Thursday, December 23, 2010

Steve & Eydie

They first met on The Tonight Show when it was hosted by Steve Allen. (His composition "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" would forever after be a staple of their concert performances.) He had already made a name for himself with the 1953 single "Party Doll".

His original name was Sidney Leibowitz. He was the son of a cantor and house painter. She was born Edith Gormezano, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish immigrant parents, her father from Sicily and her mother from Turkey. Both Spanish and English were spoken at home.

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme were married on almost the last day of 1957. At the start of their marriage Steve's music continued to chart well in the United States: "Pretty Blue Eyes" (#9 in 1959), "Footsteps" (#7 in 1960),"Portrait of My Love" (#9 in 1961) and--his biggest hit of all--"Go Away, Little Girl" (#1 in 1962). Eydie hit the pinnacle of her solo success the same year with her song "Blame It on the Bossa Nova".

They first appeared on stage as Steve & Eydie in October of 1960. The country was about to change in deeply significant ways soon afterwards, and the music industry too. Already they must have felt the shift with the emergence of rock and roll years earlier. (Steve made a stab at appealing to the younger set in 1958 with "Uh-Huh, Oh Yeah".) They set their course and never wavered: Steve & Eydie were traditional pop entertainers, singing standards and guaranteeing a husband-wife shtick wherever they performed.

Throughout the 1960s they recorded together and separately in prodigious fashion. Their albums were well-loved but didn't sell well. Eydie had some success with her Spanish-language albums. She even hit the mark with singles like "If He Walked into My Life" (Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance in 1967) and "What Did I Have That I Don't Have". They had success on Broadway in 1968 in a show called Golden Rainbow (which spawned the hit "I've Gotta Be Me" for Sammy Davis, Jr.)

They made regular appearances on TV variety shows during this period. But at the end of the decade this format was drying up. The 1970s found them, like most of their peers, struggling to reach an audience.

It was during this period that they reached their greatest artistic achievement with TV specials and albums dedicated to great pop songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Our Love Is Here to Stay: The Gershwin Years

In terms of radio play, they had long been blackballed by virtue of being associated with a dead style. In fact, they had to change their names to Parker and Penny to get airplay and chart with their last "hit", a song called "Hallelujah" in 1979.

They met with tragedy in 1986 when their 23-year old son died unexpectedly from a heart condition. (They were performing in Atlanta when it happened, and Frank Sinatra sent his private jet there to take them to New York to meet their other son.) After a year's hiatus they were back performing and reached their last peak of high visibility when they joined Frank Sinatra on his Diamond Jubilee World tour in 1990. Of them Sinatra once said, "Steve and Eydie represent all that is good about performers and the interpretation of a song."

I grew up listening to these two. I once saw them perform in the late 1980s at the Chicago Theater. Eydie had an incredible voice; Steve was more of standard-issue crooner, but he was funny. They're both still around, although Eydie no longer appears in public. Watching them on YouTube for this blog entry has been a deep pleasure.

Check out this 1967 TV appearance on the Hollywood Palace.

Also don't miss their tribute to the Gershwins.

Songwriter Bob Merrill

Among Merrill's credits: the score to Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol

When I first began developing my taste in music, I gravitated to the singer-songwriters and then simply songwriters (once I began my exploration of the Great American Songbook). It's an endlessly fascinating topic to me: the life and craft of a songwriter.

I'm a lifelong ardent reader of liner notes and song credits. Recently I was safely nestled in the dark morning with my newspapers (yep, old school, baby!) listening to a jazz vocal collection I'd recently purchased. Great music for those minutes before dawn. Anyway, a song called "Make Yourself Comfortable" had me running to the liner notes because I found it so catchy and amusing.

It was written by Bob Merrill, a prolific hit songwriter who at the time of this song (1954) was already known for Patti Page's"How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"(1952) and "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've a Baked a Cake"(1950).

1954 was a very good year for Merrill: that year he also penned Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano".

The other big year in Merrill's songwriting career was 1961. That's when he wrote the music for the stage version of Funny Girl. Yep, he's the guy who wrote songs like "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "People".

Back to "Make Yourself Comfortable". It's a novelty tune much like "How Much Is That Doggie" or "Baked a Cake", but it fits into a niche I've always loved--let's call it the "Why don't ya come up and see me sometime" Mae West niche. Here's some verses.

I've got some records here
to put you in the mood.
The phone is off the hook
so no one can intrude.
I feel romantic
and the record changes automatic, baby.

Sweetheart, we hurried through our dinner
hurried through the dance.
Left before the picture show was through.
Why did we hurry through the dinner
and hurry through the dance?
To leave some time for this.
To hug a hug and kiss a kiss now.

Take off your shoesies, dear,
And loosen up your tie.
I've got some records here.
Let's try one on for size.
I'll turn the lights low
While you make yourself comfortable, baby.

The most famous song in this niche has to be "Baby, It's Cold Outside". I was also remembering a song by Steve & Eydie called "Cozy".

'Spose he wants to get cozy
'Spose he says put your head on my shoulder
and starts to get bolder
and my resistance is low?

My research on "Make Yourself Comfortable" led me to Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormie and a flood of memories on You Tube. So let's end with my original inspiration. Check out these links pertaining to "Comfortable".

Bette Midler's doo-wop flavored rendition

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme version

Andy Griffith parody

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Helen Forrest

I've been enjoying a 2-record set on Columbia featuring Helen Forrest and her recordings with Benny Goodman in the 1940s. Out of curiosity I read her biography of Wikipedia, then I clicked on a reference to an article about her in 1972 in the Oakland Tribune. The reviewer was discussing a radio show called "40s Sounds Return to the Radio" and his dismissal of this music was abrupt and so emblematic of the time. Here's how it went.

This...visit to the 1940s might interest almost anyone. If you're of the rock generation you might want to hear the music of your parents--if nothing else for how they became the obsolete sentimentalists they are.

Yep, this attitude is what my father's generation had to endure. He would have been around my age now when he was hearing it.

Fortunately my father lived long enough to observe me fully appreciating this "sentimental" music. He'd be pleased today to learn how well it has endured.

Back to Helen Forrest. Irving Townsend in his liner notes to the album pays her a tremendous tribute.

The dream of every young singer in the late thrities and early forties was to sing with a name band...For one girl, Helen Forrest, the dream came true three times. She sang first with Shaw, then with Goodman, later with James. She must have been the luckiest girl in the world.
And yet, Helen Forrest was not the luckiest of singers after all, because it was her misfortune to make her mark as a singer before singers were in fashion. She was up there, the professional who had arrived while Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee were still dreaming the dream. She was the singer in a musicians' era, the only girl on the bus, the girl every girl envied while it seemed that Helen Forest had gone as far as a singer could hope to go. Her timing was unfortunate, for Helen Forrest, the madonna of the middle chorus, was and is one of the finest singers ever to sing a popular song. that is why she got there. But the first chorus still belonged to Benny...
These, then, are the songs and the sounds of the precarious period when the beat, the brass, and the bravura of the thirties was giving way to a time when words were to catch up with the music, when the singer took over the band.

She's completely deserving of these words. I cherish this album as much as I do my 2-record set of the recordings of Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington.

Give Helen Forrest a listen! Here she is singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" with Benny Goodman and "I Only Have Eyes for You."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Comin' Home Baby

I loved the movie An Education. Set in 1962, it captures period details in such a picture-perfect manner. What a fascinating time that was--the year before the Beatles hit America and the music landscape changed for certain!

Ray Charles's "Hit the Road Jack" won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance that year. It was also the year that Mel Torme recorded my favorite song on the soundtrack to An Education: "I'm Comin' Home".

"I'm Comin'Home" by Mel Torme

Hearing the organ in this song, I was reminded of how it almost instantly makes a song cool or hip. Why don't you hear it more often? Frank Sinatra got the shot of hipness he desperately needed after the Beatles landed when Nelson Riddle inserted an electric organ into the 1966 arrangement for "That's Life".

"That's Life" by Frank Sinatra

"Cmon' Home" was first a Herbie Mann instrumental. He played jazz flute--another instrument that adds a terrific flavor to a song. Sit back and enjoy his version of the song.

I'm glad that Michael Buble is around and opening the door to the Great American Songbook for generations of young listeners. Turns out he appreciates "I'm Comin' Home" too.

Michael Buble version

When I was researching this song, I came across a hilarious staging of it on TV.

Here's "Comin' Home" performed by Mel on The Judy Garland Show. Dig the boa-feathered gals on the motorcycles and the way Mel shindigs. Priceless!

Also discovered in my research was a group called The Peddlers who employed the organ in their music and interpreted standards in an original contemporary way. Check out their version of "What'll I Do".

Mining a song is fun! I'm grateful to collections like The Leopard Lounge: Swinging Lounge Tunes from The Atlantic and Warner Vaults that inspire searches like I've just done. Consider buying it!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

C'mon and Hear!

I've resisted listening to Michael Feinstein for years. You'd think I would love him. Over the years he's released songbook albums dedicated to the masters like Gershwin and Porter and lesser-appreciated talents such as Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone. My sister loves him, and she'd openly wonder why I didn't listen to him, especially given my long-standing admiration for Bobby Short.

It's just that whereas Short was always effervescent and passionate when he sang, Feinstein always seemed to me to be cool and highly mannered. He'd sit at the piano with this constant angelic grin on his face and listening to him I felt nothing. So the guy helped the Gershwins' work, gaining the confidence of Ira in the late 1970s. It's a nice story. But he's still boring!

I warmed up to him,though,when he released a collection of Jimmy Webb songs. The sweeping orchestrations lifted Feinstein's vocals and brought a hyper-dramatic tone to Webb's lyrics. I was starting to be moved by what I was hearing.

Feinstein further gained my respect with the 3-part series, Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, which aired recently on PBS. If you love the history of popular music as much as I do, this is a DVD that you may have to put on your Christmas wish list. It's on mine!

What makes the series so remarkable is its clarification of Feinstein's life mission: to preserve the popular music of yesteryear through fastidious archival work and to insure its vitality through performance.

So we're treated to the sight of Michael Feinstein with a mask and rubber gloves on as he rummages through the mold-ridden garage of a sheet-music collector. We shake our heads in amazement as he visits Joe Franklin, New York's longtime late-night talk show host. Hey, most people would call Franklin's surroundings a shining example of the hoarding illness depicted on TLC. But that's all about saving things that aren't essential. Franklin's digs are a gold-mine to any music or pop-culture lover. Hope you got Joe to sign over his belongings to you like Ira did, Michael!

We see Feinstein in the basement of his home, digitizing old tapes and discs of radio shows that he's acquired by visiting "hoarders" like Joe Franklin. An especially moving moment is when he visits an elderly Margaret Whiting and plays her an old radio show on which she appeared. Looking into her eyes as she listens, we can only imagine what she is feeling, but we know it must be deeply pleasurable.

The series also tells the history of twentieth-century popular song. We learn that the invention of amplified sound in the form of the microphone was a watershed event, and we're treated to outtakes of many great performers like Al Jolson, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. Figures such as Ethel Waters (who Feinstein posits was more influential on singers than Louie Armstrong) and Alice Faye (who introduced much of the popular songbook in film) are also given their due.

A rich calvacade of musicians--Paul Whiteman, Mitch Miller, Duke Ellington and man more--are placed in historical context by Feinstein. I was furiously taking notes.

I can't wait to get this DVD on my shelf next to the books in my musical history library. Rent it on NetFlix and get hooked like me!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Is the Hit Parade Over?

"The reliance on album sales is very 20th century."
--Cliff Chenfeld, owner of indie label Razor & Tie

I remember when I was in fifth grade my friend and I used to quiz one another on the top 10 hits of the week. We'd list them on a blackboard down in her basement. Guessing the label the single was on was part of our game.

Of course, this is back in the day when I probably also carried around my 45s in a neat plastic canister or carrying case. Ah, such innocence!

I'm sorry in a way that my children will not have the same pleasure. As an article in The New York Times made resoundingly clear, there are many revenue streams to consider before you can honestly declare a single a hit. It's all very complicated. I imagine Billboard Magazine has expanded their lists to accomodate every scenario.

It's funny, though, that vestiges of the 20th century metric still remain. According to the Times article, album sales are still an industry shorthand for success. Makes me think about what I read about the movie business in the paper this morning. It's another industry that is too heavily wedded to the old metric. Films like Kick-Ass are declared flops based upon their opening weekend box-office take, when in reality if you look over the long-term they return handsomely on their investment.

Also, in today's Times is an article about a song introduced on YouTube that's racking up sales as a single.

It's a fascinating time for the music business. I marvel at how quickly someone can now have a "hit". I wonder openly how much longer anyone can have something even remotely able to be called a career.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Glen Campbell: A Voice I Can't Forget

Glen Campbell has always been one of my favorite pop singers. He delivers a lyric with such clarity and authority. Recently I've been revisiting a 1974 album he did of mostly Jimmy Webb songs. It's a majestic collection, and there's something about his voice that is timeless. I've been thinking about his career lately.

Many people first got to know Campbell through his first hit, "Gentle on My Mind" (written by John Hartford). Once he'd scored with that song, the hits just kept on coming from 1967 to 1969: "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" (all Webb songs). Let's not forget "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" either, or his wonderful album of duets with Bobbie Gentry. (Check out "Little Green Apples)".

As these hits rolled out, Campbell also had a successful variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He also co-starred with John Wayne in True Grit. Quite a heady time!

In the 1970s Glen Campbell managed to record two best-selling singles: "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights". As the decade closed, though, it was clear that his 15 minutes had passed.

Somewhere around this time I heard of Glen Campbell in the tabloids--mainly about his troubled relationship with Tanya Tucker. Apparently Glen had abused alcohol and drugs. Looking up his biography on Wikipedia, it's clear that his personal life was a royal mess. He's been married four times. (He's been with his current wife for the last 28 years.)

Glen Campbell recorded many terrific albums for Capitol, but he left the label after a disagreement over Jimmy Webb's "The Highwayman", a song he recorded and thought (quite rightly) should have been released as a single. Several years later he put out an album of Jimmy Webb songs on Universal that I adore. If you want to revisit Glen Campbell, I cannot recommend enough Still Within the Sound of My Voice.

He returned to Capitol in the late 1980s and put out a string of wonderful albums. You can't go wrong purchasing any of them. But somewhere in the mid-1990s he seemed to have dropped out. I don't know, maybe he was recording for the Christian market, or maybe he was working hard at his theater in Branson, but I didn't hear of him.
I did get to see him, though, at Foxwoods Casino. (That's as close to New England as he'll probably get!)

A couple of years ago Glen Campbell put out a new album of material, Meet Glen Campbell. It was a stellar collection of songs by rockers such as Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and Travis. At 72 he was still in superior voice. I hope the release met his expectations, and that he'll record again.

So here's to Glen Campbell! An incredible singer and guitar player with a storied career that dates back to rock's early days. Lend him your ear once again!

Click here for Glen's interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air".

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Right On, McCue!

It seems that every summer my wife and I discover someone new and exciting. This year is no different. Allow me to introduce Anne McCue to you.

I knew of her work by virtue of her CDs being inexpensive at my local used CD store.

I'm willing to take a chance on an artist if the risk is minimal. In her case, her CDs were priced at $3.99 (promotional copies). My interest was piqued because she looked interesting--a blonde wielding an electric guitar. It seemed like she wrote most of her material, and I liked the song titles. So I was ready for more.

I enjoyed the CDs well enough, but they were retired to my shelves until I noticed her name on the bill at one of my favorite clubs in the Boston area, Johnny D's. Then my wife and I began listening again to the two releases I owned. Acclimated to her material, we eagerly awaited the gig.

Anne McCue was a wonder. She is tall and striking, and she was blessed with monster band at the gig. Oh, how I love to be in a club having that wall of sound envelop me! I find her work mesmerizing. She takes great pains to write good lyrics and tell a story, as well as playing the electric guitar for all it's worth.

I told her that I'm so grateful to know her material because she stretches me as a listener. I love her lyrics and her singing, but her guitar work educates me in the joys of high amplification and long improvisations.

She has a dry wit on stage, and her Australian accent will echo in your head long after the concert is over. She works closely with Jess Leary, who sings harmony and plays rhythm guitar. Great combo!

Her latest release is Broken Promise Land. Follow the links in this blog to learn more about this exceptional artist and, by all means, if you're lucky enough to have her appearing in your area, go to see her!


David Bowling, writing on the site BlogCritics, has this to say about Anne McCue's latest effort.

She improvises songs "in a manner that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud."

"For the album, she has wisely surrounded herself with a veteran rock rhythm section. Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil and drummer Ken Coomer of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco lay down a solid foundation upon which she builds her guitar sound. While some tracks add a second guitarist and some brass at times, I can’t help but think it is within the structure of a basic power trio that she is at her best. The focus there is upon her vocals and guitar, which is where it should be.

A blogger named Simon, writing on the No Depression site:

Described by McCue as “a tribute to some of my favourite bands and guitarists” at its heart is McCue's reverence to her musical influences on which she draws heavily without allowing them to dictate the end product - it's no generic tribute but a real sum of its parts, the writing, the vocals, the guitar work and production, keeping control of all aspects McCue has put together the album she wanted to make - there’s no for me this is her best yet, nailed on.

Check out Anne performing the single from the new CD, "Don't Go to Texas (Without Me)".

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Song Is Ended

My heart is heavy right now. I've just finished Haunted Heart, a biography of singer Susannah McCorkle. In it author Linda Dahl lays bare how McCorkle struggled with mental illness. I never appreciated how deep was the emotional hole she lived in.

I fell in love with her singing in the late 1970s, around the time my consciousness of what constitutes great lyric writing was raised by the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. At that time Susannah McCorkle had released several of her own songbooks (of the songs of Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, and Yip Harburg) that introduced her to American audiences.

I was delighted by her work. These albums became a prized part of my collection, held in equal esteem with Bobby Short's songbooks and the Revisited series produced by the "incurable insane" Ben Bagley.

What I admire about these works is the light they shed on terrific songs by great composers that didn't make posterity's final cut. They gave me an avenue to pursue in my listening after I'd fully digested the "standards".

Many of these obscure songs were pickled in humor and vibrant wordplay. How easily my spirits were raised when I sang along with Susannah to Harry Warren's "I Take to You" (like a duck takes to water/like the Irish to a stew/like a lover to a night of dreaming/I take to you) or Yip Harburg's "Thrill Me" (let your kiss delicious/have a tinge of vicious/though it's all fictitious).

Susannah McCorkle was one of those special singers who made me remember a lyric upon first listen. I later learned that she was a fiction writer as well as a singer. No surprise there: she really "told the story" in a song, choosing to focus exclusively on the lyric.

It's amazing how many singers disregard this concept. Instead of communicating the lyric straight, many of them attend to the musicality of vowels and consonants, either bending or stretching them in order to contribute their voice as an "instrument" to the overall sound. You'll find this approach from many singers who, unlike Susannah McCorkle, studied jazz in college.

Susannah's inspiration was Billie Holiday. That's both a blessing and a curse. Early in McCorkle's career, her vocal similarity to Holiday undoubtedly brought her attention, much like it has for Madeline Peyroux today. Additionally, McCorkle's mining of lost gems from the great songwriters distinguished her, especially when you consider her work was in an era (the '70s) when jazz singing was at a nadir.

Im my memory Holiday rarely, if ever, scatted or had long instrumental solos in her songs. They're all very tight, running 2 to 4 minutes. It is all about story-telling with her: you are gripped by her words because she seems to be baring her soul, as if the song was written for and about her. This is the trick of the great singers.

In Haunted Heart, Linda Dahl explains that McCorkle was often criticized for the constraints she put upon the musicians who played behind her. Considering that she was paying for their time, I have little sympathy for them, and I regret the hard time that they gave her. I know it led to a less than enjoyable creative experience, but respect must be paid for what McCorkle was trying to achieve: unrelenting focus on the words and emotion of a song.

The Songbook series gained Susannah McCorkle notice with mainly the cognescenti in Manhattan. Her 1982 album The People That You Never Get to Love showed her moving a new direction. Linda Dahl notes:

(The People That You Never Get to Love was) a new departure for her, an album she hoped would take her career to a younger audience...(it) stressed contemporary material...Susannah set herself against the trend of that time. While pop singers were "crossing over" (here Dahl cites Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt), Susannah was going in the opposite direction, from standards to pop.

To characterize the music on this album as pop is a real stretch. The title track, written by Rupert Holmes (of "The Pina Colada Song" fame) is the only number that might appeal to a non-jazz audience.

No, the only change here is that McCorkle is widening her net. She chooses individual songs by jazz songsmiths--once again, as with the songwriting masters, she selects obscure songs that deserve revival. What impeccable taste McCorkle displays!

But that's not the major reason why these songs were selected. Songs like "I'm Pullin' Through" were chosen because they directly reflect a painfully familiar emotional state for Susannah. I can only imagine how difficult this song (about thanking people who have lifted you out of a depression) is to hear for anyone who knew her well.

I'm pullin' through
and it's all because of you
If your turn came
I hope it never will
'Cause I've been through the mill
I won't forget this debt
I'm pullin' through

In a way, the only audience McCorkle sought to satisfy was herself. Singing was a release for her, one of the few ways she found happiness. She chose songs that told her story, undoubtedly believing that they would be the best songs to sing because her heart would be fully into the lyric.

I completely understand this point of view. I heartily recommend this album as the one Susannah McCorkle release to own. The emotional pallette presented is complex.

There's the wistful regret (a signature emotion for Susannah) in the title song and in her rendering of Blossom Dearie's "Bye Bye Country Boy". There's nostalgia expressed in Neil Sedaka's "The Hungry Years" and "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before". There's aching desire in "Alone Too Long" (written by Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields). There's acceptance of sorrow in "Rain Sometimes", an outstanding song written by Arthur Hamilton of "Cry Me a River" fame.

Still evident is Susannah McCorkle's sprightly side in Dave Frishberg's "Foodophobia" and Burton Lane and Frank Loesser's "The Lady's in Love with You". As a listener, I found these upbeat songs a welcome relief from the ponderousness of most of the album.

As I write, I'm looking at Susannah's signature on my album. I heard her live for the first time at Rick's Cafe in Chicago. I recall her sitting for a while at my table. My friend and I found her very sweet and engaging. I hope she took some encouragment from the fact that a young guy like me dug her music.

The next time that I saw her was in a 1983 show called "Songbirds of Jazz" with Maxine Sullivan and Carol Sloane. I enjoyed my exposure to Maxine Sullivan, who had a sweet, swinging style (minus Susannah's intense emotional engagement). Sullivan was straight-ahead in her delivery, much like Susannah, and unlike Carol Sloane, who scatted much more like traditional jazz vocalists will do.

I still followed Susannah as time went on, but I became gradually disenchanted with her work. I loved the appearance of one more Songbook (Thanks for the Memory: Songs of Leo Robin), but that was the last truly energetic release. From then on her releases were too heavily weighted with sad, slow numbers.

Take 1985's How Do You Keep the Music Playing? as an example. She slows down what should be a stirring anthem ("There's No Business Like Show Business") and remakes it almost into a dirge. (Dahl reveals this is due to McCorkle learning that Irving Berlin, like her, possessed a "dark edge of depression".) I found it practically unlistenable. I was also displeased to see old familiar standards like "A Fine Romance" and "Check to Cheek" on the album. "Been there, done that," I thought as I listened and heard nothing new being brought to their interpretation. (Although, thankfully, they weren't slowed down!)

Still, McCorkle was worth listening to for me because of finds like "While the City Sleeps" and her deft handling of Brazilian songs like "Outra Vez". (A fluent speaker of Portuguese, she was soon to release Sabia, a wonderful collection of bossa nova numbers in both English and Portuguese.)

I found 1986's Dream, worth skipping, save for her rendition of Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance". This album starts to show record label pressure being applied to her selection. (How else to account for old familiars like "Bewitched" and "All of Me"?) Great photos of Susannah as a child on the back cover, however.

I still collected her music, although with less eagerness than before. I was glad that I could always count on a discovery, some song I'd never heard before. But these numbers were always sandwiched between the old familiars.

I continued to hear Susannah McCorkle live when I had a chance. I know I saw her twice at Scullers in Boston--once by herself, and the other time on a program with Mark Murphy. I still enjoyed her. I had no idea of the turmoil she was experiencing, including the fact that she was insecure about her appearance.

The last time I saw her is when she made an appearance at a local Borders. It was a program expressly intended for children. Susannah's idea seemed to be that the standards had the ability to appeal to their born musicality. Anyway, I talked to her a bit then. She did strike me as being kind of low at the time.

I was devastated when I heard about her suicide a few years later. To me, the musical world really lost a singer of significance. Who has taken her place? I continue to search for other jazz singers that have a similar appeal, to no avail. The closest I've come is either Carol Fredette (who is quoted several times in Dahl's biography) or Mary Cleere Haran (whose eridition reminds me of McCorkle).

After reading Haunted Heart, I was so moved by her struggle, and her courage on a professional level. I find myself continually thinking of the deeper meaning of her art. Her complete dedication to the lyric left her vulnerable. Most listeners are not like me; they don't remember the words of a song most of the time. Most jazz listeners expect an interplay between singer and supporting players.

Susannah McCorkle always stood apart. A decade after her death, her work continues to raise the question: What constitutes jazz singing? pop singing? She was a hybrid and suffered enormously from not neatly fitting into either category.

I miss her so much.

Click here to see the only video I could find on-line of Susannah McCorkle. It's part of an interview with Charlie Rose.

Click here to listen to "Fresh Air" program that aired a week after Susannah McCorkle's death. Terry Gross was a passionate promoter of her work.

I also recommend David Hajdu's essay on Susannah McCorkle from his collection Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Second Time Around

As you can tell by reading my blog entries, I am an enormous fan of the singer-songwriter. I've been writing about my favorites since I began this blog a couple of years ago. It has struck me that I've yet to write about the two giants in my esteem: Randy Newman and Paul Simon.

Perhaps I figure that there's not much to say. They practically created this musical category. Their music will endure because any future practitioners of the craft must study their work.

I was pleased to read in The New York Times today that Paul Simon's musical The Capeman is being performed again in Central Park this weekend. How clearly I recall his struggle to get the financing and get this work on Broadway in 1998! (He began the project in the early '90s. Basically, he spent almost a decade on it!) I made a trip to New York to see the show and loved it. I was crestfallen to then learn that it had been cancelled after only 68 performances.

Boy, Paul Simon must have felt so stung after that! I'm sure that he sunk some of his own personal fortune in it, along with his creative capital. In the years since, I've seen practically no discussion of this work in the press about the singer. Who knows? Maybe the topic is out-of-bounds!

Anyway, it is a typically terrific Paul Simon record, filled with sinuous rhythms and top-notch lyrics. The article in the Times suggests that perhaps this weekend-long revival is an opening step towards a re-introduction of the work on Broadway. (The argument is that audiences are now more open to it, given the success of shows like Fela! and In the Heights.)

I'm hoping that happens. As I also hope to one day again see Faust, Randy Newman's stab at a musical. I saw it at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and adored it. I was disappointed that it never made it to New York.

Both works definitely deserve a second look. If you've never heard them before, get listening!

Click here to watch Paul Simon sing "Bernadette" from The Capeman. Dueting with him is one of the stars from the 1998 show, Marc Antony.

Clikc here to watch Bonnie Raitt perform "Feels Like Home" accompanied by Randy Newman. It's from Faust.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Magic Merle

I love programming my music when I travel South, as I did recently. I always make sure that I have one of my favorite compilations, Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis, at the ready. I was drawn to this 1993 collection by the players on it: John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Buddy Emmons were the names that popped for me. I also knew that Merle Travis was famous, but I wasn't certain why. Scanning the song list, I recognized "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon". Certainly that was enough background to dive in.

I was immediately impressed not only by the songs, but by the level of musicianship on display. As I later learned, Travis was an innovator on the guitar, and it's quickly evident on this CD: there is some sweet picking here, unlike anything I had in my music collection. Travis was noted for his syncopated style of playing, and you can hear it right away.

Regarding the picking, among the masters regaling your ears here are Thom Bresh, a son of Merle Travis, and Marcel Dadi, who is credited with introducing the French to Merle Travis. Just listen to how smoothly Dadi renders the title track. I never tire of listening to this cut! And let's not forget that this collection also features the great Chet Atkins as a guest artist. He is credited with championing and propagating Travis's unique style.

But it's the singers and the songs that close the deal for me. I did not know that legendary fiddler Vassar Clements had such a fine voice. He kicks off the program with the swinging "There Ain't No Cow in Texas". It's a fun number that has this set structure where you keep throwing in the names of different states and what they're famous for. For example:

There ain't a cotton patch in Mississippi
There ain't a commercial on TV
There's not an orange tree in Florida
Or a guitar in Nashville Tennessee
Now Boston ain't got no more baked beans
And Michigan ain't got no Kalamazoo
There ain't a cow in Texas
Baby if I don't love you

Buddy Emmons takes the lead on this one on his steel guitar, and a delicious sax solo gets the program jumping. This song always gets me in a good mood.

The next song is one that is burned in my memory. I sing it to myself whenever I have the blues. "Me and the Doggone Blues" is just plain comforting. It's not a hoot and holler or a moanin' kind of blues, it's just softly melancholy. Nice to sing as you're just walking along somewhere by yourself.

Me and the doggone blues
We're together all the time
The blues is blue
And I am too
So we get along just fine
Ain't never been apart
So don't never expect to lose
So pal of mine
You'll always find
Me and the doggone blues

I just ride along on this collection. One tune leads naturally to another, and your journey is on clouds of beautifully picked guitars and sweet fiddle playing. The songs themselves are so beautifully written too. Ever hear the song "Nine Pound Hammer"? It's by Merle Travis. So is the wonderful "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)".

Travis was born in coal country (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky) in 1917. After playing on the radio in Cincinnati in the late '30s and early '40s and serving briefly in the Marines, he moved to Los Angeles and signed with Capitol Records. Two of his hits from this time are on the CD in a medley: "Divorce Me C.O.D." and "So Round So Firm". In the 1950s Tennesse Ernie Ford made "Sixteen Tons" a million-seller, and Travis has a TV show, along with appearing in several movies. (He's in From Here to Eternity!)

It's upsetting to learn that Travis had some deep personal problems. He drank too much during this time, and was involved in several violent incidents. He also suffered from crippling stage fright. What a shame! I mean, this guy had such talent: in addition to being a genius as a musician, he was a taxidermist, a photographer, a cartoonist, a prose writer, and an expert at watch repair.

Thanks to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 collection of roots music, Merle Travis was able to revive his career. His last decade or so was spent recording heavily. He died in 1983 at the age of 66.

By all means take a chance on Merle like I did. I just know that you'll get hooked!

Click here to see and hear Merle Travis perform "Cannonball Rag"

Here's where you'll find Merle performing in a 1951 "soundie". He's doing a duet called "Too Much Sugar for a Dime". (It's also on the CD.)

Finally, here's Travis in a cameo from 1953's From Here to Eternity.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Master of Melancholy

I fell in love with Jimmy Webb after listening to his 1977 album El Mirage. I knew of him earlier before, of course, due to the fame he had achieved writing hits for the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up, and Away"), Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Galveston" and "The Wichita Lineman"), Art Garfunkel ("All I Know") and—how could you forget?—Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park" and "Didn't We").

El Mirage was my first exposure to him as a singer of his own material. I later learned that he'd been trying to make it as an act since at least 1970. (That year, as "Jimmy L. Webb", he'd released Words and Music on Reprise. Four years later Asylum—the label associated with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles— released his Land's End.)

Webb's voice is gravelly at some turns and thin and reedy at others. It's a taste I quickly adapted my ear to because the songs on El Mirage were so magnificent. There's the deep regret (a thematic hallmark) expressed in "If You See Me Getting Smaller I'm Leaving" and "Mixed-Up Guy". There's the utter poetry of "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (a hit three years earlier for Judy Collins) and the elegiac "P.F.Sloan"(a redo from the Words and Music album).

Webb's melancholy songs were beautifully arranged, produced, and conducted by none other than George Martin. El Mirage is gorgeous, but it was released at least five years late. It slammed into the disco wave and fell on deaf ears—save for my grateful ones, of course.

Around this time I also enjoyed Watermark, Art Garfunkel's masterful collection of Jimmy Webb songs. (Give "All My Love's Laughter" and "Marionette" a listen.)

I didn't hear much from Jimmy Webb again until I enjoyed Glen Campbell's 1988 release Light Years. What a fabulous album! I was entranced by it during a train ride from Chicago to Boston. (Yes, I was listening on my Walkman!) If you haven't thought of Glen Campbell for a long while and are looking to pick up something by him, grab this album. It features magnificent orchestrations, crystalline vocals, and unforgettable songs like "If These Walls Could Speak", "Lightning in a Bottle", and "Our Movie".

Searching for more Webb in record shops, I found 1982's Angel Heart. It's wonderful (of course) with many songs sweetened by background vocals provided by such luminaries as Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and Michael McDonald. Some of these songs would appear on other releases by Art Garfunkel. None of them brought him the acclaim that he'd earned in the 1960s.

Singers with good taste couldn't forget Webb, though. Linda Ronstadt was also an admirer of Jimmy Webb, and she featured several of his songs on 1989's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, her last big album. Take a moment to sample her sweet interpretation of "Adios".

Four years later Jimmy Webb tested the waters again as a singer with Suspending Disbelief. (The early 1990s brought a renewed interest in the singer/songwriter.) After a decade or more away from the studio, Webb came back stronger than ever on this CD. It's chock full of his sweet melancholia ("I Don't Know How to Love You Anymore"), but it's also laced with humor ("Elvis and Me") and a song called "What Does a Woman See in a Man" that simply knocked me out. Check out these lyrics.

He stinks to high heaven—half-covered with hair
And grunts just like some old orangutan
While she smells of clean skin and a trace of jasmine
And speaks like a first rate librarian..

Doesn't she know that she's unique
Doesn't she know that he's just a freak of nature
Overbearing, insecure, wanting love but so unsure
Loving her because she's pure

And yet, dreaming of orgies in Vegas or Cannes
He preens and strikes poses Olympian...
He brags about knocking the world on its ass
But oh, when the shit hits the fan
She'll bail him out, she's the one with the clout
Only she knows how humankind ever began
What does a woman see in a man?

This release really sealed Webb's fate. He was destined never to have a hit album of his own. It's a shame that a wider audience has never become aware of his vocal talents. To this day, he's still insecure about his singing, but I think it's just fine. There are many who are much worse (hello, Tom Waits!) but have been overcome that obstacle.

Anyway, Jimmy Webb seemed to have thrown in the towel with 1996's Ten Easy Pieces. It's a lovely collection of his work from decades past done just with Jimmy singing and playing a piano. Very tasteful: it struck me as a CD you'd hear as you're going down for a meal at a bed and breakfast. I didn't expect to hear from him again. Still, I was glad to see that he began to make club appearances after this release. I recall a hushed and terrific evening hearing Webb solo in a jazz club during this time.

A year later Jimmy Webb produced Film Noir, a collection of saloon standards sung by Carly Simon. (She co-wrote the title track with him.) It's a gauzy and dreamy release that went nowhere.

In 2003 Michael Feinstein sang a program of Jimmy Webb songs called Only One Life. What a lush tribute! Jimmy Webb arranged the piano for all the songs and produced this masterwork. The crisp vocal renditions turned me into a Feinstein fan immediately. On the album he sings "Time Flies", a song that Rosemary Clooney had been including in her repertoire and that continues to be performed by cabaret artists.

The album was a complete triumph. Perhaps encouraged by its success, Webb returned with another collection of originals a couple of years later. 2005's Twilight of the Renegades is superb. Many of the songs on this collection were written over the past 15 years, and they're all winners. I especially recommend a song about Paul Gauguin that opens the set, and "Class Clown" about a boy from Webb's youth. But sweetest of all is "No Signs of Age".

But you show no Sings of Age, no sign
Still clear like a glass of good wine
The secret of youth
Surely is yours
Your beauty endures
And love never dies
It will not disengage
In my memory tonight
You show no Signs of Age

I hope this isn't the last collection of new songs from Jimmy Webb. Recently he's been doing publicty for Just Across the River, his latest release. I'll probably buy it, but not with great enthusiasm because it features all his old familiar work. It's like Ten Easy Pieces over again, but this time the trick is that Webb is joined by a cast of admirers: Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler, etc. Not a strong drink for a huge fan like me.

But Jimmy Webb is 63, and I'm hoping that there's much more music to come from him. I encourage you to take the time to enter his musical world. It is rich music made for grown-ups. You'll fall in love with it.

Click here for a recent NPR interview with Jimmy Webb.

Click here for an interview with him in The New York Times.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Boy Wonder

If you're a guy who plays the piano in pop music, your predecessors loom large, because they are so few. Who comes to mind for you? Elton John in his high platform shoes? Billy Joel? Of course, I love Randy Newman (but don't expect his image to pop into many minds). If you're younger than me, perhaps you think of Ben Folds or Jamie Cullum.

I have been listening to a singer/songwriter piano player that may hit it very big one day. He's still in his twenties, and he has loads of talent. He recorded his first jazz album while still in his teens. A second one, filled mostly with standards like the first, was released soon thereafter. These releases brought Peter Cincotti acclaim in jazz circles but with his third release, 2007's East of Angel Town, it's obvious that he seeks wider attention.

His producer, David Foster, thinks he will earn it, and so do I, although this release didn't break him out anywhere near to the extent they'd hoped. But that's more due to a fractured musical marketplace than the music itself. Raw talent like Cincotti's will eventually have its day.

Cincotti wrote all the music on East of Angel Town, and song after song displays a strong, swinging sound that grabs you after its initial jolt. The music feels so operatic and over-the-top at times that my wife sung a great rejoinder after first hearing a couple Cincotti story-songs about women. "Her name was Lola, she was a show girl," she sang and, since I was early into trying to like this music, I must admit I understood completely where she was coming from! But still I pressed on.

I did because I've heard his first two releases, and I knew he was an excellent singer. Just check out how he handles standards like "I Love Paris" and "St. Louis Blues". What a nice, nuanced approach. It's easy to see why the guy must definitely get a woman's heart aflutter.

On this album his singing has changed. It's less subtle, and he's given to a vocal mannerism in which he kicks into a falsetto practically every song (often in the chorus, or in the transition to the chorus). Still, he has a powerful voice and I forgive him for his excesses because he is trying to part with the jazz world.

I think the guy may hit it big on Broadway someday. (Peter is VERY much in love with New York, his home.) He tells a good story with his music. He creates strong muscular pop music--catchy melodies with driving rhythms that create a lot of excitement. (Examples include "Lay Your Body Down (Goodbye Philadelphia)"and "Cinderella Beautiful").

My favorite on this release is a slower-paced song called "The Country Life". Amazing that this was written by such a young guy! Catch these lyrics.

Let's go back and find
the simple world we knew
I still want to live again
the country life with you

Don't let it be another thing
We always meant to do
Just let me live again
the country life with you

Such a sweet melody--it comes as no surprise to me to find a young fan performing a version of it on You Tube.

But I'd like to close by giving another reason why Peter Cincotti's going to hit it big: the guy has impeccable taste! I mean, when he chose to do a song from my youth, he hit it big with me by choosing one of favorite Carole King numbers: "Some Kind of Wonderful".

Long may you run, Peter!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Saving Grace

Bassist Catherine Popper

Summer is a funny season for me. Sure, I'm glad for the respite from teaching, but I find it difficult to settle into a comfortable routine. Then there's the heat. It exacts a toll on me as the day proceeds. All the air is pulled out of my spiritual balloon. One solution is to take a swim. Another is to retreat to an air-conditioned environment. (How delicious those movie matinees are!) Another key strategy for me is to have a record that I can put on that is so energetic that my spirits are lifted instantly. Each summer almost miraculously I stumble across such a work.

Now I know that I could make a science of it. I could click on all the links that NPR Music gives me and find a rockin' new artist. But I bristle against having someone do the work for me. I take pride in serendipidity, and the sense that what I'm listening to is really a discovery for me. I took the chance, flying blind on some recommendation buried in my mind that flipped forward in my head as I held the CD in my hand at FYE.

Yep, holding a CD at a music store. Not even walking it to a listening station but instead thinking, "Hmm. I recall hearing something good about this group. I have no idea what they're about, but I'll pick this one to freshen up the other CDs of familiar artists that I'm going to get."

Oh, this is shopping the old school way. As I recall one analyst saying of older music consumers like me, "This is the way (I've) learned commerce."

I've now found my summer fun. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce to you Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Grace is the principle songwriter and singer for this group. She's a belter who'll remind you of Bonnie Raitt at some turns and Janis Joplin at others. This album can and should be played loudly, and its hooks are so good that you'll be reaching for it as instinctively as you go for your cold drink.

I love the appearance of this group. Grace is a real looker: long-legged, blonde, and her female companion in the group, bass player Catherine Popper, also seizes a male's attention immediately.

Both gals love their high heels. There's no surprise then to learn that she revels in sexed-up lyrics and a bluesy sensibility. Take the album's opening track, Paris (Oh La La).

You got me down on the floor
So what'd you bring me down here for?...
If I was a man I'd make my move
If I was a blade I'd shave you smooth
If I was a judge I'd break the law
And if I was from Paris..
I would say
Oooh la la la la la la la

Potter delivers her lyrics in a bluesy style that grips your attention immediately. The harmonizing on the chorus is infectious. The lyrics are brief but clever and the power-rock template is set. You want to hear more.

See? Old-school, again! I'm proceeding from cut to cut!

Before I continue, let me dwell briefly on Grace's other Nocturnals. There are three guys in the band and I love their look: they look as if they're freshly thawed from the cryogenic chamber they walked into in the 1970s. I look at them and think, "Ah, isn't this funny? I ignored guys who looked like this in the 1970s. But now I get it. I have a taste--no, a need--for loud, long guitar solos. I'm too proud to go back and listen to the Allman Brothers. I don't want to feel that old. But here they are, these guys who will give me that rockin' flava, and they're teamed up with these total babes. I am lovin' the jarring juxtaposition: '70s hippies with these obvious Reagan/Bush-era type gals. Bring it on!"

The second number, "Oasis", features Grace doing her best Bonnie Raitt. I don't mean to diminish her singing. It is flexible enough that you can't call her a shameless imitator. It's just inevitable when you have ears like mine that have heard so many singers that such comparisons are made. I will say that Grace Potter's songwriting is terrific. Besides the wonderful hooks and the obedience to classic pop song structure, she tells a good story. She adheres to a single idea but there's a little mystery in the songs too for all the lyric watchers like me. (You know, the old-schoolers who sit back with the CD booklet like they used to with the album covers!)

Anyway, "Oasis" is acoustically-based, a welcome break after the jolt of the opening track.

The third track gets you rockin' again. "Medicine" tells about a bewitching "policy woman" (see, a little mystery?) who, with her rattling bones, magic stones, love potion, magnetic sand, and mojo hand is a-stealin' Grace's man.

Policy woman took the love from my lover
He's been in a haze since the day he saw her
She shook her hips and her long black hair
Now all my baby does is stare at that gypsy woman

You like the way she makes you feel
She got you spinning on her medicine wheel
She's crossing me with magnetic sand
She hypnotizes with her mojo hand

She got the medicine that everybody wants..

Terrific song that'll grip you from your first listen. Is this the track where Grace pants and screams? Or is it the one where the guitars are doing the screaming? Whatever! I just know that this is a great summertime CD.

I'm afraid Grace is totally successful working her mojo hand on me. I'm hypnotized, and thankful for it. Not that I had any misgivings about my own mojo, mind you, but just that I needed to have my spirits lifted.

Place a bet on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. You won't be disappointed!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hall & Oates Revisited

I'm not one to complete my music collection with "Greatest Hits" packages. There was such a flurry of them at the turn of the century. I've never been much of a Hall & Oates fan either. So then, what explains my purchase of The Bird and the Bee Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates?

First of all, I'm a sucker for tribute albums, especially if it's for an artist or group that's not a part of my music collection. Although if I never heard a Hall & Oates song again I'd be fine, I was still interested in how they'd be interpreted by a modern sensibility. Plus there's the fact that it promised to be good ol' pop music fun. I know that's something I can always use on my CD platter, since I list towards the serious.

The Bird and the Bee are Greg Kurstin and Inara George. She is the daughter of Lowell George, the late great lead songwriter and player in Little Feat. Inara's sensibility is a little off-center: her first release was a collaboration with the go-to eccentric Van Dyke Parks and her subsequent release to the Hall & Oates tribute was a Lennon-Sisters style collection called The Living Sisters. So I bought the CD figuring I was in store for something completely different.

Except that it's not, save for the electronica/synth-flavored overlay on the songs. I must admit that I'm grateful that the Bird and the Bee don't go far afield. I don't mind hearing these songs again as long as they're done by someone else. So instead I hear Inara's pleasant voice (it will put you in mind of Jonatha Brooke) delivering those paper-thin lyrics. My wife and I sing along when it's playing in our car.

The funny thing is, Lisa would prefer to hear Hall & Oates singing. Anyway, I'd recommend this CD to you if you're in the mood for light-hearted fun.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cut Down in His Prime

Billy Eckstine is one of my favorite singers. I fell in love with him listening to the release Everything I Have Is Yours: The Best of the MGM Years. His voice and delivery is distinct and different from anyone else. He draws out a phrase and injects it with such lush romanticism that you can easily understand why women in the late 1940s were crazy for him.

His compelling story is told in David Hajdu's essay "Billy Eckstine: The Man Who Was Too Hot", the opening entry in the wonderful collection of pop music history Heroes and Villians. Hajdu has a knack for finding highly influential but largely forgotten figures in jazz and pop: his most famous book was a biography of Billy Strayhorn, a collaborator on most of Duke Ellington's most widely known music.

I'm originally from Pittsburgh, and so was Eckstine and Strayhorn. This fact drew me to these subjects, and I'm greatly enriched by spending time listening and thinking about them.

Hajdu explains how Eckstine was famous both as a bandleader and as a singer. As the former, he is credited with introducing the sound that became bebop in the 1950s. As the latter, his incredible sense of style and his handsome appearance made him highly desirable to MGM, who signed him to a million-dollar deal in 1947. (It was the first studio to launch its own record company.)

The story about how the photograph from Life in 1950 effectively destroyed Eckstine's career is told movingly by Hajdu. I will not recount it here in hopes that you'll purchase the book. It is a story of how swiftly the hand of racism can snuff out promise--and, believe me, it is a complete and utter tragedy when you consider Billy Eckstine's talent.

I'll leave you with some audio and video clips of this great man. Give him a serious listen. You won't regret it!

Click hear to see Billy Eckstine leading his band and singing "Prisoner of Love".

Here's Billy with good friend Sarah Vaughan singing "Passing Strangers" from the late 1950s.

You'll get a chuckle out of this music video promoting "The Prime of My Life", a number Billy cut when he was recording for Motown.

Finally, give a listen to "Everything I Have Is Yours", one of my favorite numbers by Mr. B.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lyric Lover

As a younger listener, when asked whom I liked, I always named Paul Simon, Don McLean, Loudon Wainwright III, and Randy Newman. These were the artists whose new releases I eagerly snapped up. I was invested in their music, and still am today.

I will never forget once having a new Paul Simon record and sitting my father down for a listen. Here, I thought, was surely music that would cause him to admit that my heroes were every bit the artist that his were. (You know, Frank Sinatra and his lot.)

Dad hung in there as I bubbled forth. Then, after sitting respectfully through one last song, he fielded my big question, "So, Dad, what do you think?"

"I think he sounds like Paul Simon," was the response.

I walked away shaking my head at his riddle but over time I finally figured it out. I needed to understand where Dad was coming from. Ella Fitzgerald and her songbooks was my first gateway artist to his music. My journey began in my junior year of college, and it has never stopped.

If asked now to name whom I like, I sometimes sidestep the question by saying, "I like anyone who can communicate a lyric. I admire singers who get you involved immediately in the message when they deliver a lyric. There are very few who have had this impact on me: when they sing, I remember the words afterwards. They move me on the spot."

The singer-songwriters that I mentioned at the outset did that for me. I will always treasure sitting down with their new releases, and listening over and over again, letting the lyrics sink in, feeling the rhythm and considering the production. (Yep, I studied those liner notes!) I still approach their music the same way today.

My father was saying, though, that they're limited because no one else can perform their songs. They have a distinct sensibility that begins and ends with them. Was my Dad right? It's a provocative point of view that I continually ponder as my boomer artists enter senior citizenhood. Will the songs begin and end with them?

Anyway, my stable of favorite musical artists expanded greatly once I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I immediately jumped to Frank Sinatra and completely understood what my Dad saw in him. Then I just continued onward, dedicating myself to finding these great singers.

Early on I fell in love with Bobby Short. Like Ella, he did a series of songbooks (some 20 years after the First Lady of Song). I loved how he did not only familiar songs associated with the great songwriters, but lesser known numbers. I drilled these songs into my head. It was so pleasurable singing along to them because the lyrics were so clever. I mean, someone like Ira Gershwin--you'll always find him reaching for the humor and clever rhyme.

This morning I slapped on some vinyl: an album called Bobby Short is K-R-A-Z-Y for Gershwin. I just had to hear "Come the Revolution" and sing along. (Was it due to the political talk show I had just been listening to?) Here's a patch of lyric from it.

Comes the revolution
Everything is jake
Comes the revolution
We'll be eating cake
When the streets and rivers run with red
I'll be underneath the bed
Butcher and the baker, undertaker too
Thank their Lord and maker
under skies of blue
Come the revolution
All is jake
And soon we'll be eating cake?

Anyhow, Bobby Short is one singer who gets the lyric across immediately. I can't tell exactly why. I know that a part of it is his arrangement. He always has a clever way to breathe life into a song.

If you haven't given Bobby a serious listen, try him out. Maybe soon you'll have your own personal listening revolution, as I had mine!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hearing Mose Allison

A few months ago in The Boston Globe I enjoyed this interview with Mose Allison. He's always been an artist in the back of mind: what little I knew of him didn't make much of an impression. I knew he was a hep cat from "back in the day" and that Van Morrison dug him. I enjoyed Van's tribute to him, although I must confess it is lost in the clutter of my cassette collection, and there is no one song from it that sticks in my consciousness.

Anyway, I brought Mose up in conversation with a friend and turned out her father was a monstrous fan and she had grown up with his music, So a date to hear him at a local jazz club was set, and I purchased his new CD, The Way of the World. (His first work in roughly a decade.) It's produced by Joe Henry. He's a name almost as revered in the music business as T.Bone Burnett. I like him principally because of his collaboration with my hero, Loudon Wainwright III. So I was curious about what he'd do for Mose.

I enjoyed the album well enough. Its opening number-- "My Brain"--is a familiar folk melody with Mose's wry observations about his "cool little cluster" providing the humor for which he's known. (I'll never forget this line from one of his famous numbers: "Your mind is on vacation/but your mouth is workin' overtime".) The rest of the program is enhanced by Henry's gentle introduction of some extra instrumentation that livens up the presentation. But really, it's all pure Mose--songs that amuse, but that don't really stick in the noggin.

In tandem with the new album I took a 2002 double-CD set of Mose live in London out of the library. Good listening, I must admit: love his piano riffs and getting a sense of much of his catalog. But I was troubled by the fact that I heard hardly any patter between the songs. Nope--just a simple "Thank you" and then on to the next one.

So the day of the show arrives, and my wife and I and our friends are planted off in the corner of the jazz room. Lovely view of the Charles River out the window. Mose Allison hit the stage immediately with his trio and launched into his first number. Oh no! Turns out we're in the equivalent of a right-field box at Fenway! The angle is all wrong--we can't really see Mose (obscured by the bass player) and the drums (the closest instrument) is drowning out the vocals.

Still, looking around the room, I was impressed with how full it was, and what devotion Mose inspired. So I tried to catch that current. But as the set continued, it got more difficult.

Take away those funny lyrics that we couldn't hear, and Mose lay revealed to our eyes as nothing remarkable. It was amazing how much each song sounded the same. (This was later pointed out in a review of the show in The Globe.) Plus, as my wife Lisa noted, Mose failed to do the one thing that might have salvaged the experience for us: talk to the audience! We did not get any sense of his personality, just a "Thank You" after each 2 and a half minute number and a swift movement to the next song. (We were amused to observe how they were all neatly numbered in Mose's supporting players' binder of lead sheets.)

He completed a tidy 70-minute set, and shuffled off the raised stage/platform rather nimbly when you consider that he's 82. The man is spry and has obviously stuck to his agenda throughout his career. He looks great. But there was no spotaneity, and the trio didn't get to stretch once.

On one hand, I can completely understand why his albums have never sold well. I know this will seem unkind, but it some ways he is a terrible bore. Why does he attract such devotion?

But then, I thought about his lyrics. He's really funny, and he is excellent at creating an Everyman from song to song, and giving his sarcastic viewpoint. In a way, Mose was a "singer-songwriter" long before it was fashionable. He makes a connection with his fans the same way that Loudon Wainwright and Randy Newman and so many others have touched me.

I'm still listening to him in my car. My opinion is somewhere between adulation and the harsh assessment of the Steve Greenlee, the reviewer in The Globe.

One thing you can say for sure, though: there can only be one Mose Allison! His voice is awful, but it's his, flavored with a good Southern accent. It does stick in your mind--the tone of it. Plus there's that tart wit, which is always worth checking out.

Of his contemporaries, though, I still prefer Bob Dorough. (He's the fellow who wrote much of the music for Schoolhouse Rock.) He's a bit more puckish, and his subject matter cuts a wider swath.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Limits of Labels

I hosted my first "house concert" a couple of weeks ago. This is an event where your home becomes the concert stage or coffeehouse. You sell the "tickets" and guarantee the recording artist a minimum fee. My maiden voyage was taken with Sara Hickman.

I've been a fan of Sara's over the course of her twenty + years in the music business. She's based in Austin, Texas and I live in Boston. Given that almost everyone I was inviting to the show didn't know of her, my first challenge was describing her music.

"Well," I'd say, "she's classified as a folksinger, but that label doesn't do her justice." (I wished to immediately dispel the idea that the concert would be a quiet, deeply pensive, potentially depressing experience.) "No, she does a little bit of everything," I continued. "She sings gospel, blues, jazz and--oh my!--she can rock like crazy!" (I felt like my pitch was weakening here.)

"I guess if I had to put a label on it," I concluded, "I'd call her a pop singer." (Instantly I would then check myself from launching into a discourse on that label!)

My pitch worked best when it was short and I simply infused it with my enthusiasm about Sara Hickman. I mean, who is going to walk away saying, "Yeah, I'm a pop music fan! Definitely coming!" But if I spoke from the heart about her music, it usually was persuasive.

I stitched together an invitation with song and YouTube clips to also communicate what Sara's music was like. Promoting her concert sure got me more in touch with how difficult it is to carve your niche in the music business. I must admit, just discussing labels makes my chin instantly sink into my hand. I've spent a lifetime loving musicians who circumvent them, at sometimes great commercial risk.

Of course, you need labels to buy and sell. I would hate to step into a commercial environment that lacked them. I bristle, though, at the limitations they impose. Much of my music can be neatly classified into folk, jazz, and rock, but there are many artists within these categories who wear the mantle lightly.

In my mind these artists are dismissed when they're given the code word "Pop" or "Easy Listening" or "Vocals". To me, these labels are no crime, but I know what many listeners think. It takes me right back to college. I recall telling people how I loved singers like James Taylor, Paul Simon, and John Denver. The response I'd inevitably receive was, "Oh, you like mellow music."

Mellow? That's it? Well, that's the way they processed it! I decided early on to give my love to the singer/songwriter. (By the way, that label didn't seem to gain currency until the late '80s/early '90s). I carved out my niche and stuck to it. Let others blast their rock music out those dorm windows! I was going beyond the obvious, being esoteric--but not in a snarky, rock-critic kind of way.

No, my favorites were often in plain sight. Just hanging out there, unforgivably uncool. In a way, loving Gilbert O'Sullivan like I do is truly loving underground music. Heck, I defined "alt" before that moniker came into style! I won't even call them guilty pleasures. It's just good music. Really--try out Tony Orlando and Dawn's New Ragtime Follies. It has aged so well and is still a terrific encapsulation of their smooth and winning style!

Many singers that I love are pigeon-holed into categories like "Pop" or "Easy Listening" or "Vocals". Most critics dismiss them because they lack a certain purity: not rootsy enough, not challenging enough--as if trying to appeal to listeners should not be a way of assuring any musician's livelihood!

Sometimes I simply cannot bear the snootiness of music critics. I rely on their counsel, but I tire of their attitude.

So, what is Sara Hickman like? Let's see if I can re-create my pitch.

"She is this simply fabulous singer who jumps boundaries. I am attracted most of all to her positive energy. She lifts my spirits when I hear her. She has folk songs in her repetoire, sure, but she's all over the map musically. There's nothing that she can't do: rock hard, lead a chorus on a spiritual with gusto, or improvise vocally on a jazz-inflected tune. Sara is a very funny person, and I admire her stagecraft. A real pro!"

Let me know if that had any effect on you!