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.
9) Gilda.

Monday, November 22, 2004


jazz studies

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 Posted by Hello

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) Posted by Hello

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 Posted by Hello

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 Posted by Hello

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.