Monday, November 19, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Two Funky People.
Brenda Lee, Dynamite.
The Cues, Why.
Tommy Blake, Lordy Hoody.
Bola Sete, Aquarela do Brasil.
Al Simmons with Slim Green and the Cats From Fresno, Old Folks Boogie.
Magic Sam, All Your Love.
Johnnie and Jack, That's Why I'm Leavin'.
Henri Pousseur, Scambi.
Jenks "Tex" Carman, Wolf Creek.
Jean Shepard, The Other Woman.
The "5" Royales, Say It.
Jackie Lee Cochran, Mama Don't You Think I Know.
Ellis Larkins, I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.

I'm praying that you'll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it...Don't worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life...

All I want out of this is to able to establish myself and my Mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go around roaming around the write what comes out of my head and free to feed my buddies when they're hungry...what I want to do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of "situation" and let people rave on as they do in real life...The French movies of the 30's are still far superior to ours because the French really let their actors come on and the writers didn't quibble with some preconceived notion of how intelligent the movie audience is...American theater & Cinema at present is an outmoded dinosaur that ain't mutated along with the best in American Literature.

Excerpts from a letter written in late 1957 by Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando. Brando never responded.

Al Cohn and Zoot Sims came up in the waning days of big-band jazz--they met in Woody Herman's Second Herd, where they were featured saxophone soloists, along with Stan Getz and Serge Chaloff. Sims and Cohn, both disciples of Lester Young's style, became lifelong friends (someone once called them the Damian and Pythias of jazz), playing together in various incarnations, ranging from a duo backing Kerouac to co-leaders of a quintet, until the 1980s. They died within three years of each other.

Their clarinet duet, "Two Funky People," is their friendship embodied in music. Cohn takes the first solo, cool and wistful, while Sims offers a more jovial response. Teddy Kotick on bass and the young Mose Allison on piano have their brief say, and then Sims and Cohn soar off stage. Nick Stabulas, on drums, quietly frames it all.

Recorded in New York on 27 March 1957 and released on the Verve LP Al and Zoot, my copy of which, as you will hear, is showing its age.

Brenda Lee's "Dynamite" shows how the little powerhouse (standing just 4' 9") earned her nickname. Lee, born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta in 1944, was able by age three to perfectly sing back a tune she had heard only once, and by five was winning talent competitions. After her father was killed in a construction site accident, Lee became the major breadwinner for her family, and was making records by her 12th birthday.

After making a few singles that didn't do much, Lee caught fire in 1957: she outsang Ray Charles on the man's own song ("Ain't That Love") while on "Dynamite" the chipper backing vocalists seem to be trying to distract the listener from Lee's white-hot vocal. Just try to not think about the disturbing fact that a 12-year old girl is howling about getting "one hour of love tonight."

Released as Decca 30333 c/w "Love You 'Til I Die"; on Anthology. Brenda setting off "Dynamite" live in 1957, and again in Japan in 1965.

The Cues were Atlantic Records' house vocal group, assembled by arranger Jesse Stone, and used for backup vocals on dozens of Atlantic records in the '50s, performing under a host of pseudonyms--they were the Rhythmakers for Ruth Brown, the Ivorytones for Ivory Joe Hunter, the Blues Kings for Joe Turner, the Boleros for Carmen Taylor and, for LaVern Baker, the Gliders (info from JC Marion's page on the group).

The group, which consisted of lead singer Jimmy Breedlove, Ollie Jones, Abel De Costa, Robie Kirk and Eddie Barnes, eventually branched out from Atlantic (they backed up Roy Hamilton on his glorious "Don't Let Go") and would occasionally cut a single of their own, with only middling success, although the fantastic "Why," which only hit #77 on the national charts, deserves far more recognition.

Released as Capitol 3582 c/w "Prince or Pauper"; on Golden Age of American Rock & Roll Vol. 10.

Diebenkorn, Man and Woman in a Large Room

Tommy Blake, if never a major rock & roll figure on the charts, certainly lived the life--enduring a hardscrabble childhood in Shreveport, losing an eye in Korea (or so he claimed) and shot to death by his wife on Christmas Eve, 1985. (What led to the latter is a source of contention--scroll down on this site for Rashomon-esque competing perspectives.)

"Lordy Hoody," one of the singles Blake cut for Sam Phillips in the late '50s, is rock & roll at its rawest and purest: slurred, incomprehensible lyrics; thudding bass; yelps and screams; war drums; utterly vicious lead guitar by Carl Adams; and a chanted, hypnotic nonsense chorus that likely inculcated any teenager in earshot.

Recorded 14 September 1957 and released as Sun 278 c/w "Flat Foot Sam"; on Koolit: The Sun Years Plus.

The Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete was born Djalma de Andrade in Rio in 1923 (in his youth, he got the nickname "Bola Sete," which is the Brazilian equivalent to the eight-ball, i.e., the only black ball on the billiard table--Sete was often the only black member of his early groups). Obsessed with the great guitarists of the Depression era--Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel--Sete began playing in local samba groups, and by the '50s and '60s, after spending some years playing at upscale U.S. hotels like the Park Sheraton in NYC, was working with the likes of Vince Guaraldi and Dizzy Gillespie as well as leading his own trio.

Sete's version of Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil" showcases his soulful, intricate playing. Sete died in 1987, and is a bit of a neglected figure (few of his records ever made it to CD), though there seems to be renewed interest in his work of late.

"Aquarela" was recorded 8 February 1957 and released as Odeon 14254 c/w "Bacara", as well as on the '57 LP Aqui Está o Bola Sete. See Sete playing with a trio here.

Other versions of "Brasil," the country's unofficial national anthem: Joao Gilberto, Elis Regina, Carmen Miranda, Gal Costa, Daniela Mercury and Caetano Veloso, The Scorpions, José Carioca and Donald Duck.

Ozu's Tokyo Twilight

Al Simmons was the drummer of an obscure band called the Cats From Fresno, who recorded for Johnny Otis's Dig label. One day in the studio, the Cats decided to let Simmons take a vocal--"Old Folks Boogie" (a rewrite of several electric blues, including John Lee Hooker's "Gotta Boogie" and "Boogie Chillun" and Little Junior's "Feelin' Good") is the result, and it's a monster. It was one of Captain Beefheart's favorite tracks.

Released as Dig 138 c/w "Hand Me Down Baby" (sung by Sidney Maiden); on Teenage Rock N Roll Party. Thanks to the Rev. for introducing me to this one.

Magic Sam, born Samuel Maghett to sharecroppers near Grenada, Mississippi, in 1937, moved with his family north to Chicago as part of the great postwar black migration. In Chicago, Sam was a chawbacon--raw, uncouth, a bit wild. As a child he had crafted his own instruments, diddley-bows of baling wire nailed to the side of a barn, or makeshift guitars from cigar boxes, and in Chicago, when he began playing professionally, Sam took the same approach with his guitar style--taking the Delta blues and mixing it with what he was hearing in the clubs, especially records by Muddy Waters and B.B. King. (Much info from Greg Johnson's article linked above.)

Willie Dixon, by 1957, was sick of working for Chess Records, which he felt wasn't paying him enough and which seemed uninterested in the new blues players to hit Chicago, like Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. So Dixon and Eli Toscano, who was mainly known as a gambler, formed Cobra Records--described as a sort of shadow government to Chess, often signing the same artists Chess did and pushing its engineers to get a similar sound. The difference was Cobra also had a taste for young, hungry blues players.

"All Your Love," built off a riff from Ray Charles' recent "Lonely Avenue," was the first track Sam cut for Cobra, a single he recorded with Dixon, pianist Little Brother Montgomery, drummer Billie Stepney and Mack Thompson on bass.

By 1960, Cobra had folded and Sam had been drafted into the Army (he quickly deserted, and was eventually sent to military prison). After some hard years, Sam began building his reputation again, playing the Fillmore East and becoming a favorite of the new generation of blues players, when he died of a heart attack in 1969, at age 32.

Released as Cobra 5013 c/w "Love Me With a Feeling"; on West Side Soul.

Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin, both from Tennessee, were one of several "brother" duet acts in country music who weren't actually brothers (though Anglin eventually married Wright's sister). While starting out offering fairly standard country fare, Johnnie & Jack began incorporating fresher sounds into their records--a Latin beat in "Poison Love," calypso in "Cryin' Heart Blues" and doo-wop in their cover of the Spaniels' "Goodnight Sweetheart." And "That's Why I'm Leavin'" is about as much rockabilly as it is straight country.

Anglin was killed in a car crash on the same day in 1963 that services were held for Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, who had been killed in a plane crash (it was a horrific week for country music); Wright, who was married to Kitty Wells, continued on as a solo act and later became part of the Kitty Wells Family Show.

Released as RCA 6932 c/w "Oh Boy, I Love Her"; only available on this massive box set.

4th St, Santa Ana, Calif.

Henri Pousseur's "Scambi," an Ultima Thule of recorded music, is a series of electronic noises (some of which were first used by Stockhausen in his "Gesang der Jünglinge" a few years earlier), and also a completely "open" work--while Pousseur assembled the version here in the RAI Studio di Fonologia in Milan, in 1957, he intended the piece to be constantly reassembled and remastered. (The Scambi Project has documented these changes over the years.)

"Scambi" ("Exchanges") is alternately charming (some of the sounds resemble bird calls), terrifying, annoying and commonplace (some of the tones have become part of the 21st Century's background noise, reincarnated as cel phone beeps, ATM machine twits, etc).

On Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol. 1.

Jenks "Tex" Carman was a bizarre figure in the '50s--a cowboy Hawaiian guitar player with a wayward sense of tuning and rhythm; he managed to record a few modest hits and appeared on regional television programs, sometimes wearing a cowboy hat, sometimes a headdress (he claimed to be part Cherokee). Carman vanished around the time JFK was elected, though at the end of the past century he was exhumed by hipsters and placed in various cabinets of curiosities (yours truly proving no exception).

"Wolf Creek" was one of the tracks Carman recorded for the small label Sage and Sand--released as Sage 251 c/w "My Broken Heart Won't Let Me Sleep"; on Cow Punk.

Jean Shepard routinely cast herself as the betrayed woman in her songs, which makes "The Other Woman" a shock: here, Shepard is the adultress, and she has no remorse over her actions. While sounding bold and fearless at first, Shepard's character reveals her delusions as the song goes on--she's terrified that her lover's wife will win him back, and by the end she is reduced to singing, like a child in a schoolyard, "he loves me, he loves me" over and over again until the fadeout.

Recorded 28 December 1956 and released as Capitol F3727 c/w "Under Suspicion"; on the shamefully out-of-print Honky Tonk Heroine.

Louise Brooks at age 50

The "5" Royales' "Say It" is one of their lost masterpieces, eclipsed by their '57 hit singles "Think" and "Dedicated To the One I Love." "Say It" conveys a simple, if sadly familiar situation--the singer knows it's all over with his lover, he can almost taste it, and all he wants now is for her to say the words. "Say it!" he demands, with the rest of the Royales backing him up--they grow more threatening with each reiteration. And each time he entreats her, Lowman Pauling's guitar delivers a squall of notes. The track ends with Pauling spiraling downward on his Les Paul: nothing is resolved: she still hasn't said it.

Recorded in Cincinnati on 13 August 1957 and released as King 5082 c/w "Messin' Up"; on It's Hard But It's Fair.

And in Jackie Lee Cochran's "Mama Don't You Think I Know," the singer doesn't even have to ask--he's figured it all out, and now he just wants her to get the hell out.

Released as Decca 9-30206 c/w "Ruby Pearl"; on That'll Flat Git It! Vol. 2

Finally, the pianist Ellis Larkins, accompanied by Joe Benjamin on bass, offers a reverie on "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You." Larkins, a greatly underrated pianist whose elegant and gracious playing accompanied the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Humes, Eartha Kitt and Ruby Braff, was known in the '70s in New York for playing weekly at Gregory's, a club in the Upper East Side, and the Carnegie Tavern, a small bar behind Carnegie Hall.

His version of "Ghost of a Chance" was recorded in New York on 2 December 1957; on the Decca LP The Soft Touch (an album far more tasteful than its cover art) and never released on CD.

Happy Thanksgiving. And for the rest of the world, happy Thursday.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Nellie Lutcher, Hurry On Down.
Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes, Shorty's Got to Go.
T. Texas Tyler, Who's To Blame.
Fairfield Four, Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around.
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lennie Tristano, On the Sunny Side of the Street.
Andrew Tibbs, Bilbo Is Dead.
Doc Pomus, Pomus Blues.
Duke Ellington, The Clothed Woman.
Ástor Piazzolla, Quejas de Bandoneón.
Concha Piquer, Angelitos Negros.
Molly O'Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks, The Tramp On the Street.
Chano Pozo, Ritmo Afro Cubano.
Anita O'Day, What Is This Thing Called Love?
Mary Ann McCall, On Time.
Bama and Dobie Red, Lies.
Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats, Peg O' My Heart.

Jeans and "T" Shirts seem to be the height of fashionableness among the men at T.C. [the Teacher's College]. It seems strange to me, because at Talladega, the men usually did not wear jeans. In the evenings at 'Dega, the men changed to suits and wore ties. Girls wearing slacks on week-days was taboo at 'Dega, too...Restrictions and regulations on types of dress are very much the norm for Negro colleges...I think those types of regulations were set up in the vain hope that ways of dressing could affect the majority so as to accept the minority group.

I spent the day in Iowa City. After the excitement of [homecoming] yesterday--all was quiet. We went to the Union to a tea dance. It was downstairs in the River Room. It was a lot of fun watching the kids dance. They dance so differently from us. Most of them hop about - while we glide. All colored people don't dance well, certainly, but they do dance differently...We finally figured out that the white kids danced on the off-beat & that was why they hopped...Another thing--they like a different kind of music. We didn't dance much because of the type of records they had. Dancing and record-likes & dislikes are one area where whites & Negroes differ. I wonder why. Yet, when whites are around Negroes, they learn to dance the same and vice-versa. More association would help, I think.

Undated 1947 diary entry of Martha Furgerson Nash, a student enrolled in the Teacher's College in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Nellie Lutcher's home alone, finally, so she wants, no she needs, her guy to get there in a hurry--just take the alley so the neighbors won't see.

The charming, loopily sexy "Hurry On Down" is an essay in how fluid popular music styles had become by the mid-'40s. The track's essentially a hybrid of bebop and early R&B: there's a bop feel in the way Lutcher won't sit still in her vocal--she jumps and bounds all over the place, scats during her delirious piano solo, boils over towards the end--and the track's spiky enough to make dancing to it require some thought. But its primal concerns (basically, a woman looking for some action) are pure blues, in particular Bessie Smith.

Lutcher, who died earlier this year, was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1912, and was playing with Ma Rainey before Lutcher hit her teens. Though she had been on the road since the late '20s, it was only in 1947 when Lutcher caught a break. Performing in a March of Dimes talent show broadcast on the radio, she caught the ear of a Capitol Records scout, and soon she was in the studio cutting a string of R&B hits--along with "Hurry On Down," she made "He's a Real Gone Guy" and "Fine Brown Frame," among others. A decade later she retired from recording, and performed rarely thereafter; as critics have noted, Lutcher cleared the stage for Nina Simone, and then bowed out just as Simone got going.

Recorded 10 April 1947 and released as Capitol 40012 c/w "The Lady's In Love With You"; on Best Of.

"Shorty's Got To Go," written by Lucky Millinder, is one of several postwar songs to address the awkward, sometimes disastrous reunions of men and women who, in some cases, hadn't seen in each other in years. Records like "Look On Yonder Wall," in which a man checks the newspaper each morning to see when his lover's husband's battalion is returning, or "Shorty's Got to Go" touch on the general sense of unease and suspicion.

In "Shorty"'s case, though, the situation is played for laughs. The song begins with the singer, having been on the road (or maybe in the army), calling up his old girl, only to have "Shorty Joe" answer the phone. Turns out Shorty's been seeing his girl, wearing his clothes (including a "$10 tie" that's been worn out--as the rest of the band snaps: "dollar-ninety-eight!!"), sleeping in his bed.

Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes specialized in debuting songs other groups would make famous--as Marv Goldberg notes, the band cut "Don't You Think I Ought To Know” six years before the Orioles, “How Would You Know” four years before the Robins, and “Dream Of A Lifetime” seven years before the Flamingos. ("Shorty" also was a bigger hit for the Cats & The Fiddle). The band consisted of Johnson, a clarinet and alto sax player who had been in Erskine Hawkins' swing band, Egbert Victor (p), Clifton “Skeeter” Best (g), Jimmy Robinson (b) and Gus Gordon, who sang lead but who had been hired as a drummer.

Recorded 15 March 1947 and released as RCA Victor 20-2225 c/w "Don't You Think I Oughta Know"; on Dawn of Doo-Wop.

T. Texas Tyler sings "Who's To Blame" like a man drilling into bedrock--he snags on a phrase and just gouges into it. "Thiiiiiiiink of all you've said or done..." he moans.

Like "Hurry on Down," "Who's To Blame" is a hybrid, this time of the waning Western Swing and the emerging honky-tonk styles. There's still a jazzy feel to the song (especially in the guitar solo, likely by Stanley Walker), but Tyler's dominant vocal, a slower tempo and a more spare arrangement align the track more with the sound that was soon to come out of Nashville, rather than with the prewar styles.

Tyler, born in Mena, Arkansas, in 1916, was known as "The Man With a Million Friends" (or so his record labels claimed). After the war he had several huge hits, mainly sentimental ballads with softly-recited lyrics, including "Deck of Cards" and "Dad Gave My Dog Away" (a shameless, and successful, attempt to ape Red Foley's "Old Shep"). Tyler hosted a TV show in Los Angeles in the late '40s but his career foundered after he was busted for marijuana possession in the '50s. He eventually joined the ministry and died in 1972.

"Who's To Blame" was recorded sometime in 1947 and released as 4 Star 1597 c/w "Get Out of My Life." On T. Texas Tyler.

Pollock, Full Fathom Five.

I first heard the Fairfield Four's "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" on John Seroff's (now-hibernating) Tofu Hut, back in 2004, and John had this to say about it then (actually, on a collaboration he did with Soul Sides):

There's a gradual but constant acceleration of tempo in the song; a gentle evocation that the further we delve into faith, the more buoyant and unstoppable that holy joy becomes. The sustained notes on this track are glorious; they dip and bob on their ends like loops on a roller coaster. Every twist is a heartbeat deeper into awe...

While tenor Samuel McCrary ("a voice like an air-raid siren" (Jerry Zolten)) comes close to derailing the track every time he gets possessed and simply won't let the notes go, the heart of the track, for me, is the bass singer (I believe it was Rufus Carrethers), who sings as though he's unworthy of salvation, bearing his gifts with humility and quiet joy.

The Four was founded in 1921 in Nashville's Fairfield Baptist Church, when the Rev. J.R. Carrethers asked his two sons, Rufus and Harold, and a church member, John Battle, to sing for church socials. The group always had a rotating membership, and were known on the road for their strict morals (group members were fined $5 if caught drinking) as well as for bringing the house down (from Bill Friskics-Warren's 1998 article on the group: "At one performance in the Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Nashville...the congregation got so carried away during a performance that carpenters had to come in the next day to repair the damage.")

"Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" was the Four's first single on the Dot label, c/w "Standing in the Safety Zone," released at some point in 1947; on Standing In the Safety Zone, a now out-of-print compilation by P-Vine.

In September 1947, the Mutual Broadcast System offered a jazz equivalent to Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books, only the battle this time was between classic "Dixieland" players and the modernist beboppers.

The MBS' weekly "Bands for Bonds" radio broadcast matched a Dixieland ensemble (the show's house band) with a pick-up bebop group. Each group was to perform the same standards: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "How Deep Is the Ocean," and "Tiger Rag." (On paper, the Dixieland band had the advantage, as the ancient "Tiger Rag" was unknown to most younger musicians). Listeners would vote on the winner, who would be asked to come back the next month.

So in one corner, you have the Dixieland group, Rudi Blesh's All Star Stompers: Jimmy Archey (tb), Ralph Sutton (p), Wild Bill Davison (cornet), Baby Dodds (d), Danny Barker (g), Pops Foster (b). And in the other, you have Barry Ulanov's All Star Modern Jazz Musicians, a group assembled by Ulanov, a producer and bebop advocate. This group consisted of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Lenny Tristano (p), John LaPorta (cl), Ray Brown (b) and Billy Bauer (g).

It wasn't as lopsided a contest as one might think-- the likes of Wild Bill Davison , Jimmy Archey and Ralph Sutton, while not radicals and innovators like Bird, Dizzy and Tristano, were impressive enough in their own right and the legendary Baby Dodds may have outplayed the young Max Roach. But the future won, as it often does--the radio voters chose the beboppers, who came back in November '47.

So here are the "Barry Ulanov All Stars" taking on "Sunny Side of the Street"--the performance marked the first reunion of Bird and Dizzy in over a year, and the first time Bird played publicly with Tristano. Recorded 20 September 1947; on the marvelous Complete Recordings of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano.

Lawrence, War Series: Victory

U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo, from Mississippi, in his 1946 re-election campaign said: "I'm calling on every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes--and the best time to do that is the night before." (The young Medgar Evers, who did try to vote, was chased off by a white mob.) Bilbo didn't just confine his hatred to blacks--he once called Walter Winchell a "notorious scandalizing kike radio commentator" and wrote a letter to an Italian woman in NYC that began "Dear Dago."

After winning re-election, Bilbo contracted throat cancer and died in August '47. Senator Allen Ellender, from Louisiana, eulogized Bilbo, saying "Senator Bilbo died a martyr to southern traditions and his name will long be remembered when those of his most bitter critics will be forgotten before they are cold in their graves."

Senator Bilbo is remembered today, if at all, because of an R&B song, one of the coldest pieces of satire in popular music, a track recorded literally days after Bilbo was in the ground.

Andrew Tibbs' "Bilbo Is Dead" is completely straight-faced--after a funereal piano intro, Tibbs begins his lament. He's been on the road, and when he gets to Mississippi he hears the woeful news: "My best friend was dead and gone," he cries. "It makes me feel like a fatherless child." The singer's mourning conveys the image of a grief-stricken black community--the neighborhood stores shuttered, people weeping in the streets.

Finally, in the last verse, Tibbs lets a smile peek through:

Well you've been livin' in the big city
broke and had to get along.
But you can hurry back to Mississippi
'cause Bilbo is dead and gone.

Tibbs was one of the most popular blues musicians on the newly-launched Aristocrat label (the precursor to Chess), but "Bilbo Is Dead" was banned in some of the South, and Muddy Waters, who was also recording on Aristocrat, claimed later the controversy wound up hobbling Tibbs' career.

"Bilbo" was written by Tibbs and Tom Archia in a cab on the way to the studio, the lyrics scrawled on a paper bag, and was recorded in Chicago with Dave Young's Orchestra in early September 1947; released on Aristocrat 1101 c/w "Union Man Blues," which Leonard Chess later claimed got him in trouble with the Teamsters; on Chess Blues.

Doc Pomus is best known as a songwriter (his works with Mort Shuman include "Save the Last Dance For Me," "This Magic Moment," "Teenager In Love" and "Viva Las Vegas"; he wrote "Lonely Avenue" for Ray Charles, "Young Blood" with Lieber and Stoller), but in his youth he was a blues shouter nearly as wild as his idol, Big Joe Turner. This live recording of a 22-year-old Pomus singing an improvised blues at a LA nightclub, the Pied Piper, is flat-out amazing--listen to the audience catch fire as Pomus gets nastier and nastier.

Pomus, a handicapped Jewish kid from Brooklyn, managed to win over audiences that, in his words, consisted of "pimps, hookers, maids, chauffeurs, good-time whites, factory workers, white collar workers, musicians, entertainers, bartenders, waiters - everybody hanging out together. A little money went a long way and there was no tomorrow.

Recorded either August or September 1947. On That Devilin' Tune Vol. 4 (where a number of tracks in this set can be found).

The late '40s found Duke Ellington at a commercial ebb and at his most experimental. "The Clothed Woman," one of Ellington's most brilliant, lesser-known compositions, finds Ellington playing with 20th Century classical music ideas--in particular Schoenberg and Webern's atonal piano works--toying with the concepts, abandoning them, restoring them, making them swing.

The piece begins with Ellington alone on piano. For the first thirty-two bars, it's basically pure atonality, then things begin to cohere--Duke pieces together a riff, and horns come in to keep it going. Suddenly, 1:15 in, Duke rips into a sort of modernist ragtime, his right hand dancing out while his left keeps a hypnotic rhythm (the latter sounds like the ancestor of the repeated piano figure at the end of the Velvet Underground's "Murder Mystery"). And then, just as suddenly, Duke veers back into atonality again.

Recorded 30 December 1947 with Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney on sax, Harold Baker (tp), Junior Raglin (b) and Sammy Greer (d), among others; on Masterpieces.

Clement Attlee and Aung San, six months before the latter's assassination

Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, Argentine tango revolutionary and bandoneón player, introduced jazz elements (such as the use of dissonance and an extended orchestral palette) into traditional tango; this was much to the consternation of purists, who believed the tango was one of the few things in the modern world that could not, or should not, change.

As one Argentine newspaper article in August 1947 had it, Piazzolla "never experienced the stimulating and inevitable Buenos Aires scene of kerosene street lamps, and organ grinders, and everything else. He grew up among the skyscrapers. It is his fate to reconcile opposites...which explains how he can offer us the most stubborn tango hits of the old days with chords that seem almost Stravinskian."

"Quejas de Bandoneón" is one of Piazzolla's earlier pieces, recorded in Buenos Aires on 21 August 1947, with Piazzolla's orchestra of the period. On Tangos Vol. 2.

If Piazzolla was a child of the skyscrapers, Concha Piquer was the voice of eternal Spain. A singer and actress, best known for her work in the copla, the Spanish folk song, Piquer had a long, astonishing life. Born in 1906, she starred in a number of American and Mexican films in the '20s and '30s, including Perojo's El Negro que Tenía el Alma Blanca [The Black Man With the White Soul]. She died at last in 1990--the Civil War and the Franco era having seemed to her, perhaps, as a bad dream that had finally lifted.

"Angelitos Negros" is on Antologia.

Molly O'Day, from Pike County, Kentucky, was born Lois LaVerne Williamson (changing her name first to "Mountain Fern" and then "Dixie Lee Williamson" before settling on her permanent stage name). While never achieving national popularity, O'Day's presence was formidable: she knew Hank Williams and recorded several of his early compositions; Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were both awed by her, and Earl Scruggs said she once had beaten him in a banjo-playing contest. In her later years, when O'Day had retired to dedicate her life to her husband's ministry, she would humbly deny she had had any influence on country music.

O'Day had heard Williams sing "The Tramp On the Street" (whose message can be summed up as "God takes sides, and God's loyalties lie with poor people," as Bill Friskics-Warren wrote in Heartaches By the Number) and recorded it herself soon afterward, in the song's definitive performance, anchored by O'Day's astonishing vocal, the fiddle of Cecil "Skeets" Williamson (O'Day's brother) and George "Speedy" Krise's dobro.

Recorded in Chicago on 16 December 1946 (but we'll bend the rules to get it in), with O'Day's husband Lynn Davis on guitar and Mac Wiseman on bass; released as Columbia 37559 c/w the creepily-titled "Put My Rubber Doll Away"; on Molly O'Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks.

In the last two years of his life, Chano Pozo moved to New York, founded Latin jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, wore a white top hat and tuxedo, had his conga drums stolen on the road, and was killed in a Harlem bar after allegedly haggling with a drug dealer about the quality of the marijuana Pozo had just bought.

Pozo, born in Havana in 1915, began as a street drummer and performer, working for tourist dollars outside the Tropicana and El Presidente hotels. By the early '40s he had begun composing and recording his own music, and getting the attention of visiting jazz players from the U.S.

One of Pozo's first recording sessions after he arrived in New York in January 1947 was for Coda Records, which assembled an all-star Cuban musician lineup on congas--Pozo, Miguelito Valdés, Carlos Vidal, and the blind Arsenio Rodriguez (who, upon hearing there was a doctor in New York who could restore eyesight, raised $5,000, was examined and then told he would be blind until death, upon which he wrote "La Vida Es Un Sueño" ("Life Is But a Dream"). Jose Mangual, on bongos, rounded out the group.

Coda apparently wasn't aiming for any commercial records, as the tracks recorded in this session are hardcore Cuban sounds, the first authentic rumbas made in the United States--driving, hard, relentless music of the barrios from which all the musicians had come, and where, in Pozo's case, they would soon be buried.

Recorded 10 February 1947; on El Tambor de Cuba.

Ronald Reagan testifying at the House Un-American Activities Committee

Anita O'Day "just breathed swing" (Allen Lowe) and she may have been the most gifted jazz singer of her generation, even more adept than Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald at clearing the hurdles bebop arrangements presented. As Lowe wrote, O'Day was fine on ballads, but it was the uptempo material where she took flight, where she should could play with the beat, challenge the players and dance on top of it all.

So her take on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," arranged by Sy Oliver, begins at a breakneck tempo, vaults into a bolero, indulges in some stop-time antics and stops on a dime. You could call it a master class in jazz singing, and she made dozens just like it.

Recorded in New York in September 1947 with Will Bradley and his Orchestra: Jimmy Maxwell, Chris Griffin, Red Solomon, Carl Poole (tp); Will Bradley, Phil Giardina, Billy Pritchard, Al Philburn (tb); Paul Ricci, Toots Mondello (as); Art Drellinger, Hank Ross (ts); Hank Freeman (bari sax); Stan Freeman (p); Danny Perri (g); Bob Haggart (b); Morey Feld (d).

Released as Signature 15162 c/w "Hi Ho Sailus Boot Whip"; on Bebop Spoken Here, or just buy the original 78 on Ebay.

Mary Ann McCall, a forgotten heroine of the late big band era, is responsible for "On Time," one of the hottest songs made in the '40s (or any era, really), with McCall casting herself as a shop foreman, demanding her employee get to work when she needs him, and with no complaints. Just listen to the lady:

The man I go for won't relax,
'Cause if he does he'll get the ax.
He's on the job
for I am wise
to the stay-away, wanna-play, skip-a-day guys.

"On Time" was recorded in Los Angeles on 19 June 1947, with Howard McGhee (tp), Willie Smith (as), Gordon (ts), Jimmy Rowles (p), Barney Kessel (g), Red Callender (b), and Jackie Mills (d). Released as Columbia 37590 c/w "Money Is Honey"; on You're Mine, You.

Let's end with a joke and a dream. "Lies" is a snaps contest between Bama and Dobie Red, recorded at Parchman Farm prison in 1947, in which Bama does most of the ribbing while Red just sits back, takes it in and offers the occasional acid comeback. On Prison Songs.

And I first featured Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats' "Peg O' My Heart" back in December 2004 (ah, remember those days, all three of you readers who were here then?), and I'll repeat what I wrote then:

Many songs seem fabricated--you can find the stitchwork on them; others seem as though they had been netted, entirely whole, from the air. "Peg O' My Heart" is the latter. It's a simple, shuffling melody that lingers in the mind: a melody that, upon first hearing, seems as though you have already heard it before, years ago, somewhere else.

Jerry Murad, an Armenian born in Constantinople, spurned his family's carpet business to form a harmonica trio in 1944 with Don Les and Al Fiore. Murad, recalling the sound effects of suspense radio shows, thought of using an echo chamber to enhance his group's sound, and 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 sonic distortion.

"Peg" seems permanently out of time--it was a remake of a 1913 composition that was recorded by everyone from Henry Burr to Bunny Berrigan; the Harmonicats recorded their version in February 1947, and when it was released a month later, it became a massive hit (a copycat version by Max Harris and His Novelty Trio was the theme to Dennis Potter's Singing Detective); released as the first single ever issued by the Vitacoustic label c/w a version of Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu" ; on Chart Toppers of the Forties.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Boots and His Buddies, The Goo.
W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys, There'll Be Some Changes Made.
Charles Trenet, J'ai Ta Main.
Maxine Sullivan, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Fred Astaire, (I've Got) Beginner's Luck.
St. Louis Jimmy Oden, The Road to Ruin
The Dixon Brothers, The School House Fire.
Carmen Miranda, Eu Dei.
Original Yellow Jackets, Business After Midnight.
Crystal Springs Ramblers, Fort Worth Stomp.
Chicago Black Swans, Don't Tear My Clothes.
Gene Autry, Dust.
Olivier Messiaen, Oraison.

A few nights ago I spoke to 1,500 women--women who work picking walnuts out of shells. It was one of the most amazing meetings I've ever attended. There were Russians, Armenians, Slavs, Mexicans, etc...The meeting was presided over by a young slip of a girl--president of the union--she was about 19. This was the first meeting these people have ever attended--that is, their first union meeting. You should have been there to feel the thing: the excitement, the tension. And you should have watched some of these women as they got up to their feet and tried to tell about their experiences...

The employers recently took their hammers away from them--they were making "too much money." For the last two months, in their work, they have been cracking walnuts with their fists. Hundreds of them held up their fists to prove it--the lower portion of the fist being calloused, bruised, swollen. They told of the hatred they feel for the miserable stooges who spy upon them, speed up their work, nose into their affairs. They were really wonderful people. You had the feeling that here, unmistakably, was a section of the American people.

Someone complained of working conditions, etc., the fact that the floors were not swept and that they were constantly falling on shells. One woman jumped up, tossed back her skirts and laughingly exhibited a huge bruise well above the knee, and in the general vicinity of her ass. The others howled and poor Mary, the president, had to pound with her hammer to get them back into any kind of order.

Carey McWilliams
to Louis Adamic, letter of 3 October 1937.

If swing was the gospel, and Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb and Count Basie were the prophets and miracle workers, then the territory bands traveling around the country were the apostles: the unknown, tireless bearers of the message.

Boots and His Buddies were based out of San Antonio, working Texas and the plains states, led by the drummer Clifford "Boots" Douglas. At their peak, in the mid-'30s, the band was one of the hottest territory bands in the country, featuring the trumpeters Charles Anderson and L.D. Harris, the pianist A.J. Johnson, the tenor saxophonist Baker Millian and Douglas himself, who also served as arranger.

"The Goo" finds Boots and His Buddies mixing bright discipline with a raucous southwestern vigor, with Anderson, in his glory of a trumpet solo, bobbing and weaving like a middleweight in the ring.

The band recorded a number of singles for Bluebird, in part because of their flexibility (they could do hot jazz and light "society" pop in the same session) but foundered by the end of the decade (their last recordings, from 1938, are dreadful, with out-of-tune sounding instruments). Douglas moved to Los Angeles mid-century and promptly vanished.

"The Goo" was recorded in San Antonio on 17 September 1937 and released as Bluebird 7217 c/w "The Weep" (basically a version of "Willow Weep For Me" which the band retitled to avoid paying royalties); on 1937-1938.

"What, they wanted to know, was this “love-weed”? How did it happen to be in the possession of a college boy?"

W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel
, titular head of the Hillbilly Boys, wasn't a musician--he was a businessman, sales manager for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, which made Light Crust Flour. In the early '30s, Burrus Mill decided it would be good publicity to have their own string band, and so O'Daniel assembled a trio called the Light Crust Doughboys, which included the Western swing geniuses Milton Brown and Bob Wills (this would be as if, in the '80s, Apple Computer had hired Prince and Michael Jackson for their house band). Wills and Brown soon left to form their own outfits, but O'Daniel kept assembling new bands, acting as their announcer and sometimes songwriter, even after he left Burrus Mill to create his own flour company, Hillbilly Flour, for which the Hillbilly Boys were the official band.

So for pure corporate music, "There'll Be Some Changes Made" is pretty fantastic--if anything justifies capitalism, it's a track like this. O'Daniel eventually became the governor of Texas (George Green: "During the Democratic primary campaign in one-party Texas he stressed the Ten Commandments, the virtues of his own Hillbilly Flour, and the need for old-age pensions, tax cuts, and industrialization."), and defeated Lyndon Johnson in the '40s to become a U.S. senator, where O'Daniel served a term so undistinguished that no proposal of his received more than four votes.

The Hillbilly Boys, as of this session, were Mike O'Daniel and Kitty Williamson (fiddles), Hal O'Daniel (banjo), Kermit Whalen (steel), Leon Huff (vocals and rhythm guitar), Walt Griffin (b) . Recorded in Dallas on 10 June 1937 and released as Vocalion 03902 c/w "Yes Suh"; on OKeh Western Swing.

The Mitford sisters take a holiday in Nuremberg

Charles Trenet, in "J'ai Ta Main" (literally "I Have Your Hand," but you take liberties and translate it as "I Want to Hold Your Hand") offers almost a spoof of a French chanson--Trenet's orchestrated a summer evening fading into clear night, birds singing in the trees, hushed talk about Trenet and his girl being nature's children. Still, I bet it worked wonders.

Released as Omnia 25107 c/w "Les Oiseaux de Paris"; on Boum!

George and Ira Gershwin wrote "Nice Work If You Can Get It" for the Fred Astaire movie A Damsel in Distress (Astaire's attempt to distance himself from the Ginger Rogers partnership, more below) and, as George Gershwin died of a brain tumor during filming, "Nice Work" (and "A Foggy Day," the other standard debuted in the film) was among the brothers' final compositions.

Astaire, naturally, recorded the song first, but later the same year a young African-American singer named Maxine Sullivan, making her first records, cut a version that matched Astaire in class, while also having an intimate bluesy feel. Sullivan starts with the chorus, ditching the opening verse, with its restless rhythms and word-packed lyric.

Sullivan had been discovered by an acquaintance of the bandleader Claude Thornhill, and by '37 was making records backed by Thornhill's band while headlining the Onyx Club in New York. Due to the early success of her version of "Loch Lomond," Sullivan tended to be offered more "folk" pop songs than actual jazz compositions, and she periodically retired from performing--working as a nurse for much of the '60s, for example.

Recorded 21 September 1937 and released as Vocalion 21936 c/w "Easy to Love"; on It's Wonderful.

And the Gershwins' "(I've Got) Beginner's Luck" is from Shall We Dance, the last great Astaire/Rogers musical (Astaire, who had begun to chafe at being tied in a partnership, was pushing for more solo movies): the Gerswhins' songs also included "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Astaire, while a god on his feet, was mortal as a singer and "Beginner's Luck" is perfectly tailored for his charming, modest voice (no one else could've pulled off a line like "Gosh, I'm fortunate").

Recorded on 19 March 1937, and released as Brunswick 7855 c/w "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; on Let's Face the Music and Dance.

Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

St. Louis Jimmy Oden was a bluesman who earned his name from an apprenticeship spent playing piano in St. Louis. But it was in Chicago where Oden developed his mature style--a slow, husky type of crooning; a dense but able piano style; and a sharp, urban-tinged sense of observation in his lyrics. In "Road to Ruin," he tells his woman her drinking and cavorting are going to kill her one day, but he already sounds resigned to fate.

Recorded 29 October 1937; on 1932-1948.

Stanwyck declares victory

The Dixon Brothers' "School House Fire" is about a blaze that engulfed the Cleveland School, near Camden, South Carolina, in 1923 and killed 29 adults and 45 children. "School House Fire" offers basic reportage--noting it was springtime, and why the parents and children were gathered together (to see a graduation play)--then rather pitilessly describes how the fire began and, in some unbelievably grim lines, the deaths of the screaming children. The unspoken moral is a harsh brand of Christian stoicism--in the midst of happy life, we are in death.

The Dixons were Dorsey, who sang lead and played guitar ("School House Fire" was his first composition) and his brother Howard, on slide guitar, whose playing was indebted to Jimmie Tarlton's technique. The Dixons were cotton mill workers, and never quit their day jobs, though they recorded 55 sides for Bluebird in the late '30s, ranging from jokes like "The Intoxicated Rat" to spiritual numbers like "I'm Not Turning Backward" to hard moral tales like "Wreck on the Highway." Howard died on the job in 1961; Dorsey retired, and, spent out, died soon afterward.

Recorded 18 February 1937 in Charlotte, NC and released as Bluebird 7020 c/w "Darling, Do You Miss Me?"; on Down In the Basement.

Carmen Miranda was a Brazilian samba singer best known for wearing towers of fruit on her head. Dancing on Jimmy Durante's TV show in 1955, Miranda suffered a mild heart attack, staggered off set while waving to the TV audience and was dead by the following morning. Ary Barroso was a Brazilian composer best known for "Aqualera do Brasil": he rejected a Hollywood career because it would take him too far away from his favorite soccer team.

Here is one of their collaborations, Miranda's glorious take on Barroso's "Eu Dei" ("I Gave"), which was recorded 29 September 1937 and released as Odeon 11540 c/w "Quando Eu Penso na Bahia"; on 100 Anos.

Soyer, Employment Agency.

The Crystal Springs Ramblers took their name from a club in Fort Worth that was a regular hangout of Bonnie and Clyde. "Fort Worth Stomp" is the type of music the band played there--fast, brutal, and meant to accompany a night of dancing, fighting and drinking.

The Ramblers, as of this recording, were Earl Driver (tenor sax), Joe Holley (fiddle), Link Davis (vocals, fiddle), Lauren Mitchell (p), Morris Deacon (banjo, g), JB Brinkley (g), Jimmy Makado (b) and Homer Kinnaird (d).

Recorded 19 June 1937 in Dallas and released as Vocalion 03648 c/w "Swinging to Glory"; on Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys.

The Chicago Black Swans were one of several groups that the jobbing musician Big Bill Broonzy played with (and recorded with) in the '30s, along with the Hokum Boys and the Chicago Sanctified Singers. The Black Swans were an attempt to ape the success of the Harlem Hamfats--a Chicago studio-only "supergroup" concoction, featuring "Kansas" Joe McCoy and Herb Morand, that managed to have a few hits, like "Oh Red!"

The Black Swans, who only recorded four sides (two takes of two songs), were Broonzy on guitar and vocal, Alfred "Mr. Sheiks" Bell (tp), Arnett Nelson (or Odell Rand) (cl) Black Bob (p) and some unknown players providing the rhythm section.

Recorded in Chicago on 26 January 1937 and released c/w "You Drink Too Much"; on Essential Big Bill Broonzy.

The end of the GM sitdown strike

The Original Yellow Jackets were a territory jazz band from Arkansas, its style "a model of provincial innocence" (Allen Lowe). In March 1937, some American Record Co. producers went down to Hot Springs for a quick round-up of local talent, recording the likes of the Range Riders, Three Fifteen and His Squares, Fats Smith and His Rhythm Kings as well as the Yellow Jackets, whose six sides are the only records the band ever made.

The Yellow Jackets were a swing orchestra clarified down to the basic elements--five hornmen (Aubrey Yancey (t), Earl Watkins (t), Monroe Fingers (cl,as), Clifton Jones (as), William Pate (ts)), a pianist, Durant Allen, and the rhythm section of Jesse “Brownie” Saville (g), Wiley Fuller (string bass), Theodore Saville (d). "Business After Midnight" shows the band at its breakneck finest, a track that boils over with Fingers' clarinet solo.

Recorded in Hot Springs on 5 March 1937; released as Perfect 7-05-71 c/w "The Hour of Parting." On Arkansas Shout.

Gene Autry is remembered today as a genial singing cowboy or the balladeer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but in his early years, he had some darkness in him: "Dust" is a cowboy song out of the Old Testament, with the elements at war against man, driving him down into the depths. "Dust" centers upon the way Autry keeps repeating the title, over and over again--the word fills his mouth, he spits it out, but he can't be rid of it. It's a claustrophobic masterpiece, filled with details like the image of cattle and sheep lying down to await death, or the rising steel guitar, offering only false hope.

"Dust," written by Autry and Johnny Marvin, is one of Autry's more obscure tracks, recorded sometime in 1937. On Singing Cowboys. I don't think Autry performed it on screen, but it was sung by Roy Rogers in his debut film Under Western Stars.

Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

Finally, Olivier Messiaen's "Oraison" was part of a piece titled “Fête des Belles Eaux,” and was written for six Ondes Martenots, one of the first electronic instruments.

"Fête" was commissioned for the Paris Exposition of 1937, where, according to Nigele Simeone, women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes while fireworks soared and fountains jetted: all of which sounds like an Art Deco version of heaven. Messiaen reworked much of "Oraison" and turned it into the "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" section of his Quartet for the End of Time, first performed in a POW camp in Germany during WWII.

"Oraison," a staggeringly beautiful composition in its own right, is performed here by the Ensemble d'Ondes de Montreal. On Ohm.