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"