Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tony Orlando

An album that endures

Tony Orlando's inspiration

During my youth rock and roll supplanted my father's music. He took it in stride. Occasionally there was a small victory. Take Louis Armstrong's hit "Hello Dolly!" or the music of Bacharach and David. That provided some respite for the grownups. But for the most part the proverbial rug had been pulled out from under him. Until along came Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Tony Orlando was a song and dance man in bell bottoms. He first emerged as a hit maker with the Latin-flavored "Candida" and "Knock Three Times", but it was his partnering with two black women and their subsequent blockbuster "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" that sent them into the stratosphere in 1973.

Capitalizing on their popularity, CBS gave Tony Orlando and Dawn a variety show in 1974. My father adored it. Looking back, I can see how their show, like Sonny and Cher's, kept a traditional show business form alive. By the Watergate era, the variety show was in trouble. The Ed Sullivan Show had gone off the air in 1971, and Dean Martin and his Gold Diggers had fallen out of fashion. Sure, comedians like Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson could still get shows, but what about the singers?

Rock and roll was less dependent on TV to market its product. Instead it had the monster stadium concerts. Besides, these musicians were far less comfortable as traditional entertainers. Could you imagine James Taylor doing a standup routine, for example? That kind of presentation was viewed as utterly inauthentic and old school by the younger set. They'd rather retreat into themselves and acquire a Bob Dylan-like mystique, communicating very little with their audiences. (Why did they have to? At that time the kids just flooded the gates!)

So Tony Orlando and Dawn were an anomaly. Their patter before songs was of the standard-issue variety: Tony would say something foolish and egotistical, and the gals would roll their eyes and offer some sarcastic comeback. (Sonny and Cher followed the same model. Cher had one of the best eye-rollers in the business!)

My family watched this show together. It provided a nice bridge in a time of changing values. As kids, we delighted in how shows like "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" tackled racism and sexism. My parents must have felt besieged at times. But then there was Tony Orlando making nice. He had long hair and a thick mustache. He looked Hispanic - which indeed he was, with a little Greek mixed in. He was backed by black women, just like Ray Charles. But he had my parents' values.

I mean, Tony Orlando had Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis on his show. He loved the entertainers of the previous era. That was obvious in his hoary humor. What was most striking about him though is a quality that still draws me to him today: it was clear that Tony Orlando admired Al Jolson.

Jolie set the standard for entertainers who gave their all to an audience. Much of Judy Garland's repertoire was inspired by him. Jolson, who appeared in the first movie with sound (The Jazz Singer), was famous for leaving it all on stage (his slogan was "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet") and songs like "Mammy" and "Swanee" which recalled his early years in vaudeville doing blackface entertainment.

Al Jolson wanted to be loved every time he hit the floorboards. I love his persona and I was delighted to find Tony Orlando aping it. (Of course, this insight comes upon reflection.)

Tony Orlando and Dawn's New Ragtime Follies (1974) made the connection clear. Here was an old-time show committed to vinyl, complete with a prelude and postlude. I still love to listen to it - and I can get eye rolls from my wife when I do! "Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose?" and "Steppin' Out (I'm Gonna Boogie Tonight)" and a host of other songs would lift my father's spirits the moment he touched needle to vinyl.

This album is paid homage by a site called All Music. I hope that you'll take the time to read their remarks. Looking on Amazon, I see that this album was finally digitized a few years ago and has received 8 breathless customer reviews that place it on a well-deserved pedestal.

"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet" until you purchase this release!

Here's Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Sweet Gypsy Rose" on their show.

Enjoy this clip of Tony Orlando & Dawn accepting the "Best Musical Group" award at the 1976 American Music Awards show. (I love the moment where George Burns says to him, "And I want to kiss you!")

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Art Garfunkel

Every morning I check out the celebrity birthdays in the newspaper. Yesterday was Art Garfunkel's 70th. My thoughts have lingered upon him.

Although Art has released some fine albums and acted in at least one great film, he is mostly a sad and slightly comic figure in mind--and it's not just the hair that prompts this comment. (The hair was indirectly memorialized in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Check out Mike Myers telling his kid to put his noggin down.)

I'm also thinking about Art Garfunkel claiming that he's read over a thousand books. (They're dutifully cataloged on his website.) Or perhaps it's the image of him walking across America, or across Europe (as he's currently doing, apparently). Here's a famous guy who has always struggled to assert himself as an artist.

In regards to his acting, Garfunkel's best was his first: Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge. Sharing the screen with Jack Nicholson is definitely a career highlight, even though his departure from the studio to work on this film led directly to the breakup with Paul Simon. (Think again about the song "The Only Living Boy in New York" from Bridge Over Troubled Water and the lines "Tom, get your plane right on time/I know you're eager to fly now". (Tom was Garfunkel's name when he and Paul first started out as the duo Tom and Jerry.)

Garfunkel's acting career fizzled after the 1970s. His performances weren't embarrassing and his films were well-received: witness Catch 22 and Bad Timing.) But it seems he simply dropped out in the 1980s. That's when the walking and the writing poetry began in earnest.

His departure from the pop scene was spurred not only by the dismal sales of his solo releases in this period, but also by the suicide of his long-time girlfriend. His thoughts during this period are captured in Still Water, a collection of poetry that you can enjoy on his website. (It's pretty good, although there are some embarrassing moments.)

There's no middle ground in regards to liking his music. You either think it's unbelievably wimpy and begin immediately to ridicule it, or you fall into it because you're a sucker for soft sentimental sounds. I fall into the latter camp.

My favorite albums are 1975's Breakaway and his collection of Jimmy Webb songs that followed it, Watermark.

The former features outstanding versions of "I Believe When I Fall in Love" (by Stevie Wonder) and "Rag Doll" (by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys--who would later pen Barry Manilow's immortal classic, "I Write the Songs").

Breakaway was initially a commercial flop. Columbia pulled it from the market and fortified it with a single ("What a Wonderful World" with Paul Simon and James Taylor providing backup vocals) before rereleasing it and enjoying a better outcome. I simply love Jimmy Webb, and there are great versions of his songs on this album, especially "Crying in My Sleep", "All My Love's Laughter" and "Marionette".

Art Garfunkel has always worked with people that I admire. Kenny Rankin provided vocal backup for him on 1988's Lefty. Richard Perry, whose name as a producer appears on many albums in my collection (since he worked with Carly Simon and Ray Charles), has produced Art Garfunkel. Why, even when Art chose to try his hand at songwriting in 2003, he selected a contemporary singer I adore, Maia Sharp, to work with him.

I've been a faithful follower of Art Garfunkel (although I declined purchasing his latest collection of standards, thinking such a sleep aid is unnecessary for me these days). I hope that he recovers from his vocal problems that may be partly due to smoking. I urge you to spend time checking out his work, as I've done for the past couple of hours it took me to put this entry together!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Jayhawks Issue :: Paste mPlayer

The Jayhawks make for quite a pleasurable listen. They hit the musical scene about 15 years or so ago and now have reunited for a new album on Rounder. Check them out! The way their voices blend is unique. If you like melodic folk-rock, this may be a group for you!

The Jayhawks Issue :: Paste mPlayer

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Bronze Buckaroo

Herb Jeffries turned 100 today. He's remarkable for many other achievements besides that one.

Here he is with the Duke Ellington orchestra singing "Flamingo". This song, which has sold an estimated 14 million copies over its lifespan, established Jeffries as a singer.

Looking at the video, I'm struck by how much he and Billy Eckstine sound alike. Also it's notable that there's a certain look that white audiences found palatable with these two singers as well as with the Duke: snappy dresser, copper-toned, gelled hair, and a mustache.

Except, as this promo makes clear, Herb Jeffries had trouble at first finding an audience. Turns out that he was too white for black audiences, and too black for white listeners.

After passing himself off as a Creole and finding an audience with Ellington, Herb Jeffries did something even more remarkable: he became the world's first and only black-singing cowboy, starring in five westerns in the late '30s.

Here he is as a cowboy in a 1938 short. Terrific song, wonderful harmonizing: man, I am a sucker for that lone guitar and a song on the prairie!

I found out about Herb Jeffries in my usual way, by rifling through CDs in a used music shop and taking a chance on a release entitled Herb Jeffries: The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again). It must have paid $3 for it, and I haven't listened to it much, but in honor of him I'll listen to it now.

You might want to check this recording out: backup singers for this recording include Take 6, Sons of the San Joaquin, and the Mills Brothers. Herb (who's 84 at the time) duets with Michael Martin Murphey (remember "Wildfire"?) and a host of other singers.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lou Rawls

I knew him first as a lounge singer. "You'll never find," the rich baritone intoned, "a love just like mine/that can love you/the way that I do." Now here was a song that crossed boundaries! My father loved it and - though I wouldn't admit it at the time - I found it arresting too.

He was a presence on the TV screen with his campaign for the United Negro College Fund. "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" was the slogan. I'd see him host telethons for this venture. The tux put him squarely in Sinatraville.

I didn't think much more of Lou Rawls until I was in a restaurant and heard his duet with Phoebe Snow on their sound system. (The song: "A Lover's Question". The CD: 1993's Portrait of the Blues. It was my first of many Lou Rawls albums.)

Lou Rawls synergized many of his predecessors. He had the smooth and liquid delivery of a Nat Cole or Brook Benton. He could perform a blues howl and holler that recalled Joe Williams in his prime with Count Basie. Given the time when he was making a name for himself, he must have provided inspiration to singers like Otis Redding. I mean, this guy delivers a lyric!

I've been grooving in my car to a 2-CD set that Capitol reissued in 2006. Black and Blue and Tobacco Road were Rawl's third and fourth albums released in the mid-1960s, and they present two strikingly different styles. On the former he dips and dives through a program on blues classics like "Kansas City" and "Trouble in Mind". He hits you hard with Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday" and Fats Waller's "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue". It is a stunning set that I guarantee will hold your attention, despite the singularity of musical style.

The latter album features swingin' Lou. It's a finger-snapper from start to finish. I especially recommend "Ol' Man River" and "Rockin' Chair". My spirits are lifted immediately when listening to this one.

Sweet Lou - I am so glad that I found you as I matured as a listener. You were one of a kind!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memorable Music Biographies

I have three music documentaries to recommend to you. Two are about subjects who led troubled lives. One is about a singer who is much more together.

First to get to our troubled subjects. Let's start with Phil Ochs. I loved There But for Fortune. Ochs was a "topical" folksinger who for a short while was head-to-head to many listeners with Bob Dylan before Dylan went electric. His songs are overtly political: ripped right from the day's headlines, as one of his albums titled All the News That's Fit to Sing puts it. Ochs's music survives today because of its startling directness, and the singer's warm, somewhat nasally delivery. There has really been no one quite like him since.

I loved watching footage of him singing songs that are seared in my memory: "There But for Fortune"; "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"; "Draft Dodger Rag" and "When I'm Gone". As the documentary proceeds and Och's great cause (ending the Vietnam War) is realized not with a bang but a whimper, you can see his enervation and frustration showing.

His drinking accelerates and debauched travels begin. Ochs's friends movingly describe his decline and descent into paranoia. It went on for around 5 years until his suicide at the age of 35. The film ends with Dave van Ronk performing "He Was a Friend of Mine" at a memorial concert. Quite moving.

I regret that Ochs didn't continue the direction he had forged when he moved to California in the late 1960s. Check out The Pleasures of the Harbor if you want to hear an idiosyncratic but powerful development as a songwriter. He would have traveled a fascinating road had he survived.

My second tragic tale is of Harry Nilsson, surely one of the most talented pop tunesmiths of the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. It's ironic that Nilsson's hit gold with "Everybody's Talkin'": it's one of the few songs that he sang that he didn't write! Perhaps you also know him for "One" (is the loneliest number that you'll ever do) or "The Coconut Song" (you put the lime in the coconut and call me in the morning) or "Living Without You".

This guy had a way with melodies that made the Beatles envious. He was good buddies with John Lennon and a big drinking buddy of John's in the '70s when John was estranged from Yoko. Nilsson cranked out albums through most of the '70s, but the dawn of disco really spelled the end for him. After working on the score for Robert Altman's movie version of Popeye in 1980, he was through. No more work came from him. One assumes he drank heavily and suffered a crisis of confidence for the remainder of his life. (He died of heart problems in the early 1990s).

Nilsson's body of work is justly celebrated by anyone interested in writing moving and memorable pop songs. He was playful at times in his music and then he can slay you with a love song or a ballad of regret. He sang with a lovely voice that drove every word home. I never tire of listening to him.

I enjoyed the documentary, especially the extensive footage showing Harry recording A Touch of Schmilson in the Night. This was an album of standards that he recorded in 1973 with the great Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra. I must say, that album is a desert-island disc for me!

My last documentary is about Bill Withers (Still Bill). What a wonderful guy he is! Withers hit the top of the charts during Nilsson's time with songs like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands". The documentary covers this hectic period in his life and then reveals how he stepped away from the limelight in the early 1980s never to return again. But no drinking and no tragedy here! He was just done. He wanted to enjoy his marriage and raising his kids.

I loved Bill's journey back to West Virginia to visit where he grew up, and I was especially amused by the obvious deep admiration displayed by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West as they drop by to visit him. Bill Withers comes across as one cool cat. I was deeply moved by his character and basic decency.

Music documentaries are hit and miss, but you won't go wrong carving out 90 minutes to view any of these works!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reaching Back

What would a popular singer perform today if he or she were hewing to how Peggy Lee and other performers chose their material in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

This question came to mind as I enjoyed two 1958 sets by Lee: Things Are Swingin' and Jump for Joy. As I listened, I considered how songs on the albums were at least a quarter of a century old at the time she was recording them: "Alone Together" (1932); "Back in Your Own Backyard" (1927); "The Glory of Love" (1936); "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" (1924): "Four or Five Times" (1927); "Cheek to Cheek" (1935); "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" (1932); and "Ain't We Got Fun" (1921).

What singer today executes a program with hit songs from the mid-1980s? Hey, what would you choose anyway? What are the "standards" from that time?

This CD is just a marvel. I've been singing along in my car for days now. Mixed in with the previously mentioned gems are songs that were merely a decade or so old, like "Old Devil Moon" (1946); "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (1945); and "I Hear Music" (1940).

I think as contemporary as Peggy gets on these sets in when she sings "Alright, Okay, You Win", a hit for Joe Williams and Count Basie in 1955 and "Music! Music! Music!", a big seller for Teresa Brewer in 1949.

So again, I'm wondering: what singer today reaches that far back? Seems to me that it just isn't done that often, at least by anyone considered a popular singer. It's a shame because great songs remain frozen the past now, no longer informed by a contemporary sensibility.

Anyway, take a trip back to popular song of yore with the sublime Peggy Lee!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If Love Were All

Oh, my thoughts are with the songwriters presently, given the recent obituaries for Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. (The latter who with his wife Valerie Simpson wrote such classics as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing", and so many more).

I reflect upon their impact in my life and how their words stay with me. I wonder about the permanence of a great song. I also shake my head at how indifferent I am to whatever passes for popular music today. Is it as good as the music I enjoyed growing up? Perhaps my silence is judgment enough. Or perhaps I think it best to not speak about something I know little about.

I'm happy to see that Barbara Streisand pays tribute to Alan and Marilyn Bergman on her latest release What Matters Most. I'm thrilled to see the title track revived. (I first heard Kenny Rankin perform it on his wonderful album After the Roses.) I look forward to hearing Barbra's version of "What Matters Most" along with other songs in the Bergman canon.

I caught Streisand on PBS last night performing at the Village Vanguard in 2009. This was a highly exclusive show that was chock full of celebrities like Bill Clinton and Sarah Jessica Parker among the 132 witnesses. I enjoyed it deeply. I am a sucker for nightclub performances, and this one had all the trappings: a tightly assembled audience, a rich red velvet curtain as backdrop, a trio that caressed every melody, and a singer who brought the lyrics to life.

What makes me sad was how dismissive I felt that New York Times critic Stephen Holden seemed in his review of Streisand's What Matters Most. Here's what he wrote. (Italics mine.)

...Barbra Streisand yearns, sighs, and cries through lyrics by her longtime friends and muses, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Beyond the therapy-enlightened depictions of relationships at various stages is an unquestioned faith that the traditional happily-ever-after fade-out at the end of a romantic melodrama is an ideal worth pursuing...

"What Matters Most" epitomizes a venerable but failing genre that I like to call the Big Swoon.

All right. I know it's bad out there. But are you telling me that true love is passé? Or that I should rethink my definition of what constitutes true love?

Here's to any songwriter and singer willing to keep this "failing genre" alive!

Lordy, there's only so much change a fella like me can take!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber

Jerry Leiber died recently. Together with Mike Stoller, he crafted a slew of early rock-and-roll classics. ("Hound Dog", "Stand By Me", "Jailhouse Rock", and "Yakety Yak" to name a few.) Then, after Peggy Lee made a hit of their song "Is That All There Is?" in 1969, the duo decided to write exclusively for adults.

"The earlier market of swing and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington was pretty much gone," Leiber told The New York Times in 1995. "We liked that kind of sound and wanted to imitate it." He added: "In a way, we had helped kill it with what we had done."

I'd really like to recommend their work in the more adult, "artsy" vernacular, specifically two albums: Peggy Lee's Mirrors (1975) and Other Songs by Leiber & Stoller (1978) sung by Joan Morris.

It is on these albums that you can bathe in Leiber's poetry. Take the opening track on Peggy Lee's album, "Ready to Begin Again". In this song an old woman is dressing in front of a mirror.

When my teeth are at rest in the glass by my bed
And my hair lies somewhere in a drawer
Then the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place anymore

Wow! What striking images! The song continues with a gradual build.

But I take out my teeth from the glass by my bed
And my hair from a drawer in the hall
Still the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place at all

Well, at least you're moving, right? Teeth and hair in hand! We continue.

But I put in my teeth and I put on my hair
And a strange thing occurs when I do
For my teeth start to feel like my very own teeth
And my hair like my very own too

That is strange. Yet, as fellow human beings, we can understand. Now we proceed to the song's bridge.

And I'm ready to begin again
Ready to begin again
I'm reaching for the soap
My heart is full of hope
Again, again

I'm ready to begin again
Feeling like I've just begun
Now I'm not afraid
To raise the window shade
And face the sun

The song is heading into high gear now as we return for the last verse.

I put on my bracelets and brooches,
My rings and my pearls and my pins
And as the new day approaches
As the new day begins

Then back to the bridge and the final killer line.

I'm ready to begin again
Looking fresh and bright I trust
Ready to begin again
As everybody must

Peggy Lee is just perfect for this material. Nearly a decade earlier she'd scored a hit with Leiber & Stoller's "I'm a Woman" and their sassy number "Some Cats Know" had been a part of her repertoire too.

This album is gorgeous. Leiber's lyrics are transcendent. Take the words that Lee recites at the start of "Tango".

Oh, the Tango is done with a thin black mustache
A wide scarlet sash, black boots, and whip
Oh, the Tango is done with Seafarin' trash
Reelin' from hash, fresh off true ship
Oh, the Tango is done it's a dangerous dance
A treacherous step and if one should trip
The frail body breaks with a snap and a twist
And a gold watch slips onto a thick tattooed wrist
And a gray merchant ship turns black in the sun
As it heaves to the east when the Tango is done

Whew! A long way from "Yakety Yak /don't come back", wouldn't you say?

Joan Morris, recording three years later, offers her own take on many of the songs, but adds some terrific new numbers. (My personal favorite is "Humphrey Bogart" which was also sung memorably later by Jackie and Roy on Bogie, a desert-island disc for this listener!).

I'm going to keep the soundtrack to Smokey Joe's Cafe on my shelf and instead turn to the comfort of listening to Lee and Morris. I am so glad that in his 40s Jerry Leiber turned to serious songwriting. It's durable music that will always stand the test of time!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Old Friends

Greg Brown Freak Flag Album Cover | Greg Brown Album Covers

My approach to following music is to basically find a performer I like and then stick with him or her. Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of this approach because (let's be honest) any performer has a limited bag of tricks that, once you're familiar with it, they will keep repeating from recording to recording. Paul Simon will always be acoustic with some interesting rhythm, for example. His lyrics will always be humorous.

Why do I keep purchasing the work of someone who I've followed for decades? Is it some obsessive-compulsive need to collect a history?

In the case of Paul Simon, when I hear a new work I always feel like I'm checking in on an old friend. His words and outlook have been in my head all those decades; there's a weird kind of conversation that's been going on. Sure, I wish it weren't one-way. I'd love to sit and chat with him. But it would be on a level quite different from his polished communication in song. Perhaps less satisfying.

So I've got shelves full of friends: singer/songwriters, some of whom I've followed very intently, others who I've attended to with half a mind. Greg Brown fits in the latter category.

I "invested" in Greg Brown years ago because of his bold difference. I mean, someone who dedicates an album to putting William Blake's lyrics to music has my attention. That's when I first checked him out.

In 1986 he was already 4 albums into his career. He'd founded his own record label (Red House) and appeared on The Prairie Home Companion.

The William Blake album didn't grip me, but I gave him another chance, and took a shine to 1992's In the Dark with You, which features the catchy "Good Morning Coffee" song.

I will bring you your good mornin coffee, will you smile
If not now then have a sip or two and maybe in a while
I love you I love you in the good mornin and in the night
Every day I wait with you wherever we are it's all right
Here's your coffee, it may still be too hot, it is freshly brewed
I'll just pour myself a cup and then I will crawl in with you

There's no one quite like Greg Brown. He's got a low drawl of a voice, but it's quite supple. He swings, he slurs, and he can glide into a falsetto--whenever the mood hits him. He's a true "Americana" artist: you'll find all the classic forms on display in his catalog (blues, jazz, gospel, country, straight-ahead folk).

His lyrics are fabulous too. I must confess that I'm unable to commit them to memory, but whenever I listen to his work I find myself thinking about how simple and direct they are.

My wife and I think of Greg Brown fondly because we saw him in concert several times when we started dating. He's a good storyteller in person, and the music is always engaging. He usually tours with guitarist Bo Ramsey, who has produced or co-produced and played and vocalized on practically half of Greg Brown's recorded output. (He's presently married to Greg Brown's daughter Pieta, 22 years his junior, which I find a little creepy.)

In the late 1990s Greg Brown began to tour less, and my interest fell off. I would dutifully continue buying his work, but didn't listen to it much. At some point I stopped--even obsessive-compulsive music buffs have their limits!

But here's the great advantage of being a collector. I took a chance and recently purchased his new CD, Freak Flag, and I absolutely love it. It displays all of the attributes that diehard fans love: a complete command of musical vocabulary, a rich voice that seems to shift with every song, and lyrics that are so arresting that they ARE staying in my mind.

Now I'm back playing my Greg Brown records and admiring his talent. It's definitely a pleasure that will endure. I'm glad Freak Flag reactivated my interest.

There's a nice description of the CD on his label's website, so check it out and then give some of my choice YouTube cuts a look and listen. Then get out there and support one of this country's great songwriters!

For a nice interview with Greg Brown, click here.

Here Greg Brown talks to Performing Songwriter about Freak Flag.

You Tube links: "Blue Car";"Who Woulda Thunk It";"Canned Goods";"You Drive Me Crazy"

Monday, May 30, 2011

Blood on the Tracks

My journey to appreciating Bob Dylan was interesting. When I first began formulating my musical taste in the early '70s, I clung fast to singers with a real pop sensibility. I loved John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary. I always read who wrote the songs that I enjoyed, and I loved the Dylan songs that P, P, & M performed, but I simply could not get into Dylan's sound.

Plus there was the way that critics were declaring him a genius. I just thought a lot of his rhymes were nonsensical and that secretly Dylan must have been laughing at people for taking him so seriously.

Still, being my earnest self, I recall going to the library and reading up on Dylan--even taking notes on what were considered his major songs! Yep, a geek before the word had even been coined!

Anyway a complete change of heart came over with Dylan's Blood on the Tracks in 1974. Wow, did this album have distinctive songs, and his singing was intelligible and even arresting. The lyrics made sense--they told stories I could understand.

After this album, I was all set regarding Dylan. I've enjoyed his work ever since. Recently I watched a fantastic DVD on Blood on the Tracks. The critics (all British) provide a terrific context for understanding how this album fits in the Dylan canon. The stock footage of Dylan at this time is fantastic. Check it out!

And--oh yeah--Happy 70th, Bob!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Moon Tunes

As a teacher, I like to start my day by commemorating "this day in history." I always share an anniversary with my students and then tie in some video. This week marked the 50th anniversary of JFK's address to Congress in which he challenged the American people to make it to the moon by the end of the decade.

Funny thing was, I was listening simultaneously to a collection of moon songs that Mel Torme recorded only a year previously to JFK's address. I have been grooving on this CD much more deeply since, and I'd like to share my enthusiasm for this project as well as for Frank Sinatra's 1965 effort on the same theme.

First to Mel Torme. I admire him so much as a singer. My word, how this guy put it together! Besides being as supple a song interpreter, he was also a terrific drummer in his own right. (He was good friends with Buddy Rich.) Mel loved to swing, and never is it more evident than in this effervescent collection.

Torme was a songwriter too (you know, "chesnuts roasting on an open fire"?), so the man appreciated clever wordplay. He kicks off this set with his own composition, "Swingin' on the Moon". All I can say is, dig these lyrics!

Are you tired of summer nights in Maine?
Do you yawn when they speak of sunny Spain?
Could you live without seeing old Rangoon?
Then come with me, and let's go swingin' on the moon

Have you had enough of London fog?
New York snow and California smog?
Would you say arrivederci to Rome in June?
Then fly with me and let's go swingin' on the moon

Let's have a honeymoon on the moon, honey
Far from the bustle of the crowd
And if your mother asks "why the moon, honey?"
Just tell her your feller has gone interstellar

Grab your hat and we'll head up in the blue
In a little rocket built for two
Baby we're goin' to blast off and before we're through
We'll leave the cares that we know
On terra firma below
While we go singin' and swingin' on the moon

Let's have a honeymoon on the moon, honey
Far from that noisy Earth below
And if your folks ask about our house, honey
Tell mater and pater we live in a crater

We're really going to enjoy a life of ease
Livin' on moonlight cocktails and green cheese
Mr. and Mrs. Space Commuter, if you please
And in a few years we might
produce our own satellite
while we go singin' and swingin' on the moon

As the song closes, Torme fades out by singing out every song title on the album to follow. Ah, the virtuosity! Then it's on to another song redolent of Mad Men and the spirit of that specific period of time. It's called "Moonlight Cocktail", and it's a dandy. Sit back and enjoy these lyrics. It's love 1960-style, baby! Roll out that cocktail wagon!

Couple of jiggers of moonlight
add a star
Pour in the blue of a June night
and one guitar
Mix in a couple of dreamers
And there you are
Lovers hail the moonlight cocktail

Now add a couple of flowers
A drop of dew
Stir for a couple of hours
Till dreams come true
As for the number the number of kisses
It's up to you
Moonlight cocktails

Cool it in the summer breeze
Serve it in the starlight underneath the trees
You'll discover tricks like these
Are sure to make your moonlight cocktail please

Follow the simple directions
And they will bring
Life of another complexion
where you'll be king
You'll awake in the morning
and start to sing
"Moonlight cocktails are the thing!"

The liner notes to this collection by Benny Green are precious. He rhapsodizes about the moon, citing sources as varied as Shelley, Byron, and Debussy. "The day that first rocket lands (on the moon)," writes Green, "these songs will become sociological curiosities. But I believe Torme's great skill in interpreting them will always commend them!"

Why, of course! But I can't agree on the songs. Much more than curiosities--as Will Friedwald recounts in Sinatra! The Song Is You, these songs have a rich pedigree. In his account of Sinatra's penultimate recording session with Nelson Riddle, 1965's Moonlight Sinatra, the author points out that many of the moon songs originated in Bing Crosby's catalog. ("Moonlight Becomes You", "I Wished on the Moon", "The Moon Got in My Eyes", and "The Moon Was Yellow")

On this 10-song set, Frank overlaps Mel four times. His additions to the theme are masterful: the album opens with his voice soaring as he renders the opening lines to "Moonlight Becomes You":

You're all dressed up to go dreaming
Now don't tell me I'm wrong
And what a night to go dreaming
Mind if I tag along?

Yep, you as a listener are gripped immediately as you tag along and nestle in the sumptuous Riddle arrangements and Frank's rich and warm baritone. I have sung along to the songs on this collection for years. It's a proverbial overlooked gem in the Sinatra oeuvre. A highlight includes lovely lyrics to Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade". Such beauty!

It's depressing to read in Friedwald's account how the relationship between Riddle and Sinatra degenerated after this project. Nelson still had around twenty years left in his career after Moonlight Sinatra but, after following it with Strangers in the Night the next year, he was done with his most famous collaborator. Although he and Frank worked again intermittently, they never released another complete project.

You can sense Friedwald's disappointment. I share the sentiment. Don't miss this account in his fine book, an indispensable reference book for any Sinatra lover.

If you'd like to luxuriate in some of the finest pop and jazz singing from the last half century, you are hereby encouraged to purchase these two outstanding collections. I promise that you'll be as moonstruck as yours truly!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ron Sexsmith faces his doubts - Music Features - Providence Phoenix

Ron Sexsmith faces his doubts - Music Features - Providence Phoenix

Here's a terrific portrait of a singer-songwriter who deserves to be more widely known. I've admired his work for years. I recall his appearance on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show on the Sundance Channel. Check Ron Sexsmith out!

YouTube segments:

Ron performs his lovely ballad "Secret Heart"

Ron performs Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" with Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Perfect Ending

If you have HBO, don't miss Eugene Jarecki's documentary on the occasion of Dutch's 100th birthday.

It's got wonderful clips of Reagan's movies interlaced with the talk of politics. His son Ron is at poolside in Dixon, IL to provide commentary on his father. Very interesting to hear his take on some of his father's actions in office.

Anyway, I always listen for the soundtrack, and this film has a good one. It went from good to great on the closing credits, though, when they played "Seasons in the Sun"--as performed by the Ray Conniff Singers!

First of all, very clever--the link between "morning in America" and this song title. But even more so, picture perfect--the link between the Ray Conniff Singers and a view of the world that is dismissive of any harsh reality.

I know the Ray Conniff Singers so well from my childhood. How my father loved to play them--it must have been the perfect antidote to all the cultural upheaval occuring during the 1960s.

Groups like Ray Conniff's don't exist anymore, to the best of my knowledge, although I'm sure the need to trip out on soporific harmonizing is still completely present. Wonder what folks turn to these days...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

George Shearing

A major figure in jazz died recently at 91. George Shearing was a blind piano player known for "the Shearing touch". How should I describe it? I don't play the piano, so I'm not comfortable talking about the block chords that are brought up in his obituaries. No, I associate it with elegance and nuance and sophistication. Sir George invented cool in the midst of the bebop era. He integrated vibes in his most famous composition, 1952's "Lullaby of Birdland" and was always a treat for the careful listener.

I value his work with great singers like Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and (most memorably) Mel Torme. But there are two other singers who recorded with him memorably. I'd like to recommend these works to you.

First, in 1980 Carmen McRae recorded Two for the Road with Shearing. What a delicious set!--just that wonderful smooth deep voice cradled by warm piano on top-notch songs like "More Than You Know" and "What Is There to Say" as well as lesser-known gems like "Ghost of Yesterday" and the title track. Why, we're even treated to George singing on "Cloudy Morning"--the man was as smooth singing as he was playing!

Over two decades later, in one of his last works, Shearing worked with Michael Feinstein on a collection of Harry Warren songs, Hopeless Romantics. It is a constant joy to listen to if you're a singer and, if you're not, it will bring you endless peace as you go about your daily toil.

Boy, this has been a tough year--first Margaret Whiting, and now George Shearing! But both artists leave behind a rich catalog for listeners to mine.

Click here for George with Gerry Mulligan and Mel Torme

Click here for George and Carmen McRae performing "My Gentleman Friend"

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wilfrid Sheed

Last month Wilfrid Sheed died. He was the writerly equivalent of my kind of singer-songwriter: his work isn't easily classifiable. I was drawn to his last work The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. After reading in his obituary that Sheed wanted the following etched on his gravestone:

He wrote some good sentences.

I decided to go back to his book and find some, which I easily did in his essay on Indiana's Hoagy Carmichael.("...a geographical anomaly who just seemed to write generic American that sounded just right regardless of where you were--even in New York.")

Sheed fixes on Carmichael's wandering spirit, and the way he stayed balanced between worlds of the hip and square. Here are some of his prose gems on this point.

Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if you could just find it. In fact, you'll still see him on Greyhound buses, either hoping to change his luck in the next county or heading back after failing to...

Hoagy was bewitched by the currents of jazz that carried out to Indiana over his radio in the 1920s. It was

...a force at large now that could take him a million miles away anytime he wanted it to, while--and this was the curious part--leaving him back home when it was done.

Yes! This sense of "home" is what informs so many Hoagy songs that I love: "Memphis in June" and "Rockin'Chair" being my favorites in this regard. (Let's also not forget "Georgia on My Mind" of course). But also there is that wandering that Sheed alludes to that informs other great songs in his catalog: "Stardust" and "Hong Kong Blues" come to mind immediately here.

Carmichael, a Midwesterner, straddled two worlds in popular music.

...part of him would stubbornly remain a square in the world of Hip...we would find him actually squaring off, in the other sense, with Humphrey Bogart over a matter of politics, an Indiana Republican versus a Hollywood liberal, 'Put up your dukes.' (Fortunately their womenfolk easily restrained the two bantamweights.)

Sheed is excellent in describing how Hoagy developed as a songwriter. "Stardust" was his first composition, and it failed at first as a jazz song. But it was written when popular music was pivoting from "hot jazz" to a more contemplative, less dance-oriented style of jazz. Irving Mills, Hoagy's publisher, advised him to slow down the song, and paired him with Mitchell Parish, who wrote the dreamy immortal lyrics.

Sheed writes:

And just like that "Stardust" would prove that Hoagy could actually make money being himself, keep his integrity, and eat his cake too. With one song, Hoagy became both our most and least commercial composer. And meanwhile, he had become too set in his ways to sell out, even if he'd wanted to. Before he had a hit, he had a style.

And what a style! It is so singable, so hummable. "How Little We Know", "My Resistance Is Low", "I Get Along Without You Very Well", "Lazy River", "Lazy Bones", "Two Sleepy People" and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening", of which Sheed writes.

To my mind he clinched the title 'the great American songwriter' (if there is such a creature) once and for all with "The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"...the whole laid-back essence of this country can be found in the multiple cool of this song.

Take up Wilfrid Sheed in this terrific collection on our great songwriters. You will be in your easy chair listening and humming for hours!

Click here to watch Hoagy sing "Hong Kong Blues" in the 1939 film To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don McLean's "Addicted to Black"

Don with his mother and father

I've been a Don McLean fan for well-nigh forty years now. He always represented the total package for me: a first-rate songwriter and lyricist with a beautiful voice and a forthright, confident delivery.

He won a huge audience with "American Pie" but his moment, like that of most singer-songwriters of the period, passed quickly as disco was ushered in. McLean soldiered on, scoring a hit in the early 1980s with his version of Roy Orbison's "Crying". But throughout his career he bounced from label to label, much like Loudon Wainwright III (another songwriter hero of mine).

In his mid-40s McLean married and built a home in Maine where he and his wife (a photographer) have raised two children. Now 65, he has called his latest release, Addicted to Black, his last. Say it ain't so, Don!

It's his first album of original compositions since 1995's River of Love and it's a knockout. Don opens, like he usually does, in a rollicking style. Enjoy the lyrics while you watch Don perform by clicking here.

I'm addicted to black
addicted to black
Addicted to wearin'black on my back
It was good enough for Cisco
good enough for Lash
good enough for Hoppy
good enough for Johnny Cash

Yeah, I'm addicted to black
addicted to black
addicted to wearing black on my back
You'll be as black as the bird
Where none is the word
It's easy to hide
with black as your guide

Black makes me look thin
It makes me look "in"
It makes me look down when I'm not (it's hot)
On the odd holiday
Well, I might try some gray
But I always come back
'Cause I'm addicted to black

Black makes me look bad
It makes me look mad
It hides all the dirt and the dust (it a must)
If I'm happy and a light
Well, I might try some white
But I stay right on track
Because I'm addicted to black

Black makes me look wise
It brings out my eyes
It always insures I have flair (do your hair)
If my girl is in pink
Well, that might cause me to think
But I stay right on track
'Cause I'm addicted to black

Next comes the energetic "Run, Diana, Run," about Lady Di and the paparazzi. ("The camera always shot her everyday/In fact it shot her dead/It never really touched her/Just took her soul instead") followed by fun word play about being in love in the brisk "Beside Myself."

After that there are surprises: "Mary Lost a Ring" (zydeco!) and "Lovers Love the Spring" (lyrics by Shakespeare!). McLean then gets his country on with "Promise to Remember" before launching into a song that brought tears to my eyes. It's "The Three of Us", in which Don reflects on his long-departed parents and thinks about his own mortality.

See the picture that I'm holding
a picture of us three
standing in the summertime
at Quogue down by the sea
we stood there just a minute
Quogue is an Indian name
there were no cars back then
there were no cars back then
when the Indians came

We never traveled anywhere
we never did a thing
compared to them I guess you'd say
I'm some kind of travel king
We lived near manaramay
that's an Indian name
there were no houses then
there were no houses then
when the Indians came

When the Indians came
There were no private schools
no traffic cops
no highway rules
When the Indians came
the word alone can outlast stone
The Indians lay in holy ground
The place my parents now have found

They're buried on a hill of stone
Rocks of ages stand alone
Their names are carved for all to see
but no one knows their names but me
I remember in that picture
my life had just begun
Now the three of us are fading
The three of us are fading in an Indian sun

What a gorgeous song--if for no other reason, buy the CD for this one!

McLean continues on this theme in "I Was Always Young" before moving to the unusual but stirring "This Is America (Eisenhower)". (The song put me in mind of Phil Ochs's "Power and Glory").

This is America
a land where dreams can be
a land where hopes are strong
and men are free
this is America
a land of bluer skies
a land of brotherhood
where mountains rise
from this glory
from this power
came a man called Eisenhower

McLean ends with "In a Museum"--a contemplation on the expiring and taming of the artistic spirit.

I'm in a museum
I'm already there
They copied my features
They copied my hair
They copied my music
They copied my voice
I'm in a museum
There's no other choice

In a wide-ranging recent interview in New Zealand, Don McLean gives an insightful take on our current political malaise and holds out the possibility that he might record again if anyone were interested in working with him.

Oh, please--let's rescue this American treasure from the wilderness! If you'd like to end by watching Don McLean interviewed by the BBC about a year ago, click here.

Sinatra and Jobim

In 1967 Frank Sinatra was in the throes of figuring out his place in contemporary pop music. His audience was in their 50s (like the singer himself) and the music of this generation was quickly becoming irrelevant. Where could he find inspiration?

At his creative peaks, Sinatra had innovated. There was the break from Tommy Dorsey and the resultant elevation of the singer in pop music. There was the swingin' collaboration with Nelson Riddle in the '50s, a decade full of refreshing reinterpretations of music from his catalog of a decade earlier. There was the establishment of his own label, Reprise Records, at the dawn of the'60s, and a flurry of work with Count Basie and old favorites like Billy May and Gordon Jenkins.

But he'd fallen into a rut. There was no locus of new material, no composer or composers who met the same standards as writers like Cole Porter had done for him earlier. Despite hits like "Strangers in the Night", "My Way" and "That's Life" (songs heavy on shlock for many listeners) he had to be wondering how influential he could remain.

In this professional chasm he reached for Antonio Carlos Jobim. The Brazilian composer was only 30 at the time, but thanks to the appeal of bossa nova to adult listeners in the early part of the decade, he had a stable of tunes that were known world-wide: songs like "The Girl from Ipanema" and "One-Note Samba".

Sinatra enlisted arranger Claus Ogerman to create charts and orchestrate a program of Jobim's bossa nova, along with bossa nova interpretions of three standards("Change Partners", "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" and "I Concentrate on You") in that style. The result was a smashing artistic success. It's some of my favorite Sinatra singing.

Will Friedwald, in his definitive history of Sinatra's studio sessions (Sinatra! The Song Is You), asserts that working with Jobim required a reversal of what had become Frank's signature style.

"...Sinatra uses the form as the vehicle for some of the softest singing he had ever done...As he says in the album's notes 'I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis.' All twenty bossa nova ballads feature Sinatra's sensual, supple, and super subdued vocals atop sensitive strings, understated brass...and gently undulating Brazilian rhythm, as expressed by Jobim on guitar...Sinatra offers his most uncharacteristically reverential singing here, devoid of Frankish interjection and the familiar swagger."

All of these tracks are now available, and I strongly encourage you to purchase them. You will never tire of these songs. I can only imagine how beautiful the lyrics are in their native language: their translations are so intimate and romantic. Here's Gene Lees, the translator of "Quiet Nights", writing about another song, "Dindi" in Stereo Review.

"A Jobim song called 'Jingi' (phonetically correct) sends chills up my arms and back. Sinatra's reading of it is one ofthe most exquisite things ever to come out of American popular music. It is filled with longing. It aches. Somewhere within him, Frank Sinatra aches. Fine. That's the way it's always been: The audience's pleasure derives from the artist's pain."

In Sinatra 101: The 101 Best Recordings and the Stories Behind Them, this sidebar ends the entry on "Dindi".

Sinatra was still in 'Jobim voice' when he recorded a duet with his daughter Nancy at the conclusion of his last session with Jobim on February 1, 1967. The song, "Something Stupid," became Sinatra's biggest American hit of the sixties. When the tune was later dubbed 'the incest song,' Sinatra was not amused.

I should say! By the way, Jobim was a fine singer in his own right. If you'd like to check him out, I recommend 1980's Terra Brasilis.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner with Carole King and Gerry Goffin

On January 17 a key person in pop music history died. Don Kirshner, a rock promoter and music publisher, presided at the crossroads where the Brill Building met the Beatles. He helped develop the songwriting careers of Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. He provided music for The Monkees--and The Archies! Later, on his show "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert", he helped bring acts like Billy Joel and the Police to a broader audience.

As his Guardian obituary makes clear, Kirshner was very cagey when in 1963 he sold his company's music catalog to Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia.

In 1963 Kirshner and Nevins sold their Aldon songs catalogue to Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, for $2m, and Kirshner was also installed as Screen Gems' musical director. The timing was shrewd, since the era of songwriters creating tunes for singers was under threat from the arrival of artists who wrote their own material, notably Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

It is a crying shame that this man is not in the Rock and Roll Museum! May this oversight be corrected ASAP!

Oh, and by the way: a happy birthday to Neil Diamond, who recently turned 70!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Margaret Whiting

A shining star in the singing firmament went out. Margaret Whiting has died at the age of 86.

When you read her obituary, you'll learn about her distinguished lineage and her long friendship with Johnny Mercer.

I became a fan of her work in the 1980s. She recorded for a label called DRG. I have many records from this company, including releases by Johnny Hartman and a wonderful set of Hoagy Carmichael songs with Bob Dorough and others.

My favorite album is 1982's Come a Little Closer. Such a smart lineup of songs from the familiar (Cy Coleman, McHugh and Fields,Porter) and the emergent (Rupert Holmes, Peter Allen)at that time. Everything is delivered with that incredibly warm tone that her voice had, and crisp and always well-stategized but deeply felt singing of the lyric.

This record is a "go-to" for me when I want to be moved and need to be inspired to sing.

Click to hear Margaret's duet with Dean Martin

Click to hear my favorite song from Come a Little Closer, "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love"