Okay, while I’m hipping y’all to some good Christmas tunes, might as well share one of my all-time favorites:
But I tell you folks, if I have to hear limousine liberal Bruce Springsteen moaning and groaning his way through Santa Claus Is Coming To Town one more time like a sick hound, I am gonna kill something. There’s a tune in there somewhere, Bruce; please do us all a favor and find it, all right? Lord knows you’ve meandered around it enough. Ugh.
Look for this post to be updated for the next little while, until I get tired and go to bed. I’ma go find you guys some good Christmas music, I promise I am.
Update the First! The greatest of all possible versions of this one, which is also one of my favorites.
Update the Second! Another favorite of mine, and the most perfect version I know of. Don’t say I never gave y’all nothing.
Update the Third! One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard in my life, from wonderfully eccentric guitar genius John Fahey. I can’t find a version of this to embed that even comes close to this one, so you’ll just have to trust me and hit the link. I promise you won’t regret it. I attempted this one once onstage in New York, and failed miserably. But I play it at home all the time, and every once in a rare while I get it very nearly right.
Update the Fourth! Another of my favorites. And I mean, come on guys. It’s Sinatra.
Update the Fifth! Pretty sure I’ve presented this one here before, but what the hell. How do you go wrong with Canadian Brass? You can’t, that’s how. If this one doesn’t make you smile, well dammit, I can’t help you.
One last update! Oh, and I don’t care a whit what Rush may say: Mannheim Steamroller? Trans-Siberian Orchestra? No. Just…NO. Not now, not ever. Call me old-fashioned, call me a stick in the mud, but I prefer my Christmas music way less sinister-sounding and without synthesizers and laser light shows, thanks.
Today’s installment: I’ll Be Home For Christmas, featuring the Oso Grande himself, Rodney Lanier. He’s the fellow the whole benefit project was conceived for, an excellent musician in his own right, who died shortly before its release.
And I only just realized something, to my tremendous embarrassment: I’ve been saying 12 Days Of Etc, because I had it in my head for some reason that there are fourteen tracks on this record, leaving me two extras for alternates. I was wrong; there’s only ten. But 12 Days is the traditional formulation, so I’m gonna stick with it. Sheesh, I’m a dope. Previous installments here, here, and here.
I keep telling you guys that nobody does this stuff like the great Mark Steyn, and he keeps right on proving it to be true.
As Richard Adler, Frank’s protégé, once told me, Lynn Loesser was a domineering woman. She was known around town, somewhat inevitably, as “the evil of the two Loessers”, a gag that’s stuck to her beyond the grave. You wonder sometimes whether her reputation hasn’t simply adjusted itself to a joke too good to pass up. Certainly, on her demonstration records with her husband, she’s very charming – and never more so than on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Through the mid-Forties, Loesser held on to the number and he and Lynn performed it as their party piece at celebrity get-togethers in New York and Hollywood. Lynn Loesser loved the song, loved singing it, and loved the fact that it was theirs alone.
But business is business. And in 1948 Frank Loesser sold the song to MGM for Neptune’s Daughter. “I felt as betrayed as if I’d caught him in bed with another woman,” huffed Mrs Loesser. “I kept saying ‘Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban?'”
Her husband figured it this way: “If I don’t let go of ‘Baby’ I’ll begin to think I can never write another song as good as I think this one is.”
It’s the highlight of the picture – Ricardo Montalban putting the moves on Esther Williams. A couple of years back, when I protested that I had nothing new to add to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, some listeners responded, “Hey, switch things around: Make Jessica the predator, and you the one trying to resist.” But that switcheroo’s as old as the song: in the movie, after Ricardo hits on Esther, it’s immediately followed by a bit of role reversal from the comedy support, with a man-eating Betty Garrett pursuing Red Skelton. It brought Loesser his fourth Oscar nomination, and this time he won – for a song that predates the movie by four years and was only included for purposes of commercial exploitation. When the film came out, Loesser found himself with a new pop hit. Two versions – one by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, the other by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer – both got to Number Four. Frank Loesser lost a party piece and gained a standard: At the Academy Awards, it was sung by Mae West and Rock Hudson. A few years later, Ray Charles and Betty Carter nibbled the lower end of the pop chart. The only person who wasn’t happy was Lynn Loesser: “her” song was now the world’s.
Read on to find out how—amazingly—not only the SJWs but the Muslim Brotherhood (!) tie in. Steyn just might have outdone even his own formidable self with this one.
And that seems like it might be my cue to post up the second installment of our Twelve Days Of Oso Grande Christmas here. I’m not on this track myself; it features my good friends in the Aqualads doing a swingin’, surfin’ version of Sleigh Ride. Enjoy, people, and that’s an order.
So I just got internet service back after a pain-in-the-ass outage caused by some local hardware upgrades by AT&T, with the result being that things seem a helluva lot faster now, which is probably just my imagination. But to celebrate a rare pleasant delusion (as opposed to my usual kind), I’m gonna upload a few tunes from a Christmas album I was privileged to appear on a few years ago.
The thing was conceived by my friend Jimmy King as a benefit album for a friend of his, another local musician I didn’t really know who had contracted some rare and horrible disease. Jimmy is in a great surf band called the Aqualads, and his friend unfortunately died a mere few days before the benefit album even got released. This track features a truly soulful vocal performance by my bud Bob Nelson, with a lead guitar track by yours truly. I’ll post one of these per day for the next few days, or until my internet connection shits the bed again. If you like it enough to want to buy the whole album, you can do that here (download only, I think the hard copies are all sold out).
I keep telling you guys: nobody does this stuff better than he does.
Unlikely as it sounds, a real live songwriter did sit down one day and write “Jingle Bells”. His name was James Lord Pierpont and he wrote and published many other songs in his lifetime, among them “The Colored Coquette” and others lost to posterity, but a few that have survived, such as “Our Battle Flag”, a paean not to Old Glory but to the banner of the Confederacy. Every song but “Jingle Bells” was a flop – and that “Battle Flag” number would be a hate crime to the tender sensitivities of today’s youth.
But, if you’re going to be a one-hit wonder, “Jingle Bells” is the one hit to have. That merry jingle you hear this time of year isn’t sleighbells but cash registers ringing up Christmas albums from country to rap, almost all of which contain some version or other of James Pierpont’s 150-year-old hit. He didn’t live to benefit from the recording age, and by the time of his death in 1893, he was more or less penniless. Instead, he came from a wealthy family, and worked his way down to impoverishment.
J Pierpont Morgan, archetypal American plutocrat, was the nephew of the J Pierpont who wrote “Jingle Bells”. The Pierponts are an old family who can trace their roots back to 8th century France and Charlemagne. They came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and by the 18th century were established in the American colonies. One Pierpont helped found Yale, another helped found the Unitarian Church. But James Lord Pierpont, born in Boston in 1822, was a different kind of Pierpont. At the age of ten he was sent to school in New Hampshire, from where he wrote his mom a letter about a sleigh ride through the northern snows, the first recorded glimmer of his brightest idea. Four years later he ran away to sea aboard a ship called the Shark, which took him way down south to Latin America, thence to Honolulu and on to Oregon.
That was the first recorded instance of another recurring activity in Pierpont’s life – running away. James was the son of the Reverend John Pierpont, Unitarian minister in Medford, Massachusetts, also poet, Abolitionist and Prohibitionist, and prone, on the last two subjects, to fulminate at length and at volume. James married a young lady from Troy, New York (hometown of the author of another 19th century seasonal blockbuster: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”). He tried his hand at the grocery business and at insurance, but without success and returned to Medford.
In 1848, he ran away again, leaving his wife and children with the grandparents, and trying his luck in the California gold rush. His land deal disappeared with his pardnah, his dairy herd was sold out from under him, his photography business burned down. So back to Massachusetts, and his real interest: music. He began writing numbers in the genres of the day – polkas and minstrel songs – and they were professionally published in Boston. But it was time to run away again – this time to Georgia, where his brother had gone to be minister. As before, Millicent and the children stayed in Medford, and the Bostonian sheet music began identifying composer Pierpont as “a gentleman of Savannah”.
How gentlemanly he was is a matter of speculation.
Another engrossing music post filled with fun facts, none of which I had any idea about until Steyn went a-digging. If I ever do get a spare nickel again, I am definitely buying that book of his I mentioned in my last Music History a la Steyn post. Great as he is at politics and world affairs and such, this just might be his true métier, I think. It couldn’t be more obvious how much joy he gets out of it.
I told ya, nobody does this stuff like Steyn. But he’s outdone himself this time, I think.
In 1951, Sammy Kaye, Dinah Shore and Carmen Cavallaro all picked up on the song. My favorite version from those early years is Gordon Jenkins’ formal arrangement for Nat “King” Cole. It belongs to a group of Fifties ballads – “Unforgettable”, “When I Fall In Love” – that he brought a strange sort of romantic dignity to. But his wasn’t the hit. That honor went to a lesser balladeer called Tommy Edwards, whose smooth recording got to Number 18 in 1951…
By 1958, Edwards’ career was on the slide. MGM Records was ready to drop him, but, with one session left under his contract, he was asked by the label to re-record his biggest hit in the new stereo format. Instead of using the 1951 arrangement, Edwards recorded it as a rock’n’roll ballad, with an insistent walking accompaniment. The new version of Vice-President Dawes’ tune proved so popular that it was Number One in both America and Britain in 1958 – and topping the charts during the Eisenhower Administration isn’t bad for a tune written by Coolidge’s veep during the Taft Administration. Tommy Edwards’ success with “All In The Game” started a lively fad for rock ballad versions of pre-rock hits – “Who’s Sorry Now?” by Connie Francis, et al. But, because “It’s All In The Game” was never that boffo in its previous incarnation, its own fate was rather different. Despite being concocted by Carl Sigman, the quintessential jobbing Tin Pan Alleyman, it was embraced as an authentic r’n’b ballad, and the pop crowd never left it alone. In Britain, Cliff Richard got to Number Two with it in the Sixties, and the Four Tops put it back in the Top Five in the Seventies, and Van Morrison wrung so much juice out of it on the eve of the Eighties that Dave Marsh included his interpretation as one of the indispensable 1,001 rock singles of all time.
What would Charles Dawes have made of Van Morrison? Or Isaac Hayes or Engelbert Humperdinck or UB40? He never heard any of them. He never heard Carl Sigman’s words. He died at the age of 85 in April 1951, six months before Tommy Edwards’ first version made the hit parade and “Melody In A Major” began its new life as “It’s All In The Game”. Perhaps the lyric would have tickled his fancy, for by then he was mighty sick of the tune. “General Sherman, with justifiable profanity, once expressed his detestation of the tune ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ to which he was compelled to listen whenever he appeared anywhere,” grumbled Dawes. “I sympathize with his feeling when I listen to this piece of mine over and over. If it had not been fairly good music I should have been subjected to unlimited ridicule.”
It is indeed “fairly good music”. I’m often asked, when I mention Dawes, whether he wrote anything else. Why, certainly. He wrote The Banking System Of The United States And Its Relation To The Money And Business Of The United States. Snappy title. If I hum a few bars, maybe you can play it. So, yes, plenty of other writing – books on finance and war reparations and the federal budget. But nothing you’d want to hear Engelbert Humperdinck sing.
On the original sheet music, the credit read “Words by Carl Sigman” and “Music by Gen Charles G Dawes.” Presumably “Vice-Pres Charles G Dawes” was felt to be less commercial. Nevertheless, “It’s All In The Game” remains the only transatlantic Number One hit to be composed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an Ambassador to the Court of St James’s and a Vice-President of the United States
Good, and fascinating, stuff. Steyn oughta write a book or something.
Nobody writes about this sort of thing better than Mark Steyn.
“Peggy Sue” is where Bobby Vee came in. “The day the music died” is the day that Bobby Vee was born, professionally speaking. In the early hours of February 3rd 1959, the four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza flying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper to a gig in Moorhead, Minnesota crashed in a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa. Later that day, in Moorhead, the promoters got the news and decided to go ahead with the event, appealing on the radio for any local talent to pitch in as last-minute substitutes for the deceased. A 15-year-old schoolboy calling himself Bobby Vee (short for Velline) and a handful of pals serving as a back-up band volunteered their services. On their way to the venue – the National Guard Armory – they stopped off at J C Penney to buy matching black trousers, woolen ties and sleeveless sweaters.
And so was born Bobby Vee & the… Well, the what? The emcee asked the name of the band, and Bobby looked back at the boys silhouetted by the stage spots and replied, “The Shadows.” It was a great night, notwithstanding the grim circumstances. The following morning the surviving members of the Buddy Holly/Big Bopper tour party left for Sioux City, but without paying Bobby.
For a while, Bobby’s pianist was another young Minnesota musician going under the unconvincing stage name of “Elston Gunnn”. Mr Gunnn subsequently adopted the more enduring persona of “Bob Dylan”. But he still plays “Suzie Baby”, as he did in affectionate tribute to Bobby Vee – “the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with” – in St Paul’s a couple of years back.
No Dylan fan, I, I have to admit. In fact, no Vee fan either, or not particularly. But man, what a great story. Read on for the rest of it; it’s truly good stuff.
Thank God our beloved Federal Gummint, which only wants to protect and serve and nurture us and make sure we’re “happy” whether we like it or not, saved us from all those fascist Nazi conservative Republican wingnut guitars.
While 30 men in SWAT attire dispatched from Homeland Security and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cart away about half a million dollars of wood and guitars, seven armed agents interrogate an employee without benefit of a lawyer. The next day Juszkiewicz receives a letter warning that he cannot touch any guitar left in the plant, under threat of being charged with a separate federal offense for each “violation,” punishable by a jail term.
Up until that point Gibson had not received so much as a postcard telling the company it might be doing something wrong. Thus began a five-year saga, extensively covered by the press, with reputation-destroying leaks and shady allegations that Gibson was illegally importing wood from endangered tree species. In the end, formal charges were never filed, but the disruption to Gibson’s business and the mounting legal fees and threat of imprisonment induced Juszkiewicz to settle for $250,000—with an additional $50,000 “donation” piled on to pay off an environmental activist group.
What really happened at the Nashville plant?
Why, crony fascism Amerika v2.0-style, of course. To wit:
The inexplicable raid nearly two years ago on a guitar maker for using allegedly illegal wood that its competitors also used was another targeting by this administration of its political enemies.
Interestingly, one of Gibson’s leading competitors is C.F. Martin & Co. According to C.F. Martin’s catalog, several of their guitars contain “East Indian Rosewood,” which is the exact same wood in at least 10 of Gibson’s guitars. So why were they not also raided and their inventory of foreign wood seized?
Grossly underreported at the time was the fact that Gibson’s chief executive, Henry Juszkiewicz, contributed to Republican politicians. Recent donations have included $2,000 to Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and $1,500 to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
By contrast, Chris Martin IV, the Martin & Co. CEO, is a long-time Democratic supporter, with $35,400 in contributions to Democratic candidates and the Democratic National Committee over the past couple of election cycles.
See? Not hard to figure out after all—provided, as I keep saying, that you just assume the worst about Obama and Pals. Then everything, and I mean everything, suddenly makes perfect sense. Weaponsman sums it all up nicely:
After a five year legal bastinado, Juskiewicz settled for $250,000, on the advice of his attorneys. It was all a brush-back pass from a mobbed-up union: “Nice business you got here. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.” But the warlords of the US Attorney’s Office weren’t done. Their last demand for Juskiewicz was for Gibson to “donate” $50,000 to one of the prosecutors’ favorite environmental charities.
When someone says, “Give me money or I will harm you,” that person is no longer a participant in any kind of an organized system of laws at all, but of the oldest form of government of all: the dominion of the strong over the weak, and of the cruel over the gentle.
And, well, here we are. As I said way back when I first posted on this story, I’ve always loved Gibsons, and I’ll cheerfully buy all of them I can afford from now on just on principle alone (do note from that previous post that Gibson came out with a new model shortly after the Brownshirt raid: the Government Series II Les Paul, made from wood seized in the raid). Tragically, that number remains stuck at precisely zero. But hey, a guy can dream. WRSA provides the coda:
It will only get worse.
Especially as long as the perps see themselves as above the fray.
Precisely so. And that’s what really needs to change, although I’d correct that to say that they don’t see themselves as “above the fray” at all; they see themselves as right in the thick of it—masters and directors of it, and invulnerable to consequences or repercussion. A large number of said perps swinging by their necks from East Indian Rosewood trees would be a fine and fitting start towards correcting that assumption.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I defy anybody to watch this video without grinning.
EFFREY BROWN: Welcome, Rob Kapilow.
Let’s start by acknowledging this is one of the world’s great musical geniuses, right?
ROB KAPILOW: So true. I mean, just, whenever you think of musical prodigy, who do you think of but Mozart? Writing simple keyboard pieces at 5, violin sonatas and orchestral music at 6 and 7, first symphony at 9. It’s really disgusting, if you’re a composer like me. You just don’t even want to think about Mozart’s birthday.
Follows, some conversation about his Symphony Number 40, which has never been one of my favorites, actually–I’ll take the Jupiter any day, just to name one. But then we get some good analysis of the thing:
ROB KAPILOW: The whole universe in three notes, a cosmic essence.
We hear Mozart think out loud. What I can do? And he says what if I just…
JEFFREY BROWN: Even those three notes, what…
ROB KAPILOW: Yes, what can I do with these three notes?
And it’s not much. Right? This is not great. He says, what if I just take the ending and put it down here in the flute and oboe, and overlap like this? Try it up higher, even higher.
Trying to find out, what does the idea mean? And then the ultimate final step is, we reduce the whole thing to nothing but the first three notes. Who would dream that this could be the topic for an entire piece?
JEFFREY BROWN: We started, though, this conversation about genius. Your case is that that is sort of the essence of it, is taking something simple, creating a whole universe in a sense.
ROB KAPILOW: Exactly.
There’s that quote from Ezra Pound, genius is the capacity to see 10 things where the ordinary man sees one. We just hear that opening idea, but he sees, as you have just heard, at least 20 things in an idea that we never could have imagined.
A great Mark Twain quote: “There never was yet an uninteresting life.”
Inside the dullest exterior, there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy. And Mozart heard the drama, comedy, and tragedy in all of us, and turned it into music.
That he most certainly did, with a scope, depth, and passion found just about nowhere else–except, ironically enough (or perhaps not, given the profundity of Mozart’s influence on him), Beethoven.
I’ve said many times in conversation with friends of mine that I can’t for the life of me see how anyone could be a truly serious musician without believing in God, or at the very least some undefinable power higher than ourselves, on a plane of existence only very occasionally and fleetingly reachable by us mere mortals. Mozart is a perfect example of why that is so; without at least a nod in the direction of the Almighty, there can be no explaining or understanding him, and even then only in the crudest and most incomplete of ways. Anybody who can hear some of his best work, some of it dating to his childhood, and then scoff at the notion of a higher intelligence far beyond our own and basically incomprehensible to us as the inspiration and wellspring of that work–and the insuperable mystery underpinning it–is not talking about anything I’ll ever understand. And has probably never written a note of listenable music in his life…and never will.
Which is not to say that there aren’t any good musicians who aren’t atheists themselves, mind. I’m sure there are–some insist that Beethoven himself was, although that science is far from settled, to coin a phrase. But I think they either are laboring under the influence of an overpowering arrogance and conceit, or are simply not interested in delving into the “why” of it at all. But hey, your mileage may vary on that one. I can only say that, while I’ve written hundreds of songs myself, a small handful of which were decent and I was actually proud of, I never wrote a single one of them by myself. They all came from someplace else entirely, exactly as if they were handed down to me very nearly whole from there, and you can refer to that place by whatever name you want to.
Composers–other than a lot of modern ones whose work is mostly reductionist, a sort of tinkering with simple mathematics and little more–have a voice in their head that sings to them instead of just talking, and they can then capture snatches of that melody and put it down for the rest of us to hear, using their own talent, training, experience, and personality to filter it. You can call that whatever you like, too. But if you know what you’re about, you can’t call it Nothing, or say it isn’t there. Or so I believe, anyway.
One of the best of the Christmas hymns, gorgeously rendered.
Kidding around aside, Chanticleer has a wonderful version too–better than this one, in my opinion–from the A Chanticleer Christmas record. It was just playing on the local classical music radio station earlier, but my Google-fu was too weak to conjure up a vid of it.
And now for something completely different:
Update! Did somebody mention blues? Why yes, I believe someone did.
Emergency update! RosalindJ was kind enough to mention in the comments to another post that comments ain’t working for this one, and after investigating I found that several recent posts would seem to be affected by whatever glitch is causing the problem. I suspect a recent WP upgrade as maybe being the culprit and am looking into it now; my apologies, folks.
She also found the Chanticleer vid I mentioned above, which is here. I’ll embed it after I’ve figured the comments thing out. Many thanks to ya, Ros, for the heads-up. And my sincerest best wishes for a merry Christmas to all of y’all miscreants and reprobates out there. Update within an update! Aww, the heck with it, I’ll just put it in a new post.
Steyn just dropped another Sinatra column into the ol’ hopper, and it’s another damned good ‘un.
In 1960, Frank Sinatra left Capitol and founded Reprise Records because he wanted to have total artistic control. But oddly, once he’d got total artistic control, he seemed disinclined to exercise it. At Capitol in the Fifties, as a supposed mere contract player for his corporate masters, he nevertheless pioneered the “concept” album and raised it to the level of art: He selected the songs, and programmed them, writing the titles on index cards and then laying them flat on the table and shuffling them around until he had them in an order that told the story he wanted to tell. Which is why, from Wee Small Hours to No One Cares, his albums have such a strong dramatic arc.
Half-a-decade into his “total artistic control” as Chairman of the Board, the LP concepts had evolved. Three of his last four sets with Nelson Riddle were: an album of songs that happened to have won Academy Awards; an album of songs with “moon” in the title; and an album of songs that featured girls’ names, eventually aborted presumably because somebody realized that, aside from the name, the girls mostly come out sounding the same (I love your eyes, your smile, I want my arms around you, Insert Name Here). These aren’t “concepts”, these are Trivial Pursuit categories.
For Nelson Riddle, it must have been particularly frustrating. His partnership with Sinatra had been the most crucial professional relationship in the singer’s career. Yet it had languished since Reprise’s founding. Riddle was particularly irked at the way the Sinatra and Strings project had been given to Don Costa, whom he began referring to as “Don Co-Star”, in sneering tribute to the new man’s sudden indispensability to Frank. What was the last complete album Riddle did for Sinatra? The Strangers In The Night LP? No. The title track was the Number One single, arranged by Ernie Freeman. Riddle scored the nine other songs, with a groovy jazz organ that’s very striking but has absolutely nothing to do with the MOR pop hit that gets pride of place. A couple of years later, the Beatles asked Riddle to score “The Long And Winding Road”, but he turned them down because “I don’t do tracks, I do albums”. Yet, for his star singer on Strangers In The Night, he’d been reduced to nine-tenths of an album.
So, for pedants, the last full Sinatra/Riddle collaboration is the one released two months before Strangers, in March 1966. It has a droll title, Moonlight Sinatra, that you wish they’d followed through on a little more rigorously, conjuring love on a moonlit night in three movements. Instead, someone just picked a bunch of songs with “moon” or “moonlight” in the title, Frank threw out the ones he didn’t like, and then sang the ones that were left over two nights in November 1965. It might have been a more interesting project dramatically if they hadn’t interpreted the eligibility requirements quite so narrowly. Lots of Sinatra scenarios, after all, take place in the presence of the moon:
There was a moon out in space
But a cloud drifted over its face
You kissed me and went on your way
The Night We Called It A Day…
Instead, this set confined itself to titular moon songs, a potentially perilous categorization given that “moon”/”June” is the most clichéd imagery in the songbook. Most of the ones that survived were either old Bing hits or Glenn Miller tunes, and the better known ones in each category – “Moonlight Becomes You”, “Moonlight Serenade” – do have the faint whiff of cover versions about them. On the latter, the way he bends the line on “My love, do you know?” is as lovely as anything he sang over 60 years, but at a more profound level he doesn’t really get inside the song and rebuild it as a Sinatra number.
Thus, Moonlight Sinatra doesn’t have the satisfying emotional narrative of other Frank/Nelson sets. It’s oddly static – an album to soak in, rather than to follow on its journey. It’s the smile of a summer night, for lovers lingering in the moment in a starlit garden. Yet, if the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, some of the parts are awfully good.
“The night we called it a day.” Apart from a handful of country songwriters, they just don’t write ’em like that anymore, kids, and we’re all the poorer for it. And Steyn’s writing on the topic has all the elegance, style, depth, sturdiness of structure and pacing, and careful, intelligent phrasing of Sinatra himself at his best. You’ll have to click on through for the Tchaikovsky connection, which is both deeper and wider than you might assume.
Just how many of these gems does Steyn have locked away in his strongbox of great old show-biz stories, anyway?
The song is by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, written in 1959. Many years later, as a callow youth trying to pass himself off as a man about Broadway, I asked Cy about how “The Best Is Yet To Come” came to be:
I wondered how you worked together – because ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’, for example, is not an immediately vocal line, I don’t think. I may be wrong. And yet she managed to write a lyric that sort of sat on it perfectly. Did you write those sort of things very spontaneously at the time or were they things that took a lot of labor?
And Coleman replied:
Well, first let me say one thing – that you are wrong, obviously.
And then he gave his marvelously infectious sneezy-wheezy a-hur-hur-hur Cy Coleman laugh that I miss to this day. He continued:
And I only say that because so was I. I used to complain bitterly about Carolyn and the fact that she’d want to put everything that I wrote to a lyric. I used to say if I played an arpeggio at the piano, you know, I’d have to hide it because she’d put a lyric to it. And ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ was a little instrumental I had written for myself and a little jazz group and it’s constructed so that the melody keeps repeating, and I had worked out an entire thing where you have echoes back and forth at a very furious tempo.
In other words, it’s not a song, it’s an instrumental. And that’s how Coleman wanted it. He was never just a songwriter: he was a composer and pianist and he had a little jazz trio that played in clubs and wanted something to kick around that wasn’t just a Tony Bennett love ballad with the words shaved off. The problem was that Carolyn Leigh liked to slip into the club and listen to what they were playing, just in case it was something she hadn’t heard before. “She’d be sitting in a booth, right next to the trio,” Coleman’s trio Ray Mosca remembered. “And she’d always be taking notes, I guess of tunes we were playing.” And on one such night she heard the Coleman trio’s fun little instrumental …and started scribbling.
The next day she buttonholed Cy and said, “I can put a lyric to that.”
“Here we go again,” sighed Coleman. “There goes my instrumental.”
With cameo appearances strewn throughout by Sinatra, Basie, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Willie Nelson, and…Hugh Hefner. No, really. Also included is this great bonus bit:
The title was droll, too – a play on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring”. It Might As Well Be Swing means “We don’t need Cole Porter or Harold Arlen. We can take ten random slices of MOR chart-filler and make these muthas jump.”
That is exactly what it means…and you better believe they were right about that. One more:
Oddly, the two songs that stayed with Frank beyond the LP were the two oldest, and the ones that had been the longest gestating, as it were. They were also the two that Quincy Jones succeeded in re-conceiving for the Sinatra style, as opposed to too many of the others, which never got much beyond Frank swinging some other guy’s hit. The Sinatra/Basie “Fly Me To The Moon” transformed the song, as we’ve discussed. With “The Best Is Yet To Come”, it wasn’t that Frank did anything that hadn’t occurred to Tony Bennett; it’s just that he did it more so. He bit into the song, liked the taste, and over the next 30 years never tired of it.
Man, that is some good stuff right there. Great as Steyn is on politics, this just might be his true metier. Stay with it to the end–which really is the end, in more ways than just one.
Forgive the short notice, but if you are in or near New York City, please run to see “Sinatra: An American Icon.” September 4 is the last day to see this superb exhibit at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, nestled between the Metropolitan Opera House and the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The library is open Friday from Noon to 6:00 p.m.
December 12, 2015 would have been Francis Albert Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Lincoln Center has been celebrating Sinatra’s centennial year with a display of artifacts and performance clips from across the legendary entertainer’s stunning career. From his humble roots in Hoboken, New Jersey, through his years at the pinnacle of show business in the 1950s and ‘60s, through his latter days in Palm Springs, where he spent hours playing with toy trains, this retrospective has plenty to enthrall fans and intrigue newcomers to Sinatra’s story.
Highlights include sheet music and stage instructions from his early days with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the special Academy Award he won in 1946 (at age 30) for an anti-racism short-subject film titled The House I Live In, multiple Grammy Awards, and posters from many of his motion pictures, both the still memorable and the long forgotten. Two small mixer boards empower each visitor to impersonate a sound engineer and mix his own versions of several songs, adding and subtracting drums, bass, piano, and Sinatra’s voice to suit individual tastes.
Okay, make that: REALLY fantastic. What a great idea for getting people engaged with such an exhibit, and with good music itself.
Amid many audio and video samples of Sinatra’s artistry, my favorite captures the finest male vocalist of the 20th century singing a duet with his female counterpart, Ella Fitzgerald. The Chairman of the Board and the First Lady of Song swing their way through “The Lady is a Tramp” with elegance, grace, good humor, professionalism, and perfect creative chemistry. Watch that footage and weep for what yielded to Miley Cyrus.
I’ve often said over the years that I just can’t figure out how musical culture managed to degrade itself from the staggering heights of Duke Ellington all the way down to Fitty Cent, but that ain’t no race thang, and no white person needs to be feeling too terribly smug about it, as Murdock just demonstrated.
Update! More Sinatra, from Steyn. Stick with it to the end, if you have any interest in this sort of thing at all; Steyn writes about the music and musicians of the Great American Songbook with reverence, joy, intelligence, and love, and few things are as fascinating (to a guy like me, anyway) as the look behind the scenes from these great old days he so adroitly provides.
I figured Jon Pareles, one of the long-time best of the music writers out there (he even had kind words for my own band in print a few times in the past, but don’t let that leave you doubting), would do not only himself but his subject proud with BB King’s obit. And so he did.
Mr. King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal, and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.
Be sure to read all of it. I have only recently found a real appreciation for King’s music myself, mostly by digging into his earlier work, which I had largely–foolishly–ignored all these years. Trust me, listening only to his latter-day offerings and thinking you know all there is to know about the Beale Street Blues Boy is about like disliking Elvis because all you’ve heard is recordings from about 1970 on. As is almost always the case with the true greats, it’s a nearly bottomless well, and the deeper you dig, the sweeter the reward. I like this bit especially:
Mr. King considered a 1968 performance at the Fillmore West, the San Francisco rock palace, to have been the moment of his commercial breakthrough, he told a public-television interviewer in 2003. A few years earlier, he recalled, an M.C. in an elegant Chicago club had introduced him thus: “O.K., folks, time to pull out your chitlins and your collard greens, your pigs’ feet and your watermelons, because here is B. B. King.” It had infuriated him.
When he saw “long-haired white people” lining up outside the Fillmore, he said, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Then the promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.”
“Everybody stood up, and I cried,” Mr. King said. “That was the beginning of it.”
By his 80th birthday he was a millionaire many times over. He owned a mansion in Las Vegas, a closet full of embroidered tuxedoes and smoking jackets, a chain of nightclubs bearing his name (including a popular room on West 42nd Street in Manhattan) and the personal and professional satisfaction of having endured.
Through it all he remained with the great love of his life, his guitar. He told the tale a thousand times: He was playing a dance hall in Twist, Ark., in the early 1950s when two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove. Mr. King fled the blaze — and then remembered his $30 guitar. He ran into the burning building to rescue it.
He learned thereafter that the fight had been about a woman named Lucille. For the rest of his life, Mr. King addressed his guitars — big Gibsons, curved like a woman’s hips — as Lucille.
He married twice, unsuccessfully, and was legally single from 1966 onward; by his own account he fathered 15 children with 15 women. But a Lucille was always at his side.
Now that’s good squishy right there. I repeat: read it all.
BB had a strong influence on nearly every modern musician, particularly those of us plying our trade in what’s been called the Americana genre, whether they know it or not. His loss is a great one, but his music will outlive all of us. Rest in peace, BB King. And…thanks, for everything.
Good as Steyn is on politics and world affairs, he just might be at his best telling music-biz stories and writing obits for the talented-but-not-exactly-famous.
In 1990, Anthony Minghella (pre-The English Patient) made a film called Truly, Madly, Deeply, with Juliet Stevenson mourning her late lover, played by Alan Rickman, who turns up in spectral form to haunt her flat. There was a lot of that about at the time: The shorthand review of Truly, Madly, Deeply was “Ghost for grown-ups”. One of the things that made it “grown-up” was the music (Rickman’s character played the ‘cello, and Stevenson’s the piano) – and in particular the use it made of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. Anthony Minghella told me that he thought numbers in musicals tended to be “transporting”, and he wanted this to be the opposite: even as Miss Stevenson is cavorting round her flat as Rickman’s ghost sings and holds his cello like a guitar, the scene emphasizes just how profound the emptiness in her life is. And that, said Minghella, is why it could only be “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”.
The song’s association with death pre-dates Truly, Madly, Deeply by a quarter-century. Many years ago, I used to date a nurse at the Royal London Hospital on the Whitechapel Road in the East End. We used to meet at the end of her shift in the pub next door, the Blind Beggar. I am told it is a rather bland and boring establishment now, but in those days it still had the residual seedy glamor of its old gangland associations. The Kray twins – Reggie and Ronnie – were the primo East End mobsters of their day, but they’d been having a few differences with the Richardsons’ South London gang. George Cornell had called Ronnie Kray a “fat poofter”. Ronnie didn’t mind the “poofter” but resented the “fat”. On the night of March 9th 1966, he got word that Cornell was drinking at the Blind Beggar, and went round to have it out. When he arrived, Cornell was sitting on a bar stool nursing a pale ale. “Well, look who’s here,” he sneered when Kray arrived. Ronnie got out his 9mm Mauser and shot Cornell just above the right eye. At the time, the jukebox was playing the Walker Brothers’ new single:
Emptiness is the place you’re in
Nothing to lose, but no more to win
The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore…
George Cornell fell to the floor. But one of Kray’s bullets had found the jukebox, and caused the record to jump:
The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore…
And that’s all George Cornell heard in the last few seconds of his life on the floor of the Blind Beggar. The following week, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” hit Number One on the British charts.
Kathy Shaidle says she doesn’t care a rat’s ass about the Four Seasons; Steyn acknowledges he’s with her, and I’ll put a hearty “amen” to all that myself. But Mark’s smooth, mellow-yet-rollicking telling of the tale kindles in it an interest I would not otherwise have shared, which is just one of the marvelous things truly fine writing can do. So I’ll put an “amen” to this too: Rest in peace, Bob Crewe.
Traveling tomorrow to NYC to do a show at Rodeo Bar (3rd Ave/27th) Saturday night. Any of you CFers in the area, be sure to come on out and say howdy. CapLion, I’m lookin’ at you, buddy.
RIP AC/DC: 1973 – 2014, UPDATES ON MALCOLM YOUNG
AC/DC are ending their 41 year career on a terribly sad note.
Plans were underway for a new studio album, their first since 2008’s monumental Black Ice, and a ’40th Anniversary’ world tour, 40 huge shows across the globe.
More than a month ago, founding member, rhythm guitarist, co-producer and co-songwriter Malcolm Young had a stroke, which left a blood clot on his brain.
When AC/DC reunited at the start of April to begin a month of rehearsals, in the lead-up to new album recording sessions, Malcolm discovered he couldn’t play. At least, he couldn’t play like he used to play.
Nothing has been officially confirmed, as of this writing, but friends and family members have been discussing what happened to Malcolm for the past couple of weeks. The blood clot, resulting from the stroke, is believed to be why Malcolm couldn’t keep working.
Although friends have described Malcolm’s condition as serious, it doesn’t mean he won’t recover. People do get better after strokes, and people do recover lost skills.
But friends and family of band members believe the decision was made last week to call it quits.
Media in Australia have gone ballistic today on rumours of The End Of AC/DC, and it appears the news got out ahead of a planned official announcement from the band and management.
Right now, that announcement is expected Wednesday, April 16, and a press conference has been scheduled.
Quite possibly the greatest pure rock and roll band ever–as the line from punk band The Last Resort goes, “No fuss, no muss, just pure impact.” Their sound was as distinctive and instantly identifiable as a punch in the face; they were fun, energetic, rhythmic, powerful, and driving–as complex and cathartic as it’s possible to be working in a three-chord medium that’s not exactly known for subtlety or intellectual depth, being more bludgeon than anything else. And they just kept right on cranking out good, solid stuff for forty friggin’ years.
AC/DC won’t continue playing and recording without Malcolm. It can’t be done.
While Angus Young is the more famous, and more recognisable, AC/DC is most definitely Malcolm Young’s band, he started AC/DC, under the guidance of big brother George Young (ex-Easybeats, and co-producer) and encouraged his younger brother Angus to join him, and take on the world.
Malcolm Young has been the quiet motivator and boss of the band for four decades, co-writing nearly all of AC/DC’s classics, and making sure nothing happened to harm or damage the band’s reputation, or disappoint the fans who’ve stuck by them for decades.
His passion for the band and its music, and integrity, were so intense, back in the 1970s he used to have fistfights with his younger brother, Angus, in the studio, when disagreements about a sound or riff couldn’t be resolved. Proper punch-ups, teeth were lost, blood was drawn.
So that’s it. AC/DC are coming to an end.
All good things do, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Lots more at the link, all worth a read if you’re into this sort of thing at all; AC-DC was nothing less than a huge and utterly unique slice of rock and roll history, encapsulating all the best of the genre and generating a staggering number of good sea stories along the way. Best wishes to Malcolm and all his family.
Update! Thanks to Q for his update in the comments; sounds as if things are still up in the air for the band at the moment. All the best to ’em no matter which way the ball ends up bouncing.
Great Gibson electric guitars have long been a means of fighting the establishment, so when the powers that be confiscated stocks of tone woods from the Gibson factory in Nashville—only to return them once there was a resolution and the investigation ended—it was an event worth celebrating. Introducing the Government Series II Les Paul, a striking new guitar from Gibson USA for 2014 that suitably marks this infamous time in Gibson’s history.
From its solid mahogany body with modern weight relief for enhance resonance and playing comfort, to its carved maple top, the Government Series II Les Paul follows the tradition of the great Les Paul Standards—but also makes a superb statement with its unique appointments. A distinctive vintage-gloss Government Tan finish, complemented by black-chrome hardware and black plastics and trim, is topped by a pick guard that’s hot-stamped in gold with the Government Series graphic—a bald eagle hoisting a Gibson guitar neck. Each Government Series II Les Paul also includes a genuine piece of Gibson USA history in its solid rosewood fingerboard, which is made from wood returned to Gibson by the US government after the resolution.
And because it’s a Gibson, the Government Series II Les Paul is a pure and powerful tone machine. Aided by a pair of Dirty Fingers+ pickups, among the hottest hum buckers Gibson has ever produced, this historic Les Paul is ready and willing to wage war on tonal timidity—and to get you heard in the process! Add a set of high-quality Grover™ tuners, a black hardshell case with Government Series graphic, a Certificate of Authenticity personally signed by Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, and legendary Gibson quality and craftsmanship: this is one mighty Les Paul that you’ll want to confiscate quickly and turn to your own creative devices. The Government Series II is limited by the availability of qualifying woods, so seize yours now from your authorized Gibson USA dealer.
Sounds good, except for that chambered-body nonsense (the “weight relief” bit), which I just hate. Not really my first choice for pickups either, but I usually end up changing those anyway. Also, “Government Tan”? Shouldn’t it be “Government Grey,” in honor of the bloodless, shadowy bureaucratic drones, Grey Men all, that run our lives for us? Either way, bravo, guys. Now if only I could afford one in this Obamaconomy.
(Via Kevin Wiliamson)
Lileks reminds me of a bit of my not-so-distant past:
The difference between this aching cold place and the reasonable warmth of LA is so great it seems that I was there months ago, not hours; the entire trip feels like a mirage. I woke this morning in the proper bed to the proper sound of the proper alarm, and it felt as if I’d dreamed the whole journey. The “proper alarm,” by the way, would have sounded in LA if I hadn’t woken up early from the elevator sound – nowadays, in one of those shifts you don’t notice until you look back and say “oh, it’s been that way for a while” your alarm clock is the same every place you go, because it’s your phone.
Which renders the hotel alarm clock useless. Good: they are hateful things and everyone loathes them. You can’t figure them out. All clocks have their own interfaces, and you bring nothing but the memory of different clocks to the experience; it’s late, you’re tired, and you’re pushing buttons, remembering the old days when you called the front desk to wake you up. (Something I’d forgotten years ago – don’t remember when I stopped doing that. Wonder if anyone does.) (Well, yes – the people who don’t have smart phones and can’t figure out the got-damned alarm.) When you fumble with the buttons to set the time you’re reminded of the previous occupant, who got up at 5:45, poor devil. When the thing goes off it’s always the worst possible alarm sound, a monkey screeching from the metal mouth of a robot, and you don’t know how to turn it off.
Once you silence the obscenity you sit on the edge of the bed and recollect the number of steps between you and the world. I love evenings in hotels. I hate mornings in hotels. In the evening you’re a welcome guest. In the morning you’re either something that’s sticking around and making demands, or you’re on the way out, in which case vamoose already because HASS-KEEPING.
See, this isn’t much of a problem when you’re in the hotel as part of a merry company of itinerant rock and roll musicians. You don’t bother with the alarm clock, because you were either out way late at someone’s house for a raucous, drunken party, or the debauch was held in your very rooms. Either way, your wake-up was the front desk calling to inquire if you intend to stay over or get the hell out so the maids could get on with burning the sheets you had so hopelessly sullied by your noisome presence, and reminding you with some small irritation that checkout time was an hour ago. At which point you muttered “be right down” into the phone, hung up, and the shower round-robin and laborious packing-up began.
The number of steps between you and the world? Many, and self-inflicted. As the great Larry Brown once wrote, you felt like the rest of the world was going about their business trying to be good, and you were an unclean thing in it. So you dragged yourself up and out to the nearest Waffle House for the dose of greasy dollops of protein and fat so necessary to stilling the painful gonging of the sadistic Quasimodo in your hangover head, yanking on his bell rope and laughing maniacally at your pain and confusion. Then it’s off to the next town to do it all again, amidst much laughter, taunting, and muddled reminiscence of the previous night’s misadventures.
Now THAT’s a wake-up call, man. Probably in more ways than one.
The Harley in Orlando hosted more than one night of wretched (or glorious, depending on your perspective as proprietor or perp) excess, as did several anonymous ghetto fleabags in Atlanta, the Best Western on West 57th in NYC, and plenty of others. Ditto similar holes in Detroit, Champaign, and Chicago. There was also a lovely hotel in Ospel, north of Amsterdam, that…well, better not get too deep into that one, since I don’t know what the statute of limitations in the Netherlands is, nor the current extradition arrangements between our two nations.
The Admiral Benbow in Memphis must be singled out as the worst example of the ghetto fleabag I ever saw: it was so sordid and filthy we declined to stay there, leaving the room uninhabited to go elsewhere and pay for our own even though the Benbow rooms were contractually provided for us gratis by the venue we were playing. That place was absolutely legendary among bands on the circuit for its sick-making (probably literally) squalor, although we were the only band I know of that actually refused to stay there. We were sort of shocked to find out that so many others had just resigned themselves to putting up with it. Maybe they thought of it as some sort of justice, or atonement in advance for gleefully wrecking the next place down the line in celebration of escaping the Benbow with their lives.
Good times, baby, good times.
Update! I think what I like best about this vid is the moment–actually, there’s three of ’em; the first is about 1:03–where you think the singer has opened his eyes and is looking out at the audience…and then you realize what he’s actually seeing, no matter where he’s physically looking at the time, is the small portion of the hem of the robe of God he’s been allowed to touch when he hits those notes just right. And that he can see that with his eyes either open or shut. Man, that’s how the shit is done.
Oh, please. Enough already. Let’s just call it what it is and dispense with the bullshit, as if a dimwit like Miley Cyrus or anyone else in her blockhead generation just discovered it all on their own, shall we?
Update! No, Hasil didn’t invent it either. But at least his terminology has the advantage of being as crudely direct and primitive as the actual “dance” itself is, without any twee, pseudohip posturing.
Updated update! Lileks: “Amusing how this all makes Madonna look like such a grown-up, in retrospect.” Can’t wait to see what the next thing is–y’know, the one that’s going to make Miley look like a grown-up, in retrospect. Read all of it, natch.
Update to the updated update! For the record: No, your generation did not invent sex. It didn’t even invent kinky, dirty sex. Gays, lesbians, bi’s, trannies, group sex, wife-swapping, anal, cunnilingus, fellatio, S&M, B&D, exhibitionism, even toys–they all predate you. By a lot. So do try and get over yourselves, ‘kay?
Know what would really be cool, transgressive, and unusual? If one or two of you actually developed a reserved sense of sophistication about all this and acted, in the famous words of Vince Lombardi regarding excessive end-zone celebrations, as if you’d been there before. But what the heck, I didn’t act that way when I was a kid either, so I guess it’s asking too much.