyte before leaving the country.

Memorable songs from the score include "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do". I think the film version of the film is fondly remembered also--it memorably featured Paul Lynde as Ann-Margaret's father singing "Kids".

The 1995 version showcases the musical talents of Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. Directed by Gene Sacks, it perfectly captures the look of the time. I found my eyes engulfed in period detail, and completely impressed with how subtly it was captured.

You must find this movie and enjoy Jason Alexander twirling around a rail station lobby with his partner as he sings "Put on a Happy Face". (Or just click on my YouTube link!) He doesn't look like a dancer, but you'll revise your opinion after viewing this scene. He's perfect for the role as a Momma's boy trying to break free at the age of 39. Forehead slaps and rolling eyes abound--and George Costanza looks like he's from another time. I loved how his eyes looked longingly at his Latin spitfire and his mugging in general.

Vanessa Williams as the spitfire is a revelation. With her raven hair and deep dark eyes, she is hypnotic, as perfectly communicated in her main number performed at a men's club, "Shriner's Ballet". I was struck by the staging of this one. The adoring faces of the men as they hoist Vanessa and carry her down a dance line is hilarious, and her dancing--well, all I can say is I've put more Vanessa Williams movies on hold at the library. If you love her in the TV series Ugly Betty, you're going to fall head over heels for her here.

One last word. Tyne Daly as Jason Alexander's mother is an absolute hoot. With her long fur coat serving as a metaphor for the burden she's always been for her son, she delivers her lines with such verve and humor. This role could have been simply annoying in someone else's hands, but she nails it. I can't erase the image of her at the end of the film, falling over backwards into a pond as she realizes that her "little" boy is leaving her.

The show is currently being restaged on Broadway. I doubt that they can top what I watched!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An A+ Project

Charlie Poole in 1930

There is no other singer/songwriter quite like Loudon Wainwright III. I've never heard anyone as baldly confessional as he is in song. His wry observations are always laced with wit and humor. You listen to Loudon's life story and continually marvel at how he crystallizes an emotional moment: losing your anger with a child, feeling sheepish at a playground with all the mothers there, preferring your solitude, and (for all you fame-seekers) groveling for notoriety.

What's especially interesting about Loudon's latest, and perhaps most ambitious, release (High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project) is how he steps back from the confessional and turns to the sentimental. Even while doing so, his feet are still firmly planted in both approaches.

Charlie Poole, a banjo player from the early 20th century, was a rambler, a rascal, and a drunk. He hailed from Spray, North Carolina, a cotton mill town. During Charlie's life, thousands of people from the hill country around Spray improved their existences marginally by coming to work in the mills. The hours were long and the work backbreaking. After punching the clock, these folks were ready to party, and Charlie and his group often provided the entertainment.

He had a magnetic style. Driven by a passion for music, Charlie made his first banjo out of a gourd. He would sneak out of the mill and play his banjo on a bridge nearby. So many of his co-workers poked their heads out of the mill's windows to hear and see him, he got fired. And then, because he continued playing outside and getting the same reaction, he was rehired and told to play inside the mill!

Charlie was a busker. (Weren't most folk musicians before they had festivals?) When Poole performed he would sometimes do somersaults, and leap over a chair, landing on his back, then continuing his dance on his hands with his feet up in the air.

One can appreciate his attraction to Loudon Wainwright. There is the attitude of devil-may-care recklessness evinced in the music associated with Charlie Poole. A big theme in Loudon's life story is his celebration of being divorced and alone--coupled with the guilt of disappointing the families he's left behind.

Loudon is also a terrific live act. Although he doesn't leap over chairs, he has facial and vocal mannerisms that keep you rapt in addition to the power of his singing and lyrics.

So Loudon can inhabit Charlie's spirit, and he does so brilliantly. This 2-CD set is structured like a play. If only Loudon, who acts professionally, were still in his 30s and could star in it! (Charlie Poole drank himself to death at 39.)

What's marvelous is that the most confessional singer-songwriter of his generation celebrates a man who didn't write much music at all. In fact, not one of the 28 tracks on this project are written by Poole. When searching to express his life story, the barely literate Charlie mined Tin Pan Alley and the traditional music of his fellow country folk. That's what makes this release such a lovely evocation of an era.

About three-quarters of the project are a labor of musicology. What wonderful songs are revived, and how beautifully presented they are! There's "The Letter That Never Came", written by Paul Dresser, the brother of Theodore Dreiser and author of "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away", the second-best selling song (in terms of sheet music) of the nineteenth century. It is haunted by a simple question, so quaint to hear today: "Is there any mail for me?" There's a number by Harry von Tilzer ("Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie", "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "And The Green Grass Grew All Around") called "Moving Day" in which sweet harmonizing is done by Loudon's second family, the Roches. The lyrics of this one resonate today:

Landlord said this morning to me,
"Give me your key, this flat ain't free.
I can't get any rent out of you
Pack your rags and skidoo."

No, this song is not a blues. The attitude is more, "All right, well, let's sing as we pack." I love it!

Loudon, who was extremely close to his mother (his grieving memorably chronicled on 2001's The Last Man on Earth), is clearly moved by an era in which motherhood was often celebrated in song. "My Mother & My Sweetheart", which features just a violin, piano, bass, and Loudon's guitar, will move you to tears, I'm warning you.

The project is handsomely packaged to resemble a book. (Trim size of the case looks to be around 5.5 inches by 6.5 inches.) The interior of the case is festooned with photographs of Charlie and his family, along with images of sheet music and old music contracts. Included is a terrific booklet which surely will be nominated for a Grammy this year. In addition to the lyrics, it features liner notes by famous music critic Greil Marcus (whose 1975's Mystery Train placed rock and roll in a larger context of cultural archetypes like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby).

The project was produced by Dick Connette (who had also produced Loudon on The Last Man on Earth and Geoff Muldaur on his remarkable 2003 tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, Private Astronomy). He co-wrote four of the songs with Loudon, and wrote two others on his own, and they all seamlessly blend into the mood.

There is a warmth here that's absent from music-making and life in general right now. I expect this CD to be up for a Grammy this year, and, oh, if Loudon could only then go on stage and realize a dream he first sang of in "The Grammy Song" from 1982's Fame and Wealth.

Last night I dreamed I won a Grammy
It was presented to me by Debbie Harry
I ran up on stage in my tux
I gulped and I said, "Aw, shucks,
I'd like to thank my producers
and Jesus Christ."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Freddy!

If you search through my archives, you'll find an entry in which I rhapsodize about Freddy Cole. Today is his 78th birthday. If you ever have an opportunity to hear and see him, seize it. His phrasing and timing are so smooth. A decade ago his voice would have reminded you very much of his brother Nat's. Now it's much huskier, but he still makes great romantic listening. Here's a link to a story about him from 3 years ago.

Long may your run, Freddy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rich Soul of Williams and Rawls

I'd like to celebrate two sensational jazz/blues singers in this entry: Joe Williams and Lou Rawls. By happy accident, they both wound up in my listening rotation recently. While I listened, I enjoyed comparing the arrangements and the vocal attack of each artist.

Both singers tackle a rich variety of material. On the Joe Williams albums, reissued by by Collectables Jazz, he sings standards like "Sleepy Time Gal" and "My Romance" as well as popular songs of the day ("People", "That Face"). But he also stirs in the blues upon which he acquired his fame with the Basie Orchestra in the 1950s. He sings "Rocks in My Bed" and "Kansas City". The orchestrations are energetic, and Joe swings effortlessly through, backed by top-notch musicians such as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, and Hank Jones.

The Lou Rawls collection--again, two albums on one CD issued by Capitol Jazz--features songs that Williams undoubtedly sang earlier with Basie: ""Goin' to Chicago Blues", "Everyday I Have the Blues", as well as a song that would soon become Rawls' signature: "Tobacco Road". In these sessions from 1962-1963, the orchestra positively cooks throughout. There is no way to sit still when listening to this music.

To think that the albums were issued just before the British Invasion. What a turn the musical world was soon to take! These albums were Rawls' third and fourth albums on Capital. He was 30 years old and still making a name in the business. A childhood friend of Sam Cooke, he had survived a car crash after an engagement (despite being declared dead on the way to the hospital!)

Both singers were from Chicago. It was Lou Rawls's birthplace, and Joe Williams moved there from Georgia when he was 4. When they were young both were trained to sing gospel, and both were exposed to the jazz influences of the time. For Williams, 15 years older than Rawls, that meant going to hear Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Walters, and Cab Calloway. A young Lou Rawls would be influenced by Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, and Joe Williams (!)

I first became aware of Joe Williams by listening to A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry, an extremely powerful set of torch songs and ballads that he recorded in 1958 after leaving the Basie band. His voice is so satiny smooth on this album. It's absolutely gorgeous, and reminiscent of Sinatra's best sides with Gordon Jenkins.

I have gradually developed a taste for the substantial blues in his repetoire, but I am more enthusiastic whenever he swings on uptempo numbers. Joe Williams's voice was so deep and rich. There was such complete command and authority. If you've never listened to him, you MUST!

People my age might remember Lou Rawls for his hit "You'll Never Find". Or perhaps as spokesperson for Anheuser Busch beginning in 1976. This association led to their sponsorship for Lou's efforts to raise funds for the United Negro College Fund. For years he would host a telethon to raise money for the Fund, even though he had never attended college.

I guess I'd always thought that Lou Rawls was a little cheesy, but when I dug into his tracks from the 1960s I completely revised my opinion. This man rocks and rolls with the best of the swingers! He's a terrific storyteller (in fact, his website claims he was "pre-rap" thanks to his talking/singing songs like "Tobacco Road") plus his phrasing is always inventive.
His vocal decisions always display nuance and subtlety, and he brings something new to everything he sings. (I especially love his swinging version of "Ol' Man River".) No wonder Frank Sinatra declared that Lou had "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."

I recommend these CDs highly. They are representative of that last flash of jazz heat in popular music before rock and roll buried it completely. After listening, you will be inspired to investigate both singers much further, I assure you!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Day the Music Died?

I've experienced a strange concurrence of musical and cultural events lately that I'm still trying to come to peace with. Perhaps writing about it will.

Recently my wife and I were cleaning our basement. Spying my uncle's stereo, I impulsively decided to get it repaired and take it to my classroom. So I lugged the behemoth to THE store for stereo repairs (Audio Lab in Harvard Square) and, since the cost of the repair wasn't bad, went ahead with the deal.

I was all set afterwards to play my vinyl as I worked in my classroom, but I discovered I needed speaker wire. It necessitated a 20 minute or so drive north to a place called U Do It Electronics. What an anachronism! From its 1960s signage clearly visible from Route 128 to its salesmen in their shirts and ties, this store is a wonder. Aisles and aisles of cables and electronic gizmoes. How reassuring to know that my past is still alive in more than just my head!

What makes this experience strange is that the whole time I'm going through it I'm wondering about what music and memories are worth. I'm acting my age, for sure, as I stay wedded to the physical reality of a recording. Why can't I just move on? If I need music, just go to Rhapsody and play it from my computer, or download the album from ITunes. Why do I still need to touch the record, and to open up the CD booklet?

I need to have booklet in my hand. I want to read the liner notes, look at who wrote the songs, and check out the personnel. I probably could get this information online, but it's just not the same. Does the fact that young people are getting their music delivered digitally these days mean that fewer of them are looking up the background that liner notes provide? Ah, probably not--if they love the band/singer, they'll read about them online and discover much more than liner notes.

Yes, I'm entering senior citizenville. I feel an overwhelming emptiness when I shopped recently at an area Borders. I walked through their aisles, and I could not feel any excitement. The front of the store was devoted to display upon display of vampire books (the Twilight tie-in). Forget about literature being proudly trumpeted! Their music department had shrunk to what seemed like 10% of the floor space. They no longer seemed interested in making it look attractive. I noticed that they weren't even carrying Barbra Streisand's new CD, of which much ado was made in The New York Times. C'mon--the senior set will be looking for their Babs in the brick and mortar!

It's tough sledding finding a "new release" these days. The only music stores with any vitality in my area are the Newbury Comics outlets and, given my pedantic tastes, it's a crap shoot whether or not they even have what I'm looking for. But at least they have aisle upon aisle of music, much of it shrink-wrapped and fresh. At least in these environments, and in stellar second-hand music shops like Planet Records (Harvard Square), I can still feel the love--and feel the comfort that there's still a place for people like me who like to acquire their music in this way.

But time's winged chariot is picking up speed. Our dour economy may deliver the knockout punch to these retail outlets. Probably for the best--it'll lower my carbon footprint, and Lord knows I have enough liner notes to reread!