RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Boswell Sisters

Oh What a Nite

Oh What a Nite

Of the myriad songs of night, I do have a favorite. Dr. John’s “Such a Night” is a timeless, magical song I never get tired of. Maybe that’s because, aside from home, New Orleans is the place I’d most like to spend an evening.

It appeared on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which was produced by the great New Orleans music impresario Allen Toussaint. Toussaint also played keyboards, guitars, and percussion; sang and arranged vocals; and arranged and conducted the band. The song is deep, deep New Orleans, with the Bonnaroo Horns lazily answering Dr. John’s vocals, and Toussaint’s piano and The Meters rhythm section reinforcing the whole thing.

dr john

Dr. John’s previous album, Gumbo, is a New Orleans extravaganza I slightly prefer to this album, but “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Life,” and “Such a Night” are gems in the Dr. John (and Allen Toussaint) canon.

One night song is associated, by me and many others, with certain kinds of nights—those spent in the bars. Many a bar band has used the 1952 song “Night Train” as a break song. It’s a nice R&B workout to end a set and a good cue for the audience to do a little mingling, drink-ordering, and relief work. Most people know it as a James Brown song, but his version, with his recitation of cities on his tours, wasn’t issued until 1961.

James "Night Train" Brown

James “Night Train” Brown

It was Jimmy Forrest who first recorded “Night Train,” in ’52. He’s credited as the writer, but it goes back a decade. The Duke Ellington composition “Happy Go Lucky Local” was written in 1946 as part of Duke’s Deep South Suite. “Happy Go Lucky Local” was funked up and expanded upon by Forrest, who had been an Ellington sax player, but it’s recognizably the same song.

duke

But the song goes back even farther than that, and involves another Duke sideman. In 1940, Saxophonist Johnny Hodges had recorded a song called “That’s the Blues, Old Man” with his offshoot band. Mentor Duke, as he was often wont to do, lifted the main riff of the Hodges tune for his own song. Jimmy Forrest, I guess, was saxophonist karma for Duke. Forrest himself got horned-in on by two lyric writers, who wound up with songwriter royalties. A complicated history for such a basic little song!

“Nights When I Am Lonely” is pretty straight and tame for a Boswell Sisters harmony number. It’s an A part repeated four times, and, although the girls go into some Boswellese vocal hijinks on verse three, it’s really just a cute ditty, not a great indicator of the sisterly genius to come. But it is a song of great importance, as one side of the very first Boswell Sisters record, cut in 1925 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was backed with “I’m Gonna Cry.” The sisters, all still in their teens, recorded five songs during their first session, all written by oldest sister Martha, but the other three were never issued.

bos legacy

As Vet’s granddaughter Kyla Titus notes in her book The Boswell Legacy, “I’m Gonna Cry” isn’t a typical Boswell Sisters record. They’re all three on it, but kept to special roles. Martha played piano, and evidently didn’t sing a note. Thirteen-year-old Vet did a horn break, using her voice, in the middle, and sister Connie sang the lead in her best Bessie Smith voice. Not typical Boswells, but pretty entertaining, with Connie, at seventeen, already showing strong pipes.

Connie, of course, later emerged as a solo recording artist (as Connee Boswell), thanks to her husband/ manager Harry Leedy, who never was as fond of the trio as the rest of the world was. Once Connie’s sisters got married, Connie and Harry took the opportunity to write them out of the picture, telling the world that Martha and Vet preferred domestic harmony to musical harmony. Martha and Vet privately said otherwise. Of course, it’s the Sisters who are music legends, as a group, all these years later, while solo Connee isn’t heard much at all.

Among my favorite doo-wop numbers is The Dells’ 1956 Vee-Jay recording of “Oh What a Nite.” It was an R&B hit, and Vee-Jay released it again three years later, but it took a re-recording of the song, as “Oh What a Night,” in 1969 to finally make the pop charts, at #10. It’s kind of a freak. It’s been embellished, with a spoken intro and more instrumentation, but it seems like a transplant from the previous decade. I prefer the simple, straight original, but I am impressed by the group’s persistence with this song, and I’m glad they finally had some success with it.

In addition to their unusual record three-peat, The Dells had another distinction. According to Jay Warner’s Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, they sang as a backup group on more than sixty records by other artists. On Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Warner says, they could’ve received co-billing. “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”—yep, that’s The Dells.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Another “Oh What a Night”—actually “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—is on my least-favorite list. The Four Seasons had a late #1 pop hit with this disco stew that doesn’t evoke 1963, or the great Four Seasons of that year. Even people who like disco can’t think this is a good song. They should’ve at least gotten The Dells to sing the “doo-da-doo-doo-t-doo-doot-doo” part.

Dream Jukebox: A great candidate would be the Dells’ 1956 “Oh What a Nite.” And Dr. John’s “Such a Night” would have to be on hand for just such a night that calls for it.

Best Song Intro: When Lenny and Squiggy perform “Night After Night” on Happy Days, Squiggy introduces the song this way: “This song is called ‘Night After Night,’ and it’s about two nights in a row.”

Which songs of night are your favorites?

I Love Music

I Love Music

The O’Jays sing “I love music / Any kind of music.” (Although The O’Jays go on to sing “I love music / Just as long as it’s groovin’.” So I do the O’jays one better, because a lot of the music I love—Tiny Tim, The Four Freshmen, Nino Rota—ain’t groovin’.)

I’m right there with ‘em. I love so many kinds of music that I’m sure many would think I’m not critical enough, not discriminating enough to make good musical judgments. After all, how can I explain loving Bukka White’s primal “Shake ‘em on Down” just as much as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians?

reich

Or The Ramones’ “Teenage Lobotomy” equally as much as The Pajama Game? But I do love all of those pieces of music, and so many more. I figure, with so many types of music out there, why limit the palette? A typical iPod Shuffle mix I take for running is the one I have now, which features this line-up of artists: Bob Wills, Afro-Bop Alliance, Girl Talk, James Brown, Charles Mingus, Rosemary Clooney, Led Zeppelin, Cannonball Adderley, and Bob Marley.

There are great songs about music in every musical genre. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “All Day Music” by War—The title song of War’s first album post-Eric Burdon is an ultra-smooth combo of soul, pop, and Latin grooves, with some sweet-‘n’-funky harmonies.

allday

  • “I Can Hear Music,” by The Beach Boys—The Beach Boys covered this song, written in 1966 by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Berry for the Ronettes, on their 1969 album 20/20. Brother Carl got the lead-vocal duty, and The Boys chime in with their waves of harmonies, their own Wall of Sound. “Sounds of the city, baby, seem to disappear.”
  • “Guitars, Cadillacs” by Dwight Yoakam—Yoakam had a big hit with this country & western throwback in 1986. “Yeah, my guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music / Is the only thing that keeps me hangin’ on.”
  • Let My Children Hear Music by Charles Mingus—Mingus called this album the best he’d ever made at the time (1972). I’d have to disagree, but it, like most other Mingus, is rich and strange. His compositions are full of references to the music of his predecessors, including Duke Ellington(“Open Letter to Duke”), Thelonious Monk (“Jump Monk”), Jelly Roll Morton (“My Jelly Roll Soul”), Charlie Parker (“Gunslinging Bird”), and Lester Young (“Good-bye, Porkpie Hat”).

mingus

  • “Where It’s At”—Beck’s 1995 album Odelay was a wild mishmash of hip-and-square samples, music styles, and interrupted grooves. It’s a celebration of the range of pop music, and this song of the guy with “two turntables and a microphone” is iconic.
  • “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—This Duke Ellington song, like “The Song Is You,” equates true love with music. “I won’t know sweet music until you return some day.” It was a five-time top-ten hit in 1938, for Duke, as well as for Benny Goodman, Connee Boswell, Mildred Bailey, and Hot Lips Page.

mildred

  • “Talkin’ All That Jazz”—In 1988, Stetsasonic put out this early rap/hip-hop song that defended sampling, and rap in general, from its many critics.

Boswell Sisters Connee, Vet, and Martha, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Lullaby of Broadway” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Vet, Martha, & Connee

Vet, Martha, & Connee

Visitors to this blog may be put off by the eclecticism of my music choices. But I was fortunate to grow up during a period of musical experimentation, when Golden-Era crooners battled rockers and R&B-ers for space on the charts—and they were all on the same pop charts: Tony Bennett alongside Chuck Berry, right there with Merle Haggard and Jimi Hendrix. Why limit that wealth of musical creativity? Thankfully, though I’ve always been a music lover, I never became educated enough in any one area of music to look down on any other. I grew up a Beatlemaniac (after being an Elvis fan) and at the same time loved musicals.

christgau

My favorite music reference books are inclusive, as well. Rock critic Robert Christgau’s excellent Music Guides review jazz, soul, and C&W right along with pop and rock. The magazine he writes for, The Village Voice, conducts an annual “Pazz & Jop Poll” of best albums. Will Friedwald is not too keen on most rock ‘n’ roll, but his excellent Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers does something else I appreciate. It includes singers across the spectrum of pop music and jazz, without snubbing those on the easy listening end of the spectrum. Andy Williams, Dinah Shore, and Dean Martin are mixed right in with Billie Holiday, Mark Murphy, and Sarah Vaughan.

surprise

Now, a word or two about jazz, which I really didn’t get into until my late twenties. I find jazz to be as open as any type of music. It’s The Sound of Surprise—that’s the title of a book of jazz reviews by music critic Whitney Balliett. It’s as good a definition of jazz as any. The sound of surprise: the surprise of unexpected chords, and unexpected notes in those chords; the surprise of improvisation, a hallmark of much jazz performance; the surprise of rhythm changes, pushes, drags, hits, sizzles, silences; and the surprise of musical influences from Cuba, Japan, Mali, the Mississippi Delta.

I know some folks avoid jazz. That’s fine, but, in a way, saying “I don’t like jazz” is like saying “I don’t like sandwiches.” There are so many kinds of sandwiches—you have to like some kind of sandwich.  Is it the idea of sandwiches? Is it the idea of jazz?

I really do feel that my love of jazz is very much akin to my open-minded way of looking at things. Jazz is very spiritual and at the same time very human, very much a mixture of cultures—a beautiful music derived from isolation, struggle and pain.

Quota Songs: Their sentiments are nice, but I’ve heard plenty of “I Believe in Music,” “Listen to the Music,” and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

I never got tired, though, of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” “Then you’ll see how the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.”

Time Changes Everything

Time Changes Everything

“Time After Time” after “Time.” It’s a playlist of favorite time songs that starts with a song simply entitled “Time.”

  • “Time”—There are numerous songs called “Time.” My pick is the one from Tom Waits’ 8th and best album, Rain Dogs. Although Tom’s voice can be more of a distraction than a complement to his songs, I think–and that’s especially so with his beautiful ballads–some are exquisite. In addition to “Time,” there are “You’re Innocent When You Dream,” “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” “On the Nickel,” and other Waits-penned gems that should be covered by strong vocalists more often than they are.

twaits

  • “Time After Time”—This song was written for Frank Sinatra in 1947 by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. I like Frank’s versions of “his” song, but my playlist has the version by Anita O’Day. I also enjoy a cover Little Jimmy Scott recorded late in his career.
  • “Time After Time”— The next track on the playlist is the 1984 Cyndi Lauper song, covered by Miles Davis (although I also very much like Cyndi’s original).
  • “Time After Time After Time”

Now, about that last one. It was written and recorded by uber-eccentric C&W/rock impresario Jack Clement. He was a songwriter, record producer, singer, and musician, but was mostly a kind of Nashville Zelig. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music notes numerous Clement endeavors: Arthur Murray dance instructor, banjo player, record company owner, Hawaiian steel guitarist, horror movie producer, and Marine, among many other things. He produced “Ring of Fire,” and worked not only with Johnny Cash but with Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison over at Sun Recording Studio. In fact, it was Clement that Jerry Lee encountered when he went with his daddy to Sun to show Sam Phillips that he could be the next Elvis. Rick Bragg writes, in Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, that Jerry Lee started playing piano and singing and Jack Clement “just let the tape run. He let it go and go.” When Clement played Phillips the tape upon his return, Sam said, “Who is this cat? Get him down here.” From there it was just a matter of, yes, time.

time after

I heard Jack Clement’s song “Time After Time After Time” on the KNON “Groovey” Joe Poovey show. He played it regularly and I couldn’t get enough of it. Years later, I tracked down a 45 of it, and it remains a prized possession. Not everyone feels that way about it. My wife can’t stand it—it annoys the hell out of her. (It doesn’t help that I insist on playing it loud.)

It features some characteristics that many may consider challenging to the ear. There is a total of two words in the lyrics, “time” and “after,” alternated from the song’s beginning to its end. The musical accompaniment is provided by a banging honky-tonk piano, playing chords in ¾-time with few embellishments. Mr. Clement’s voice is a bleat, maybe even a bray, especially toward the song’s end, where he starts sounding pretty dang desperate.

I can see how these features could cause music appreciators to avoid it. To me, it’s divine! Maybe made more dear because I can only play it when all of my family members are out of the house.

inks

There are some vocal-group haters out there, and they especially hate the smoother groups like The Ink Spots. But I’ve always loved them. Jay Warner, in The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, credits the group with influencing R&B and rock & roll groups to follow, but, of course, that’s hard to hear when one listens to their melodramatic ballads, like my favorite, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” (1941). Another Inks favorite is a time song, “Time Waits for No One,” written by Cliff Friend and Charles Tobias. It wasn’t a hit, but it had the trademark Ink Spots ballad construction and delivery. This one should not be confused with songs of the same name by The Jacksons, Mavis Staples, or The Rolling Stones. (The Stones had another nice time song, “Time Is on My Side,” written by Jerry Ragovoy and Jimmy Norman.)

Bob & Tommy

Bob & Tommy

Tommy Duncan’s voice is no-frills country, plain and straight. I used to think it was too plain, but over time I’ve really come to appreciate Tommy’s place in the Bob Wills line-up. He balances out the swooping steel guitars and careening fiddles—not to mention Bob’s loony, high-pitched interjections (“Aww, haw—Tommy!”). There’s just too much going on to have a flashy, emotional singer get in the way. “Time Changes Everything” is classic Bob Wills, and Tommy Duncan, who wrote the song in 1940, holds it all together.

My candidate for most beautiful “time song,” along with Tom Waits’ “Time,” is “Time on My Hands,” written in 1930 by Harold Adamson, Mack Gordon, and Vincent Youmans for the musical Smiles. It was a Boswell Sisters album that got me hooked on it, even though it’s Connee alone, sans Sisters, who sings it. There are many other wonderful versions of this standard, by Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Ben Webster’s glorious sax interpretation.

timeless?

timeless?

Honorable Mentions: So many time songs; so little time! Booker T & the MGs’ “Time is Tight,” Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away,” Pink Floyd’s “Time.”

The first beer I remember drinking was at an older cousin’s house. As I experienced this delectable beverage, The Chambers Brothers sang “Time Has Come Today” at full blast on Cousin Larry’s stereo. I’ve loved the song ever since. It’s the cowbell, the way they sing/speak “My soul has been psychedelicized.” And the beer, the beer.

Dave Brubeck named his 1959 album Time Out because some of its songs were in unusual time signatures, most notably “Take Five” (in 5/4) and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” (mostly in 9/8). I am among the multitude who can say that it was among the first jazz albums I ever owned.

Songs I Love to Sing: “As Time Goes By” is one I never get tired of. Pete Hamill referred to it as “the anthem of middle age,” but it still works well at weddings, and also in the bars, where the younger folks know of it from seeing Casablanca. The song was actually written a decade before the movie, for a musical revue called Everybody’s Welcome, but it was Casablanca that turned it into a standard.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “This Time,” by Troy Shondell is a sixties hit I love to hate. I find it drippy and lame, and Troy’s voice sounds like someone is dragging a thumb on the record as it plays. There were many who did like it. It climbed to #6 in ‘61 on Billboard, and Tommy James reportedly named his group after Shondell. Go figure!

Dream Jukebox: Jack Clement’s “Time After Time After Time”

Which time songs help you pass the time?

Many Rivers to Cross

Many Rivers to Cross

Top Song God Thelonious Monk had a birthday on October 10. He would’ve been 97. His fellow musicians in the forties scratched their heads over his sui generis music, but he never wavered, and became a revered master among jazz lovers before his death in 1982. (Though the general public still knows very little about him.) Happy birthday, Monk!

monk river

New Yorker Monk’s river was the Hudson. In 1958, in his friend and supporter Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s two-story house that overlooked the river, he wrote the beautiful “Coming on the Hudson” at the Steinway she’d bought for him. Robin D.G. Kelly, in his excellent 2009 Monk bio Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, notes that the song was the first Monk wrote at casa Pannonica. It’s a stately composition, despite Monk’s unusual chord progressions and jagged rhythms.

The Baroness’s steady protection and encouragement inspired Monk to name one of his most lovely songs, “Pannonica,” after her.

I always looked forward to those times when my elementary-school class would assemble to sing patriotic and folk songs. “My Country, ‘tis of Thee,” “Cotton Fields,” “Frankie and Johnny.” OK, maybe we never did “Frankie and Johnny.” The song I enjoyed singing more than any other was “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.” It always stirred me and even my most resistant classmates into a spirited rendition that gave me goosebumps. Into adulthood, I assumed the song was of Stephen Foster vintage, a public-domain folk song from the 19th Century, unaware that it was written by a much later contributor to the American Songbag, Woody Guthrie. He wrote it in 1941 to celebrate the works projects the government created to pull the country out of the Great Depression. I finally saw the Columbia about forty years later, and the sight of it, along with the memory of our school sing-along, gave me goosebumps.

bozzie river

My all-time favorite vocal group, The Boswell Sisters, sang about another rolling river, in “Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On” (1931). It was their second hit, and was backed by The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. The Bozzies have several other river songs in their discography, including a song about another Mississippi river, “Old Yazoo,” and “River, Stay Away from My Door.”

I discovered the angelic voice of Maude Maggart (not an angel’s name) on the 2008 album Dreamland, a recording of a radio production. The album’s concept was a story of love found/lost/found again, told through songs from the golden-era songbook. Between each of the familiar songs was brief dialogue that moved the story along. Maude’s singing/speaking partner, the guy who finds and loses and finds her, is Brent Spiner, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wanted to like Dreamland but rarely listen to it. The real discovery, for me, was Ms. Maggart.

Maude is the sister of Fiona Apple (McAfee Maggart), a much better-known and much less conventional singer. (Fiona’s one of my oldest daughter’s favorites, and I accompanied her to a Fiona Apple concert last year. I very much enjoyed it, despite being a middle-aged man in a sea of women my daughter’s age, all singing along to every song’s many words.) Maude Maggart’s voice hits that sweet spot, I think: It’s pure and controlled but doesn’t sound contrived or overly proper. I came across it again on a recording of the 2007 show Kurt Weill’s America. She’s one of seven singers who split up duties, so there’s not enough Maude, but what there is, is very nice.

Kurt Weill wrote “The River is So Blue” (lyrics by Ann Ronell) for the 1938 film Blockade, but it wasn’t used. That explains why I hadn’t heard the song before, but it ranks right up there with his best, I think. The first eight bars sound quite a bit like the song “For All We Know,” which The Carpenters had a hit with in 1970, but it seems doubtful the songwriters had heard Weill’s song and ripped it off. It is well-served by Maude Maggart and she included it on her own live album that year.

I know you’ve probably wondered, “Do any hit songs contain the word plebeian?” I know of one, “Cry Me a River”: “Told me love was too plebeian / Said that you were through with me and…”

Julie London had a hit with “Cry Me a River,” but Ella Fitzgerald was supposed to sing it first. It was written in 1953 by Arthur Hamilton for Ella to sing in the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, but was cut. I read somewhere that the reason Ella wasn’t given the song was that the execs thought the public wouldn’t go for a black singer using the word plebeian. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I do know that Ms. Fitz eventually did get to sing the word, when she recorded the song for her 1961album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.

clap hands river

In 1955, the song made its way to Ms. London, who was at the time the wife of Jack Webb, the star of Pete Kelly’s Blues. She had a #9 hit with the song, and the great Joe Cocker almost made the top ten with it fifteen years later.

Joni Mitchell’s “River,” from her 1971 album Blue, is a beautiful and sad holiday break-up song. Her own first version is probably my favorite of the many I’ve heard, but Herbie Hancock included a nice version of it, sung by Corinne Bailey Rae, on his 2007 Grammy-winning tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters.

herbie river

In 1973, Randy Newman wrote of the great Mississippi flood in his elegiac “Louisiana 1927.” The song was more recently recorded by Newman and New Orleans music giant Allen Toussaint on an album honoring victims of Katrina after that great flood. (That album was named after and included another Thelonious Monk river song, “Bright Mississippi.”) Charley Patton had memorably recorded a song just after that twenties disaster, “High Water Everywhere,” that is haunting so many years later.

sail away river

A funny take on the Cuyahoga River comes from Randy Newman in “Burn On,” from 1972. It’s about Cleveland’s poor, polluted waterway: “The Lord can make you tumble, the Lord can make you turn / The Lord can make you overflow—but the Lord can’t make you burn.”

Honorable Mentions: The first Mills Brothers song that made an impression on me, back when I was a mere lad, was their cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River.” Their almost-smooth blend and their gently rockin’ rhythm were a perfect match for Hoagy’s music. They also did a fine version of his masterpiece, “Stardust.” One of the first songs Hoagy Carmichael ever wrote, while he was a law student in Indiana, was a river song: “Riverboat Shuffle.”

hoagy

The exquisite soundtrack of The Harder They Come, a Jamaican movie made in 1972, contains two river song gems. Jimmy Cliff, who starred in the movie, was well-known, and his plaintive “Many Rivers to Cross” is a highlight; however, it’s The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” adapted from Psalms 137, that is my favorite cut.

Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” and so many more, are also worthy of note.

Which river songs float your boat?

Song Sung Blue

Song Sung Blue

Did Duke Ellington write “Blue Rose” or did he not? Rosemary Clooney, in her memoir Girl Singer, writes that the song was a “new number that Billy wrote especially for me.” Billy is Strayhorn, Duke’s other half, composer of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the Ellington Orchestra’s biggest hit, plus several of the most beautiful jazz songs ever written. Strayhorn had come to Beverly Hills to meet with Ms. Clooney to pick out songs and set arrangements for an album of Ellington songs. Duke and the band were stuck gigging in New York. The 1956 album that resulted, Blue Rose, gives Strayhorn writing credit for three songs. But “Blue Rose” is credited to Duke alone. David Hajdu, in Lush Life, his exhaustive bio of Billy Strayhorn, does not include “Blue Rose” among Strayhorn’s compositions. “Blue Rose,” though, does sound like a Billy Strayhorn tune. Another item the LP’s liner notes don’t reveal: Duke and Rosemary didn’t record the album together. Because Ms. Clooney was very pregnant and couldn’t travel, Strayhorn took the arrangements he’d worked out with her back to the band in New York, where they recorded their part. Rosemary’s vocals were added on back in California, as she listened to the instruments on headphones. Done all the time now, but at the time a major artist had not done it.

blue rose

Duke did write some songs of blue, including “Diminuendo in Blue,” “Azure,” “Blue Serge,” and one of his standards, “Mood Indigo.” That song is a Grammy Hall of Fame jewel, recorded by hundreds of artists. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and, yes, Rosemary Clooney on Blue Rose, all made memorably moving versions. Nina Simone took up the tempo and added different chord changes at the intro and end.

I am a harmony nut, and the verse of “Mood Indigo” was harmonized for instruments by Ellington, so it’s the Boswell Sisters’ 1933 three-part version with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra that tops my list. (OK, the Boswells version of any song they did will always be at the top of my list.) For some reason, though, instead of the bridge everyone else does (“Always get that mood indigo…”), the Bozzies’ bridge is a bluesy Connee Boswell solo: “Blues on my mind / Blues all around my head…” I’m not sure where this came from. Curious.

On the theme of Duke song credits, Barney Bigard, an Ellington clarinetist, was finally given proper co-writing credit for the music to “Mood Indigo,” which Duke lifted from him and transformed without acknowledging Bigard’s role. (And Barney may have actually originally picked up the melody from Lorenzo Tio.)

Ella & Duke

Ella & Duke

“Blue Skies” is not about being blue; it’s an optimistic song, full of blue skies and birds. It has been a favorite since the ‘20s. It was written by Irving Berlin to save a slipping Rodgers & Hart show called Betsy. It didn’t save Betsy, but it was an instant hit and has far outlasted the show’s Rodgers & Hart songs. It’s been a movie favorite, from The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson sang it, to Blue Skies and White Christmas, in which Der Bingle sang it. Willie’s done it. Ella, Frank, Rod—they’ve done it. Everybody’s done it.

Thelonious Monk’s done it, too, in a way. His 1947 composition “In Walked Bud” is based on the chord progression of “Blue Skies.” It’s a tribute to pianist Bud Powell, recorded several times by its composer as an instrumental. Lyrics were later added by vocalese whiz Jon Hendricks, of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Hendricks sang it on Monk’s 1968 album Underground. Carmen McRae sings those lyrics, under the title “Suddenly,” on her 1988 Monk tribute Carmen Sings Monk. If you poke around a bit online, you can find several people who’ve run “Blue Skies” and “In Walked Bud” together, with varying degrees of success.

monk blu

In the blue Monk category, there’s also, yes, “Blue Monk,” one of Monk’s most accessible and popular songs.

“My Blue Heaven” is a song of marital bliss written in 1924 by Walter Donaldson, a 33-year-old bachelor, and George Whiting. “Just Molly and me, and baby makes three.” Donaldson finally did become a husband and father a decade later. He’d said he was too busy writing hit songs to get married. He indeed wrote many hits, including “Makin’ Whoopee” (a not-so-blissful song of married life), “Carolina in the Morning,” “My Buddy,” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” So many big hits, and yet he’s not remembered like his songwriting contemporaries Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers. “My Blue Heaven” was not only featured in the movie of the same name in 1950 but in a movie of a different name, Love Me or Leave Me, in 1955.

“Azzurro” was written by Paolo Conte in 1968, before his own career took off, for singer Adriano Celentano. Both Celentano and Conte are very well-known in Italy. One of them should be well-known here.

Celentano picture sleeve

Celentano picture sleeve

Paolo Conte, a former lawyer, has been recording and touring since the sixties.  He is best known in the U.S. for the Nonesuch “best of” album that was released in 1998.  That’s how I first heard of him, and it’s a great place to start.  I’ve been a fan ever since.  It may be the difficulty in pinning him down that makes his music so appealing to me.  It’s a mixture of jazz, sleazy bar, cocktail lounge, and Italian pop.  It’s usually sung in Italian (sometimes in French, very occasionally in stilted English) by the gravelly-voiced Conte, with no harmonies and only occasional female backup singing.  But his albums, in my opinion, are more consistently good than any other artist. That’s why I have them all. (And, nearing 80, he’s still recording.) Paolo has another blue song, too, “Blue Tango.”

Paolo Conte

Paolo Conte

Honorable Mentions: Percussionist Mongo Santamaria gave us “Afro Blue” in 1959, with lyrics added by Oscar Brown, Jr. It was first sung by Abbey Lincoln that year on her album Abbey is Blue.

And, of course, I must mention the top jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I love it, just like everyone else does.

Favorite blue songs from the pop/rock/soul/R&B world include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Blue Bayou,” and Chris Isaacs’ “Blue Hotel.” And then there’s Joni Mitchell’s wonderful, sad title song from the Blue album. Another category (“Bottomless Depression”).

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Song Sung Blue.” “Every garden grows one”? Hmmm. Anyway, a “song sung blue” should either be blue as in blues or blue as in risque, and Neil Diamond’s doesn’t get close to either of those.

Senior Center Hits: “Blue Skies” and “My Blue Heaven” always get the residents singing along.

Memories Are Made of This

Memories Are Made of This

Otis Redding’s recording of his song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” is perfection. (Of course, he could’ve sung the Donna Fargo Songbook and made soulful beauty of it.) He co-wrote the song, creating a vehicle to deliver all of his vocal strengths, from the first verse right on through to the gut-wrenching answers he gives to the backing chorus on the fade-out. There’s no need to remake something so flawless. It’s like remaking the movie Psycho. But Toots (the Toots who had the Maytals) Hibbert had the audacity to cover “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and I love it. It doesn’t have the bravura chops or emotional depth of Redding’s original, but Toots has some great pipes, too, and sticks with a smoother rendition in reggae rhythm, coming up with something different and worthy. It’s one of my favorite songs to run to.

Amarcord means “nostalgic memory.” Federico Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord is a crazy quilt of eccentric characters, bittersweet memories, pranks, and foibles—a look back at the incidents in his early life that shaped Federico Fellini. One of my favorite Fellini movies, with one of my favorite movie soundtracks.

rota caricature

Caricature of Rota, by Fellini

I read a quote of director Federico Fellini somewhere long ago, something about his not really caring for music, except for the music his longtime collaborator Nino Rota wrote to accompany Fellini’s movies. Hard to take a statement like that—“I don’t really care for music”—at face value. I have heard only one person ever say that to me when I asked, “What kind of music do you like to listen to?” But I just figured she was distracted or in a bad mood or something. Everyone likes some kind of music, right? So I figured the over-the-top Fellini was exaggerating when he claimed not to like music.

Still, I can see why he would pointedly make an exception for Nino Rota’s music. Never has soundtrack music been so suited to a director’s work. The pairing of Fellini and Rota is even more perfect than that of Hitchcock and Herrmann. Of course, every composer intends the music done for a movie to appropriately complement its moods, plot points, and development, but Rota’s music seems to be almost on a par with the contributions of Fellini himself in making each work a complete piece. The two elements are inseparable. And the pinnacle of their collaboration, I think, is Amarcord.

There are many Fellini movies I enjoy, but I also often listen to their soundtrack albums. The music stands alone. It is ideal music to inspire creativity when I’m doing a project, and it is the most whistlable music ever, much to the annoyance of my family and friends, whom I inflict with Rota-whistling for hours after a listening session. I can’t stop myself! (Is whistle-inducing an All Music Guide descriptor? Should be.)

Also worth checking out is saxophonist Joe Lovano’s gorgeous jazzification of the Amarcord main theme.

St Louis Blues

Minto Cato is at the top of my list of great names of show biz—above Teacho Wiltshire, Hermes Pan, and even Blossom Dearie. Ms. Cato introduced “Memories of You” in the Broadway show Blackbirds of 1930. The song was written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf (a couple of other great showbiz namesand Minto, who went with Razaf for a while, could have become Minto Cato Razaf) and was featured again on Broadway almost fifty years later in the revue Eubie. The 1930 Louis Armstrong version is the one I listen to most, although it has been covered by many artists over the years. Satch’s version is notable not only for his wistful vocal and trumpet solo but for its intro, the first appearance of the vibraphone on a jazz recording and the first time Lionel Hampton ever played vibes. He’s now known as Lionel Hampton the vibraphone player, of course, not Lionel Hampton the drummer.

Thelonious Monk recorded “Memories of You” solo for Riverside in 1956 and several times after that—each time different. As Orrin Keepnews, who produced the ’56 recordings, said of those sessions: “I mainly remember…being struck by the amazing differences each time Monk went through the music.” The Monk ballad “Reflections” also suits the category.

Another swell old number is “That Old Feeling,” written by Lew Brown and Sammy Fain in 1937. Connee Boswell sang a nice version of it in ’38. She’s great on her own; her smooth but hip voice was a big influence on Ella Fitzgerald. But when Connee sang with her sisters Martha and Vet, the music was not just three times as good—it was exponentially better. What Connee did on her own and as the lead vocalist for the Sisters was always superb; what The Boswell Sisters did as a trio was groundbreaking, earth-shattering.

boswells

“That Old Feeling” made an appearance in the ‘90s as well, on an uneven album Tiny Tim made with North Texas “nuclear polka” band Brave Combo. The 1996 album was called Girl, and led off with the Beatles tune of that name. Some Beatles worshippers I know weren’t too fond of the Brave & Tiny treatment of the song, but I love it. What they do to “Hey Jude,” though, and “Stairway to Heaven,” is not so successful, in my opinion. Mr. Tim is at his best when he’s givin’ all he’s got to those ol’ chestnuts of yore. He does a fine job with “That Old Feeling,” supported by a male chorus of Brave Combo-ers.

My all-time favorite recording in this category, out of many contenders, is from John Coltrane’s meet-up with Duke Ellington. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a beautiful song written by Duke (with a big assist from early band-member Toby Hardwick) in 1935 and recorded many times by his Orchestra and by other artists. But the 1962 recording of the song trumps them all. Duke’s influence (and his compositions) brought out Coltrane’s lyricism and soulfulness on Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. And I think Coltrane made Duke a bit more adventurous than usual.

duke up close

There’s an interesting tidbit about this song in the fine 2013 Terry Teachout bio Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Duke chose “In a Sentimental Mood” when a white friend asked him which of his compositions he felt was “a typical Negro piece.” When the friend said he was surprised by the answer, the composer of “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Call” explained: “Ah, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

Honorable Mentions: Nilsson is a favorite pop singer of mine, and “Remember (Christmas),” from Son of Schmilsson, is among his very best compositions and performances. It’s a beautiful song of escape into the past (with nothing in the lyrics about Christmas). I’m surprised it hasn’t been covered more.

kinK

“Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula”

Also, for the sub-category of “remembrance of things past,” you can’t beat The Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society.’ On the 1968 album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Ray Davies longs for earlier, simpler days of English life, meanwhile providing all of the musical joys and wonder of late-sixties pop. One of the top ten albums of the ‘60s, I think. Here’s to the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium!

Senior Center Favorites: A song I sometimes start with at the senior centers is “Sentimental Journey.” The ’45 Les Brown hit is a great icebreaker.

Great Song Titles: I have always loved the titles of a couple of C&W classics: “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”

Which great songs about memories have I forgotten?

Walking to New Orleans

Walking to New Orleans

My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building 23 years ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. The wife and I just got back from a return trip to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, and we stayed in the same guest house, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue. It seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer.)

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

The music-related highlights of our recent trip:

  • seeing Fats Domino’s totaled piano in the Katrina exhibit
  • seeing another Fats piano, restored with financial help from Sir Paul McCartney, in the U.S. Mint Building
  • seeing Fats’ restored house in the Ninth Ward
  • happening upon a Boswell Sisters exhibit, full of memorabilia from their heyday, in the French Quarter
  • staying in a landmark possibly associated with Jelly Roll Morton (well, it is possible)

Jelly Roll, Fats, and the Boswells—NOLA royalty.

fats 1

Fats piano ruined

fats 3

Fats piano restored

There is an abundance of music from and about New Orleans. I love all of the genres that have come out of the place. Producer/writer/singer/pianist/impresario Allen Toussaint seemed to have had a hand in them all: soul, R&B, jazz, and hybrids (and he wrote C&W hit “Southern Nights”). On one trip in the ‘90s, I tracked down Toussaint’s Gentilly studio, Sea-Saint. I drove up to the small building nestled in a residential neighborhood. Seeing that there was a car parked near the front door, I approached to knock, but didn’t. I stood for a while, thinking about all of the wonderful music committed to tape in that place, and then got in the car and left. I didn’t want to be a pesty tourist, but I still wonder whether Mr. Toussaint himself was inside, maybe wanting a little company to show around.

tchoups

One masterpiece recorded at Sea-Saint in the ‘80s is The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album featuring a group of Mardi Gras Indians, the ones who dress in the brightly colored, elaborately feathered costumes and parade through their neighborhoods to celebrate the holiday. Big Chief George Landry and his entourage did the singing/chanting of their street songs, accompanied by members of the local funk hotshot band The Meters, and the combination is magic. The rough-edged voices and tambourine jangles of the paraders could have clashed with the tight groove of The Meters, but instead a nice mix of solid feel and loose spirit merge and stick through a perfectly chosen song list, with “Indian Red” a showcase. I don’t know whose idea it was, but the result must’ve been beyond anyone’s dreams. My favorite New Orleans album.

The recording of “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. Well, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio began singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-A-Mo.” The sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love” were now in street-parader mode. A stand-up bassist began to add some bottom. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

iko iko

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans. And our man Allen Toussaint pops up as producer, writer, and performer on Dr. John’s follow-up, his most popular album, In the Right Place.

Allen Toussaint also managed to put some New Orleans into a Thelonious Monk song. I doubt Monk had New Orleans in mind when he wrote “Bright Mississippi,” but I do believe he was thinking about the river Mississippi and not the state. It’s a light, swingin’ number based on the chord changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” another of the Monk-composed favorites of bands who played 52nd Street in New York. But Toussaint brings it south, with help from clarinetist Don Byron, and turns Monk’s tune into a second-line parade song, perfectly suited to the streets of Treme at Mardi Gras time.

Toussaint’s reworking of the Monk tune is one of many favorites in the song category I call “Monk by Others.” You see, in addition to more than thirty LPs of Monk doing Monk, I have almost forty CDs and LPs of artists’ tributes to the music of Thelonious, and numerous other albums that contain a cover of a Monk tune.

But we’re talking New Orleans, so I’ll wrap up with one of the best-known songs about the city.

In 1947, after accompanying Billie Holiday on the song in the film New Orleans, native son Louis Armstrong delivered a wistful vocal rendition of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and made it the go-to song to counter the party-time “laissez le bon temps rouler” debauchery-and-devilment songs. It’s sedate and poignant, but oh-so New Orleanian, and was used as the theme song of the best TV show ever canceled after one season, Frank’s Place. Tom Waits tried to capture the feel and the sentiment in his song “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” It’s a nice song, but, after all, Waits is a Californian. He just can’t match the Satchmo classic; his voice sounds so close and yet so far from the tonal quality of Armstrong’s, and not nearly as listenable. It’s nice to imagine Satch singing the Waits song, but nicer just to play the ol’ chestnut.

swingy

Honorable Mentions: Native son Sidney Bechet plays a mean clarinet on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It’s not about New Orleans, but it is New Orleans through and through.

Like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which charges ten bucks (maybe more now) for requests of it, I’ve had my fill of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Dream Jukebox Candidates: “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups and “Iko Iko” by Dr. John both qualify. I wouldn’t at all mind having Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” either.

Reading Matter: I’m looking forward to the October publication of a book by Gary Krist about Storyville. Its jam-packed title is Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Satchmo and Jelly Roll each play a part in the story (the jazz part, I’m thinking).

What are your favorite songs about New Orleans?  Who are your favorite New Orleans artists?

%d bloggers like this: