Friday, December 31, 2004
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
"A little bit of what made the preacher dance"
Charlie Parker, Relaxin' at Camarillo.
Charlie Parker, Embraceable You (take 1).
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, A Night in Tunisia.
A parliament of Bird.
On Saturday evenings, in the latter months of 1946, the patients of Camarillo State Hospital gathered to hear the house band. The orderlies are setting up folding chairs in rows of half-circles, a few nurses are talking quietly over coffee in the back of the room. The band drifts together, setting up, chattering. The hospital's name is stitched on all of their clothes.
On the slightly raised stage, holding a C melody saxophone, is a new inmate, who you might have seen tending a plot of lettuce in the garden. He tells the drummer how much he is enjoying bricklaying, saying he could have been a mason. And when the music starts, the Thorazine-silenced schizophrenics, those patients still twitching from electroshock, those blinking because they've been stuffed in a cell all week, the nurses and the janitors hear Charlie Parker play.
Parker had been committed to Camarillo after being arrested for walking around a Los Angeles hotel lobby naked and, later the same night, allegedly setting his room on fire. He had deteriorated in the summer of '46--some say from bad-quality drugs, others from increasing music pressures. But his six months at Camarillo, which was not a soothing restorative place by any account, seemed to settle Parker, realigned him, so when he returned to music in February 1947, he was ready for his year of miracles.
Throughout '47, Parker recorded a score of fluent and brilliant performances, notching one masterwork after another on the acetates. His sound had changed subtly--it was no longer just his flashing strings of notes, his sharp, driving tone. He was quieter, moodier. He had never been far away from the blues, even in his wildest flights--now it was calling him back.
"Relaxin' at Camarillo," a tribute to his happy prison, is a pretty democratic recording, with Parker sharing solo time generously with most of his bandmates. Parker comes first on alto sax, jumping around warily; Wardell Gray's tenor, by contrast, is smooth, with all questions answered.
Recorded in Hollywood on February 26, with Howard McGhee (t), Dodo Marmarosa (p), Barney Kessel (g), Red Callender (b) and the Woody Herman band's Don Lamond (d).
More on Camarillo, which was shut down in 1997.
Parker soon returned to the East Coast, where he assembled a new band with many of his regulars, including Miles Davis and Max Roach. And, nine months after he was playing in a psychiatric ward, Bird played Carnegie Hall on September 29, where he reunited with his "worthy constituent" Dizzy Gillespie. It would be a rare night: Gillespie and Parker, who had made the founding documents of bebop together, would come together only a handful of times in the late '40s and '50s.
"A Night in Tunisia" was one of the great bebop records of '45, but here, freed from the tyranny of the three-minute 78 rpm limit, Parker can let loose. After the opening theme is finished, the first four bars of Parker's solo is a proud, stupefying explosion of notes--the audience hails him like a champion. Then it just gets better; bits of "KoKo" turn up amidst the diamonds. Gillespie keeps up in his turn, soaring like a hawk. With John Lewis (p), Al McKibbon (b) and Joe Harris (d).
Then there is "Embraceable You." This is Parker at his most sublime, his most beautiful. There are two incredible takes--this is the first, lesser known take, in which Parker barely acknowledges the Gershwin theme, tearing off into his own musings. The opening six-note motif of his solo doesn't come from Gershwin--Gary Giddins pegs it as from "A Table in the Corner," a cheap '30s pop song, demonstrating Parker's alchemical skills.
Recorded October 28, with Davis (t), Duke Jordan (p), Tommy Potter (b) and Roach (d).
"Camarillo," and one take of "Embraceable" can be found on this phenomenal set. "Tunisia" is found here.
We wrap up 1947 at last, and so:
Favorite Films of '47, dedicated to the East Bay Express.
Out of the Past. Fulfills every promise film noir ever made. Here the past is a malevolent force, levying its due from the present. Bob Mitchum is iconic, Jane Greer phenomenal--part of the film's plot parallels her real-life attempt to escape the grasp of Howard Hughes.
Black Narcissus. Desperate, beautiful nuns steam in hothouse convent in India. The Archers come close to campiness but do not fall over--the next year, in The Red Shoes, they did.
The Late George Apley. A death letter for Brahmin Boston.
Quai des Orfèvres.
Ramrod. Veronica Lake gets revenge. Director André de Toth, who once awoke to find himself laid out in a morgue, courted the fabulous Lake by offering her a knife "to cut out his unworthy Hungarian heart." She married him.
The Senator Was Indiscreet. Political hack rises to Senator, and aims for President, through blackmail.
Ginrei No Hate.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The only good man is a dead one.
Les Maudits. All submarine films are locked-room mysteries; one of the finest.
Road to Rio. The end of the road for Crosby and Hope. Ahead lay televised mediocrity and golf tournaments.
Lady in the Lake./Dark Passage. Both have the same "first-person" gimmick--the camera eye is the lead character's, though"Lady" is more rigorous in its dedication than is "Passage," which gives up after 20 minutes. The concept bombs because it means lots of awkwardly framed shots in which the lead looks into mirrors, or endless stretches of another character talking directly into the camera. Later revived for stalker horror films.
New Orleans: Billie Holiday is reduced to playing a maid, a role that incensed her, and the story is too lame to justify calling the film truly good, but the jazz talent on screen is astonishing--Woody Herman, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Zutty Singleton etc.
Happy New Year. See you next week in 2005, or 1948, whichever you would prefer.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
The Blue Sky Boys, Kentucky.
Gene Autry, Little Big Dry.
For the last post before Christmas, here are two celebrations of home.
The Blue Sky Boys were not from Kentucky--Bill and Earl Bolick were born in Hickory, North Carolina. They began singing in 1935 as another of the country "brother" acts so popular in the 1930s, and chose their slightly abstract touring name in part to stand out against the likes of the Shelton Brothers and the Rice Brothers and the Monroe Brothers. Earl played guitar, Bill mandolin; Earl sang lead baritone, Bill provided tenor harmony.
After the Bolicks came back from the war, they found things had changed. Under pressure from their record company to make songs about catting around and drinking for honky-tonk jukeboxes, the Blue Sky Boys instead became ever more fervent purists. While their old rivals the Delmore Brothers incorporated electric guitar and hillbilly stomp to reinvent their sound, the Bolicks' only concession to modern tastes was to add an occasional fiddle and bass. This constant war with record companies led the Blue Sky Boys to ultimately quit the game in 1951, though they re-formed a few times in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Kentucky" was recorded on May 7, 1947, in New York, with Samuel Parker helping on fiddle. One slight sign of racial progress--the original song's line about "darkeys singing in the silvery moonlight" was replaced by the Bolicks as "voices singing." The song is basically out of print, as I got it off a Smithsonian Country Music LP set, and I can find no place to find it on CD other than a massively comprehensive and massively expensive CD set.
Where the Blue Sky Boys turned Kentucky into a lost Eden, Gene Autry's Little Big Dry is not even a backwater, which gives the singer a humble pride.
Autry needs no introduction--he, along with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, John Ford and Roy Rogers, turned the dirty and chaotic settling of the American west into the country's national mythology. He was also the best singer among them.
"Little Big Dry", recorded on December 5, 1947, can be found here. It was used in the odd film "Riders of the Whistling Pines", which featured Autry flying a DDT-spraying plane.
Merry Christmas, and see you in a week.
Monday, December 20, 2004
the center of a diamond
Woody Herman, Four Brothers.
Woody Herman had disbanded his orchestra (the "First Herd") in late 1946, citing both financial and physical weariness, but in six months time he built another one. The "Second Herd" was a bebop big band, filled with Parker and Gillespie disciples, and its heart was the "four brothers" saxophone section--Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Herbie Steward--whose playing inspired arranger/composer Jimmy Giuffre to write a piece highlighting them, a tune indebted to bop as well as a harbinger of the cool jazz styles to come.
"Four Brothers" starts with the four playing in harmony, and then each gets 16 bars to solo (I think the order is Steward, Chaloff, Sims, Getz--someone correct me if I'm wrong). After the whole band takes over, Woody pops in on clarinet and the slightly insane drumming of Don Lamond leads us out.
Getz would become one of the finest saxophonists of the 20th century (we will be hearing more from him in '48); Sims would record with Jack Kerouac and Al Cohn; Steward, the Zeppo Marx of the bunch, faded into obscurity; Chaloff had the most tortured fate--addicted to heroin for much of his prime, snubbed by colleagues upon his eventual return to jazz, and stricken by spinal paralysis, he would be dead by 34.
The Second Herd fell apart by the end of '48, in part due to the band's massive heroin problems, enough that players were falling asleep on stage. Arranger Ralph Burns: "On more nights than I'd care to remember, the front line would be cacked out."
Recorded in Los Angeles on December 27, 1947. Buy the Herd.
It was the year of no return for television. There are a number of milestones--the first TV show review in the New York Times; Harry Truman becoming the first televised president; the first televised World Series; the first commercial TV stations west of the Mississippi; the first commercial TV drama; the first broadcast of Meet the Press. The TV pictured above is one of the finest available--the DuMont Model RA-103--collectors call it "The Dog House." Consider it the iPod of '47.
Wallace Stevens, So & So Reclining On Her Couch.
Also in '47, Wallace Stevens, insurance executive and poet, published one of his finest collections, Transport to Summer. One likes to imagine WS sitting at his desk, reading over actuary reports or talking to a client about increasing his health coverage, while somewhere in his head, the words are gathering:
"The cricket in the telephone is still.
A geranium withers on the windowsill."
"He is not here, the old sun,
As absent as if we were asleep."
"On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls
Noiselessly, noiselessly, resembling a thin bird,
That thinks of settling, yet never settles, on a nest."
"The sun, in clownish yellow, but not a clown,
Brings the day to perfection and then fails."
"The death of Satan was a tragedy
For the imagination."
"Life is a bitter aspic. We are not
at the center of a diamond."
Friday, December 17, 2004
Mumbles played bass
Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton, Blow Top Blues.
"With me, it is 'Blow Top Blues' every day," Dinah Washington.
A girl you can't excuse, who wakes up in Bellevue stinking of the whiskey she had poured on her head in the subway. Dinah Washington can make a nervous breakdown sexy and endearing. When "Blow Top Blues" became a hit in 1947 it was already a piece of the past, as Dinah had left the Lionel Hampton band the year before and was about to try her luck as a soloist.
You can winnow the classic female jazz and blues singers to a hallowed few--Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah--and of that few, Dinah Washington's reputation is the most neglected today. Perhaps because her early death deprived us of the ability to hear her age elegantly through music, like Vaughan and Fitzgerald, or because, genre-wise, she was hard to pin down. Was she a pop singer? A blues singer (Alberta Hunter called Dinah the true successor to Bessie Smith)? A jazz singer (she isn't mentioned once in The History of Jazz, while having recorded some of the finest jazz albums of the '50s)?
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Jones in Alabama in 1924, and by 16 she was sneaking off to play under assumed names in nightclubs while by day singing in gospel groups. She learned from the finest in gospel--Aretha Franklin's father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson--but the life of the soul wasn' t savory enough for a woman who would burn through nine husbands. "She'd catch the eye of some man and she'd be out the church before the minister finished off the doxology," a friend would say. (from Anthony Heilbut's The Gospel Sound.)
Soon enough, Ruth Jones had cast her fate with jazz, joining Hampton's group and changing her name. (A number of people, including Hampton, take credit for the name change. It's odd, and fitting, that Ruth Jones would change her name to something with the exact same meter as 'Billie Holiday' and 'Ella Fitzgerald'--same amount of syllables, same stresses.) Ms. Washington was on her way.
You can find "Blow Top" on this fine '47 hits compilation.
Spike Jones, The Sheik of Araby.
American pop music, which at its best is often profane and silly, has been doubly blessed with a few court jesters, none better than Spike Jones. Like a Warner Brothers cartoon come to life, or Mad Magazine's house band, Jones and his crew infested the often-dreary pop standards of the '40s, turning "My Old Flame" into a demented cry for blood by Peter Lorre, or, in this case, making a novelty song like "Sheik" even more ridiculous.
"Sheik" can be found on this greatest hits compilation--I can't think of a finer Christmas present. Happy weekend.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
a one-way ticket
Louis Armstrong with Jack Teagarden, Rockin' Chair.
Duke Ellington, The Clothed Woman.
The revolutionaries at high middle age.
It had been twenty years since the amazements of their youth, twenty years since "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Potato Head Blues" and "Muggles" and "East St. Louis Toodle-oo"--the records that turned jazz from a regional enthusiasm into an art. Now Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were close to 50--they were established, successful, revered. And irrelevant?
After all, Armstrong called bebop "Chinese music" and never attempted it, which even Benny Goodman did. But Armstrong had always been an entertainer first--he is one of those figures, like George M. Cohan or Elvis Presley, who come along in American music and seem destined to be its complete embodiment, even if that means embracing a whole lot of schlock. Bop, with its exclusionary airs, its antipathy to dancers, was poison to Armstrong.
So in '47, Armstrong ditched his big band and formed a smaller All-Star unit, placing his bet on nostalgia: Nostalgia for the old timey jazz, for the old songs, for music representing a time of camp meetings and dime stores, a world which, by '47, was quickly dying off, if not already dead. (If it even existed in the first place.) But it's not cheap nostalgia--Armstrong's playing is as clear as it was in 1925, while Teagarden's boozy singing is a delight, and the two of them take immense pleasure in each other's company. If the past has been closed off, Louis and Jack will create it again, note-perfect, for the length of a 78 rpm record.
Ellington couldn't follow that route. His eyes were always looking elsewhere, even at the height of his fame, and between the end of the war and the mid-1950s, Ellington entered a period of relative obscurity and at times, quite weird experimentation.
"The Clothed Woman" opens with Duke playing something close to atonal piano, enough so that I wonder whether many copies of the disc had a scratch a fingertip's breadth into the song after people pulled the disc off, wondering what sort of avant-garde crap they had purchased by mistake. After a bit, things begin to cohere--Duke finds a riff, and the horns come in to keep it going. Then, suddenly, 1:15 in, Duke rips into a sort of modernist ragtime, his right hand dancing out while his left keeps perfect, minimalist rhythm. And then it all falls back into quiet chaos again.
"Rockin" was recorded on June 10, 1947, with Armstrong, Teagarden, the underrated Bobby Hackett on cornet, Peanuts Hucko (clar), Johnny Guanieri (p), Ernie Caceres (clar), Al Hall (b), and Cozy Cole (d). It can be found on this good basic Armstrong collection. "Clothed Woman" was recorded in NY on Dec. 30, 1947, with Ellington legends Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney on sax, Harold Baker (tp), Junior Raglin (b) and Sammy Greer (d). A wonderful collection I cannot recommend enough is Duke's Masterpieces-- 4 CDs of genius for about $23.
Monday, December 13, 2004
Waiting on a train
Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats, Peg O' My Heart.
Many songs seem fabricated--you can find the stitchwork on them; others seem as though they had been netted, entirely whole, out of the air. "Peg O' My Heart" is the latter. It's a simple, shuffling melody that lingers in the head, a melody that, upon first hearing, seems as though you have already heard it before, years ago, somewhere else.
The above photograph was taken by Ruth Orkin of a mother and daugher in the old Penn Station in 1947. You can imagine "Peg" somewhere beyond the margins of the photo--carried on a radio at a shoeshine stand, whistled by a man hustling to catch the 5:18.
"Peg"was a colossal #1 pop hit. Jerry Murad, an Armenian born in Constantinople, spurned his family's carpet business to form a harmonica trio in 1944. Murad, recalling the sound effects of suspense radio shows, thought of using an echo chamber to enhance his group's sound. Engineer Bill Putnam, intrigued by the idea, miked the harmonica trio in the marble-tiled bathroom of the Chicago Opera House. In its quiet way, "Peg" is an early exercise in sound distortion. More on Putnam, one of the forefathers of reverb.
You can buy "Peg" here.
Bonus reading: The National Security Act of 1947. While it may feel as though the Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the CIA have always been with us, they are relative latecomers. Here is their birth certificate.
Friday, December 10, 2004
Raise the flag
Harry Choates, Harry Choates Special.
Harry Choates, Devil in the Bayou.
A great dose of cultural miscegenation for the weekend.
When the Cajun fiddler Harry Choates was a child, the populist governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, began building thousands of miles of highways--13,000 in all before Long was assassinated in 1935--linking every last corner of the state. So by the time Choates formed his first band after the war, the Cajuns, the descendants of the French-speaking Acadians forced out of Canada centuries before, were no longer an isolated culture in the Louisiana bayous--they were starting to assimilate and their music was changing, absorbing influences from across the South.
Choates managed to create a fusion of Cajun fiddling and Western swing. "Harry Choates Special" is a pure Bob Wills rip-off, complete with Choates doing Wills-style interjections before solos. But Choates' fiddle playing is wilder than the typical country player--he would stand on the tips of his toes to play at the absolute top of his range, emulating the way Cajun singers would sing "high". "Devil in the Bayou" features great steel guitar/fiddle interplay along with some shrieking and howling.
Choates at his peak was called the Cajun Hank Williams, but his career was short and messy, marked by alcoholism and erratic behavior. In 1951 he was killed in a jail in Austin, Texas, for reasons and by methods still unclear--he most likely was beaten to death by guards.
You can find more great Choates music here. Details on Choates from John Morthland's "The Best of Country Music."
Dizzy Gillespie, Manteca.
Dizzy had long wanted to incorporate Latin American rhythms into jazz, in particular the rhythms he was hearing from the growing number of Cuban players on the scene. Finally, in 1947, he was able to form a big band and recruited the Cuban conga player Chano Pozo as a collaborator. Pozo gave Dizzy a series of riffs, which Gillespie linked together with a bridge section he composed--the result was "Manteca," which essentially created a new musical movement, salsa, during its three-minute length.
(Pozo seems like a character out of a dime novel--he had a bullet permanently lodged in his spine, and carried a knife everywhere. In December '48, he was killed in a barroom brawl.)
"Manteca" starts with Pozo's three riffs--first on bass, then saxophones, then trombones, with Pozo's conga playing under all of it. Gillespie's shining trumpet solos, short as they are, are marvels; Nick Nicholas throws in a reference to "Blue Moon" in his sax solo--the whole thing is a great wonderful jumble of contrary influences.
Recorded on December 22, 1947, in New York. Buy "Manteca" here.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
I've lost my taste for caviar
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Kidney Stew Blues.
Cleanhead Vinson earned his nickname after a horrific accident involving lye-based hair conk. As he says in his "Cleanhead Blues": "Folks call me mister Cleanhead 'cause my head is bald on top/And every week I save a dollar/ When I walk by that barber shop."
Vinson was one of the relatively few postwar musicians who could straddle the growing divide between jazz and R&B--he was as convincing a blues "shouter" as Jimmy Witherspoon while he was also a notable alto sax player (he eventually would write tunes for Miles Davis and mentor Coltrane in the early '50s.)
"Kidney Stew Blues" finds Cleanhead realizing his uptown dame is just too much work and money for him, so he's going back home to find that woman he dumped. He's going to settle for "plain old kidney stew," and he sounds pretty happy about it.
More on Cleanhead. "Kidney Stew" was recorded on January 22, 1947 in New York, and can be found on this great R&B collection.
Recipe for kidney stew, for your holiday table.
Monday, December 06, 2004
A two-headed beast
Sergei Prokofiev, Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Moderato.
Sometimes you really shouldn't go home again. Sergei Prokofiev, who had left Russia after the Revolution, made a catastrophic decision to return there in the mid-1930s. So instead of spending his waning years writing scores for Hollywood, or writing in peace funded by a generous university, Prokofiev wound up with his works denounced as "cosmopolitan" trash while his wife was arrested and sent to a Siberian labor camp.
By 1947, when the Soviet Union celebrated the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin had broken the spine of the nation's artistic culture, which had been one of the finest in the world. The writer Isaak Babel had been tortured and shot, the poet Osip Mandelstam died in a gulag. Prokofiev's friend and collaborator, the theatre director Meyerhold, was shot in prison and his actress wife Zinaida Raikh stabbed to death. Composers like Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door, expecting the knock after midnight.
While the Sonata for Solo Violin, composed in '47, is not a masterpiece like “Lt. Kijé” nor as well-loved as “Peter and the Wolf," it is still beautiful, even light and playful, like some lost memory from Prokofiev’s youth. (It can be played either by a solo violinist, or, as in Prokofiev’s original intention, by 20 or more violinists simultaneously.) Crafting something so lovely, so seemingly inconsequential, in a time of terror and misery is a testament to human resilience, or, for the cynical, perhaps to our endless capacity for delusion.
Stalin spent his last years burrowing further into insanity; Prokofiev spent his working in poor health, hardly leaving his house. They would die within hours of each other in 1953, and because the florists of Moscow were wiped out by demands for Stalin’s funeral, only a pine bough could be found for Prokofiev’s coffin.
Posted is the sonata's first "moderato" movement. Performed by Gil Shaham, the whole piece (along with Prokofiev’s two great violin concertos) can be found here.
Lots on Prokofiev
Friday, December 03, 2004
Mr. Robinson starts work in Brooklyn
Battle of the bop piano titans!
Bud Powell, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Thelonious Monk, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Earl "Bud" Powell and Thelonious Sphere Monk (the greatest name for a human being ever) were the defining postwar jazz pianists, the men who brought the innovations of bebop to the keyboard, and whose influence imbued the playing of all their successors.
Monk was a mentor of sorts to Powell--Monk was seven years older, and, in his role as house pianist at the club Minton's during the war, had supported Powell when other players wanted Powell kicked out of the club. While similar in ways, they more often seemed to be two different states of matter--Powell's playing is kinetic, astonishingly fast and fluid; Monk's is often slower, rhythmic and willing to use fewer notes. The jazz historian Ted Gioia calls Powell a horizontal player, and Monk a vertical one, if that makes a bit of sense.
A good place to start is their separate takes on Gershwin's "Nice Work." It is an early performance for both, coming from Powell's first session as a leader and Monk's second. (If interested in how the original Gershwin goes, listen to Fred Astaire in a sample here). Powell tears out of the gate with a string of notes, pounds out the chorus at breakneck speed and races out the song from there; Monk cracks the melody apart and plays with its parts for a while.
Powell's performance was recorded on January 10, 1947, with Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums; Monk's (an alternate take I prefer to the officially released take) on October 24, with Gene Ramey on bass and Art Blakey on drums. You can find Powell on this compilation and Monk on the fantastic Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1.
What's your vote, Bud or Monk?
Note from the Management: I’ve been remiss in crediting fellow blogs, many of which have sent viewers my way in the past weeks. You will see most of these sites on the blog roll, but all deserve an extra pinch of hype.
The Tofu Hut, Moistworks and Soul Sides are the reasons I was inspired to begin this mp3 blog nonsense. Other favorites include Mystical Beast (don't miss his recent posts on Skyband, a forgotten group that also served as a strange pop cultural crossroads), #1 Songs in Heaven (an Englishman whose knowledge of American soul dwarves that of most Americans, including this American), Keep the Coffee Coming, and Big Rock Candy Mountain, who currently is doing a great run of Christmas songs.
You may consider Honey Where You Been So Long the better, happier half of this site—while I slowly trudge away from the past, Honey stays with some of the finest American music ever made—the blues, gospel and country of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Benn loxo du taccu, with its resources of wonderful African music, deserves a government grant of some sort. Oddio Overplay has some of the strangest, most enjoyable music around.
If any latecomers are upset about missing some of the earlier tracks I posted (I know there are Andrews Sisters junkies out there by the score), email me. A very limited offer. Happy weekend.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
look to the west
Delmore Brothers, Mobile Boogie.
By 1947, the Delmores, Alton and Rabon, had come a great distance from their birthplace of Elkmont, Alabama. They had been one of the many brother acts that were a staple of 1930s country, and had headlined at the Grand Ole Opry from 1932 to 1938. But after the war, the Delmores transformed themselves into a hillbilly boogie band; indeed, they wrote the song that gave the movement its name in 1946.
The Delmores had had a rough time in the early '40s, bumming around for work, and then Rabon had to go solo for a time when Alton was drafted. By ’45, they had settled in Memphis, were recording for King Records, one of the great postwar independent labels, and were imbibing Memphis’ concoction of blues and boogie. Their music became faster, electrified and grittier.
Alton, eight years Rabon's elder, had taught Rabon how to play guitar, and their typical sound was for Alton to drive the rhythm while Rabon played lead. However, on occasion, they dueled each other for the lead, and there is no better example than “Mobile Boogie.” Alton solos first, to Rabon’s hollering encouragement, until Rabon pushes in with a whoop and powers through his solo, seeming to pluck his strings with steel-tipped fingers. After a verse and chorus, the brothers rock out together, crafting some of most swinging guitar lines ever recorded.
Here is the best collection of the Delmores' postwar work.
The above painting, Edward Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town, can be seen at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio.
Monday, November 29, 2004
"a high-bred uptown fancy little dame"
Tex Williams and His Western Caravan, Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).
It's not the cigarettes that get Tex Williams riled up--he's a smoker himself. It's just that smoking consistently thwarts his other pleasures. An anthem of pure frustration with few peers; perhaps the Stones' "Satisfaction" is more desperate, but it's not as funny.
Merle Travis and Williams co-wrote "Smoke!", which became Williams' first and biggest hit. Sol "Tex" Williams had started as the singer in Spade Cooley's western swing band, and by '47 had stolen a good chunk of Cooley's band to form the gargantuan Western Caravan, featuring harp, accordion and steel guitar. "Smoke!" swings between jazz and country, with the walking bassline and blaring trumpet matched by Williams' classic country bass voice and the wheeling fiddle solo.
Recorded in Hollywood on March 27, 1947 and can be found here. (I hate to complain yet again about the damages done to the Smithsonian Classic Country LP compilation (from which I got "Smoke!"), but I must--not only is the CD version of this set now out of print, but it stunk on ice while it was available. Case in point--the compilers cut "Smoke!" while making space for two Alabama songs and "9 to 5".)
The '40s were the end of the Golden Age of smoking, with an early TV news broadcast, "Camel News Caravan", requiring its anchorman, John Cameron Swayze, to constantly have a cigarette burning while on air. And a NY Times Sunday magazine article in May '47, written by one W.B. Hayward, is entitled "Why We Smoke -- We Like It." The sidebar, purporting to show an opposing side, contains no mention of recent studies indicating links to heart disease, cancer and decreased longevity" As for Tex Williams, he would die of cancer in 1985.
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Now be thankful
Louis Jordan, Ain't That Just Like a Woman.
Louis Jordan, who essentially created rhythm & blues and served as grandfather to rock and roll a decade later, had become of the most popular entertainers in the country by the mid-'40s. James Brown: "Louis was everything." Jordan even had music videos--short films of him singing his current hit that would play before main features in theatres, and soon became so popular that the Jordan films took top billing on marquees. (Reminds me of the peak of the Michael Jackson mania in the '80s, when TV listings in my paper would note when Jackson's Pepsi commercials were running.)
Starting with an electric guitar intro Chuck Berry definitely remembered, "Ain't That" swings all the way through its too-short length, while Louis blames women for everything he can name, even the burning of Rome.
"Ain't That" was recorded in New York on Jan. 23, 1946, and featured Jordan on alto sax and his Tympany Five--Aaron Izenhall (trumpet), Josh Jackson (tenor sax), Wild Bill Davis (p), Carl Hogan (g), Jesse "Po" Simpkins (b) and Eddie Byrd (d). It, along with a whole lot of other great music, can be found on this 2-CD anthology.
Frank Sinatra, The Girl That I Marry.
A bit of sentiment for the start of the holidays. By '46, Sinatra was nearing the end of his bobby-soxer teen idol phase and would soon enter a strange period in his career when he grew a moustache, had an flop television show and married Ava Gardner. But here he sings Irving Berlin's "The Girl that I Marry" as sweet as a lamb.
Recorded in Hollywood on March 10, 1946, and can be found on this Irving Berlin compilation.
And with that, 1946 comes to a close. After a brief Thanksgiving hiatus, a new year begins. Hope you all are enjoying it so far.
Bonus: Favorite Films of '46
1) It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey's Bedford Falls is like "The Village" in the '60s UK spy show The Prisoner. Part social history of America 1915-1945, part cornball family movie; Frank Capra's film is far wittier, darker and sharper than its reputation as a genial Christmas TV staple. Contains one of my favorite lines in film history, from Nick the bartender: "Hey look, mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint 'atmosphere'. Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?"
2) A Matter of Life and Death. (AKA Stairway to Heaven). Possibly the Archers' best movie in a decade of triumphs. A fantasy happy ending for the millions of war dead.
3) The Big Sleep.
4) Notorious. Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman.
5) Canyon Passage. Odd Western by Jacques Tourneur, featuring Hoagy Carmichael singing "Ole Buttermilk Sky. "
6) Sciuscià (Shoeshine).
7) My Darling Clementine. Good lord, this was a good year for movies.
8) The Killers.
Monday, November 22, 2004
Charles Mingus, This Subdues My Passion.
Before Charles Mingus was Mingus the bebop all-star, or Mingus the Yahweh of the bass, or Mingus the subject of rock musician hagiography, he was a confused journeyman living in California.
Mingus spent much of the 1940s spinning around, trying to find a favorable direction. He excoriated bop, and then pledged allegiance to Charlie Parker; he belittled the upstart rhythm & blues, but incorporated R&B riffing into his compositions.
"This Subdues My Passion," recorded on May 6, 1946, was at last a solid step forward. It's one of Mingus's best early compositions, reflecting both his debt to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (stealing some ideas from "Chelsea Bridge") and indicating his own ability to meld a host of musical styles into one, from classical to Ellingtonian big band to the emerging jazz avant-garde. Ted Gioia: "Mingus managed to not only embrace a world of music, but engulf it in an overpowering bear hug."
Fifty years later, Elvis Costello wrote lyrics for this composition. I haven't heard them and don't really have the desire to.
"Subdues" is a bit hard to find these days--you could start here.
Boyd Raeburn, Body and Soul.
As jazz was shedding its role as the nation's primary means of dance music, some performers began trying to convert jazz into the music's PR motto by century's end: "America's classical music." Several musicians adopted Igor Stravinsky as a sort of jazz house composer, none more than Woody Herman, for whom Stravinsky wrote a composition, the "Ebony Concerto", while Herman performed "Igor" in return.
Boyd Raeburn had quite public ambitions of grandeur, calling his compositions "modern classical music applied to swing," dropping Hindemith and Shostakovich regularly into his conversations and even writing a composition called "Boyd Meets Stravinksy" (though I'm not sure the two ever did.)
The results were a bit mixed. Listen for yourself--here is the Raeburn band's take on the jazz standard "Body and Soul", in which a relatively straightforward adaptation of the song is bookended by Stravinskian imitations. It winds up being a weird but compelling muddle--a sort of forefather to 1950s space-age jazz.
Recorded in Los Angeles on June 6, 1946, with Raeburn's wife Ginnie Powell on vocals, and featuring alto, soprano, tenor and baritone sax players, as well as lots of trombone, french horn, flute, piano and harp. Phil Spector would have approved.
It can be found on Boyd Meets Stravinsky, a collection of 1945 and 1946 Raeburn band performances.
Friday, November 19, 2004
The Herd's in town
Woody Herman, Sidewalks of Cuba.
Woody Herman was one of the few big band leaders to escape the brutal collapse of the swing era (eight big bands folded in December '46 alone)--he carried on with various incarnations of his Thundering Herds throughout the '70s and '80s. But Herman had always been a maverick, and always had been open to the new sounds. He hired Dizzy Gillespie as an arranger for a time during the war, and by 1945, Herman had assembled what would be known as the First Herd--a bunch of young, ambitious players (Herman's pianist and arranger Ralph Burns would later call them "a football team up from the minors").
While Benny Goodman's band, for example, had to learn arrangements perfectly to the note, Herman's band was happy anarchy. Herman served more as coach or eager onlooker, asking his players to think up riffs, and then, when a good riff came along, each section of the band would work up their own parts around it. Drummer Don Lamond: Woody used to say, 'put in whatever you want to put in.' Arrangers like Burns and Neal Hefti hastily glued it all together.
"Sidewalks of Cuba" is a fine example of this approach. The basic song is nothing much, a piece of light 1930s pop, but the Herd turns it into a masterpiece--the interplay of the reeds and horns, guitarist Chuck Wayne's bop-influenced solo, and, most of all, Sonny Berman's incredible trumpet solo, which starts by quoting "Flight of the Bumblebee" and goes off from there. Berman, who was only 21 and who could have been one of the master postwar trumpeters, would die of a heroin overdose in January 1947.
"Sidewalks" was recorded on Sept. 17, 1946 in Los Angeles. The First Herd consisted of about 20 players, including Herman on clarinet, Lamond on drums, a five-man trumpet section including Berman and Shorty Rogers; the unconventional trombonist Bill Harris; Joe Mondragon on bass and the ubiquitous Red Norvo on vibes. Buy the best of the Herd.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
you missed a great party
Johnny Moore & the Three Blazers (featuring Charles Brown), I'll Get Along Somehow.
Charles Brown, a brilliant pianist and singer, is another neglected founding father of R&B, though he received some recognition in the years before his death in 1999, in part due to the efforts of Bonnie Raitt. Brown is best known for his "Merry Christmas Baby", though the version played during the holidays is most often the Bruce Springsteen cover.
Brown came late to music--he had a degree in chemistry, taught high school science in Texas during the war. He moved to Los Angeles, took work as an elevator operator, and entered a talent contest at the Lincoln Theater just to see if he was any good. Not only did he win, but in the audience were guitarist Johnny Moore and bassist Eddie Williams, who asked Brown to join their trio.
Postwar Los Angeles was burgeoning with music from all genres (mild case in point--nearly every song I've posted since "KoKo" was recorded there), and the Three Blazers was one of its best synthesizers. Much like the Nat King Cole trio (Moore's brother played guitar with Cole), the Three Blazers offered a quieter, moodier incarnation of jazz and blues. Theirs was the sound of the after-hours nightclub--jazz without freneticism, blues without a country accent.
"I'll Get Along Somehow" was first a hit for one of Brown's major influences, Pha Terrell, but this is the definitive version for me, featuring Brown's lazy, quiet and irresistable singing, as well as his assured piano playing and Moore's nice guitar accompaniment.
Life of Mr. Brown.
From the amazing "American Pop: An Audio History", a nine-disc compilation that ranges from 1893 to 1946, but which sadly is out of print. It also can be found here.
Monday, November 15, 2004
quelle critique brillante
Edith Piaf, La Vie En Rose.
"Voilà le portrait sans retouche..."
Was Edith Piaf a collaborator during the Occupation? Was she partially responsible, as some journalists hinted, for the unsolved murder of Louis Leplee, the cafe owner who discovered Piaf as a waif singing for change on a street off the Champs Elysees? Piaf never responded to the charges--all that concerned her was her singing and her love affairs, which were often one and the same.
"La Vie En Rose", recorded October 9, 1946, is her most famous, and most enduring, performance. Piaf is the prism through which 20th Century French music is refracted--she grew up learning the chansons of the nightclubs, brothels and circuses, and, after she became a star, she gathered a host of disciples that would define the postwar years, including Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour.
Short life of Piaf.
also in 1946, Jacques Prevert published his Paroles, one of which, "Je Suis Comme Je Suis," could have been Edith's anthem.
I Am As I Am (excerpt)
I am as I am
I'm made that way
When I feel like laughing
I burst right out
I love the one who loves me
Is it my fault especially
If it's not the same one
I love each time
I am as I am
I'm made that way
What else do you expect
What do you expect of me
I'm made to please
and can't change that
My heels are too high
My back too bent
My breasts much too hard
And my eyes too circled
And after all
What's it to you?....
Speaking of literature, the Tintin comic excerpted at the top of the post is from "The Seven Balls of Crystal", which was published between 1946 and 1948. Highly recommended.
Friday, November 12, 2004
"the young folks are out for a good time"
Bob Wills, Brain Cloudy Blues.
Bob Wills is one of the geniuses who turn up on rare days in American popular music. At his peak in the late 1930s and the 1940s, Wills and his Texas Playboys managed to fuse seemingly every piece of contemporary popular music-- the Southern string bands, square dances, Broadway crooners, big band jazz, Texas/Mexican stomp--into one wonderful whole. You could argue most American music after Wills doesn't quite live up to his promise.
"Brain Cloudy Blues", Wills' and singer Tommy Duncan's rewrite of Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues", comes from one of Wills' last sessions for Columbia Records. By 1946, Wills was in trouble--his band was restless, his drinking was worsening. Yet you can't hear a trace of trouble on "Brain Cloudy", which is a thing of joy. Wills' constant interjections, undercutting Duncan's vocal ("those are electric lights you're looking at"); Junior Barnard's gritty electric guitar solo; the way Wills' fiddle dances around the song. It's just fantastic.
Recorded in Hollywood on Sept. 5, 1946. It's hard to recommend just one Wills collection, but The Essential, where "Brain Cloudy" can be found, is a good start. More on Wills and the Playboys.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose, I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again.
Rose Maddox once tried out for Bob Wills, after her brothers, with whom she'd been playing shows since she was eleven, had all been drafted into the army. Wills didn't think much of Rose's singing style--she sounded like an Okie hayseed, after all. Born in Alabama, Rose and her family had joined the exodus to California during the Depression, picking fruit for a living.
When all four Maddox boys got back from the war, the family band embraced their redneck heritage, gaining a reputation for outlandish shows and proudly hailed as "the most colorful hillbilly band in America."
"Single Girl" is no throwback, though. While they sound at first like pure products from the Deep South, the Maddoxes were as much Californians as Alabamans, and there's a goofiness and freedom to the song, both lyrically and musically, that is something new. While Cliff Maddox's mandolin is a throwback to the string bands of the '20s, the stomping beat and the riffing electric guitars look ahead to the next generation.
"Single Girl" is found on this highly recommended collection. More on the Maddoxes.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Merle Travis, I Am a Pilgrim.
A crossover soul record? Merle Travis learned this song from another Kentucky musician, Mose Rager, who in turn had learned it from a blues singer. Travis' guitar playing is also far more bluesy and syncopated than the typical country style--his trademark was to use his thumb to play rhythm on the bass strings, and his forefinger to pick the melody on the treble strings. This is similar to what Robert Johnson had been doing in the '30s, but it was revolutionary for the country music world. Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore, just to name two country guitar legends, owed much of their style to Travis.
This is a bit of an anomalous record for Travis, who mainly was known for novelties like "Fat Girl," "Divorce Me C.O.D.", "Sixteen Tons" and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed." His singing here is wonderful--nostalgic and vibrant, with a sense of mourning lost time. The postwar era is already well underway, and the country camp meeting was quickly becoming a piece of the past (although it would be reincarnated in the televangelist shows and Promise Keeper rallies).
Recorded in Hollywood on August 13, 1946. Later notably covered by the Byrds on their "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album. It can be found on this collection.
The Pilgrim's Progress.
"So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! life! eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain."
Monday, November 08, 2004
Lutheran '46 picnic
Peggy Lee, I Don't Know Enough About You.
"I Don't Know Enough About You" was the first song Peggy Lee and her husband, guitarist David Barbour, wrote together, and was one of her first solo successes after she left the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Under Goodman's strict reign, Lee had suffered--she was frequently ill, was forced to sing in the key of Goodman's earlier singer, Helen Forrest--but the endless touring and the barrage of music she had had to learn turned her from an ambitious North Dakota prodigy into, by 1946, a master pop singer.
Here, she's in complete control of the lyric, and already has the lazy, sensual tone that would define later songs like "Fever" and "Black Coffee." The music is also quietier, smokier, than the typical big band number.
Released Feb. 1, 1946, and hit #7 on the pop charts. A good place to find it is on the first volume of the Capitol Collectors Series.
Friday, November 05, 2004
William Baziotes, Green Form, (Whitney Museum, NY)
John Cage, Sonata V, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.
Cage is best known for silence, the infamous 4' 33'', but between February 1946 and March 1948 he composed his sonatas and interludes for prepared piano. "Prepared" is a quiet word for a radical act. Cage called for sticking various objects between the strings of a piano: screws; rubber strips; bits of plastic; furniture bolts; and, most painstakingly, an American Pencil Co. Eraser #346. In all, 45 of the piano's 88 keys are altered in some way.
The idea came to him in 1940, when Cage had been asked at short notice to write music for a dance in a theatre too small to house a percussion ensemble, only a piano. He would later say "what was wrong was not me, but the piano." Preparing the piano enabled Cage to reclaim it as a percussive instrument, which it fundamentally is. (After all, its sounds are made with hammers.) Cage's goal, in part, was to transform the piano into a sort of gamelan, an Indonesian percussion orchestra composed of chimes, gongs and bamboo xylophones.
"Sonata V" with its driving, eerie rhythms sounds particularly timeless (it reminds me of Brian Eno's Another Green World).
The Sonatas and Interludes were first performed by Maro Ajemian in New York's Carnegie Recital Hall, and have been performed only sporadically since, as getting the piano prepared correctly involves many trips to the hardware store.
This performance is by Boris Berman on the Naxos' "American Classics" label, which can be bought here.
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
She bowls a neat 200
Bill "Jazz" Gillum, Look On Yonder Wall.
The boys were coming home, and it was time for the gigolos to head out. The singer here is no fool. Ever since V-J Day, he's been reading the paper every morning, seeing when the next ship of veterans is due to dock. The woman he's fooling around with says to pay it no mind, but the singer knows differently:
Now your man has been in the army,
Now I know that's awful tough
I don't know how many men that he done killed
But I think he done killed enough.
Hand him his walking cane, he's done.
Gillum was one of the architects of the Chicago blues, performing (and possibly writing--there is some controversy) standards like "Key to the Highway." In the end he remained a journeyman performer, never reaching the heights of contemporaries like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Gillum's popularity in the postwar years waned and in 1966, just as he was attempting a comeback, Gillum was shot in the head during an argument. More on the ill-starred Gillum.
"Yonder Wall" was recorded in Chicago on Feb. 18, 1946, and featured "Big Maceo" Merriwether on piano and Leonard Caston on guitar. It was covered by everyone from Elmore James to the Rolling Stones (for whom it seems tailor-made) and can be found on the fourth volume of the great "When the Sun Goes Down" series of CDs: "That's All Right: The Secret History of Rock and Roll", a great collection of 1940s blues and R&B. Buy here.
Monday, November 01, 2004
The mighty KoKo, 1:50-1:57
The new music was made in the shadows during the war, in hotel rooms, or after hours in clubs like Minton's in Harlem. Only when the recording bans and rationings were over was bebop finally immortalized. Dizzy Gillespie was first--in February and May '45, he, Charlie Parker and other conspirators recorded bop's cornerstones. Hot House. Dizzy Atmosphere. Salt Peanuts. Shaw 'Nuff.
On November 26, 1945, it was Charlie Parker's turn at last as bandleader. The session at WOR Studios in New York was chaotic: Parker's sax was acting up, prompting him to leave the studio mid-session to get a new one; Miles Davis, still a neophyte, wasn't up to some of the wilder music, so Dizzy, who had been brought in as a last-minute replacement for Bud Powell on piano (Powell was out helping his mother buy a house), doubled on trumpet.
Ray Noble's "Cherokee" had become talismanic for Parker. In 1939, while he was playing it, Parker had had an epiphany--for the first time, he would say later, he was able to play the music he was hearing in his head.
Now, however, Parker killed a first take of "Cherokee" after 30 seconds. He realized that if he did the conventional routine--theme, then solos, then theme reprise--there wouldn't be enough room on a 78 rpm record for what he wanted. So he just threw out the theme. All that was left of "Cherokee" was its chord structure, which Parker used as so much raw material for two genius solo choruses. Perhaps only Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul" had come this close to jazz as pure, radical, free thought. When it was over, producer Teddy Reig quickly named it "KoKo."
Charlie Parker, KoKo.
Everything about this recording is extraordinary--Dizzy and Bird's jabbing counterpart in the opening, Max Roach's pounding drum solo--and the Parker solos are so jammed with innovation, dense rhythms and melodies, that I still discover new riches with each new hearing, and I've been listening to it for 15 bloody years. Enjoy.
Parker (alto sax), Gillespie (trumpet, piano?), Argonne Thornton (piano?), Roach (d), Curly Russell (b). WOR-AM, in whose studios this was recorded, is still broadcasting in New York.
Info on Parker and "KoKo" from a host of sources, including Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz, where the full Parker solo transcription can be found; Ted Gioia's History of Jazz, and the booklet to Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings, where you can find "KoKo" among eight CDs full of great jazz.
With this, 1945 draws to a close-- '46 begins in a day or two.
Bonus unwanted opinion:
Best films of '45:
1) Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert's Les Enfants du Paradis. The last gasp of Classical France--as if Balzac had made a film during the Occupation.
2) UK horror anthology Dead of Night.
3) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going. Pretty, modern girl goes to Scotland to marry tycoon; chaos ensues.
4) John Huston and Frank Capra's Battle of San Pietro.
5) Rene Clair's And Then There Were None.
Hitchcock's Spellbound is a window into what the general public thought of Freudian theory (ridiculous crap for oversexed rich people, basically). And Ingrid Bergman gets to say the line "Liverwurst!" with rapturous joy.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
"This fine beer wins more friends every day."
Saturday Night and Sunday Afternoon
Tex Ritter, "Rye Whiskey
Being drunk has never sounded more glorious. This is the apotheosis of getting smashed. Ritter makes a circus out of his voicebox--part train whistle, part minstrel singer, part trumpet. "If a tree don't fall on me, I'll live 'till I die."
Recorded May 7, 1945, but it was a hit a few years later. Ritter had already made one version in the 1930s, and would keep singing about "whiskey, you villain" for 25 more years. Ritter was one of the many "Hollywood cowboys" who filled wartime movie screens, grinding out, at one point, more than 40 films in seven years.
The Bailes Brothers, "Dust on the Bible"
It was a rough night, and now Sunday's ebbing away. Maybe you've skipped church, or if you did attend, you sank in the back pew and sat there with a throbbing headache, just willing the preacher to get through it all. Now the sun's heading down and you're starting to feel all right. But then your neighbour comes over--the one with the neat lawn and the frightened looking children, the one whose shirts seem a size too tight. After exchanging pleasantries, he asks to see your Bible. Where the hell is it? You dig through the Sears catalogs, look through the scattered books, talking nonchalantly to him all the time. At last, you see the Bible propping up a low shelf. Relieved, you hand it to your neighbour, but you note the fleeting look of utter damning disgust as the inch-thick coat of dust on the cover stains his fingers...
The Bailes Brothers--Kyle, Homer, Johnny and Walter--came from Charleston, West Va. No "Rye Whiskey" for them--one of their first hits was "The Drunkard's Grave." On "Dust", recorded on Feb. 17, 1945, Walter and Johnny sing lead. By 1949, the brothers had split (Walter and Homer going on to become Pentecostal ministers), though various re-incarnations persisted for decades to come.
Thumbnail Bailes history.
Both of these tracks are from "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music"8-LP set. On CD, "Whiskey" can be found here; "Dust" here.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
home at last
Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers, The Honeydripper.
From February to May 1945, the War Manpower Commission imposed a midnight curfew on all clubs and theaters. Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers were the house band at the Samba Club, in Los Angeles, and when the curfew began, they started playing "The Honeydripper," beginning at a quarter to twelve and finishing it exactly fifteen minutes later at lights-out. When Leon Rene, a record exec, wanted to record the song, he asked if Liggins could "cut it down." "We don't cut 'The Honeydripper' down," was the reply. But eventually, Liggins consented.
"The Honeydripper" was recorded on April 20, 1945, eight days after Franklin Roosevelt died of a stroke, and eight days before Mussolini was killed at Lake Como. Rene took the disc "to Sybil's Drugstore at 54th and Central and put it on the jukebox that morning around 8 o'clock. He went back that night around 7 o'clock to see if it had played. It had only played 135 times," says writer Ed Ward. It would ultimately sell a million copies.
If swing was waning, this type of music--bluesy, riff-heavy, dirty, danceable and unrelenting--was ready to take its place.
This and other great Liggins tracks can be found here.
Ward's fine account of the early days of R&B and rock and roll is one-third of "Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll"; the other parts are not as compelling.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
The Hotel Eden, Joseph Cornell
The original work by Cornell, patron saint of Queens, is in the National Gallery of Canada.
Benny Goodman Sextet, Rachel's Dream.
The swing era was dying. Soon all the big bands would go to smash--Gene Krupa's, Tommy Dorsey's, even Goodman's.
The war had done its part (musicians were conscripted, gas & rubber rationing hurt touring), as did a recording ban. And the singers had taken over. In the '30s, the singer was often a girl standing on a corner of the stage, sometimes not coming in until the final chorus. By '45, the singers--Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como--ruled the stage and the songs, absolutely.
And swing was getting stale: Much of it was generic pop music with vague jazz implications.
The improvisation had been steamed out, the beat regulated. It had devolved from Fletcher Henderson to Goodman to Dorsey to Glenn Miller (with Lawrence Welk being the endstop).
But Goodman kept going--even attempting bebop in the late '40s. Throughout his career, at his fame's height, he had always kept a 'chamber' group for his more adventurous work: first a trio with Teddy Wilson and Krupa, then then a sextet featuring vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and genius guitarist Charlie Christian.
"Rachel's Dream" comes from a May 7, 1945 session with Wilson on piano and Red Norvo on vibraphone. Along with Hampton, Norvo pioneered and defined the vibraphone. The rest of the Sextet was Morey Feld (d), Slam Stewart (b) and Mike Bryan (guitar). "Rachel's" can be found on the Goodman compilation that came out as part of the Ken Burns Jazz series.
Norvo is best heard on an ASV compilation Knockin' On Wood, which features another great track from this session, "Slipped Disc."
An exhaustive account of swing is Gunther Schuller's The Swing Era, part two of an alleged jazz history trilogy. "Early Jazz" is the initial volume. It has been 15 years, and still no sign of the last book.
Thursday, October 21, 2004
Bobby Hackett and His Orchestra, Pennies From Heaven.
The theme song of the Depression, and still a tonic for a war-numbed world ten years later. Written in 1936 by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston, and immortalized by Bing Crosby in a movie of the same name (which also guest-starred Louis Armstrong), "Pennies" soon became a jazz standard, its melody a fine thread that could be stitched into endless variations.
This version is fairly obscure-- it was compiled by Gary Giddins on a double-CD complementing his book Visions of Jazz--but its quiet, placid beauty is appealing. Hackett, best known for his work with Jackie Gleason (when Gleason moonlighted as a rival to schlock maven Mantovani) on a series of "Music for Lovers Only" LPs in the 1950s and 1960s. Hackett was as much a guitarist as he was a trumpeter (though he plays trumpet here.)
Giddins: "He played so well that he made elevator music interesting."
Recorded May 31, 1945-- the band includes Carl Kress on guitar, Dave Bowman on piano and Deane Kincaid on baritone sax.
More on Bobby Hackett.
Visions of Jazz, a thumbnail history of jazz music on two discs, can be found here.
"Pennies from Heaven" is the centerpiece of Dennis Potter's brilliant 1978 BBC serial, starring Bob Hoskins, which was adapted in Herbert Ross' 1981 film, starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, and featuring a Christopher Walken dance routine.
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
Hiroshima, after the war
Photo from The Navy Office of Information.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Strange Things Happening Every Day.
Sister Rosetta knew it, even before the A-bombs fell in August. "On that last great Judgement Day, when they drive them all away, there are strange things happening every day." The song is joy and defiance in the face of the unthinkable--Rosetta makes the Last Days sound pretty fun--and is pure gospel rock and roll, driven by Rosetta's guitar and Sammy Price's piano. It topped the R&B charts the week Hitler killed himself.
More on Sister Rosa, Johnny Cash's favorite singer,here. "Strange Things" can be found here.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
"In their glowing hours"
Winston Churchill, days after the German surrender, May 1945:
"I wish I could tell you tonight that all our toils and troubles were over...On the continent of Europe, we have yet to make sure that the simple and honourable purposes for which we entered the war are not brushed aside and overlooked in the months following our success, and that the words 'freedom', 'democracy', and 'liberation' are not distorted from their true meaning as we have understood them..."
"We seek nothing for ourselves. But we must make sure that those causes which we fought for find recognition at the peace table...and above all we must labor to ensure that the World Organisation which the United Nations are creating at San Francisco does not become an idle name, does not become a shield for the strong and a mockery for the weak. It is the victors who must search their hearts in their glowing hours, and be worthy by their nobility of the immense forces they wield..."
"...Forward, unflinching, unwavering, indomitable, till the whole task is done and the whole world is safe and clean."
Wartime songs in the U.S., though, often revolved around a subject far more interesting and sordid: what the GIs were getting up to with native girls, from the Philippines to Trinidad.
The Andrews Sisters, "Rum and Coca Cola"
A number-one smash in spring '45, and allegedly plagiarized from the calypso singer Lord Invader, the song's fairly risque nature escaped the Andrews Sisters, or so they say now:
Maxine Andrews: "We didn't think of what it meant; but at that time, nobody else would think of it either, because we weren't as morally open as we are today and so, a lot of stuff - really - no excuses - just went over our heads. " Read more here.
Cowboy Copas, "Filipino Baby"
Meanwhile over in the Pacific War, we find a spectacle that is as old as The Odyssey --a troop ship pulling out of the Philippines (likely heading up to the meat grinders of Okinawa and Iwo Jima), filled with weary and possibly venereal sailors who have been "making love to every pretty girl they met." But one little sailor has fallen in love with his "dark-faced Filipino" and eventually marries her on the deck of his ship, or so it seems. Their son could have served in Vietnam.
"Rum" can be found on 1,003 compilations--here's one:.
"Filipino" comes from the bountiful masterpiece "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music,", an 8-LP (16 sides!) set which should be released on CD in full, not in the abridged version that's out there. Again, "Filipino" is compiled in a host of places, such as this. It's unclear if this is really a 1945 song-- it was recorded in '44, but was a hit in '46. So we'll slot it in the middle.
Churchill's 6-vol history of WWII is likely the last great literary work written by a politician. Vol II is the most exciting, and Vol VI, in which Churchill is betrayed by Stalin and from which I quoted, is the saddest.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Here's an experiment of sorts. Once I get some technical issues out of the way, I will post a few songs and other scraps from each year, 1945-onward. To give a taste of time.
To start, two excerpts from Loving, published in 1945, by Henry Green. Let's begin with a death.
"Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants seperately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.
One name he uttered over and over. 'Ellen.'
The pointed windows of Mr Eldon's room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout."
The War has seeped in everywhere.
and, later, when the head butler finds two maids dancing together in an empty wing of the castle:
"They were wheeling wheeling in each other's arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of a distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass."
Green is still greatly, amazingly neglected. Buy his books here: