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Spotlight: Singin’ in the Rain

Spotlight: Singin’ in the Rain

Another spotlight post, revisiting my words about Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards in my post Come Rain or Come Shine. Here’s a video of Uke Ike, followed by the excerpt from the post.

Four generations of my family have been fans of the 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s exuberant, splashy song-and-dance in the street is a treat for very young and very old, and for the most jaded in-betweens. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Kelly’s performance of the song without seeing it, but there’s an older version I’m also awfully fond of. The song was actually written, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, back in 1929, and it was a top hit that year for Cliff Edwards. (You know him as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.) Edwards, who on ballads like “When You Wish Upon a Star” sounds sweet and vulnerable, gives it his all on an up-tempo number like this one. He even throws in one of his famous wild, stratospheric vocalized horn solos, which is very entertaining but doesn’t sound much like a horn. (Unlike the impersonations of the Mills Brothers. According to Bobby Scott, as quoted in the book Reading Jazz, Lester Young once commented that the best saxophone section he ever heard was The Mills Brothers.)

It’s So Hard to Wait

It’s So Hard to Wait

As a musician, I have spent quite a lot of time waiting. Waiting on habitually late band-members, waiting for the club manager to let us in to set up, waiting for the show to start. It’s so much worse because I have the habit of being stupidly early to everything. I am that nerdy person who arrives first at the party (and leaves first). Fortunately, I love to read and always carry a book to enjoy while waiting on those who follow a more reasonable time clock.

I’ve long planned a post about songs of waiting, but, yes, waited until the right push, which came in the form of my music-loving friend Dean’s discovery.

Bob's partner Hank

Bob’s partner Hank

“Just Waitin’” Dean recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams that included songs he recorded as “Luke the Drifter.” In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my eighty-year-old father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit. Can’t substantiate that one.

At any rate, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”

But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to find out the story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams (or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas).

lefty

“Always Late (With Your Kisses)” Another song I associate with the Gazzaways is “Always Late (With Your Kisses).” My wife Sweets’ father is mainly a jazz fan, but also likes him some Merle and Lefty. Because he played Lefty Frizzell LPs quite often when she was growing up, Sweets took to him, and now we own a Lefty collection. This song was an early hit (1951), and may stand slightly above his reliable output of easy-going C&W tunes. I just love his drawl, which seems so extreme until I hang out for a while in East Texas and realize everyone there sounds like this East-Texas boy.

 kinks

“Tired of Waiting for You” This 1965 Kinks hit is my favorite of their earliest numbers. “Waterloo Sunset” and “Sunny Afternoon” may edge it out overall, but it’s right up there. It’s a rocker, but with some nice dynamics between its driving A and B parts and its lovely open-chord middle eight that revs back up into the verse.

I have to admit that for quite a few years I was a little bothered by the song’s repeated phrase “keep a-me waiting.” “Keep a-me”? Wasn’t there some other way to fill out the meter? “You keepin’ me waiting” maybe. Like a blues song. Or just not breaking the note up. A simple “You ke-eep me waiting” could work. Oh well, when my trio performs it, we dutifully sing “You keep a-me waiting.”

Richie in the middle

Richie in the middle

“It’s So Hard to Wait” Another song I’ve enjoyed performing live with my singing partner Debbie is this Buffalo Springfield song written by Richie Furay. It’s a beautiful little song, short ‘n’ oh-so-sweet. When we get it right, it makes us all tingly.

nina 1

“Mississippi Goddam” Most songs of waiting concern minor inconveniences and impatience with love—waiting on kisses, the travelin’ salesman, and the like. Having to wait, on a much bigger and more important scale, was a major aspect of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from a Birmingham jail, wrote to white clergymen who called for patience and compromise, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.”

A generation and a half later, with new issues of racial bias still popping up daily, the LGBT community and its supporters have been receiving the same counsel from their opposition: Don’t push it—let it go slowly.

Nina Simone, never one to sit and wait idly by, especially when it came to racial justice, came up with a bold statement, her 1965 song “Mississippi Goddam,” on the plight of black people tired of waiting for justice. She doesn’t beat around the bush. “You keep on saying ‘Go slow! Go slow!’ / But that’s just the trouble—‘do it slow’ / Desegregation—‘do it slow’ / Mass participation—‘do it slow’ / Reunification—‘do it slow’ / Do things gradually—‘do it slow’ / But bring more tragedy—‘do it slow’ / Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? / I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Feminist writer Germaine Greer made this pronouncement: “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.” That rediscovery is happening now, with movies and books and music reissues galore—just what fans like me have been waiting for. She’s still relevant in a racially divided society.

Honorable Mentions: Some songs of waiting I’ve waited too long to listen to again: Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow”; “The Beatles’ “Wait”; The Stones’ “Waiting for a Friend”; Al Green’s “Jesus is Waiting.”

Spotlight: The Conductor

Spotlight: The Conductor

Another in my series of posts that feature videos of somewhat-obscure songs I’ve mentioned in previous posts. This obscure song, “The Conductor”—also known as “Crescent City Blues”—inspired a very high-profile song, as I noted in my post I’m Glad That I’m Not Young Any More.

Here’s a video of the song from Gordon Jenkins’ Seven Dreams album. You have to wait through a spoken introduction. Following the video is the excerpt from my post.

Gordon Jenkins had one other brush with the pop music world. A song called “The Conductor,” from Jenkins’ 1953 concept album Seven Dreams, was the obvious source for one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits, “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was released on Sun in 1955. Because Jenkins’ album was pretty obscure, the blatant plagiarism didn’t get taken care of until fifteen years later, when Jenkins was awarded $75,000 in royalties. No way could The Man in Black get out of this one: Although the original was sung by a woman, with a jaunty blues-with-horns backing, most of the tune is identical, and in verse after verse, only a few words are different from “Folsom Prison Blues.” Quoted on the back of the Seven Dreams LP cover are these lyrics: “If I owned that lonesome whistle / If that railroad train was mine / I’ll bet I’d find a man a little farther down the line / Far from Crescent City is where I’d like to stay / And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” Can’t you hear Johnny Cash singing that? Good for Gordon Jenkins that he finally did.

Goin’ to California

Goin’ to California

A couple of recent events had me finally getting around to a post about California, and then, on top of that, movie blogger Jay mentioned a road-trip to California that could result in a Cal-themed movie post.

The two events happened within about a week. First, my wife Sweets and I had a rare opportunity to go out on a date—and we took it. We wanted to see a movie, and the only one I really wanted to see was the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As a Brian Wilson fan, I knew I’d love it and had read in reviews that the Pet Sounds-session scenes were recreated with a fine eye and ear for how it happened. But I was concerned that Sweets, only a casual Beach Boy fan, wouldn’t get much out of it. Turns out that I loved the movie, as I expected I would, but my wife may have loved it even more. She really got into the story of this odd savant musician and the way it was told on screen.

Beach Boy Books

Beach Boy Books

And then, my daughter surprised me on Father’s Day with tickets for Sweets and me to see Brian Wilson in concert. I had already seen The Beach Boys live twice (three times if you count Mike Love’s version) and had seen both Pet Sounds and Smile thrillingly recreated live by Brian and his newer friends. I really wasn’t expecting much this time around, but was happy my daughter had come up with such a nice gift. It couldn’t have been better timing for my wife, now voraciously listening to all of my Beach Boys LPs and reading my Beach Boys books. The concert was wonderful (and, indeed, they performed “Wonderful”), with lots of deep cuts and treasures I’d not heard them do live. We are both still listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately, and I’m reading two books I hadn’t gotten around to, Heroes and Villains and The Beach Boys FAQ. We’ll be “havin’ fun all summer long,” looks like, with Beach Boys music and tales.

holland

“California Saga: California” One of the numbers I hadn’t heard live was this one, one of the few songs written for The Boys by Al Jardine. It appeared on their Holland album in 1973 and was released as a single (but didn’t climb very high). Al was part of this tour and sang lead on the song. (Al’s son Matt has taken over Jeff Foskett’s duties covering the Brian Wilson falsetto leads in concert; Mr. Foskett, for some reason, left after many years in the role to join the Mike Love aggregate).

It’s a pleasant song, with bass line and structure reminiscent of “California Girls,” but in a Sons of the Pioneers style

“California Girls” Not much I need to say about this one. Brian performed it in his show, it sounded great, the crowd loved it. It’s a classic. All of the Beach Boys sang on the recording, but only Carl played on it. The rest of the instruments were handled by the Wrecking Crew. It’s the first song Brian wrote after his initial acid trip. Doesn’t sound very trippy, but it is pretty glorious.

poses

“California” This song is not my favorite on Rufus Wainwright’s Poses album, from 2000, but that’s because it’s keeping such wonderful company. Poses, to me, is an improvement over Wainwright’s debut, which had several mind-blowing high spots, but several songs that seemed overproduced and overblown.

“California” provides a nice and poppy counterpoint to the gorgeous title song, “Shadows,” “Greek Song,” and the sublime “The Tower of Learning.”

blue

“California” “Won’t you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” Joni Mitchell sings, “California, I’m comin’ home.” Joni Mitchell’s Blue album was a downer masterpiece, and this ode to her adopted home is perfectly done. This song, along with “All I Want,” “Carey,” and several others from the album were part of the set lists of countless female vocalists of the mid-to-late seventies. If you walked into a happy hour at a restaurant/bar and there was a woman with a guitar, you knew it would only be a short while before a song from Joni’s Blue would be heard. Blue songs at happy hour. What a concept.

I have noted before that Sweets has an unnaturally hostile attitude about the music of Joni Mitchell. We used to fight about it; now it’s one of our running gags. When Mitchell recently wound up in the hospital after an aneurysm, my wife did express some sympathy—but moved no further toward giving her music another spin. It’s all Brian Wilson for her now, anyway.

Brian on Video

Brian on Video

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Goin’ to California” is one of the songs John Lee Hooker fumbles through on his Travelin’ Man album. I’m sorry, but I have long tried to appreciate Mr. Hooker and his music. I love raw, “feel” music, and am addicted to the music of quite a few of the Delta blues players, from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker sometimes does a good job of delivering his music vocally, but the man just can’t play guitar. He hammers away at one chord, his timing a mystery to any who try to follow. On his solo stuff, it’s not so noticeable, but on this record, you can tell the band is desperately trying to keep some semblance of order to the proceedings. Alas, they do not succeed.

Spotlight: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Spotlight: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Another trip down memory lane, an excerpt about Charles Mingus, from my post Time Loves a Hero. A video of “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” then the excerpt.

Another superhero theme/jazz composer connection involves Spiderman. I never watched the show, and only reluctantly saw the first movie, dragged to the theater by a kid. But the show’s theme song is familiar to me and everyone else. It certainly must’ve sounded familiar to Charles Mingus, whose 1959 song “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” bears much more than a passing resemblance to the later TV theme. I don’t know of any plagiarism lawsuit, but it would’ve been a slam-dunk for Mingus. “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is just one gem among the flawless line-up that is the 1959 album Mingus, Ah-Um. Mingus was at his peak here, and two of the selections, “Good-bye, Porkpie Hat” and “Better Get It in Your Soul,” are bona fide jazz classics.

Guilty

Guilty

I’m not Catholic, and I don’t believe I experience more bouts of guilt than the average imperfect being, but there are a few things I’ve done, or things I haven’t done, that will make me feel “guilty for the rest of my life,” as Randy Newman says.

My guilt tends to be over sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Oh yes, I have indulged in activities that hurt others and I have gone through subsequent periods of remorse and regret. The guilt that really lingers most, though, is over the things I didn’t do when I had the chance. As I’ve gotten older and lost my mom and dad, other relatives, and friends, a recurring feeling, along with the sorrow, is “Why didn’t I do more before they left?” I’m receiving this lesson more and more often, but, alas, I haven’t gotten much better at taking opportunities to be with those I love. The curse of introversion.

“Marie” Randy Newman’s masterpiece, Good Ol’ Boys, contains two of the best songs featuring guilt-ridden ne’er-do-wells ever written, “Guilty” and “Marie,” both delivered as only Randy Newman can (although Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, and several others have done splendid jobs on “Guilty”).

The poor sap who sings to Marie apologizes for being crazy, weak, lazy, and drunk, and allows “I’ve hurt you so.” But he’s trying to make things right, express his love, and be forgiven so that he may mend his ways.

"I'm weak and I'm lazy, and I've hurt you so"

“I’m weak and I’m lazy, and I’ve hurt you so”

“Guilty” The loser who sings “Guilty” is a bit farther down on the “forgivable” scale. He gets drunk, coked up, and stays out all hours getting into trouble. He doesn’t expect to improve: “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’ll be guilty the rest of my life.” Time to move on, sister. Charli, who runs the longtime jam circle I sing with occasionally, does this one even better than Joe, Bonnie, and Randy.

“I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” Randy Newman does a neat twist on guilt in this beautiful song. Haven’t we all felt that way before? We want our lost lover to feel guilty for leaving, and then we wind up wracked with guilt about feeling that way.

“Pretend It Never Happened” A cover band I played in during the seventies focused primarily on sixties pop rock stuff, with a lot of off-the-wall humor, thanks to our frustrated-standup drummer Loz. When we took on a fellow named Showbiz Bob, he added a bit of folkie flavor to the mix. His idol was John Stewart, who’d been a member of The Kingston Trio and in the eighties had a bit of the spotlight in a duet with Stevie Nicks on the song “Gold.”

The song “Pretend It Never Happened” was evidently something John Stewart performed live that Showbiz, who’d seen him many times, picked up. Despite its being a slow-tempo ballad, it was the only song Showbiz ever suggested we add that drummer Loz wholeheartedly endorsed. A sample verse: “I’m sorry I hit you with the car / I didn’t really mean for things to go that far / Pretend it never happened, go out on the town / You can’t let the little things get you down.”

neil y

“Down by the River” When I asked my wife if any songs that suited the topic of guilt came to mind, the first song she thought of was the Neil Young/Crazy Horse epic “Down by the River,” long a favorite of mine. I ran through the lyrics in my head for a few moments and then asked, “Is he feeling guilty?” She replied, “Well, he ought to be—he shot his baby.” That’s for sure—but instead, ol’ Neil seems to be talking someone else into fleeing the scene of the crime with him, while his old baby’s lying dead, down by the river.

monk lps

Monk on LP

“Don’t Blame Me” Thelonious Monk’s solo versions of this standard have crowded out any other versions of it for me—the vocal renditions as well as all other instrumental versions. It’s a perfect example, particularly for those who are familiar with the standard, of how the pianist Monkifies the work of others. His trademark dissonances add to the song’s beauty, and, sans accompaniment, he can indulge in rhythmic playfulness, inserting vaudevillian trills, cascading arpeggios, and pregnant pauses. Criss Cross has an excellent “Don’t Blame Me,” nestled between Monk’s compositions “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Think of One.”

If you want to hear the lyrics, which are actually a declaration of love—not a guilty apology, Frank Sinatra is among many vocalists who’ve interpreted it well.

“Honey, I’ve Been a Bad Boy” Friend and music cohort Toby wrote the lyrics for this nice number for our four-part harmony group. “I’ve been out hanky-pankin’, now I’m fit for a spankin’ / Honey, I’ve been a bad boy—I’ve been an oh-so-naughty boy.”

Honorable Mentions: John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is a nice guilt-ridden apology from Imagine. The Dan Penn-Chips Moman country-soul ballad “At the Dark End of the Street” is one of the most evocative guilt songs ever written. Two cheating lovers remain in the shadows, knowing they’re doing wrong but unable to stop.

g greene

I’ve long been captivated by stories of guilt in literature. Writer Graham Greene masterfully explores good old Catholic guilt in much of his best work. Many of his protagonists are bedeviled by their consciences, some to the point of being overcome and even destroyed. Favorite Greene books of guilt include The Power and the Glory (featuring the Mexican “whiskey priest” who feels he never does enough to lift people up), The Heart of the Matter (whose Scobie is trapped in an unhappy marriage and dallies, never to get over it), and The End of the Affair (which involves guilty jealousy of God).

Spotlight: Passion Flower

Spotlight: Passion Flower

Another spotlight, this time on the match-up of Billy Strayhorn’s songwriting and Johnny Hodges’ sax playing. I commented on this pairing A Flower is a Lovesome Thing in the post A Flower is a Lovesome Thing. Video, then my post excerpt.

Strayhorn’s greatest achievements, in my opinion, were “Passion Flower” (1941) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1949). There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music, I think, than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges, an Ellington stalwart on sax, introduced both of these songs on side projects, and his alto careens and wails so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn via Hodges is overwhelming.

Many others have recorded these songs, often beautifully. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. They’re wonderful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges. Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. A shame. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote his name in on copies he gave to friends.

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